Story [Avatar: The Last Airbender] Destinies Rewritten Book I: Water, Updated 7/26

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  1. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Author: MasterGhandalf
    Title: Destinies Rewritten Book I: Water
    Characters: Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, Azula, Suki, Iroh, Ozai, Lu Ten, Bumi, etc.
    Timeframe: Season One AU
    Summary: Lu Ten survived the Siege of Ba Sing Se, which fell to his father, the Dragon of the West, General Iroh of the Fire Nation. Now the Fire Nation is closer to victory than it has ever been. Iroh is Fire Lord and Lu Ten is his heir and right hand, while Prince Ozai schemes to usurp his brother's throne and sends his two children on a secret mission of utmost importance. Omashu and the Northern Water Tribe are the only great strongholds left which still resist Fire Nation rule, and they seem certain to fall soon. All hope for those who would oppose the Fire Nation seems lost.

    It is in this world that two siblings from the Southern Water Tribe find a mysterious boy and his allegedly-extinct animal companion frozen in an iceberg...

    Notes: This is an AU that I started a while back, got distracted during and never got far into, and now am planning to revisit. The first couple of chapters have been posted here previously (sadly chopped up now by the word limit), but after that will be new material.

    Prologue: Divergent Courses

    Destiny is a funny thing.

    At first glance, history would seem to be already written, unchanging and immutable. After all, what's past is past- why should it have been anything else but what it is? All we have to do is live with it and learn from it. And yet it is also true that in the end, great things are made up of small things, and that all of history can turn on individual events, so that if they are altered slightly, fate itself will run in a different course.

    Imagine, if you will, a world where Prince Iroh of the Fire Nation did not lose his son at the climax of the Siege of Ba Sing Se. The loss of his beloved Lu Ten was the one thing that prevented him from keeping the siege up and taking the city; without that one death, the great capital of the Earth Kingdom falls. The Fire Nation moves in to occupy, and the city's people who survive the conquest are forced to live under its tyranny, their own culture slowly eroded to be replaced with that of their conquerors. The legendary city of the Earth King is now a jewel in the Fire Lord's crown.

    With the passing of Fire Lord Azulon a year later, it is Iroh who takes the throne of his ancestors; having been given no reason to question the policies of his predecessors, he continues them, with an eye towards bringing the rest of the world under his rule and building an empire that will endure for a thousand years. Only two great enemies remain- the Northern Water Tribe and Omashu, first and last city of the Earth Kingdom, whose mad but brilliant King Bumi is now Earth King in all but name.

    Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe still goes to war to avenge the murder of his wife and many others of his people, but with Ba Sing Se gone and Omashu landlocked he finds few allies in the Earth Kingdom. Instead he sails to the far North, and for the first time in centuries the two Water Tribes are joined together once more. With Southern ships and warriors backed by Northern waterbenders, he wages a guerilla war along the Fire Nation's coasts, and while he does damage, he also rouses the Fire Lord's anger.

    In the Fire Nation Capital, unrest stirs. A new army is being marshaled under the command of Prince Lu Ten, its target unknown. Prince Ozai, the Fire Lord's younger brother, has been consumed by bitterness and ambition, and though he professes loyalty, all know that he truly desires the throne for himself. He has dispatched his two children, Zuko and Azula, on a mission of utmost secrecy which he believes can, if successful, bring him the glory he needs to successfully usurp Iroh.

    And in the icy waters of the South, two teenagers move closer to a discovery that will shake the world- but with the Fire Nation's victory all but certain, can even the long-vanished Avatar bring victory to those who would live free?

    Destiny is a funny thing, and in the end, no one but the great spirits themselves can see all the twists and turns it might, or might not, take.
    Last edited by MasterGhandalf, Jul 26, 2014
  2. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    This looks to be so very interesting! I love the premise of your AU, and can't wait to see where you take it. :D

    =D=
  3. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 1: The Boy in the Iceberg*

    Katara sighed and settled herself more deeply in the back of the canoe, watching her older brother as he leaned over the edge, eyes fixed on the shadow of a fish moving just beneath the surface of the water, spear held poised to strike. Sokka was muttering to himself under his breath- whether urging the fish closer or debating with himself how to cook it when he caught it she was too far away to tell, but the sight brought an amused smile to her face. Sokka could be a show-off, and was sarcastic rather more than was good for him, but he was Katara's brother and she did love him- the moreso now because of the fact that, despite his faults, he was one of the only people in the South Pole she could stand to be around.

    A sudden flash in the water on her side of the boat caught Katara's interest- another fish swimming along by the side. Swiftly, an idea formed in her mind- she wasn't technically supposed to be doing this, but it didn't seem likely she'd get another chance any time soon. Glancing back at Sokka, making sure he was thoroughly occupied, she stood up slowly and smoothed down her apprentice healer's furs, and then removed one of her gloves and stretched out a hand over the water.

    Instantly the water responded to her movements and began to rise, forming a bubble around the fish- she hadn't been trained in this kind of bending, but the natural affinity for the element was there, just as it had been her whole life, and she relished the chance to actually make use of it for once. Slowly, responding to Katara's motions, the water rose above the canoe, the fish swimming frantically inside it.

    Unfortunately, Sokka chose that exact moment to try and spear his own fish- which might have succeeded if the butt of his weapon hadn't smacked into Katara's water, throwing off his aim and sending cold liquid cascading down over both of them while the fish, grateful for its freedom, flopped back over the side and out of sight. Shaking himself off, Sokka slowly turned towards Katara.

    "What were you thinking?" he demanded. "Katara, you know you're not supposed to be doing that. If your Master saw you…"

    "Master Sasiko's not here, Sokka," she shot back. "I'm sick of not being allowed to learn real waterbending! Maybe the Northern Tribe doesn't train girls to be anything but healers, but Gran-Gran says that's not how our tribe did it back when we still had benders. Besides, I thought you were getting tired of Northern Tribe warriors treating you like a kid."

    "I am, believe me," Sokka said. "But this alliance with the North is important to Dad, and I don't want to do anything to screw that up- and you shouldn't either."

    "Easy for you to say. You're old enough that you'll be able to go off and fight with Dad, the other warriors, and the Northern fleet soon. But under their stupid rules, I won't ever be allowed to be anything but a healer. It's not…" Katara never got the chance to say what the situation wasn't. The canoe suddenly rocked in a powerful current, and then it and the two Water Tribe siblings were being pulled along at a tremendous pace through a narrow, iceberg-choked stretch of sea. They attempted to regain control of their craft, but to no avail. The canoe slammed against a particularly large and unpleasant hunk of ice and splintered. Wet and exhausted, Sokka and Katara climbed atop the ice and surveyed their surroundings.

    "I knew I shouldn't have let you talk me into taking me along," Sokka said, staring at the water where the canoe had been.

    "What, because I'm a girl?" Katara demanded. "Listen, Sokka, I'm starting to get really tired of hearing that. Master Sasiko says I've got one of the strongest waterbending talents she's seen- I could use that to be out helping Dad fight the Fire Nation, but instead I'm stuck running errands for her and it doesn't look like that's going to change any time soon…" As Katara spoke, her temper built and she began to gesture more dramatically with her arms. The iceberg looming behind the young waterbender responded to her anger and began to shake and crack. Sokka stumbled backwards, eyes wide.

    "Katara," he began, "watch out!" Even as he finished speaking, however, the iceberg shattered completely with tremendous force, sending shards flying and causing the water to churn angrily around it. Both siblings collapsed onto their own iceflow and held on as tightly as they could until the water settled, their eyes still wide as they stared at the empty place where the iceberg had been.

    "Wow," Sokka breathed. "I really hope that's not what you do to your patients."

    "Ha, ha," his sister responded, but she still couldn't tear her eyes away from what she had unleashed, awed and more than a little afraid. Slowly, Katara and her brother began to pull themselves back to their feet, but before they could move more than that the water began to churn again and glow a strange, unnatural blue. A ball of ice was rising to the surface- the strange glow emanated from it. Child of the polar seas though she was, Katara had never seen anything quite like it before. As she stared into the ice-ball, her eyes managed to make out two figures inside- a large animal of some sort, and a boy who looked almost like he was meditating. Suddenly, the boy's eyes snapped open- they burned with a blue-white light, and Katara realized that he was the source of the glow.

    "He's alive! We have to help him!" Grabbing Sokka's club from where it was slung across his back, she ran to the ice and began striking it frantically, ignoring his protests that she should stop. Katara threw as much strength of body and bending into every blow as she could- and suddenly the ball of ice broke apart, releasing pillar of blue-white light that shot upward into the sky, further than the eye could follow, visible from miles away.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------

    Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation lowered the spyglass from his eye as the bolt of light continued to shoot into the heavens from an unknown source and allowed himself a rare smile. "Finally," he said. "Azula, you need to come look at this! There's only one thing it can mean."

    "That the celestial lights are unusually active this time of year?" a cool female voice said from behind him. Zuko turned to see his sister approach with a predator's casual, deadly grace. Stopping at her brother's side, she took the spyglass from his hands and began to study the light herself. "I'll admit its strange, but there's no guarantee it's what we're looking for- at least, not until we examine it more closely."

    Zuko growled. "Don't be ridiculous, Azula. That light's not natural. It must be coming from some powerful source- it has to be him."

    Azula lowered the glass and turned to face her brother, leaning on the ship's rail. "Oh, I'll certainly give you that it's unnatural, but just because it is doesn't mean that it's the Avatar. Running off after hunches gets you nowhere; the cunning warrior uses her mind as a weapon at least as much as her body or bending."

    "Her?" Zuko asked, not bothering to hide the irritation in his voice. Azula only arched an eyebrow and shot him an expression that said that in her opinion there was only one "cunning warrior" aboard their warship, and the pronoun she'd used was a perfectly appropriate description.

    "Still," the princess mused, "there is a chance you're right, and if we passed up a real lead- well, explaining that to Father wouldn't be an enjoyable experience." She turned to the crew and raised her voice. "Helmsman, make for the light. Let's find out if my brother isn't on to something for once."

    The princess left the prow and moved back towards the main body of the ship, the winter cloak she war swirling behind her. Zuko watched her go with a scowl, then shook of his irritation at family and turned back to the fading pillar of light- where he was certain their true target waited.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------

    Katara and Sokka stumbled back from the exploding iceberg, Sokka doing his best to shield his sister from the light and flying shards of ice with his body. Finally, after how long they couldn't say, the light began to dim and both turned to see a shadow moving inside it. Sokka leveled his spear at the figure, but before he could react further it slid to the ground and collapsed before the Water Tribe siblings. The strange light from its eyes and tattoos dimmed, revealing nothing more or less than a young boy with a shaved head, his forehead and hands tattooed with a strange arrow pattern and his clothing that of a monk.

    Katara ran forward and grabbed the boy, lifting him up out of the snow. Sokka hovered behind her, spear still at the ready, but she looked over her shoulder and shot him a glare, warning him to stay back. Turning back to the boy, she leaned in closer and saw that he was beginning to stir.

    His grey eyes opened a fraction as he saw her, and his lips moved, giving voice to a weak whisper. "I need to ask you something."

    "What?" Katara asked.

    "Come closer," the boy whispered, and Katara bent in towards him- before suddenly his eyes snapped fully open and his head raised, his whole demeanor changing.

    "Will you go penguin sledding with me?" He asked in a voice that was much stronger, and seemed almost chipper. Katara, taken aback by the sudden change, could only think to pull back and stammer that yes, of course she would. Inside, her mind was whirling. The boy obviously wasn't Water Tribe- how did he even know about penguin sledding in the first place, and what in the name of the spirits had he been doing inside that iceberg?

    The boy leaped to his feet- no, Katara thought, leaped was a poor word- he almost glided- and glanced around, while Sokka backed up with a startled shout, still brandishing his spear. "What's going on here?" the stranger asked with interest.

    "That's what I'd like to know," Katara said, studying him intently. "Listen, I'm a healer- well, technically, an apprentice- and I'd like to take a look at you. Being in that ice can't have been good for you- how long were you in there, anyway? Do you feel sick, or dizzy, or anything? "

    "No, I feel fine," the boy said, examining himself thoroughly. "Are you really a healer? That's great- the monks always taught us that it was a really noble thing to do." He looked back at the iceberg. "I don't really know how long I was in there. A few days, maybe a week?" He shrugged. "I'm Aang, by the way. What's your name?"

    "I'm Katara." She motioned at her brother. "And the guy who's gaping at you like a landed fish right now is my big brother, Sokka."

    At that comment Sokka seemed to recover himself. "All right," he said. "What was that light all about? Were you trying to signal someone? You're a spy for the Fire Nation, aren't you? Answer me!"

    "Oh, leave him alone, Sokka." Katara turned back to Aang. "You're not a spy, are you?"

    "Not that I know of," said Aang, looking baffled. "And why would the Fire Nation need spies, anyway?"

    "Why would they need…" Sokka began, then ended with a choke, apparently at a loss for words. "All right, kid, you can act all innocent if you want to, but I still think we should take you back to the village and let the warriors figure out who you are and what you want." He looked back at the water where the canoe had sunk and sighed. "Or at least, that's what we would do if we had any means of transportation."

    "Transportation!" Aang smacked himself on the forehead. "I almost forgot. Appa!" Turning around, he darted up into the remains of the shattered iceberg, where something inside was making groggy rumbling noises.

    "All right," Sokka said. "Who or what is that?"

    "Appa!" Aang said happily from inside the ice. "You're all right!" His head popped up again from over the edge of the iceberg. "Appa's my sky bison. He's big enough to take us all back to your village." He turned back towards the crater. "Come on, buddy. Yip yip!"

    "Sky bison?" Sokka mouthed, and even Katara felt a little dubious at the sound of that name. Shortly thereafter, however, they both found themselves riding on the back of an immense, six-legged, furry legendary creature as it paddled through the water, along with a boy who had been frozen in ice without suffering any ill effects and now claimed he was an airbender. Sokka murmured under his breath that this was obviously one of those days. Katara found she couldn't quite bring herself to disagree. **

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Zuko stood on the ship's tower, leaning against the railing and eyes fixed on the darkening horizon, when he heard his sister's footsteps approach from behind him. "What do you want?" he asked without turning.

    "To tell you to get some rest," Azula said. "You're not going to capture the Avatar by doing nothing but stare at the sky, and if you don't get any sleep you'll be no use to anyone."

    "Why do you care?"

    Azula laughed darkly. "Why Zuko, do you honestly think I can't be concerned about my only brother's wellbeing?" She paused. "The truth is that if we do go into battle tomorrow, I don't want my back watched by someone who's half asleep. And so you see my reasons are, in fact, purely self-interested."

    "Figures," Zuko muttered. "But I don't feel like sleeping. We need to do this- Father's counting on us, and I will show him that I am a son he can be proud of."

    Azula sighed. "Very well. Your choice, but I, for one, am going to bed. Good night, Zuzu."

    Zuko gritted his teeth at the taunting nickname and remained on the tower for some time longer, before finally reluctantly taking his sister's advice and heading down to bed.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Aang floated in darkness on Appa's back as stormclouds swirled around them. The only illumination came from occasional flashes of lightning around them, and Appa roared as he struggled to fly straight despite the storm's winds. Then they were falling, and Aang heard himself scream as the ocean rushed up to meet them, and the cold dark waters swallowed them up…

    Aang woke suddenly to the sound of Katara calling his name. Sitting up, he looked around and saw that he was laying on a pallet in a hut that seemed to be made from animal skins. Katara was kneeling by his side, looking concerned. "Where are we?" Aang asked her.

    "In the village," she told him. "We got here last night, but you were already asleep. Come on- everyone wants to meet you, and, well… some people would like to ask you some questions."

    "Sure," Aang said, jumping to his feet and pulling on his shirt. His airbending staff lay nearby- Katara or Sokka must have moved it from Appa's saddle- and he picked it up and followed Katara out into the tribe's village.

    As he stepped out into the sunlight and took in the people gathered there, the airbender blinked in surprise. In the Air Temples, he'd learned that the Southern Water Tribe, while never as large or prosperous as the Northern Tribe, was still a large and successful nation, but this village was tiny, and most of the people were either children or older women. A group of maybe a dozen men stood slightly apart from the rest, but their clothing was different and they carried spears. Aang blinked as he studied them- he thought they looked more like they were from the Northern Tribe than the Southern, but that was probably just because he hadn't been paying attention to Monk Gyatso enough when they'd talked about the Water Tribes.

    "Aang, whole village," Katara said, "whole village, Aang." She gestured to an old woman. "This is my grandmother."

    "Call me Gran-Gran," the woman said wearily as Aang bowed to her.

    "This is Master Sasiko, who teaches me healing," Katara continued, motioning to a middle-aged woman who stood next to her grandmother and who was regarding Aang curiously. You'd almost thing she'd never seen an airbender before or something. "And these are the warriors who are protecting our tribe while my father is away, and their leader, Hakka." Here Katara motioned towards the Northern-Tribe-looking men; their leader stepped forward and faced Aang.

    "All right, young man," he said; his voice was calm and even, but hardly warm. "It's my job to keep this village safe, and I want to ask you some questions about who you are and where you've been. We can't afford to take any chances. Understand?"

    "Yeah," Aang said. "I'll tell you whatever you want me to, but… when you're done, can I ask you a few things? Cause there are things around here that aren't making much sense."

    "Well, that depends on the question," Hakka said. "We'll see. So- Aang, right?- you told Sokka and Katara that you're an airbender. Would you mind demonstrating that?"

    That question hadn't been what Aang had been expecting, but this was something he was more than happy to oblige. "Watch me," he said, grinning, and then snapped his staff's wings open and called up a gust of wind to bear him and it into the air. Looking down below, he could see children jumping and clapping, Katara smiling broadly, Gran Gran, Hakka, and Sasiko staring in undisguised amazement, and Sokka, who had come to stand beside Katara and was now rubbing his hands in his eyes frantically as if to make sure what he was seeing was real. Aang smiled broadly down at the village and circled it once- and then slammed into something hard and cold. Having not been paying attention to where he was going, he'd apparently crashed into the village wall.

    Leaping lightly down, folding in his glider, and airbending snow off himself, Aang stepped forward to face Hakka. "That's… very impressive," he said. "so, I guess you're not from the Fire Nation, then, and I don't think you're a spy."

    "Wait," Aang said, holding up a hand. "That's the second time I've heard about Fire Nation spies, and I'm confused. Why would the Fire Nation want to spy on anybody else? What's going on here?"

    "Why would the Fire Nation want to spy on us?" Sokka put in, his tone one of utter disbelief. "Because they're trying to take over the world! Spies help you do that!"

    "Take over the world," Aang repeated in shock. "I don't know anything about that. How long has this been going on? How long was I in that iceberg, anyway?"

    "The War has raged for nearly a hundred years," Gran Gran said sadly. "Ever since the Air Temples fell. As an airbender, you must have heard…."

    Aang backed up, eyes wide. "A hundred years," he breathed, shaking his head. "The Air Temples fell? No- that can't be possible. It just can't be!" He looked pleadingly at Katara, but she only shook her head, her eyes wide and sad.

    Backing up slowly from the village, Aang leaped into the air on his glider and soared away. He didn't know where he was going, but he needed to be alone, needed to find some way to take this all in.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    As Aang flew off, Katara rounded on Hakka. "Are you happy now?" she asked. "You scared him off." She whirled on Sokka. "And you didn't help."

    "How was I supposed to know the kid didn't know about the Fire Nation?" Sokka asked in exasperation. "Everybody knows that!"

    "Obviously, Aang doesn't," said Katara. "I'm going after him!" She could hear Master Sisiko and Gran-Gran calling out after her, but Katara blocked them out- she hurried from the village in the direction the airbender had gone, knowing that right now, more than she could imagine, he needed a friend.

    ----------------------------------------------------------------

    Azula spun on the deck of the warship, punching and kicking and sending great blasts of fire shooting across it, causing nearby sailors and soldiers to duck or dodge out of the way. The princess was almost in a trancelike state when she practiced this intensely- it was doubtful she would even be aware if she hit one of her crew, or that she would care if she was. Zuko watched his sister from a safe distance, and while she was often difficult to get along with (and had been an absolute terror when they'd been children) he had to grudgingly admit that when it came to firebending, she was tremendously impressive. Zuko was the more skilled of the royal siblings with the blade, but in terms of bending ability, Azula was his unquestionable superior.

    There were times when he resented that.

    Azula finished her routine and turned to face her brother. "Enjoying the show, Zuzu?" she asked. "Pick up any tips?"

    "Why do you drill so hard, Azula?" Zuko asked, ignoring her. "I've seen full-grown masters who aren't as obsessive about it as you are. You're already better than anyone else your age- what are you trying to do?"

    "Skills must be practiced or lost," Azula said in a superior voice. "But if you must know, I'm trying to learn to create blue fire.*** Father told me that it is the hottest, purest form of fire a bender can control. Only the most powerful can use it."

    Zuko suppressed a twinge of jealousy- Father certainly never gave him private bending lessons- before he spoke. "I heard Uncle say once that blue fire is a waste of time. There's nothing you can do with it that a master bender couldn't do with regular fire. He said only people with too much time on their hands and too much vanity bothered with it."

    "Did he?" Azula asked coldly. "Well, just because Uncle is Fire Lord doesn't mean he knows everything. I'll show you vanity." Quickly she drew in a deep breath and then spun, beginning her drill once more. Zuko sighed and shook his head, going back inside the body of the ship to retrieve his swords and get in some practice with them before the very likely event they found battle today.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------

    Katara found Aang out in the tundra, sitting against Appa's side and with his head hung. He didn't react as she approached and sat down next to him. "You really didn't know?" she asked quietly.

    Aang shook his head. "No," he said. "A hundred years. That's how long I was in that ice, and the Fire Nation destroyed the Air Temples and is trying to take over the world? I should've been there; I should've done something!"

    "Aang, don't blame yourself," Katara told him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "You're just one person- what could you have done against the whole Fire Nation? They're powerful, and they're ruthless- my mother died one of the times our tribe got raided." They both sat quietly for several moments after that; the air was heavy with shared sorrow.

    "Tell me what happened," Aang finally said, his voice soft.

    "Well, your people fell first," Katara said. "The Air Nomads- I don't think they stood a chance. The Earth Kingdom fought for longer- Ba Sing Se just fell a few years ago. I've heard there's still an Earth Kingdom city and its king that fight, but I don't know either of their names. A few years ago, my father Hakoda, our Chief, sailed to the Northern Tribe to make an alliance- Water against Fire. His fleet and the Northern fleet combined and are still out there somewhere, fighting. As part of the deal, the North sent Hakka, some warriors, and Master Sasiko came with them to be our healer- and teach me waterbending healing." Katara sighed. "Too bad that's all I get to learn. Apparently, the Northern Tribe doesn't approve of girls doing any other kind of waterbending, and I have to follow their stupid traditions."

    "That's silly," Aang said. "My people taught anyone who could airbend."

    "Your people had the right idea," Katara said. "I mean, healing is great and all, but I could do a lot more. I want to make a difference, and I can't do that here. Even Hakka's warriors are mostly just for show- Sokka says that Dad and his men are much better than they are, and nobody really expects the Southern Tribe to get attacked again. We don't have anything the Fire Nation wants anymore. At least Sokka will get to leave and go fight with Dad in a couple of years. I'm stuck here."

    "You never know," Aang said. "The monks always told us that the future was always in motion. You can never know what's going to happen."

    "I hope you're right." Katara stood. "So, are you ready to go back to the village?"

    " I think so," Aang said. "You want to ride on Appa again?"

    "Sure," Katara said. She clambered up onto the saddle after the airbender, and after he took the reins and gave his cry of "yip yip" they were suddenly, impossibly, in the air, as the ungainly six-legged bison moved effortlessly through the sky and back towards the village.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------

    "Azula!" Zuko called out, gesturing with one of his swords. Azula paused in her firebending and turned in the direction he was pointing- and her eyes widened as they took in the distant, and yet unmistakable, form flying above the nearby frozen wastes.

    "A sky bison," she breathed. "They're supposed to be extinct- they were only kept by the Air Nomads. And the Avatar…"

    "Is supposed to be the last Airbender," Zuko finished. "We've found him."

    "We have." Azula's lips curled into a smile as her gaze followed the sky bison. "Now we only need to follow him to his hiding place, and we'll have him."

    *In cases where the plot does not significantly diverge, I'll be using episode titles for chapter titles. In this case, the general events surrounding Aang's unfreezing are very similar to canon, even though the specifics are different. Later chapters where the altered timeline causes significant diversions will, of course, have different titles.

    **I streamlined this bit partially because the specifics of Sokka and Katara meeting Appa wouldn't be hugely different in this AU, and partially because the scene's visual humor I didn't feel would translate will to writing.

    ***Yes, this Azula is somewhat weaker than canon- she's still a scarily good firebender, particularly for her age, but she can't make blue fire and isn't as good with lightning. This was done partially because the presence of Canon!Azula would make the Fire Nation Avatar Hunters too powerful too early, and partially for in-story reasons we probably won't get to until this series' version of "The Storm".
  4. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    I like this version. Already I am intrigued - with Katara learning her skills earlier than in the series, and with the new dynamics to the Water Tribe's way of life. But the more intriguing change is Zuko and Azula. As much as I miss Iroh in his spot of 'Yoda' to Zuko, I am curious to watch how their relationship is going to progress and change throughout this series. Really, really intrigued. [face_thinking]

    As always, your writing is fun and easy to read - you have a knack for story telling, and I am looking forward to more. =D=
  5. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 2: The Avatar Returns

    The village children squealed in delight as Appa came in for a landing just outside the low wall, charging out and petting the great sky bison's fur or just babbling excitedly about this strange creature that somehow flew without wings. Appa gave a low rumble of delight and settled down into the snow, his large eyes regarding the children benignly, but as Katara slid down his side with Aang, she saw that the village elders, including Hakka and his warriors, were standing back, their expressions grim.

