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Author Topic: Traitor's Face [AU Adventure, rated T, Story Complete]  (Read 40261 times)
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #300 on: Jun 23, 2019 07:07 pm »

Unless time worked differently in this place, Mai's golden glowy tether had not brought her to Aang.

The man's age was hard to determine, but he was definitely an adult, older than Mai, even. He seemed worn and drained, and in the silvery light that struggled through the vast waters around them, his long hair shifted between darkness and grays. But there weren't any traditional signs of aging, no wrinkles or distillation on his face.

And when he opened his eyes to watch her approach, his gaze and smile were youth incarnate.

"Hey," he said, "I know you." The voice was completely unfamiliar, and in no way echoed Aang's. This couldn't just be an adult version of the boy who she had followed around the world. Besides, there were no arrow tattoos, and there was a hint of gold in his eyes.

Mai shook her head. "You're not who I'm searching for. So shut up." She looked to the collection of light that was Yue, still at her side. "What's going on?"

Yue's form wavered for a moment, almost becoming lost in the currents of the waters. "I don't know. But you are definitely connected to this man. Are you sure you don't know him?"

Mai was going to deny it again, but the man's grin widened, and he cut her off with, "Mai knows me, but she's not aware of it. Just like Aang how knows me as well, but only when he's in full communion with the Avatar Spirit."

The light that was Yue's eyes flared. "You're one of Aang's past lives! You were once the Avatar!"


More spirit nonsense.

But the man brought his hands up to cradle the tether of light that joined his heart to Mai's, and then he blew on it, somehow, despite the water they were all floating in. And it was as if a cold wind tickled across her back, the sensation skipping over the skin she didn't have in this world to flow directly into her consciousness, flooding her with light and knowledge.

"Wan," she found herself saying. "You're Avatar Wan. The first Avatar."

And then, properly this time, she looked at him.

It wasn't like before, when she was taking in his appearance. This time, she saw more than just roguish eyes, tiny nose, and tuft of hair on his chin. Reincarnation was a hard concept to process, sometimes, because new lives could be so different. Fictional stories liked to carry forward some aspect of the previous life to the next one, so that the audience would know for sure that the same spirit resided in each, but that wasn't how real life worked at all. Regular human perception couldn't find the trace of the old life in the new; a similar smile was at best coincidence and at worst a willful.

But Mai wasn't really looking through her own eyes, here. Wherever her body was, it wasn't in this fake ocean. And so when she looked at Wan, it wasn't her eyes that found the Aang within.

But vision was a hard thing to let go of, especially for her, and so she tricked herself into seeing the thread of light that connected her to Wan extending out of his back and onward into the ocean.

"Good," Wan said, giving her a smirk that made her heart skip a beat despite the lack of physical, meaty heart. Aang's past life was rather nice-looking, she had to admit. "All of his past lives have been scattered, and Aang has been left alone, but you can find us."

"She can," Yue confirmed, which was nice, because Mai herself wasn't sure at all.

So she shrugged and tried to scowl. "We're in a bit of a hurry, though. There really isn't enough time for a whole quest. I've already got one of those."

Wan winked at her. "Good thing the first Avatar was a thief, then. I've stolen all the time you need." And then he spread his hands out at his sides, and his form faded into a blue glow-

And then Mai was flying through the trail of light, deeper into the ocean, so fast that bubbles (which made no sense at all) swirled around her. She was glowing, and realized it was the same full moon light that Yue was made of; the princess was probably hitching a ride.

Mai decided she must be traveling pretty fast, or whatever the closest equivalent was in the Spirit World. She lighter than before, but also heavier.

It didn't make sense until she realized that she was carrying Wan inside her.

And, increasingly, more spirits. They clung to her essence as she flew through each of Aang's past lives on the way to his endpoint.

Fire Lord Iroh stood in the ruins of the Spirit Oasis, hands folded in the sleeves of his royal robes to keep them from shaking.

How he had come to be living his worst nightmare, he could not be sure. He had worked so hard to prevent this, done so much- and, yes, inflicted so much hurt. It wasn't yet wasted effort, but it was becoming a wide avenue for doubt, at least.

Although, he could not help but feel a little bit of wonder, as well, at how this had finally come to pass. He never could have imagined that when this moment finally came, he would be confronting his son alongside a Waterbender and a circus acrobat. Soldiers would have been a reasonable guess. Lian, certainly, had been a strong possibility. Pakku at one time, had been compelled by Iroh's control of the Moon and Ocean Spirits to offer his assistance, before his death. Even Zhao might have had to play a part. Iroh had also been hoping for the Avatar, or some of the more spiritual members of White Lotus. But none of his plans had come to pass in the way he either hoped or planned for, which just proved how interesting and adventurous life could be.

Honestly, Iroh could do with a bit less interest and adventure, especially in this matter.

So he stood in the Northern Water Tribe's Spirit Oasis, right next to the door, patiently waiting for the hungry presence he could feel approaching, and quietly listened to the panicking of his companions.

"They're gone," Katara of the South said. "Where did they go?! Mai and Yue were right here and- I thought they were supposed to find a way to free Aang!"

"I think that's what they're doing." Lady Caldera Yu Ty Lee (although a reordering of titles was in order once the devastation at the capital was fully processed) picked up a glistening object from amidst the Oasis's charred grasses. "But why would Mai leave her platinum knife behind? She loves her knives! And this one seems to be especially comforting to her when she's dealing with the supernatural."

"What do you mean that's what they're doing? How is disappearing like Aang supposed to bring Aang back?" Katara moaned. "We need less people disappearing, not more. Not after Sokka- we can win this by staying together!"

Iroh recognized the tortured desperation in the girl's voice. She was losing companions - losing family - one by one, and it was destroying her. From what he'd pieced together, she never had much to lose in the first place. Her parents had died trying to protect her from the Fire Nation, and then she'd grown up in captivity on Crescent Island. The fact that she wasn't turned into a festering figure of fear and anger was a testament to a resilient spirit, but since her liberation she had been given a taste of comfort and freedom and family. Truly, the cruelest thing to do to a person dying of thirst was to give her a drop of water before leaving.

Perhaps that was why Iroh had done what he did. After his father, his wife, his brother- well, after a life with so little expression of love, how could he not invest everything in his son?

He shivered as he remembered that day, when the triumph of conquest gave way upon the sight of his son's body, soaked and blue, a mere physical object with no sense of life. That sight had nearly killed him. Was it any wonder-

But then, that was just another way of shifting the blame. Iroh had made his choices, elevating his love for his son over all other concerns.

And now it was time to face the consequences. Literally.

"I sympathize with your worries," Iroh said to Katara. Her gaze moved to him, and her eyes begged him for wisdom that could save her family. Of course, he had no such wisdom to offer. "However, I am afraid we have more immediate concerns. L-" His voice nearly hitched, and he quickly shifted his words. "Our enemy is here."

Katara and Ty Lee both turned to face the Oasis's damaged portal. He didn't miss that Ty Lee tossed Mai's knife to the Waterbender, which was quite wise, considering that Waterbending had probably been nullified by the strange phenomenon with the moon. There had been reports of the same thing happening years ago when-


Hopefully, that knife would not be used. But let it comfort the girls, for now.

"Lu Ten," Iroh called out. "My son, please, let us not fight."

The darkness remained silent or a long moment, and then- "I am hungry, Father."

Iroh forced himself to smile for his little boy. "I know. It must be awful for you. But none of this is helping. If you could just-"

"You are trying to take the Avatar away." Something moved in the shadow of the gate. "I feel them. But he is mine, now. Mine."

Katara and Ty Lee each moved towards the gate, but Iroh waved them back. Either in victory or loss, there was no way violence could bring this to a good end. "My son, the Avatar can help you, but only if you let him go."

"I-" The voice choked, and it no longer had any strength in it. "I don't think I can. I'm sorry, Father."

"It's okay, Lu Ten. It's okay." He hoped that was true. He wanted to go to his son, to wrap his suffering boy in a hug, but he knew better. "You don't have to do anything, then. Princess Yue is going to take care of it. You know her."

"Y- yes. Yes." The voice wavered, as though holding back sobs, and something hunched over in the shadows. "She was- she was there. When you did this. To me. Made me like this."

Iroh found himself struggling to breathe. "I- Lu Ten, I didn't do- I didn't want you to be like this. I never wanted you to suffer."

"Then why didn't you let me die?!" A figure lurched out of the shadows, into the starlight-like illumination created by polished platinum mirrors.

Iroh forced himself to look at his son. The burn wounds across the face were new, perhaps a legacy of the flames that had torn through the foliage of the Oasis. Incongruously, Lu Ten's uniform was soaking wet, dripping as he stumbled forward, and Iroh caught a scent of the sea, of the night that Lu Ten had drowned.

But the worst part went beyond Lu Ten's mere appearance. Iroh had seen so many things since that awful night, learned so much, and traveled to the Spirit World. He had not emerged unmarked from any of those experiences, leaving him with perceptions that went beyond the human senses and opened the door to awareness of so much that existed beyond the elements.

There was a lack of realness to Lu Ten that could almost allow Iroh to believe this was all a dream - or, more accurately, a nightmare - were it not for the extra heaviness that made him more real than anything around him.

But Lu Ten seemed oblivious to it all, his eyes unfocused and his expression twisted in grief. "I was dead, but you wouldn't let me stay. I was pulled- yanked. I was warm, and then it became so very, very cold. It was wrong. Felt wrong. And, I- I'm always hungry, now. So hungry I can't think, except how I can- how I can feed. You could have just let me die! Why didn't you let me die?!"

"No, my son. What kind of a father - what kind of family - would I be if I did that?" Iroh could smell the waters of that night. The ash and burning oil of his assault on the Northern Water Tribe had been unable to completely cover the frigid, stinging scent of saltwater. It was the seawater that Iroh most remembered about holding his son's lifeless body in his arms. He knew he had seen his son's body- he had to have seen it, but his memories were so faded. Just little glimpses remained, like Lu Ten's pale skin and blue lips, or of the way his wet hair clung to his forehead. But the full picture would never come to him. Perhaps his mind would not allow it; perhaps it was self-preservation, of a sort.

But Iroh remembered the smell of the seawater, and the way his world had smashed to pieces when he realized Lu Ten wasn't breathing.

And, of course, he remembered what he had demanded of the Water Tribe.

"I saved you," he told his son. "I know you've paying a terrible price for that. So many others have, as well. But I will save you from your hunger. I've done so much work, and we're so close. Leave it to us. Go back outside, and please do not hurt anyone. This will be over soon."

"I can't- I- there's people hurt out there, Father." Lu Ten giggled and ran his hands over his burned face, through his soaked hair. "There's people dead."

Iroh raised his hands again to motion the girls to remain back from the gate, but Katara was already stalking forward, tears trailing down her cheeks.

She held the platinum knife in front of her. "Where's Sokka?! What did you-"

And Lu Ten sprang towards her-

-Katara bent her arm and shifted her stance in preparation to stab with the knife that might very well kill her attacker-

-and before Iroh could leap between them he was nearly thrown off his feet by the shaking of the entire Oasis. He dropped into a squat to give himself more balance, and felt the air rise into winds as Ty Lee pranced across the ground towards Lu Ten with a lightness that didn't match even her meager weight-

-but Katara had been shaken to the ground and dropped the knife on impact, leaving her vulnerable.

Iroh could have punched a fireball out to intercept the attacking figure.

But his body was frozen, because he knew-

-he knew-

-that it would hurt his son.

So he just stood there, leaving Ty Lee as their only defense, and hoped that Yue and Mai would fix things soon.

It turned out that finding Aang was only the beginning of Mai's problems.

She felt crushed, pressed in all sides with impossible amounts of weight. She felt that at any moment she would be compressed down to the size of a single fleck of dust, and somehow that pressure was coming from inside as well, giving her the sensation of imminent explosion into ten thousand motes of light.

She hadn't been bothered by the weight and vastness of the endless ocean around her until she'd begun taking on the spirits of Aang's past lives.

She had lost count of how many she'd picked up as she followed her connection to Aang, the line of golden light that floated through the ocean. Each one was different, each one heavy, and she'd felt herself slow down as they accumulated within her essence.

She wondered how many spirits she could take on before she was dragged to a halt.

Not enough, it turned out.

Mai came to the end of the line, approaching a dark spot at the end of her glowing tether, which soon was discernable as two separate bodies.

Aang was in the clutches of Lu Ten, the prince's arms locked around Aang's neck and shoulders. They were floating together in the waters, and neither one seemed conscious.

The corona of moonlight around Mai drifted away to form an image like the body of a beautiful Water Tribe princess named Yue. The ghost princess shook her ghost head. "I cannot interfere with them. If I do, I- I may not remain myself. Lu Ten and I are drawing on the same Moon, and share a connection to the same Ocean. His hunger is so great, and I- I-"

Mai got it. Yue didn't think she could fight.

Well, whatever. Mai herself was only about to be crushed under the power of a dynasty of Avatars that stretched back beyond time, and her own experience with fighting consisted mainly of throwing sharp metal at people. But yeah, let the Moon Princess take a break while Mai figured things out.

If only she had her platinum knife,  she could just jam it into one of Lu Ten's ears and get on with life. "Any help from the passengers? Wan? Roku? Anyone?" Mai tried looking within herself, but just ended up looking down and spinning herself around in the water. "I'll even take Suki's favorite- what was her name? Kyoshi?"

Voices filled her head like the patter of raindrops during a storm, and there wasn't a single word she could understand in the whole mess.

Fine, then. It was up to her. She reached out, pushing past the crushing weight of water and spirits and expectation, grabbing Lu Ten with one hand and Aang with the other and pulling them apart-

And she dropped like a stone as heavy as the moon, plummeting into the darkest depths of the ocean.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #301 on: Jun 23, 2019 07:09 pm »

Zhao had a heavy feeling in his stomach as he looked on Lian's contraption, assembled in the center of the Bastion's garage, and that was only partially because of the severed monster head in the center of it. "You're sure this is going to work?"

"Of course not." Lian adjusted the green skullcap on her head, perhaps making sure that the platinum ring hidden within was properly protecting her mind, or maybe just getting it to rest more comfortably. "I'm applying the principles of a brand new science, with an unknown number and nature of factors in play, using whatever materials I could scrounge around here, in extremely stressful circumstances. But I am a genius, so we have that much going for us."

Zhao resolved that if this didn't work, Lian was getting all of the blame. "Wonderful. And what, precisely, is this supposed to do?"

Lian moved over to the device, joining the various mechanics and mechanically inclined soldiers who were using plyers and clamps and hammers to get the last pieces in place, and tweaked a fastening around which platinum wire had been coiled. "Well, I had to be careful. We have people still inside the Bastion, including the Fire Lord. It wouldn't do to kill everyone and everything within."

Zhao didn't voice his disagreement. With Iroh and Lu Ten both dead, and Zuko and Azula in self-imposed exile on the Colonial Continent, there would be a power-vacuum in the Fire Nation. The military council might still be sailing back to the Homeland, or perhaps just arrived, but the seat of government was still buried within an active volcano. It was entirely possible that, with the last Fire Lord having made his home here at the North Pole, and Zhao being that Fire Lord's most recent direct promotion- well, ruling the world had a certain appeal, didn't it?

But he knew the limits of his ambition, of course. "So what is your device going to do?"

Lian looked back at him. "We need something that will have an outsized effect on spiritual entities, compared to regular humans, but not one so powerful that we'd destroy anything. Fortunately, the Unhcegila process that we've replicated is still fairly inefficient, and that's with the best materials, so the device might not have any noticeable effect at all."

Zhao waved the possibility away. That would be easy enough to blame on the Maker, too. "And if there is an effect?"

"Then with the platinum installments throughout the Bastion acting as a focusing array, the Unhcegila's feeding power should be channeled down through the structure, where it will weaken any non-biological entities." Lian shrugged. "That might be enough for whoever's down there to take control of the situation, or at least allow us go ourselves to determine if there are any survivors."

Hm, that's it? Well, Zhao could live with providing a factor that turned the tide, if he couldn't be the conquering hero. Time was running out here, after all. And, as much as he might enjoy the thought of becoming Fire Lord, all he was really looking to do was survive. Survive Iroh, survive the forces he was meddling with, and survive the Avatar.

"Very well," he said. "You may activate the device when ready."

Lian turned a glower at him. "I don't take your orders. But I agree with your recommendation." She waved the soldiers away, and flipped a switch wired into the device just below the Unhcegila head.

The device began shaking. All the soldiers got some distance.

The main structure of the contraption had started as a snowcrawler. Its internal combustion engine, as well as those of the rest of the crawler fleet, started first, providing the power necessary to start the process. Gears turned, glass bulbs began glowing, and metal wires heated until they were shining.

Lian pointed at the soldiers she'd recruited. "Initiation is complete. Make the connections!"

They scrambled into motion, snapping together structures made out of scavenged metal piping into makeshift circuits. The piping shook as it conveyed power from the hydroelectric heart of the Bastion, transferring the motion of the waterfall that had once fallen into the Spirit Oasis into the energy that fed the fortress. The power was out on the lower levels, indicating a problem somewhere in the mechanism, but the scuttled battleship that was serving as the head of the Bastion was right above the start of the waterfall, and was still producing power-

The lights went out, except for the gas lanterns.

The device shook even harder, and the Unhcegila-

It opened its mouth and began screaming with a voice that scraped somewhere between the sound of a large animal and the cries of a hurt human baby.

Lian clapped. "It's working!"

"Oh," Zhao said over the din, "good."

Katara started to feel hope again when Lu Ten suddenly doubled over in pain, because, up to that point, she and Ty Lee had been losing pretty bad.

Iroh hadn't been any help at all. He'd just stood there as Lu Ten rushed in towards the koi pond. It had been up to the girls to fight him off.

Not that Katara was much help.

Her Waterbending wasn't working. She'd felt something, earlier, when the lights went out. Ty Lee, when she'd passed on Mai's knife, had described how Yugoda lost the ability to feel the ocean when the moon turned red. And now Katara couldn't work with even the waters right here in the Oasis, neither the waters of the koi pond or the moat being fed by the rushing leak in the broken wall in the back of the room.

And yet, even after the lights had gone out and Lu Ten escaped, Katara did Waterbend, once. It was when she and the Dreamcatchers had been lost and alone and had seen a light approaching them. She'd reached out to the approaching shadow figures, seizing the blood of the person in front-

And Sokka had cried out in pain. She stopped immediately.

She'd used Bloodbending on her own brother.

The very memory made her feel sick.

So she made do with the platinum knife that Mai had left behind.

Or rather, tried to make do but mostly just failed to help Ty Lee at all.

Lu Ten was unstoppable. He was fast and tricky and could hold his own even against a Weapon of the Fire Nation. Katara had learned self-defense from Mai and Ty Lee, but couldn't even tag the prince. He had inhuman strength and movements that didn't seem to match the way a body was supposed to move. He didn't use Bending the way Katara had always experienced it; it was as if the elements themselves were fighting as his allies, without him even calling for them, shaking the whole fortress and freezing the air in her lungs and lighting the very ground on fire-

The flames licked at her boots and pants, sending Katara dancing away even as Ty Lee leaped the flames and rode a wind to close in on Lu Ten.

Well, if she couldn't command the water, she might still be able to use it! She jumped into the haphazard moat that ringed the room, escaping the fires and dousing the bit of her coat that had caught aflame. She waded 'downstream' until she had circled around the brawl, and then climbed up into the garden proper to hopefully get a chance to stab Lu Ten in the back-

Lu Ten was gripping Ty Lee by the wrists and forcing her to the ground, leaning over her and hissing, "Hungryyyyyy..."

Ty Lee gasped, eyes unfocused.

Katara readied the knife-

And that's when Lu Ten let out a cry of his own, let go of Ty Lee, and hunched as if a spear had been shoved through his stomach.

(Katara knew what that looked like. She'd seen her mother die that way.)

Ty Lee scrambled away, holding her arms too stiffly, and Katara stepped out to defend her friend if necessary-

But Lu Ten was turned back towards the entrance to the Oasis, snarling, "Something is happening. My hunter spirits- dying- why-"

And then he leaped up to the ruined and twisted metal walls of the oasis. He grabbed on to one of the loose plates and climbed up into the darkness of the distant ceiling. Katara heard the pounding of metal from somewhere up there, but couldn't place the source of the echoes. Was he trying to escape? Or break something up in the darkness?

There was a shattering, and then silence. Katara wasn't sure if that was good or bad.

So for now, she focused on Ty Lee. "How badly are you hurt?"

"Just a sprain." Ty Lee forced a smile that almost covered her whimper. "In both my wrists, both my elbows, and I think he tore something in at least one of my shoulders, too."

Ty Lee was out of the fight. If only Katara could still use her Waterbending!

And then a cry came from the broken gate of the Oasis, the worst thing Katara could ever think to hear:

"Quickly, Sokka's dying!"

It was purely by instinct that Mai grabbed at the line of shining sunlight that connected her to Aang.

It didn't make any sense, of course. That light was just a visualization of the emotional bond they shared, and her hand couldn't have any substance, either, since this was the Spirit World. There was no friction, no materials to catch on to, nothing that should have prevented her from plummeting further into this endless ocean that also wasn't real (probably).

And yet, somehow, she was saved by her connection to Aang.

The Spirit World, apparently, was the place where metaphors went to roam free.

She held onto that line of light, and began pulling herself upward, one hand at a time. She was still weighed down by the past lives of the Avatar(s), but the line didn't break, and she found the strength in her arms to keep pulling herself up. It was no harder, really, than sticking by her friends even after she had betrayed them. Compared to that, hauling up ten thousand lazy dead slobs was no problem.

Eventually, she reached up a hand, and instead of finding more solid light, her fingers encountered fabric and the thin body beneath it. She looked up into the face of Aang. His eyes opened, and he gazed down at her as if from across a distant dream. A cluster of bubbles escaped from his mouth.

"Hey," she said.

He stared at her. "Who are you?"

She looked at the glowing line that represented her connection to Aang. So much for metaphors. "Aang, it's Mai. Do you remember? When you came out of the iceberg? And- and all this time-"

He blinked sleepily. "Who's Aang?"

Above him, Lu Ten let out a bubbling noise that could have been laughing, could have been crying, or could have just been the sound of drowning.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #302 on: Jun 23, 2019 07:11 pm »

Ty Lee's heart ached as Katara's aura went a mix of black and bright yellow, an ugly combination that was all the fear and pain of losing a brother like Sokka.

Rafa and Yugoda stumbled through the gate of the Oasis, followed by the Dreamcatcher Waterbender warriors, all of them working together to carry a body as quickly and comfortably as possible.

It was Sokka.

The first thing that Ty Lee noticed about him was that he had no aura whatsoever.

The second thing she noticed was the blood all over his coat.

Yugoda reached out for the water of the koi pond as the other Dreamcatchers laid Sokka out on the burnt grass, but nothing happened, and the healer's aura fizzled with black. "Oh. Waterbending doesn't work here, either.

Ty Lee's own aura went murky brown. Katara and Iroh both hurried over, but Ty Lee remained where she was, starting a breathing exercise and beginning the process of reconciling her negative emotions. She didn't meant to be negative or leech the energy from the room, but she had seen enough life to know what its absence looked like.
Even so, she realized this was the first time in her life that an actual friend was dying on her.
People she knew had died in the war, of course, including her own father. But he had only come home from the war a few times, and he spent all of those visits ordering her to learn how to fight and calling her stupid for not wanting to hurt anyone permanently, so she didn't really consider him a friend. A secret she'd never tell her sisters is that she had been kind of relieved when they heard about his death at Omashu.

But Sokka- she loved Sokka. He'd been nice about crushing on her, and let it go when he realized she didn't love him that way. He wanted to take care of everyone while pretending to be cranky about it. It made him one of the most generous people she knew, even if he hated sharing his food.

But death was part of life. The price for living was dying, and the reward for dying was getting to live again. Ty Lee focused on the fact that Sokka had died saving his family and friends. The best way to honor his passing was not an outpouring of grief, but by taking over his role and making sure that everyone got out of this to live happy lives. She took her urge to cry, to just sit down and give up, and rolled it into a little ball. She balanced the ball on her nose, just to let it know that there were no hard feelings, and then tossed it away. What was left was sorrow, but sorrow was okay. It was a color on the path to a glorious pink aura, a path that had to be walked time and time again.

She knew Sokka would approve of this.

After all, she had to keep it together for his sister.

Katara was already bawling as she ran over to her brother's still form. "Sokka! Sokka! What- what happened?!"

"We tracked him as best we could, but we were too late." Yugoda shook her head. "He was still breathing when we found him. It was all we could do to get him away from the spirits. We barely made it here! If they hadn't just stopped chasing us when they did- And we hoped that the special Spirit Water here would help him, considering his injuries, but-"

That's when Yugoda looked down and noticed that Sokka had, in fact, stopped breathing.

The silence that followed hung over them all.

Katara raised her platinum knife and sliced the blade across the palm of her hand. "Tell me about this 'Spirit Water.' Please." Her aura flared a bright, beautiful red.

Ty Lee had no idea what was going on, but she could see that it was going to be profound.

Yugoda's eyes were wide, but she kept her voice even. "The waters of this Oasis are said to have unique healing power. Certain death has been staved off more than once by them, and many think they bring similar healing to the spirit."

"I see." Katara cupped her hand so that the blood of her wound pooled in the palm. "Ty Lee, could you please get me some?"

Ty Lee remembered how Katara had used her Waterbending to defeat Master Pakku, when they were trying to escape from the secret Fire Navy base near the Northern Air Temple. She'd taken control of Pakku's blood, and so his whole body. Katara hadn't seemed happy about it.

But Ty Lee knew that Katara would rather the pain of Bloodbending than that of losing her brother. "Okay."

Moving carefully to accommodate her sprains, she got a waterskin from Rafa and used it to collect some of the water of the koi pond. She didn't see any actual koi, which was too bad, because she couldn't help but wonder what a spirit fish looked like. At least the water was clear, proper water now, and not the black sludge from when they had first arrived. Mai had fixed that, somehow.

Ty Lee brought the waterskin back to Katara, and at a nod, poured it into the cupped hand along with the blood.

Katara used her other hand, her fingers waving precisely in intricate patterns, to float the diluted blood into the air.

This time, Yugoda stepped back, and her aura flickered with yellow fear. "How are you doing that?! Our Waterbending-"

"-isn't working," Katara finished. "But Bloodbending is. I don't know how, but maybe I can use it to save Sokka."

Ty Lee twiddled the empty waterskin in her hands. "Well, it makes sense. Lu Ten and Yue both draw from the Moon Spirit. Lu Ten is probably the one messing with the Waterbending. And maybe the moon is what usually make Waterbending happen, like the sun and Firebending, but- well, blood has some salt in it, right?"

Katara inhaled. "Our blood is just a little ocean we carry inside of all of us. And the Ocean Spirit wants to help us!" Her aura went iridescent.

Ty Lee smiled. "So use your little ocean to save your brother."

And so Katara went to work. She floated the mix of blood and Spirit Water into the gashes of his coat. She closed her eyes as she worked, moving her hands back and forth in the air, and tears leaked down her face. "I- I can't find- there's so little Qi. I don't know-"

Ty Lee leaned against Katara's back, reaching out to lay her hands on top of Katara's and intertwine their fingers, and said, "I know how Qi flows, and I've seen Sokka's aura. Let's see if we can find a little, together."

Katara 's eyes opened a bit, and she gave a nod.

Ty Lee watched carefully as she guided Katara's hands. She watched for even the slightest flicker of an aura, of any of Sokka's usual tans and blues and deep reds. Sokka's aura didn't return now, but there something of increasing brightness within, a light that wasn't a light that was shining through his skin. Ty Lee wasn't even sure if anyone else was seeing it. They weren't reacting at all, and it so beautiful that she couldn't imagine anyone ignoring it.

Too bad it didn't work.

Eventually, Katara let herself go limp. "It's gone. The blood and water are mixed in with his. I can't-" Her voice cracked, and she raised her hands to cover her face.

Ty Lee had to fight off her own urge to cry. Knowing how much this would hurt Katara- Ty Lee turned her posture into a hug, letting Katara know that she wasn't alone, that the universe wasn't all loss. Sometimes, that was all Ty Lee could do, for Mai or Katara or any of her friends- let them know that they weren't alone. Sometimes, that could be an important job.

And sometimes, it wasn't enough.

Katara said nothing. She stood up, shaking free of Ty Lee. She stared down at Sokka, perhaps searching for something, or perhaps just taking one final look at him.

Then Katara's aura went fully black, and she turned to the koi pond once again.

Ty Lee didn't get it until Fire Lord Iroh said in a low voice, "I will help you, if this is what you want." He walked over to Katara and put a hand on her shoulder. "Knowing your grief, I could never stand against you. In fact, it occurs to me-" His eyes went over to the Dreamcatchers, who were standing in mourning, and then back to Ty Lee and Katara. "If we both have family troubled in the same way, it would be so nice to work together to-"

"No!" Ty Lee's own aura swirled with browns and grays, her imagination providing vivid images of Sokka tortured in the same way as Lu Ten- and what being responsible would do to Katara. "He'd never want this! Katara, he-"

"I know what Sokka would want." Katara's hands became fists. "Even if it meant living on like Lu Ten, Sokka would do whatever I need. He started on this whole path to save me, after a decade of not even knowing if I was alive. I don't know if I'm strong enough to survive without my family."

Ty Lee's heart broke. "Katara-"

Katara squared her shoulders, shook off Iroh's hand, and stepped away from him. "But he gave me the chance to try, and with people like Ty Lee and Aang and Mai and- and everyone beside me, I'm not going make the same mistake you did."

And Katara's aura turned golden, shining with enlightenment.

Ty Lee's heart skipped a beat at the wondrous sight.

Iroh lowered his head. "You are right. It would be to my benefit if you agreed, but- you have made the right choice. And so I must apologize for not heeding your wishes."

Ty Lee was so dazzled by Katara's aura that she almost missed Iroh's attack.


Iroh had beaten her back in the laboratory, but even though he'd knocked her head hard enough to give her (yet another) concussion, she remembered very, very clearly how he had beaten her. He wasn't faster than her. No one was. He'd just known where she was going to be, put his hands and legs into those places, and then used leverage and a really good knowledge of hand-to-hand fighting.

So, this time, Ty Lee didn't do what anyone would expect her to.

And so, as Iroh raised a hand towards Katara that was accumulating flames as it rose, Ty Lee didn't use her arms or her fists, the way she usually did. They were injured, anyway. Instead, she threw herself into a forward flip and kicked out a stormwind towards her Fire Lord. He responded by abandoning his attack and falling into a low stance with crossed arms. But the great thing about Airbending was that it didn't need to obey the usual rules of fighting. It was all around. So while Iroh was dealing with her frontal attack, she backflipped, this time using her kick to pull a stormwind towards her. And Iroh's back.

He stumbled forward, his hands flailing out in front of him instinctively to break a possible fall-

And Ty Lee’s knuckles were there to meet them.

