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Author Topic: Traitor's Face [AU Adventure, rated T]  (Read 33704 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.


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