    "Wait- what's going on here?" Aang asked as he walked forward, looking from face to face. "What's wrong?" Katara, though, thought she knew; her heart felt as if it had frozen from dread.

    "Fire Nation," Sokka said before any of the adults could speak. "One of the warriors saw the smoke from the watchtower- there's a warship out there." His gaze fixed on Aang. "You led them here, didn't you? I knew there was something funny going on with you."

    "Sokka, don't be ridiculous," Katara said, stepping protectively in front of the young Air Nomad. "Aang's been frozen for maybe a hundred years- he didn't even know there was a war on. Why would he signal the Fire Navy- and how could he if he wanted to."

    Hakka put a restraining hand on Sokka's shoulder- Katara saw he brother flinch, but fall quiet. "Nobody's blaming you, son," he said looking directly at Aang. "I'm not sure if I believe your story, but I saw you airbending earlier, and no airbender has any reason to love the Fire Nation." He looked off towards the ocean. "From the smoke, I'd guess that one ship is coming, not a larger fleet. That means they're probably looking for something specific. I don't know why they'd be after you, but I'd recommend that you get out of here." His gaze shifted back to Aang, and his teeth clenched. "This… isn't going to end well, I'm afraid."

    "If they're looking for you and you're not here, they might decide to leave us alone," one of the younger warriors snapped. "We can't win against even one ship."

    "I think it might be wise," Gran-Gran added, though she shot the warrior who'd spoken a dark look.

    Aang backed up slowly, head downcast. "If that's what you all want, I'll leave," he said quietly. "I'm sorry I brought the Fire Nation here."

    Katara put a hand on his arm. "It's not your fault," she told him. "Don't worry about us- we'll be fine."

    "I hope so," Aang said. Calling up a small gust of wind, he leaped impossibly high and landed on Appa's back. The bison stood and grunted loudly before shaking his fur out, sending snow flying over the children, who first laughed as the wiped themselves clean but then looked up with expressions of dawning sadness as sky bison and rider rose slowly into the air. Aang waved sadly from the saddle, and then Appa was gliding off away from the village and the coast. Katara watched him go and hung her head sadly.

    "All right, men," Hakka called once he was gone. "Some of you get the old people and children to safety; the rest of you, man your posts. If the Fire Nation does try to take this Tribe, we'll make them fight for it."

    Katara turned back and saw frantic activity as the village rushed to follow Hakka's commands- Gran-Gran might be the respected elder, but with battle looming, the Northern war leader was the one who unquestioningly took command. Katara had to bury a burst of irrational anger to see the Northerner taking the role that should have been Dad's, but shook herself out of it. Hakoda was doing something important; it wasn't his fault that meant he couldn't be with his family. That helped, a little bit.

    Hakka himself was moving to take his position on the wall when he was stopped by Sokka. Katara saw her brother look up at the war leader with a pleading expression, but the older man shook his head. "I'm sorry, Sokka," he said, "but I'm not going to let you join this battle. I don't want to have to explain to your father how I got his son killed."

    "If the Fire Nation are here, they're probably going to try and kill everyone," Sokka shot back. "I can fight, and you need every man you can get. I can help!"

    Hakka considered for a moment, then nodded. "All right. Just… try and stay safe." As he turned away, Katara saw her brother give a victorious grin that seemed at odds with the seriousness of the situation and then hurry to the hut that had been converted into a makeshift armory to grab his favored weapons- spear, club, and boomerang. She gave a small sight of frustration- if only her own problems were that easy to solve.

    "Katara!" Sisiko's voice echoed across the village. "Whatever happens today, we'll almost certainly have wounded. I'll need your help getting ready!"

    The young waterbender raised her head. "Coming, Master!" She gave one last look in the direction Aang had gone, and then hurried to join her teacher.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Zuko stood still as he allowed his attendants to strap his armor- black with gold trim, as befitted his royal status- around his body. He was not normally a calm or patient sort, and today the urge to move was stronger than usual- if he and Azula were right, they would catch up with the Avatar and end the century-long hunt today. Soon, they'd bring the old airbender back to the Capital in chains with them- then Father would have to acknowledge that his son was competent- that he was actually worth something beyond being a decoration…

    Growling in frustration, Zuko batted the last attendant away and strapped on his own sword belt before stepping out into the ship's corridor. Azula was already there, leaned casually against the wall. She too was armored, but bore no weapon- firebending served her well enough. "Finally ready?" she asked.

    "I am," Zuko replied. "We should be arriving at the Water Tribe village any time now."

    Azula smiled, and cold fire seemed to dance in her eyes. "Then, brother mine, it's time to write history."

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Fog and mist swirled over the arctic sea. The village's defenders lined the wall, spears at the ready- the sight was admittedly impressive, though a part of Katara thought that it wasn't likely to do much good against a Fire Navy warship. Quickly squelching that thought, her eyes darted from warrior to warrior, finally spotting the only one who wore Southern Tribe warpaint. Sokka was slightly shorter than the other warriors, but he seemed to be going out of his way to try and project the same kind of confidence. Katara quietly wished him luck. She found herself torn between fear from her people and relief that Aang at least had gotten away safely.

    "It's awful just before battle, isn't it?" Sisiko said quietly, coming to stand beside her pupil. "Knowing what is coming, but not when… I'd hope not to have to go through it again."

    "You've been in battle before?" Katara asked, her curiosity piqued.

    "Warriors will always need healers," Sisiko told her. Then she stopped her gaze turning north. "Wait- did you hear that?"

    Katara did. Something was coming through the mists, and from the sound of it, it was very large. The warriors tightened their grips on their spears as a silhouette appeared and began to grow, larger and larger until it dwarfed the entire village. A Fire Navy ship- it could be nothing else. Small for its kind, but still more than enough for what it intended to do.

    The warship stopped just shy of the wall, and Hakka gestured at his warriors. In an instant they'd leaped off it and into the village proper, rising quickly back to their feet- and a moment later, Katara saw why. The warship's sharp peaked front was descending towards them, slicing the wall neatly in tow as it was lowered to the ground and formed a long ramp to grant the invaders access.

    Six soldiers in Fire Nation armor descended the ramp, their expressions impossible to read behind their inhuman masks. Behind them came two figures in more elaborate armor, their faces exposed, and Katara started when she realized they were a boy and a girl who looked barely older than herself and Sokka. The two looked enough alike that they had to be relatives- they had the same thick black hair worn in a topknot, and the same sharp golden eyes. Their expressions were similarly haughty, though there was a cold edge to the girl's that the boy lacked. Another four soldiers followed them down.

    The boy stepped forward and regarded Hakka imperiously. "Are you the leader of this village?" he demanded.

    "I am Warleader Hakka," the Northerner replied in a frigid tone. "And who might you be who comes so far out of his way to trouble us?"

    "I am Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, and this is my sister Azula. Our father is Prince Ozai, the Fire Lord's brother. We're looking for a fugitive- he'd be an old man, probably has blue arrow tattoos, bends all the elements." Zuko's eyes narrowed. "We know you're hiding him- we tracked him here. Where is he?"

    "I have no idea who you're talking about," Hakka said. "I'd recommend that you continue your search elsewhere, your Highness."

    As he spoke, the girl- Azula- was glancing around the village, her lips pursed in displeasure. "I don't see any old people here," she said slowly, "or any children. Our quarry is probably hiding with them, wherever they are- the same way he's done for the last century." She raised her hand. "Men, tear this village apart until you find them."

    "I'm afraid I can't let you do that, miss," Hakka said, and behind him his warriors hefted their spears. Zuko stepped back and raised both hands, flames playing around their edges, but Azula only smirked. "Oh well, then," she said. "It seems we'll be doing this the hard way." In an instant she exploded into motion- a thin jet of fire shot from her fingers and struck Hakka in the chest, sending the warleader stumbling to the ground in obvious agony.

    The other warriors exploded into motion. Seeing their leader fall, they charged the Fire Nation soldiers with their spears lowered, only to be met with flame. Several unlucky ones fell immediately, the lucky ones rolling in the snow and trying to bat the flames out of their furs. Katara saw one firebender be sent stumbling back with a spear in his side, but the warrior who injured him was quickly felled. Between the Fire Nation's bending and superior armor, the Water Tribe warriors were all but powerless.

    Her mouth opened in horror as she saw Sokka charge directly at Zuko. The Fire Prince fell back briefly, but Katara quickly saw he wasn't injured- rather, he was taking the opportunity to draw the two wickedly curved swords he wore in the sheath at his side. The blades spun with deadly skill, and Sokka's spear fell from his hands, cut neatly in two pieces. A kick from Zuko sent Sokka sprawling beside it.

    "Leave him alone!" Katara shouted without realizing what she was doing, charging forward. Her hands came up as she tried to use them to force the snow into a shape- any shape- that might be useful for fighting, but one of Zuko's soldiers only shoved her away with minimal effort. Stumbling back, she crouched down beside Sokka, checking him for injuries.

    "You know," he muttered, "this isn't quite how I pictured my first battle going."

    "You're lucky he didn't burn you," Katara said. Looking up, she saw that all the other warriors had fallen, unconscious or worse. Zuko stood in the center of the village, hands on his swords, while beside him, Azula was smiling.

    "Now then," she said in a voice that was almost pleasant- and horribly at odds with what had just happened. "Where were we?"

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Appa lay on a snow-covered plateau a few miles away from the village, and Aang rested against one of his immense furry forelegs. The sky bison gave a mournful sounding rumble, and Aang reached up and patted his nose reassuringly. "Don't worry, buddy," he said. "I promise we'll go somewhere soon where you can get all the fruit and hay that you want." Appa gave a deeper, more contented sound and nuzzled against his rider, but Aang's expression grew dark.

    "I don't like this," he said. "I mean, I can't just leave them, especially after Katara was so nice to me, but maybe they were right, and we're safer out here." He rocked forward on his feet, wrapping his arms around his knees.

    Suddenly Appa rumbled loudly, and Aang turned to look back in the direction of the Water Tribe village- and saw what he was sure was smoke rising from it. "No!" he said, jumping to his feet. "The Fire Nation must be there- and they've got to be looking for me. I got them into danger, and then I ran off and left them." Bending down, he picked up his staff and snapped its wings open. "You stay here, Appa, but I've got to go back. I can't just run away again. Maybe I can still help them."

    Leaping into the air, Aang bent a gust of wind around him to keep the glider aloft and rode the air currents back towards the village.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------

    Azula smirked as her soldiers lead the village elders and children out from the hut where they had been hiding- the children visibly frightened, the elders grimly defiant. The princess's eyes darted from one elder to the next searchingly, while at her side, her brother was becoming increasingly angry.

    "He's not here," Zuko snapped, stepping forward and pointing at Gran-Gran. "He should be about this age, but he's not here! Where is he?"

    "I don't know who you're talking about," Gran-Gran said. "But if I did, I wouldn't tell you."

    Zuko growled angrily, but before he had a chance to act Azula pushed past him roughly, eyes flat and deadly. "You may be some tribal wise-woman," she said in a voice more frigid than the arctic air, "but that doesn't mean you shouldn't show respect for your betters. I'll show you the respect due royalty." She raised one hand and formed a flame in it, raising it to strike.

    "No!" Katara shouted, attempting to charge forward only to be stopped as one of the soldiers grabbed her by the arm. Beside her, she saw Sokka struggling in a similar predicament. Azula drew her hand back and prepared to unleash her fireblast, but before the blow fell a tremendous gust of wind shot through the village and sent her rocking back off her feet so that she landed in a snowdrift, upside down and all dignity thoroughly lost.

    "What the-" was all Zuko had time to say before a second blast struck him and sent him sprawling beside his sister. Riding another gust of wind came the one who'd attacked them- Aang himself, who landed lightly in the village center and folded his glider back into a staff. The Fire Nation soldiers backed away at the sight of him, hands raised defensively.

    "Hi Katara, Sokka," he said, then spun his staff and used it to direct two more blasts of air that knocked the soldiers holding them aside. "I couldn't just leave you. Sorry I didn't get back sooner."

    "Thanks for coming," Sokka said dryly, then turned and gave the soldier who'd been holding him a solid kick to the side. If the groan the man gave was anything to go by, he felt it solidly even through his armor.

    Across the village, the snowbank into which Azula and Zuko had been hurled suddenly exploded into a cloud of steam. As it cleared, it revealed Azula, water evaporating from her body and armor, in a bending stance, expression murderous, with Zuko at her side with drawn swords. When the prince and princess saw their opponent clearly, however, both of their eyes widened in disbelief.

    "A child?" Azula breathed incredulously. "Impossible!"

    "You're the airbender?" Zuko demanded, gesturing at Aang with one of his swords. "You're the Avatar?"

    "Yes," Aang said. "Here I am. Were you looking for me?"

    "Aang," Katara said to herself, feeling the world reeling beneath her feet. "The Avatar?" Sokka was only shaking his head madly as if trying to clear it.

    "We are," Zuko said, stepping forward; as all attention was on the firebender and the airbender, Katara saw Azula step back towards the edge of the village out of the corner of her eye, but put it out of her mind. "My father gave my sister and I the mission of hunting you down, and we don't intend to fail him." With a sudden cry he lunged forward, using his swords as a kind of channel to launch fireblasts at Aang. The airbender's- the Avatar's- eyes widened and he quickly brought his staff up, spinning to parry the strikes.

    Suddenly, Katara felt an armored arm wrap around her throat even as a deceptively delicate hand lit a flame beside her face. "I've heard your people don't like unnecessary violence, airbender," Azula's cold voice said. "If you don't want to see the girl hurt, you'll come with us quietly."

    Aang and Zuko both paused; the Avatar's eyes found Katara's and widened in shock and guilt. Then they shifted slightly, presumably so he could meet Azula's gaze. "And if I go with you, you'll leave her and the village alone?"

    Katara felt Azula shift behind her, as if the princess was shrugging. "I don't see why not. The Avatar is a far greater prize than a worthless Water Tribe fishing village, after all."

    "All right, then," Aang said, hanging his head.

    "Aang- no! Don't do this!" Katara shouted, even as Azula tightened her grip enough to prevent anything further.

    "Don't worry, Katara," Aang said, giving a smile that seemed far more forced than normal. "I'll be all right." He held out his staff, and Zuko took it after sheathing his swords; the soldiers closed ranks around the Avatar and began to march him up into the ship. Once they were atop the ramp, Azula released Katara and shoved her to the ground before running lightly to join her countrymen. Katara watched her go, and then her gaze shifted to the captive Aang; her emotions were a mix of anger and fear.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Aang winced as the warship's ramp snapped back into place- really, the Fire Nation needed to seriously invest in machines that didn't sound so horrible- and then turned to Zuko. "So," he said conversationally, "you're going to take me to your dad now?"

    "Yes," Zuko replied. "My father is the Fire Lord's brother, and I think they're both going to be anxious to meet you."

    "But why?" Aang asked. "I've never done anything to the Fire Nation- I didn't even know there was a war on until today!"

    "You're the Avatar- the only one who could be a threat to them." Zuko met Aang's gaze directly. "Father and Uncle are great men, and the Fire Nation is the greatest civilization in the world. It's our destiny to be a great empire."

    "That's very stirring, Zuko," Azula said from nearby. "But I think we should put our prisoner in the brig before he gets any ideas."

    Zuko's eyes narrowed- apparently, he didn't like having to admit when his sister had a point- but he motioned to the soldiers anyway. "Take the prisoner to the brig," he ordered. One soldier took each of Aang's arms, and they began to march him into the ship. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Zuko studying his staff and putting it through some basic swings.

    "I think I'm giving this to Uncle," he said to Azula. "You know how he likes antiques."

    The princess only rolled her eyes.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Katara stood on the shore of the ocean near the village, staring out in the direction where the Fire Navy ship had gone, all but ignoring Sokka who seemed to be pacing somewhere behind her. "We have to go after him, Sokka," she said finally. "Aang saved out tribe- now someone has to save him, and we're the only ones who can."

    "Katara," Sokka began, but she cut him off.

    "Look, I know you don't trust him, and that you probably think you should stay as one of the only warriors left still in fighting condition, but he needs…"

    "Katara!" Sokka said. "You coming, or not?" Spinning, she saw her brother heaving the last of several bags of supplies into a canoe. The waterbender's eyes widened in happy surprise as she took in what it meant, and she ran forward and wrapped her brother in a tight hug.

    "Kata," Sokka protested, pulling away. "All right, now let's go save you…"

    "What do you two think you're doing?" a calm voice asked. Katara turned to see Gran-Gran and Master Sisiko both watching them with severe expressions- but then Gran-Gran smiled. "You'll need these," she said, holding out a roll of blankets.

    "Then… you're okay with us leaving?" Katara asked.

    "You were the ones who found the Avatar and brought hope back to this tribe," Gran-Gran said. "Now, your destinies are intertwined with his."

    "I've tended to Hakka and his warriors, and they should survive," said Sisiko. "The injuries were not as severe as they appeared- no doubt, the firebenders feared to bring too much power to bear, lest they accidentally kill their quarry. Your brother and the Avatar need your help more than I do." She stepped forward and put a hand on Katara's shoulder. "You have been my student for several years now. Healing is a noble calling, but I feel there is more in store for you. You are not of the Northern Water Tribe- it was foolish to think you should have to follow our customs, when they are not your people's. You have a fighter's spirit. Good luck."

    "Yes- good luck to both of you." Gran-Gran hugged each of her grandchildren in turn. "And, Sokka- try to stay out of trouble." Sokka's face fell at the comment, and Katara heard him muttered protests under his breath.

    Sisiko regarded their canoe and frowned. "Even if you had a master waterbender with you, catching a warship in that would be almost impossible," she said. Even as she finished speaking, however, a low but loud rumble sounded nearby, and an unmistakable furry shape crested a nearby hill.

    "Appa!" Katara said. "He can carry us!"

    "Great," Sokka muttered. "Giant flying furball, here we come."

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The two guards led Aang deeper into the bowels of the Fire Nation warship; despite having seen a good deal of the world when traveling between Air Temples (he squelched a queasy feeling that line of thought brought), he'd never seen anything quite like this steam-powered contraption. Of course, he supposed that a lot could happen in a hundred years…

    He glanced up at one of the guards. "So," he said nonchalantly, "I guess you guys've probably never seen an airbender before me, right?"

    "Silence!" the guard snapped, his voice weirdly distorted by his helmet. Aang shrugged as best he could with his arms being held tight, and then drew in a deep breath and released it with as much bending-backed force as he could muster. The guard he aimed at was slammed against the wall, and after impacting he slid to the floor and lay in a daze. The second guard's expression was hidden behind his mask, but Aang imagined his eyes were wide with surprise- the man quickly caught himself, but not before his grip loosened. Aang pulled away from him and let loose another gust, which left him in the same condition as his companion.

    "Sorry about that, but I'd really like to get out of here," he said to the unconscious figures, and then turned and bolted down the corridor in the way from which he'd come at full bending-enhanced speed. He needed to get his staff back and then get off this ship fast. Unfortunately, that proved easier said than done- the ship's corridors all looked much the same, and while he was quick and agile enough to breeze past the few guards he met, that wasn't enough to keep them from sending up a warning shout.

    If he could find the prince or princess, Aang figured, he'd be able to find his staff- one of them probably had it, or at least knew where it was. That idea in mind, he made his way towards the exit to the outer deck- soon he could see the light where it opened to the sky- and then he pulled up short as the doors slammed shut. Azula stood beside it wearing an almost feline expression of lazy arrogance, holding his staff lightly in one hand.

    "My staff!" Aang said. "That's mine!"

    "You know, I think I noticed that already," Azula said lightly. "Well, if you want it back, you're going to have to go through me- and in the extremely unlikely event you manage that, there's still my brother and the crew waiting on deck. For all his faults, Zuko is rather good with those swords of his. You're not going anywhere."

    "We'll see about that," Aang said, and fired a blast of air directly at her. Azula dodged nimbly aside and smirked before responding with a series of precisely controlled fireblasts. Even though she had only one free hand, Aang still found himself being forced to dodge- blocking the blasts wasn't nearly as easy without his staff.

    "Give it up, Avatar," Azula said. "I can keep this up all day, and you can't hit me with anything too powerful without risking smashing your precious staff against these metal walls. Your airbending isn't a match for a firebender who knows what you can do."

    "But you don't know everything I can do," Aang said, an idea quickly forming in his mind. Maybe Azula had read enough history to recognize a lot of airbending- but she almost certainly didn't know the move that Aang had invented himself. Quickly, he formed a spinning ball of air beneath his feet and leaped on it, and then used the air scooter to propel himself in a spiral around the corridor towards the firebender princess, building up momentum as he went. Her eyes widened and she shot more fireblasts, but she'd made the mistake of maneuvering herself into a space where she had nowhere to go. Closing in, Aang let the air scooter go and then slammed into her.

    The combined force of the two of them hitting the door forced it open, and they sprawled onto the main deck. The staff fell from Azula's hand, and Aang quickly grabbed it and leaped to his feet. "Thanks!" he said to the still-dazed Azula, and then turned to make ready to fly- and found himself faced by a semicircle of firebenders with Zuko in the middle, one hand on his sheathed swords, the other raised to bend.

    "Oh, right," Aang muttered. "Them."

    "There's nowhere to go, Avatar," Zuko said. "If you try to escape, there's enough of us to set your glider on fire. Then you won't be going anywhere."

    "Listen to my brother," Azula said from behind him; Aang turned to see her getting back to her feet. "For once, he's talking sense."

    Aang's mind whirled as he tried to think of some way out of this one- but then he smiled broadly as he saw a familiar shape flying in the air high above the ship- distant now, but closing rapidly. "I don't think so," he said lightly. "See, there's something that the two of you don't know about."

    "What's that?" Zuko asked suspiciously.

    "Appa!" Aang shouted, just as the sky bison came in for a landing. Turning his back on the Fire Nation soldiers, he slammed his tail down and released a powerful burst of natural airbending that sent the entire crew reeling. Quickly, the airbender ran forward and embraced one of Appa's legs before looking up and seeing Sokka and Katara slide down from the saddle.

    "Are you all right?" Katara asked, hurrying over to him.

    "I am now," Aang said.

    "Not for long." They both spun to see Zuko struggling back to his feet. The Fire Prince drew both of his swords and dropped into a fighting stance, slowly circling- Aang admittedly didn't know much about bladed weapons, but he thought that that his opponent looked awfully competent with them. More than that, they looked more than sharp enough to cut his staff, which could be a major problem.

    A flicker of motion from the corner of his vision caught Aang's attention, and he turned partially to see Katara, her movies jerky and uncertain, but growing more confident as she went, bending a large stream of water out of the ocean and into the air over the ship. He watched it closely, almost mesmerized- and then it fell apart, doing little more than drenching Zuko.

    "Umm- Katara," Aang said, "I don't think that worked."

    "Actually," she replied, "it did. Now, here goes nothing." Slowly she drew in a deep breath and then let it out- and the water covering Zuko froze into a coating of ice. The prince sputtered in anger and shock, bending heat and steam from his nostrils and hands to thaw himself, but before he could Sokka walked casually up and struck him in the back with his club, sending him sprawling.

    "That's one from the Water Tribe, jerk," he said.

    "We're just lucky that it's cold enough here that turning water to ice is really easy," said Katara. "Now let's get out of here."

    "I'm up for that," Aang said. Turning, the three of them began to climb up onto Appa's back, but before they took off, Aang looked back over the ship and saw that Azula and several of the firebenders were standing together hands raised.

    "Fire," the princess hissed, and then as one they unleashed a massive fireball, far too large for Aang to deflect, and too fast for Appa to outrun.

    The airbender's eyes widened with horror as the giant fireball approached- and then, suddenly and inexplicably, something within him snapped, as it had once before on the night he and Appa had been frozen. As the sky bison leaped into the air, the Avatar jumped from his back but did not fall- rather, he hovered there in the path of the incoming inferno, held aloft by airbending and perceiving time as almost a crawl. Both hands came up, and the sea answered, an immense wave that stretched across the ship and absorbed the blast. Then the Avatar pushed out with both hands, and the water surged beneath the Fire Navy ship, throwing it back even as its engines struggled to move it forward.

    Then the surge of power passed, and the Avatar was only Aang again. A faint feeling passed over him and he fell from the sky- but landed in Air Nomad-made saddled as Appa swooped beneath him. "We've got you, Aang," he heard Katara say.

    "Thanks," Aang replied weakly.

    "That was some amazing waterbending," Katara added. "How did you…?"

    "Wait," Sokka said. "What's Creepy Girl doing down there?" Aang and Katara both joined him on the edge of the saddle, and they both looked down to see Azula alone still standing, her hands forming a tight pattern as sparks trailed behind them.

    "I don't know, but that looks like some seriously nasty firebending," Aang murmured. "And I don't think I've got any Avatar State left in me."