Pain exploded in each of her sprained joints, and she wasn't even trying to use the arm with the torn shoulder. That slowed her down a little bit, so even as his arms dropped limply, Iroh looked straight at her and huffed a fireball at her face.

She was so shocked and appalled that she blew a gust of wind right back at him. It didn't do much as an attack, but it dispersed the flames long enough for her to duck and jam a fist into one of his thighs, and then the other.

Fire Lord Iroh fell flat on his face, and Ty Lee let herself have a little smile.

Then Lu Ten dropped down on her head with a screech of, "Father!"

Mai was being pulled in two directions at once, and she knew it was only a matter of time until she was torn apart.

The weight of the Avatars and whatever forces controlled this stupid spirit ocean world were pushing her into the darkness. The only thing keeping her from falling was her connection to Aang and the metaphorical arms she was using to hold onto it. She knew the weight would never go away, while the connection could not be broken this way. And she refused to let herself fall.

Aang couldn't help. He didn't even know himself, never mind her.

So she would be torn in half- or whatever that represented in this metaphorical place. There was no fighting this situation.

But - maybe - she could do something clever.

So Mai pulled herself up just a little further and pressed her lips against Aang's in a kiss.

It probably wasn't a real kiss, since they weren't physically present. It was a connection of spirits, a conduit between their hearts, and through that conduit, Mai passed on everything that was weighing her down. She sent every single one of the past Avatars into the embrace, and it was like kissing them all one by one. It started with Wan and progressed through a line of faces and lips and lives that blurred together. It was the strangest sensation of her entire life, but - somehow- also a familiar one.

She passed each one to Aang, and in turn felt a hunger that threatened to drain her of all life. She knew it wasn't Aang's hunger; it felt nothing like him, and Aang didn't use things up like that. Well, she didn't take kindly to threats, and she had every Avatar who had ever lived to back her up.

She was betting that, together, she and them - she and Aang - were better than a little unnatural hunger.

So she gave it all up. She sent all of the Avatars into the hunger, as well as all of herself- her experiences and thoughts and real emotions and the fake emotions she used to cover her real emotions and her quirks and fears and joys and flaws.

Because if Aang liked her so much, maybe there was something to her, after all.

The kiss stretched on for an eternity, but she wasn't just kissing Aang. Or, at least, not the Aang she knew back in the material world. She was kissing the baby he once was and the child who had so many friends and the growing boy who lost them all for a title he didn't want and the near-adult who ran away from everything and the Avatar Returned who worked so hard to run back to everything to set it right. She herself was the baby left alone while Mother and Father did important things and the child who was slapped for singing too loudly and the growing girl who was so good at disappearing into the background of life and the near-adult who lost her prince to corrupted honor and the Weapon who worked so hard to hurt the world before it could hurt her first.

The kiss broke, and Mai found that she was no longer sinking. She was a bubble of individuality in the endless ocean, tethered to another person-like-bubble who looked at her with gray eyes and smiled.

"Mai," Aang said, "you found me." His form flickered through all the Aangs she had experienced, the baby and the child and the boy and the teenager and even a handsome adult she hadn't met yet.

Was she doing the same thing?

She decided not to worry about, and gave him a smile in return that probably looked awkward on every single version of herself. "Well, I couldn't just let you go. You never let me go."

They turned together to check behind Aang, and found that while Lu Ten - or some version of him - was still there, he no longer had a grip on Aang. Lu Ten drifted on the currents, reaching out futilely, lips blue and face puffy.

Yue, the collection of moonbeams in the form of a woman clad in snow, floated over to Lu Ten and laid a hand on his forehead. "I'm sorry for what was done to you. I wish you well in your next life." She pushed, and Lu Ten glowed until the light was all there was to him. Then his light faded, and hers grew brighter. "Goodbye. When your body is destroyed, you will at last be at peace." She turned to Mai and Aang. "Are you ready to go?"

Mai looked to Aang - all him - who nodded back at her. "Let's get out of this stupid, stupid place."

Her non-lips were still tingling. How many people had she kissed just now?


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« Reply #303 on: Jun 23, 2019 07:15 pm »

Sokka woke up when he heard something scream with what seemed like a human voice mixed with the sound of reality turning itself inside out.

He wasn't sure what was going on, but he knew he couldn't be dead. He hurt far too much, unless he had been reincarnated with full knowledge of his past life into something like an ant that had been stepped on the moment it was born, which admittedly would be pretty much his luck.

Still, he was reasonably certain that even Avatars didn't have to put up with that kind of nonsense, so he was probably still alive.

He opened his eyes.

He seemed to be in a garden that someone had burned down, contained with haphazard metal walls that had seen better days and were letting in leaks of water and outcroppings of stone through the gaps. He looked down at himself, and saw that he was wearing a well-made Water Tribe parka that had been ruined by scary-looking gash marks and massive still-damp blood stains. So, he was definitely himself, although this raised other questions, none of which were very pressing at the moment, such as why he was alive.

He sat up (and ow, he might not be bleeding anymore but his abdomen did not like this kind of motion) and looked around.

A fight must have just finished, on the other side of the garden. People were scattered on the ground, and Sokka didn't recognize all of them. Their white Water Tribe coats seemed familiar. Yeah, hadn't he teamed up with people like that? And there was one in pink- Ty Lee! She wasn't moving. In fact, no one was moving. Iroh was down, too, but he was different from the others: his eyes were open, his expression twisted in outright terror, and he had that loose-limbed look of Ty Lee's victims. This situation did not seem to be anything close to good.

And then Sokka saw that one last person seemed to be in the fight. A man in a Fire Navy uniform was advancing on-

-on Katara!

She had her hands out as if she was Waterbending, but there was no liquid in the air. The man - he had to be this Prince Lu Ten guy, the monster - seemed to be struggling to approach her, one crooked step at a time, so maybe the water was invisible?

Whatever it was, it was only delaying Lu Ten.

Sokka felt really awful. His body was fragile, like it was barely holding together, and he was tired in a way that he'd never experienced before. He'd felt exhaustion, real exhaustion, several times in his life, and this was worse. This was a weariness that went even deeper than his bones. The closest thing he could compare it to was waking up from a really deep and vivid dream, when reality itself seemed less real than the dream that just ended and was still echoing through the brain. Only this was about a million times worse. Sokka felt like he had walked from a whole other world to get here.

He was suspicious that Spirit Stuff was involved.

He was pretty sure he remembered dying-

But he was still him. That much he knew. So that's good.

Well, he could get the answers later, if he decided that he wanted them. For now, it looked like his sister and allies were in trouble. Again. And he wasn't feeling at all clever right now.

Well, well in doubt, stick with the basics. First, he needed a weapon. He looked around, dismissing charred grass, his boots, a piece of burnt wood that seemed to be more ash than anything, a shiny pointed thing with wet blood on one edge-


He had no idea why Mai's platinum knife was here and not Mai herself, but that was one of those Later Problems he was starting to collect. For now, he solved one of his Now Problems by picking the knife up. There, he was armed. He had one less Now Problem.

Lu Ten was the other big Now Problem.

Well, hey, as long as Sokka was keeping thing simple, perhaps the Platinum Knife Solution that had worked on the first problem could also solve this one.

He got to his feet. He took his time with this, because his abdomen and all the squishy things inside it still weren't so crazy about the newfangled Moving Around business, and his legs seemed to have forgotten how to support weight. Plus his head had taken up dizziness as a hobby while he was asleep (or dead or whatever), and that wasn't helping anything.

But he kept his eyes locked on the fight. On Lu Ten, who got closer to Katara one stiff step at a time. The Monster Prince didn't have much further to go. But he didn't look like he was winning. Or even hoped to win. He looked like he was trying not to cry, and it was all he could do to still pay attention to the woman he was about to attack.

Well, okay. Sokka liked a distracted enemy. He made himself walk, but that didn't work and he wound up falling into a crawl. But crawl he did, because he had to help. No one seemed to be paying any attention to him as he came right up behind Lu Ten.

Monster Prince's hands grasped towards Katara-

-and Sokka shouted, "Sneak attack!" as he jammed the platinum knife right into Lu Ten's back.

Lu Ten jerked away and screamed like a storm- and yeah, it was the same weird noise that had woken Sokka up. What could have caused the prince to scream like that before?

And Iroh was moaning, a long tortured sound that made Sokka think of a wounded wolf stuck alone on an iceplain.

But, more importantly, Katara was looking at him with tears in her eyes and a smile that could heal the world. It was like she wasn't expecting him to save the day, which was ridiculous. He'd done that at least a few times before, right? Probably. Who was keeping count anymore?

Lu Ten was still screaming, on his knees in front of Sokka. Best to finish this off before another alarming twist caused trouble again. Sokka angled the knife for another stab-

And then Iroh said, "Sokka, the Earth King invites you to Lake Laogai."

Where did that come fr-

Reality turned itself off.

Aang felt happier than he had since he'd woken up at the South Pole, even though he was on his way to a fight he maybe couldn't win. His lips still tingled from the kiss Mai had given him, and her hands were firmly clasped in his as they rose up through the ocean waters with Yue's power.

The princess's ghostly form floated above them, as insubstantial as a soaked piece of silk, but nothing about her strength was flimsy. Mai had introduced her as someone who shared the power of the Moon Spirit with Lu Ten, their guide here in this manifestation of the Spirit World. They were all ascending so quickly that the moonlight was growing visibly brighter with every moment, but who said distance and speed meant anything in this place?

Aang and Mai were on their way back to the real world, to all the dangers and enemies waiting for them. Yet they had conquered so much already, even the Spirit World itself. There had been losses, and pain, but they'd kept moving forward. Perhaps, soon, they'd emerge into the fresh air.

The light grew brighter until there seemed to be more of it than the ocean itself. And then there was no more ocean, no more salty water, no more resistance. Just the light.

Aang felt the air against his face - real, living air against real, living skin - for the first time in an eternity. He opened her eyes, letting the light in, and shook off the water of the ocean.

He was rising in the center of the Spirit Oasis, still half-submerged, Mai beside him and Yue behind them both.

Except the garden was nothing like Aang remembered. When last he saw it, it was a perfect little piece of paradise fully contained in a polished metal prison. Sweet grass had ringed the shallow koi pond, while a backdrop of healthy bushes stood at worship to a carved wooden spirit gate, and something like starlight twinkled down on it all.

Now, the grass was ash and bushes and spirit gate were all just a mix of scorched remnants. The platinum walls were ripped and twisted and battered by stone spikes. One gash even had something like a waterfall spilling out of it to create a messy moat around the Oasis.

And the razed garden was littered with bodies- Ty Lee and Sokka and Iroh and Lu Ten and the Dreamcatchers. Katara was the only one upright, and she was kneeling over Sokka, shaking him and calling for him to wake up.

What had happened here?

How was Lu Ten defeated?

Aang hopped out of the koi pond first, riding a wind over the biggest cluster of bodies. He landed near Lu Ten, who turned his head slowly and forced his eyes open. He mumbled, "Thank you f- for freeing- us- b- both-"

And then his body collapsed into black dust.

Yue gasped, and the koi pond flared with white light.

Aang turned around and had to squint through the light. Katara was still calling for Sokka, but Mai hadn't gotten free of the koi pond yet, and Aang had to make sure she was all right. He blinked repeatedly against the glare and was able to make out Yue collapsing onto the scorched grass and Mai pulled some razor discs from her sleeves and stumbled over to the pond's edge-

-and beyond her, Iroh had risen to shaky feet and was moving towards the pond-

-Aang leaped back to try to reach Mai-

-and then Iroh's voice rang out, echoing against the ravaged metal walls, saying, "Mai, the Earth King had invited you to Lake Laogai."

And Mai collapsed in an instant, falling into the unreal depths of the shallow koi pond and becoming completely lost to sight.

She'd fallen back into the Spirit World!

Aang shifted the winds to carry him in after her and he straightened himself into a dive as his hands splashed into the pond-

-and then a fireball struck the water, making it boil in an instant. Aang's hands were burned by the steam and the liquid heat, but he was able to grasp something alive, something moving-

-and the koi pond exploded into scalding mists, sending Aang crashing back.

His face burned and his wet clothes stung against his chest, but he concentrated on the living motion in his embrace. He had saved Mai, he had grabbed her and pulled her free-

But the thing in his arms was too small. He shook the burning water off his face and made himself open his eyes. A pair of fish, one black and one white, struggled in his arms. He'd save the Moon and the Ocean Spirits.

But not Mai.

He looked back at the koi pond, now a blackened hole of dried mud. A frigid wind brushed at his injuries- an artic wind. He could feel the garden changing around him, becoming bereft in a way that none of his physical senses could explain.

But Aang understood. This place no longer overlapped with the Spirit World. The connection was broken.

And Mai was trapped on the other side.

Aang's cry was answered by that of every single Avatar that came before him, the past lives whose connections Mai had restored to him.

And all four elements responded with his pain.

Zhao was about ready to declare himself Acting Fire Lord when Iroh arrived, a little worse for wear but still quite alive.

Ah, too bad.

The evacuation from the Bastion had been rather panicked, and there had been no time to worry about searching for Iroh. Even the Crimson Guards had fled when the ground began shaking and the snows ripped their way into the scuttled battleship that was the fortress's top levels.

There was no doubt as to the cause. It seemed that the Avatar had triumphed over whatever else was inside.

So Zhao had taken command of the evacuation (heroically leading the way, at the front of the group), and brought all the soldiers who had been able to get out to an emergency supply depot a short distance away from the cliffs overlooking the Northern Water Tribe city. The ground wasn't shaking much, there, so there was little chance of it falling into the sea.

Unlike the Bastion itself.

Once a sight like a massive dam holding back the ice cliffs, but really a prison around the Spirit Oasis, the fortress died that night. Light and mists and snows and smoke and ice and water filled the sky. Zhao had no idea if the Water Tribe city behind the fortress was also being torn apart, but he was sure that the soldiers down there were capable of taking care of themselves. Zhao himself had focused on the survivors from the Bastion, taking account of their supplies and trying to establish some lines of communication to the lab back near the North Pole.

And now Fire Lord Iroh had arrived to see Zhao's professionalism.

(Well, he had to work with what he had.)

Zhao bowed as Iroh stalked into the storage room he was using as an office. "My Lord, I am so relieved to see you alive! We feared the worst."

Iroh slowly turned his gaze on Zhao, almost as if he hadn't recognized him. "Yes. I am sure. I admit, I am surprised to find you here, Admiral Zhao. I last saw you in the Bastion, when the rebel spirits turned on us."

Zhao bowed again. "I am sorry, my Lord. I became separated from the group, and Maliq just insisted I escape and bring reinforcements. Actually, it was one of my plans that perhaps saved your life. You see, I foresaw the need to evacuate some of the materials from the forest laboratory, and ordered Lian to create a device from the Unhcegila head-"

"Yes," Iroh interrupted. He turned and stared at something that didn't seem to exist. "I passed her on the way here. She was upset about something, I believe. Were you able to save those materials from the destruction of the fortress?"

"I made sure Lian saw to that." And he had, in a way. Confirming after the fact that she had done so on her own self-destructive initiative that was indeed making sure.

Iroh gave a short nod, as if he was barely paying attention. "Good. Our time and efforts here are at an end, but I can think of uses for those resources. Yes, it is good."

At an end? "My Lord?"

Iroh sighed, and finally focused his gaze on Zhao. "My son is dead. Completely and truly, this time. So it is time for a backup plan that I never hoped to use."

Zhao remembered the tour he'd tagged along with, back at the North Pole laboratory, where Lian had showed that annoying Tribal her strange miniature swamp. "The matter of the swamp and the platinum spider?"

Iroh's eyebrows rose. "Very well done, Admiral. Yes, that is it exactly. Some time ago, I arranged for a new invention, a kind of flying vehicle, to be hidden in the snows not far from here. Could you detail a group of Firebenders to uncover and prepare it? We need to get to Foggy Swamp, in the Southern Earth Kingdom, as soon as possible. We only have a maximum of 49 days before Lu Ten reincarnates."

Zhao had already been moving to issue the orders when he'd registered that last part. "What?"

"That is my backup plan. In case my efforts to save my son failed, I identified a spiritual nexus that contains the essence of time itself. It is amazing, Zhao. It must touch everything in the universe. The platinum spider will penetrate the tree's form with its legs, paralyzing the flow of energy through the nexus, and ending death itself. Then I enter the nexus, and set everything right."

Zhao's jaw had dropped. He couldn't think of even the first thing to say.

Iroh gave a rueful smile. "There's a reason it was a backup plan. But to defeat death itself, and restore balance to the world, is worth the loss of the North Pole, yes? Now, while you see to our escape, I think I need some tea. It was a long walk out of the fortress."

And that's when Zhao was finally sure that he was working for a madman.

END OF ACT 4: Spirit Purer Than Snow

TO BE CONCLUDED IN ACT 5: "Nailed to Tree"

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« Reply #304 on: Jun 24, 2019 07:30 pm »

Okay. I'm settled down now. There isn't much more I can add. Everything was great. Sokka dying, and then coming back, The father-son confrontation with Iroh and Lu Ten (it reminded me slightly of Monster House, which you probably never seen), and the kiss. Yes, the long-awaited kiss between Aang and Mai, and man, was it one to remember. It probably bumped the kiss between Wesley and Buttercup from its number one spot on the best kisses of all time list. And the ending was a fantastic twist. Iroh's full plan has finally been revealed. Mostly. We still don't know the specifics of what he has to do once the Spiritual Nexus has been stopped, but we know part one and three of his plan, which is, of course, to profit.

Now that that's out of the way, it's ....PREDICTION TIME!!!!

So, we're returning back to the Earth Kingdom. The next chapter will likely deal with Azula's recovery. She'll regain sanity after having a little spiritual journey in the Omashu Ashland, and learn about her importance (and Zuko's too) in the grand scheme of things.

Toph, along with a lovable band of inbred swamp people, will likely try to stop Iroh and fail leading to the latter getting his spider thing onto the Tree of Time.

And Since this story needs stakes and drama, Iroh's plan will probably backfire. While he was probably told by some spirit (I'm thinking Koh for reasons I'll explain shortly) that putting the spider thinger-majig on the Tree will stop death, what the spirit failed to mention was that a Zombie Apocalypse will ensue. Cause zombies aren't dead, they're UNDEAD. The prefix un clearly means "not," as in "not dead." Shut up that counts.

So with the natural order clearly out of whack, Aang and Mai need to think of a plan.

Enter Koh.

Turns out this whole mess was just Koh's way of forcing Mai's hand. He agrees to reestablish the line between the mortal realm and the spirit realm on the condition that Mai give him her most cheeky smile. Mai obliges, and then nothing happens. Turns out you need to show genuine emotion for a face stealer to well...it's in the title. Mai will be all like, "hah, I out-conned you suckah. Now do what you said." Koh is a bit angry after being fooled by a girl that looks like a man, but keeps his end of the bargain, and the day is saved.

Our heroes dance the night away under the Foggy Swamp sky, while the swampbenders sing Yub Nub. And that last part is why no one is going to like the ending.
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« Reply #305 on: Jun 24, 2019 10:14 pm »


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« Reply #306 on: Jun 24, 2019 10:27 pm »

So...I guessed the ending?  Grin
Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #307 on: Jul 01, 2019 09:31 pm »

Azula Alone

Even if Azula could have remembered the dream, she wouldn't have spoken of it. Fear has no place in the heart of the Fire Nation.

It had come to her throughout her life, that same dream again and again. She could be sure because she always woke up from it in the same way, her arms snapping into a defensive Firebending position while her heart hammered an attempt to break free of her chest. Her bedroom would always appear monstrous to her, the elegant architecture and tasteful decorations appearing alien to her eyes, a nauseating backdrop to the true stuff of reality- the shadows that reached up to her bed to claw at her body and whisper that they loved her for her imperfections.

It would take a minute or so for sanity to return, for her to recognize her bedroom and realize that the cold prickling her skin was not the feeling of talons all over her body but simply her sweat-soaked robes sticking to her. With the restoration of sanity came the fading of the memory of the dream, and Azula would always be left with an emptiness in its place.

She wanted those memories. How could she conquer her fear if she couldn't identify it?

But in the end the dream would leave her alone in the dark, and she would pretend that she didn't really miss it. No matter how many times it happened, child or woman or something in between, she would never wipe away the tears she'd always find falling from her eyes.

To touch them would be to acknowledge them.

She'd always let them dry on her face, leaving behind lines of salty crust, and pretend to go back to sleep.

She'd never actually return to sleep after the nightmare, though. She'd never even try.

You can't fail if you don't try.

Azula had failed.

She stood at the edge of a chasm that was deeper than forever and maybe half as wide. In the past, this chasm had protected the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu, but now it separated her from the ashland she needed to get to. Omashu had always been one of the most secure strongholds in the Earth Kingdom, a city-state carved right into the tip of a solitary mountain. The only way to get to it was to cross a single stone bridge that extended out from a neighboring peak, a road that could be collapsed by a team of Earthbenders to dump any unwanted visitors into the void.

The Fire Army had toyed with various ideas for resolving that little problem, Azula knew, but none had gotten past the design phase before Sozin's Comet returned and opened up a much more efficient way of dealing with the city.

It had all burned.

And now Azula had to cross that chasm without the aid of a Comet.

And she could have, she was sure, even if it meant walking for years. Neither time nor effort was any concern of hers, not with the stakes so high. She was on a quest to restore her mind. She would walk up and down however many mountains she had to- provided, of course, that the terrain was at all passable.

She could see the city at the center of the chasm, a brown smear atop a mountain pedestal, curtains of ash falling down the sloping sides into a dark roiling cloud that obscured any bottom the valley have had.

There was no way, she knew, that ash could fall at such a rate for so long without the ashland shrinking at all. Nor was there any truth to the way the falling cinders filled such a massive chasm so that neither sight nor air were available to any travelers. And yet, that is exactly what she was looking at. To descend into that storm of cinders would be to drown without water. She had come all this way and now she was stuck.

Less than perfect was less than acceptable. She could conquer any obstacle that the physical world might throw at her, but that was the problem, wasn't it? There was more at work here than the physical world.

This was all another trick of the spirits.

But that meant it might be what she needed. It might drive her sane again. She needed to be sane. Something had gone wrong in her back in the Fire Nation. When Father-

(Father was Mother.)

When Mother-

(Mother said she loved Azula. But Azula served her Father because her Mother didn't love her. But Father was Mother. Father was dead. Mother had killed and become him.)

When Mother-



Azula's favorite lie was that Mother had left without trying to say goodbye.

Zuzu had talked to her about it, a few times. (Although, given her consistent lack of reaction, it was more like he had talked at her.) He had last seen Mother being led out of the palace by Piandao, disappearing into the dark of the night. Piandao had returned, but not Mother.

(But Mother had returned.)

Zuko had asked both Piandao and Father about it, and neither one ever gave him an answer, not even a lie. He had sought Azula's help, but she rebuffed him. She didn't have time to coddle her own big brother. Mother was gone now. He had to get over it. Only babies cried for their mommies, not powerful royalty.

But even through his own tears, Zuzu would clench his fists and ask when the last time was that Azula had seen Mother.

Oh, probably at dinner. Who cares? Stop crying. You're pathetic.

(It wasn't at dinner.)

It was like Zuzu had said. Piandao had been leading Mother out of the palace, but they had barely begun their journey when Azula stumbled across them. Not that she'd actually stumbled, because she was far too graceful for that. She'd been looking for Father on the top floor of the palace tower, to see if he'd read her the end-of-day report on the war's progress, and walking quite regally because she knew Father hated it when people ran in the halls. She'd been nearly silent in her movements, and Mother and Piandao were surprised to see her.

Mother had whispered her name. Azula. A hand was raised, grasping-

Piandao's voice had been quiet but firm. I believe it is time for bed, young princess. Everything will be fine.

The hand remained outstretched. Mother was silent and blinking back tears.

Azula looked at Piandao. He was Father's personal servant, and the deadliest warrior in the entire Fire Nation. She was young, but she knew those two facts were related.

Azula had looked at Mother. Her mom.

And Azula had turned around and gone to bed.

She hadn't gone to sleep, though. She wound up watching the dawn, never having moved the entire night.

Piandao returned, but not Mother.

But Mother had returned.

Returned wearing Father's face-

We're here.


"I said we're here." The Mud Man leaned over her and stared straight into her eyes. "You wanted to get to the ashland, right? Well, Uncle Mud Man has saved the day. Hooray!"

Azula backed away from him. What was he talking about? Where had he come from? She'd asked the strange man who lived in mud to help her escape from Zuzu and the loud blind girl, to take her to the Omashu ashland so that she could go sane there just like he claimed he did. But she couldn't remember- Sometimes he was with her as she journeyed, leading the way- Sometimes she'd been alone, somehow knowing exactly where to go- She tried to make herself think-

-and found that she'd woken up into a nightmare.

The sky was gone, lost in a wind-whipped haze the color of rot that forced her to squint. The air threatened to choke her with its grainy foulness, the stink of soot filling her nose and mouth and inflaming her sinuses. She raised her hands to cover her mouth so that she could breathe through it, but some ash still got past her defenses and mixed with the spit in her mouth to scour it.

It was the ashland! Somehow- but the chasm- how-

She realized she was standing at a gate, at the base of the remains of Omashu. Behind her, a road stretched over the gap for a whole arm-span before coming to a jagged, torn end above an eternity of ash. Had it always been that way? Or had it just fallen while she dreamed?

The gate in front of her was a gate in name only. The stone pillars were missing chunks right where the door hinges should be, and the doors themselves were just a memory. If there was anything left of the wall that was supposed to be attached to the gate, it was lost beneath the flow of ash that tumbled down the slope of the black mountain to rain down into the chasm. The ash flowed over Azula's boots like the breath of a ghost; it offered no resistance to her, not even as much as a stiff wind.

The gate was as brown and filthy as the air, but the pitch black scorch marks still managed to stand out.

But then she'd always had an eye for destruction.

Hadn't she?

It was so hard to be sure, when Mother could be Father and Father could be Mother. If weakness could defeat greatness and the great could be weak. If Mother could put on a mask and say 'I love you' time and time again-

Azula tried to shift her thoughts away from Mo- from-

It was so hard.

"So," the Mud Man drawled in her ear, "was there any place in particular you wanted to see? I'd take you to my favorite noodle joint, but it looks like someone went and burned it down!" He didn't seem bothered by the ash in the air, using his hands to shield his eyes from a sun that wasn't shining here and peering around with his pop-eyed gaze. The mud that normally covered his body (even in the dusty mountains around Omashu, somehow) had been coated and dried by the flying cinders, leaving him wearing a skin of rough clay. "Actually, come to think of it, a lot of this place has been burned down. Very sloppy. Ver-y sloppy. I wonder if that's why they call it an ashland?"

She ignored him and stepped through the gate. What had once been a tall city was now smoothed over ruins, worn down by winds and tumbling ash until all that was left was the strongest of the foundations. Filth ran down over her boots and the wind yanked at her hair until it flew free, but she braced herself and took a step. Then another. And another. Further. Onward. She found what could have once been a road, and pushed against the storm to follow it. She'd reached the ashland, and hadn't gone sane yet, so there was only one thing to do-

Go deeper.

Go higher.

Ascend the mountain and find heaven at the top.

Another step. And another. And anoth-

Her boot slipped and scraped against the cinders flowing across the ground-

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« Reply #308 on: Jul 01, 2019 09:32 pm »

-and she stumbled through the burnt remains of the house, smashing the last blackened bit of wall before collapsing into the dirt.


She ran her hands through it, squeezed the loamy soil so that it spilled out between her fingers, and inhaled its odor. There was a burnt edge to it, a legacy of recent ash, but it was still perfect gardening soil, nothing like the filth that now covered the ruins of Omashu. Gardeners would pay for soil like this, and the reason she knew was because Mother once did exactly that. Mother had kept a little potted herb garden on her bedroom balcony, for a while, and had been eager to explain every detail of its construction and operation to an eager mind like Azula's.

And Azula had learned, until Father had-

-Father had-

He'd corrected her behavior. A princess did not need to know about gardening. It was better to give her attention to history and tactics. He was adamant about that.

Mother's garden disappeared soon after.

Not unlike Mother.

Azula shook her hands free of the dirt and looked around.

It was easy to conclude that she was in what had once been a village. Aside from the scorched remnants of wooden buildings, including the mess she'd just tripped over, the packed gray dirt of a crude road was clearly visible in the harsh daylight. The buildings had been spacious, judging from the ruins, but still modest enough for peasants and unsuited for extensive storage. Homes, then. The gardening soil also hinted at lower-class residence, as no reputable merchant would do her own growing. Yet neither was this farming country; the homes weren't spread out enough, the gardens not large enough.

And she was fairly confident that there used to be a forest nearby. Now the horizon was just given over to death.

It wasn't an ashland, not in the formal sense. It was merely gray ground and scattered blackened stubs of tree trunks. There were no adversarial winds, no gloom, no malicious spirits. This was simply a forest that burned down, no stupid haunting required or requested. Someday, things would grow here again.



Wasn't Azula in an ashland?

Yes, she was in Omashu. But-

The landscape was the clue. Omashu was a city carved into a mountaintop, but this was the smooth, undulating landscape that could only be created by volcanic activity. This was the Fire Nation. She was in the Fire Nation. One of the Outer Islands, probably.

How could she be in Omashu and the Fire Nation at the same time?

Her head throbbed, and she shut her eyes against the white glare of the sun. Why did it hurt so much to think? Why was her mind burning in her skull? What had Mother-


-done to her?

Mother had left. Father had- Father corrected her because he wanted her to be perfect because he loved her so much. Less than perfect was less than acceptable! But-

-had Father ever said he loved her? He gave her attention, and taught her how to be perfect. She'd done everything he ever asked of her, made executing his will into her entire purpose of being, but he'd only started telling her he loved her - only started hugging and patting and looking her in the eyes - after he'd become Mother.

After Mother had become him.


So did Father really love her?

Did Mother?


No, it was a trick. No one loved Azula. Zuko was jealous and everyone else feared her and-

But if no one loved Azula, then how could Father?

What had she been to him?

She needed to get away. The sun was too hot on her head. She didn't even open her eyes as she forced herself to her feet and tried to follow the road away from this illusion. The ground made a futile attempt to dance away from her feet (or so it felt with her eyes closed) because it no doubt feared her, but she mastered it with the true grace and power of a Firebender and only stumbled a little as she tried to run away.

She didn't realize she hadn't found the road after all until she tripped and plunged into a pool of water deep enough to completely submerge her.

Azula spat water out of her mouth, but it didn't even get halfway to the ground before the hazy winds of the ashland battered it into vapor.

Wait, the Ashland?

She had to raise an arm to cover and protect her eyes from the gritty breeze, and the motion sent more droplets of water flying. She was soaked from head to toe, the moisture on her skin and clothes already mixing with the flying soot to cover her in something much more unpleasant than mud. But how could she be all wet if she was in the ashland? There was no water here. She had just fallen into water in that dead, empty pace in the Fire Nation, but-


She had no idea what was going on.