    "Well, whatever she's doing, she's not going to be doing it long," Sokka said firmly. Reaching over his back, he drew out a curved weapon that Aang was sure he recognized, though he couldn't put a name to it at the moment with his head still groggy. Aiming carefully, Sokka let the weapon fly- it spun through the air in a looping arc and struck Azula in the back of the head just before she let her firebending loose. She fell face-forward to the deck, and her interrupted bending set loose a bolt of lightning that punched clean through the ship's prow, rocking it in the water.

    Sokka smiled as he reached up one hand and caught his weapon as its arc brought it back to him. "Let's see them try and follow us with a hole in their ship!" he called. "Water Tribe boomerang- never leave home without one!"

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Zuko, still wet but no longer frozen, shook his head at Azula as she slowly stood, rubbing the back of her head. When she turned to face him, her expression was both furious and pained. "One laugh, Zuzu," she said, "and you'll wish you were still an ice block."

    "There's nothing funny here," Zuko said with a snort that vented steam into the air. "We just got humiliated by a little kid and two barbarians. Now we need repairs, too. What were you thinking, trying lightning?"

    "I underestimated them- we both did," Azula said. "But pointing fingers, while satisfying, gets us nowhere. Fortunately there's a base near here- we can get repairs and new supplies there. After that it's back to the hunt."

    "And now we know what they can do," Zuko finished. "We won't underestimate them again."

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------

    "So, why didn't you tell us you were the Avatar?" Katara asked when they'd left the Fire Nation ship safely behind them.

    "Because I never wanted to be," Aang said quietly, his expression unusually somber. All three sat quietly for several minutes, and then Aang looked up. "It looks like I've got my job cut out for me. Where should we go first?"

    "Well, I've been thinking," Sokka said, "and I say we find Dad. His fleet's the only serious resistance we know about- and he's got the Northern Tribe helping him, which means he probably has waterbenders- maybe Masters."

    "And water is the next element in the cycle after air." Katara smiled. "Maybe if we're lucky, we can find someone we can convince to let us learn together!"

    "I hope so," Aang said. "That would be great! But before that, we've got some very important stops to make…."

    As she listened to Aang go on at great length about places he'd either been or wanted to go, and all the fun, fascinating, or exciting things to do there, Katara realized that for the first time since her father left, she felt both contented and determined.

    AN: Again, the general events remain close to canon, although the specifics are different. Next chapter will be an odd one- the events at the Air Temple wouldn't be significantly different from canon in any way in this AU, so it will focus primarily on the Fire Nation side of things. With "Warriors of Kyoshi" and "King of Omashu", the differences will start becoming more obvious; after that, the canon events should be abandoned in all but the loosest ways.
  6. NYCitygurl NSWFF Manager

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jul 20, 2002
    star 9
    YAY! I'm so excited to see this :D I love the prologue (unsurprising; I love the prologues to all your stories).
  7. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    AN: As mentioned in the AN for the previous chapter, the events at the Southern Air Temple occur largely as canon (specific dialog is likely different in this timeline, but there is no meaningful difference to the actual events). As such, this chapter will focus almost exclusively on the Fire Nation side of things and will, therefore, be a good deal shorter. We'll be back to roughly episode-length next time.

    Chapter 3: The Southern Naval Base

    "Well," Azula said, jabbing her finger at a specific point on the map of the southern seas that was set up in the warship's bridge. "We are here, roughly, and our ship is in definite need of repairs. We're not in the kind of condition to make it far, but fortunately, we don't need to." Her finger moved until it was resting on a small island. "There is a Fire Navy base here. They should have what we need."

    Zuko bent over the map and scowled when he saw where his sister was pointing. "I don't like it," he said. "That's Commander Zhao's base. I'd rather not have to deal with him."

    "What's wrong with him?" Azula asked. "Zhao is one of Father's political supporters- when he finds out who we are, he'll be more than happy to help us- and more importantly, to keep his mouth shut about us. Anyone else might run off to Uncle and tell him what we're up to."

    "Zhao's slime," Zuko growled. "He just kisses father's boots so he can keep getting promotions- he's not loyal to anyone but himself. And you know I don't like keeping our mission from Uncle."

    Azula rolled her eyes. "I know you like Uncle, Zuko, but you know as well as I do that if he knew what we were doing, he'd pull us off what he thinks is a mission that won't accomplish anything and put us somewhere else- and Father wouldn't be happy with either of us if we let that happen. And Zhao may be a self-serving suck-up, but he's also our best chance of getting our ship fixed."

    Zuko stood up and turned towards the helmsman. "Fine," he said. "Set our course for Commander Zhao's base."

    "Understood, sir," came the reply, and Zuko could feel the ship moving beneath his feet as it turned towards its new course.

    ----------------------------------------------------

    Commander Zhao was a skilled firebender of middle years who wore the thick sideburns favored by many of the Fire Nation's elite and whose face seemed to be set in a perpetual self-satisfied smirk. A decently competent leader as well as a powerful bender, he'd risen to the respectable rank of commander without difficulty, but Fire Lord Iroh had made it plain he intended to promote the man no further. In spite of his strengths, he was possessed of an awful temper and tremendous pride, two qualities that made trusting him with overall command of a fleet a risky proposition at best. Too, Zhao chafed under the Fire Lord's determination to consolidate his hold on the occupied Earth Kingdom rather than to strike out at and conquer new targets. It was for these reasons that he had come to affiliate himself with the Fire Lord's younger brother, Prince Ozai- a man far more in line with his personality and desires.

    All of this passed through Zuko's mind as he descended the ship's ramp with Azula at his side and a small group of their soldiers behind them. Zhao, flanked by his own bodyguards, was waiting for them at the bottom. "Well, well," the naval officer said as they came within hearing range. "Prince Zuko and Princess Azula. Welcome to my base. How may I be of assistance?" By the spirits, Zuko though, the man sounds smug even when offering help!

    "As you can see, our ship is damaged," the prince said out loud. "We need repairs made as quickly as possible so we can depart."

    "I see," Zhao said, eyes going to the hole Azula's misfired lightning had blasted in the hull. "That's some rather impressive damage. I wonder what could have caused it?"

    "Oh, it's a long story," Azula said. "And sadly, it's not as exciting as it looks- with all the ice in these waters, it's amazing ships don't get damaged more often." She shot Zuko a glare out of the corner of her eyes, as if daring him to contradict her; clearly, the explanation of what had actually happened wasn't something she was keen on sharing. "We just want to get it fixed, so we can be on our way."

    "Of course," Zhao said, nodding in acknowledgment. "Now, I'm sure that you'll want to oversee the repairs yourself, Prince Zuko- perhaps the princess would care to join me for refreshments?"

    "Of course, Commander," Azula said, stepping forward; Zhao put an arm around her shoulders and began to lead her off towards his command tent, stopping briefly to flash a smirk in Zuko's direction. The prince had half a mind to blast the expression off his face then and there, stopping himself only because he knew that Father and Uncle both would be angry if he started randomly attacking high-ranking naval officers. Gritting his teeth, he turned to watch as several of Zhao's minions came scurrying up with tools and materials for repairs. He was going to watch them intently- regardless of what Azula thought, he didn't trust Zhao's men with his ship.

    ---------------------------------------------------

    A servant poured a cup of tea for Azula as she seated herself at the table in Zhao's command tent. The commander himself waved both servant and guards away but did not sit, pacing instead in front of a map of the world, Fire Nation occupied territory colored a deep crimson. Finally he stopped and turned to regard the princess. "You're brother's a fool," he finally said.

    Azula shrugged. "He has his uses. But don't waste your time flattering me or insulting Zuko- the whole Fire Nation knows which of his children father favors, and I don't need you reminding me. I presume that you brought me here because you have something you wish to discuss?"

    "I do," Zhao said. "Namely, I wanted to discuss your father's plans, and do my own, small part to bring them about." False humility, Azula decided, did not suit Zhao- the man's natural arrogance shown through anyway.

    The princess paused, sipping her tea slowly. "You know that my brother and I are on an assignment from Father- one that is of utmost secrecy. I can't share specifics with you, but I wish you to send a hawk to Father telling him that we've been successful, to an extent."

    "To an extent?" Zhao asked. "I'm afraid you've lost me, princess."

    Azula sighed. "Just say this- we've found what he sent us to look for, and it does exist. We're currently in pursuit. Commander, you don't need to know any more than that."

    "I see." Azula could practically see the wheels turning in Zhao's mind- while no one would ever call him a genius, he was intelligent enough to make guesses as to what- or rather, who- she was referring to, and some of those guesses might be closer to the mark than not. She shot him a look that clearly said that he was not to voice his suspicions aloud.

    "Now, then," Azula asked, "what news from the Fire Nation? We've been out of touch for some time near the South Pole. Surely there've been things happening in the wider world we should know about?"

    "The army the Fire Lord was assembling has moved out," Zhao said. "Finally- I thought Iroh would never make his move! Your cousin Lu Ten is in command, continuing the family tradition. They just landed in the southern Earth Kingdom a week or so ago, and are on the march."

    Lu Ten- Azula did not like her cousin, but she had to admit, he had inherited his father's skills both as a military leader and a firebender. Zhao hadn't said what target they were headed for, but Azula's nimble mind was already running through possibilities. Not the Northern Water Tribe, surely- they were too far out of range for that. The marauding Water Tribe fleet might be a possibility if they'd tracked it to this region, but no, Lu Ten was a land commander, not an admiral, and besides, Zhao had said army, not fleet. That left only… "Omashu," Azula said. "They're headed for the last Earth Kingdom stronghold."

    "And when it falls, Iroh's dynasty will be assured, and that means I'll be stuck in this backwater for the rest of my career," Zhao snarled.

    Azula glanced over her shoulder in the direction of Zuko and the ship. "Are you certain my brother won't be bothering us?" she asked.

    "I think my men should be able to keep him occupied," the commander said with a wolfish smile. Azula returned the expression.

    "Then let's talk strategy."

    ------------------------------------------------------

    Part of Zuko felt like collapsing to the deck in frustration while tearing out his hair. The rest of him just wanted to burn Zhao's repair crews to ash and have done with it. Torn between these two increasingly tempting alternatives, he finally managed to force out words that were- hopefully- coherent. "This isn't complicated!" he all but shouted. "You just need to weld a new metal plate over where the giant, gaping hole is! Are you a firebender or not?"

    "Well, ah, forgive me, your highness," the head of the repair crew said. "You are quite correct that the actual procedure is not difficult. However, regulations demand that there are certain steps that must be taken before we can commence with repairs of this magnitude."

    "What do you mean, steps?" Zuko asked slowly, steam beginning to rise from his clenched fists. The crewleader's eyes widened as he saw that, but managed to hold his ground, which was more than Zuko had expected from the man.

    "Well, a base like this one has only a limited amount of material on hand at any given time," the man went on, "and it is necessary that we keep track of it in order to get the most use out of it, and to make sure that all of it is used correctly, and as a result there are certain forms that must be processed…"

    "Forms?" Zuko demanded. "You mean you've been stalling all this time because you need me to fill out paperwork! I'm the Fire Lord's nephew- can't you skip it for once!"

    "My apologies, highness," the crewleader said. "No exceptions." He rooted around in his robe and produced what appeared to be the proper form and a brush and inkbottle- Zuko snatched them from him and signed the form hastily before stuffing it back into his hands.

    "That good enough for you?" he demanded.

    "Well…" the crewleader said, his voice trailing off as he began to remove more paperwork from the same pocket where he'd presumably gotten the first one. Zuko growled as he grabbed them from the man and went to work. This had every indication of being a very long day.

    -------------------------------------------------------------

    "So," Zhao said, "this mission- I would be correct in assuming that if it is successful, it will be to the benefit of your father?"

    "Certainly," Azula replied, smiling tightly. "It could easily give Father and his bloodline the kind of prestige he needs to move out from under his brother's shadow after so long, and from there- who knows what might develop? And don't think Father won't reward those who stand by him."

    "Of course," Zhao murmured. "I know several other naval officers Prince Ozai can rely on, and of course, I am at his disposal whenever he might desire it- but Lu Ten will stand by his father." His eyes narrowed. "And what of your brother? I've heard Zuko is close to his uncle, and if it does come to blows…"

    Azula's grip tightened on her cup, and she scarcely noticed that its contents were boiling as memories of childhood and then the departure on their search washed over her. "I know what you're suggesting, Commander," she said in her quietest, most dangerous voice. "And you go too far."

    "Forgive me," Zhao said, paling- not out of humility, but fear of offending the daughter of the man he hoped would gain him an admiralship. Azula felt that was sufficient- fear, properly applied, was always an effective motivator.

    The commander and the princess finished their tea in silence.

    ------------------------------------------------------

    It was evening before the repairs on the ship were completed, though when they were, even Zuko couldn't find fault with Zhao's men's handiwork. Azula joined her brother on the ramp shortly after the last of the repairmen had left, looking distinctly pleased with herself, but the commander himself was nowhere in sight.

    "Where's Zhao?" Zuko asked as they boarded.

    "He found himself suddenly occupied, but wished us good luck," Azula told him. Zuko shot her a dark look- he doubted Zhao had done any such thing- but her expression was, as usual, inscrutable.

    "What did you talk about, anyway?"

    "Nothing you'd find terribly interesting," Azula said dismissively. "Politics and the like. Now then, we'd best be off. We have hunting to do."

    Zuko paused as he watched Azula make her way back towards her cabin, and wondered exactly what it was that she wasn't telling him.

    --------------------------------------------------------------

    Not so far away, in the ruins of a temple high in the mountains, the Avatar discovered the bones of his mentor, slain by Fire Nation soldiers a century ago. Consumed by anger and grief, he unleashed his power, and the shockwaves were felt around the world. In their temples, sages of all three surviving nations saw strange lights and felt his power, and knew what it signified- and in the Fire Nation Royal Palace, the Fire Lord awoke suddenly from his sleep and knew that the world had changed forever.

  8. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    A wonderful few updates. That last chapter, especially, gave me chills. =D=
  9. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 4: The Warriors of Kyoshi

    "This doesn't make any sense."

    "What doesn't?" Zuko asked, turning to face his sister. Azula was standing hunched over the ship's map of the southern seas, which seemed to have been marked over with ink lines in various colors, as well as what appeared to be various calculations and speculations she'd begun and then abandoned in the margins. The expression on her face was one of mixed frustration and anger.

    "The Avatar," she replied, straightening up and gesturing to the map. "I've been marking down all reported sightings we've encountered since we left Zhao's base, and trying to figure out where he and his friends are heading next, but it all looks completely random." Azula turned to face the map again and made a quiet snarl; Prince Ozai's younger child wasn't used to problems that perplexed her royal will, and meeting one now wasn't pleasant for her.

    "He's obviously an expert at evading pursuit," Zuko told her. "But it doesn't matter. We'll find him before long."

    "There's got to be logic to his movements," Azula muttered, bending back down over the map. "When I figure it out, we'll have him- and this time, we won't underestimate what he's capable of."

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    "Do you have any idea where we're going?"

    Aang shrugged and looked over his shoulder at Sokka, grinning sheepishly. "Well, kind of," he said. "I know it's an island, and we're in the right ocean!"

    Sokka glanced over Appa's saddle at the expanse of featureless blue water that stretched out to every horizon beneath them. "Great," he said. "That's really reassuring."

    "Oh, Sokka, don't be so hard on him," Katara put in. She moved closer to Aang, with Momo, the flying lemur the trio had picked up at the Southern Air Temple, perched on one shoulder. "So, do you mind telling us about this island we're going to be visiting?"

    "Oh, it's great," Aang said. "It's called Kyoshi, after one of my past lives, but that's not the really great part. There's these giant fish called elephant koi that live around it, and if you're a really good swimmer, you can catch up to one of them. Then you can ride it- it can be pretty hard to stay on sometimes, but that's half the fun!"

    "Riding a giant fish sounds a lot less interesting to me than catching and eating one, but whatever," Sokka said, lying back on the saddle and apparently trying to get in a midair nap before they reached their destination.

    Aang gave a slight snicker watching him, then turned to Katara. "You want to see an airbending trick to pass the time?" Before she could react, he'd whipped a small set of marbles from his pocket and set them spinning in a tight circle between his hands. Katara shot him an unusually nonplussed look; the young airbender decided she'd probably liked the trick better the first few times he'd shown her. Sighing, Aang pocketed the marbles and turned his full attention back to steering Appa.

    Several hours later, even he felt like he was beginning to nod off, but his eyes widened and he sat up straight when he saw the distant bump on the horizon. Looking more closely at it- yes, it had to be an island! "Sokka, Katara, wake up!" Aang shouted.

    "What, are we under attack by air pirates?" Sokka demanded sleepily, apparently still under the influence of whatever dream he'd been having.

    "No, we're here! I give you, Kyoshi Island!" With land in sight, Appa seemed to have perked up as well, and the island quickly grew larger ahead of them. Shortly, Aang could make out the bay, the small forest- and something else, which caused his eyes to widen in surprise.

    "What's going on down there?" Sokka asked, now alert. "It looks like they're getting ready for battle!"

    "I… I think you're right," Aang breathed in surprise, leaning forward past Appa's horns for a better look. Far below them, several small ships were drawn up on the island's coastline, and figures could be seen milling about as they loaded cargo. Most of them wore blue, but there were some who were clad in what looked like vivid green robes.

    "What do you think's happening?" Katara asked, coming forward to sit near Sokka and Aang.

    "I don't know," the airbender replied, "but let's find out!" Pulling on Appa's reins, he brought the sky bison about and turned him towards the island as they came in for a landing. Appa came to rest on the beech a fair distance away from all the activity, and Aang patted his head fondly before leaping off and landing on the ground in front of him, while Sokka and Katara dismounted as well beside him.

    Down the beach, the green-clad figures turned to watch them, and Aang realized they were wearing heavy makeup- he'd seen people from all over the world, and he was pretty sure skin didn't come that white naturally. The lead figure was pointing directly at them, and did not look happy. "Invaders!" the figure shouted in a high, clear voice. "Take them!" The villagers who were wearing blue scrambled backwards, but the ones in green drew what looked like fans and charged.

    Sokka's eyes narrowed as he listened to the voice. "Hey, wait a minute-" he began, but before he could communicate whatever thought was bothering him, the island warriors were on them. In short order, both Water Tribe siblings had been knocked to the ground and bound tightly- these people really were good at this, Aang thought- and the airbender himself was backed up against Appa, hands raised and trying to figure out what he could say to convince them that they were harmless. As the warriors gathered in a semicircle around him, his eyes darted from each to each, and he registered what he figured was probably what had caught Sokka off guard- as far as Aang could tell, all these warriors were women, or maybe even girls- it was hard to tell their ages with all that makeup.

    The lead warrior leveled her fans at him. "Give up now, and we'll go easy on you," she said. "Resist, and we'll show you how the Kyoshi Warriors deal with invaders."

    "I'm not an invader!" Aang protested. "I'm the Avatar, and I just wanted to ride the elephant koi. Now, will you please let my friends go?"

    "Avatar?" The leader laughed. "Not very likely. The Avatar disappeared over a hundred years ago."

    Aang sighed. "I really didn't want to do this," he said, and then leaped forward and thrust both hands out before him. Wind rushed around the young monk's body and exploded forward, striking the lead warrior and knocking her and the ones who stood near her back. Stumbling back into standing positions, they regarded him with expressions of wide-eyed amazement.

    "An airbender," the leader breathed. "You are the Avatar. Forgive us- we were only trying to defend our home." She bowed to Aang and motioned to her companions. "Release his friends."

    Quickly, the other girls undid the cords binding Sokka and Katara and pulled the gags from their mouths. Sokka stumbled to his feet and faced the lead Kyoshi Warrior, studying her up and down with a scowl.

    "What's the matter?" she asked, a faintly teasing tone in her voice. "Don't like that a bunch of girl's kicked your butt?"

    "That- that's not what happened!" Sokka spluttered, crossing his arms and attempting unsuccessfully to maintain an air of dignity. Several of the Kyoshi Warriors looked like they were smothering giggles at the sight.

    Katara sighed and stepped forward. "Don't mind my brother," she said. "He doesn't like being one-upped. I'm Katara, he's Sokka, and the airbender's Aang."

    "I'm Suki," the leader said.

    "So what's going on around here, anyway?" Aang asked, looking around the beach. "Sokka thought you were preparing for battle, but I don't see anyone to fight around here."

    "The battle isn't here," Suki said, looking off to the north. "Ever since the fall of Ba Sing Se, Omashu has been the last bastion of the Earth Kingdom- to all practical intents and purposes it's the capital, though that's not saying too much since apart from it there's only a bunch of villages and refugee camps that are still free of the Fire Nation. But there've been rumors that the Fire Nation has amassed a new army, with the Fire Lord's own son in command- and there can only be one place they're going.

    "Here on Kyoshi Island, we tried to stay neutral, but Omashu's too close for comfort. If it falls, then the Fire Nation will be right on our doorstep, and there wouldn't be anything to stop them from gobbling us up whenever they feel like it. I talked with Oyaji- that's our village elder- and we decided that we can't stay out of the war any longer. The Kyoshi Warriors are going to Omashu, and we're going to help the king fight the Fire Nation when they come."

    "And you think a bunch of girls with fans are going to help an Earth Kingdom city fight the Fire Nation?" Sokka asked dubiously. Suki whirled on him and stalked towards him, eyes burning.

    "Do you have a problem with it?" she demanded, her face inches from his. "You fight for your people, and we'll fight for ours. Maybe we'll make a difference, maybe not- but we are going to try."

    "Whoa- everybody, calm down!" Aang said, stepping forward. "Fighting with each other isn't going to stop the Fire Nation. But I know Omashu real well- I used to visit a friend there all the time, and I'd love to see it again. How about we all travel together- there's safety in numbers, and maybe the king knows where we can find Sokka and Katara's dad and the Water Tribe fleet!"

    "Do you really think so?" Katara asked, turning to Aang.

    The airbender shrugged. "I don't know," he admitted, "but I think it's worth a shot. So, Suki, what do you say?"

    The lead Kyoshi Warrior glanced from Aang to Katara to Sokka, as if weighing options in her mind, and then she smiled and made a small bow. "We would be honored to travel together," she said, "so long as certain parties behave."

    All eyes turned to Sokka, who shrugged. "What?" he asked.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Zuko opened the door to the bridge as lightly as possible and stepped inside. Night had fallen outside, and Azula lay slumped over her maps, apparently having fallen asleep in the middle of her calculations. The prince studied her for a moment- asleep, his sister almost looked peaceful- and then shook his head and turned to leave. Before he made it a single step, however, Azula's head shot up and her eyes opened wide. She fixed him with a sharp golden stare, and said two words- "Kyoshi Island".

    "Come again?" Zuko asked.

    "Kyoshi Island is named for the Avatar two incarnations ago, who was its founder," Azula explained, apparently unaware of the ink smeared on her face. "It seems very likely to me that the current Avatar will stop there on his journey, or has been there already. Even if he hasn't, the villagers will likely have heard news and may be of use to us. It's our best option."

    Zuko regarded her for a long, quiet moment, and then nodded. "All right," he said. "I'll find the captain and tell him we have a destination."

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The Kyoshi Warriors wouldn't be ready to depart for Omashu until tomorrow, but the villagers were more than willing to offer the Avatar and his companions accommodations until then. They had been treated to an outstanding feast (or, in Appa's case, several bales of hay and a number of apples Aang slipped him) and had then retired for the evening. Aang and Sokka were both fast asleep in the guest house, the lemur Momo curled up on Aang's head, but Katara found she couldn't sleep. After tossing and turning for she didn't even want to know how long, she finally got to her feet and crept from the building, careful not to wake her brother or friend.

    She made her way through the village square and then, on impulse, along the path that led to the north, deeper into the island- she vaguely remembered having seen Suki and some of the other Warriors heading in that direction after the dinner had ended. Finally, a small building came into sight, with lights that appeared to be still lit. Katara approached and saw that the door was open- inside, she could see Suki and her comrades drilling.

    She watched for a few minutes, until one of the warriors noticed her and tapped Suki on the shoulder. She turned and saw Katara and smiled. "You're up late," she said in a friendly tone.

    "Couldn't sleep," Katara said, shrugging. "You're up late too, though."

    "Tomorrow, we're leaving to aid in the defense of Omashu," Suki said. "We need to get in as much drilling as we can before we go. Battles are nasty, and the Fire Nation isn't going to go easy on us just because we're kids."

    "Believe me, I know," Katara said. The two girls stood silently for several more minutes, and then an idea began to take shape in the waterbender's mind- something that varyingly seemed like a good plan, and a completely insane one, and she couldn't decide whether to act on it or not. Finally Suki took the matter out of her hands.

    "All right," she said, "you're thinking hard about something. What's on your mind?"

    "Well, you know I'm a waterbender," Katara began, and Suki nodded, the matter having come up in conversation during the feast, "but I'm the only bender left in my tribe. There are masters in the Northern Tribe, but they have this crazy idea that girl benders can only be healers, and shouldn't be fighters."

    "That's stupid," Suki said.

    "I know," Katara muttered. "But the point is, I want to fight the Fire Nation, and right now I don't have any way to learn combat bending- unless I'm lucky, I might never have the chance. And it's just so… frustrating."

    Suki regarded the Water Tribe girl critically. "Well," she said, "I'm no bender, so I can't help you there, but I do think I could give you some pointers before we get to Omashu."

    "Really?" Katara asked excitedly. Suki held up one hand.

    "Now, I can't make you a warrior overnight," she said, "and like I said, I can't help you with your bending problem at all, but I can teach you some stuff that can come in really handy in a fight."