And the Mud Man was gone again. If he was ever here. If he even existed.

Perhaps this was all a good sign? She'd come here to be driven sane, after all. Hallucinations and strange experiences had assailed her and Zuzu in that other ashland, and as a result her stupid big brother had gotten his Firebending back. So all she had to do was survive this, and maybe she could get her mind back?

Or had Zuzu completed a trial of some kind, marking him as worthy despite his missing eye, low intelligence, and surly attitude?

She didn't know. Why had she come here without knowing? Why was she stupid? When had she become stupid?

Maybe she'd never really been smart. After all, she hadn't noticed when Mother became Father.

What else had she missed?

Maybe everything.

She'd also somehow missed walking up onto this bridge.

She wasn't sure where she was, but the entrance gate was completely lost to sight. She couldn't see the edge of city in any direction. The flow of ash passed over smoothed ruins on every side, and the bridge she was on rose up above it all. The ash in the wind still battered at her, but at least the ground was solid. Perhaps that was why she'd made her way to this bridge. Unless it led to a place where she wanted to go?

She decided to find out. With most of her face covered by the crook of an elbow, she followed the thin bridge into the gloom. There was an upward slope, but nothing that so much as inconvenienced her. She hadn't been exercising, since Mother- since Father- She knew she was a bit out of shape, but the journey to the ashland had restored some of her strength. She tried to think back to the last time she'd used her Firebending-

The bridge collapsed beneath her.

She plummeted just long enough to wonder if she would land in another hallucination.

Pain exploded throughout her entire body when she slammed into a stone slide.

She couldn't even try to fight it. She could only gasp for breath and wonder if she was dying as she slid down the ramp on her back. Ash flowed along with her as gravity and the wind combined to accelerate her. She fought against the agony in her body and arched her head to try to see where she was going.

And got just a glimpse of the wall before she crashed into it face-first.

Azula couldn't breathe.

Water filled her nostrils, filled her mouth, filled her lungs.

She was drowning, but not yet drowned. She needed to get to air, so she needed to survive, she needed to swim. But her body protested, still in agony from her fall from the bridge, leaving her flailing with all the strength of a pathetic, stupid child. The urgent need to breathe began to fade, and she fought against the desire to welcome it. The water was cold in her lungs, cold against her skin, down here in the depths.


These weren't the depths.

The sun was shining in front of her. The sun of the Fire Nation.

Azula realized that the water around her was up in the air, and the sun was either setting or rising on the horizon, shining and reaching out to her. If she could summon her fire than perhaps she could propel herself to some air!

But when she reached for the fire, she found nothing but ash within.

The sunlight dimmed, and her vision faded at the edges, surrendering to shadow and nothingness. She grew sleepy, struggling to remember why she ever wanted to breathe. This was so much nicer, and it was actually quite warm now that she thought about it. She could just go to sleep. The sunlight was reduced to a single point that would soon be overcome by blindness.

And then she found herself in freefall.

She and the water around here were dropping. Or was she in a river, being swept along with the current? Had the sun been above her, before? No, she knew she was falling now, and before the sun had been in front of her.

Then she hit the ground hard enough to expel the water from her lungs, leaving her coughing and choking and tumbling until she was swept against a half-buried rock that held her in place. A volcanic rock, a little sister to the islands of the Fire Nation. She clutched it until she could breathe again, and told herself that the wetness on her face hadn't come from any tears. Still, she squeezed her eyes shut, just to be sure.

"Azula," came the voices of the legion. "Look at me, Azula."

Azula opened her eyes and looked.

A monster rose up before her, the lone living thing in this dead forest.

Its base was the water, a swirling spout that seemed to have no end even as it flowed out across the ground and submerged the blackened tree stumps. Azula lifted her eyes to follow the spout, seeing the sun shining through it, but as she looked up and up and up she found herself beholding a massive tree, its flowing bark forming something like human musculature. How had the water become a tree? At the top was a pair of long clawed arms and a head that wore a crown of bare, stubby branches. On all sides of the head were faces, white glowing faces, delicate and beautiful faces whose eyes were covered by bark.

"Azula," said all the faces. "Daughter of Ursa."

"No." It came out choked and almost indecipherable. Azula coughed and tried again: "No."

The waterspout tree curved to loom over her, turning the sun a shade of blue that felt cold against wet skin and clothes. "Yes. You are Azula, Daughter of Ursa. She birthed you in the material world as I just birthed you here. You were hers, and now you are mine."

The arrogance made Azula smile. She stood up, leaning on the volcanic rock for support, and stared down the eyeless monstrosity that towered above her. "No. Ursa never loved me. She abandoned me! I am not her daughter, and I refuse to accept you as a replacement."

"Stupid child. No wonder everyone believes you a liar." The white faces on every side of the monster's head grinned through green lips. "You utter obvious fantasies and pretend they are real, but all who hear them know their flimsiness."

"Shut up!" Azula once again called for her fire, but the only answer was another coughing fit. She hacked up more water, and kept herself on her feet.

The monster hissed something that could have been a laugh. "No matter the lies you tell yourself, your mother always loved you. She came back for you, didn't she? Came to me and asked for a new face she could use to destroy your father. The Avatar gave me Justice for Ursa's betrayal, and now I will have Vengeance by destroying her daughter. You were a fool to come here, Ursa Yu Azula."

Ursa Yu Azula, Azula of Clan Ursa.

It was a perversion of the Fire Nation's naming conventions, but Azula knew it was the only name she could claim at this point. She was disinherited from Uncle's dynasty, knew nothing of Father's fate, and would choose to die before swearing allegiance to a weakling like Zuzu. The Capital Caldera and its clan were both destroyed; the only home open to her was as a hostage in the court of the strange Earth King.

Mother was the only thing left in Azula's life to which she could belong.

She screamed her defiance, a roar of hatred for the mother and fire that had both forsaken her.


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« Reply #309 on: Jul 01, 2019 09:33 pm »

She screamed until she choked on ash, gagged, and then started screaming again. Repeat.

She didn't know where she was in the city, anymore. Not that she ever knew. The gate was a lifetime ago. The bridge was nowhere to be seen in this storm of cinders. The slide and the wall- she wasn't even sure they had been real. Her head hurt, but her head always hurt. Her thoughts wanted to break their way free and fly through the air like the embers of her life.

She was laying in what might have been a home, before the Comet and the fires and the endless rivers of ash. She screamed and let the ash pass over her, pausing only to gag again.

She didn't stop screaming when she tried to Firebend. She would bring her hands together, focus on the raw pain in her throat, and try to excite her anger and frustration into something. If she tried hard enough, wanted it enough, hurt herself enough, hurt the rest of the world enough, than perhaps it would come back to her.

"Oh, dear, perhaps this wasn't such a good idea after all," the Mud Man said. He was crouched beside her, still indifferent to the ash. "Walking into a valley of death to try to go sane is one thing, but doing it when you're being hunted by angry vengeful spirits? Well, I could think of easier ways to die- about fifty-seven, off the top of my head, but I admit I lost count once after 'mauled by a platypus bear' because it was such an int-er-est-ing image." He cackled.

Azula kicked at him from her position on the ground, her boot barely scraping his knee, and once more screamed and brought her hands together.

If there was even any smoke, it was lost in the storm of ash.

Was the Mud Man real? Or did she just want some company in her misery and wholly imagined him?

She was grateful for his company, whether or not he was real. Even if he wasn't Fire Nation. She had felt a kinship, now, to the natives of the Colonial Continent. Of the Earth Kingdom. They were just like her brother, poor little Zuzu who was chewed up and spat out by the Fire Nation. If she could be related to such a failure, why couldn't she be the sibling to any Earth Kingdom scum? Why couldn't the woman who birthed Azula love an Earth Kingdom failure more than her own daughter? And the people of the Fire Nation were hardly worth being proud of; they were petty, flawed beings who were no better than the supposed primitives they wanted to conquer.

Azula was better than them all.

And she was also more of a failure than them all, because they weren't lying in ash and filth, desperately praying for their Inner Fire to come back.

She once again willed flame to birth in her cupped hands, and once again nothing happened.

She sprawled on the ground, beneath the gaze of a mud-stained madmen, letting the remnants of a dead civilization wash over. She also felt kinship to the people those ashes used to be. She, too, had failed. They were her people, now.

Eventually, her screaming turned to laughter.

A cool morning is perfect for Firebending practice. There is no external heat to draw from; the Firebender would have to provide all the energy herself.

Azula likes to take that further by practicing in the shade. The Agni Kai chamber at the end of the east wing of the Fire Palace is open to the sky, but the tall walls prevent any direct sunlight from entering outside of the noon hour. The chamber is only used when a member of the Royal Family fights an Agni Kai, and it is otherwise avoided by everyone but the Low Servants who come to dust and chase away the spider-flies.

Azula can be alone to chase her own perfection.

It is not even a year after Zuko's 'friendly fire' injury and subsequent banishment. Azula is training herself one cool morning when Father comes to observe her.

Despite the warmth she's been generating for herself, a chill tickles its way up her spine. Failure is never an option for her, but now it is a danger. Zuko failed to provide Father necessary support at Ba Sing Se, and now he's traveling the world with a bandage over one eye, searching for something that doesn't exist.

The banishment had been declared by Fire Lord Azulon, Grandfather, but it had been Father's fire to mar Zuzu's face. An accident, it is reported.

Azula has not asked for the truth of the matter, but she knows in her heart of hearts that Father does not make mistakes.

But neither does she. A danger is not a threat. Father will never harm her because she will never give him reason to.

Azula is ready to demonstrate her perfection, to continue her routine under observation and add to it, to drive herself until either she is told that she has given enough or has nothing more to give. On this cool morning, she will outshine the sun itself, if that is what Father desires of her, and revel in the blasphemy.

She tenses in preparation for the Kulou A Zhanshi form.

Father calls out her name. Azula!

She is momentarily off-balance, but does not fall. Not from the interruption, because she is constantly on guard and is always ready to act on Father's word. It is Father's voice that is strange. The sound is recognizable, perfectly his own, but there is something additional in it that makes her skin prickle, that makes her think of nightmares and cold sticky robes that twist around her body.

She realizes that the new factor is emotion. Father had called out her name like he is fighting back the urge to sob.

Something is wrong.

Father steps up onto the arena floor from the audience pit. Azula, he says, my hard-working little girl. He approaches her-

Azula doesn't know what to do when Father wraps his arms around her. She hasn't suffered a hug in years. Not since before Mother left. Long before. Azula had chosen to stop accepting hugs when Father said they were an act of foolish trust.

And now Father is hugging her.

A test?

But there is no attack. No fire on Father's hands as they pat her back. No pressure on the more vulnerable spots of her body. No disturbance to her balance.

And Father says, I love you so much. I love you.

This is wrong.

But being held like this, being told that she is loved-

Azula does not lower her guard. Love is an avenue to defeat. Her heart thumps and she fights back a smile as she says, Thank you for your consideration.

Father leans back, letting go of her, but then he moves his hands to her face and caresses her cheek. Azula, I want you to do something for me. Will you? It is very important.

She thinks she understands. Father is finally going to do something about Uncle Iroh, and/or remove Grandfather from the throne he refuses to die on. And Father is going to make use of her to do it. She's been waiting for this. Hoping for it. Hurting for it.

Yes, Father. I always do whatever you command.

Something passes over Father's expression. But he eventually raises a smile, and gives her face one last pat. Thank you, Azula. What I want you to do is remember that I will always be here for you. Even if everything else falls apart around us. Even if Zuko never- never comes back to us. I will always be here for you. I will always love you. Can you remember that for me?

She doesn't know what to say. Father has never spoken in such a way. Never spoken so foolishly. But Father is no fool. Therefore, what he says must not be foolish. The fault must be in Azula for not being able to tell the difference between Father's words here and the old prattlings of Mother. She will have to work to address that fault, and for now she can give Father her obedience.

Thankfully, the one thing Father never demands of her is the truth.

Yes, Father. I can remember that for you.

It is a cool morning.

And Azula now realizes it was the morning she is reunited with her Mom.

It was some time before Azula realized she was being strangled and not embraced.

She was sprawled on top of what seemed to be a fountain of ash. It erupted beneath her back and flowed up to cover her limbs and face, not loose at all but compacted and pulling. It held her arms and legs down and constricted over her throat and forced its way into her nose. The pressure was almost comforting, a way knowing that she wasn't alone. It was a mother's hug, a promise of love and support, a pledge against abandonment.

A smart infant knows that they're most vulnerable to abandonment. Every other hardship can be faced, can be endured, can be conquered, but nothing can save them from a lack of care.

But there might just be a difference between care and destruction.

Azula struggled against the ash, but it was too cohesive, too heavy. She huffed it out of her nose only for it to try to crawl in again, and her arms and legs strained futilely to break free. It was just too much for her.

The ash pulsed beneath her, and new fountains rose all around her, the geysers forming a perfect circle. She strained against the ash that was flowing and pulling over her neck to look around, and could only see the brown smear of a sky behind the fountains. None of the ruins of Omashu were visible around her, nor even the peaks of the mountains.

Could she be at the center?

The highest point?

The fountains surged and arced and met in the air above her, but none of the ash fell down to bury her. It pressed together and balled and flowed and stretched and rose, and the arcs of spilling ash have formed a moving network of roots that joined together at their highest points r to form the many-faced spirit.

Its form was that of the living wood, but its substances was all cinders. Life made of death.

The spirit held out its branch-like arms and squeezed its talon fingers together into a fist. The ash weighed even heavier down on Azula, and her capacity for air was reduced by the pressure.

"You shouldn't have come here, Daughter of Ursa." The monster rose up until it seemed to be scraping the sky itself with its crown of leafless stubs. "Now the Mother of Faces will have her revenge."

Azula huffed more of the ash out of her nose and managed a gasp of filthy air before the assault renewed. "Why? What did Ursa do to you, anyway?"

"She ordered the burning of my forest, the death of the creatures that lived as worship to me. She took what she wanted from me and then destroyed my power! She wanted it all for herself. Only her own children mattered to her."

Azula knew she could not survive this. She had been foolish to come to this ashland. She had effectively killed herself, a futile attempt to restore herself turned into self-destruction.

But no, no more lies.

This wasn't about fixing anything that was wrong with her.

It was because she couldn't believe that Ursa had come back to her.

Couldn't believe that she would choose her mother over her father.

But if Azula could not make herself a dragon, then perhaps she would be better as a phoenix.

She smiled up at the Mother of Faces. "Well, when you talk about her like that, I guess she must be my mom after all."

Azure flame erupted from Azula's hands and feet and nostrils and mouth and even ears. The ash did not burn, could not burn, but as the fires passed over it, every grain lost the life given to it by the Mother of Faces and fell dead. Soon Azula could shake free the dust of death and rise to stand.

"And now," she said, looking into the flames dancing in her hands, "I'm going to finish Mom's job for her."

She leapt up at the monster, flying and shining.

Azula rested her head on Mom's lap and gave a little hum when a warm hand brushed through her loose hair. "You were still far from a perfect mother."

There was no mirth in the answering chuckle. "Exactly what every mom wants to hear from her daughter."

"Hm." Azula let the hand run through her hair for a while. "You're not mad?"

"No mom wants to hear that, but who can claim to be perfect? Although, I know what you mean. It does hurt, but hurting others can't fix it. I think I know that now. And I would never hurt you."

Azula had claimed to be perfect. But that was just another lie. Admitting it was painful, made her want to let her fires free to burn herself and the woman whose lap she was laying in. Azula's ability to come to logical conclusions about the situation didn't affect how she felt.

But, perhaps, that was something she could practice. She could do anything with enough practice.

"I suppose," she said, because none of this would work without a little give and take, "I was far from a perfect daughter."

The hand continued to run through her hair, over and over. "True. And I don't think I'm a bad mother for admitting that."

Azula felt her lips twist. "Exactly what every daughter wants to hear from her mom."

They laughed, together. Or, perhaps, it as just a single laugh, shared between two voices.

"Lies and selfishness," Mom said. Or perhaps it was Azula who said it. "Lies to protect my family and myself, and the selfishness to spread as much pain and death as I thought I needed to keep us all safe."

"They made us well," Azula said. Or perhaps it was Mom.

For a while, they just rested together, a daughter in her mother's lap, a mother brushing her fingers through her daughter's hair. It felt real, as did the little garden around them. The smell of the flowers, the tinkling of the brook, the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the breeze. There was even the taste of plums on the air, the promise of a good harvest in a few weeks' time.

There was no sign of ash or death at all, and that was what made Azula doubt. "Are you really my mom? Or am I in the dream again?"

"Well, I don't know, honey. What do you think?"

Azula snorted. "I think moms aren't supposed to admit when they don't know things."

"Do you? Well, I suppose you'll have time to learn otherwise."

It was an acknowledgement of failure, for both of them.

And it was fine.

Azula smiled, closed her eyes, and enjoyed being in Mom's lap.


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« Reply #310 on: Jul 01, 2019 09:37 pm »

It was an epic battle, the grandest fight of Azula's life, and she regretted that there were no witnesses to capture it in rumors or paintings or poetry.

Here in this place - the pond at the center of a dead forest in a land where everything was merely a reflection of some kind - Azula could not use her Firebending, for it was beyond the reach of the elements. True, she had arrived here by crashing through the remnants of wooden houses, crawled across the packed dirt of a road, and nearly drowned in the waters that both contained and fed the form of the Mother of Faces, but all of that had been an illusion. Azula was learning to push past her illusions, and saw this place now for what it was- the Spirit World. She was in a world not her own, lacking the weapon she had always believed to be her greatest strength- her fire.

Nevertheless, she laid low the Mother of Faces. She herself was all the fire she needed, and it was enough.

She burned with something other than light and heat, and in the land of the spirits, that something could burn bright indeed. Her burning reduced the waters that fed the Mother of Faces to steam, and ate at the wood that formed the Mother's body. She was but a little flame against a massive enemy, but even a little flame could be the start of the death of an entire forest.

A woman named Ursa had once been but a little flame, not even a warrior, but her actions had destroyed the Fire Nation as its people knew it. All for the sake of her children.

Azula could at least destroy a spirit who was insulting her mom.

When the battle was over, Azula stood over the charred little bush that the Mother of Faces had been reduced to. "There will be no vengeance for you. Not against Ursa. Not against my mom."

All five faces laughed through the obvious pain of the blackened bark and stubs and branches. "Not the vengeance I sought, perhaps. But the Mother of Faces must continue. Without her, there is no Identity. It is within the Mother that the Individual forms out of the collective."

Azula shook her head. "Not anymore. The Spirit World will just have to let us humans figure it out for ourselves."

"True." The little charred bush shook, and more of it flaked off into ash. "And false. Ursa Yu Azula, do you accept my face?"

"I-" Azula had become her own flame, and now, as she looked down at herself, she realized that she had burned away everything but the flame. Could she go back to the physical liked this?

Did she even want to?

What was waiting for her, there. Zuzu, of course, but- but perhaps the only way they could both heal was on separate paths. Separate lives. Separate destinies.

And Azula had always loved a challenge. "I suppose I do."

She had never really fit in with other people, anyway. She might have, in the future, but this struggle offered just as much meaning. And, perhaps, even more reward.

Azula had always been The Daughter.

Perhaps peace could be found in becoming The Mother.

She let herself continue to burn as the charred bush gave one last shake and collapsed into a pile of leaves and a single featureless white mask.

Azula picked up the mask and put it on.

She could feel herself growing in relation to this world, both in size and energy, for one reflected the other except through choice. She still kept the basic shape of a human, for that was what she had been, but she took the fire of her essence and made that into a base, a foundation feeding heat into a form of liquid, living metal. She had once been a person of flame and armor, and as the new Mother of Faces, she would cherish those aspects of her identity even as she gave Identity to others. The metal echoed the form she had as a human woman, but fives faces with shining golden eyes looked out from beneath a crown of dancing blue flames.

She had barely taken on her new form when Koh the Face-Stealer arrived.

The volcanic rock she had clung to before, when the Mother of Faces had nearly drowned her, rose up from the dirt and shifted to the side. Something beneath it was pushing it up, and to Azula's revulsion, it turned out be a large chitinous insect with a human face - painted white and black in homage to a noh mask - that curled to face her, half its body still hidden beneath the rock.

She knew the creature's name in an instant, the power of her mask feeding that knowledge directly into her consciousness. She knew Koh in all ways, his name and his function and his history.

She knew that Koh was the offspring of the Mother of Faces.

She knew that she had killed his mom.

"You have come for vengeance," she said, speaking with five voices at once.

"It is my duty." Koh gazed at her through half-lidded eyes. "Nevertheless, I can admit that my mother and I didn't exactly have the closest relationship, and I could not take on her functions in addition to my own. I believe you humans would call it a 'conflict of interest.' So I would like to think we can reach an agreement of recompense, both of us being reasonable spirits."

Azula wasn't overly fond of bugs, but it was probably the best offer she was going to get today. "So let's deal. What do you want?"

Koh grinned, and skittered fully from beneath the rock. The middle of his long body was wrapped around something, and as Azula focused on it, she realized that it was a human. A woman.



All of this could be said to have begun when Mai found the Avatar and wrote back asking for instructions on how to save Zuzu. Mai had gone on to betray Azula, to facilitate the destruction of everything Azula had ever worked for.

She wanted to kill Mai for it.

But, really, that was a silly way of looking at it all. Mai had just been Mai. Silly, imperfect Mai. Just as Azula herself had been imperfect. As Mom and Father had been imperfect. Zuzu. The Fire Nation. Everyone and everything.

Why waste more effort on it? She had better things to do, now.

Azula looked at Koh with her primary set of eyes. "Well?"

"I want this one. Let me have her, and we'll forget what you've done to my mother." Koh skittered and curled so that he was whispering to the face on the back of Azula's head. "I think you'll agree I'm offering quite a bargain."

Azula considered it as she morphed herself so that she was once again facing Koh from the front. She considered everything she knew about herself, everything she knew about Mai, and all the knowledge that the Mother had passed on to her. Perhaps it was more knowledge than even Koh had.

She considered all that, and said, "Deal."

Azula and the bug bowed to each other, and her first work as the Mother of Faces was complete.

This stupid bug was going to be in for quite the surprise.

Omashu did not often see its storm of ash settle. Since the fires of the return of Sozin's Comet had faded, it had been a riot of filth and motion and anger.

But on this day, the ash settled long enough to let a bit of the sun shine through. Settled long enough for an old man caked with dried mud to blink in surprise and look around.

Settled long enough for the man to find the body of the girl, buried in ash. Long enough for him to confirm that she no longer drew breath. Long enough to confirm she never would again.

Long enough for him to acknowledge her passing, and then leave her behind for her final rest.

Azula had one more thing to do, before she could set out on what came next. One more link to acknowledge before giving it up forever.

She looked in on Zuzu as he slept, his dreams brushing up against her new home in the Spirit World. He was amidst allies, and perhaps even some friends, but he still slept fitfully, rolling over just when he seemed to be settled, covering his face with his arms every so often and speaking words that only made sense of the language of dreams. The weight of the coming war, the weight of his connection to Uncle, kept him from ascending to peaceful sleep.

Azula connected to him and whispered into his ear, "You did your best. Now, I free you from you obligation to me. Have a nice life, Zuzu." She was about to let the link fade, but on impulse, she maintained it for one last eternity. "Mom says she loves you.

"And I- I am glad we no longer have to fight each other."

He startled awake, sitting up on his bedroll in the darkness of his tent. "Azula? I thought- I heard-"

But she was already fading away.

She had a new journey to take.

Perhaps she would even enjoy it.

She left her brother to find the reality that came after the dream, as she herself went on to find the dream she had always known was waiting for her.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #311 on: Aug 19, 2019 07:12 pm »

A New Age, A New War

Aang's return to consciousness was slow, up until he remembered that Mai was gone forever. His eyes popped open as he sat up and drew breath for a shout and-

This wasn't the Oasis.

Aang was sitting on a blanket with some kind of padding underneath. Next to him, hunched on a little pile of furs, Sokka dozed with Momo asleep in his lap.

They were in the center of a room made of ice. At least, it looked like ice. The bits of the walls that peaked out from behind hanging blue banners were like polished white glass, and the air was crisp and cool. The ceiling was also made out of ice, although regular panels had been made translucent, letting in an illumination that reminded Aang of the moonlight filtering through the currents of the Ocean Spirit's domain of endless seas. Mai had come there to free him from Lu Ten-

Aang groaned. He'd lost her! He'd lost her! His chest tightened at the memory of how he'd tried - tried and failed - to grab her before she could fall back through the portal in the koi pond. She'd collapsed because- because of something Iroh had said, and Aang- he'd only managed to grab the Moon and Ocean Spirit fish before the gateway had closed and Mai was gone.

The air in the room started to swirl-

Sokka startled, waking both himself and Momo. "Wha- Oh. Oh! You're up! And hey, calm down, okay?"

Aang opened his mouth to give voice to the wind, the only thing he could think to do right now, but was cut off when Sokka leaned over and pulled him into a hug. Momo climbed up Aang's back and nuzzled against his neck. Aang couldn't help but remember the hug Sokka gave him at the Southern Air Temple, after he'd been forced to destroy the monsters that the remains of his people had become. Mai had hugged him then, too.

But they had been steadying arms, arms of the family he still had.

Sokka continued, "We'll get her back. I know that sounds trite and mollifying, but it's my promise to you." He pulled back to look Aang in the eyes. "We know Mai's tough and dangerously clever. She went into the Spirit World once already and beat it. That's better odds than Katara had, when they took her away as a kid. And we still found her, right? We'll find Mai, too. If she doesn't find us, first. And then we'll hunt Iroh down and solve that little problem."

Aang forced himself to breathe. Sokka made good points, but it didn't change the fact that Mai was gone. Anything could happen to her in the Spirit World. And who knew when Aang would get to see her again? When would get to apologize for not being able to save her.

But there was a path forward. And there were friends and family who would help.

Aang said, "Everyone else is okay?"

"Yeah." Sokka leaned back and propped his arms against the floor as support. "Apparently, when you and Mai and Yue did whatever it was you did, you turned the Waterbending back on, so Katara could shield us. And you didn't make any volcanoes this time, so ice and water were fine to protect us from you ripping the Bastion up." He sighed. "I was out of it for all that, though. It's a shame. I would have loved to see that stupid place taken apart."

Aang frowned, and not just as the reminder of his accidentally activated a volcano under the Fire Nation capital. "You were unconscious? Were you hurt?"

Sokka was quiet for a long moment. "Iroh hit me with the same thing he used against Mai. Some phrase or something that just shut us off. He mentioned the Earth King, Katara said."

"Wait, what does this have to do with Toph?" Aang couldn't imagine her doing something to hurt Mai or Sokka. Nothing more than bruises, anyway.

Sokka shook his head. "We learned some stuff while you were asleep. Learned about what Iroh had been learning. And who he'd been learning it from. Amongst the stuff he got from Long Feng was notes about his keeping me and Mai prisoners. Apparently, we didn't get away as unscathed from that guy as we thought."

Long Feng? The thought of that betrayal nearly sent Aang into the Avatar State again, especially with Mai suffering for it, but he made himself keep breathing. "Iroh's always ten steps ahead of us! He hits us with things we can't even imagine!"

"Well, we're actually closing that gap." Sokka leaned forward and grinned. "Think about it. You removed the Lu Ten Problem, and destroyed the Bastion, and chased Iroh away. The Northern Water Tribe was only helping him because he had their special fish hostage. But they're okay now, thanks to you."

Aang shook his head. "What are you saying?"

Sokka stood up. "Come see." He walked behind Aang, over to the wall then, and reached under the Water Tribe banner hanging from it.

He placed his hands on the wall and it split apart in the middle, sliding like a pair of doors to reveal a balcony overlooking the Northern Water Tribe city.

Aang got up and joined Sokka out on the balcony.

The city stretched out ahead of them, and Aang saw that it was a hive of activity. People in blue coats were all over the place. Many were working, tearing down the Fire Nation's metal weapons and depots and walls. Others were simply running around and shouting- no, they were singing. At the far end of the city, a Fire Nation battleship was being towed into the central canal, and as Aang watched, a number of Waterbenders began cutting into the hull with spinning saws made from discs of ice and water.

Sokka said, "Without Iroh or any other reason to hold back, the Northern Water Tribe rose up and took their freedom back from the Fire Nation. Both the city and the lab by the Spirit Forest. They'd been waiting a while, and the Dreamcatchers were ready to help. Iroh and his immediate lackeys got away with a bunch of the freakier stuff, but our friends captured some of it. Between that and what I saw in the lab, we know what he's doing."

Aang was almost afraid to ask, but if he was going to find a way to save Mai- "Tell me all about it."

Zhao had decided that while flying vehicles offered amazing military opportunities, he didn't feel a great need to ever be on any such vehicle. But he couldn't disobey his Fire Lord, and so on an 'airship,' he was.

(Couldn't disobey yet.)

Zhao looked out over the airship's rail, without leaning forward at all, at the moonlit Earth Kingdom coast that passed below. It was almost unbelievable that so much metal could not only float through the air, but travel at such speed. He didn't understand the exact principles or what was in the giant balloons at the top of the airship, but it was a shame the technology hadn't been ready before the end of the war.

Or, at least, Iroh claimed it had only become viable after the war. Since the Fire Lord hadn't seen fit to reveal the existence of airships to anyone outside his command until yesterday, Zhao couldn't dispute it.

Having confirmed the airship's speed and course, he turned away and grasped the railing as he made his way back to the enclosed main structure. He couldn't say he appreciated the view; it reminded him that he had only one of Lian the Maker's side-projects between him and falling to his death. She was aboard this airship, caring for some of the materials evacuated from the North Pole laboratory, and if this thing crashed, hopefully she'd be the first to die.

As Zhao stepped past a pair of Crimson Guards into the command cabin, he found Fire Lord Iroh kneeling at a floor desk with a brush in his hand and a messenger hawk on a perch beside him. The lamp-lighting aboard this vessel was similar to that on any warship in the Fire Navy, but somehow Iroh seemed to be- well, lacking. His skin was almost as gray as his hair. The shoulder-flares of his robes hung long on hunched shoulders.

Iroh looked up, and his cheeks twitched in what could have been an attempt at a smile. "Ah, Admiral Zhao. Thank you for coming. I'm just finishing my Royal Order to begin the deployment of the Jorogumo Project. We still have to cross most of the Earth Kingdom ourselves, and I'd rather they start without us. The Avatar and his friends already know about Foggy Swamp, after all. There might be some interference waiting for us."

The Avatar knew enough about all of this to already have plans in motion? Zhao had only just learned about this insanity! Only just learned about the giant spider constructed from platinum, only just learned how it would pierce and mount the tree that was supposedly a spiritual nexus at the center of a massive swamp.

Only just learned that Iroh believed this to be a way to take control of Time and Spirit so that he could destroy Death itself.

Only just learned that the Fire Lord was a madman.

Zhao had only just learned that he needed to do something about all of this, fast.

He bowed. "Of course, my lord. Please, take your time."

Iroh resumed his writing. "There is some tea on the table. Pour some for us, and I will be with you in a moment."

"Thank you, sir." Zhao moved over to the table bolted to the floor and wall beneath one of the room's porthole windows. There was a steaming teapot on top of it, held in the same kind of clamp used by Navy ships in rocky seas. He unscrewed the pot, unlatched a pair of cups, and moved to pour.

Before he did so, though, he glanced around the room. He and the Fire Lord were alone here, and the guards weren't looking in.

So he reached into his belt and removed a small bottle.

He'd been keeping this for a while. Before Iroh was crowned, before the falling out with the Avatar, before the Caldera was destroyed by the reawakening of the volcano, Zhao had been able to run some errands in the Capital City. That included doing Iroh's bidding, such taking care of traitors like Fa- Lord Zhao, delivering a gift of gold for Prince Zuko, and attempting to get the Avatar back on track and getting his topknot severed by that brat Mai for his trouble!

-but, more profitably, it also included some work of his own, like having a quiet conversation with High Sage Xinghao.

And buying, from the High Sage, some of the contents of the cursed Lady Ursa's apothecary cabinet.

Just in case.

He'd had no purpose in mind at the time, and even now couldn't know exactly what was in the bottle. But from what Xinghao had described, Lady Ursa was one of the most accomplished poisoners in Fire Nation history, so some of her work was bound to come in handy.

Zhao hesitated only a moment, acknowledging his regret that he might be providing a bit of aid to enemies like the Avatar and Lady Mai, and then emptied the bottle into one of the two teacups. He poured some wonderful-smelling Jasmine tea on top of it.

There was no Kyoshi spy here to take the blame, this time, but Zhao would think of something. Seizing opportunities had gotten him this far. And perhaps the poison would be slow-acting, leaving no link to him.

Across the room, Iroh rose and placed the rolled-up edict in the container strapped to the messenger hawk's leg. While Iroh took the hawk over to an open porthole, Zhao brought the cups over and laid them on the table, placing the poisoned one on the Fire Lord's side. Then he kneeled and waited.

Iroh soon kneeled opposite him, a cushion elevating the Fire Lord so that Zhao had to look up. "I apologize for not meeting with you before now, Admiral. I admit I was a bit distracted at the North Pole. Aside from the urgency of our escape, I- I had just lost Lu Ten." He stared down into his cup of tea. "I miss my son, Zhao."

Zhao didn't touch his own cup. "The situation has been- troubling, my lord, but I sympathize. No parent should lose a child like Prince Lu Ten. He was- is truly a shining torch for the Royal Family and Homeland. And- ah- hopefully he will be back with us, if Lian's spider does what it supposed to. You will be reunited with him soon."

Iroh looked up with watery eyes. "Y- yes. Thank you for your kind thoughts." He inhaled of the steam coming from his teacup, and squared his shoulders into something like his old posture. He picked up the cup, but didn't drink from it. "I'm eager to discuss how you can contribute to my son's happy return to our world."

Zhao took a sip from his own cup. This was going to be an awkward meeting. Awkward, and dangerous.

But he had no choice. He knew that to continue serving Iroh would lead to his own death, or possibly worse. And the rest of the world would offer no sanctuary, if he tried to leave.

Also, the Fire Lord would probably destroy the Fire Nation in his mad pursuits. That was bad, too.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #312 on: Aug 19, 2019 07:13 pm »

Aang's friends mobbed him as soon as he stepped out of the moonlit palace with Sokka and Momo. There were only three of them, but Appa was practically a mob by himself.

The girls reached Aang fist, wrapping him in twin hugs, and then Appa crashed down on all of them with an eager nose-nuzzle. They fell backwards onto Sokka and Momo, leaving the entire group in a heap in the snowdrifts. It was enough to make Aang smile again, until he realized that the tangle was missing a body.

Ty Lee was the first to notice his thoughts. She eased back from him and shook her head. "I made them check the Oasis place five times. We can't get to the Spirit World through there anymore."

"I know." Aang let Sokka help him back to his feet as everyone else got up, and reached out to pat Appa's nose. "Sokka told me about what Iroh is trying to do, with the swamp and everything. I-" He didn't know how to say it without sounding awful. "I think we need to stop Iroh before we can save Mai."

Sokka and Katara said nothing. Momo cooed as if he understood. Appa sighed under Aang's petting.

Ty Lee squeezed her eyes shut. "Go on."

Aang wondered what her ability to see auras was showing her. "If Iroh is trying to- to enter this 'Tree of Time,' then- well, then he has a way into the Spirit World, right?"

Sokka grunted. "So if we beat Iroh, we can steal his door, and then save Mai? Not bad. But it does presuppose that we can catch up to Iroh and then beat him. He has a head start on us, and they say he has a boat that can fly. I don't know what it's speed is compared to Appa, but-"

"We have to try," Ty Lee said. She opened her eyes again, but Aang saw that her hands were clenched into white-knuckle fists. "If that's the only way we have to go save Mai, then we'll do it." Her expression was hard, and there was no wavering in her eyes.

So this was what she looked like as a Weapon of the Fire Nation.

Katara leaned over to put her arms around Ty Lee's shoulders, and the tension seemed to drain out from both of their bodies. Ty Lee leaned her head against Katara's shoulder and whispered, "We'll do it."

Aang turned to the one who was most critical to this plan. Appa looked back at him. "Well, buddy? Can you get us down to the swamp? It will be a lot of flying, but we have to for Mai. And King Toph should be waiting for us there. You like her, right?"

Appa lifted his head and roared his dedication.

"Great!" Now Aang turned to the one who always worked so hard to make sure everyone's plans actually worked. "Sokka, what do we need to do?"

Sokka rubbed his chin with a gloved hand. "If we're going to catch up to the flying machine that I was told about, we'll need to travel light. As much as I'd like to bring an army, it's better if we keep the weight down for Appa."

Aang nodded. "I think Appa's recovered from getting shot by lightning by Zuko's sister, but it's best if we take it as easy on him as possible, considering how far we have to go. Almost to the other side of the world!"

"Right. So we keep it to just the people who can have the most impact. (I'm thinking that's us. Avatar, Weapon of the Fire Nation, Waterbending Master, and the guy who keeps you all mostly out of trouble.) Plus, only what supplies we need to keep in the air, so mostly food. Anything we might need on site, we hope that Toph can give us." Sokka looked around. "We'll need to ask for the Northern Water Tribe's help. I hope they can spare something for us."

Aang nodded. "Who do we ask?"

Katara looked out over the city of ice, and the people working hard even now to remove the Fire Nation's influence. "I don't know that there's a real leader, yet. Maliq was supposedly their Chief, but he's dead. So I guess-"

"Yue," Sokka said. "She's their Princess. Let's go find her."

Katara pointed down into the city. "She was helping with the recovery, last I saw her. This way!"

Aang ruffled the fur of Appa's arrow. "You wait here, buddy. Rest up."

Appa snorted his agreement, and then they ran off to find the Water Tribe princess.

As all they followed Katara, Ty Lee turned and said with complete solemnity, "I think Sokka should be the one to ask."

Aang shrugged. "Okay, if you think so. But why?"

Ty Lee glanced at Sokka, winked at him, and grinned. "Trust me. I'm on this."

Sokka groaned, and Aang decided that this was something he could hear about later. Much later. Maybe never.

They came to a plaza in front of what turned out to be the healing huts of the tribe. The uprising had to have been quick, for Aang to sleep through it (without being frozen in an iceberg again), but it apparently hadn't been without casualties. The healers had left their huts, and people were spread out on blankets all over the plaza, up against the canals and the walls of ice.

Some of the blankets were spread out on top of the casualties. The healers had either failed or been too late with those.

With their white coats, Aang almost missed the Dreamcatcher rebels moving around the edges of the healing area, not far from the collection of the still forms of the dead. The warriors were assisting the healers, and the elder Yugoda was herself working on an unmoving figure - Aang couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman, not even by the remnants of the clothes - who was covered in burns.

Momo scampered free of Sokka's arms and went over to Yugoda, nuzzling her leg. As Aang approached, she sighed and nodded to Momo, and then cast her water away and stood up. The figure she had been trying to heal did not move.

As she approached, Aang said, "Uh, I'm glad to see you're okay. And- and I'm sorry I wasn't here for-"

Yugoda stopped him with a wave of her hand. "You did your part, Avatar. That's all we could ask. This was what the Dreamcatchers have been preparing for - what we gave up our lives in the tribe for – all along. Now we deal with the aftermath, and perhaps someday we can return to our lives."

Aang looked at the others, to see if they understood that last part. He got confused expressions in return. It was Katara, who Aang understood to have been something of a student to Yugoda while they were here, who said, "Someday? But the Fire Nation is gone."

"And so we were, Katara." Yugoda picked Momo up and stroked his fur as she led the way to the next form laying in line for healing. "We are back now, yes, but we walked away from our roles, our friends, our families. We let them think we were dead. It has been years, for many of us. We lived in the sacred forest amongst beings our people only knew in dreams. That tends to make people look at you differently."

Aang thought back to before a hundred years of war, when he was just a young monk living happily in the Southern Air Temple. "Yeah, I know."

To Aang's surprise, Sokka inclined his head to Yugoda, "Um, all due respect, ma'am, but that might not be it. Your rebels were the ones who found a way to fight back, when everyone else felt like they had to collaborate in order to protect the world. That- that kind of guilty feeling can keep people from reaching out. Trust me. I used to- well-"

Momo suddenly stiffened in Yugoda's arms, and then burst free to fly away from the little gathering. He glided a short distance across the plaza, to where the regular blue-coated healers were working. Momo landed on the ice near where another gray-haired healer called for more water as she leaned over a patient.

And Rafa, the leader of the Dreamcatcher warriors, came over to her with a bucket. He placed it next to her, and as she turned to take command of the liquid, she glanced up at his face.

Her eyes widened.

Rafa nodded.

"That's Misu," Ty Lee said. "She helped fix me up after Iroh hurt my head."

Yugoda added, "And she's Rafa's sister."

Misu smiled, nodded back, and then called the water out of the bucket with a save of her hands and returned to work on her patient.

Aang finally found a reason to smile. "I think you'll be part of your Tribe again sooner than you think. And I have an idea. Do you know where we can find Princess Yue?"

Yugoda pointed across the plaza, and Aang bowed to her before taking off in that direction.

Kneeling at table with his Fire Lord, Zhao bowed his head and said, "I am yours to serve in any capacity, my lord." And he waited for Iroh to drink the poisoned cup of tea and keel over, already, the old fool.

Iroh, though, simply looked down at the teacup in his hands. His lips trembled for a moment before he spoke. "But you are a bit out of your element, yes? You're a Navy man, Zhao, and through no fault of your own, you're quite far away from such business. I mean to invade a swamp, and possibly deal with rebel activity there. And after that I will move on to my great task. I worry that I am leaving you nothing within your expertise."

"Then I will shovel coal for this vessel's boilers, if I can serve you in no other way." Why wasn't this fool drinking the tea?! Iroh was practically addicted to the stuff. "You saved me from my ambitions in the Capital, my lord, and it is only right that I pay back the life you granted me."

Iroh lifted the tea up and inhaled deeply of the steam- before placing it back on the table. "Oh, don't worry, I would never waste your time shifting coal!" He gave a chuckle, an echo of his old joviality, but it died quickly. "Perhaps it is time for you to return to the Homeland. I have been focused on my son, and neglected most other matters. I sent the sages and military command back after my crowning, but you can brief them on the latest events and prepare for Lu Ten's return."

Zhao fought against revealing his surprise. That wouldn't be a poor fate. He could flee before Iroh's poisoning could be investigated, and mournfully use his new orders take command back in the Fire Nation and build up a defense. Iroh might have his fanatics here, but elsewhere Zhao could forge new alliances in the name of guiding the Fire Nation back to the matter of creating a worldwide empire that would stand forever. After the games of Azulon and 'Ozai,' after the loss of the Capital, people would be desperate for a leader with his head on straight.

Or was Iroh setting a trap? Was he sane enough to play such games?

Zhao elected to honor the time-proven art of waffling. "I will serve as my lord wills."

"I'm sure." Iroh looked down at his tea again, but left it on the table and leaned forward. "Can we talk honestly for a moment? I know that, above all else, you desire power and prestige. When you can't get that, you'll take survival. I've counted on it, really."

Zhao wondered if he should act offended, but decided against it. "I don't think I'm unusual in that regard, my lord. It has served our nation's warriors well for a century now."

"Among other motivations, perhaps." Iroh's eyes narrowed and a little color came back to his face. "And I'm not sure we can look at the state of the world and say our ambitions have served us well." He looked down at the teacup, and what little life had come back to his face flickered and died. "Perhaps we grasped our desires too tightly. Will you make the same mistake?"

For a moment, Zhao wondered if he had been right to try to poison the Fire Lord. This didn't sound insane. But no, Iroh was always good at rhetoric. He'd beaten the Fire Sages in their old political games, and maintained a position as Azulon's favored child despite acts of disobedience. Zhao had to remember that this old fool believed himself on a path to somehow eliminating death with magic. He had to die.

So Zhao finished off his own tea and gave a polite smile. "I've found, my lord, that there is a time for patience, but when the right opportunity comes along, grasping can bring great rewards. It's just a matter of knowing when to strike, yes?"

Iroh's eyebrows rose. "Perhaps I am being too subtle. Admiral, let me be plain: I am offering you an assignment suited to your ambitions, away from this ship and matters of spirits and death. We head towards frightening things- even I am frightened." He met Zhao's gaze with his pure golden eyes, and with a long exhalation, let his whole body droop. "But as long as I return Lu Ten to life, it will be worth it. My boy- he- he deserves a chance at life. Perhaps everyone does- as long as they do not make themselves my enemies. So take your chance, Admiral. Don't let foolish ambition and misinformed fears destroy you."


Was Iroh implying that Zhao was afraid?!

This fool needed to die.

And yes, Zhao needed to be here to spin the matter of Iroh's death before returning home in triumph. He wouldn't be left as a glorified messenger when Iroh's ashes were scattered to the winds. He'd be at the head of the Fire Lord's own air fleet, all the power in the Fire Nation his for the taking.

"My lord, you are- understandably upset after the- the difficulties with your son." Zhao gave his most ingratiating smile and motioned at the poisoned cup in front of Iroh. "I'm sure you'll feel better after some tea and perhaps a nap. You're our Fire Lord, after all, and need to take care of yourself."

Iroh stared back, thoroughly unimpressed.

Then he picked up the teacup-

(Zhao bit down on the smirk that threatened to overtake his face.)

-and spilled the contents out on the table.

Zhao's jaw dropped.

Iroh shook his head. "I wouldn't have expected you to use poison, but I suppose your options were limited. Was it a grab for power, or fear? I'm truly curious."

Zhao tried to speak a denial, but his mouth had gone dry. The words wouldn't come out. He managed to gasp, "I- I am your loyal-"

"I am too tired for denials." Iroh leaned his bearded chin on his chest. "Guards!"

But how did- "But how di-"

"Dreams, Admiral. I walk them, when I will." Iroh gazed down on the puddle atop the table that vibrated in time with the thrum of the airship's engines. "I seem to be haunting yours."

Heavy gloved hands landed on Zhao's shoulders, and he snapped into motion, pulling away and summoning his fire and preparing to fight for his life. Life, and glory and the very world itself-

-and an armored leg snapped out, tripping Zhao just after he had shifted weight onto his feet. He fell face first towards the table, striking the edge hard enough to send it tumbling away in a spray of poisoned tea. Two guards piled on top of Zhao's back, driving him to the metal floor as they twisted his arms behind his back and completely immobilized him.

"They broke your root," Iroh mumbled. "You should work on that if you survive long enough for me to defeat death."

Zhao screamed as he was dragged away.


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« Reply #313 on: Aug 19, 2019 07:15 pm »

Aang, with Sokka and Katara and Ty Lee (and Momo) behind him, found Princess Yue standing amidst a group of old men in front of the Healing Huts. Yue herself was talking with a woman with short, reddish hair.

Ty Lee whispered, "That's Malina. Her brother is- was that Chief Maliq guy. The one who designed the Bastion."

Aang skidded to a stop and then took two very respectful steps towards the women, with Sokka at his side. "Hi, everyone! Yue, Malina, and- uh, everyone." Behind him, he heard the distinctive sound of Sokka doing a forehead-smack.

The women and the elders all turned to him, and Yue's face lit up with a smile. "Avatar, it soothes my spirit to see you - and your friends - well."

Malina bowed. "Avatar. I- I thank you for driving away the evil forces that took my broth- the Chief's life. He served the Fire Nation, building their fortress, and believed in their culture. But- but some things have too high a price. He did love his Tribe, always."

Aang took that to mean there were no hard feelings, which was good, because he really didn't have time for grudge fights right now. He bowed back to her. "I hope you and your Tribe can now be at peace."

Malina nodded her acknowledgement, bowed to Yue and the elders, and then moved off to assist with the healing.

One of the old men said, "What matters capture your attention, Avatar? Is there something we can do for you?"

Aang took a breath and stood up as straight as he could. "Yes, but first there's something I need to do for you." He wanted to get in the air to Mai as fast as possible, and he knew what he was about to do next might delay things, but he couldn't abandon his job again. And this might be important for finding Mai. "Have you figured out who will lead your Tribe?"

Yue started to say something, but then closed her mouth and lowered her head as the old man who had spoken before said, "The council of elders will have to choose a husband for our beloved princess, so that the line of Arnook can continue to guide us into the future."

Aang heard Sokka give a choking sound, but ignored it. "That's- that's a, um, good plan, but I have another idea. As the Avatar, as the Bridge Between Worlds, I can't ignore the forces that Iroh was disturbing here. You can look after your Tribe, but I need to know that the, uh, spiritual sanctity of the North Pole is maintained."

He waited for the elders to nod. People didn't usually contradict him on this stuff. When they had committed themselves to what he'd just said, Aang went on with, "So I am, uh, appointing Princess Yue as- as High Sage of the Northern Water Tribe. Yue has been to the Spirit World, and is bonded with the Moon Spirit. She must be free, fully empowered to take any action whenever spiritual matters are involved." As he'd been speaking, he had felt more confident in his words, and like he was standing taller. The wind had picked up, and he was aware of the waves beyond the walls of the city moving with more than just the rhythm of the tides. "The friends known as the Dreamcatchers will contribute to her guards, and they will also serve as ambassadors between the Spirits and the Water Tribe."

And it was with Avatar Kuruk's voice, and Avatar Kuruk's mouth, and Avatar Kuruk's body, that he said, "Princess, do you accept this burden?"

The elders all stared with hanging jaws.

Yue was wide-eyed, but she bowed her head and kneeled at Kuruk's feet. "I do, Avatar."

"Then I so name you High Sage Yue. Rise."

She did, looking up at him.

And then the winds died, the waves fell, and where Avatar Kuruk had been a moment before, Aang slumped. "Okay, good. Wow, I'm tired all of the sudden." He stumbled backwards, and was caught by Katara and Ty Lee. "Sokka can handle this next part for me."

As he sat down on the ice, he watched Sokka approach Yue with his hands clasped together in front of him at first but then crossing them behind back for a moment before letting them hang at his sides. "Uh, we need to go after the Fire Lord. And you probably need as much food and stuff as you have, what with just fighting a war and having to take care of yourselves." He folded his arms across his chest, and then brought them down and clasped them in front of him again. "But, um, the Avatar (and the rest of us) needs your support and some food and blankets. Please?"

The brilliant smile that Yue turned on Sokka might have warmed the air itself. "Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, brave warrior and ally to the North, what you ask is good. You will have what you need, so that you may set right this world as you have set right my Tribe." She turned to the elders. "As High Sage, I ask you to give them their supplies."

The old men stood still for a moment.

Then Rafa, in his white coat, stepped away from the healing field and raised his fists into the air. "For the Avatar! And High Sage Yue!"

Other Dreamcatchers echoed the call, raising their arms and cheering.

The old men bowed to Yue, one by one, and then rushed away, calling for preserved food and blankets to be made ready.

Within an hour, Appa was loaded up what supplies Aang felt were safe to carry. He was in his place on Appa's head with the reins, Momo in his lap, while Sokka, Katara, and Ty Lee waved back to Yue and her tribe from the saddle.

Aang said, "Yip, yip," and then they were off into the air.

He tried to believe that they would be in time to save the world- and in time to save the person most closely connected to him.


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« Reply #314 on: Aug 19, 2019 07:22 pm »

Mai couldn't say when she actually awoke. The usual clues (light in her eyes, hunger, the need to hit the bathroom, the feel of blankets or fur or even her own hair on her skin, the emergence of coherent thoughts, or hearing the noise of some overly-chipper friend when all decent people were trying to let the sunrise get on with its business) were absent.

But although there was no specific point of transition, Mai did indeed drift from a state of nothingness into an awareness of herself and the universe. But one looked very much like the other, wherever she was. Around here was nothing but stillness and dark.

And, eventually, the giant bug with the white face.

Red lips smiled. "Welcome back, Lady Caldera Yu Mai. I do hope you remember me."

Mai had never seen the entirety of Koh the Face-Stealer before, except in a dream - a nightmare - the night before she left the Fire Nation for the last time. It turned out that the reality (was this reality?) matched the dream exactly. A giant centipede hung down, the segmented body curled so that the face painted like a white Noh-mask loomed in front of her. Sharp, thin legs clung to old, petrified roots that meandered over the walls of- where was this?

It could have been a cave, with the uneven surfaces, but that would have supposed that it had a form that we merely covered by all the shadows, and not that it was a place of darkness patched by whatever pieces of reality had been salvaged from an ancient age.

The last time Mai had seen this monster was in the mirror-like blade of a sword, when she was told that if she showed any expression, her face would be taken, killing her so dead she'd never even reincarnate.

With a perfectly blank face, she stood up from where she was crumpled on the floor of the cave. "Is this another dream?"

"You dream about me?" Koh's legs clicked as they stretched and contracted, that white face rising to stay in the center of her vision. "I have to say, I'm quite flattered."

It was just like the kind of taunting that Azula used to do, back when Mai was a kid. And there was just as much of a threat behind it. "If this isn't a dream, then what is it? The last thing I remember-" Her voice trailed off as she tried to make her mind reach beyond the great nothingness from which she had just emerged. "Aang? Yue? And that Spirit Ocean- but something- we were leaving-"

"And you came so very close." The white face of Koh disappeared in a blink of the surrounding bug-flesh, replaced by a draconic visage that could have been the living battle-mask of the Agni Warrior himself. "But the Fire Lord out-maneuvered you once again, closing the path before you could fully return to the physical realm. You are still in the Spirit World, if your lack of a heartbeat hasn't already made that clear."

Yes, Mai remembered most of that. "That doesn't explain why I'm here, specifically. With you. I presume this is your home?"

"That might be a word for it. The transition between worlds can be dangerous and chaotic, especially for one with no ability to navigate it. You could have wound up in some rather strange places, indeed, perhaps paying a toll with your memory or voice. You're lucky I was there to-" The draconic face smiled, revealing teeth that curved in a chaotic mix of directions. "-catch you."

Yeah, lucky. Mai gave a low bow, and let all her feelings of sarcasm drain out of her thoughts, lest they reach her face or voice. "Thank you for your assistance. And for sheltering me while I recovered. But I've imposed on you for long enough."

"Oh, it's not an imposition at all. I do so enjoy your company." A long tongue flopped out of the mouth to polish drool off the teeth. "But if you have a way back to your friends, then by all means, be on your way. I would hate to delay you when the Avatar is on such an important errand."

Mai wanted, more than anything, to flee. This was a creature that had brought down a past Avatar, and she had nothing with which to fight it. No weapons, not if this was the Spirit World.

But this spirit liked to use helpfulness as bait. Mai would be risking herself to remain in its company, but where else could she go? Yue had been her previous guide through the Spirit World, but now Mai was alone.

She folded her hands in her sleeves and met Koh's gaze, resisting the urge to quirk an eyebrow. "That was a nice tease. Is there something you want to tell me about Aang, or are you going to make me work for it?"

Koh laughed, a sound that had more than a little dragon-growl to it, and then another blink of surrounding flesh replaced the inhuman face with that of an old man whose features were hidden by wiry gray hair. A beard fell to dangle to the floor. "You are so very different from the other people the Avatars have loved, refreshingly so. I cannot help but wonder why. Was it mere chance, just the right circumstances amidst the chaotic swirling of destinies? If you had met differently, would he have barely given you a second thought while pursuing one with a more fervent heart?"

Mai ground her teeth together within her mouth, counting until she was sure she could speak without so much as tilting her head. "If you want an answer in return for your help, I'm afraid I'm left in your debt. I don't know, and I couldn't care less. But I'm interested in what's going on at the North Pole right now."

"No, you're not. It took quite some time for your spirit to recover from your forced return." Koh idly swung around as if pacing on the shadows. "The Avatar left the North Pole three days ago to chase Iroh. And he's going to be too late."


Koh snapped around, grinning madly beneath the face's overwhelming beard.

But Mai was already hiding her feelings again, thanks to instincts honed in the company of Princess Azula, or amidst rivals like the other Weapons of the Fire Nation, and even at the gatherings her parents would host where ministers traded jokes about Zuko's banishment. She couldn't stop herself from feeling, but she had learned to strangle such things before they could show on her body. Traveling with Aang and all her friends had eroded that control, but she was still practiced enough to beat out a giant, arrogant bug.

Mai said in her most bored tone, "How do you know that?"

"I watch. How else could I do my job?" The face shifted again, the blink of an eye all the transition between the bearded old man and a woman whose every contour was enhanced with green makeup that shimmered metallically even in this dim lighting. "Would you care to watch as well?"

Mai nodded, swallowing all eagerness to sit heavy in her stomach.

That's when two insectile legs snapped down to pierce her back, sharpened points bursting out through her chest, the tips dripping glowing blue light that faded to nothing before it could hit the ground.

But there was no pain, just a shock that ran through her being in a manner very much like physical agony, and the difference was enough for her to suppress everything but a slight parting of her lips as she was lifted off the floor.

Koh twisted to hang over her, the woman's emerald-brushed face filling her vision. "Follow my connections, Lady Caldera Yu Mai. Trace the paths to every face worn by every living thing. They are my bequeathal, my windows to your world. Wear my faces and see."

Mai could only feel the cold, hard legs angling through her non-body, but as that frigid feeling stretched through her, she realized that it wasn't an empty cold. It was a cold with depth, a cold so solid that it could be used as a bridge over the emptiness that filled most of the universe. Bridges back to the material world, bridges to new eyes, such as this one, to a man in a swamp whose name had become as interchangeable as the seasons, known more by his work and knowledge than any other form of identity.


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« Reply #315 on: Aug 19, 2019 07:24 pm »

It was over a week ago that all of the Swampbenders' Waterbending had ceased to function for exactly one hour and forty-four minutes, and the man called 'the Mech-anist o' the Swamp' (by his local patrons, of course) was ready to unveil the results of his latest experiment. As distressing as the loss of Waterbending had been for his hosts, he'd found it inspirational, making him ponder the very nature of the element of water itself.

He had started several different projects, put into action several different intriguing suppositions, but this was the first to bear fruit. He was sure his patrons would be most pleased. Most pleased.

"Ahem," he began. "Thank you all for attending. Today, I will demonstrate something that will both expand the realm of human knowledge and provide a better way of life for us. I do not forget that I owe everything to you, the generous Swampbenders, for offering my people - offering me, my son, and our friends - shelter after the loss of our homes. I have worked to repay your kindness by applying my mind and interests to our collective betterment, and today, if I may say, I believe I have developed my most impressive invention yet."

On the other side of the village square, the gathered denizens of Foggy Swamp all stared at him.

One tall, thin man wearing a pair of larges leaves (one on top of his head, the other elsewhere) said, "Hey, Tho, what all them words mean?"

His shorter, plumper, equally clothing-challenged companioned answered, "Well, Due, he real happy to be here and thinks this thing goin' be pretty good."


The Mech-anist (as his patrons insisted on calling him), nodded his agreement and stepped over to his invention. "If I may direct your attention, this is my revolutionary Water Filtration Device. I have collected some of the local swamp water into this hollowed-out pumpkin, where it evaporates under the hot shine of the sun, fueling the transition from a liquid to gaseous state, a process known by many as 'evaporation.' Left behind are what we will call 'impurities,' for lack of a better term."

His audience continued to stare.

The Mech-anist took that as a good sign and motioned to the large, curved leaves suspended over the pumpkin by a carefully constructed support system of sticks. The leaves were the same kind used by the locals - including, these days, the Mech-anist and his fellow refugees - for hats and other clothing, broad and coated in a natural waterproof layer. "The water vapor rises to be caught by the leaves, where they collect without being absorbed, undergoing condensation- er, the gas becomes a liquid again upon touching the cooler, shaded bottom of the leaves. The water droplets flow down the curve of the leaves, where they drip into the prepared, sanitized cups. And to demonstrate the results of the process, I have asked my own beloved son, Teo, to assist me."

"Hi, Dad!" Teo, dressed like the Swampbenders except for the goggles he wore atop his head, wheeled his assistive chair over to one of the cups and picked it up. He lifted it to his lips and drank down the contents without hesitation. When he was done, he lifted the cup and smiled. "Clean water!"

The Mech-anist turned to his audience and waited for their reaction.

They all stared at him.

Then Tho said, "You took out all the flavor?"

The Mech-anist clasped his hands behind his back and nodded. "That is an excellent point, and demonstrates why your perspective has been so helpful to my work. Yes, the 'impurities' do include the minerals that provide natural water with its perceived flavor. Future versions of the Filtration Device may include cups that are prepared with beneficial additives to make the water more flavorful and healthier. But what I think is most important about today's demonstration is that we, my friends, have found a way to distill water to its primal, most elemental state. We have found a way to separate water from the other elements, so that we can perform further experiments on its nature without any other possible contamination. Perhaps the lack of Waterbending we experienced almost a week ago might have been caused by the Earth within the local water, and with this process, we will be able to determine that the next time we experience such troubles."

"And then," Due said, "you can be fixin' the problem?"

The Mech-anist nodded. "It would be a good start."

And so the gathered denizens of the Foggy Swamp began applauding.

The gratifying moment was eclipsed, literally, by a shadow that passed over the clearing where the village stood. The Mech-anist looked up. His weather forecasts were not expecting clouds today. What could-

His jaw dropped at the sheer size of the machinery that was passing through the air above the swamp canopy.


Yes, that would indeed do it.

The murmured confusion of the Swampbenders was soon drowned out by the buzz of fast-moving propellers, backed up by a chorus of thrumming internal combustion engines.

Oh, dear. The Mech-anist understood what was going on, now.

The Fire Nation had found them.

He turned back to his audience. "And that must conclude today's symposium, as we seem to be under attack by the Fire Nation. I'll go investigate further, while everyone else should-"

But the Swampbenders were already rushing out to defend their homes, scrambling out of the village to where their boats were pulled up on the spongy shores.