    "Thank you," Katara told her. "I really appreciate this."

    Suki shrugged. "No big deal. Anyway, to start off, keep in mind that almost everyone you or I fight is going to be bigger and stronger than we are- most soldiers are full-grown men in heavy armor- but that's not nearly as big an advantage as it looks. Our techniques are based around using speed, skill, and your enemy's own strength and momentum against them to level the playing field and take even the biggest down hard." She dropped into a fighting stance and drew her fans. "Now, watch and learn…"

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The next morning, the villagers of Kyoshi Island gathered on the beach to wish their warriors and guests off. Aang could see and hear a variety of reactions from the crowd, including tearful farewells from individual Warriors' families, shouts of encouragement from others, and one poor man who became so distraught he had some sort of fit and had to be quietly escorted away while foaming at the mouth. That matter attended to, Oyaji stepped forward and wished success for Suki and her companions, as well as for the Avatar, and called on Avatar Kyoshi's spirit to watch over them. Suki bowed to him, and Aang gave a cheerful wave; then the Kyoshi Warriors boarded their two boats, Aang and his friends scrambled into Appa's saddle, and they began their journey to Omashu.

    Appa hung low over the Kyoshi Warriors' boats- high enough to avoid the sea-spray, but close enough for the two groups to see each other and stay somewhat closely in contact. "Well, we're going to Omashu, buddy," Aang said to the bison, ruffling his fur. "You remember where that is, don't you? I wonder if Bumi's still around after a hundred years- if he is, maybe we can see him?" Appa gave an encouraging-sounding rumble, and Aang turned to face his Water Tribe friends.

    Sokka was staring at Katara curiously. "You look tired," he said finally. "All right, tell me- what's going on?"

    "Going on? What? Nothing!" Katara said in a tone of innocence too exaggerated to be entirely real. "I just had trouble sleeping last night, that's all."

    "Uh-huh," Sokka said. "And how come when I got up in the middle of the night last night to get a drink, you weren't there?

    "I was just- going for a walk," Katara told him. "Yes- that is all. A walk." She smiled and nodded in a very deliberate manner that left Aang feeling like scratching his head. He wasn't sure what was going on, but he was pretty sure it was something more than a light-night walk.

    "You're hiding something," Sokka said.

    "Yeah, Katara," Aang put in. "What is going on?"

    "Okay, fine," the watebender said, throwing her hands in the air. "I went to see the Kyoshi Warriors last night, and Suki showed me some of her fighting techniques, all right?"

    "Hey, that's cool!" Aang began, but before he could continue Sokka broke in with an expression of utter shock on his face.

    "You what?" He demanded. "Katara, what were you thinking? Water Tribe girls aren't warriors- it's just not done!"

    "You've been spending too much time around the Northern Tribe warriors," Katara shot back. "Our tribe never had a problem with letting female waterbenders fight before, and if I can't find a master who'll teach me combat bending- and we don't know if I can- I need another way to make a difference apart from just being Miss Healing Hands!"

    "But- but-" Sokka began, but before he could clearly articulate exactly what he felt about the situation Aang pointed over his shoulder towards the sea behind them.

    "What's that?" he asked. "Is that smoke?" Both Water Tribe siblings turned to follow the direction he was pointing and saw the thin black plume rising into the sky- still distant, but getting closer every moment. They looked at each other and nodded grimly.

    "Smoke," Sokka agreed. "This far out at sea, it's got to be a Fire Navy warship. They could be headed for Kyoshi Island!"

    "I don't think so," Katara said. "They were going in a straight line, and it looks like they'd miss the island. I think they're heading for…"

    "Us," Aang finished. "It's got to be Zuko and Azula. We need to warn Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors!" Turning back to Appa, he pulled on the bison's reins and directed him to drop towards the two boats below.

    ------------------------------------------------------------

    "I see them!" Zuko said, lowering his glass. "It's the Avatar's bison, which means he's got to be there. I thought I saw some boats nearby too, but we don't need to worry about them- the Avatar's the prize." He turned to Azula. "You were right."

    She shrugged. "Of course," she said. "Now the hunt is on again- and this time, we won't let him slip away."

    "Helmsman!" Zuko shouted. "Full power to the engines! We need to catch that bison."

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------

    "A Fire Navy ship?" Suki asked Aang. Appa had landed beside her boat and now swam to keep pace with it in the water; the Avatar and his friends perched on the bison's head.

    "Pretty sure," Sokka told her. "We think it's this ship that went after us before, at the south pole- it's commanded by two kids who said they were the Fire Lord's niece and nephew, an obnoxious guy with swords and a creepy girl who's a scary firebender."

    "They're called Zuko and Azula," Aang put in helpfully. "I'm pretty sure they want to hand me over to their dad- I don't know what he'd do to us, but I don't think we want to find out."

    "I don't think we want to either," Suki said dryly. "Problem is, we don't stand much of a chance of outrunning a warship in a couple of sailboats, and I don't think we could take them in a direct fight." She looked at Aang thoughtfully. "Do you think Appa could carry all of us?"

    Aang shook his head. "Maybe for a little bit," he said, "but there's too many of you to keep it up for long, and we're still too far from the mainland to make it in one trip- and I won't leave any of you behind. But if we can't outrun them and can't beat them, what can we do?"

    "Suki," one of the other Kyoshi Warriors said suddenly, lowering her spyglass, "they're getting closer. The ship isn't that big- but it's big enough to take care of all of us!"

    "What we need is a plan," Katara grumbled, "and we don't have one."

    "Plan," Sokka said suddenly, narrowing his eyes and rubbing his chin. "I think I might have an idea- but we might need some really good warriors with us to pull it off."

    Suki looked him straight in the eye. "You've got us," she said. "But I hope you don't screw this up."

    "So do I," Sokka muttered in a voice that was almost too low to hear.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    "What are they doing?" Azula asked intently, leaning over the ship's rail to get a better look. "It looks like the bison is coming directly towards us! Have they gone mad?"

    "It doesn't matter," Zuko told her. "They may have the Avatar, but we have them outnumbered. If they come for us, there's only one way it can end."

    "For once, brother," Azula said in an almost approving tone, "you're talking sense. Captain, all marines to the deck now- and prepare to fire."

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Appa soared low over the warship's deck, dodging the fireblasts that its crew shot into the sky with help from Aang, who perched on his head and used his staff and airbending to deflect any that made it too close. Finally, the sky bison lighted near the edge of the deck and used his tail to blast several of the soldiers backwards. Aang, Sokka, Katara, Suki, and two of her best warriors took the opportunity to leap onto the deck; riders deposited, Appa launched himself back into the sky, while Momo remained perched on Aang's shoulder.

    Firebenders closed in around them in a semicircle, with Zuko standing in the middle, directly across from Aang. "You made a real mistake by coming here, Avatar," the prince said, drawing his swords. "You were lucky to get away last time, but you're no match for all of us, even with a bunch of girls in too much makeup backing you up."

    "I don't want to fight you, Zuko," Aang said, though he held his staff in a warning position. "You can turn around now and stop chasing us."

    "Sorry, but I can't do that." Zuko gave a tremendous shout and leaped forward, fire playing along the edges of his twin blades. Aang spun his staff and deflected the fire, dodging out of the way of the physical blows and shooting blasts of air at his opponent. Behind the prince, the firebenders raised their hands and unleashed their element, and battle was joined.

    The other two Kyoshi warriors darted forward among the Fire Nation soldiers, using their superior precision and maneuverability to avoid their attacks and deliver several of their own, leaving their opponents stumbling back. Katara looked nervous, but she'd pulled a slender whip of water from the ocean and held it suspended before her, sweeping it back and forth menacingly in front of the handful of soldiers who'd focused on her. Momo darted among the soldiers, diving at their heads and forcing them to duck and shield themselves from a flying target too small and fast moving to hit. Sokka and Suki stood together, their focus on the ship's bridge.

    "That's where I've got to get," Sokka said. "Think you're enough of a warrior to guard my back while I get there?"

    "Think you're enough of a warrior to keep up?" Suki shot back, though this time there was an almost playful edge to her words. Sokka looked at her and nodded once, drawing his boomerang and bone knife. Then the two warriors were off.

    They charged directly towards the bridge tower, their skills, while vastly different, being enough to clear the path of Fire Nation footsoldiers. The two watched for threats to the other and countered them- several times, a soldier would strike for Sokka only for his blow to be parried by Suki's fans, or for a soldier aiming to attack the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors to be knocked to the deck by a blow from the Water Tribe boy's boomerang. Finally, they reached the stair that led up to the tower, but before they could begin to climb a fireblast struck the deck in front of them, causing both to jump back. Sokka looked up to see the armored girl who leaned against the railing halfway up, smoke trailing from her fingers and a malicious light in her eyes.

    "Azula," he said.

    "You know, I thought one of you might try something like this," the princess said casually, "but I was expecting the Avatar, not you. This won't even be a challenge." She raised her hand to unleash another fireblast, but before she could Suki was up the stairs with agility that would do Momo proud and tackled the other girl, knocking both of them to the deck below. The scrambled back to their feet and faced each other, both poised and deadly.

    "Sokka, go!" Suki shouted. "I'll hold her off!" Sokka hesitated- he wasn't comfortable leaving a girl in danger, or letting one fight his battles for him, but he had to grudgingly admit that here, Suki would probably handle herself better than he would- and there was something else he needed to do here. He nodded once at her, and then began to climb.

    On the deck below, Azula looked at Suki's armaments and snorted disdainfully. "Silly Earth Kingdom girl," she said, "haven't you heard that fans only make flames stronger?"

    Suki returned her malevolent grin. "We'll see about that," she said, and lunged forward to meet the princess of the Fire Nation.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The lead soldier facing Katara stepped forward, his gaze uncertain as he studied her improvised water whip. Lowering his spear, he poked at it tentatively, and the waterbender winced as it exploded into a shower of wet droplets. The soldier smiled cruelly and advanced, lunging with his spear.

    There was no time for thought; only action. The little combat waterbending Katara had worked out on her own was too basic to work here- instead, she remembered her lesson with the Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors the previous night. As the soldier struck, Katara managed to dart aside and lunged with an open-handed strike directly to the center of his chest. The soldier's eyes widened as he was knocked off balance, and then he stumbled back into his comrade who stood behind him, sending them both sprawling. The third soldier, though, was a firebender; he raised his hands to unleash an attack, but before he could do so, Momo landed on his helmet and twisted it around, cutting off his vision. The lemur chattered as the soldier stumbled about and tried to hit him; Katara was forgotten.

    The Water Tribe girl looked down at her hands, and then over at the two soldiers who now lay sprawled in front of her. "Yes," she murmured happily, and a triumphant grin slid over her face. *

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------

    There was one sailor at the controls in the bridge as Sokka burst in; he looked up at the Water Tribe warrior with a shocked expression. "I'm terribly sorry," Sokka told him as he let his boomerang fly; it struck the man's head and left him sprawled out cold in the middle of the floor, "but I am claiming this room for the Water Tribe." Pushing past the downed man, he made his way to the controls and looked them over.

    "Doesn't this thing come with a manual?" he asked no one in particular upon realizing that there was little to no marking to indicate which control did what. Shrugging, Sokka focused his attention on a likely-looking lever and pulled hard on it; he was rewarded by feeling the ship shake under him as it came to a halt. "Knew there had to be an anchor somewhere," he said. "Now, to make things a bit more difficult for 'em."

    Raising his boomerang, he brought its sharp edge down on the lever, snapping most of it off. Rooting around in his belt, he pulled out a short knife and jammed it deep into the lever's groove; satisfying himself that it was wedged so tight as to be next to impossible to get out, he hurried from the bridge and back onto the deck. "I got it!" he shouted.

    Down below, Aang paused in his duel with Zuko to wave in response, and then he raised his staff into the air and snapped the glider open. It was answered from the sky with a low bellow, and then Appa descended, slamming against the ship's side and shaking it while it lay at anchor. Quickly, the Avatar, the Water Tribe siblings, and the Kyoshi warriors hurried to the bison and climbed back onto his back before he launched himself back into the air. Fireblasts followed them- including a couple that were powerful enough they might have come from Azula or Zuko themselves- but with the ship stationary, Appa quickly outpaced them.

    "They'll get that fixed pretty soon," Sokka said, "but by the time they do, we'll be out of their range and well on our way to Omashu."

    "Good plan, Sokka," Aang said, and Katara smiled; she looked very happy about something. After a brief moment of silence, Sokka turned to Suki.

    "Look," he said, "I know I've been a bit of a jerk to you, and I'm sorry- I saw what you did out there to the Fire Nation, and you fought really well. Not just for a girl, but for anyone." He paused for another moment. "And, well- I couldn't have done it without you."

    "Thanks," Suki said. "And you're not half bad yourself- but I hope you learned your lesson today." Suddenly, apparently on impulse, she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, leaving Sokka sitting perfectly still and with a shocked but not entirely unhappy expression on his face.

    Sokka watched her return to her boat as they deposited her next to it with a smile. "You know," he said when she was out of earshot, "that Suki's not half bad looking…"

    "Sokka!" Katara said, but her brother raised his hands.

    "What? I can respect her as a warrior and still think she's cute, right?" He glanced to the Avatar. "Aang, back me up here!"

    But Aang and Katara only laughed. "Next stop, Omashu!" Aang finally said, which Sokka noted didn't remotely have to do with the conversation, and then he took the reins to steer the bison towards the Earth Kingdom's last stronghold.

    *No, I'm not going to turn Katara into a full on Kyoshi Warrior- while Suki and the KWs are sticking around for next "episode", that's not enough time for her to get really good with their techniques. Rather, in this AU she knows that she may well have to teach herself combat waterbending, and decided here to pick up a little mundane fighting as what you might think of as a sort of "insurance".
  10. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 5: The Siege of Omashu

    Aang marched up the incline, with Momo perched on one shoulder and Appa at his side while Katara, Sokka, and the Kyoshi warriors followed close behind. Reaching the top of the rise, the young airbender planted his staff on the ground and gestured dramatically towards the sight before them. "I give you the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu!"

    Katara, Sokka, and Suki all crowded forward to take in the sight of the great city- apparently the last Earth Kingdom city, though Aang still had a hard time wrapping his mind around that idea. Omashu was built in rising layers around the peaks of three low mountains- or maybe tall hills; Aang wasn't quite sure where the distinction came into play in this case- and from this distance it looked almost like a mountain itself, though up close it became obvious that it was made up of thousands of buildings. It wasn't nearly as beautiful as the Air Temples, Aang felt, but there was something very impressive about Omashu that left a powerful impression- and after trying out Bumi's idea of using the city's elaborate mail system for a wild ride, it wasn't a place he was ever likely to forget.

    The Water Tribe siblings and the Kyoshi Warriors were still taking in the sight of Omashu when Suki turned towards the west, a frown creasing her features. "What's that over there?" she asked. "I think I see dust- and smoke."

    "You're right," Sokka said. "I see it to- and that can mean only one thing. We're too late- the Fire Nation is getting here at the same time we are." He sighed and sagged. "Can't we ever have good luck for once?"

    "Aang," Katara said, "we need to get inside the city. Do you think Appa can fly us over there?"

    "I don't think we have time," Aang said turning and pointing at a hill much closer to them. "Look out!"

    Even before the Avatar finished speaking, the source of his concern became obvious. A group of soldiers in Fire Nation armor were cresting the hill, a number of them wearing the skull-like masks that denoted firebenders. The Kyoshi Warriors drew their fans and dropped into their fighting stances- Katara following them somewhat more hesitantly- while Sokka drew his club and Aang twirled his staff. Before they could react, however, another group of soldiers approached from the other side, surrounding them.

    "We're under orders to secure this area," an officer said, stepping forward. "You and your… creature are now prisoners of the Fire Army. I suggest you come quietly- I don't want to hurt kids, but I will if you make me."

    Momo hissed angrily at the man, and Aang reached up a hand to comfort him. "This looks bad," Sokka whispered from nearby. "They've got us outnumbered big time, and enough firebenders to burn us all to ash if they want to."

    "We can fight," Suki said, "but I'm not sure we can win. These guys look like professionals." She lowered her voice. "I didn't want it to end up this way, but I will meet my end with courage and honor."

    "Well?" the officer demanded. "I don't have all day. Do you surrender or not?"

    Aang glanced at the Kyoshi Warriors, then at Sokka, Katara, and Appa, and finally back to the officer. Then, slowly, he raised his hands. "If you promise not to hurt us," he said, "we surrender?"

    "Smart boy," the officer said, smiling coldly. "Men, get them moving. Bind the creature and put him and the girls in the prison stockade. The boy, the two Water Tribers and whoever is the lead girl go to the prince."

    The soldiers moved to obey, but before they could reach Appa Aang darted to his side and whispered in his ear. "Get out of here, buddy. Fly to the city; I'll catch you later. Go!" He slipped his staff up onto the saddle and slapped a hand against the bison's foreleg; Appa launched himself into the air and shot off towards Omashu, the Fire Nation soldiers staring at him openmouthed. Then they turned and surrounded their captives more tightly, expressions cold again.

    "Aang, what are you doing?" Katara asked softly as they were forced together. "You can't just give up!"

    "I'm not," Aang told her. "We can't fight all these guys at once- but if they think we're cooperating with them, maybe they'll let their guard down."

    "Clever," Sokka admitted. "Doesn't seem to be working yet, but clever."

    "Give them a little time," Aang muttered. "I hope."

    "Get moving!" the officer snapped, and the soldiers began marching with their captives caught squarely in their midst, including one young airbender who was desperately hoping he hadn't made a horrible mistake.

    ///

    Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Suki were separated from the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors just before they entered the Fire Nation camp that was quickly being pitched across the canyon from Omashu. Tents emblazoned with the outline of a flame in red or black were being pitched in an ordered, militaristic manner while soldiers mounted on rhinos patrolled the edges, men and beasts both looking foul-tempered and more than capable of handling themselves in a fight. In the midst of the encampment was a single, larger tent surrounded by guards. This was the destination to which the guards were leading them. Suki shot a longing look at her warriors as they were lead away, and Aang hung his head. His plan hadn't saved them at all; it had merely led them from bad to worse.

    At the edge of the camp, an incident of some sort appeared to be underway. A middle-aged man in Earth Kingdom green was held between two soldiers, while a third was examining a cart of some sort of vegetable. "You can't do this!" the man was shouting. "You don't have the right!"

    "In the name of Fire Lord Iroh we confiscate these cabbages in the name of the Fire Nation war effort!" one of the soldiers intoned, and gestured to the third, who took hold of the cart and began pushing it off towards wherever the supplies were kept, while the Earth Kingdom merchant collapsed to the ground, sobbing about his cabbages. Aang gave the man a pitying glance and wished he could do more to help, but for now, he and his friends had more immediate problems- like getting out of their predicament alive.

    They weaved their way through the camp until they came to the central tent, where the officer gave a short, respectful bow to the head guard and spoke to him in hushed tones. The guard nodded once, then pulled the tent flap open and gestured for the soldiers and prisoners to enter.

    Inside, the tent was spare, having been erected only recently, but a folding table stood in the middle of it and bent over it, apparently studying maps spread out before him, was a man. The officer approached him and then went down on one knee, averting his eyes. "Highness," he said. "We have brought you prisoners we captured near Omashu; we would not trouble you with this ordinarily, but we thought that these might be an exception."

    The man beside the table- the Prince- raised his head, and Aang could tell by looking at him that he was closely related to Zuko and Azula, though he looked at least ten years older than them. His eyes moved from each captive to the next, finally settling on Aang's forehead- then they widened. "I don't believe it," he said in a soft, even voice. "Father will be amazed when he hears about this- you've earned yourself a promotion, Lieutenant, and probably a small fortune to go with it." He smiled; it wasn't a cruel smile, like Azula's, but still, the fact that his captor was happy didn't strike Aang as a good sign. "After a hundred years, the Fire Nation finally has the Avatar."

    "What are you talking about?" Katara said, doing her best to sound shocked. "Aang's not the Avatar. How could he be? He's just a kid!"

    "The airbender tattoos are giveaway enough," the Prince said. "The Fire Sages reported that the Avatar had returned only weeks ago; I don't know how he is so young, but perhaps can tell us." He raised a questioning eyebrow at Aang, who regarded him defiantly.

    "I'm not going to talk about myself with you," he said; then an idea struck him. "At least, not unless you let my friends and the Kyoshi Warriors go first."

    "I'm sorry- I'm afraid I can't do that," the Prince told him, though he sounded almost regretful. "The Fire Nation is at war- if your friends are warriors, they will be conscripted into our service." He glanced at his prisoners again. "Do you know who I am?"

    "Yeah," Sokka said. "You're the Head Jerk."

    The Prince gave a genuinely amused laugh. "I like you," he said. "It takes a brave man to mock the one who could have him killed on a whim." Sokka gulped noticeably at that, but the Prince shook his head. "But you don't need to worry about that, as long as you cooperate- I'm not my Uncle Ozai, to inflict pain merely because I can. I am Lu Ten, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, son and heir of Fire Lord Iroh, and I have come to claim this city, the last bastion of the Earth Kingdom, for my father's empire."

    "You won't win," Suki said harshly. "My people will fight you- and my warriors will never be part of your army."

    "They fought at Ba Sing Se as well," Lu Ten said. "Very valiantly, too, as I remember. But in the end, they lost the City of Walls, and they will lose Omashu as well. I have learned strategy and leadership from my father himself, and I have long prepared for this. I cannot fail." He regarded his now-quietly defiant captives for a moment, then gestured to his soldiers. "Take them to the stockades and watch them carefully. Do not allow them to escape, at any cost. And sent a messenger hawk to my father- tell him that the campaign begins, and I have a surprise for him. A mighty gift."

    The soldiers bowed and withdrew, taking their prisoners with them. As the tent flap closed behind them, Aang glanced back and saw that Lu Ten was still staring after him, his face set in the calmly confident expression of someone who is certain that destiny is on his side.

    ///

    "What was I thinking?" Aang moaned as the gate of the prisoner stockade slammed shut and was locked. "I thought we could do like I did on that Fire Nation ship- wait for them to let their guard down and then run. But here there's nowhere to run to. There's just too many of them." The airbender plopped to the ground dejectedly and put his head in his hands.

    "Don't worry, Aang," Katara said, sitting down beside him. "We can get out of this- we just need to figure out how. You've never been in a situation like this before, and I think you did fine."

    "Yeah, we're in the middle of a Fire Nation camp and maybe about to get shipped out to the Fire Lord," Sokka said. "What could possibly go wrong?"

    "I failed too," Suki murmured from where she stood nearby. "I left Kyoshi Island with such big dreams of joining the war and taking the fight to the Fire Nation, but in my first battle all my warriors were captured and me along with them." She shook her head. "I should have done better."

    "Katara's right," Aang said, getting back to his feet. "We can't just give up. Now, I might be able to airbend myself over the wall if I took a running jump for it, but without my glider I can't carry anybody with me, and I'm not leaving you. We need to find another way out."

    "It's too bad the lock's on the other side," Sokka muttered to himself, stroking his chin. "If it was over here, I might be able to figure out how to get it open- which is probably why the Fire Nation doesn't put it there. So what we need is some way to get them to open the door for us."

    "We could wait until they bring us food," Katara volunteered. "They'd have to open the door then."

    "Don't think that's a good idea," Suki said. "We don't know when they'll feed us, and they might even have some way to get the food through the wall without opening the gate."

    "Maybe one of us could pretend to be sick," Aang said. "Then, when the guards come in to see what's wrong, we could get out!"

    "Nah, that's one of the oldest tricks in the book," Sokka told him, though his eyes were thoughtful. "But maybe we could make it work if we played it right…" Before the young warrior finished speaking, however, the earth rumbled beneath the stockade and the guards outside the gate gave panicked shouts that quickly fell silent.

    "What's going on?" Katara asked.

    "I think someone's out there," Suki said, tensing to spring. "I don't think they like the Fire Nation, but that's no guarantee they're on our side either. It could be bandits, or even animals."

    "Shh," Sokka muttered, pointing at the ground beneath the gate. It was rumbling and visibly buckling, and then forced its way open to reveal a bearded man in a tan and green uniform who quickly motioned towards them. The four young travelers glanced at each other quickly- whoever this person was, it seemed unlikely that they'd end up any worse from following him than they were already- and then jumped down into the hole after him. The man gestured with both hands, and the earth sealed itself above them.

    "Follow me; hurry," he said, making his way down what was now revealed as a low tunnel; a group of about five other uniformed men were waiting there, one of them carrying a torch that lit a small area around them. "The king had us dig these tunnels during the months before the Fire Nation attacked- so far as we know, they have no way to know about us being down here, but I still don't want to spend any more time right below their camp than I have to."

    Aang and his friends followed the men- Earth Kingdom soldiers, probably- in silence for some time, while the tunnel sloped steadily downwards. Finally, the Avatar spoke up. "Thanks a lot back there," he said. "We didn't know how we were going to get out of that one. How'd you know to find us anyway?"

    "The king sent us," the lead soldier said. "You've got a smart bison, kid- smart, or lucky. He came straight to the palace, and the king just took one look at him, nodded, and muttered something about 'that boy' getting into trouble again before laughing like it was some big joke. Then he called my men and I and told us where to go to find you and bring you to him."

    "That sounds almost like he knew you," Katara said softly to Aang. "You wouldn't happen to know any Earth Kingdom royalty, would you?"

    Aang shrugged. "I think I would have remembered that. But the guy who was king the last time I was here's probably been gone a while. Whoever it is now probably wasn't even born back then."