Yes, they might not be the most sophisticated folk, but the The Mech-anist had no complaints about the people who had chosen to give him shelter. And now it was time to help them fight their mutual enemy. As Teo rolled over to sound the Danger Horn to warn any of those who hadn't come to view the experiment, while Mech-anist ran to the tallest tree on the village's border and followed the wooden ramp that spiraled up the trunk. At the top of the tree, above the canopy of the sprawling Foggy Swamp, he was able to get a good look at the flying colossus.

Six massive maroon balloons - similar to some ideas the Mech-anist had toyed with before becoming diverted by the possibilities of fungal farms, but on far grander scale than he'd imagined - were sailing across the sky in two rows. Hanging from them was a mechanical vehicle of some kind that was as large as a Comet-class Fire Navy battleship, if the ship had been cut into segments and then folded up. And made from an especially reflective metal. Certainly, the center of the structure was similar to a conning tower, although the other segments had too many hinges to really resemble anything from even the most modern metal ships.


The Mech-anist followed their patterns, and realized that they were joints. And if they unfolded, then the rest of the construct would extend outward like legs. Eight legs, four on each side.


How efficient. The Fire Nation had taken a design already proven to work in nature, and applied it to this rather spectacular engineering effort. Just as certain spiders could fly through the air by creating webs that caught the wind, these balloons were carrying a spider-shaped machine as large as a warship. It had gone unnoticed because of the swamp's thick canopy blocking out the view of the sky, until it had flown right over the village.

And it was on a direct course for the towering banyan-grove tree at the very center of the swamp.

Perhaps the Fire Nation was going to be more of a complication than he had been able to anticipate.

The cold grew within Mai, but it had nothing to do with the long bug-legs spearing her chest and suspending her above the floor. She was there, in that swamp, connected to the weird inventor and his crippled son and the Waterbenders (Waterbenders!) living amidst the ancient soggy trees, but she was also here in the Spirit World. Is this what it was like to be a creature such as Koh?
And where was Aang?

Were all those people about to be slaughtered?

"Yes," cooed Koh, "it's starting to get interesting now, isn't it?"

'Interesting' was one word for what was about to happen.

'War' was another.

Mai had missed the first one, not being alive for most of it and having it end before she was old enough to be married. Had the Fire Lord not already been making plans for the return of Sozin's Comet, perhaps her designation as a Weapon of the Fire Nation could have gotten her deployed in some capacity, but she'd lucked out there. For a certain definition of 'luck.'

And now it seemed that she would be missing the sequel, too. The armed forces of the Fire Nation were violently seizing control of a part of the Earth Kingdom, and anyone who stood in their way would die. Would Mai be standing in that way, if she was there? Aang would, as well as all her friends. Even Sokka. Mai would certainly stand to fight with and protect the people who she had traveled with, lived with, grown with- but strangers?

Perhaps not.

But she didn't see the world in terms of colors on a map. She had come to believe that the Fire Nation was corrupt because it had nearly killed Ty Lee, and set Zuko against Aang. She knew it would continue to damage the world because Iroh was now running it. And she wanted to fix the world to make it better for the people like Aang and Ty Lee and Sokka and Tom-Tom and too many others. She wanted to create the world that they believed in.

And, fortunately, someone else would be taking up that fight.

The coldness emanating from the glowing wounds in her chest intensified, pushing the coldness all the way up to the back of her throat. It was a coldness full of life, somehow, full of people she knew she could rely on. Full of connections that led her back to the swamp.

Connections to friends.

Friends who might be about to die.

Zuko never thought he'd see anything more intimidating than a monster made of all the ash of the ruins of Ba Sing Se. That creature had loomed so high that even the sky seemed small in comparison. In terms of sheer size, nothing could ever possibly beat it, and so surely there was nothing that could rival it in its terrifying impressiveness.

And yet he couldn't tear his eye away from the sight of the massive machine in the air above his head. It reminded him of a floating lantern, like the army would sometimes use for long distance signaling, but there was no candle heating the air. It hung in the sky in a way that just seemed unnatural. And this machine was merely as large as the Royal Fire Palace, but something about it flying made it scary in a whole new way.

"Were there a bunch of those things in the Fire Nation," King Toph asked after he described it, clutching his arm to keep steady on the deck of the boat they were sharing, "and no one ever mentioned them to me?"

"Nope." Zuko continued to stare up at it. "I've never seen anything like it before."

But his gaze was pulled away when Toph turned, not letting go of his arm, and aimed her sightless gaze in the general direction of the woman standing at the rear of their boat. "Matagi, you still there? I feel your breeze."

Sister Matagi, in the white and gold robes of her order of nuns, didn't pause the Airbending forms that were propelling their boat through the swamp. "I am, Your Majesty. I assume you would like me to investigate the flying machine?"

King Toph nodded. "Take a few of the other nuns, too. Hot Stuff here sounds pretty freaked out, so I'm betting that there's going to be some nasty surprises waiting up there for you. But first get us to where the rest of the Fire Nation force is. It sounds like my kind of business."

Matagi moved her body through a motion that almost could have been a fairly inefficient way to summon Fire, but it was a wind that stank of rotting swamp vegetation that sped the boat along. "Will you need our help with the fighting? My sisters and I aren't warriors, but we will assist in what ways we can."

Toph grinned and waved a dismissive hand. "Nah, it's just going to be a war. I've been waiting for this for a while. You go have your fun with the flying machine of death."

And with that, the boat ran aground on a slick muddy shore. Toph immediately let go of Zuko's arm and leaped down. Her feet were the first to touch down on the slop, but she wasn't alone for long. Other boats - some bigger, some smaller, some no more than a repurposed barn wall and others reliable vessels borrowed from the fishermen of the Earth Kingdom coasts, all propelled by an Airbender nun under the leadership of Mother Malu - emerged from the twisted waterways of the Foggy Swamp and beached themselves.

And each boat brought with it a portion of Earth King Toph's rebel army.

Zuko climbed down from his boat and made his way through the ranks of soldiers, warriors, and goons. He passed by Earthbenders with bare feet and escaped Southern Water Tribe slaves in waterproof boots. He caught sight of the swarm of Airbender nuns riding the winds with gliding sheets, moving towards the floating machine with the emblem of the Fire Nation on it.

It had been that flying machine that had tipped them all off to the activity here in the swamp. Zuko still didn't know exactly what his uncle had planned, but it had been clear to Toph that it was time for them to act. They'd made their way through the bogs to intercept the floating machine's path, and found that it had brought war with it.

A war, that if Zuko had his way, he wouldn't fight.

He made his way to a tall tree at the edge of the shore with a wooden walkway built into the trunk. He didn't go all the way up; just about halfway. That was enough to see the full battle that was underway.

This seemed to be one of the larger landmasses in the swamp, boasting a whole village near one of the shores, but there was still plenty of the room for the battle that was already raging.

Firebenders and other soldiers of the Fire Army were engaged with what seemed to be a local force consisting of men and women in clothes made out of leaves. Flames bloomed in the chaos, arrows arced up and down, and swords and spears were raised up violence as the invaders attacked without mercy. New kinds of boats - metal, with what seemed to be a giant motorized propeller on the back that served the same function as the Airbender nuns in Toph's makeshift fleet - raced up and down the waters next to the village, bringing more soldiers in red and black armor. There seemed to be no end to the invaders.

But, to Zuko's surprise, the locals were defending themselves with some success.

It turned out that they were Waterbenders.

And joining them were the Earthbenders of Toph's rebel movement, as well as warriors from all over the world- former slaves from the Southern Water Tribe, natives of the Earth Kingdom, defectors from the colonies or the Fire Nation itself. The new Airbenders were in the sky making their own contribution to the situation.

It was as if the whole world had united against Uncle Iroh and those who served him.

Zuko had pledged to merely witness, to not go into battle with the last of his family. His father had taken his eye, his mother had murdered his father in retaliation and then took her own life when her deceptions collapsed around her. Azula had gone catatonic, before disappearing without a trace. And then there was that dream he had about her-

Would he be able to keep his promise? Would Toph's forces be enough to save him from making himself the last of his family?

The wooden walkway shook in time with footsteps, and a man came down around the curve of the ramp to join Zuko near the railing. He was an older man, with dark wild hair that seemed to be missing in both natural and flame-singed patches. A bushy beard and mustache seemed to try to make up for rest of the hair, but any dignity it might have imparted was ruined by the patchwork nature of the man's clothes.

Nevertheless, it was with a cultured voice that the man said, "Ah, it seems that another army has arrived. I have to say, if I knew we'd be hosting a full battle, I would have devoted more of my efforts to defensive measures and less to Elemental Theory."

"Sorry," was all Zuko could think to say.

"Quite all right, young man. You weren't to know." The man scratched at his beard. "I'm called the Mech-anist. I take it you're with the side currently fighting the Fire Nation?"

"Close enough." Zuko closed his single eye. "The Fire Lord is endangering the world, and we're trying to stop him."

"Indeed? And what does the Fire Lord want with Foggy Swamp?"

Zuko opened his eye and shrugged. "That's what the Avatar was going to try to find out, but we haven't heard from him lately. This might all be because he failed."

"I see." The Mech-anist turned away from the view of the battle and pointed up to the strange machine floating onward. "Well, based on what I've observed, the objective is to bring that device over to the banyan-grove tree at the swamp's center. It's on a direct path."

Zuko squinted against the sun, and sure enough, a large dome of vegetation that could have been a tree rose up in the distance of the flyer's slow path. "Why?"

"Your guess is as good as mine." The Mech-anist clasped his hands behind his back. "After all, I've only dabbled in botany, so although I've been informed that the swamp is actually a giant, inter-connected plant organism with the tree as its central node, I haven't done much exploration of the practical possibilities. Additionally, I'm not a spiritualist, so despite Hue's claims that the tree and the swamp have a will and intelligence manifesting as supernatural phenomena, I haven't been able to design any conclusive tests to determine the truth of the matter. Yes, I expect you know as much about it as I do."

Zuko's stomach flipped. A Spirit Swamp of unknown scale and power? What are you doing, Uncle?

He turned to the Mech-anist. "Can you take me to this tree?"

And where was the Avatar when they needed him?


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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I'm Loooooooopy!

« Reply #316 on: Nov 01, 2019 06:21 pm »

Time is an Illusion

Aang looked up at the setting sun and could feel that, somewhere, he was desperately needed.

But also knew that he was too late.

It was a feeling that reached past the soothing nature of the paradise around him, the river and lush grass banks and the rising mountains in the distance and the pale rocks that glowed golden in the sunset. Even though he'd spent the day just sitting on Appa's head with reins in hand, he felt as exhausted his buddy must be after flying south all night and day again. Aang couldn't even do more than nod as Sokka organized sleeping shifts so that someone would always be awake to prod everyone else as soon as Appa was rested enough to get going again. When Momo crawled up Aang's robes and motioned for a feeding, Aang just passed on his bag of dried fruit and didn't even make the lemur play some games for it.

It was like he had never fully returned from the Spirit World, back at the North Pole.

Just like Mai, still trapped there.

And the swamp where Fire Lord Iroh might already be ruining the whole world was still a day's flight away.

Aang had to assume that Iroh, with his flying machine, was outpacing a sky bison. Appa was a good friend and the best flyer around, but this last year had been hard on the big guy. He'd been shot with lightening back in the spring by Princess Azula, and never really recovered his old speed and endurance. Over the last few days, he'd been forced to fly all the way down from the North Pole as fast as he could go. Appa had been slowing up more and more, and even if they arrived at Foggy Swamp tomorrow, he probably wouldn't be able to help with any fighting.

And they hadn't encountered Iroh on their journey south. That didn't definitely mean he was ahead of them; he could have just been on a different path. But Aang knew, in his heart of hearts, that the Fire Lord was approaching the swamp. Something in his spirit could feel the danger.

If Aang couldn't catch up with Iroh, he wouldn't be able to save anyone. There was no telling what would happen to the world if Iroh tried his weird plan to harness a spiritual nexus (an unfortunate part of Aang hoped that Iroh would learn a lesson about sticking his hand into a fire, at the very least), and Aang would definitely miss his best chance to retrieve Mai from the Spirit World.

He sighed and sat down on the riverbank near where Appa was settling in to sleep. Ty Lee already had a campfire going, and Sokka and Katara were working on yet another quick dinner of jerky-seaweed stew. Momo was probably off hunting bugs somewhere.

And the Avatar had nothing to do but think about how he was late for saving the world again.

He had already been one-hundred-and-one years too late to keep the Fire Nation from destroying the world's balance. The oppressed nations, the spiritual disturbances, the ashlands- all of it was the result of Aang's first big failure. Now, he had a chance to keep things from getting worse, a chance to at least save the girl he loved from a fate worse than death, and again he couldn't manage to be where needed to be when he needed to be there.

Maybe he should take his glider and just go on alone, all through the night. It would be slower than Appa, and he'd have to sustain his speed with his Airbending the whole time, but maybe by setting out now he'd be able to shave an hour or so off the trip. He might be exhausted when he arrived, but- but maybe he'd get there ahead by a few minutes.

And those minutes might count!

Seconds could count.

By resting for the coming fight, was he betraying his duty?

He was so distracted by his worries that he almost missed the body floating face down in the river, moving with the current.

When he saw it, he screamed.

The body twitched and suddenly sank into the water. By the time his friends ran over, everything was perfectly normal again.

Sokka held his boomerang in one hand and a knife in the other. "What? What's going on? Did Momo hack up a hairball again?"

That's when the mud of the riverbank rose up in the shape of a man- the same shape as the body that had been in the river.

Aang pointed. "That's what's wrong."

Ty Lee nodded. "That's worth screaming over." Then she screamed, too, startling Katara.

The man made of mud opened his eyes. They were green and lopsided, one wide and staring, the other narrow and calculating. "What's with all the noise? Can't a geezer take an epic journey face-down in a river without people screaming at him? No one has any sense of decorum anymore." Then he cackled and finished it up with a wet snort.

Ty Lee screamed again.

Aang wished he could join her. This looked weird, and he was getting tired of that kind of thing.

It turned out that traversing a swamp without a boat was harder than it looked. The ground would often turn out not to be ground at all, which Zuko considered to be more than a little dishonorable.

He jogged along what was either a massive low-hanging tree branch or a huge up-reaching tree root, right behind the so-called Mechanist of the (well-named) Foggy Swamp. "How much further is this banyan-grove tree?" He couldn't see very far ahead in the fog and gloom, with the forest canopy completely blocking out the sky.

He also couldn't see where Uncle Iroh's floating spider-machine might be. It could have reached the big tree already, or he might have overtaken it without noticing. He couldn't even tell how long he'd been traveling, but it had to have at least been an hour.

It was hard to fight without an enemy in sight.

"We don't measure travel by distance, here in the swamp. We use time." The Mechanist gingerly stepped off the branch-root-thing and onto a patch of wet grass that rose up from the water. "And the time will depend on when we meet Huu. Without him, it might be another few hours of travel."

Zuko followed, and held back a grimace at the muddy squelch his boots made as they sank into the ground.

He wondered how King Toph and her rebels were doing against the Fire Army. Had they won, and Zuko was doing this for nothing? Or could they already be defeated, and Zuko was the only left to oppose his uncle?

Did he oppose Uncle Iroh? He still didn't know what the man was planning, or what exactly a giant mechanical spider was supposed to do here in a swampy spirit nexus.

The flying bugs that had been flitting around Zuko's head through this whole journey must have taken his pause as a sign of weakness, as they started swooping in at his face. He shut his good eye and swatted at them, feeling some disturbingly large impacts. Hopefully that would chase the disgusting things away. He opened his eye again, ready to continue his journey into this heart of gloom-

-and stepped back when he found a lumbering green monster of sinew and shadow rising up from the swamp-water to glare at him with a dead face-

"Ah, Huu," the Mechanist said. "I'm so glad we found you!"

Huu?! The Mechanist's sage friend was a monster? Or was it a spirit, a non-corporeal form given to the life-force of the swamp itself? Zuko prepared to bow in supplication.

And then the sinews parted like the vines that hung from the trees here, and Zuko realized that they were vines. From the shadows within the monster's body, a portly man stepped out onto the grass wearing nothing but shortpants made of leaves. He scratched at his beard as he looked at the Mechanist, and then Zuko. "This wouldn't have anything to do with the big machine thing flying towards the banyon-grove tree," he drawled, "would it?"

Okay. Unexpected, but Zuko could work with this. "We need to get there! My Uncle- the Fire Lord- the Fire Nation is invading the swamp! I don't know what they're planning with the tree, but I need to find out."

Huu nodded. "So you would be Prince Zuko, then."

Zuko's jaw dropped. "You've heard of me?"

"No, I met you, the other day. You looked older, but there aren't many one-eyed men with that pouty regal look." Huu shifted into a Waterbending stance, and the vines that made up his monster 'costume' flowed into something like a platform. "Hop on. I can get you to the tree faster than that flying machine."

Zuko was too confused to move until the Mechanist gave a little hop to land on the vine-vehicle, and then he followed quickly while still trying to figure out where he could have met Huu before. Certainly, the man seemed- memorable.

Huu leaned forward and waved his arms out like he was swimming through the air, and the vines beneath them pulsed and surged through the water as though pushed. The platform remained stable, and Zuko realized what the Mechanist meant about Huu being able to quicken their traveling pace.

But how could he have met this swampy Waterbender before?

Zuko shook his head. "I give up. Where could we have met? I only just got to the swamp a few days ago, and I was with Toph's people the whole time."

Huu chuckled. "Oh, we didn't meet physically. Not at that point in time, anyway. The swamp is a network of connections, branches and roots intertwining and becoming one over time. It's all one big living organism. And so's the rest of the world, if you think about. You're Fire Nation, and I live in this swamp, and your friends and allies come from all over, but we're still all connected. Even when we haven't met yet, we're connected through the time when we will meet."

Oh, great. This guy was a mystic. Zuko never knew what those people were talking about. "That's- um, nice. But how did you know who I am?"

"Well, in most places, those connections are as easy to see as friendship and family, love or hate, feelings and thoughts." Huu continued his Waterbending forms as he spoke, carrying them through the swamp as quick as a dream. "It's invisible to the eyes, even if it's something we feel."

The Mechanist raised a finger. "Theoretical connections, then."

"Sure. But here in the swamp- it's a special place. Lots o' life here, free to grow and find its own balance without worrying about thinkin'. And so sometimes folk see those connections. Visions of people we've lost, people we loved, folks we think are gone."

Zuko blinked. "You're saying you had a vision of the future? Of me?"

Huu grinned. "Time is an illusion, and so is separation."

Zuko wasn't sure he actually believed this. But Uncle wanted something here in this swamp. Perhaps he wanted to affect the past in some way? Was that even possible?

Zuko sighed. "This sounds like Avatar stuff." He was starting to hate Avatar stuff.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #317 on: Nov 01, 2019 06:22 pm »

Toph wasn't sure what she hated more- war, or this soggy fuzzy swamp.

She'd long thought that her grand uprising, the day when her forces would finally fight back against the Fire Nation for the first time since the return of Sozin's Comet, would be quick and bloody and effective. She'd imagined lightning strikes that would break Fire Nation supply lines, hardened populaces that would suddenly revolt with secretly acquired weapons, captured tanks that would infiltrate the enemy lines and take out commanders before anyone knew what was going on. All of it would be firmly unfair in the Earth Kingdom's favor, because only chumps fought fair. It wouldn't so much be a war as a country-wide string of assassinations.

But this wasn't that.

Toph pressed her feet deeper into the muddy, sloppy, moldy ground of this patch of the swamp and extended her senses through her Earthbending, trying to sense the movement she could hear around her. There were screams and shouts, boots splashing through water and bare feet slapping on mud, the roaring of Firebending and the swooshing of Waterbending. Trees creaked as they were brought down and engine-driven machines thrummed like massive metal insects. Through it all, the swamp beneath Toph's feet reverberated with activity, but it was distributed and indistinct, not the sharp telltale shapes that she was used to. Her usual level of Earthbending precision was impossible, in this water-logged pit of despair.

She was lost in a storm of war.

From somewhere near her, Bato of the Southern Water Tribe called out, "The Swampbender village is burning down!"

Toph decided to be the leader the situation demanded. "So get the Swampbenders to put out the fires, smart guy," she called back. "They're Waterbenders! Hello!"

"And there aren't any of them near us right now," Bato growled back. "They're helping our people spread out through the swamp. We need to get their women and children to safety for them! They trusted us!"

Well, how was Toph supposed to know that the Swampbenders were all away? She hadn't given any orders like that. She'd been busy at the time getting Mother Malu's report on the Big Flying Thing. Probably. There was a lot of stuff going on in this war, and Toph had been forced to delegate a bit.

She was going to have to get used to that if she was going to rule the largest landmass in the entire world.

"Fine. Bato, gather up your distant kinfolk or whatever. Anyone here have eyes that work and isn't busy defending us from evil Firebenders?" Toph put her hands on her hips and stood tall, projecting as much kinglyness as she could.

"Um," came a young voice, "I'm a runner but don't have any messages to pass on right now. My name is Ohev-"

"Great, Olive," Toph cut the kid off. She didn't have time for introductions. "Which way is our best bet to get the non-combatants to safety?"

"Um, that way will get everyone out behind our better defensive lines, but the bridge is on fire and without it we'll all get stuck in the mud-"

"Mud? No problem." Toph stretched her limbs. "Now, which way is the 'that way' you mentioned? I can't sense pointing arms in this slog."

The kid Olive (or whatever) grabbed Toph by the shoulders and turned her in the right direction. By the time they worked out where the bridge and the mud were, a steady thrum of reverberations signaled Bato's arrival with the evacuees. She was able to make out voices of higher pitch, shouting words like "Help" and "Please" and "Our homes are on fire oh no oh no oh no."

These must be the women and children stories always went on about protecting. Toph wasn't sure why these women and children couldn't fight, but whatever. Maybe none of them were Benders.

Toph went out in front of the group, coasting along on a wave of mud with the runner-kid hanging onto her.

"There," he barked. "We're at the bridge! It's almost completely burned! It'll never hold!"

Toph nodded. She didn't actually care about whether anyone could cross the bridge. She just needed its shape. She was going to make her own.

She brought her personal mudslide to a stop, pushed Olive (or whatever) off of her waist, and sank into a low horse stance. She shoved both of her fists towards the ground, taking control of the soupy mud beneath the bridge. It was heavier than she was used to, but she knew that wasn't because of any real weight. It was the water that was mixed with the dirt, the same thing that was keeping her from fully sensing her surroundings. As she raised her arms, holding on to her spiritual grip on the Earth within the mud, that water tried to resist her, tried to pull everything back where it was supposed to be according to gravity.

Toph ignored that water. It could come along for the ride if it wanted, but she wasn't going to stay here hanging out with it. And gravity could get stuffed. Because even if she couldn't be precise here, she was still powerful.

And so the mud rose to cover the bridge, a geyser that put the fires out and covered all the paths and supports. Some of it broke under the weight of the mud, but that was fine. She rose from her horse stance and brought her arms in towards her body, tensing her muscles and letting out all the breath in her lungs. The mud didn't move, but it started to compact, the Earth pressing together to tighten and harden and force out all the water within. As the mud solidified into dirt and stone, the coating all over the bridge became the bridge. The burned wood was now simply the inner core of a solid Earthbending bridge.

"Let's go," Toph called back to her evacuees.

She held her position as Bato led them all past her, adding her strength to the bridge. She hadn't had the time to make a really reliable structure, so better safe than sorry. She could feel the vague reverberations through the soggy ground, amidst explosions and the cries of people burning to death in the distance and clangs of metal, and wished for everyone to hurry up. She was absolutely positive that she could hold everything up long enough, but who knew when the lines of battle would change and Firebenders would be all up in her business? That would be annoying.

Amazingly, it wasn't Firebenders who eventually got her.

"The last two are on the bridge," the runner-kid said from somewhere on her left. "Two ladies who are- uh, with child. They're a little slow."

"Yeah, yeah, give them my congratulations." Toph clenched her jaw as she shifted her position to ease the strain on her muscles. The bridge wouldn't need as much strength if there were only two people crossing it now.

And then she felt the ground move in a way that it shouldn't, a way that didn't match this type of landscape at all, a way that had human intelligence behind it.

An Earthbender.

Hey, reinforcements. Nice.

Then a good-size chunk of hardened clay slammed into her stomach.

Toph's breath burst out of her and she folded up around the projectile, but she didn't fall. Instead, she told the pain in her middle to go take a hike, and focused on keeping upright. She sank her fingers into the clay boulder, and went into a low stance that let her take on its full weight.

Then threw the thing back with all her Earthbending strength.

Amazingly, she didn't hear anyone give a surprised death-cry. "Did I hit him? What's going on?"

"The pregnant ladies," Ohev gasped. "The bridge is coming apart!"

Great. Toph swung and reached out to the mud again, telling it that no, now was not a good time to lie down. Suck it up and stay solid, you good-for-nothing ex-mud!

"Get them across," Toph bit out, "even if you need to carry them!"

She heard Ohev's running more than felt it, on this soggy ground. At least the kid knew how to take orders. The problem was that she couldn't be sure that he knew how to complete orders. How long would it take him to get a pair of mothers-to-be across her mud bridge? How long would she have to hold it up?

As she wondered, she felt the ground shift again like it did before, and she tensed for another battering.

Then the ground beneath her opened up, leaving her freefalling, and when she reached out to pull the dirt walls to come to her aid-

-the Earth resisted her.

Because she was fighting another Earthbender, and he wasn't distracted by having to save anyone.

She slammed to the ground with a suddenness that drove fear into her heart, because the impact was both unexpected and not hard enough to let her sense her opponent. She was at a major disadvantage, simply because she was her, and that hurt more than any injury.

And then the mud fell in around her, trying to bury her, or maybe drown her, and when she pushed at it, it pushed back. She put all her strength into it, sure that she was the most powerful Earthbender in the world, and in a pushing match she had to be able to beat anyone. Right?

But the mud pushed in from behind her as well, and the sides, and she was surrounded by enemy Earthbenders. What-

But she didn't stop pushing. Even when it flowed down over her head and buried her.

All her sense went as dark as her sight.

But then the mud became lighter, moving more easily according to her will. She kept up her pushing, creating a bubble of dirt filled with water, and she felt the water moving away from her, too. Either she'd somehow just become the Avatar, or some help had arrived.

The water surged upward, punching a hole in the makeshift tomb that had been constructed around her, letting in a flow of air. Along with it came the impact of a heavy pair of boots that even she could sense, and strong arms scooped her up. In that grip, she could recognize the heartbeat of her helper, and relaxed as Bato of the Southern Water Tribe leaped up out of the hole and ran with her over her bridge. As they passed across the hardened mud, she focused on her Earthbending, and sensed the vibration of two Swampbenders running alongside Bato.

A whole rescue team just for her.

Toph deigned to let Bato carry her royal person. "Thanks. What was that all about?"

"I don't know." She could hear the stress in his voice. "The Fire Nation just got reinforcements. Warriors in robes of blue and white, and not in any style that belongs to the Water Tribes. Earthbenders and Waterbenders and plenty of Firebenders, not to mention how good some of them are with weapons. Anyone you know?"

Toph didn't say anything. Better for a King to remain silent than admit complete ignorance.

Aang wasn't sure what to do when the mud-covered weird guy slopped over to their campsite and began poking around. Air Nomads believed in friendliness and hospitality, but this was really, really creepy.

Sokka leaned over and whispered, "Should I attack him?"

Katara slapped Sokka's shoulder. "He's a confused old man. We aren't attacking him."

Aang nodded. "Katara's right. We should probably help him. I think? And- uh, Ty Lee should be the one to do it."

But Ty Lee took a step backwards and raised her hands. "Nope, not me, not doing it!"

Katara came over and put an arm around Ty Lee's shoulders. "Come on, he can't be that dangerous. Not to someone like you. And you're so good at charming people."

"Pffff!" Ty Lee leaned her head against Katara's. "His aura is silver, Katara, and normally I'd be asking him to show me the path to enlightenment, but he also has these flashes of dark reds and black! I'm not going near that mix. None of us should."

Sokka raised his boomerang. "So, we attack? Normally, I'd be against listening to aura-based advice, but I like the idea of attacking the inconvenient weirdo."

Aang sighed. "I'll go talk to him." He went over to the camp, where the mud-covered man was having what looked like a staring contest with Momo. "Um, hi! I'm Aang. Um, the Avatar. Do you need help- or-"

The weird guy swung to stare into Aang's eyes from a very uncomfortably close angle. "I don't need help. Keep it straight, sonny! I'm the Mud Man, and I'm the wise-but-slightly-disturbed-mentor figure who sometimes loses students in ashlands and tells Grand Lotuses to go jump off a cliff. You're the young chosen one in need of help."

"Right." Aang backed away using only the power of his toes. "Good to know."

Reinforcements arrived in the form of Katara, who held up her hands and stepped in front of Aang. "Do you at least need help cleaning yourself off, sir? The river is right-"

"Clean my mud off?! What are you children trying to do, kill me?!" The- uh, 'Mud Man' sat down on the ground next to Momo, who took that opportunity to scamper off like Sokka had stepped on his tail (again). "I might as well cut my own ears off and serve them in dumplings! Ear-dumplings, chewy and waxy and full of flavor! No, I need my mud. Otherwise, I won't be able to get updates from The Tree, and we're just getting to the good part of the story!"

Katara looked back at Aang, her wide eyes delivering a stirring recitation on the critical need for compassion in elder-care but also an admission that she was starting to get a little freaked out.

Aang put on a polite smile and stepped forward again. "Okay, we'll leave your mud. We- uh, wouldn't want The Tree to get lonely, right?"

The Mud Man snorted. "Oh, it won't be lonely. Prince Zuko is already on his way, and the big metal spider is about to bring a real party. No, I just want to know who's going to win. It's the best story I've heard since the one about the princess who was someone else who didn't exist."

Aang realized that his jaw had dropped. Zuko? The platinum spider?! And did that mean that 'The Tree' was the one at the center of the swamp that Sokka said Iroh was targeting? How did-

The Mud Man gave a grin that was only partially insane. "Everything is connected, Avatar. I would have expected you to know that. Whether it's through mud or friendship or even time itself." All of the sudden, he was standing again, pushing past Katara to get right into Aang's face. "And you, young man, are going to be late!"

"I-" Aang looked at Katara, but she just shook her head at him, clearly as overwhelmed as he was. He looked to Sokka, who just raised his boomerang again in a useless suggestion. (Why had they even let him keep that thing?) And Ty Lee was cowering behind Sokka.

Ty Lee had said that the Mud Man's aura was silver, that he was on the path to enlightenment.

And he knew about Zuko, the platinum spider, and that Aang wouldn't get to the swamp in time.

Was this a trick?


Aang bowed his head. "I'm sorry. We've been going as fast as we can, but things kind of got away from us."

The Mud Man slowly leaned backwards until he toppled to the ground, but he transformed the moment of impact into a roll that left him sitting in front of the campfire. "Yes, I know how that can be. A century can go by, in the blink of a rooster-pig's eye, and then all we can do is die. Also: fly, pie, sigh, and why! Heh, I love rhyming." He snorted. "Well, you might be sorry, but you're still late. The only way you could possibly do your job properly, Avatar, is if you reached back through the past to harvest the goodness you've seeded across the world."

Wha- Aang shook his head. "Okay, well, I'm also interested in knowing more about The Tree, so if you could explain about that-"

"Oh, very well, I'll teach you how to reach beyond the veil of time with your Avatar powers." The Mud Man blinked. "Wait, that wasn't what you were going to ask, was it? Oh, phooey, I messed this up. Let me go back into the river and we can try this again. I knew I should have just floated along until I reached Foggy Swamp!" He got up and began skipping (and oozing) his way towards the river.

Aang reached out to him with a hand. Was it possible that the Mud Man actually knew what he was talking about? And something about him was so familiar, too.

Sokka grabbed Aang by the wrist before he could reach the Mud Man. "You're not actually taking this nutjob seriously, are you? Offering strange new powers that defy the laws of science is how they get you! Everyone knows that!"

Aang was about to object, because more and more he was getting a feeling about the Mud Man, but then he realized that the pop-eyed, mud-covered visage of the man himself was leaning right into the space between him and Sokka.

Both boys shrieked and jumped back.

The Mud Man cackled. "Well, you convinced me! I'll teach you the secrets of Timebending!" His laughter abruptly cut off and he sidled over to Katara, stage-whispering to her, "Actually, I was going to do it, anyway. I'm kind of on your side already, and the mud knew you'd be stopping by here. But don't tell anyone I said that! I have a reputation to maintain."

The Mud Man hopped back over to the campfire and raised his arms dramatically. "Now I shall reveal secrets that have been remembered only by the mountains themselves, secrets lost since before the first Avatar rose up to cleave the world!" He slumped and pointed an arm off to the side. "And to do it I'm going to need that thing."

Aang looked.

The Mud Man was pointing at Momo.

Momo's ears flattened as he tilted his head.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #318 on: Nov 01, 2019 06:24 pm »

Zuko had to admit, it was the biggest tree he'd ever seen. Its trunk might have filled the whole Royal Caldera.

Too bad he was seeing such immensity by the light of the fires of warfare.

After a long stretch of travel that had been even smoother than a carriage ride, Huu the Swampbender's walking platform of vines rose upward in a burst that took them straight into the canopy. Leaves and branches slapped at Zuko, but before he could so much as hiss in discomfort, they were clear of the foliage and the fog and the bugs, rising in the light of the moon and the stars.

What had to be the banyan-grove tree rose up in front of him, blocking out so much of the sky-

-and above it, the flying mechanical spider obscured the rest.

And it looked like a spider, now. The sides had extended and opened to dangle above the tree, the tips coming to sharpened points that looked like needles from this distance but had to be as wide as a rhino even near the end. Flames glowed beneath the balloons that kept the thing aloft, and plumes of fire shot out randomly for reasons Zuko couldn't discern. Could the machinery be malfunctioning?

No, wait.

There were shadows flitting around the balloons and the spider.

The flames were from Firebenders keeping attackers away.

As Zuko watched, several the shadows drew fire and moved towards the south. He immediately looked to north, and sure enough, another shadow was moving against the backdrop of the cosmos above. It seemed to contract in shape for a moment, then expanded into something like the shape of a bird.

No, not a bird.

Zuko squinted his good eye.

The balloons moved and contracted on the north side as if battered by something, and the whole spider drifted as the leaves of the trees below fluttered in the same direction.


The Airbender nuns were attacking the spider.

The spider continued to drift so that it was no longer directly over the trunk of the tree. In the light of its torches, Zuko saw massive fans turn and push the whole thing on a curve that would eventually take it back to its original position.

Next to Zuko, the Mechanist said, "Ahhhh! The placement needs to be precise! And if it isn't in the right position, it can't land! Perhaps there's a balance issue? Although I still can't fathom the purpose behind all of this."

Huu grunted. "All I know is that I have to protect the tree. Join in or not, but I need to-"

"Take me up there," Zuko interrupted. He pointed to the mechanical spider dangling from the balloons. "I have to know what's going on. And it might be the only way to stop all this without anyone getting hurt."

Huu looked at him, expression not giving anything away, and then nodded. "What about you, Mech-anist? You sticking around?"

"Ah, perhaps my expertise can be of use, and of course I want to help defend my home. Also, my lack of skill in personal defense leaves me requiring your assistance, if you would be so kind, in protecting my-"

And that's when Huu sank into a low stance, raised his arms, and pushed towards the sky.

The vines beneath them tightened and rose-

-no, jumped-

-and it was all Zuko could do to keep his balance as the legs of the platform swung up to become tentacle-like arms that grasped the branches of the banyan-grove tree and began climbing its way into the night.

As they passed into the thick canopy of the tree, thicker even than that of the whole swamp around it, they were covered in darkness deeper than the night itself. Zuko thought about raising a flame, but decided against it. He didn't need to see right now, and didn't want to distract Huu.

Soon enough, they burst through the top layer of branches and back into the light of the stars and the moon and the flames. Zuko could see the Airbender nuns clearly now, their white and gold robes glowing a bit in the moonlight, but they became blurs as the vine-crawler began grappling its way up one of the legs of the spider. Huu was moving his arms in time with the vine-tentacles, and despite his pudgy build, he didn't seem at all winded by the activity.

Then they were pulled up over a railing onto something like the deck of a navy ship, the central body of the spider-form. Before Huu settled, Zuko leaped forward, kicking flames in one direction even as he punched a fireball in the other, knocking two nearby soldiers off their feet. He landed between the pair of groaning bodies in a crouch, quickly orienting himself. He recognized something, a short distance away, like a command tower from a battleship. That seemed like the best start. He moved forward, Huu and the Mechanist following him.

A shadow passed in front of Zuko-

-faster than he could react-

-something hard jabbed into one shoulder-

-then the other-

-pain exploded where he was struck-

-traveling up and down his arms-

-and then they both flopped down to hang useless at his sides. He tried to raise his arms again, but they didn't respond. There was only a cold tingling and lingering achiness.



He tried to will some life back into his arms, to channel his Inner Fire into heat and light and fight, but they wouldn't obey. He heard Huu grunting in pain and turned to help - somehow - but the shadow moved away again and Huu sagged to the ground bonelessly.

There were only two people he knew who could do such a thing. Ty Lee was one, and she was supposed to be with Aang. The other-

"Prince Zuko?!"

Zuko turned as the shadow finally stood still, and his eye was able to resolve the figure's features in the moonlight.

Bangfei, former Weapon of the Fire Nation, stood in a fighting stance. He was, oddly enough, wearing robes of blue and white, with a mantle on his shoulders decorated like a White Lotus tile.

Zuko didn't recognize the uniform, but knew that anything having to do with Pai Sho must belong to Uncle. "What's going on here? What is this machine?"

"Something wonderful!" Bangfei actually smiled as he folded his hands together. "The Fire Lord has found a way to set the world right! No more death, no more imbalance. This machine will allow him to touch the flow of energy throughout the entire world and fix it."

It was what every decent person could ever want to hear. Zuko distrusted it immediately. "Then why fight a war for it?"

"Not everyone is enlightened enough to accept the Fire Lord's word. The locals would oppose anyone who sought to exploit their swamp, and the Earth rebels are mired in the Avatar's misunderstandings." Bangfei shook his head and sighed. "I hate that more people have to suffer, but this time it's for a reason! A war to really end all wars!"

Zuko snorted, even as he tried to will some life back into his hands. If he could just keep this idiot talking- "What makes this one so different? My grandfather said the Hundred Year War would do the same thing. It's why I went to Ba Sing Se with my father." And something made him add, "My eye wasn't the only thing I lost there, but it took me a long time to realize it."

"Because," Bangfei replied, his own pair of eyes shining in the starlight, "people will never want to stop fighting. They'll always be flawed, disgusting warmongers. Death is a part of them- of us. To change, we need to take it away."

Zuko shook his head and opened his mouth as if to disagree- and leaped up and kicked out and summoned his fire-

Bangfei ducked under the flame, under the kick, and jabbed a pair of fingers into Zuko's extended leg right under the knee.

When Zuko landed, his leg gave out under him, sending him crashing to the deck.

Bangfei loomed over him. "We have no prison onboard, but I'm sure your uncle would want you to live. We'll have to find a way to keep you out of harm's way."

And then he jabbed Zuko in the neck, taking away the light of the moon and the stars and the flames of war.

Mai wore many faces, as she observed the physical world through Koh's power. She had no control over who she became and no access to anyone's thoughts but her own. She didn't even know if Koh was controlling all of that or if it was simply the nature of this power.

She also didn't like how her spirit-self was hanging, speared through the chest, from Koh's insectile legs in the center of the creature's domain.

All in all, it was almost as bad as one of Mother's dinner parties.

"Aang is trying to get there," she managed to gasp in between spying sessions. It was disorienting, having her existence brush up against the life-energy of other people so directly, connecting with them and sharing their lives for a few minutes here and there. Sometimes, she came back to this cave and had forgotten who she really was for a moment or two. But her face was trained not to move without her permission, so she was safe enough from Koh. "You can't punish him for trying."

"Can't I?" Koh's legs lifted, raising Mai's skewered form further up into the gloom of this cave-like pit. She was tilted until she was splayed out horizontally, limbs hanging lifelessly. Without her knives, she didn't have much use for them right now.

Koh was looking straight down on her with the face of a chubby-cheeked child peeking out from the bug-flesh and glistening plates, though whether a boy or a girl was impossible to tell.

"You said you only punish traitors, including traitors to their duty." Mai licked her lips (whatever the point was here in the Spirit World) and kept all pain and disgust from her voice. "If you count failure as betrayal, then you're no cosmic force. You're just a thug with a flimsy excuse and a grudge against the world."

Koh loomed over her, the child's face going blank, the eyes going glassy. It could have been the face of a porcelain doll, if not for the soft skin and the tears that glistened on the delicate eyelashes.

Then Koh laughed, a grating sound that echoed painfully off the cavern walls. Mai swallowed a wince.

Koh twisted so that the face pressed against hers, cheek-to-cheek. The skin was cold. "It's the way you fight me that makes you truly delicious. So many try to oppose me physically, but I cannot be destroyed, not without destroying all the spirits I've removed from the reincarnation cycle. Others fight me with their passion for the ones I've taken from them, and I'm sure you can imagine how far that gets them. But you-"

Koh's voice lowered to a whisper. "You fight with your heart, a sharp little loathing for all that I am, and yet you give me nothing with which to fight back. It's beautiful, in a certain way."

"I bet you really do think that's flattery." Mai blinked up at him. "So which one was Kuruk? Physical fight or passion?"

The child's face smiled. "I doubt you'll be surprised to hear that he was both. The Avatar contains multitudes, after all. I defeated him so completely that I even felt sorry for the man, offering him a boon of recompense. Sadly, he never collected; I have always wondered what he would have asked for, once he emerged from his grief."

"Is that why you focus on Aang? And me? To see if you can play the same game again?"

"Oh, don't worry, my interest genuinely comes from finding you interesting. Avatar Aang, on the other hand, is merely business. You've seen how I observe the world, but not the paths I can map into the future. We spirits are talented, that way." Koh pulled back, and began lowering her down again so that the tips of her boots didn't quite reach the floor. "No, this boy who loves you has a choice coming up. And in making it, he might give me the chance to add some rather delightful faces to my collection. Everything else is- well, how I have my fun."


It was the same kind of fun that Azula used to like, the fun that came from all the extra little tortures she could add to an already draining life. And, to be honest, Mai had kind of enjoyed that thing, too, for a long time.

That was what happened when there were no other real joys to be found. Or no way to find the joys that might be there.

But that didn't meant Mai felt sorry for this creepy bug. She was still going to stab it the first chance she got.

The faces in the real world descended on her spirit once more, familiar faces whose voices rang in her heart like the lullabies of her earliest days.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #319 on: Nov 01, 2019 06:26 pm »

Aang sat in a lotus position across from the Mud Man, the only light coming from the campfire nearby. He tried to relax, breathing in and out and seeking the part of the world - the part of himself - that existed beyond the physical.

It was kind of hard with the Mud Man noisily chewing on something pulled out of the river- and with Sokka, Katara, and Ty Lee sitting off the side and staring at Aang protectively.

The Mud Man slurped up the last of his- uh, 'meal' and belched. "Well, have you made Time your plaything yet? It's just a matter of acknowledging that Now doesn't really exist and finding the extra dimensions of our connections that can't be put into nice visual metaphors because our minds can only process three dimensions. Simple stuff! Also, don't forget to use your lemur; that part is verrrrrrrrrry important."

In Aang's lap, Momo looked up and trilled.

Aang breathed in and out again. "I'm trying. I can sense my connections to my friends, and even the paths to the people I've met during my travels. But- um, I'm not sure what you mean by extra dimensions?"

"Really? I thought it was as plain as the mud on my handsome misshapen face." The Mud Man scratched what was presumably a little beard and not, for example, a mud-covered prawn hanging from his chin. "Maybe you need to ask The Tree for help. I've never actually moved outside of time before, so I might not be describing it right."

Aang looked over to his friends. Sokka shook his head, Katara nodded her head, and Ty Lee waved.

Aang didn't find that helpful at all. "Um, aren't I trying to get to The Tree? It's not here, soooo- not sure how I can ask. Sorry."

The Mud Man blinked.

The Mud Man blinked again.

The Mud Man sniffled.

Then the Mud Man slapped his own forehead, splattering mud as far as the campfire. "I knew I forgot something! Now, where did I put it?" He stood up, turned in a slow circle, scooted through the campsite poking things, climbing up on a sleeping Appa to get mud all over the inside of the saddle, and then hopping down to stand in front of Aang again in his original position.

As Aang was about to ask what the guy was looking for, the Mud Man stomped a foot on the ground and something popped up out of the dirt right between them. It was-

-a leafy twig stuck to stand in a clay pot full of dirt?

Aang could only stare at it in confusion.

It was Katara who finally said, "Maybe I'm misunderstanding something, but that's not a tree."

"No, but it was," the Mud Man hissed, "and someday it will be again. I snapped that off the tree at the center of the Foggy Swamp so that you could talk to it. The Tree knows all about ignoring time. Or you could just stick the twig in your ear and listen to its echoing whispers, but then you'd look silly."

So instead of looking silly, Aang gave a helpless shrug at his friends (who all averted their gazes), and addressed the twig in the pot with, "Um, hello, can you help me?"

"No," barked the Mud Man, "no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no NO!!" He picked up the twig-in-a-pot, shoved it into Aang's lap right next to Momo (who startled and tried to escape but the Mud Man caught him and put him right back where he started), and snorted. "It's a plant, Avatar. It doesn't really talk. Well, so much for not looking silly. I guess the gloves are off, now! Here it comes! The whole and terrifying truth!"

Aang tensed, ready to dodge an attack-

The Mud Man crouched in front of him and sighed. "It's all about connections, Aang. Everything is connected, whether or not we realize it." His voice was soft, now, lacking its previous force. "You and I share a connection that you don't have time to figure out. You and Momo have another that's deeper than you guess. And you and The Tree will join together, soon. You already have a connection to it, in the future, and so you have the same thing with what was once part of it. It's not a matter of looking or sensing, like you've already been taught to do. Take the twig in your hands, and use the connection that's already there, whether or not you can feel it."


That almost made sense. Aang put one hand on the twig, and gave Momo some soothing rubs with the other. He closed his eyes, focusing on the feel of the twig's bark against his skin, the way the leaves tickled him between his fingers, and the moisture within that imparted life and kept the twig from drying out into nothing more than firewood.

As Aang concentrated on the twig, breathing in and out, the Mud Man whispered, "Connections aren't even real, to tell the truth. They're just a little lie we tell ourselves so that we can acknowledge the One but pretend we're still separate individuals. There really isn't a Self at all, not like we think about it. We're all One, just a One that expresses itself in lots and lots of different ways at the same time. And not even as the same time, because there is no time. Those who know how to look past the Self have had visions of the future, and Avatars talk with the past regularly."

"So you're saying," Aang whispered back, as he basked in the light of the spirit that was shining out the twig in a place beyond vision, "that if we're One, we've always been one."

"That's what reincarnation is all about." The Mud Man gave a chuckle. "Just ask Momo."

And Aang did.

But he didn't talk directly to Momo. He let himself fall into the infinite depths of the twig in his hand, riding the light within across an eternity to a tree in a swamp, but not just a tree in a swamp. That was merely a glimpse of a shadow of a reflection of the true tree, one whose roots ran through both the Spirit World and the Material World. There was a tree in the Spirit World, too, but that was just another mere glimpse at the truth. They all were just glimpses, the trees and forests and nations and ashlands and people.

Clothing himself in that truth, Aang looked to Momo, following his connection to the lemur in his lap.

And the Tree of Time remembered Momo, remembered Momo from before there was a Momo, and Aang found another connection to follow.

When he opened his eyes, he was sitting in front of a Pai Sho board in a room in the Southern Air Temple. The air was sweet with the fragrance of the coming harvest, the floor warm beneath him, and sunlight angled in through the tall windows.

Across the Pai Sho board, Monk Gyatso smiled and bowed his head. "Hello again, Aang."

Aang gaped, and then had to laugh. "So you were Momo all this time?"

"This time, and all times, from what your friend says." Gyatso raised his head and gave his own chuckle. "Friendships can last more than a lifetime, it seems. And being reborn as a lemur has been very enlightening." He reached his hands across the board.

Aang reached out and took them in his own, finding a warmth there so familiar he nearly burst into tears. "I'm not really sure of most of what the Mud Man was talking about, to be honest. It's pretty high-level stuff."

"But you were able to find me." Gyatso motioned around with an incline of his head. "You were able to find this place, in our shared past. Think of what else you might be able to find, with the help of your Tree."

Aang thought about it. Now that he had reached into the past he shared with Momo, he thought he could do it again, at least in his current state. But what could he actually accomplish? Seeing Monk Gyatso was a little different than somehow reaching into the past to make himself defeat Iroh sooner, or wake up earlier at the North Pole and leave before it was too late.

Gyatso let go of Aang's hands and motioned at the Pai Sho board between them. "Can you take back a move you've made once your finger has left the tile?"

Aang looked down at the Pai Sho board, but found that instead of a game grid, it was a spread of the entire world, a living and moving representation of everything, so detailed that he could even see a war going on in the Foggy Swamp if he squinted. "No, not if I play by the rules."

"Good answer. But cheating has its own consequences, and you haven't lost the game yet. If you make a wrong move, how do you fix it?" Gyatso folded his hands in his sleeves and waited.

Aang looked up at his teacher, and then down at the world again. But now it was just a Pai Sho board again, with tiles placed as if in the middle of play. He'd played lots of games against Gyatso, games that the other Elder Monks said were waste of time he could have spent training. "I try to play better?"

"More specific, please. Let's say you left your White Lotus tile all alone, and I've cut if off from everything else. Its movement abilities are useless without other tiles to which it can lend support."

"Well, I'd try to move my other tiles in to get to it, so that it could boost their functions before your tiles take them."

Gyatso's smile was radiant. "Good answer. Now, what's your next move?"

Aang blinked, and the board was once again replaced by the entire world. "Do you think the Tree of Time will help?"

"I think it already has." Gyatso winked.

Aang laughed again, and soon Gyatso joined in. It was a sound better than music

Dreams could be walked by more than the Spirits, more than Wise Men. Memories could inhabit dreams, too, including memories of things yet to be.

A memory of a swamp, and a tree, floated across the dreams of certain people. It floated beyond time, reaching out to before the dream was even spun by a boy with an arrow on his head. It found resonance in sacred lands, in ceremonies honoring the earth, in drunken hallucinations, in celebrations of the dawn, in drowsy contemplation of a beach sunset, visions in a fire, and nightmares fed by anxiety. All of them occurred at different times, and yet all were happening now.

All those dreams, but just one dream, shared amongst people connected in ways they couldn't imagine. They had yet to meet, but in a way they already had.

Aang's eyes snapped open.

Momo trilled in his lap. Aang looked down at him, but the lemur looked back with animal dullness, the light of the campfire reflected in big staring eyes. Had it been a dream?

Well, yes. But that didn't mean it wasn't real.

Aang looked up again, and across from him, in the light of the campfire, the Mud Man nodded.

Aang looked over at his friends.

Ty Lee's eyes were wide, and her hands were clasped together. "I've never seen your aura so beautiful." She sniffled, and wiped tears from her eyes.

Sokka and Katara exchanged glances with each other, and then Sokka said, "Well, you were glowing and we didn't get any dangerous weather or volcanos, so that's good. Right?"

Katara glared at her brother for a moment. "So, Aang, did you do what you needed?"

"I think so." Aang looked down at Momo again, and then at the twig he still had in his other hand. "But we're not done yet. Let's wake Appa. We still have a long trip ahead of us."


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« Reply #320 on: Nov 01, 2019 06:27 pm »

Zuko had been battered by the winds for hours now. He'd lost his eyepatch at some point in the night, and perhaps had seen it as a small shadow plummeting down into the canopy of the swamp. Or perhaps that had merely been a dream. He might have also dreamed about the Airbender nuns who landed beside him to try to free him from his chains; he preferred that to the idea that those nuns had been real, and they'd simply failed in their rescue when Bangfei attacked them.

He didn't know how much more his body could take of this.

The mechanical spider didn't have a brig, Bangfei had said, so the soldiers aboard had lashed Zuko to the front rail of the spider's body-deck with chains, letting him hang over the open air cradled only by links of solid metal. He could have tried heating them, but the concertation it would take to melt them would have left him nothing with which to prevent a plummet to the ground far below.

He could only presume Huu the Swampbender was suffering the same fate on another side of the central body of the spider, and maybe the Mechanist as well.

The other option was that both his new allies had been tossed over the railing with limbs numbed by Bangfei's Qi-blocking arts.

Zuko wished had stopped to tell Toph where he was going. But then, Azula hadn't said anything to him before disappearing. Ozai and Ursa had not raised children with much common sense, it seemed. He wondered if Toph would miss him, if he died. She seemed to really be his friend, but it was hard to tell if that was the truth or just an especially long-term exercise in sarcasm.

Out of the corner of his eye, Zuko saw a flicker of motion, and raised his head to see Bangfei take a leap from the top of one of the balloons that kept the spider aloft. The former Weapon of the Fire Nation intercepted one of the Airbender nuns who were still trying to bring the floating craft down. Zuko couldn't make out what happened next, both because of the distance and the dim light provided by the moon and stars, but when it finished, Bangfei was leaping off the nun's body to arc back towards the deck, while the nun herself plummeted from the sky with loose limbs.

Some of other nuns angled their wing-like robes to dive after their sister, but they all passed out of Zuko's vision, so he couldn't see what the result was. He offered his own hope that Bangfei's victim could be saved.

He kept none for himself.

It was hard to breathe, now.

Bangfei hadn't wanted to kill Zuko, but the man was a fanatic. He'd rather risk Zuko's life than risk this mad scheme. And the rest of the soldiers on board didn't seem concerned. They knew that Zuko was an exile, not even in the royal line of succession anymore. They could treat him like an honorless criminal.

Zuko agreed with them. He should have fought more fully against the Fire Lord. Against Uncle Iroh. He didn't want to lose what family he had left, but he would give everything up to save the world. More than his own loss, he feared the suffering of others. He could bear his own suffering, but knew the agony so well that he couldn't stand the thought of it touching others.

This had to be what had driven Mai to save Aang, back on Crescent Island. He wished he had been kinder to her about that. He wished she could have been kinder to him about it, too.

The winds battered him again, perhaps naturally or maybe as the result of Airbenders nuns' ongoing assault. He had to acknowledge their tenacity; they'd fought for so long, with his own efforts against this mechanical beast lasting only a blink of the eye. They weren't even warriors, just monastics who had been gifted by fate with the legacy of a lost nation. They might not stop his uncle, but they'd held the line and kept this spider-vehicle from landing.

Zuko couldn't even feel the cold of the winds, anymore. He'd tried to summon his Inner Fire, but fire came from the breath, and breathing was so difficult while hanging from these chains.

He wouldn't close his eye and give up. He would witness, just as he promised Toph. His witnessing might be lost when he died, but he would not fail in his vow.

Somehow, though, he managed to miss the rising of the sun.

The mists that hovered over the swamp canopy diffused the light, and he didn't even realize that the darkness was fading until he saw a black shape rise up from the trees and arc towards the railing on the deck. It would have been lost in the night sky, before.

It landed with a clank a short distance from Zuko, and he realized it was a grappling hook. A long rope trailed down into the treetops.

The guards didn't seem to notice, so concerned were they with the Airbenders. Zuko strained his neck to see, and realized that the nuns had increased the intensity of their attack, engaging the Firebender guards directly rather than the balloons of the spider-construct. They dove and dodged around fireballs, shooting funnels of wind back, and kept everyone's gazes upward.

Zuko's neck started to cramp, so he lowered his head again.

And saw the person climbing up the rope.

The person moved quickly, obviously practiced at this kind of mission. A well-trained warrior, then. Had Toph's forces finally arrived? Zuko had seen the lights of Firebending and the echoes of warfare in the distance, all through the night, so he couldn't imagine that they'd been able to get this far. So who could it be?

And would this newcomer be defeated as soon as Bangfei noticed?

Zuko forced his single eye to focus. The sun started to rise above the pooling fog of the swamp, and in the new light, the climber looked up to meet his gaze-

And Suki of Kyoshi Island smiled up at him.



As Zuko gaped, she doubled her speed, hauling herself up with an agility that would have put a tiger-monkey to shame. She reached the railing and tied the roping around her waist, anchoring herself as she started exploring his chains.

But first she leaned over and dropped a kiss on his lips. "Hi, Zuko. I found you."

Zuko could only blink at her, the warmth of her lips lingering on his own. "I- You went home! And- how-"

"I had a dream," she said in a voice that almost drifted away on the wind, one hand gripping the railing and the other working a pin in the padlock on his chains, "of this exact tree. I just- I knew how to find it. So I followed my dream and found- well, you."

"Oh." He felt his face warming, even in the cool winds. "I'm- I'm really glad to see you."

"And I found a lot more!" Something clicked, and the chains loosened, but Zuko barely started to drop before Suki's arm snaked around his chest and pulled him against her. Despite his added weight, she was able to climb up over the railing, letting him sit and rest of the deck. He desperately sucked in air now that his lungs could properly expand, while Suki crouched next to him and rubbed his back. "On the way here-"

Zuko looked up at her beautiful face, saw Bangfei coming up behind her, and barked, "Look out!" He snapped an arm up to punch a fireball, but it was a weak thing, a messy mix of light and smoke that Bangfei avoided simply by stopping short and standing still for a moment.

Suki stepped in front of Zuko and took a fighting stance.

"Please," Bangfei said, bowing his head to her. "I don't want to have to hurt you. I'm a Weapon of the Fire Nation. You can't win."

"Not by myself." Suki took a step towards him.

Bangfei shook his head. "Prince Zuko can't help you. Not enough."

"I know." Suki launched herself at Bangfei, who raised his fists-

-and a woman in aquamarine clothes with a tonfa-club in each hand flipped up over the railing and sprang past Suki to swing her club at Bangfei's head-

-who managed to duck beneath it and roll away from Suki's sweeping kick-

-and another woman in clothing identical to the first's except for its yellow color climbed over the railing and attacked with another pair of tonfa clubs, managed to tag Bangfei's back with echoing smacks-

-and more tonfa-women in clothes of bright blue and green and purple and orange joined the fight on the deck, moving with coordination and precision and a speed that was the almost the equal of Bangfei's. But they outnumbered him and had him surrounded.

And all of them shared a single face, a face Zuko knew best as belonging to Ty Lee.

Her sisters had come all the way from Ember Island to join this war. But why?

As the sisters all fell on Bangfei with their clubs, Suki came over to Zuko to help him to his feet, saying, "I was trying to tell you: on the way here, I found more people who wanted to help. The Ty Sisters and I bonded back when I was staying with Mai on Ember Island, so they came with me to find and help you. And they're good enough to impress even Mai, so six of them together must add up to more than a single Weapon."

Zuko tried to make himself understand, but either he was too tired or just not smart enough. "I don't get it. Why- how- you just happened to meet up with them on the way here?"

Suki shrugged. "I know. I can't explain it. So many people-"

Wait. She had met more than just the Ty Sisters? "How many people?"

King Toph had become blind to her own war.

She had completely lost track of where she and her army were in this stupid swamp. The fighting had spread out beyond the Swampbender village, and then the new arrivals in the weird blue and white Pai Sho robes had joined in with the Fire Nation to scatter her army across the bogs. With Bato's help, she'd managed to pull together a core group of warriors - Earthbenders, fights with spears and swords and clubs and slings, newly recruited Swampbenders – to try to punch a hole or win a rallying point, but after a long night's work, it was starting to seem like she had just been setting up for her last stand.

That was really annoying.

People had died through the night, fallen in the waters and mud, and it was likely that no one would ever be able to find the bodies.

Toph was almost, sort of, starting to expect it to be her fate as well. The last stand of the last Earth King (more or less).

But she was going to take a huge chunk of Fire Lord Iroh's army down with her, if she had any say in it. On the patch of muddy grasses where she'd chosen to make her stand, she stomped a foot with all of her Earthbending power, sending tremors through both the solid and more liquid parts of the swamp. She couldn't see or sense the enemy's response, but she heard the crackling of burning foliage, the buzz of motorized swamp boats, and the ringing of weapons clanged against armor to form a marching beat. The Fire Army was coming for her.

Toph stomped her foot again, sending another seismic wave, and called out at the top of her lungs, "Get ready! Fight for your king! Or I'll save the Fire Nation the trouble and beat up all up myself!"

Behind and around her, her rebels and allies answered back with a cheer. It was enthusiastic, and she loved them for it, but there were far too few voices. She hoped most of the lost were simply turned around the in the swamp and not dead. But even if they had passed on in the reincarnation cycle, she knew she still would have started this war. Losing was no worse than not doing anything. Not against this enemy.

And then another seismic tremor shook the swamp.

Except Toph hadn't moved.

It had come from behind the massing Fire Army. Toph plopped down to lie fully on the ground, her whole body acting as a receiver, and stomped her foot again.

Another seismic wave went out, and another answered her.

But this time, she 'heard' more in it. It wasn't being produced by a single powerful Earthbender, like her. More of these weird 'Pai Sho Warriors?'

Toph got and lifted her arms to raise herself on a column of sloshy earth, rising high above her army. She reached within herself with all her power and put what she found there in every last bit of earth and dirt and mud around her, so that when she shouted, it echoed along with her, "Who are you people anyway?"

Bato started to say, "Your Majesty, it's not them! It's someone else-"

There was another seismic pulse, and then Toph felt a whole mudslide burst through the trees and scattered a portion of the Fire Army. A deep, booming voice called out, "Tyro and the hidden Earthbenders will fight for the Avatar and the Earth King! Haru, let's take back our homeland!"