    "Hate to interrupt the trip down memory lane," Sokka said, "but has anyone else noticed that we're going down?"

    "You're right, son," the lead soldier said. "The tunnels go beneath the chasm that surrounds the city, when it starts rising again, then you'll know that we've arrived inside Omashu. Once we're there, I'm under orders to bring you straight to the king. He says you're the second most important priority he has today."

    "What's the first?" Aang asked, curiosity overcoming him.

    "The king doesn't need to tell me his business," the soldier replied, though one of the others made some comment under his breath that sounded like "probably giving Flopsy a massage," which didn't make any sense no matter how much the airbender thought about it. Still, whoever this king person was, it sounded like they were all going to be meeting him soon.

    ///

    "Escaped?" Lu Ten asked incredulously. "How is that possible?"

    "We're not completely sure, Highness," Commander Shong said. The older man was a levelheaded career soldier who'd been assigned directly by Fire Lord Iroh to be his son's aide and consultant; right now his face was lined with stern displeasure, not towards his prince and student, but towards the soldiers who had made such a glaring error. "The guards claim they were attacked from below ground by burrowing earthbenders. We have men looking into it, but without earthbenders of our own, it's hard work and seems unlikely to have much success."

    "Keep up the search and give me what information you can," Lu Ten replied. "They can't have gone far, and we've scouted the hills all around this area. That means they're probably headed into the city itself."

    "That's where the soldiers who captured them said that the Avatar's bison went," Shong said. "They should have found a way to capture the creature when they had the chance. In any case, Highness, I agree that Omashu is their most likely destination."

    "Then prepare the troops and bring up the war engines," Lu Ten told him, stepping out from his tent and turning to face the triple cones of the ancient city, Shong beside him. "Fortune has favored the Fire Nation so far in this war; with luck, today we will deliver both Omashu and the Avatar to my father."

    ///

    "Appa!" Aang called as he saw the great bison across the narrow palace courtyard. Appa rumbled a pleased greeting and hurried forward- at least as much as a ten-ton creature could hurry- and licked his companion's face with his great tongue. Aang laughed and wrapped his hands around the bison's snout. "I'm glad you made it, buddy." As he did so, Momo flew out from Appa's saddle, where he'd apparently been perched, and landed on the airbender's shoulder.

    "So," a high, thin voice said from nearby. Aang pulled away from Appa and turned to see the figure heading towards him and then stopped, unsure whether to bow or rub his eyes to make sure he was seeing clearly. The speaker was an ancient man who seemed to be attempting to hold himself with regal dignity- an attempt that was severely undercut by the fact that his wardrobe consisted of a bizarre headdress and robe in a truly garish shade of purple, that one of his eyes was larger than the other and seemed to be constantly bugged out in surprise, and that his hair and beard didn't look like they'd ever been groomed since the time of Kyoshi. The whole effect was so completely bizarre that Aang could hear Katara stifling a laugh behind him.

    "Are you the king?" Aang asked, then felt rather foolish as everyone outside of their party bowed deeply, confirming that he was.

    "Who else would I be?" the old man demanded. "Wait- don't answer that. I'm not sure I want to know." He moved forward remarkably quickly and stared down into Aang's face, examining him first with the large eye, then the small one, then the large one again. Something was naggingly familiar about him this close, but Aang couldn't place what it was, at least not while the king was staring at him like Sokka examining a choice bit of meat. "I've heard a lot about you, Avatar," the king continued. "Oh, yes, I have. And what stories, too! Vanishing for a hundred years, running around the southern islands like a headless chickencow, and, oh yes, completely subverting my city's mail system for your own amusement. What have you to say to that, eh?"

    "Mail system," Aang muttered. It had been more than a hundred years since he'd used Omashu's delivery system as a giant slide, and though the king certainly looked old enough to have been around then, there was no way he could have heard of it. The only other person who'd been in on it had been the one to come up with the idea, and that had been… Aang studied the king again, looking closely at those mismatched eyes. No, it couldn't be… "Bumi?" the Avatar asked.

    The king threw back his head and laughed- and it was that familiar laugh, half-mad and interrupted by the occasional snort, and completely unforgettable once you'd heard it. "He got it!" Bumi crowed. "And in just one guess, too. I'll have to try harder next time; would have this time, if it weren't for the houseguests. Company always make everything so complicated." He got down on his knees and put his hands on Aang's shoulders. "You haven't aged a day, Aang- and I mean literally."

    "I can't believe it's you, Bumi!" Aang said excitedly. "How'd you know to find me?"

    "I knew you were here when Appa showed up," Bumi said, gesturing at the sky bison. "Wonderful creature; should introduce him to my Flopsy- they'd have so much fun together. Anyway, I thought the Fire Nation might have captured you, but I knew where to send my soldiers, because the Fire Nation always lays out their camps the same basic way. Lazy, if you ask me. Boring, too."

    "So, I guess you do know Earth Kingdom royalty, Aang," Katara said, stepping forward. "He must be one of your old friends from before the war!"

    "Yeah, me and Bumi go way back," Aang said. "He acts crazy, but don't let it fool you- he's one of the smartest people in the whole Earth Kingdom. I always used to call him a mad genius." He turned back to Bumi and looked him up and down. "But I never knew you were in line to be king!"

    Bumi shrugged. "Ehh, it's a long story, and actually very dull. And speaking of stories, I think that one there has a shorter one for us." The group turned in the direction the old king was pointing, and saw a messenger running towards them. As he approached Bumi, he knelt.

    "Sire," he said. "The Fire Nation army seems to be mobilizing for an attack. However, their commander and his escort have approached the main bridge and have raised a flag of truce. It is the militia commander's belief that they want to talk before they fight. What are your orders?"

    "Well," Bumi said, smiling deviously and rubbing his fingers together. "It looks like our houseguests have gotten tired of loitering in the yard and decided to move in to trash the living room. Finally things are getting exciting. Well, let's go talk to them. Oh, I've been looking forward to this." The king gave another of his distinctive snorting laughs, and Aang found himself wondering exactly what his old friend was up to.

    ///

    The great gates of Omashu groaned as a team of earthbenders forced them apart, and Bumi stepped through them, accompanied by a small force of guards. In the middle of the bridge beyond waited Prince Lu Ten in magnificent armor, his helmet held under one arm; an older soldier in slightly less elaborate armor stood just behind him, and they were flanked by ten masked firebenders.

    "I don't like this," Aang said from where he and his friends waited just inside the gate. "Bumi's my friend; I feel like I should be out there with him."

    "I don't think you need to worry, Aang," Suki said. "You said yourself that he's a lot smarter than he looks, and he doesn't seem as worried as someone about to face an invasion of firebenders should. I think he's got something up his sleeve."

    "I hope you're right," Aang said quietly.

    Out on the bridge, Lu Ten stepped forward. "I am Crown Prince Lu Ten of the Fire Nation and commanding general of this army," he declared. "I want to speak with King Bumi of Omashu. Are you he?"

    "Bumi?" the old man asked, glancing around and rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Hmmm. Maybe. The name does sound familiar. Have we met, young man?"

    "I don't have time for games," the Fire Lord's son said. "This city is the last bastion of the Earth Kingdom that still stands against my Nation's conquest. We have tolerated Omashu for too long, but no more. I'm here to demand your city's surrender."

    "Surrender?" Bumi asked. "I'd love to, but I'm afraid that if I did, the city's merchants simply wouldn't let me hear the end of it. No, I'm afraid it's entirely out of the question."

    "Merchants?" Lu Ten asked, obviously taken aback and rather lost. "What are you rambling about?"

    "Well, if I surrendered we'd have to switch over to Fire Nation currency," Bumi explained as if to someone who was a bit dim. "And that would just be a headache. We're fine like we are, thank you. Though, perhaps you could surrender to me. Yes, that would work out much better. I'd even throw you a feast, if you promised to behave." He looked Lu Ten up and down. "I hear your father likes feasts. How about you?"

    "What is this nonsense?" the officer at Lu Ten's side muttered, but the prince held up his hand for silence.

    "It is obvious to me that you are not interested in talking reasonably," he said. "I will warn you again; surrender now, or we will take this city as we took Ba Sing Se! That is the Fire Nation's destiny, and it will not be denied."

    "Destiny, eh?" Bumi asked, and there was a keen edge to his voice now that hadn't been there before. "I've lived more than a hundred years, young man, and in that time I've found that people who talk about destiny so certainly rarely know the meaning of the word. I've heard it all before, and I'm not surrendering Omashu to the likes of you, and you can go tell your father from me that I'm really quite disappointed in him for not giving up this madness. Now get out of my city."

    Anger crossed the faces of Lu Ten and his officers and they seemed ready to spring, and Aang grabbed his staff and prepared to leap to his friend's defense, but before either could move the old king gave another cackling, snorting laugh and threw off his outer robes. Beneath, he nearly as heavily muscled as any of his earthbenders- amazingly so, for someone so old- and he stomped one bare foot down on the bridge and pushed forwards with his hands. The stone bridge cracked clean in two down the middle, and the side on which the Fire Nation prince and his escort stood was thrown back into the other side, where they could be seen quickly picking themselves up and retreating back to the main force, which was even now beginning to move forward.

    "And stay out!" Bumi crowed, before turning and walking back through the gate. There he was greeted by a grinning Aang.

    "That was amazing!" Aang said. "The way you just told him off, and then that earthbending! How'd you get so good at that, anyway?"

    "Lots of practice and green vegetables," Bumi said, turning his gaze to the wall. "Now then, I think the Fire Nation ought to be preparing their attack right about now, and I think we should go watch them. I'd hate for you all to miss the show."

    Before Aang could ask what show Bumi was talking about, the king had bent a stone platform up from the ground and used it to pick them both, as well as Katara, Sokka, Suki, Appa, and Momo, up from the ground and carry them up to the top of the wall. From there, they could see the Fire Nation forces advancing towards the city from several directions, and at the head of each group was what appeared to be a steam-powered war machine.

    "Mechanical bridges," Bumi murmured to himself. "Designed to extend over the canyon. You'd think if their engineers were really so clever they'd just build the things the right length to begin with. Once those are in place, it'll be getting real hot around here." He glanced deliberately at Aang and his friends, but none of them managed more than a few chuckles at the joke.

    "So what do you want us to do?" Aang asked. "I bet we could fly down on Appa and take a couple of them out, but…"

    "You don't need to do anything," Bumi said. "I've got them right where I want them." He smiled and turned to look back at the city, gesturing at one of the many chutes that crisscrossed it. "Now Aang, tell me- what do you see?"

    "The mail system," Aang said. "Or a super slide. Bumi, we had this conversation more than a hundred years ago- I don't think sliding or mail delivery is going to help us much right now, though."

    Bumi clucked and shook his head. "Oh, Aang. Always seeing what your eyes tell you. First it was a mail system. Efficient, useful, boring. Add one creative kid with too much time on his hands, and you had what could have been the world's greatest tourist attraction, if the Fire Nation hadn't decided to spoil everyone's day. But now, it doesn't take much of a stretch to turn it into something completely different…" Bumi began laughing again.

    "Umm, Aang," Katara said, coming quickly to his side. "Are you sure your friend hasn't… slipped a bit? Because I'm watching where he's pointing and I don't see anything."

    "And the Fire Nation's here now!" Sokka shouted, pointing over the wall. "They're planting the bridges!"

    Bumi stopped laughing and smiled. "Right on schedule," he said. "And so what was once a mail system and then a slide now has a chance to become something else entirely." He gave another short burst of laughter. "Artillery."

    At that moment, at a mail station halfway up the central cone, several stone containers were sent flying down the chutes. Bumi watched them intently from where he stood on the wall, and as they approached he shifted his stance and pulled on them with his earthbending. Several of the nearest launched from their tracks and shot overhead at incredible speeds, propelled by the combined energy of the momentum they'd already built up and Bumi's earthbending. They soared over the wall and crashed cleanly into the nearest mechanical bridge before exploding in vivid fire, sending the twisted metal wreckage plummeting into the canyon. All along the rim, other containers struck their targets, and the other bridges met the same fate.

    "Fire Nation munitions," Bumi explained happily. "Captured by my people and put to better use. Using the enemy's strength against them." He glanced deliberately at Suki. "I think your people know something about that."

    "They're pulling back!" Sokka called. "Without the bridges, they don't have any way to get across, until they manage to put something else together. Score one for Omashu!"

    "Then it'll be a siege," Suki said. "They may not be able to get to the city to attack it, but that won't stop them from trying to choke the life out of it."

    "We can stay and help," Aang said, turning to Bumi. "We owe you one. And maybe you could teach me some of that awesome earthbending you just did!"

    Bumi shook his head. "No, Aang," he said, suddenly more serious than he'd been the whole time since they'd been here. "This isn't your place now- you're not ready for it. You need to master all the elements before you can truly take your place as the Avatar and restore balance to the world. First, you must find a waterbending master- water comes before earth in the cycle."

    "But what about you?" Aang asked. "I can't just leave you!"

    "Don't underestimate what a mad genius can get up to," Bumi said. "That young prince out there- he's smart, but untested as a commander. I think I can keep him running in circles; very amusing for me, good for him and for my city. Don't worry- I think we'll meet again before this is all over." He leaned in close. "And remember the lesson of the mail system- things aren't always what they seem at first- or even second!"

    "I'll remember," Aang told him. "Thank you, Bumi."

    "Majesty," Suki said, stepping forward. "If it pleases you, I would remain here. I came to defend this city, and I will help however I can- and I must rescue the other Kyoshi Warriors, who are prisoners in the Fire Nation camp. If the Avatar's place is to go, then I feel my place is here." She knelt before Bumi. "My fan and sword are yours."

    "Really?" Bumi asked, motioning her to rise. "I think we can think of some good uses to put those to." He turned to Aang. "Now, you had best be going. The Fire Nation may have catapults set up soon." He smiled- a warm smile this time, rather than a half-mad grin. "Oh, and good luck."

    A short time later, an old man and a young woman stood on the wall of Omashu and watched as a sky bison lifted into the air, carrying two water tribe siblings, a flying lemur, and the world's best hope for peace on his back. The two watched until the bison was out of sight, and then Bumi motioned for Suki.

    "Well, come on then," he said. "I don't suppose you play pai sho?"

    ///

    "The Avatar's bison is leaving the city, Highness," Commander Shong said, lowering his spyglass. "He's making for the north. What are you orders?"

    Lu Ten stood quietly for several moments, thinking deeply. "Do not pursue," he finally said. "We are not equipped to pursue the sky bison, and we have our target- Omashu." He looked towards the city. "That old king is wily, and he played us well, but it's only one move. The game will be ours, and I will deliver the last Earth Kingdom stronghold to my father's crown. However long it takes."

    ///

    A word on structure- unlike in canon, we'll get more "Zuko Alone"-style "episodes" that focus on characters other than the Gaang in Destinies Rewritten, letting us see what's going on in other parts of the world. Suki's been left in Omashu for this purpose, since I wanted to have a protagonist there other than Bumi (whose POV I want to stay away from, to keep him unpredictable); we'll pick up a few other characters who'll get focus every so often later on. The core story will still be Aang and co., though.

    Also, sorry that the Gaang were mostly observers in this chapter; I wanted to highlight that they still have a lot to learn before they're ready to deal with something this big. I hope to give all three chances to shine next chapter.

    -MG
  11. Force Smuggler Chosen One

    Member Since:
    Sep 2, 2012
    star 6
    Love this idea. Perfect. Continue!
  12. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 6: Conscripted



    A grinding rumble split the air as six earthbenders raised their arms and each drew up a massive boulder from within the earth. Taking careful aim, one after another they fired them at the targets which stood in the center of the courtyard- each of the designed to resemble a soldier in an Earth Kingdom uniform. Occasionally one of the guards would pause to watch them, but mostly they simply walked around the courtyard’s edges, careful to keep away from the direction of the flying rocks. Each guard was clad in red armor and concealed his or her face behind a mask that resembled a stylized skull, and was a continuous reminder that these earthbenders were no longer free. This was the result of Fire Lord Iroh’s grand design for unifying the largely conquered Earth Kingdom under Fire Nation rule- rather than trying to wipe out earthbending, a task the sheer scale of which made nearly impossible, Iroh planned to fold them into the Fire Nation war machine. Each of these earthbenders had been conscripted and was being trained to fight against their own people.



    The Warden shook his head as he watched the training from his balcony. “Savagery,” he muttered. “Why the Fire Lord thinks our Nation requires the services of something so crude is beyond me…”



    “Now, Warden,” a calm voice said from behind him “surely I didn’t just overhear you criticizing our glorious monarch’s plans? To say nothing of your obvious disdain for such an ancient and useful art. I might have to report that.”



    “Our monarch, Agent Shen?” the Warden asked, turning to face the speaker. “I was not aware that you and your… fellows considered yourselves part of the Fire Nation?”



    Agent Shen gave a wintry smile and folded his hands within the sleeves of his dark green robes. Their design alone marked him as distinct from both the earthbenders below and their firebending overseers, to say nothing of the broad-brimmed hat that shielded his face and the fact that though he wore a Fire Nation insignia on his chest, it was done in green and gold rather than red. “The Dai Li exist to serve the ruler of Ba Sing Se,” he said. “When Ba Sing Se was conquered by Fire Lord Iroh, it merely meant finding a new way to serve.” The Dai Li agent glided forward and joined the Warden in looking over the earthbenders, a faint note of pride touching his face- for when they weren’t merely drilling, as they were now, he was their primary instructor.



    “The Fire Nation does not need to depend on earthbenders for its success,” the Warden snapped.



    “I understand,” Shen said. “You look down there and you see your people being made weak by being forced to associate with barbarians like us. But I see the future.” He looked at the Warden. “And the Fire Lord also sees what I see. You had best remember that, my friend.”



    The Warden bristled, but found himself shivering involuntarily as well. It was just the mention of his Nation’s ruler that had gotten to him, he assured himself. He certainly wasn’t afraid of some jumped-up earthbender. Certainly not.



    In the courtyard below, a row of boulders impacted on their targets once again.



    ///



    Aang sat against Appa’s foreleg with his head bowed and arms wrapped around his knees. Hearing footsteps approach, he looked up to see Katara bending down and regarding him with concern; Momo was perched on her shoulder, and the lemur was almost comically imitating the waterbender’s expression.



    “Are you okay?” she asked. “It’s just that ever since Omashu you’ve been pretty down. If there’s anything wrong, I want you to know that you can talk to me about it.”



    “I know,” he said, smiling slightly and holding out his arm. Momo hopped onto it and Aang began to stroke his furry head as he returned his attention to Katara. “I guess that it just doesn’t feel right- I mean, I’m supposed to be responsible for keeping the world in balance, but I couldn’t do anything to stop Lu Ten and his army, and worse than that, I couldn’t do anything to help Bumi. He’s my oldest friend, and all I could do was leave him there.”



    Katara got down on her knees in front of him. “Aang,” she said, “Bumi’s a king, and he needs to be with his people. I know how frustrated you must be right now, but you’ll be able to help him and a lot of other people, I know it- you just need to work on mastering all the elements so you can handle something that big. But I know you can do it.”



    “Thanks, Katara,” Aang said, “that really helps.” Hearing someone else approach, he brought himself to his feet with a puff of air and turned to look in the direction they were coming from. “Hey, Sokka!” he called. “Did you get any food?”



    “Yeah,” the young warrior said, depositing a bag at Aang’s feet, “but we need to get out of here. This town’s crawling with Fire Nation troops. It was weird, though- I told them I was a refugee and they let me in, but they seemed more concerned with watching the locals. I’d almost have thought they were worried about a revolt, but I saw hardly anyone there who looked like they could be fighters or benders. Honestly, it kinda gave me the creeps.”



    “Katara,” Aang said, turning excitedly, “I think this is it- you said I’d get the chance to help people, and now Sokka’s found a town that’s in some kind of trouble! I think we should go back, try to figure out what’s going on, and see if we can put a stop to it!”



    “You know, I wasn’t expecting something to come up this soon,” Katara began, but Sokka cut her off.



    “Yeah,” he said, “and I hate to break it to you, Aang, but I don’t think that the three of us are going to be able to do a whole lot against a whole force of Fire Nation occupiers.”



    “Well, at least we might be able to find something out,” Aang said. “Sokka, you said yourself that something weird was going on there- I bet the Fire Nation is doing something really important and it’ll turn out to be some top-secret project we can stop! That’s probably exactly what they’re doing!”



    Sokka looked dubious, but finally threw up his hands. “The guards are probably just paranoid, but if it’s just fact-finding we can do it- but if we get caught by firebenders and shipped off to slave away in some factory, don’t blame it on me.”



    ///



    Despite the impromptu hat made from cloth wrapped around his head, Aang thought he could feel the eyes of the Fire Nation soldiers burning into him as he made his way through the village. Momo was perched on one shoulder, but Appa was back in the woods- the giant sky bison would attract way too much attention, especially when he was supposed to be extinct- and Katara and Sokka walked on either side. The guards seemed to have believed Sokka’s story about needing more supplies, but Aang was getting the same sense that the Water Tribe boy had mentioned from earlier- it was like they were more concerned with the village itself than with outsiders.



    Finally, they stopped in front of a large building that looked like a shop of some sort. “This is where I bought my stuff earlier. The lady who runs the place was nice enough- maybe she could tell us something about what’s going on here,” Sokka said in a low voice.



    “Works for me,” Katara said; she stepped forward and walked through the door with the other two close behind her. A middle-aged woman in green was sorting through her wares with her back to them; she stood and turned to regard them, her gaze settling on Sokka.



    “Back again?” she asked. “I thought I’d already sold you everything you needed. Is there something else?”



    “Well, yes,” Aang said, “but we’re not actually here to buy things. I was wondering if you could tell me something about what’s going on in this town?”



    The woman’s face suddenly went completely still. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Now, tell me what you want to buy, and then you can be on your way.”



    “Look,” Katara said, stepping up. “We know that the Fire Nation’s here and something strange is going on. But we’re not here to cause trouble- we want to help, and I think we can. You see my friend here? He’s the Avatar, and if anyone can do anything about the Fire Nation, it’s him.” She gestured at Aang, who grinned and pulled back his “hat”, revealing the tip of his arrow.



    The shopkeeper stared at the airbender tattoo intently, then nodded. “Very well,” she said, and sighed. “I don’t suppose that just telling you what has happened in this village will do any harm.



    “The Fire Nation army arrived here several years ago- they said they were looking for resources for Fire Lord Iroh’s war effort. At first, we thought they just wanted the local mines, but then it turned out that they were after something far more valuable. Iroh, it seems, is either far more open-minded than his predecessors, or far crueler- we haven’t been able to decide which. Instead of simply killing or enslaving earthbenders, he had a new plan- he would conscript them into his army and use them as soldiers to fight against their own people. Apparently he does not share most of his people’s contempt for other elements, and thinks that they are a valuable addition to his army.”



    “That’s horrible!” Aang said, shocked. “Why do they go along with that, anyway? Why not try to break free?”



    “Because,” the shopkeeper said, “the Fire Nation takes hostages to ensure their good behavior. Many earthbenders came from this village, and that is why the soldiers are really here- to use us a leverage to control our relatives.” She lowered her voice to a near whisper. “Including my own husband, Tyro, and our son, Haru.”



    “I’m so sorry,” Katara said, putting a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “My people know what it’s like to lose family to Fire Nation raids, but at least we never had to worry about the Fire Nation taking them alive and forcing them to fight.” She brushed her necklace with one hand and shook her head. “It must be horrible.”



    “It is,” the shopkeeper said quietly. “There is a training camp in the mountains not far from here, but there is nothing we can do- if we tried anything, the Fire Nation would punish us, and if our earthbenders did, they’d do the same. We’re caught in a vicious trap.” She looked up at them. “You see, there is nothing you can do. Now please, leave, for your own protection. Especially you.” She shot a meaningful look at Aang.



    “Thank you for telling us,” Aang said, giving a small bow. “But I will find a way to help you- I promise.



    ///



    “Why do I get the feeling that you’re about to suggest something else completely insane?” Sokka asked around the campfire that night. “I mean, you heard the woman- there’s nothing we can do without making the situation even worse.”



    “I don’t believe that,” Aang said. “She said that one of the training camps was up in the mountains- I think we should fly up there tomorrow and see if we can find out any way to free them without getting the town destroyed.”



    “You see!” Sokka said, gesturing at the airbender with a half-eaten piece of jerky. “Spying on a whole camp full of firebenders and brainwashed earthbenders? That’s not ending well! I say we keep moving and put this place behind us.”



    “No,” Katara said. “These people aren’t going through exactly what we did when we lost Mom, but it’s close enough. I can’t just walk away and leave them without even trying to help. And besides, I know that if the Fire Nation captured me and tried to force me to fight for them, I’d definitely not be loyal to them. There has to be a way to turn them against their overseers.”



    “Sorry, Sokka,” Aang said. “Looks like you’re outvoted.”



    “All right, all right,” Sokka grumbled. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”



    ///



    “There!” Aang shouted, pointing down from Appa’s back. “I think I see it!”



    “Where?” Sokka asked, peering over the bison’s saddle as he followed the direction the Avatar was pointing. Sure enough, in the woods below, up against the nearby mountains, there was a clearing, in the midst of which stood a structure that was unmistakably Fire Nation. It was roughly oval in shape and consisted mostly of a large metal wall with a row of spikes along the top. In the fortress’s back was a tall, bulky tower from which hung a banner that bore the black insignia of a rising flame against a red background, leaving no doubt whatsoever as to who the building belonged to.