And there was a roar of water, as if the whole swamp had suddenly decided to become a waterfall, and so many of the fires whose crackling had been a constant noise through the night went silent. An aged voice called out, "The free Waterbenders of the Southern Water Tribe have come to avenge our imprisonment!"

And another voice added, "The Faceless Tribe of the North will stand with our sister tribe and fight for the Avatar!"

And that was all good, but even with the newcomers and their attacks, there was still a lot of noise and ground-rumbling come from the Fire Army's side. Toph could feel the air heat up and hear the whooshing of incoming fireballs-

-but a voice called out, "The Sun Warriors will no longer let Fire be used as a tool of death! For the dragons and the Avatar!" And the heat in the air immediately cooled, as if all the fires were snuffed out, and only a smoky breeze was left in its place.

More cries rose up, some representing villages or groups and some just announcing individuals whose names Toph had never heard before. Mercenaries declared patrons, weird Water Tribes came out of ancient history, and one nice voice even told something called Nyla that maybe if they helped save the world someone would pay them.

So Toph answered them all. "For the Earth Kingdom and the Avatar, let's trounce these flame-heads and shoves their faces in their toilets! Yeah!"

And then she twisted a foot to have her platform launch her forward into battle.

Her army - her new army -followed.

Bato stuck close to her, as he had since last night, and while she fired off boulders of mud and peat, she said to him, "Tell me what's going on. Be my Royal Eyes."

"It's-" Bato's voice faltered. "It's amazing. I see warriors- hardened warriors, in armor, with sprigs of dogwood pinned to their hats."

Toph nodded and buried a Firebender in mud. "That's how mercenaries acknowledge their patron. They wear a token on their hats."

"I see men and women in red loin-clothes and golden jewelry, their faces painted in burgundy and white, overwhelming the enemy soldiers with Firebending that's brighter and hotter than any other I've seen."

Toph grinned and wondered if Ham Gao was somewhere in there complaining about everything.

"I see warriors and Waterbenders, some in blue and some wearing black, some young and some older than my parents would be."

Toph hadn't personally met anyone like that. "Northern Water Tribe?"

"I- I don't think so. The ones in black move in a style different from those who served Iroh. And- and amidst it all, a creature as big as a sky bison is swimming through the swamp, its tongue lashing the enemy and bringing them down with a single blow. Riding atop it is a woman in black with a whip. I- I'm very confused, Earth King."

Toph grinned. "That's fine. We don't have to understand; we just have to win. Now point me in the direction of the most enemies. I want to put some royal hurt on people."

Zuko couldn't believe what he was hearing from Suki. "All those people arrived at the same edge of this swamp at the same time, coming from all over the world, and claimed they had the same dream about the Avatar needing them here?"

Suki shrugged as she watched the Ty Sisters wrap Bangfei up in the chains that had once held Zuko to the spider-construct's railing. "Everyone had the same story. And I had that exact dream. I don't know how Aang did it, but he is the Avatar."

Yes, he was. Zuko would have liked a better answer, but he supposed that this was what it was like to live in an age guided by the Bridge Between Worlds. And Zuko still had his part to do.

He put a hand on Suki's shoulder, got a wink in return, and turned to the Ty Sisters. "We need to bring this thing down. If you can protect me and Suki from the guards, we can handle the rest. Ready?"

Six identical faces, all of them eager (except for one, who just seemed annoyed by everything) nodded. And then they broke into coordinate motion.

Firebenders from the Crimson Guard, the Fire Lord's personal unit, tried to stop them. They did their duty honorably, and Zuko could not fault them for that. But that didn't stop him from fighting them. It didn't stop him from storming the command tower and making his way to the bridge as the Ty Sisters and Suki watched his back.

And it didn't stop him from capturing the bridge crew, finding the lever that would release the balloons, and allowing the mechanical spider to crash down on the swamp canopy beside the banyan-grove tree, where it could do no harm.

They'd won.

Iroh wished he could have arrived at his destination to find victory waiting for him, but he supposed that no part of this was going to be easy for him. That was, in a way, appropriate, because he certainly deserved to have to work for this.

As his airship glided over the swamp, he stood at the front of the bridge and looked out with a spyglass through the window. He studied the main battleground just ahead of the airship, where in between the gabs in the tree leaves it appeared that his army was losing to a rather colorful opposition group. He shifted his view to the distance, where the platinum spider sat like a drunken pest on the wrong set of trees.

No, this was not going to be easy. But it victory was still possible.

He lowered the spyglass and turned to his airship captain. "Could you please summon Lian the Maker? And also bring Zhao from the brig. Sadly, it seems we are going to have to make use of one of the more extreme tools in our possession."

He had hoped to avoid this particular gambit. But he would do anything for Lu Ten.

Anything. No matter how hard it was for him.

But Iroh could admit, at least, that it would be much harder for Zhao, as well as those who had made themselves into Iroh's enemies.


Never Gonna Give Yue Up

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« Reply #321 on: Nov 01, 2019 06:29 pm »

Traitor's Face

With Koh's spear-like legs piercing her chest, Mai was all too aware of when her host was getting excited. She could feel the slight shudder, the waves of anticipation flowing through the massive insect. They rattled the organs she didn't have here in the Spirit World and made her recall the sensation of pain.

It probably wasn't a good sign that the creepy bug's interest was so stirred by Fire Lord Iroh's arrival.

Mai let the warm perceptions of the war in the swamp fade away, leaving behind the Earthbenders and Firebenders and Swampbenders and Airbenders and swordfighters and spearfighters and six identical sisters with tonfa and Suki too. The thoughts and emotions and sensations of all those people faded as her mind washed up on the shores of individuality. She was once again a spirit-woman in the darkness of Koh's Lair.

The cold rushed in on her non-body, biting at her non-skin and reaching in through the chitinous legs that suspended her off the floor like hooks. It made her want to gasp, even though she couldn't possibly be actually breathing here in the Spirit World, but she kept a grip on her outer tranquility. After all, whether she was real or not, she was pretty sure that Koh could still steal her face.

"I know you're famous for your everlasting boredom-" Koh was looming above her, waiting for her expression to so much as twitch. The face of an emaciated man was staring down at her with sunken eyes above hollow cheeks and a jutting chin, all framed by glistening bug-flesh. "-but even you have to admit that this is quite exciting."

Mai hung impaled on the spearing legs and spoke with a voice like snowflakes on the wind: "Yes, you're clearly interested in all of this. When you saw Iroh arrive- well, the only other time I've seen someone so aroused was Azula after hearing that Prince Ozai threw a fireball in Zuko's face. And it's even creepier on you."

"How strange that someone who hates expression would have such a vibrant manner of speaking. But yes, we're getting to what you humans typically call THE GOOD PART!" The last two words had been screamed just an thumb's length from her nose, a childish attempt to distract and frighten her. (As if Ty Lee didn't regularly pop in front of Mai's face without warning and shout something.) Koh drifted back up to the ceiling, and the stolen face washed away to reveal the most frequently shown of the collection of visages, the one painted white like a mask. "Iroh is the key. Now that he's here, one way or another, I'll be adding a face to my collection."

"I don't suppose you're going to swoop in and take him down? That all of this has been you looking to play hero?" Mai didn't even dare to hope, but she couldn't not ask.

Koh leaned down over her so that their noses were almost touching, and then he drifted to her left until the white face was gone from her sight, the massive insect body filling her view.

The whisper drifted into her ear without any accompanying breath: "I don't play. And neither, unfortunately, does your Fire Lord."

Zhao knew what was coming as soon as he heard the boots outside the door of his airship cabin. He stood up did his best to straighten his uniform. He'd been locked in this makeshift prison with few supplies, but that made no difference. As long as he lived, he was still playing the game. Even if the game was now complicated by charges of attempting to assassinate his Fire Lord with poisoned tea.

He nodded as soon the door opened. "Take me to the Fire Lord. I am ready."

The Crimson Guards paused in the middle of their entrance, and then rushed forward to grab his arms and drag him along.

Zhao bit back on a smirk. At least he still had the power to catch his enemies off guard.

And, if he was right, he still had the ability to find the opportunities in even the worst situations and seize them. He had been locked in his cabin after his attempt on Iroh's life, and once he got over the initial wave of despair, he realized that he was still alive. And that- well, that was an opportunity. Of course, the Fire Lord might just have been keeping Zhao alive for a public execution, but there was no value in assuming such a thing.

And now the guards had come while the airship's engines were still running. They hadn't reached their destination yet. So if Zhao was being summoned, Iroh still needed him.

But he couldn't underestimate the danger of the situation. Zhao had tried to poison his Fire Lord and wasted tea in the process. The doddering old fool probably considered both crimes to be equally heinous. It would take quite a performance for Zhao to earn his life back. But he had the opportunity to try, and that was enough. He had a chance!

He held his head high as he was brought into one of the airship's rear cargo rooms, where the head of the Unhcegila monster was mounted on a stand of clustered metal pipes and stuck with hundreds of shining needles connected to trailing wires. Lian the Maker stood next to it, in the process of inserting another needle.

Zhao's confidence immediately wilted.

He looked around. The space was largely empty, except for another tank-sized piece of machinery on the far side of the bay, tended by engineers in heavy leather robes. It was thrumming like an engine, and lightning-like electrical power danced between a set of parallel bars in its center.

Zhao belatedly spotted Fire Lord Iroh amidst the technicians, standing beside the machine and looking at the lightning. Zhao tried to bow, but the Crimson Guards held him fast.

Lian stuck another needle into the smooth, corpse-like flesh of the Unhcegila head. At least its eyes were closed. Zhao probably wasn't going to be fed to the thing.

Iroh turned around and looked to Zhao with regret evident over his bearded face. "I am so sorry about this, Admiral."

"What-" Zhao's voice faltered, and he had to swallow to bring it back. "What is this?"

Lian turned to throw a smirk at him, and then turned back to her monster head and pushed in one last needle.

Iroh closed his eyes. "If it makes you feel better, by using you, I am sparing the life of some other, more loyal crew member."

Zhao realized he had started sweating. "I- Fire Lord, I beg you, don't do this! Execute me if you must, but give me a proper death! Please!"

Iroh shook his head. "This won't kill you. Not if Lian's theories are correct. I'm sorry." He drew in a deep breath. "Lian, please proceed. The battle outside is not going well for our forces."

None of this was making Zhao feel better. What had happened to his opportunity? What was this?!

Lian approached with what seemed to be a pair of knives at first, but then Zhao noticed the tubing - flexible yet metallic, almost as if it was woven - trailing off the ends of the handles and leading to the lightning machine. He recognized all of the metal as platinum, or one of its alloys.

He also recognized the look in Lian's eyes. It was the same look he saw in a mirror before fighting an Agni Kai against a subordinate who had failed him.

Zhao tried to pull away, but the guards held him tight.

Lian stopped right in front of him. "Admiral, I have to admit that I will derive some personal pleasure from this. You impeded my work to play your own political games, and it seems appropriate that you will now enable a wonderful experiment with your suffering. Your fate will add significantly to the whole of human knowledge. Thank you, and yes, this will hurt a lot."

She stabbed one of the knives into his chest.

Zhao tried to cry out, but before he could, the other knife was rammed into the side of his neck.

His legs gave out. The guards let go of him, and he collapsed to the floor. He- he was dying. His blood was leaking out of the wounds with every breath, and-

Over at the lightning machine, a technician flipped a switch.

Zhao's pain went away.

But what replaced it was no better.

Traces of lightning were dancing along both the wires coming from the Unhcegila head as well as the larger tubing trailing from the knives still stabbed into Zhao. The coldness of platinum in his flesh became a tingling that spread to his whole body. Beneath the tingling, he was aware of a bloating within his body, a stretching. His insides- his insides seemed to be moving-

It was getting hard to breathe.

And then came the hunger.

But no, 'hunger' couldn't describe it. It was such an emptiness that it tore a scream from him, despite the knife in his throat. He'd never known that hunger could hurt- but this was so profound that he would have tried to fill his stomach with anything, no matter how disgusting. All he could think about was eating, of trying to satisfy the void that seemed to be pulling at his very flesh, but the ache was so wracking that he couldn't even make himself move.

Even as he grew emptier, he somehow grew larger. His body was still stretching, still growing. His uniform ripped as his limbs thickened, as his chest elongated, as muscled bulged like wet sacks. He looked at his hands and saw the misshapen claws of a goblin, the flesh as white as a corpse. The wrongness of it shook him from his pain-filled stupor and he writhed on the floor, trying to push his form back into the shape it was supposed to be. As face scraped against the cold deck, he felt his hair rubbing away.

He tried to scream again, but all that came out was a roar that rattled the metal around him.

He dimly heard Lian announce, "The process is working! And I think now is a good time to evacuate the area. Hurry, please."

There was the sound of running on the deck, the sound of abandonment. He looked up, searching for help- no, searching for something to eat. He needed to-

But he didn't see Lian, or Iroh, or any of the guards or technicians. All he was left with was the buzzing machinery and the mounted Unhcegila head. It was no longer the large, blank, white face it had been just moments ago. Now, it looked like a withered flower, gray and wrinkled and shrunken. More than half the needles had popped out as it contracted, and more continued to do so even as Zhao watched. The needles tinked against the floor like metal snowflakes. The head seemed to be shrinking even as his hunger grew-

And then Zhao realized what was happening.

He looked down at his goblin hands, at the flesh now as white as ancient snow, at the hair left discarded on the floor. His was not the body of a human, not any longer.


But he didn't deserve this-

That was his last human thought, and then the bay floor dropped out from under him, leaving him falling through the air.

Bato had come a long way, beyond even his wildest youthful fantasies. He still wasn't sure if he believed it.

A year ago, he had spent every day hunched over in the cramped tunnels of the Fire Nation's South Pole Mining Colony, dreaming of the days before the Southern Tribes had been forced together under foreign tyranny. He'd tried to support his people as best he could, especially the remaining family of the best friend he'd been unable to even attempt to save, but he had been a failure there, as well. Katara had been taken away, while Sokka had withered. Even old Kanna had done more than Bato, taking in those who had no other homes. He had done the best he could, but his best had never been enough.

Bato never expected anything to change, never dared to hope for more- until Avatar Aang returned and Sokka inspired the Tribe into rebellion. It was almost impossible to believe that a new era could come from children, but only a moment's thought revealed that, really, it was the only possible way.

That had been the beginning of a long journey across the globe with the survivors of his Tribe. From the South Pole to the Earth Kingdom, from dangerous colonies to the rebel camps of a little blind girl who claimed the title of the Earth King. He'd seen his Tribe find happiness, and Katara emerge from the Fire Nation's prisons to be the Waterbender she always should have. Now he was in a swamp, where a war was being fought for the fate of the world itself.

And his friends, amazingly, seemed to be winning. Under the command of the Earth King, armies from around the world had joined to fight the Fire Nation. Not just the Southern Water Tribe rebels Bato had led, but the old Waterbenders who had been kidnapped away decades ago, and a strange Tribe of warriors and Waterbenders from near the North! Earthbenders and soldiers and mercenaries from across the Earth Kingdom had joined them. Even a group of painted Firebenders had arrived and evoked the authority of the sun in opposition to the Fire Lord!

Together, they had beaten back the invading Fire Army, even the strange Master warriors in robes fashioned after White Lotus Pai Sho tiles.

Bato wasn't sure if he dared to hope for victory. But he could see it, and that was enough.

For now, he focused on more practical matters. Regardless of what the outcome may be, this was still a dangerous battlefield, and there were people who couldn't properly defend themselves. He had never considered himself a candidate for Chief, but he was tall and could remain calm, so people looked to him for help.

He could do that much.

Bato motioned a team of his warriors forward. "Set up here. I'll get the refugees into the boats and away from the fighting." As the defenses were raised, Bato went over to where the refugees were crouching in the swamp foliage. They were a mix of noncombatants from the Swampbender village (Waterbenders here in the swamps of the Earth Kingdom!) and injured warriors from the rebel armies. At Bato's wave, they got up and followed him to the shores where Toph's forces had first arrived to meet the Fire Nation invaders. The boats abandoned there would now take these people to safety.

Amidst the moving refugees, he saw two pregnant Swampdweller women working together to carry a stretcher made of vines with a burned soldier on it. They seemed familiar to Bato, and he realized that they'd been among those saved by the Earth King and her mud bridge, last night. So they'd survived to the dawn that now lightened the sky.

Bato hurried over. "Let me help, ladies. We need to move quickly. I discovered today that battles move around quite a bit."

"Well," the women in front said as she let him take one of the stretcher's crude handles, "ain't you a tall one? Thanks for the assist."

"Tallest in the Southern Water Tribe." Bato helped them over to the closest boat, a raft that had probably been originally used for fishing. Together they gently laid the stretcher in the center. The injured man on it groaned at the movement, but his eyes remained closed. "Please help look after this man for me. Do your people have healers?"

The woman who had spoken before eased herself carefully in the raft beside some of her countrymen, obviously protective of the child growing within her. "We do. I'm Giang, and my quiet friend is Yen. Don't you worry you'self none- we'll take care of him."

Bato nodded his thanks, and pushed the laden raft into the water. As the passengers began paddling away, he turned to see if there was anyone else he could help.

And that's when he saw the strange flying ship in the sky, hanging from a balloon like that giant metal spider device, and the things that dropped out from one of its underside hatches.

One of those things could have been man-shaped.

They crashed down not far from Bato's location with a mix of the tearing of tree branches and a splash of water. There wasn't enough noise or impact to have been a bomb, but what else could have been dropped into the middle of a battle?

Bato would have to find out. He couldn't let anyone else be hurt. He left his warriors guarding the evacuation and used his machete to hack through the swamp foliage. He was tired, so very tired, but he had almost learned how to move across the swamp. He made his way to the crash site, and was surprised to find something like a massive engine in the process of sinking into the bog. Had the flying ship simply been dumping some broken equipment?

And then a figure rose up out of the mud, uncurling into a shape that was mostly human- mostly, except for the size. And the proportions. It was even taller than Bato, and thicker in every way. As the mud dripped away to reveal hauntingly white flesh, he saw that the limbs were far too long and quite muscular, but not according to the expected patterns. The muscles were in the wrong places.

And, for some reason, the creature was wearing a stained Fire Navy command sash.

It opened eyes to reveal a glistening night deeper than any darkness Bato had ever known.

He fell into those eyes, or so it seemed, and reality became nothing but shadow. The cold of the harshest night he had ever experienced in the South Pole crawled into his body, into his limbs and stomach and lungs and heart, consuming everything else and leaving him empty. He forgot how to breathe, but as he drifted into the darkness, he realized that breathing wasn't so important. He only needed to do it if he wanted to live.

It was the sound of his warriors, off in the distance, crying out in pain and distress that brought him back to a sliver of reality. Those eyes still held him in their pull, but he was aware of his body collapsing into the bog mud. As soon as the sludge covered his eyes, cutting him off from that horrible obsidian gaze, he suddenly remembered how to breathe, but there was no air to draw into his lungs. He couldn't even summon the strength to keep himself afloat. He panicked for a moment as the water and mud filled his nose, filled his mouth, but soon a peace settled on him. He sank, alone and cold, but not as cold as those eyes had been. The mud around him was warm, at least.

And he knew, on a level beyond his understanding, that it was better this way. Better to drown in life and water than to be consumed by whatever was in those eyes.

With his last thought, he wished Sokka and Katara- and all his Tribe, and all his new friends-

He wished them all a good future.


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« Reply #322 on: Nov 01, 2019 06:33 pm »

King Toph stood in the middle of a swampy battlefield and raised her hands for some quiet. She was tired from a night of fighting, and the last few minutes had brought an odd cold and achiness to her body, so she was in no mood for ridiculousness. "What is this about a monster?"

A deep voice responded, "It came out of the swamp, its stare knocking down an entire platoon at a time, and-"

"No, it came from the sky," a hoarse voice interrupted. "Bato went to investigate, and he never came back! It was like we felt his death! The very life fled from the entire Tribe at the same time, and-"

Toph said, "Bato's dead?" Her heart grew colder.

But instead of confirmation, someone else shouted, "It's tearing its way through our warriors! It shrugs off boulders and fireballs and-"

"At least it's stupid," another person said. "It just attacks whoever it finds. We were able to retreat."

Toph was going to ask again about Bato, but all at once the cold grew sharper, piercing her heart, and she dropped to her knees. Faintly, she heard a horn echoing through the swamp from far away, a pattern of a distress signal, one of those she'd had her army adopt to communicate across distances.

It cut out mid-melody as the people around her asked if she was okay.

Then a small voice, a feminine voice - a voice Toph could tell wasn't used to asking for attention - said, "It's the Unhcegila."

Toph pushed away the hands that were trying to help her up and pointed towards the voice. "The what? And who are you?"

"I-" The voice faltered. "I am Amka, of the Faceless Tribe. A- a healer. The Unhcegila- it was a monstrous beast that hunted our Tribe. The Avatar helped us. His- the woman with the knives- she killed it. After- She killed it. B- but I saw it as we ran. It is man-shaped, but it is the same. The- the skin, the eyes. The- the way it consumes. It draws the life from those who meet its eyes, and- and those the victim lo- loves. No matter the distance." Her voice hitched. She obviously had first-hand experience.

Toph let out a breath, and could feel the iciness on her tongue. She had no doubt that whoever had sounded that distress horn, they were dead now. And she had probably known them.

She had a kind of love for everyone who had pledged service to her crown. She would feel every single person who fell to this new monster.

"Thanks, Amka. That's helpful." Toph's lips took on a feral curve as she forced herself to her feet. She was cold, and tired, and she had no idea how to kill this Unch- the Unhch- whatever. But she'd rather die trying then let the monster kill her piecemeal by taking out the soldiers who had bowed to her. "So it kills everyone who goes eye-to-eye with it? Then it's a good thing the greatest Earthbender in the world happens to blind, huh?"

With chattering teeth, she stepped forward to go into battle-

There were screams in the distance. Many screams.

-and Toph was hit by such a wave of cold that her blood nearly came to a stop in her veins. She dropped to the ground, her senses swimming. She couldn't feel anything with her Earthbending, couldn't even feel the warm air on her bare arms.

For a moment, she felt like she was flying.

It only slowly came to her, as she picked up the far-away echoes of voices that were being screamed right next to her, that she was being carried away.

"Get the Earth King to safety!"

"Retreat! Make a fighting retreat! Keep the monster from charging us!"

"Where do we go? It will follow us anywhere!"

"The tree! We will make our stand at the tree, and hope for the Avatar's help!"

"Will he come?"

Toph wondered that herself. She believed in Baldy, but who knew what else he might be tangling with right now?

But before sleep hit Toph like a boulder to the face, her ears picked up a whisper on the breeze in Amka voice: "He will come.

"They all will."

They better.

"I've always been fascinated," Koh's voice drifted over the fading sensations of the war in the swamp, "by the faith humans show in their heroes. As if those heroes aren't just human themselves, given to mistakes and failures- despite their best efforts."

Mai fought the urge to cough out the frigid aftertaste of the deaths of Zhao's victims. "L- Let me guess, you find it pathetic. That's how you justify hunting us for our faces."

"On the contrary." Koh's body clicked and curved above her, and the visage looking down on her became that of old Airbender man, complete with arrow tattoos and thin gray beard. "I think it's one of the most beautiful things about humanity. But it is one of the reasons I take such pleasure in my collection, so to speak."

Mai just barely resisted the urge to gag. She was one of those people who Amka expected to show up and save the day, but here she was, trapped in the Spirit World, literally stuck in the grip of a monster that might be even worse than what Zhao had become.


Looking up at Koh, she realized that the stupid bug was watching her a little too intently for this to be idle conversation. "Are you calling me a hero?"

A grin split the face above her.

Zuko had thought that he'd won something for the first time in his life.

He should have known better.

He stood on one of the massive roots of the banyan-grove tree at the center of the swamp, watching as another flying ship approached over the treetops. It followed the same course as the mechanical spider-craft that now rested in a heap on the swamp canopy. There could only be one person in command of such a thing. The one who had set this all in motion.

Uncle Iroh.

The Fire Lord.

If he was right, then Zuko had lost this fight before it began. He'd only been allowed to believe in victory, briefly, before Uncle's machinations had closed in on him.

Beside him, Suki said, "Why is everything flying all the sudden? Did the enemy see Appa flying around and feel inadequate?"

The Ty Sisters tittered behind Zuko, but when he glanced back with his good eye, he saw that their amusement wasn't keeping them from tightening the bandages on the wounds they'd sustained so far, nor from preparing their tonfa clubs for another fight. They were true warriors, but he doubted that it would be enough. Fighting Uncle wasn't about strength or ability. It had to be about strategy, about arranging things beforehand. No one was better at that than the Dragon of the North.

As the airship approached, more of the old men in the White Lotus robes emerged from the swamp, climbing and jumping, riding earth or water, moving up onto the network of roots. They moved with the same unhurried confidence of Uncle, so Zuko assumed that they were all warrior Masters.

Mother Malu and Sister Matagi landed right in front of Zuko in a flurry of Airbending and golden robes. Matagi glared out at the approaching enemies, while Malu turned to Zuko and said, "More of the White Lotus are here. Or, at least, the factions Iroh has corrupted to his purpose. Is there any sign of the Earth King or her other forces?"

Zuko could only shake his head.

Old Mother Malu sighed. "Then it's still up to us. But after-" Her voice caught for a moment. "That Qi-blocker besmirching the name of the White Lotus killed several of my sisters. There aren't enough of us left to guard the prisoners we've already taken from the spider machine. Do you have any advice, Prince Zuko?"

Zuko himself wasn't in command, here, never mind of the new Air Nation that had risen up despite his own people's best efforts. He had no formal part of Toph's rebellion, technically being a refugee granted asylum. But then, so were these Airbender nuns. They had simply chosen to use their abilities to assist King Toph. Zuko, on the other hand, had chosen to merely observe.

The crashed spider-machine was a testament to how well Zuko had stuck to that choice, but now Uncle was here- maybe the last family Zuko had left. Zuko didn't want to fight, and not just because he knew he couldn't win.

The airship slowed to halt and began lowering itself towards the ground.

"Forget the prisoners," Zuko finally said. Suki raised her eyebrows, but he continued, "Leave Bangfei and the others tied up to slow them down, but you don't have the numbers to guard them and fight what's coming. If it comes to a battle, your only hope will be to overwhelm them with numbers at the beginning. By the time the prisoners could escape and join in, you'd already be lost."

Sister Matagi finally turned to look at him with a scowl. "We're not warriors. If it comes to battle, we cannot harm anyone, not even the Fire Nation."

Suki snorted. "So you'd rather let the Fire Lord destroy the world than give him the smack he deserves? Kind of selfish, don't you think?"

"Quite the opposite," Mother Malu said, her voice even. "We simply see greater danger in the methods than the results. From what Prince Zuko has said of his Uncle, such compromises might be why we are all here."

Zuko felt the need to pinch the bridge of his nose. "It doesn't matter. Even with all the Airbenders, and Huu and whatever the Mechanist man can do, we're not going to win. Avoiding a fight is our best option, anyway."

Suki's arms wrapped around him. "Then how do we do that?"

"We don't." Zuko shrugged off her embrace and began walking down the curve of the tree root. "I do."

By the time he reached the bottom, where the roots disappeared into the waters and foliage of the swamp, the airship had come to a rest beside the spider on the canopy, and a rope ladder had been unfurled to dangle above a patch of more-or-less solid ground.

Uncle was climbing down, alone.

Zuko waited.

When his Fire Lord finally stood before him, Zuko sank to his knees and lowered himself in a full kowtow. This was the first time he and Uncle Iroh had been in each other's physical presence since his banishment, and he wanted to make sure it started with the proper love and respect.

"Please, nephew, you may rise. I don't suppose you'd be willing to give your old uncle a hug in front of all these people?"

Zuko raised his head, and nearly gasped at what he saw. Uncle seemed so much older than he remembered, colorless and slumped and with no sparkle in his golden eyes. But he'd just seen the man in the Spirit World at the beginning of the summer! Had that merely been an illusion, a projection of what Uncle Iroh had once been, or had he really changed so much since the end of Zuko's banishment?

Zuko stood but didn't move forward. "I don't think that would be appropriate, given the circumstances."

Uncle gave a slow nod, and his eyes fell to the ground. "I don't disagree. But I am glad to see that you are okay. I worried about you. I wish there was time for us to share a cup of tea."

"I know." Zuko took a deep breath. "Uncle, please, you need to stop this."

"What did they tell you of it? Did you know it's to save Lu Ten's life?" Uncle Iroh raised his gaze, and it was harder that it had been a moment ago, but no more sparkling. "Did you know that the Avatar and his companions killed my son, and now this is our last chance to give him the life he always should have had?"

Zuko blinked. "They- they killed him? But- but that doesn't make any sense. The Avatar- he wanted to help you-" He couldn't help but remember how Aang had impulsively acted against Father- or, as it turned out, Mother, leading to her death. Or how Aang had accidentally revived the volcano under the Capital, leading to its destruction. He could definitely believe that, somehow, the Avatar had caused Lu Ten's death.

Aang really might have killed Zuko's cousin.

But the Avatar also had honor.

Mother had plunged the Fire Nation into civil war. The Fire Nation itself had spread so much suffering even before it created the ashlands. And Aang had never taken pleasure in what he'd had to do about those things.

Zuko met his uncle's hard eyes with his lone one. "What did you do?"

The standoff lasted forever.

And then Uncle Iroh looked away. "Terrible things. And this is my last chance to make it all worth something."

Zuko waited.

His uncle continued, "Within that tree is a gateway to the destruction of death itself. The spider will freeze the spiritual energies that flow through the tree, leaving them free for me to use. To control. Do you understand?"

Zuko did. He understood enough, at least. He understood that his uncle was wise and knowledgeable, had pierced the veil between the material and spiritual planes, and had changed the world in order to bring his visions into being. Zuko himself had only made mistake after mistake; perhaps running from his uncle's care had been what led to Azula going missing. Mother had told him to take care of his sister, his one role in this new world, and he'd failed at that. Did he have any business trying to stop his Fire Lord from ending death?

"I can even heal the ashlands." Uncle Iroh took a step forward and his put his arms on Zuko's shoulders. "I will be honest, nephew: what I am attempting is very dangerous. But I want to try. I can't lose my son, and I know that's selfish. But I will give the world everything I have left in recompense. Will you let me?"

"Uncle-" Zuko had to pause to wipe a tear from his good eye. "I'm sorry for what you've lost. What we've lost. I-" His voice broke.

He let himself be pulled into a hug by his only remaining family.

He summoned his flame, his Inner Fire, and moved his arms to strike his uncle in the back. It wasn't honorable, but there were some things more important than that kind of honor.

But before he could complete the blows, Uncle Iroh's grip tightened. There was a yank and a shove and then Zuko was falling to crash to the muddy ground. He tried to scramble to his feet, but the sludgy ground made his slip, and when he looked up, his opponent had already assumed a fighting stance.

But he did not attack. "Why, nephew?"

"Father- and Mother- they showed me how to see the truth." Zuko got back to his feet and took his own stance. "No matter how much it hurts."

They faced each other, ready to do battle- Zuko and Iroh, nephew and uncle.

And then the Ty Sisters and Huu and Suki flipped and jumped and ran in to start their own attack, while the White Lotus masters rushed over and armored figures of the Crimson Guard leaped down to join the battle. It wasn't about family, anymore.

Perhaps it never had been.


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« Reply #323 on: Nov 01, 2019 06:36 pm »

Mai wanted to pay attention to the battles in the swamp, and a part of her consciousness was being tickled with the sensations of soldiers retreating from a monster and family battling against family. The world was turning on these events, and they involved people she truly had come to care about.

She could even admit that she cared.

But it was too dangerous to give herself completely over to being an observer. Koh dangled above her, ready to take her face if she showed even the slightest bit of expression.

And what the monster was saying was even more dangerous: "Isn't a hero a warrior who fights - who sacrifices - for something more than mere reward? People, perhaps. A certain way of life." The face of the old man was swallowed and replaced by blank visage defined only by the Noh makeup. "Love, even."

Mai had to take a moment to make sure her voice would remain completely lifeless. "Sounds pretty selfish to me."

"Only if it's hoarded. But such things cannot be contained. Power, now- that is very hard to spread around. Those who fight for power will find they never have enough to share. Both those who fight for love, for that which is good? That benefits everyone, more or less. A hero fights, and then fades away so that others can have the same."

Mai had felt nothing but cold since she'd awoken in this land of darkness, but now she felt her face heating up, just a little bit, perhaps not even enough to color her pale cheeks. "I'm not faded yet. So I can't be a hero."

A tongue flicked out from between Koh's lips to wet them. "Then isn't it time we got around to fixing that?"

As Mai tried to understand what she was being asked, she felt the war in the swamp raging on. Iroh's corrupt order pushed onward to the tree, while Toph's army retreated in the same direction as a monster consumed the spirit of entire groups at a time.

Zuko was thrown back by a blast of fire he had barely been able to contain. He skidded to the edge of the tree root on which he'd been fighting, and then tipped right over the edge.

Only Suki's grasping hand saved him from plunging into the swampwaters below and out of the fight.

He held on as she hauled him back onto the massive tree root. "Thanks."

She nodded an acknowledgement and then turned back to the battle, scanning for where she could the most good.

Any good.

Zuko looked along with her. He wasn't sure who, exactly, had attacked him; it was hard to fight in a battle this large with the lesser range of vision that came from only having one eye. The meant for his flesh could have been shot deliberately from where Uncle Iroh was somehow tangling with all six Ty Sisters at once, or maybe just one of the Firebender guards who were keeping Huu and his lashing vines from attacking their Fire Lord.

He supposed it didn't matter.

Behind the fighting, Uncle Iroh's airship was rising again, a network of cables allowing it to lift up the crashed spider-machine beneath it. The balloons of the airship must not have been enough for both crafts, as a team of White Lotus Earthbenders and Waterbenders were helping to lift from beneath the mechanical spider, raising columns of ice and mud and swamp vegetation (had they stolen the idea from Huu?) to lift the shining machine back into the sky. The Airbender nuns were harassing them, but that was only slowing their progress. Not stopping it.

The best strategy would be to attack those White Lotus, but the only path to them was through the Fire Lord and his Crimson Guard. Zuko could probably find another way, but then he would be just one Firebender - and a dangerous Kyoshi rebel if Suki came with him - against a team of Masters.

He needed a way to turn the tide of this whole skirmish.

And the key, he was sure, was his Uncle.

But how could a one-eyed Firebender defeat a warrior who may very well be the greatest martial arts master in the world, a tactical genius beyond all measure, a man-

-Zuko watched as his uncle took a turning half step back from the Ty Sister, enough to dodge the swing of her tonfa club and put her between him and the next sister who was coming in to attack, ducking beneath the strike of a sister behind him and bumping her with his rear to stumble into the sister with the deepest scowl on her face, and then rising and lifting a hand to catch the wrist of yet another sister who had come close to breaking her club over his head-

-a man who was old and slow and tired?

Zuko blinked.

To anyone else, Uncle Iroh must have looked invincible. But to Zuko, who had seen his uncle train and fight before, there was something diminished. There was no fierceness or joy or even concentration on his face. No snap to his movements. The wrinkles on his face seemed deeper, and that club had nearly broken on his head before a hasty grab had halted it.

Uncle Iroh was slower.

Zuko turned to Suki. "I need to get close to him."

"I can do that for you." She smiled, removed two golden objects from her belt, and snapped open a war fan in each of her hands. "Follow fast."

She dashed into the battle.

Zuko was right behind her.

She didn't so much attack anyone as shift them out of the war, using redirectional martial arts to shove and twist and bump any Crimson Guard who tried to stop them. She even handled the fire, swinging those fans fast enough to block and disperse the flames. Zuko could handle anything she was too busy for, and together they cut a swath through flame and bodies.

Then they were through to where the Ty Sisters were a cyclone of violence around Uncle Iroh. Zuko patted Suki's back and stepped in front of her. She sidestepped around him and stood against his back with her fans raised to defend him. Despite her skill, he knew they didn't have long. Speed was the key to surviving a brawl like this.

So he watched his uncle fight against the Ty Sisters-

Uncle was using Firebending now, his punches and kicks trailing enough flames to keep the girls from rushing in at him as he shifted his focus between all six- no, five, as he smashed an elbow into the face of the one in yellow and sent her crashing off the tree root to the waters below. With just five opponents, Uncle had a quarter-of-a-second of leeway now, giving him the edge again as he jabbed a sizzling palm into Purple's stomach and then lifted and threw her at Green and sidestepped Aquamarine's kick.

-and then Zuko snapped out a thin bolt of flame at where he knew his uncle would be in the next quarter-of-a-second, the place where his uncle already would have been if he wasn't becoming so old and tired-

-and the streak of flame struck Uncle Iroh across the face, burning skin and beard and maybe even an eye. Uncle dropped with a scream and raised his hands over his face.

The Ty Sisters halted as if a gong had sounded, evaluated the situation, and then moved to take out the Crimson Guards who turned at the sound of their Fire Lord's pain.

Zuko approached where his uncle was crouching, keeping a defensive stance and his Inner Fire ready. "It's over, Uncle. You can't fight like that. I know."

For a moment, the only response was a groan, and then Uncle Iroh said, "It was a well-struck blow, Zuko. And unlike your cowardly father, it was done for honorable reasons. You have truly become a man I can be proud of."

A shadow passed overhead, and Zuko looked up to see the giant mechanical spider blot out the sun as it floated, swaying on towlines beneath the other airship and carried by rising columns of mud and water and vines, moving steadily towards the tree. He could see only Mother Malu and Sister Matagi left to oppose its movement, but they were quickly hobbled by vines under the control of White Lotus Waterbenders (who had apparently picked up the trick from Huu) and then Bangfei was there to disable their limbs and take away their ability fly.

Zuko looked back down at his uncle. "Call it off. You can't do what you came here for. There's no reason to let all this keep going."

Uncle Iroh's every breath was tinged with the sound of pain. "Nephew, did you truly think I came here expecting to survive this? I could be on the threshold of death itself, and I will still act to restore my son."

Zuko's stomach flipped. Did he- did he need to take his uncle's life? Could he?

He was saved from having to answer by a horrible mercy.

There was the sound of heavy robes snapping in the rushing air, a figure flipped up from beneath the tree root, there was a flash of a metallic arc in the sunlight-

-something hard slammed right into Zuko's solar plexus and dropped him straight to his knees-

-Suki moved to defend him-

-the air whistled against a razor edge-

-and then Piandao was standing over Zuko in the blue and white robes of the Lotus, sword-arm extended in a stab, his jian blade sinking straight into Suki's chest.

It was just like when he had stabbed Azula, except this time his expression was hard, and Suki showed only horror as her body began sagging.

Piandao withdrew his blade with a flick of blood.

Zuko just barely managed to catch her. "Suki! Suki!" He touched her face, willing her to shake off the injury.

She looked up at him and opened her mouth to say something.

But all that came out was a choking sound and bubbles of blood.

Her clothes were soaking with blood, and she was growing pale.

Zuko looked around for help. Some of the Ty Sisters were running back towards him, but Piandao went forward to meet him, and-

-it seemed like everything was happening too fast. Zuko blinked his eye over what seemed like a full century, but Piandao's movements were lost in the flashing of the sun off his blade as the Ty Sisters fell and bounced like little wooden soldiers scattered by a carelessly thrown ball. Huu's vines came in at Piandao, but they became a green haze and the pieces were scattered on the winds by the whirling sword.

There was an echoing crunch, and Zuko looked up to see the giant mechanical spider lurch into place atop the banyan-grove tree.

"Help," he tried calling out, cradling Suki's body. But the only movement came from men in White Lotus robes as they made their way up the tree roots to converge on Huu, and Piandao as he returned to Uncle.

Zuko let go of Suki with one arm to try to burn the man who had hurt her, but a whistle of blade heralded an explosion of pain. His flesh had been sliced along the length of his arm, and his strength leaked out with his own blood before he could summon his Inner Fire.

He could only watch as Piandao helped Uncle Iroh up and became a living crutch for the Fire Lord.

"Uncle," Zuko croaked, "please, help Suki. She- she's all I have left."

"I'll try, nephew." Uncle Iroh, of course, couldn't look at him, not with his face so burned. His attack had accomplished that much. "I hope she survives long enough for me to end death."

They passed him by, and left him behind.

As the legs of the mechanical spider rose and burrowed into the banyan-grove tree, Zuko looked around for some kind of hope. None of the Crimson Guard moved to so much as help him. More soldiers, led by Bangfei, climbed down from closer to the tree- the prisoners Zuko and the Ty Sisters had taken from the spider-ship before had finally freed themselves. With amazing leaps, Bangfei showed why he had once been a Weapon of the Fire Nation and took down Huu with his Qi-blocking, then moved on to intercept Mother Malu and Sister Matagi, defeating the last of the Airbenders. The rest of the White Lotus was focused on what was happening with the tree, which almost seemed to be glowing as the sharpened spider legs speared the trunk.

Zuko looked down again at Suki. She was still breathing, but her eyes were staring at nothing. Blood trickled down her chin.

It was all Zuko could do not to roar with the pain of losing her, but he held it back for her sake. He didn't want to upset her. If all he could do was give her an easy death, he would do it. He could surrender to the burning within later.

He heard cries and crashing down below, and looked over the edge of the root to see people splashing in against the roots of the tree from the swamp. They were wearing green and blue and all kinds of colors, the colors of the people who had come together as Toph's army- Zuko's friends! He called out to them, his voice hoarse-

-and his calls faded as a hulking white monstrosity, human-like in shape but not in movement, leaped out of the gloom of the swamp amidst the rebels. Zuko could see that they were scattering, completely undirected, moving in a panic as the monster pushed through their ranks. The monster's flailing movement scattered people with bone-crunching force, but its claws eventually closed around one rebel in green. That victim, who could have been man or woman or young or old, was lifted to look right into the monster's face.

As that rebel began convulsing in the monster's grasp, other rebels all across the group fell in mid-retreat, seemingly at random, and didn't get up again.

The monster was single-handedly taking down an army.

And another army, this one in armor of black and crimson, was emerging from the swamp to surround the tree, trapping everyone here at the center of all things, where only loss and death were carrying the day. The Fire Nation was in full control of this battle.

Zuko tore his gaze away and back to the girl in his arms.

Suki's eyes focused on him once again, and though her skin was deathly pale, she managed something like a smile with her bloodied lips. Zuko tried to smile back, for her, but couldn't manage it.

When her gazed drifted again, he thought she might have died.

But before he could be overcome by the grief, he saw that her expression was shifting, her eyebrows rising in what could have been surprise. Zuko turned, following her line of sight up, up, up into the sky-

-he had to squint his single eye against the shine of the sun-

-where a single cloud was moving quickly against the wind.


Not a cloud.

A sky-bison.

Zuko found the strength to lift his injured arm and let all his pain and joy and anger and wonder out in the form of flames. They were weak, dying not far from his fist, but he put all his breath and will into them, so they flared brightly in their brief moments of existence. Despite the pain of moving his arm, he timed his Firebending into pattern of a universal distress code used by all sailors across the world. He might have only been in command of a ship for a few weeks, years ago, but he had still memorized all the available information and he would never give up such hard-won knowledge.

He was rewarded when the path of the sky-bison shifted, diving down towards Zuko's position.

But he didn't let himself relax. He couldn't be sure that he had really been seen. He kept up his signaling, despite the protesting agony in his arm. He told Suki to hang on, that help was on the way, that she was going to live, and anything else that occurred to him that might keep her fighting to survive.

He might have said, "I love you," at some point.

He wasn't really sure.

He did know that it was true, though.

Whatever he had said, Suki's eyes widened at his words, and she stared at him even as Appa swooped above them. She stared at him as a star-like cluster of bodies leaped from the saddle, descending with the slow grace of Airbending, falling into the story happening here like heroes returning from ancient legends.

Aang fell like lightning right into the front offensive lines of the Fire Army, becoming an army unto himself with command of all four elements.

Ty Lee roared as she angled the blanket she was using as a glider, launching herself into a duel with Bangfei on the roots of the banyan-grove tree that became a blur of bodies and fists.

The Mud Man, of all people, called up waves of squelching earth that carried fallen rebels away from the monster.

And Katara landed beside Zuko with a grunt (followed by Sokka's own much less graceful landing), healing waters already glowing and floating around her hands.

Zuko waited patiently, properly, as Suki's body was restored by those healing, until she had the strength to sit up again, and only then did he kiss her bloody lips.

It felt like something - finally, amazingly, unbelievably - had gone right when she kissed him back.

Aang couldn't believe how wrong everything had gone. The truth of his failures was sprawled all around him. After flying all night and all day on Appa, following the energy trails of his connections to his distant friends here, it seemed that the war he was supposed to fight was-

Well, it was almost over. Instead of being guided in by his connections to his friends, he'd just followed the eye-watering glow on the horizon, the same searing blue light as his Avatar State.

Aang arrived to find that Iroh had completed his plan, had settled his platinum parasite atop an unmistakable tree that was the source of the otherworldly glowing. Against the blackening tree roots that extended into the swamp, the army that Toph was supposed to have assembled was being broken, including all the friends who he'd bent time itself to bring here to help. He knew this wasn't their fault; they'd done more than he had expected of them.

It was enough to make his blood sing and his heart ache.

He could feel the Avatar Spirit within him trying to break free, to give voice to his disappointment in himself and join with the light of the defiled tree to remove this whole swamp from human memory.

But it was his connections to all the people here that let him face the enormity of the Avatar State itself and tell it, 'No.'

The South Pole, Crescent Island, the Fire Nation Capital- he'd failed to control himself there, and caused unimaginable damage. Now, gathered in this swamp were all the people he knew and loved in the world. They were right in the path of whatever fury he would unleash. Those lines of energy that connected his heart to theirs made for an effective cage against the surging Avatar State.

Even that wouldn't have been enough, normally, if wasn't the one person not here at all.


He couldn't help it. He loved everyone here, but she was special in his heart. It wasn't that her life was more important, that deaths of other people were tolerable as long as he got her back. That was the sickness that had infected Iroh. No, what saved Aang was that he was sure - wherever she was - Mai was still fighting for him. Somehow. Some way.

He had to do his part, no matter how hopeless it looked.

So he used his metal Monk's Staff to scatter waves of Fire Nation soldiers with hurricane winds as he flew above them on his glider, zipping quickly to the next group he could find, and then the next group, and then the next. He was a stinging insect all across the battlefield, alone in the air until he sailed right past Ty Lee.


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« Reply #324 on: Nov 01, 2019 06:38 pm »

Ty Lee liked attention, but her problem was that she sometimes earned it without really wanting to. It was possible that this was her fault, that she was doing something to encourage the attention, but if that was true, then it was really unfair. People should check with her if she wanted the attention. That was just common sense.

Bangfei, an old comrade and fellow Weapon of the Fire Nation whose aura was a super-jealous dark green right now, chased after Ty Lee as she skipped across the tree tops of the swamp. "I thought you were dead!!"

"Sorry? I never told anyone I was dead." She got to a branch that just barely handled her weight and stopped to make her stand, raising her fists. Bangfei landed next to her on the branch, but he realized too late how fragile it was and plummeted like a rock when it snapped beneath him. Ty Lee fell, too, and that was good. She had come up with a plan and as she fell, she snapped her arms behind her to throw out a wind that accelerated her.

She zoomed towards Bangfei and rained punches on him, but he blocked the blows and managed to twist enough to kick off a passing tree and make something like a good landing.

He ripped his twisted and restricting blue robe off, leaving him wearing just a pair of white pants. "I mourned for you! I pledged myself to Iroh to help him destroy death because of you!"

Ty Lee shrugged. "I'm glad you found a way to keep busy?"

Bangfei opened his fists and reached his hands out to her. "It- it doesn't matter. You're alive, and the Fire Lord is going to destroy death. Maybe we- we can be happy together?"

Ty Lee blinked. "Are you asking me out?"

"I suppose."

Oh. Great. This again. Ty Lee tried to give him a comforting smile. "I'm sorry, you're a nice boy even though you're trying to destroy the world and a very productive fanatic but I'm already involved with someone. A Water Tribe girl. She's so nice."

"Oh." Bangfei's face colored red to compliment the green flare of his aura. "I- I'm glad you're happy."


Then he leaped at her and raised his fists.

But Sister Matagi, white and gold robes torn and stained by mud, had jumped first from the tree she'd been climbing through. She wasn't a fighter, and so she completely failed to trip Bangfei up, she did manage to grab enough of Bangfei's legs to slow him down.

And Ty Lee was really fast.

She tagged him before he was ready to punch with her own fists, a nice little sequence of taps along his arms that left them lifeless. Then she gave him a debilitating pair of pokes near his kidneys that made him double over and scream. Then she slammed three punches down along his spine.

He dropped. Hard.

Ty Lee moved to help Sister Matagi to her feet. "Thanks. And you did it without any Airbending or hitting people!"

Sister Matagi offered a small smile, and her aura was a lovely light blue. "I do what I can. Sister."

Aang landed in swampwater, snapping his glider closed and letting himself completely submerge until he hit the muddy bottom. A stab of his glider and Monk's Staff solidified it beneath him, and the jump he was able to make off of it became a call to all the water around him. He rose up with it, breaching the surface again amidst a circle of fountain-like surges, and turned them against a flotilla of metal Fire Nation boats - and the archers aboard - that had been chasing a group of Sun Warriors who weren't used to travel across swamps. Archers and boats were soon parted, and the Sun Warriors found that a lot easier to deal with.

Aang landed lightly on the back of a confused catgator as Katara and whole line of Waterbenders rode a rising tsunami across the swamp.

Katara had found that wars were busy.

She'd barely had enough time to heal Suki and Zuko before they were being attacked by old men in blue and white robes - Benders all, with a subtle skill reminded Katara too much of Master Pakku - and forced to retreat along the massive tree root into the thick of the swamp and fighting. But it was a good retreat, because within that thickness, Waterbenders from the Faceless Tribe and the Southern Water Tribe and even what seemed to be a local tribe of hicks in shortpants made of leaves were gaterhing-

-under the leadership of Master Hama herself.

Hama had smiled and simply said, "Well met, my student. Do you remember making a wave at Crescent Island?"

Katara had grinned in response.

The wave they'd created with the help of all the other Waterbenders was a lot bigger than the one at Crescent Island, but then, this time they weren't tired, malnourished, withered escapees anymore. This wave had done more than simply catch a crashing boat, too. In fact, it had caught quite a few boats, small metal things that buzzed. The Fire Army soldiers piloting those boats had not buzzed when their crafts had capsized and been sent to the bottom of the swamp.

But that still left them with plenty of enemy army to deal with.

They landed on the shores of a larger patch of more-or-less solid land, where Earthbenders led by Tryo and Haru were holding up a refuge made of half-solidified mud for injured rebels against a group of Fire Army soldiers in special heavy armor. Katara wondered about that until one of them threw what seemed to be a large marble at the mud fortifications, and it exploded with a deafening crack and that sent a shockwave through the air.

Katara gritted her teeth and tried to figure out how to get a worthwhile amount of water over to those bomb-throwers.

But Hama looked up at the forest canopy above. "Everything we need is already here. Everyone, together: feel the water in the trees, become one with it, reach up, and bring those trees down on their heads!"

Bending plants by the water within them? As Katara joined in, she said, "That's pretty clever! Where did you learn that?"

"The Waterbenders living here in the swamp. A lost tribe who have found new styles for us to learn!" Hama chuckled as, with the strength of so many Waterbenders pulling on them, a pair of trees fell with rumbles like the growling of giants and collapsed straight onto the team of bombers. "Their masters can even manipulate individual vines. It reminds me of my theories of using Waterbending on the blood within a body."


Katara couldn't help but remember what she'd done at the North Pole, the way she'd become a monster to the Fire Army there by taking control of their blood to guard the oasis. "They're not theories anymore, Master."

It took Hama a moment to understand. "You- you've done it?"

Katara kept her gaze on her own feet. "It is a powerful technique. It can do great harm." But thinking of the oasis also reminded her of how she'd saved Sokka - maybe even snatched him from beyond death - by manipulating his blood into accepting the healing Spirit Water. "But- I suppose it can do good, too."

Hama's warm hands came to rest on Katara's shoulders. "Then it sounds like you'll have to be my master for this, once the war is over."

Katara finally looked up to her Master's face, and was startled to see Hama bowing to her.

Aang used his glider to fly off the catgator and followed the sound of Appa's lowing to a sheltered spot beneath an arch in one of the tree's massive, blackening roots. Appa was floating in the swampwater, and in his saddle, Sokka, some men in the simple blue clothes of the Southern Water Tribe, and Momo were leaning over King Toph, who was curled up and shivering.

What was that about?

Aang shifted the path of his gliding.

When Sokka found a group of his Tribemates, he'd been expecting to join in the fighting, get a nice heroic moment or two consisting of a medium amount of violence inflicted on the enemy. Maybe throw in a clever quip that he could tell everyone about later. The scale of this fighting, after all, was far beyond the Ragtag Band of Adventurers thing that he and Aang and Momo and Appa and Whoever Else Was Hanging Around usually had going. Best to just join in and try to ride the action out.

So he really wasn't expecting it when he was put in charge.

Standing the saddle beside the shivering, unconscious Earth King, Sokka decided to try it all again. "Okay, so a monster is ravaging your ranks, Toph went out like a light because of that, Bato is missing-" Sokka had to swallow past a lump at that thought. "-and there's no one who's in charge?"

The men all nodded.

See, this was the part Sokka was having trouble with. "Isn't there a command hierarchy or something?"

"Uh," said Tiguaak, "a lot of those guys are shivering like the king here. We think it's affecting them all the same way."

Okay, logical Weird, but logical.. "But all those groups out there- they have leaders who could step up, right?"

"Well," said Ujurak, "a lot of them are new, and the retreat was pretty chaotic, you know? The army is scattered, and no one seems to be trying to be in charge."

That seemed wildly unorganized. Were wars really run this way? Although, they had kind of rushed this one, to be fair. "Okay, so- uh, why me? I've never had anything even close to a position of authority. I was a collaborator in the South Pole colony's science station, and then I was just running around with Aang for- wow, I don't even know how long it's been. Inuksuk, can't you be in charge? People like you."

"Uh," said Inuksuk, "thank you, Chief, but as you just said, you've been leading the Avatar's quest to save the world since he awakened. We figure you're probably the best informed person here about what's really going on, what the deal with the monster is, and why the tree is glowing. You know, all that weird stuff."

Sokka was forced to nod. "I have been dealing with a lot of weird stuff." Well, it wasn't like they had time to argue about it. "Okay then, I guess I'm in charge now. Great. So, uh, first we need to get everyone's attention. Appa can fly up and I'll shout some nice rallying stuff, or something. And the tree is important. That's where Aang has to fight the Fire Lord. So we should clear a path to that for him. And do something about the giant spider. That thing is bad, as I learned during my dangerous spying mission. And we need to get Aang here to look at Toph and make sure she's not dying. Ooh, and by the sound of this monster, we'll need a platinum weapon. Good thing I stole Mai's. And then..."

Aang had just tilted his glider to take him towards where Sokka and Appa were sheltering Toph-

-and then something roared up from the swamp and slammed into him with enough force to drag him right back to the ground.

He bounced off a wet island of grass and moss, his glider going flying while his Monk's Staff got all tangled up in his limbs as he tumbled straight into a tree with enough momentum to shake leaves loose. His whole body was sore and he needed a minute to remember how to stand up, but then he heard a sound that was bone-chillingly familiar, a noise like wind howling through a tunnel while a Yangchen Festival Chorus screamed in terrified unison.

He'd heard that before, hunting the Unhcegila monster with the Faceless Tribe.

He jumped to his feet and, instead of looking up, held his Monk's Staff at a certain angle to show the reflection in the flat shovel-like blade at one end. He was surprised to see something human in shape, but the maggot-white skin, the curved horns that stabbed out from the head to form a halo that didn't quite meet in the center, and the eyes so black that seemed more an emptiness than anything solid were all unmistakable remembrances of one the most dangerous threats he'd encountered.

The Unhcegila that had nearly destroyed the Faceless Tribe. Just its head had fueled some of Iroh's horrific experiments in the North Pole.

Had Iroh- had he somehow created his own Unhcegila?

The creature growled, and Aang could actually hear a word in the guttural noise: "Av- a- tar!"

Had Iroh created his own Unhcegila out of a person?!

The monster leaped.

Aang leaped out of the way and even pulled a wind to help speed his dodge, but the Man-Unhcegila still managed to brush the heels of his boots with an outstretched claw. He'd forgotten how fast the Unhcegila had been! Aang pounced a fist to the ground as he landed, using both Waterbending and Earthbending to take control of the soaked earth beneath him, and then rose and punched a blunt spike straight in the Man-Unhcegila's chest.

Water and mud impacted against white flesh and what seemed to be the remains of a Fire Navy uniform, but the creature itself didn't even so much as stumble. It backhanded the spike hard enough to make it explode, and Aang hissed at the stinging rain of debris as he flipped backwards and tried to look around for his glider. He needed a way to dart in and out of the creature's range with some real speed if he was going to fight this thing. The original Unhcegila had only been vulnerable when there were enough people to divide its attention, and even then every encounter with it had resulted in lost lives.

Out of the corner of his vision, Aang saw the Man-Unhcegila raise a fist and punch out a plume of fire that erupted into heat and light and pain.

Aang found himself flat on his back, arms and head stinging as if from a sunburn, with no memory of even falling. So the Man-Unhcegila was a Firebender?!

And then the monster itself was looming over Aang, looking down on him with black eyes that reflected his own terrified expression.

He fell fully into the frigid nothingness of those eyes, accompanied by the agonized cries of every single one of the friends and allies who had come to this swamp to help him save the world.

"No," Mai croaked, fighting to keep her voice flat but unable to stop herself from speaking, "not Aang!"

Koh looked here straight in the eyes. "Are you ready, then, to become a hero?"

The question was almost nonsensical enough to distract her from the fact that Aang was in the process of dying. "What do you mean?"

"A hero fights for love and then fades away. You alone, protected in my lair, are left to fight. And a monster that steals spirit with its gaze cannot do anything against a warrior with no face."

Koh smiled.

Mai got it. "You- you can do that?"

"I can. Usually, my gift is meant to punish, but I want Iroh to fail as much as you do. Give me your face, and I will render you into the ultimate destroyer, putting you in the very place where the whole world will turn on your killing."

Mai blinked. "And then I get my face back when I'm done?"

"Ah, no." Koh somehow shook its segmented body in a motion like a many-legged shrug. "Once I take a face, there's no returning it, even if I wanted to. Even I have to bow to certain rules. My own nature is one of them. What I take stays taken."

"Oh. So that's what this has all been about." Mai sighed. "All this stalking me, flirting with me, getting philosophical about heroism, and the constant protesting that you just do your job and don't get disgustingly excited at the thought of stealing women from Avatars. You want my face."

"I never pretended otherwise. And I am giving you something you want in return. I may mix business with pleasure, but I do take my duties seriously. And you- well, with you, the end result was never in doubt. This is what you were made for. A living weapon in the shape of a woman, one whose love has hurt everyone she ever cared about, a failure who does good only in acts of destruction."

Koh's eyes closed, and the legs impaling Mai shivered so hard that she was thrown free to crash to the floor of this otherworldly cave. The bug-like body twisted and bobbed through the shadows as Koh's voice rang out in something like a song: "The Avatar, the Fire Prince, the Water Tribe collaborator, even your stupid acrobat friend have all judged you and found you unworthy. Everyone you ever tried to love has cast you away- at one point of another. Your tenacity may have kept you in their lives, but isn't it time you embraced what you were always meant to be?

"A beautiful, broken, glorious sacrifice to loftier ideals than you could ever hold on your own. Something they can love in memory. It will be so much easier than dealing with you in life."

Mai wanted to deny it, but the bug wasn't wrong. She'd betrayed both Aang and Zuko at the same time, glorifying in their pain before she came to regret it. Even Ty Lee had feared that Mai would report her for being an Airbender, and that was a friend she'd loved since childhood. And, even if she could reason through Koh's attempts to hurt her, she could feel Aang coming closer and closer to becoming one with the darkness of the Man-Unhcegila's eyes.

In the end, was it really worthwhile to fight for herself? She'd always preferred to fight or others, anyway.

"Fine." She looked up at Koh. "If you want my stupid face so badly, you can have it, you disgusting ash-licking spawn of a slush-bug." She stuck out her tongue at Koh and glared at him.

Koh just stared back.

Mai quirked an eyebrow. "I thought you could steal my face if I showed expression."

"It has to be real, my dear."

What did that-


Mai sighed. For the last time.

She closed her eyes, and thought of Toph and Sokka and Zuko and Tom-Tom and Ty Lee and even that stupid sky bison. She let her feelings - everything she'd always worked so hard to deny and control and turn into weapons - to fill her and overcome her and flow up out of her eyes as she looked to Koh.


One final touch-

She thought of Aang and smiled.

In that moment, Mai ceased to be.

Mai was a person, an identity, a collection of experiences and thoughts and feelings and needs. Mai was a being both natural and self-constructed, infinitely complex and utterly unique.

In an instant, it all went away.

With her face went everything that made her Mai. The thoughts, the feelings, the needs. The traumas she'd suffered and the shields she'd built. Her connections, those strings of energy that existed beyond the physical plane, were severed by the sharp edge of the void that was now her face. What was left was nothing but a body, a shape that had once contained her but now enclosed nothing but echoes and habits shorn of context.

If those echoes were really echoes, if they were made of sound instead of the indefinable nature that used to guide Mai whenever her true Self was all tangled up in itself, they would have sounded like the scraping of a knife being sharpened.

The Faceless Warrior stood tall in the center of Koh's lair, ready for war.


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