    “Take us down a little!” Sokka hissed. “We’re getting close and they’re probably going to see us before long, and that means they’ll send troops out after us.”



    “Got it,” Aang said. “Down, Appa!” The bison gave a deep rumble and slowly lowered himself into a relatively clear area of the forest out of the fortress’s sight. As soon as he was on the ground, two Water Tribe teenagers, a twelve year-old monk, and a winged lemur slid from his back and onto the forest floor.



    “Okay,” Sokka said, “that place is locked up tight. I bet they’ve got firebenders guarding the walls, probably some sort of big, nasty fire-shooting death weapons or something too, and that’s on top of the earthbenders who’ll fight because they’re afraid of what’s going to happen to their families. I hope that we all realize now that as bad as this situation is, there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.”



    “I’m still not comfortable with leaving,” Katara said. “I just don’t think we should turn our backs on these people until we’ve done absolutely everything we possibly can to try and help them.”



    “If a direct attack won’t work,” Aang put in, stroking Momo’s head, “then maybe we need to find another way in. A lot of airbending is based on coming at your opponent from a different angle than what they expect. There’s got to be a way to apply that here.”



    “Wait a minute,” Katara said excitedly. “Sokka, you said that we shouldn’t fly too close to the fortress because then the soldiers would chase us.”



    “Yeah,” he said slowly, “but that was part of my argument against getting involved.”



    “How sure are you about that?”



    He shrugged. “Considering that Prince Angry and Princess Creepy were chasing us all around the south seas- and probably still are – and that guy at Omashu seemed really excited to hand us over to the Fire Lord? Pretty sure.”



    Katara folded her arms and smiled. “Well then,” she said, “if the Avatar’s apparently the Fire Nation’s number one enemy, don’t you think the soldiers at the village would be just as likely to chase Aang as the ones at the fortress?”



    “Katara, that’s great!” Aang said, leaping to his feet. “If the Fire Nation controls the earthbenders with leverage, we need to take their lever away – and that means freeing the village!”



    “You know, assuming there aren’t too many warriors in either the fortress or the village, we might be able to make this work,” Sokka said, leaning forward. “We’ll probably need to split our forces – Aang, you and Appa go to the village and deal with the soldiers there, me and Katara will try and convince the earthbenders here that they should rebel before the soldiers can strike back at the village. Everybody following me so far?”



    “I think so,” Katara said, “but how are we going to get into that fortress?”



    ///



    Sokka watched the Fire Nation fortress glumly through the trees, wondering how exactly he’d let Aang and Katara talk him into trying to help, which directly lead to his current plan of trying to get inside it.



    Especially since he’d determined that the best way to accomplish that was to let the firebenders capture him. Sometimes, he groused to himself, being the Good Guy was a whole lot more trouble than it was worth.



    He and Katara had been waiting for some time since Aang had left, desperately hoping that the Fire Nation kept patrols to a tight schedule. Finally, Sokka smiled – two mean-looking guards in bright red armor came marching along the edge of the cleared area, complaining to each other about how utterly boring this duty apparently was.



    Slowly, Sokka stepped from his concealment and fell into pace nonchalantly a few yards behind the guards; after a few moments of this, he darted forward and clapped the first one on the shoulder.



    “Hey!” the firebender shouted, turning to see Sokka already running away. “Get him!” He and his companion came running after the Water Tribe boy, who lead them to the edge of the forest – where Katara was waiting, perched in the crook of a tree. The siblings’ eyes met as they nodded at one another, and then Katara’s had shot up and levelled at the nearer guard, directing a sudden burst of water from the pouch at her side. Not a powerful waterbending move, but enough to slam into the Fire Nation soldier and rock him back slightly.



    “Waterbender!” the second guard shouted unnecessarily and struck out with one open palm, launching a fireblast that struck the tree. Katara slipped out of it and fell to the ground – Sokka hoped desperately that it didn’t look as obviously staged to the guards as it did to him – and raised both her hands in surrender. Looking from one guard to another, Sokka did the same.



    The guards stepped forward and grabbed their arms. “The two of you are under arrest for assaulting Fire Nation military personnel,” he growled. “We’re taking you to the Warden!”



    As the soldiers turned and began to march them back towards the fortress, the two Water siblings shared another quiet glance and nod with each other. Everything was going according to plan. Sokka only hoped they knew what they were doing.



    ///



    Aang circled the village on Appa’s back, regarding it critically. From this distance, he couldn’t see any Fire Nation soldiers, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Of course, it also meant that he wasn’t entirely sure of what he was supposed to do in order to get their attention. Landing in the middle of town on a supposedly-extinct sky bison and declaring his identity at the top of his lungs might work, but it somehow seemed just a little, well, silly.



    “What do you think, buddy?” he asked, ruffling the fur on Appa’s head. “Maybe we could try skywriting? ‘The Avatar is here!’ in big letters would probably get everyone’s attention. I just wish I’d learned some real waterbending first – that’d make it easier to write with the clouds, wouldn’t it?”



    Appa gave a low rumble that might have been agreement, or might have been gas. Sometimes it was hard to tell.



    Suddenly Aang saw movement in the village out of the corner of his eye. Twisting on Appa’s back, he looked down and saw men in red who must have been Fire Nation soldiers marching through the streets, occasionally stopping to knock on doors and collect something from terrified looking townsfolk. “I bet they’re collecting taxes,” the Avatar said. “This may be our chance!”



    The group of soldiers stopped outside the store that Aang, Sokka, and Katara had visited yesterday. The shopkeeper was waiting for them outside, and seemed to be involved in a heated argument with their leader. Finally, the Fire Nation officer raised his hands in front of his chest and formed a ball of fire between them.



    “This is bad,” Aang muttered. “Really bad. I’ve got to do something!” He got to his feet and turned to look at Momo where the lemur perched on the back of Appa’s saddle. “Guys, I’m going in.” Grabbing his glider, he extended the wings and dove down towards the village.



    The ground rushed towards Aang as he shot through the air, and he saw people –both villagers and Fire Nation soldiers – looking up and pointing at him as he descended. When he was about ten feet off the ground he folded his glider’s wings and swung it has he landed, unleashing a great blast of air that hit the officer and the soldiers who stood closest to him and knocked them all back into the wall of the nearest house, which cracked with the force of impact.



    Aang winced. “Sorry about that,” he said, then spun his staff and slammed it into the ground in front of him. “I’m the Avatar,” he said, “and I say that this village is free of the Fire Nation!”



    The officer groaned and pulled himself to his feet. “Really?” he asked, smirking. “You may be the Avatar, but you’re just one boy against more than a dozen grown men, firebenders all. I like my odds. Men, take him!”



    The soldiers began to form a semicircle around Aang and advanced slowly, raising their hands to launch fireblasts. A moment later, three of the burning attacks shot through the air; Aang spun his staff and created a screen of wind that caught all of them, but still shot sparks throughout the village, and the Avatar sucked in a sharp breath as he watched the locals duck for cover. He was endangering them by being here, he realized – he had to take this elsewhere.



    Before more fireblasts could strike, Aang spread his glider’s wings again and leapt into the air. “Bet you all can’t hit me up here!” he shouted down at the soldiers. “And… uh… down with the Fire Lord!”



    “After him!” the officer shouted, and sure enough, Aang could see that a number of the firebenders had broken off from the main group and were pursuing him out of the village. He flew until he reached the edge of the forest, landed in the branches of a particularly large and sturdy tree, and then turned to watch his pursuers. The firebenders were spreading out and encircling the tree’s base – it looked like they planned to burn him out.



    Aang had other ideas. Sweeping out with his staff, he launched a wave of air that struck two of the firebenders head on, knocking them unconscious to the ground. Two of the others spun to regard their fallen comrades – Aang took the opportunity to leap from the tree and land on one’s back, knocking him to the ground as well, and then spinning to avoid the other’s attack before hitting him in the middle of his mask with the end of the staff. The firebender groaned and slid to the ground.



    That left three. All of them were in fighting stances, with their hands raised and their backs pressed against each other. Aang thought he could make that formation work for him. Grabbing his staff firmly in both hands, he began to run circles around the guards at his fastest speed, whipping the winds behind him. Every so often he heard the roaring hiss of a fireblast, but at his speeds, none of them could hit him. Before long, the three firebenders stood at the heart of a small, rapidly spinning tornado that Aang created in his wake, and the force of the winds began to lift them off their feet. The Avatar smiled, and then suddenly ceased his circling, running off in a straight line instead. The tornado flew apart, flinging the soldiers in different directions into the woods. They stumbled to their feet, regarded him warily from behind their masks, then turned and fled.



    “Well, that’s them,” Aang said. “Time for the rest.”

    It was a matter of moments to fly back to the village, and Aang’s heart fell at what he saw there. The firebender officer had the shopkeeper in front of him with one hand tightly on her shoulder; his remaining minions flanked them.



    “You’d have been better to stay away, Avatar!” the officer shouted as Aang came in for a landing. “Try to harm me or any of my men, and this woman dies!”



    “Let her go!” Aang shouted, panic welling up in him. It couldn’t end like this… it couldn’t.



    “Oh, I’ll let her go,” the officer said, “if you’ll lay down your staff and come with us quietly. I’m sure Prince Lu Ten would be happy to see you.”



    Aang held his staff out in front of him, but didn’t drop it. He and the officer stared at each other for what felt like an eternity, then Aang sighed. “Fine,” he said, “I’ll go with you. Just don’t hurt any of these people.”



    “Smart boy,” the officer said.



    “There is something you need to know about first, though.”



    The officer and several of his men chuckled. “Oh? And what might that be?”



    “That!” The officer, bewildered, turned in the direction Aang was pointing – only to have a winged lemur slam into his face, hissing and clawing. The officer lost his grip on the shopkeeper, who stumbled backwards towards her establishment, as he attempted unsuccessfully to pull Momo off his face. The other soldiers regarded each other, uncertain what to do, when suddenly a deep rumble filled the air. Moments later, Appa landed in the center of town and slammed his tail down, releasing a blast of air that sent all of the soldiers flying. The clambered to their feet, then turned and fled.



    The officer finally pulled Momo off his face and threw the lemur into the air, where he hovered, chirping angrily, and turned to look at the village. His eyes widened in horror as he realized that he was alone, his garrison fled, and that he was surrounded by a circle of angry townsfolk, an irate ten-ton bison, and the Avatar himself.



    Aang smiled. “I think you might be the one who should come quietly,” he said.



    The officer took one last look around the village, and raised his hands above his head.



    “I’ve got some rope in my store,” the shopkeeper said. “Someone get it so we can tie him up.” As two of her fellow villagers moved to do exactly that, she turned to Aang. “Thank you, Avatar,” she said. “But our friends and family who are earthbenders are still under the Fire Nation’s control. You must help them as well.”



    “Don’t worry,” Aang told her. “My friends are already there, and I’m going to go help them.” He suddenly looked sheepish. “Um… do you mind if I borrow your prisoner?”



    ///



    Sokka and Katara were marched into the Fire Nation fortress, past a currently-empty courtyard that was nonetheless set up to look suspiciously like a training field and into the main tower. The inside halls were metal and blank save for banners hung with Fire Nation insignia; Sokka found himself fighting down the urge to make snippy remarks about his captors’ interior decorating skills. Finally, they were shoved into a large room with a window and a desk, beside which stood an older, balding officer with a mustache and a scowl.



    “So,” the officer spat, “the two of you would be the rabble-rousers my men captured?”



    “Who wants to know?” Sokka asked, shrugging.



    The Fire Nation officer scowled. “I,” he said, “am the Warden of this facility, a facility where you shall remain until you answer to my satisfaction who you are and why you were harassing my soldiers. Well, out with it! Are you working for that madman Bumi? Renegade Earth Kingdom guerillas? Or is harassing the Fire Nation’s military simply your idea of fun?”



    “Well, it was pretty fun,” Sokka admitted, prompting another scowl from the Warden, who raised a hand to strike the young warrior in the face. Before the blow fell, however, another voice, softer and yet somehow more menacing, interrupted.



    “Before you damage our guests, Warden,” the voice said, “perhaps you should be willing to look at what your eyes are telling you?” The speaker glided into the office, showing himself to be a tall man in dark green robes and a hat who held his hands folded in front of himself. “Look at them – they have tan skin, blue eyes, Water Tribe clothes, and apparently the girl is a waterbender. Logically, they are almost certainly Water Tribe.”



    “Thank you for your input, Agent Shen,” the Warden snapped in a tone that indicated he wasn’t thankful in the slightest. “Now, if you would leave me to interrogate my prisoners in peace?”



    “If that is what you wish of me, Warden,” Agent Shen said, spreading his hands. When he saw them – Sokka gasped; the Agent was wearing what looked like gloves made of flexible stone. Beside him, Katara came to the same conclusion.



    “Hey, you’re an earthbender!” she said. “How come you’re working for the Fire Nation? Are you one of their conscripts?”



    “I am not a conscript,” the man said in that same quiet voice. “I am an agent of the Dai Li, sworn to serve the city of Ba Sing Se regardless of who rules it.”



    “So you’re a traitor,” Sokka said smugly. That bard stung; Agent Shen grabbed the Water Tribe boy’s shoulders and leaned in to his face, anger showing for the first time on his features.



    “You are in no position to judge me,” Shen hissed. “What do you know of Ba Sing Se or the mission of the Dai Li? We are many things, but we are not traitors.” With a final glare, he shoved Sokka back against the wall and stalked from the room.



    When he was gone, the Warden began to chuckle. “Well, that was amusing,” he said. “That’s the most emotion anyone here has seen from that man since he arrived. But, he was right- you are probably Water Tribe, and that means you aren’t under my jurisdiction. Guards! Take them to the holding cells and leave them until someone else can pick them up for proper… containment.”



    The guards seized the Water Tribe siblings by the shoulders once again, and marched them from the room.



    ///



    They were thrown into a small cell in the lower levels of the fortress, empty except for a small bowl of water. Katara regarded it critically, then shook her head – with her current level of skill, there wasn’t a whole lot she could do with that amount that could get them out of here.



    “Well,” Sokka said, “this isn’t exactly what we had in mind when we were thinking about getting into the fortress, was it?”



    “Hey, it was your plan, Mr. Complainer.”



    “Yeah, but it was your and Aang’s idea,” Sokka shot back. “Anyway, pointing fingers isn’t going to get us anywhere. If we’re lucky, Aang’s doing better than we are and can come back and break us out somehow. If we’re not – then we need to break ourselves out somehow.”



    As they were talking, a young man in a plain brown shirt and pants came into the corridor outside the cells, sweeping back and forth with a broom. When he heard the siblings talking to each other, he turned to face them. “Hey,” he said, “are you guys those waterbenders the guards were talking about?”



    “She is,” Sokka said, pointing to Katara. “I’m not.”



    “Who are you?” Katara asked.



    “I’m Haru,” the boy replied. “I’m one of the earthbenders the Fire Nation keeps locked up in here. They like to have us do menial chores when we’re not training, so we don’t have much time to talk with each other. Pretty soon, they’re going to ship us off to fight somewhere – probably Omashu.”



    “Making you fight your own people? That’s terrible,” Katara said. “Surely there’s something you can do about it?”



    Haru shrugged. “What can we do? They’re holding our village hostage for our good behavior – if somebody rebels, they crack down harder, and if we tried anything organized, they’d send a hawk and have our families wiped out. So long as we do what we’re told, the Fire Nation will keep them alive. Besides, even if they didn’t, what would be the point? The war’s all but over, anyway, since Ba Sing Se fell. They’ll take Omashu too, before long. There’s nothing we can do about it.” Despite his words, there was still a spark of defiance, buried deep in his eyes- this earthbender wasn’t beaten completely, not yet.



    “The Water Tribes are still fighting too – lead by brave men, like our father,” Katara said. “But more than that – the Avatar has returned! Sokka and I have been travelling with him. There is still hope, Haru!”



    “Maybe,” he said, “but I’m not sure I can believe it until I see it.”



    Suddenly the sound of marching footsteps echoed down the hall, and the Warden came into sight, flanked by four firebenders. “You!” he snapped at Haru, “to the training yard, now. Agent Shen has requested we do emergency drills.” He turned to Katara and Sokka. “I have decided that the two of you should watch, so you can see just how these earthbender savages have come to serve the Fire Nation.”



    The guards unlocked the cell and yanked Katara and Sokka out. The Water Tribe siblings were marched out of the fortress and onto a balcony overlooking the courtyard, where what looked like almost two dozen earthbenders had been assembled. Katara saw Haru as he went to stand beside a bearded older man who was probably his father – she remembered now that the shopkeeper had said that her husband and son had both been conscripted, and that the son’s name had been Haru.



    The Warden and his guards came to stand beside her. “Now, watch, waterbender girl,” he said, “and see your own people’s fate!” As he finished speaking, Agent Shen glided smoothly through the rows of earthbenders until he stood at the front, then took a stance. As one, the conscripts mimicked him, and he led them through a series of katas that to Katara’s eye seemed mechanically perfect, but also lacking in true spirit. The people followed them only because they were forced to with the eyes of the Dai Li agents and the firebender guards on them.



    “This is all wrong,” Katara muttered, shaking her head. “It shouldn’t be this way.”



    “No, girl,” the Warden said, chuckling again. “This is the way it always should have been – the other elements, bound to serve fire.”



    “I have had about enough of you,” she snarled, wrenching herself free of the guards that held her. “Earthbenders!” she called out in her loudest voice. “You think you have to serve the Fire Nation because they have your families, but you don’t! The Avatar has returned, and right now he is freeing your hometown. They don’t have any hold on you anymore. You can fight them! You can win!”



    The conscripts stared at her, then slowly lowered their heads and turned back to Agent Shen. The Warden laughed again.



    “Fool,” he said. “Their wills were broken long ago. They have no hope left at all, and your empty words can’t give it to them!”



    “Sir!” one of the guards suddenly shouted, pointing at the sky, “What’s that?”



    “What is what, you buffoon?” the Warden asked, looking in the direction the man was pointing – and then his eyes widened in shock. Katara looked in the same direction, and shouted “Appa!” even as Sokka let out a wordless whoop behind her.



    The giant sky bison landed with a rumble in the middle of the courtyard. Aang sat on his head, and on the saddle was a man in a Fire Nation uniform, bound hand and foot. Upon seeing him, the Warden’s eyes widened in sudden fear, and the conscripts gasped.



    “I’m the Avatar!” Aang said, standing. “Here is the man who was in charge of the soldiers occupying your village. Your friends and family are free now. You can fight!”



    For a moment that seemed to last an eternity, nothing happened, and the Avatar and the Warden locked gazes. Finally, a tiny rock shot from the courtyard and struck the Warden in the center of his head, knocking him back in a heap. Katara felt her face split into a grin as she realized it had come from Haru.



    “The Avatar has returned!” the earthbender boy shouted. “The waterbender was right! We can fight!”



    The firebender guards raised their hands to unleash fireblasts, but before they could launch them, the earthbenders, as they had been trained to do, formed into tight groups and hurled boulders and curving pillars of earth at them. Many of the firebenders fell, and the rest found themselves suddenly on the defensive against the captives they had been supposed to be guarding. Many of them threw up their hands in surrender, others turned and fled.



    Those who remained backed into tight formations, shooting fireblasts with practiced accuracy, but the earthenders, fueled by months of resentment and oppression, pulled up rock barricades from within the earth to protect themselves and slowly closed in, pinning the guards against the walls. The Warden himself, groaning and rubbing his forehead, rose unsteadily to his feet on the balcony, took the battle in, and then turned and fled back down the corridor.



    Agent Shen stood in the center of the chaos, arms folded and expression unreadable.



    Katara and Sokka found themselves penned in by the four firebender guards. The siblings stood back to back with hands raised in defense, Katara desperately wishing she had water to bend. Before any of the firebenders could strike, however, a great rumble filled the air as Appa rose to hover behind the balcony. The sky bison snorted and turned, then slammed his tail down, knocking the unprepared guards off their feet. Katara and Sokka scrambled onto the bison’s back.



    “Thanks for the save, Aang,” Sokka said.



    “Well, it took more than a little luck, but it looks like we did it!” Katara said, giving Aang a quick hug.



    “Wait!” a voice- Haru’s – called up from the courtyard. “The Warden’s escaping!”



    All three on Appa’s back looked in the direction he was pointing, and they saw the Warden indeed hurrying across the courtyard, what looked like one of the Fire Nation’s messenger hawks perched on his shoulder. “If he gets away, I bet he’ll be able to contact his superiors and get another occupying force to move in,” Sokka said. “We’ve got to catch him!”



    “On it,” Aang said, pulling on the reins and directing Appa towards the fleeing officer. Before the Warden reached the gate, however, he found his path blocked by Agent Shen.



    “Don’t just stand there, you fool!” the firebender snapped. “Do something!”



    “It seems to me that this is your mess, Warden,” Agent Shen said, indicating the sky bison and the semicircle of enraged earthbenders that were even now closing around the two of them. “I’m not inclined to get you out of it.”



    “Treacherous fool,” the Warden shouted. “I’ll take them all myself, then!” He fell into a stance and raised his fists, but before he could strike, Agent Shen pivoted sharply and punched him square in the face. The Warden fell to the ground, unconscious, and the Dai Li agent seized his hawk and flung it into the air, where it flew off at random with no message to carry.



    The man Katara thought was Haru’s father stepped out from the crowd of earthbenders and faced Shen. “Well, traitor?” he asked. “Are you going to join us, or stand with the Fire Nation?”



    “Neither, Tyro,” Agent Shen said in his calm voice. “As I told the girl, I am no traitor – I am Dai Li. We play the Fire Nation’s game, but only for now. I serve a great man, and one day the Fire Nation will regret even seizing Ba Sing Se. There is more in this world than any of you suspect.”



    “What do you mean?” Aang asked.



    Agent Shen smiled icily. “You will see, one day.” Suddenly he folded his hands in front of himself and pressed down sharply; the ground opened beneath his feet, and then the Dai Li agent and the unconscious Warden vanished into its depths. The ground rumbled once, then closed behind them.



    “They’re gone,” Tyro said, looking around at the other earthbenders. “And we are free.” He turned to look back at the bison, and the three who rode him. “And thank you, Avatar, for freeing our village – and to you, waterbender, for reminding us that hope can never die.”



    “My name’s Katara,” the waterbender said, “and my brother is Sokka. We’re glad we were able to help you.”



    “What are you going to do now?” Aang asked.

    “We’re going to return to our home,” Tyro said. “The Fire Nation may well be back, but thanks to them, we’re better warriors than we were when they first came. If they do return, they’ll have a fight on their hands.”



    “Oh!” Aang said, “that reminds me- I bet you want this guy back too.” Grabbing the captive officer, he jumped off of Appa’s back and dropped him smoothly in front of Tyro. The officer looked up at the scowling earthbender and smiled weakly.



    “Yes, I think the Fire Nation has left us some cells we can put to good use,” Tyro said. “Thank you again, Avatar.”



    “I want to thank you all, too!” Haru called. “For reminding us that we can fight – and we can win.”



    “Welp, that’s my job, bringing people hope,” Aang said, shrugging, before he leaped back onto Appa’s back. “All right, buddy,” he said, “Yip yip!” With a rush of air, Appa took off.



    “See, Sokka?” Katara said when they were in the air. “We managed to accomplish something good there.”



    “Yeah, yeah, and I hope we all learned a valuable lesson about not rushing blindly into situations where we might end up locked up for the rest of our natural lives.”



    “Don’t be such a downer.” Katara turned to Aang, who was strangely quiet. “Are you all right?”



    “I was just thinking about what the Dai Li guy said,” he said. “We sort of blundered right into this one, although everything worked out all right. But I think Agent Shen was right about one thing – there’s more going on here than we know about.”



    As Appa sailed over the countryside, none of the three travelers found themselves able to disagree.

  13. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 7: The Spirit World

    Aang stood alone at the top of a tall, circular pillar, surrounded by clouds. The wind rustled his clothing and spun the clouds in slow-moving circles, but there was no other sound, no sign of and birds, bison, lemurs, or other living creatures. Holding his staff tightly, Aang stepped to the edge of the pillar and looked down; even where there were gaps in the clouds, he couldn’t see any sign of land- just empty sky, gold rather than blue, stretching on forever.

    “Where am I?” The young airbender called. “Is anybody there?”

    Suddenly the clouds shifted and a figure emerged from them – a human figure in silhouette who seemed to be made entirely from mist, featureless save for its eyes, which were a brightly glowing blue. Aang thought that the figure’s outline looked female, but it was so blurry it was hard to tell.

    “Are you the Avatar?” the figure asked – yes, definitely a girl’s voice. “Have you returned at last?”

    “I’m the Avatar,” Aang said. “Who’re you? Are you one of my past lives?”

    The figure raised her misty hands to her face and laughed quietly. “No,” she said. “Not me. But maybe I’m someone who can help you.”

    “What do you mean?” Aang asked – and then he noticed that the world around him seemed to be shivering and breaking apart – even his own hands, as he held them in front of himself. The silhouette of the girl, however, remained constant. “What’s happening?”

    “You’re dreaming,” she said. “And now you’re waking up. We can’t talk much longer. The Winter Solstice is coming. As it approaches, the mortal and spirit worlds will come closer together. Then we can talk more easily.”

    “All right!” Aang called as the whole dreamscape began to collapse completely. “I’m Aang. What’s your name?”

    If the spirit girl had an answer, the Avatar didn’t hear it.

    ///

    Aang sat up suddenly and gasped. Glancing around the campsite, he saw Katara and Sokka in their sleeping bags, with Appa curled up like a small hill beside them. He heaved a sigh of relief and turned to see Momo, who had been sleeping next to him and now sat upright, a confused expression on the lemur’s almost-human face.

    “It’s all right, Momo,” Aang said, stroking his pet’s long, furry ears. “Just a dream.” Stretching, the airbender curled up again and closed his eyes. “Yeah… just a dream.”

    ///

    Zuko darted backwards as the jet of fire shot past his face, so close that he could feel the heat of it. Taking a deep breath, he lunged forward and shot out a fist, a fireball shooting from it and hurling directly towards his opponent, who merely laughed and deflected it with one hand. Gritting his teeth, the Fire Nation prince lunged forward, dodging his opponent’s blasts as he tried to get close enough to bring his greater size and strength into play. Just before he reached her, however, she dropped to the ground and kicked out sharply against the sand so that an arc of it flew into the air and struck Zuko directly in the eyes. He fell to one knee, cursing and trying to rub the grit from his face, when he felt a hand, not on fire but burning hotter than human flesh normally did nonetheless, rest on the back of his neck.

    “I win, Zuzu,” Azula said lightly. “Though I’ll admit, it wasn’t a complete waste as a workout.”

    “Very funny,” Zuko spat, clearing out his eyes and pulling himself to his feet. Not wanting to look at his sister’s pleased smirk longer than he had to, he stalked a few feet from her and regarded the beach where they’d stopped to practice – the ship was anchored as close to shore as it safely could be, and their soldiers gathered further down on the beach, some of them practicing, others watching. Zuko’s scowl grew when he saw that several of them were exchanging money - apparently, they’d been betting.

    “Why did you do that, anyway?” Zuko finally demanded of Azula. “We were supposed to be practicing our firebending, not dirty fighting!”

    Azula shrugged. “I saw an advantage and I took it. Sometimes, in order to win, one has to think creatively, not merely charge in blindly swinging fists and throwing fire. I’d have thought Uncle or Cousin Lu Ten would have drummed that into you by now.”

    “There’s a proper way to do things, and using dirty tricks in a firebending duel isn’t one of them!” Zuko snapped.

    “Oh? Were we having an Agni Kai and nobody told me? In a real fight, do you honestly think that some earthbender or Water Tribe warrior is going to give a bent copper piece about your old-fashioned Fire Nation honor? We’re fighting a war, Zuko, and if you don’t accept that then you’re going to die, and if you come crying to me for help, I’m not going to give it.”

    If they were any other pair of siblings, Zuko thought to himself as he fumed, that would have been an empty taunt. Unfortunately, he could imagine Azula all too well leaving him to a grim fate she thought he deserved, just to teach him a lesson. She’d probably have a smile on her face all the while, at that.

    “Well, if you’re so clever, then can you explain why we haven’t captured the Avatar yet instead of standing here on some beach in the Earth Kingdom arguing with each other!” Zuko finally managed to say.

    Azula had turned away and walked some distance from him and was now being served tea by one of the small group of female soldiers she’d insisted on bringing along as her personal guards and attendants. The cup was half-way to her mouth when she heard Zuko’s words; she stopped cold, shoved it back into the woman’s hand with barely a backward glance, and spun to face her brother.

    “I am tired,” she hissed, “of your complaining and your incompetence, and your lack of a proper firebender’s attitude holding me and this mission back. Keep practicing here for the rest of the night if you want – it’s not as if it will do you any good!” The princess spun on her heel and stalked out of the beach, towards where the sand gave way to forest.

    “Where do you think you’re going?” Zuko demanded angrily.

    “To seek the company of the one intelligent person on this expedition!” Azula shouted back. “Myself!” Moments later, she was gone.

    Zuko put his head in his hands and sighed. “This is going to be a very long day.”

    ///

    “Hey, what’s that?”

    Katara and Sokka stuck their heads over the sides of Appa’s saddle to get a better look in the direction Aang was pointing. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Katara said, “but wait… oh.”

    “I see it too,” Sokka said. “Looks like war damage – take us down!”

    Appa swung lower over the forest, vast tracks of which were interrupted by thick strips of scorched earth. In other places, though, the trees and other plants looked dead with no visible cause. “Something’s wrong here, Aang,” Sokka said. “Very wrong. Some of this damage looks like it was probably the Fire Nation – those areas of burned trees look too ordered to be natural. But a lot of the trees don’t look burned at all, but they’re still dead.”

    “Could it be disease?” Katara asked. “There could be something around here that’s making the trees sick.”

    “That doesn’t explain why the Fire Nation tried to burn it out, though,” Sokka said, scratching his chin. “At the moment, all of my formidable mystery solving ability is telling me that I am stumped.”

    “The damage is getting thicker as we fly on,” Aang said. “Maybe, when we get to the center of this, we can figure out what’s happening.”

    They flew on in silence for several more minutes, as the devastation below them became more intense – all burn scars now, not dead trees. Finally, an empty clearing came into sight that had a large metal structure in the middle; a wall built around a great pit in the earth, with a tall tower on one side. A Fire Nation insignia decorated one side of the tower, but it was damaged somehow – like something had raked huge claws across it. Aang gulped at the sight, more for the damage than the building, which looked like it had been abandoned for some time.

    “I think it’s some kind of mine,” Sokka said. “Wonder what the Fire Nation was digging up here?”

    “I’m more worried about why they left – and what did that,” Katara said, pointing at the claw marks.

    “Maybe we can figure it out,” Aang said as he pulled on the reins to guide Appa in for a landing.

    “Wait, we’re actually going to land next to the creepy abandoned mine that got attacked by something so nasty even the Fire Nation bailed?” Sokka demanded. “Look, I like mysteries as much as the next guy, but I have my limits.”

    “I think this is important,” Aang said. “Something tells me it’s tied to my being the Avatar somehow. Besides, I’m curious.” As he finished speaking, Appa landed beside the mine – albeit at a fairly healthy distance, and with no indication of wanting to go closer even as the three humans dismounted and approached.

    There was a large metal door at the base of the tower, but it had been broken off and hurled to one side. Aang stepped inside slowly, staff held out in front of him, with Sokka and Katara close behind – the former with his boomerang in one hand and a knife in the other, the latter with water wrapped around her hand, ready to begin a healing. Momo perched on Aang’s shoulder, unusually subdued.

    “Hello!” Aang called to the empty metal room. “Anyone home?”

    “Me!”

    Aang, Sokka, and Katara screamed and grabbed hold of each other as the speaker stepped out of the shadows, then let out a sigh of relief when they saw him. He was an old man, bald but white-bearded and dressed in red rags that might have once been a Fire Nation uniform. He waved and gave a toothless smile when he saw them.

    “Guests!” the old man said. “Haven’t had any for so long! Shall I put on tea for everyone? Maybe make some snacks? I love snacks!”

    “No tea, please,” Sokka said in a small voice, still breathing heavily. “We were just trying to figure out what happened to this place.”

    “Oh, want to know that, do you?” the old man asked. “Well, it’s a strange story, is what it is. Still don’t know what to make of it. The Fire Nation came here oh, about three years ago and set up this mine - apparently the whole area is rich in ore, but don’t tell me how they knew that. I just dig the stuff up; I don’t think hard about it. Anyway, I was one of the miners here, and things ran pretty smooth for a year. That’s when the trouble started.”

    A haunted expression crossed the old man’s face. “We dug too greedily, too deep. Something was sleeping deep underground, something old, something strong. We woke it up and one night it came raring up out of that hole and into the camp, making an awful noise and attacking anyone in sight. I never got a good look at it, but I’d bet a year’s pay it was some kind of spirit. Anyway, the garrison fought back for weeks, making the biggest flames that you’ve ever seen, burning out big chunks of the woods, but the thing itself wouldn’t catch alight, and it shot this green light from its eyes that withered anything it hit – trees, animals, people. Finally, the garrison gave up and ran off, took most of the miners with ‘em.”

    “And why are you still here, exactly?” Sokka asked. “I mean, what with the giant spirit monster at the bottom of the pit and all?”

    The old man pulled on his collar nervously. “Well, y’see, I might have been hiding in a cupboard while all this was going on, and when I came out, everyone was gone! If I go back to the Fire Nation, they’ll take me for a coward and a deserter for sure!” He leaned in close. “And between you and me, between a giant monster and whatever Prince Ozai would do to me, I’ll take my chances with the monster!”

    “So, is the monster still there?” Aang asked.

    “Far as I can tell,” the old man said. “Haven’t seen it since the garrison pulled out. I don’t bother it and it don’t bother me, but sometimes at night there’s weird sounds and flashes of light down in the pit. Don’t know what it’s doing, don’t want to.”

    “Can we have a minute?” Sokka asked, and then pulled Aang and Katara aside. “All right,” he said, “we know what’s going on here now, and I think it’s a little over our pay grade. I say we get out of here, drop the oldtimer off at a nearby village if he wants to go, and leave this place behind us.”

    “I don’t know,” Aang said. “This situation just feels wrong to me. There’s some sort of spirit that’s been causing this, and the monks taught me that the Avatar is the bridge between the mortal and spirit worlds. I think I’m supposed to be here, now.”

    “Besides,” Katara put in, “the winter solstice is coming up. I don’t know if you know, but Master Sisiko once told me that on the solstices, the mortal and spirit worlds overlap with each other. If that spirit is getting ready to do something, I bet that’s when it’ll do it.”

    “Looks like you’re outvoted again, Sokka,” Aang said.

    “Fine, fine,” the young warrior said. “But let’s not make this into a habit, okay?”

    ///

    Azula lay on a large tree limb more than ten feet off the ground, with her back against the trunk and her eyes staring up at the canopy above her, and contemplated her existence.

    This mission, secret though it might be for now, was an honor – she knew that deeply. That his children had captured the Avatar – and Azula had no doubt that they would eventually succeed, no matter what difficulties they encountered in the short-term – would bring tremendous honor and prestige to her father and his bloodline, enough to allow him to finally step out of his brother’s shadow. After that, who could say how far his ambition might take him, and by extension, their immediate family? After all, it was not unknown for the throne of the Fire Lord to change hands under questionable circumstances…

    Unfortunately, there was a problem that stood scowling between Azula and her pleasant fantasies, and that problem was her brother Zuko. He was a solid firebender, she would admit to herself, and certainly an excellent swordsman, but he was a blunt instrument and was far too focused on his outdated notions of morality and honor above simply and expediently getting things done. He had been a dead hawk hanging around Azula’s neck since they were children, and the princess knew that he was holding the expedition back now.

    Birth order, she decided. That’s what her problem came down to. Everyone knew she was Father’s favorite, but Zuko was still two years older than her, and that, unfortunately, was a fact that neither of them could ignore. For a brief moment she entertained the idea of what a Zuko who was younger than her might be like – a Zuko who admired his older sister and was willing to follow her lead. That Zuko, Azula thought to herself with a small smile, would almost be tolerable. Certainly he’d be more tolerable than the one she currently had to deal with, who apparently thought that his quaint ideas were actually relevant and important.

    Something rustled in the forest below her, snapping Azula out of her reflections. Quickly, she leapt to her feet and pressed her body against the tree-trunk while searching for the source of the sound. There… it looked like a tall but muscular man in ragged clothing pushing his way through the underbrush. He paused under a tree not far from the one in which Azula perched, and leaned back against it. A few moments later, several more similar figures, men and women both, arrived as well – slightly over a half-dozen in all, assuming Azula could see everyone from her position.

    “Were any of you followed?” the first man asked.

    “No,” a woman replied. “And we were successful. We got what you sent us for, and nobody saw us.” She held up a long scroll, and Azula’s eyes widened when she saw it was sealed with a Fire Nation insignia.

    The leader took the scroll and grinned. “Excellent work, Jing,” he said. “With these Fire Nation plans, we’ll be able to carry out our raids right under the garrison’s nose. They’ll soon wish they’d never set foot in our Kingdom.”

    Azula’s mind spun. Earth Kingdom guerillas, clearly, and they were planning to inflict serious damage on the local garrison – something they now seemingly had the means to do. The princess scowled. People called her cold – heartless, even – and she supposed she was, but if there was one thing she considered herself devoted to, it was her Nation. Could she stand by and allow these rebels to accomplish their plans? Certainly not.

    The leader slipped the scroll into a pouch that hung over his shoulder, and then turned to leave, the others following behind him. Azula’s scowl deepened – she wasn’t going to have time to return to the ship and get reinforcements, and certainly not to find this garrison they were talking about. The rebels would be back in their hideout long before she returned. It looked like she was on her own.

    Well, she could still handle that. Stepping out as far onto the limb as she could without breaking it, Azula drew a deep breath and began to pull her hands through a familiar kata. Sparks trailed from her fingertips, and then she levelled her fingers sharply and released the charge. A bolt of lightning lanced from her fingers and struck the ground immediately in front of the lead rebel, exploding with enough force to send him and his closest companions flying.

    “Fools!” Azula shouted with her hands around her mouth. “The Fire Nation has eyes and ears everywhere. Your plans will never succeed!” Once she was certain she had their attention, she turned and leaped into another tree, as if she were fleeing.

    “A spy!” the lead guerilla shouted as he clambered to his feet. “After her!”

    The sound of the rebel band crashing through the forest behind her reached Azula’s ears, and she smiled as she leaped to another branch. Just as planned.

    ///

    The sun slipped down to the horizon as Aang, Katara, and Sokka stood inside the walled Fire Nation compound, on the edge of the great pit that was the abandoned mine. The crumbling ruins of what must have been mining equipment lined the edges, but apart from that and the metal walls themselves there was hardly a trace of prior human habitation. The old miner was nowhere to be seen.

    “All right, Aang,” the Avatar said to himself, “you can do this.” He stepped to the edge of the pit and looked down into its depths. “Spirit!” he called. “I’m the Avatar, the bridge between our worlds. Show yourself, and let’s talk this out!” He waited several moments, but nothing responded.

    “I don’t think it’s coming, Aang,” Sokka said, slipping his boomerang back into its holder. “Probably overslept. Now, you’ve done your part as the Avatar and let’s get out of here.” He turned and began heading back towards the tower.

    At that moment, the sun passed the horizon, and a terrible roar echoed up from the pit.

    “Sokka,” Katara said, stumbling back, “I don’t think that sounds like something that’s sleeping!”

    Aang stared down into the mine in horrified fascination, unable to look away as a green light built in its depths – and then the spirit monster emerged. The creature somewhat resembled a serpent, though it was far more huge than any snake that the airbender had ever seen, and it had legs – seemingly dozens of them, all along its body. Its head was shaped like a crocodile’s head, though it had rows of eyes, three along each side of its face. Its flesh was black, but wasn’t solid, more like constantly shifting shadows, and its eyes burned with the terrible green light. When it reached the lip of the pit, it perched for a moment and then threw back its head and roared to the night, the same glow pouring from its throat.

    “Help,” Sokka said in a small voice, drawing his boomerang again and holding it up, though it looked worse than useless against this foe. From the building behind them came a high-pitched scream as the old miner fled, having apparently gotten one good look at this creature too many and deciding to take his chances elsewhere after all.

    “Spirit!” Aang called, trying to keep his voice from shaking. “I’m glad you came. Why did you attack the mine? What do you have against people? Maybe we can help you!”

    The spirit turned its head in his direction and roared again. Its eyes glowed brighter and then bolts of green lightning burst from them; Aang dodged aside, but where they struck they left scorched furrows in the earth. Whatever this thing was or wanted, it looked like what it didn’t want was to talk.

    Grabbing his staff, Aang began to spin it in front of him, creating a small tornado of wind that slammed into the spirit’s face. It reared its head back, annoyed, but if there was any actual damage that the attack did, the creature showed no sign. Rearing back, it raised its two front limbs and struck out with them, swiping down towards the Avatar with claws extended. Aang dodged each blow, but noted nervously that he was being backed closer and closer to the wall. He didn’t want to try flying against something big enough to pluck him out of the air, and he certainly didn’t want to call Appa to face this thing, but it looked like he wasn’t going to have much of a choice before long.

    Suddenly the spirit reared, and over its side Aang saw Katara bending water into small projectiles that slammed into its side, while Sokka let his boomerang fly, knocking against its hindquarters. “Over here, you big snake!” the waterbender called.

    The spirit turned to face them, blasting more bolts from its eyes. The Water Tribe siblings were quick, but they weren’t airbenders; though they managed to dodge, they didn’t do so in time to escape the force of the blasts, which knocked them to the ground. The spirit bent over them, and Aang felt panic build inside of him – he saw what had happened to the trees those blasts must have hit, and he knew that if he didn’t do something now, his friends would share their fate.

    The green light built in the spirit’s eyes once more, but before it could unleash its blasts Aang flipped over its body and landed in front of it, between the monster and Sokka and Katara, his staff pointed at its face. “I’m the one who called to you!” he said. “It’s me you want, not them!”

    The spirit seemed to regard him for a moment, and Aang got the sense of some terrible, alien intelligence behind its green eyes. It leaned over him and sniffed loudly, and then suddenly drew back. It reared its head to the sky and then spoke in a voice far too deep and vast to have ever come from a human throat. It said a single word that Aang didn’t know, and then it turned and vanished back into the pit as suddenly as it had come.

    “Can we not do that again, please?” Sokka said once it was gone. Momo emerged from where he’d been hiding in the tower and landed on the young warrior’s shoulder, chattering nervously.

    “I’m with him,” Katara said. “My waterbending annoyed it, but didn’t seem to hurt it at all, and I don’t think your airbending was much better.”

    “I know,” Aang said in a weary voice. “I felt powerless against that thing, but we can’t just leave it here. I saw its eyes before it left - it was thinking. Whatever that spirit is, it’s not some animal – it can plan, and it’s already done so much damage.”

    “It can talk, too,” Sokka pointed out.

    “Wish we could have understood what it said,” Katara added. “I wonder what a ‘Raava’ is. Might be important.”

    “It probably is,” Aang agreed, “but unless that thing comes back, we’ll probably never know.”

    “Maybe I can help you,” a feminine voice suddenly said. Aang sat up straight and turned towards its source, eyes widening as he recognized the silhouetted figure.

    “Hey!” he said. “You were in my dream last night! You’re real!”

    “I am,” the spirit girl said, “and if you want to solve the problem of this spirit, I might be able to give you some advice.”

    ///

    When night fell and Azula still hadn’t returned, Zuko paced back and forth on the deck of the warship, occasionally pausing to look inland. “This isn’t right,” he finally said. “She should have been back by now. I can’t imagine Azula wasting a whole afternoon just to pout. Something else must be going on.”

    “What are you going to do, sir?” a soldier who stood nearby asked.

    Zuko sighed and made up his mind. “She could be in trouble. I’m going after her. Saddle a rhino.”

    The soldier bowed and moved to carry out his prince’s orders, but as he did so he muttered something under his breath that sounded like “but she wouldn’t do the same for you.”

    Zuko grabbed the man’s shoulder and spun him around. “This isn’t about her, or my feelings,” he said. “Whatever else Azula is, she’s still my sister, and I’m not leaving her if she might be in danger. Now I’ll kindly pretend I didn’t hear you say that if you go and do as I command.”

    “Yes, sir!” the soldier said, quickly turning and hurrying away. A short time later, Prince Zuko descended from the ship’s ramp onto the beach, mounted on a war rhino with his swords sheathed at his side, as he headed out to determine exactly what – or who – was keeping his sister.

    ///

    “What do you mean, give me advice?” Aang asked. “Who are you, anyway?”

    “Umm, Aang?” Sokka said, “why are you talking to the empty air? It’s really creeping me out.”

    “I’m not talking to empty air, I’m talking to the person who just showed up, who was in my dream last night!” the Avatar said, gesturing towards the newcomer. “See! She’s right here.”

    The Water Tribe siblings merely stared blankly.

    “They can’t see me,” the spirit girl said sadly. “Most people can’t, when I’m like this. You can see me because you’re the Avatar, and I’ve found that very powerful benders and other spiritually attuned people can, but to most people I might as well be empty air. Maybe I can convince them, though.” She suddenly dissolved into a formless cloud of mist and floated behind Katara. Reforming back into humanoid shape, she reached out one hand and lightly pulled on one of her hair loops, while running the fingers of her other hand along the back of Sokka’s neck. Both siblings flinched, and Sokka’s eyes went wide.

    “I felt something!” he said. “Katara, did you feel something too?”

    “I more than felt it!” she replied, grabbing her hair loops protectively. “All right, Aang, I’m convinced that someone’s there. How do we know we can trust her?”

    “Well, she seems nice,” Aang said, shrugging. “Who are you, anyway? What’s your name?”

    “Names have power, especially in the Spirit World,” the girl said. “I prefer not to give mine away when I’m like this, but you can call me the Spirit Walker. I’ve travelled far from my people looking for hope in this war, and I finally think I’ve found it – the Avatar has returned.”

    “Your people?” Aang asked. “Are you a spirit?”

    The Spirit Walker laughed quietly. “Not exactly,” she said. “You might say I’m half spirit, though that probably gives you ideas that aren’t really true. I do have a connection to a certain spirit, and have ever since I was very small. After Ba Sing Se fell, I began to experiment with what that connection let me do. We were afraid that if we didn’t do everything in our power, the Fire Nation would soon swallow the whole world.

    “I’ve learned a lot about the spirits and the Spirit World these past few years, and that’s why I think I can help you. I don’t think that the spirit in the mine is evil –he’s just angry and confused, and he’s lashing out at any human who comes too close. I think that the two of us can make him listen and convince him that what he’s doing is wrong.”

    “Really?” Aang asked. “That would be great. What would we have to do?”

    The Spirit Walker fixed him with her glowing blue eyes. “I’m afraid that we can’t get through to him while he’s attacking. We have to talk to him on his own ground. We’d have to go into the mine.”

    The Avatar’s face fell. “I was afraid of that.”

    ///

    “Are you sure you want to do this?” Katara asked Aang as he stood on the edge of the mine with his glider unfolded. “I mean, I’m all for helping people, but I’ve got a very weird feeling about you actually going down there – especially on the advice of someone I can’t even see.”

    “I think this is what I need to be doing, Katara,” Aang told her, and then he grinned. “Besides, I’ll have my glider – if the spirit gets angry again, I bet I can fly out of their faster than he can climb.”

    “Well, if you say so,” Katara said. “In any case, I may not be able to climb down there with you, but trust me, I’ll be waiting right here on the edge of anything happens.”

    “Thanks, Katara – I appreciate it a lot.” Aang turned to the Spirit Walker, who stood silently nearby. “Are you ready?”

    “I am,” she said. Aang shot her a smile and then grabbed his glider and dove into the pit; moments later, the Spirit Walker followed him, floating gently like a feather down into the darkness. Her glowing eyes were soon the only clear light, and after what felt like an eternity Aang saw the bottom of the shaft. He folded his glider and made a light, airbending-assisted landing. The Spirit Walker drifted to the ground beside him.

    “All right, then,” Aang said. “Oh, spirit? Are you down here?”

    For a long moment, there was silence, and then the spirit’s six green eyes opened directly in front of Aang’s face. The Avatar shouted in surprise and stumbled backwards. The spirit regarded its two visitors for a long moment with that inscrutable, glowing gaze, and then it spoke.

    “Raava,” it said, “I do not know why you have cloaked yourself in human flesh or why you have brought a companion with you, but know that you are not welcome here.” It opened its mouth wide, revealing rows of jagged fangs and a throat that seemed filled with green fire. “Leave now, or I will devour you where you stand.”

    ///

    Azula mentally thanked the fact that one of her childhood friends had been a budding acrobat as she landed on another tree branch, pausing only long enough to shoot a fireblast at her pursuers before leaping again. She’d been leading them on this merry chase for what felt like hours, and night had fallen; every so often she’d pause either to attack or offer a taunt, and had managed to bring down two of the guerillas with well-timed attacks. That still left her five to deal with; hopefully she’d be able to whittle their numbers down enough soon to attack them head on and end this for good.

    Pressing herself against the trunk of the most recent tree, Azula saw one man who had stepped out some distance from the others and was now standing almost directly beneath her. Smiling coldly, she charged another lightning bolt and released it at him; it struck the man directly in the chest and sent him sprawling to the ground, where his body jerked for a moment and then lay still. Satisfied with her work, the princess looked towards her other pursuers – there were two of them, a man and a woman, but where were the other two? There should be four left…

    Suddenly the ground rumbled beneath her and then the tree gave a great heave as it was wrenched from the earth. Azula gave a surprised shout and leapt from it, bending jets of flame from her hands and feet to slow her descent. When she landed, she quickly leaped to her feet and held out both hands towards her attackers. She was backed up against the fallen tree, with the two guerillas she’d seen as well as the two she’d missed blocking her escape route. One of those latter two had to be an earthbender – possibly both – and one of them, she realized, was the leader she’d seen earlier.

    “Well,” he said, “you’ve run us a good chase, miss, and it looks like some of my soldiers are going to need a healer to pull through what you did to them, if they make it at all. You’ve got skills – I’ll give you that. But it’s over. You’re too dangerous to live, and it’s four against one. You’ve got nowhere to go.”

    “Maybe I’ll manage to take a few of you with me anyway!” Azula snapped, taking a deep breath and then launching a thin bolt of concentrated flames at the leader, who quickly stumbled back and bent a pillar of earth in front of him to catch it. Scowling, he centered his stance and raised one hand, and Azula realized he was going to launch that pillar directly at her. She made a move to spring – and suddenly the roar of a komodo rhino echoed through the forest.

    “Get away from her!” a human voice called, and then the beast and its rider came charging into view, scattering the four guerillas. Zuko sat on its back, one hand on the reins, the other raised to bend.

    Azula didn’t know what her brother was doing here, but for the moment, she’d take what she could get. “Looks like it’s not four on one anymore,” she called to her adversaries. “Still like your odds?”

    “Take them both!” the leader shouted, but before any of the guerillas could react the rhino lunched forward, head-butting one of them and sending the man flying. The one woman, also apparently an earthbender, kicked a good-sized rock free from the ground and launched it at Azula, while the other man, who wielded a large hammer, confronted Zuko, who slid down from his rhino’s back to face him.

    Azula ducked lightly under the flying rock and began to launch fireblasts in quick succession, one from each of her fists and another from her right foot. The earthbender managed to dodge the first two and deflect the last with a shield of rock, but then the princess herself was on her. A quick kick to the face sent the Earth Kingdom woman sprawling unconscious. Looking up from her defeated foe, Azula saw Zuko disarm and bring down his own opponent.

    Only the leader remained, his expression showing that he didn’t like his odds against two firebenders and a war rhino, but that he was too stubborn to give up. With one foot he stomped the earth, unleashing a shockwave that sent both royals reeling, and then he fired a pair of large boulders, one at each opponent.

    Azula ducked beneath the boulder aimed at her, and noted with some approval that Zuko managed the same. Before the earthbender could react, both siblings charged forward, angling outward so as to pin him between them. Raising their hands, both launched powerful bursts of flame directly at him; they smashed through the barriers he raised to protect himself and slammed him against the trunk of a nearby tree. He slid to the ground and didn’t move.

    Azula stepped forward and pulled the scroll she’d seen earlier from his pouch. “I think the local garrison will be wanting this back,” she said lightly.

    “What were you thinking?” Zuko asked, “going off by yourself and trying to take on a whole gang of earthbenders like that?”

    “Relax, Zuzu – they weren’t all earthbenders,” Azula said. “I had the situation completely under control – as I think we established earlier today, clever tactics always defeat raw strength. I’d already taken care of several of them before you showed up.”

    “Yeah, I saw some of the bodies on my way here,” Zuko said, grudging respect in his voice.

    Azula was quiet for a moment longer, and then she spoke. “Why did you do it?” the princess asked. “Come look for me, I mean? After I embarrassed you earlier today, I didn’t think you’d be much inclined.”

    Zuko shrugged. “You’re my sister. Whatever we might… think of each other, it was the right thing to do.”

    The princess regarded her brother for a long moment. They didn’t particularly like each other – hadn’t even as children – and Father’s attitudes towards them both certainly hadn’t been conducive to a loving relationship. Still, Zuko had come to help her regardless of personal feelings, and Azula found herself realizing something very uncomfortable - that in spite of it all, she did trust him to watch her back, and the list of people she trusted to do that could be counted on one hand.

    Perhaps there was some small value in those old-school warrior’s values after all.

    “Well, that’s quaint of you,” she actually said. “Now, let’s get out of here. There’s been more than enough excitement for one day, in my opinion.”

    “Agreed,” Zuko said with a small laugh. Shortly thereafter, the royal siblings were mounted on their rhino, riding back to the ship, and their mission.

    ///

    It wasn’t easy to stand his ground while staring down the green gullet of the spirit monster, but somehow, Aang managed it. “Spirit!” he said again, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just want to know why you’re attacking and if there’s anything we can do to help you.”

    “I am not interested in talking,” the spirit said. “Why should I listen to you?”

    “Well,” Aang said, “I am the Avatar. That counts for something – right?” He gave the creature what he hoped was his best smile.

    The spirit snorted. “I do not know what this ‘Avatar’ is,” it said. “But I do know that you smell of Raava. And you,” it added, turning to the Spirit Walker and sniffing, “are also familiar. There is something about you – of Tui, perhaps, or La? A powerful spirit either way. Very well. I will hear you out – for the sake of the spirits whose power hangs about you, not for your own. If what you say is not to my liking, I will not hesitate to destroy you both.”

    “Well, that’s progress, isn’t it?” Aang asked. “So, can you tell us why you attacked the mine?”

    The spirit stilled for a moment, as if thoughtful. “I am called Zhuyao De,” it finally said. “I came to this world long ago. In those days, there were many spirits, and humans were rare and scattered, surviving only through the protection of great beasts. My kind sleep for many years underground and then are active for as long – I went to sleep, but something happened, and I did not wake when I should have. I slumbered for long ages until the miners woke me; I found a world overrun with humans, but with no other spirits to be found. I could not sense any of my people. I was filled with rage – what had they done to my kind? – and so I attacked. They fought back, but were no match. Now they are gone, and I was alone – until you came. Tell me, ‘Avatar’, what do you know of my kind? What has happened in this world?”

    “Wow,” Aang said sadly; to his surprise, he felt sorrow and an unexpected sense of kinship with this creature rising up within him. “If you don’t know what the Avatar is, you must have slept longer than you thought.” He looked at the Spirit Walker. “You wouldn’t happen to know how long that is, would you?”

    “According to the spirits I’ve spoken to, more than ten thousand years,” she said.

    “Ten thousand years,” Aang said. “That must have been terrible for you. Believe it or not, I kind of know what that’s like. I was trapped in an iceberg for a hundred years, and when I got out, I found out that all of my people had been wiped out. It’s a terrible feeling of pain and rage and helplessness. But whatever happened to your kind, it wasn’t the miners who did it. Violence against them won’t bring your people back, and it can’t be the answer you’re looking for.”

    “Then what is the answer?” Zhuyao De demanded, grief evident in its inhuman voice. “I am alone in this world! What would you have me do?”

    “I’m the last airbender,” Aang said. “I can’t bring my people back. But you’re not the last spirit.”

    “He’s right,” the Spirit Walker said. “I’ve walked in the Spirit World, and it’s full of all kinds of spirits. Maybe your kind are still there.”

    “How can I go there?” Zhuyao De said. “I can sense that the great portals are closed!”

    “Maybe we can help you,” the Spirit Walker said. “The Solstice is almost here, and the barriers are low. Aang, help me – place your hand on his forehead.”

    Zhuyao De lowered his forehead, and both the Avatar and the Spirit Walker placed their hands on it. Aang felt a surge of power rush through him, and for a moment his tattoos flashed, as if he was in the Avatar State, and he saw the Spirit Walker’s eyes flare brightly as well. Zhuyao De gave a great sigh of contentment, and then he rippled and faded away.

    Aang sighed deeply. “He’s home now,” he said. “Hopefully he can find his people there.”

    “I must return to my people as well,” the Spirit Walker said; Aang looked at her, and saw that she seemed to have become less substantial. “That took much of my strength, and I need to return to my body and rest.”

    “Will I ever see you again?” Aang asked.

    “We will meet again- I know it,” she said, and though her face was featureless, she seemed to smile. “Goodbye, Avatar Aang.” She raised her hands above her head, and suddenly was bathed in a ray of light that seemed almost to be moonlight. Then she was gone.

    “Goodbye,” Aang said to the empty air, and then he opened his glider and jumped into the air. He rose through quickly through the mine shaft and then emerged under the night sky. Katara and Sokka jumped to their feet when they saw him.

    “Aang!” Katara called. “You’re all right! What happened to the spirit?”

    “He went home,” Aang said, folding his glider. “He wasn’t evil – just hurt and confused. He won’t bother this place anymore.”

    “Well, that’s good to hear,” Sokka said. “Now, can we finally get some sleep around here, or what?”

    “Wait,” Katara said, pointing at the sky, “what’s that?”

    Aang turned in the direction she was pointing, and his eyes widened. Something was flying through the sky – something huge, with a serpentine body like the Zhuyao De, but with great wings and only four legs. On Katara’s shoulder, Momo screeched at the sight.

    “It’s a dragon,” Aang said.

    ///

    A few notes here. First, all apologies to JRR Tolkien for some of the details of the story of how the miners found the spirit, though I tried to keep the spirit itself as non-Balrog like as possible. Second, the Spirit Walker is not an OC, and I wasn’t particularly trying to hide her identity from the audience, so if you think you know who she is, you’re probably right. Third, I’d like to extend a big thanks to the “Korra” two-parter “Beginnings” for giving me some cool spirit lore to work with here, in order to produce a spirit encounter similar to, but distinct from, the one with Hei Bei in canon.

    Finally, I shifted the cliffhanger around a bit. I wasn’t sure if Katara and Sokka should be able to see Fang, but ended up deciding that as an independent spirit, he can probably make himself visible to the world at large if he wants to, unlike Roku or the other past Avatars, who have to manifest through Aang. This is, admittedly mostly for convenience on my part.

    -MasterGhandalf
  14. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 8: Avatar Roku

    Aang, Katara, and Sokka hurried through the mine’s tower and out into the empty field beyond, Momo flying above their heads. Appa lay on the ground outside, having been too large to fit comfortably through the tower or on the space between the wall and the pit, and the sky bison blinked his eyes and raised his head as he heard his human companions approach.

    “Come on, Appa, we need to get out of here!” Aang shouted. “Think you can outfly a dragon, buddy?”

    “I think it might be too late!” Katara called, and Aang spun in the direction she was pointing. The dragon had rapidly closed the distance between them and now swooped in before landing directly in front of the Avatar. The three humans stood frozen for a long moment as it leaned close to them, and Aang found himself looking directly into its eyes – they were old eyes, filled with wisdom and power, but somehow he knew that there was little anger in them, and what anger was there was not directed at him or his friends. Then, as he looked more closely, Aang realized something else- he could see the desolate ground faintly through the dragon’s body.

    “Wait a minute,” he said, “you’re not a live dragon after all, are you? You’re another spirit!”

    “So, is that good news, bad news, or ‘we’re all going to die’ news?” Sokka asked. “’Cause that’s kind of weighing on my mind at the moment.”

    “Good – I think,” Aang said, and then turned back to the dragon. The creature had folded its wings and lowered its serpentine body to the ground, and now it lowered its head directly in front of its face. From its mouth hung two long tendrils that the Avatar thought looked rather comically like a mustache – and then one of them snaked up and, before Aang could react, touched itself lightly to his forehead.

    Suddenly Aang found himself hovering in the middle of the sky, and the dragon was flying towards him – except that it was real and solid now, not a spirit, and mounted on its back was an old man who had Fire Nation robes and a long white beard, and who must have been-

    Aang stumbled back as the vision vanished, and then he smiled widely. “Avatar Roku!” he said. “You must have been Roku’s animal guide – kind of like his version of Appa!” He looked back at his friends. “All right, now I know that the dragon’s friendly.”

    “Well, that’s great, but it doesn’t answer the big question,” Katara said. “Why’s the dragon here in the first place? Does he have some sort of message from Roku?”

    “Maybe he just got lonely?” Sokka suggested. “I mean, even creepy dead dragons need to socialize, right?” Katara shot an exasperated glare at her brother, while Aang turned back to the dragon and regarded it questioningly. The dragon raised his mustache-tendril once again, and once again pressed it to Aang’s forehead.

    The Avatar found himself on the dragon’s back, and then they were flying. The Earth Kingdom spun beneath them and then it was gone, and they were over the open ocean. That too passed, and they came to a volcanic island, desolate save for a single lonely temple tower that reached high into the sky. The dragon didn’t slow down as he approached the walls, and Aang raised his hands to shield himself, but they merely passed harmlessly through. At last they came to a sealed room at the heart of the temple, and there in gold was a statue of Avatar Roku.

    “Well, this is nice,” Aang said, “but I’m still not sure what you’re trying to say.”

    The dragon turned to regard a large sunstone built into the wall, and then time began to spin until a ray of sunlight struck the stone and was reflected onto an identical stone above Roku’s statue. The great beast lowered its head once again towards Aang, as if asking if he understood now.

    “I think so,” he said. “It looks like I need to wait until the solstice for the sun to hit the stone right – and will that let me talk to Roku?” The dragon only nodded.

    “All right, I think I’ve got it,” Aang said. “Is there anything else?” Suddenly the world fell away beneath him, and the dragon vanished as well. He was hovering alone in the void of space, and then something streaked by -something huge, and powerful, and fiery – a comet…

    Aang gasped and sat up. He was sitting on the ground in front of the mine, and time had obviously passed – the sun was rising. Katara and Sokka rushed to his side and helped him up, and from nearby Appa rumbled worriedly. There was no sign of the dragon.

    “Aang, what happened?” Katara asked. “When the dragon touched you, you passed out and it vanished.”

    “I’ve got to go to a temple on the Winter Solstice so I can talk to Avatar Roku,” Aang said, rubbing his head.

    “But the solstice is tomorrow!” Katara exclaimed.

    “Today, actually,” Sokka said, motioning at the sun.

    “Yeah, I guess it is,” said Aang. “And the temple… it’s in the Fire Nation.” At Katara and Sokka’s shocked expressions, he shook his head. “I know, I know, it’s going to be dangerous, but I get the feeling that I have to do this. I need to talk to Roku so that I can become a better Avatar – and there’s something else the dragon showed me, something about a comet.” He pulled away from the Water Tribe siblings and walked over to Appa.

    Katara put herself between them. “Wait,” she said. “Listen, Aang, I’m not going to try and talk you out of anything. I’m going to tell you that we’re coming with you.”

    “Katara, it’s dangerous!” Aang protested. “I don’t want you to get hurt because of me!”

    “I don’t want you to get hurt either,” Katara said. “That’s why we need to go with you – so we can watch out for each other.”

    Aang looked down to the ground, then back at Katara, and he smiled. “Thanks, Katara,” he said. “It means a lot to me.”

    Moments later they were on Appa’s back, flying west, towards Roku’s temple – and the Fire Nation.

    ///

    Azula yawned and stretched as she stepped onto the warship’s main deck; she saw Zuko standing near the railing and the two siblings exchanged a wordless nod. They’d gotten underway once again as soon as they’d returned to their vessel; now it was midmorning. Azula paused for a moment to regard the Earth Kingdom landmass as it faded into the distance – and then her eyes widened as she saw a fast-moving speck that seemed to be flying into the west.

    “You- spyglass!” she called to the nearest sailor, who hurried over and handed the princess the device she had requested. Azula held it up and focused it on the flying object, which now seemed like – yes, it was. The Avatar’s bison. The Avatar himself must be on the creature’s back.

    “Azula, what is it?” Zuko asked, hurrying over.

    “The Avatar is in sight,” Azula replied. “We need to order the helmsman to pursue immediately.”

    “Are you sure?”

    Azula rolled her eyes. “Take a look for yourself,” she said to her brother, handing him the glass. He did as she instructed, and then his own eyes widened.

    “It is!” he exclaimed. “But he’s heading west. Why? That’s straight for Fire Nation territory! Has the Avatar gone mad?”

    “Entirely possible,” Azula observed. “I can’t imagine that being preserved for a hundred years as a child would have a good impact on one’s mental stability. But honestly, it doesn’t matter. The chase is on again.” She turned towards the bridge. “Helmsman!” she called. “The Avatar is in sight. You are ordered to pursue!”

    As the ship reoriented itself, Azula took the spyglass back from Zuko and regarded the sky bison through it coldly. “This time,” the princess whispered, “you’re mine.”

    ///

    “Come on, Appa!” Aang called to the sky bison as the sun rose high overhead. “We’ve got a long way to go today. Faster!”

    “That might not be such a good idea, Aang,” Sokka said, pointing at the sea below them. “Because it’ll just mean that we’ll run into those guys a whole lot sooner!”

    “Oh, no,” Katara said. “A blockade! The Fire Nation must have set it up to keep people like Dad from getting warships into their waters.”

    “Well, maybe they can deal with ships,” Aang told her, smiling, “but I don’t think they’re ready for Appa. Higher, buddy! Let’s get out of their range.” Appa rumbled in response and began to rise, but before he’d made it far there came a flash of light from one of the Fire Nation ships that stretched in two long lines towards the horizon, and then an enormous fireball was heading straight for them.

    Appa veered upwards sharply, and the projectile barely grazed the tip of his tail before falling. The bison groaned and Momo screeched, but he didn’t falter.

    ///

    Azula lowered her spyglass and scowled. “Of all the blasted, inconvenient,” she muttered under her breath. “Paper and brush, now!”

    “What’s the matter?” Zuko asked his sister as a soldier hastily brought her writing materials.

    Azula didn’t look up from her page, now stretched out on the bridge’s table, as she answered him. “The Fire Navy’s blockade,” she said. “We’re almost in homeland waters, and if they stop us, they’ll cost us valuable time and we’ll lose our prize.” A fireball landed with a hiss in the ocean mere feet from the ship, causing both siblings to start. “Among other dangers,” Azula added.

    “So, how is that note supposed to help?”

    “I’m telling them who we are and that they mustn’t interfere with Fire Lord Iroh’s niece and nephew,” Azula snapped. “Now, let me finish this!”

    “Fine,” said Zuko. “Well, if whoever is in command of that blockade wants to shoot at the Avatar, I think we can get in on that plan as well.” He dashed from the bridge, shouting orders that the catapult was to be raised and loaded.

    Azula, thankful for the quiet, quickly finished her message and called for the crew to bring her a messenger hawk. With the large red bird perched on one arm, she stepped out onto the deck, inserted her scroll in its message case, and let it fly. Even as the bird took to the wing, she heard the crank of metal and turned to see Zuko and another firebender ignite a fireball and launch it into the air.

    ///

    Appa rumbled angrily as more fireballs launched through the air; most of them passing by harmlessly, but occasionally one passing close enough to singe his fur and causing the bison’s human passengers to duck. Aang crouched low over the reins, wondering whether trying to run the blockade had been such a smart move after all, and desperately hoping that his decision to seek out Roku’s temple wasn’t going to get himself and his friends killed.

    Suddenly and without warning a fireball arced up above Appa’s head and came flying down straight for his back. Aang acted without thinking, jumping to his feet and spinning his staff. The resulting whirlwind caught the projectile and held it suspended for a long moment before it burst, raining smoke and cinders but otherwise rendered harmless.

    “Is everyone all right!” Aang called.

    “I’m fine!” Katara called, while Momo chirped in the affirmative from where he crouched beside her.

    “I’m a little covered in soot, here, but otherwise, I’m good,” said Sokka, before attempting to brush said soot off and coughing profusely.

    “And it looks like we’re out of range of the fireballs, too,” Katara said, turning to look over Appa’s back to where they had now left the blockade behind. “They’re not shooting at us anymore, and I don’t think anyone’s trying to follow us – wait a minute, there’s one ship coming through the blockade. I don’t think it was part of it, and it’s smaller than the others.”

    “Well, I think we all know who that’s gotta be,” Sokka said.

    Aang did, and his heart sank. Zuko and Azula had found them again.

    ///

    “Well, we didn’t manage to hit the Avatar,” Zuko said, “but we made it through the blockade. Whenever he gets to where he’s going, we’ll have him – and in the Fire Nation, we’ll be on home ground, and he won’t have anywhere to run.”

    “Yes,” Azula agreed absently, stroking her chin. “I do wonder what he’s after, though. Oh, well, we can always ask him when we have him prisoner.”

    “It doesn’t matter,” said Zuko, resting his hands on his swords. “We’ll get him long before he finds it.”

    ///

    Twilight was falling as Appa approached the island that Aang recognized from his vision – crescent-shaped and volcanic, with a temple perched atop it. “There it is!” he shouted. “Everybody, we made it!”

    “Uh, Aang?” Sokka asked. “Was that there in the vision the spirit dragon showed you?”

    Aang turned in the direction he was pointing and saw what was berthed between the island’s horns – a Fire Nation warship, larger by far than any he’d ever seen and decorated with an elaborate golden spike on the prow and what looked like a small palace instead of the usual plain tower. “That’s definitely new,” the Avatar said, “but from here, I don’t see anyone on board. Let’s land on the other side of the island and try to sneak in without anyone on the ship knowing we’re here.”

    Appa came in for a landing on the far side of the island, and when his feet touched ground, have a loud huff that plainly said no further flying was an option any time soon. “Aw,” Katara said as she slid down his side and walked over to stand by his head. “Are you tired after all that flying?” She playfully ruffled the fur near Appa’s ear.

    “Well, I’m all good!” Sokka said, drawing his boomerang and twirling it idly in one hand. “We’re here, and let’s do this. What could go wrong?”

    “That’s the spirit!” Aang said. The three of them crept quietly along the island’s rocky ridge until they came to the base of the temple – a single, tall pagoda with several tiers, roofed in red and gold. They slowly picked their way around the base until they came to a door, and then they ran inside.

    As they made their way through the temple’s dark, red-tinted halls, they didn’t meet a single living person. A strange sensation began to prickle the back of Aang’s neck – something wasn’t right here, he knew it. At the same time, he knew that this might be his only chance to talk to Avatar Roku – he couldn’t turn back now just because he was scared. Finally, the three emerged into a large, spare chamber at the temple’s center. It was empty, except for a man.

    He was tall and powerfully built, dressed in rich red robes, and his back was turned to them. Aang could see that his hair was long and black and he had a topknot at the center of his head; his hands were clasped behind him. He wasn’t an old man, like Roku had been in the vision, but the style of dress and hair were similar. The Avatar tentatively stepped forward. “Excuse me,” he said. “Are you Avatar Roku? I need to talk to you.”

    The man was silent for a moment, and then he laughed, a high and cold sound that would have made Aang’s hair stand on end, if he’d had any. “I have been waiting for you for some time,” the man said, his voice deep and yet curiously raspy. “And now fortune has delivered you to me on the very eve of the Winter Solstice. Yes, young Avatar, we have much to talk about – but I am not Avatar Roku.” He turned around slowly, and Aang gasped – this man was in the prime of his life, and he wore a long, thin beard, but his resemblance to Zuko and Azula was undeniable. “I am Prince Ozai.”

    Aang finally found his voice. “Run!” he shouted to Sokka and Katara, interspersing himself directly between the Fire Prince and his friends. “I’ll hold him off!”

    “Aang, we’re not leaving without you,” Katara said with cold determination in his voice, and from the pouch at her side she drew a long tendril of water. “If he wants you, he has to go through us first.”

    “A touching sentiment,” said Prince Ozai, “but it will not save you.” Quick as a serpent he spun and drew both hands up to his sides before striking forward with them; lightning blasted from his fingertips and struck the temple’s floor, where it exploded and sent all three young travelers flying. As they tried to stumble back to their feet, he ran forward, bending fire from both his open palms in a long arc and setting it around them in a tight, blazing circle.

    “How truly disappointing,” Ozai mused, seeming almost to be an ominous shadow from where he stood beyond the circle of flames. “When my brother told me he had sensed your return and that he wanted me – his strongest firebender – here at the Avatar’s Temple on the Solstice to await you, I had thought it a foolish request. Surely you wouldn’t dare to come here? But you have, and now you are mine with hardly a struggle.”

    Ozai motioned, and from the other doors that ringed the central chamber poured Fire Nation soldiers who surrounded the captives as the prince stepped backwards. Then a small group of older men in red robes and headdresses that Aang had never seen before stepped forward and approached the Fire Lord’s brother. They bowed deeply, but when they rose there were dark expressions on their faces.

    “Prince Ozai,” said their leader, “with all due respect, the Fire Sages must protest the army’s intrusion upon this sacred temple! The Fire Lord honors our order- surely your brother cannot have desired you to disturb our peace in this manner!”

    “Your peace will be disturbed no longer,” said Ozai. “Captain, take the prisoners to my ship. We return to the Capital at once!”

    The prince raised his hands before him and brought them sharply down; at once the flames dissipated. Before Aang, Katara, or Sokka could react, soldiers seized their arms (one of them grabbing Momo from midair and stuffing him into a bag) and marched them from the room, Ozai’s triumphant laugh ringing in their ears.

    ///

    “We’re approaching the island, my Prince, my Princess,” the sailor said, bowing to each in turn. “The Avatar’s bison went down somewhere behind the temple.”

    “Excellent,” said Azula. “Spyglass.” The sailor handed it to her and she lifted it to her eye, observing the island intently – and then her eyes widened. “That’s one of the royal flagships – I think it’s Father’s!”

    “Are you sure? Give me that!” Zuko snapped, snatching the spyglass away from his sister, who regarded him coldly. Peering through it, he found he couldn’t deny the apparent evidence. “What’s Dad doing here?”

    “Who knows?” Azula asked, her hands tightening on the ship’s rail. “But if he’s captured the Avatar himself, and then we show up and he thinks we failed him…”

    “He’s not going to be happy,” Zuko finished.

    ///

    The Fire Nation soldiers marched towards the island’s shore, their three prisoners held tightly between them. Sokka eyed the massive ship that waited in the bay appraisingly, then glanced at each of the guards in turn. “So,” he said with feigned nonchalance, “is it just me, or is your Prince always that nasty?”

    “Silence, Water Tribe scum,” one of the guards – probably an officer, based on his uniform – snapped. “Insult the royal family again and you will lose your capacity to insult permanently.”

    “Man, these guys have no sense of humor,” Sokka muttered. “Just a guy, trying to make conversation. So, Aang, I don’t guess you’ve got any ideas for getting out of this mess?”

    “Maybe if I had some way of calling Appa,” the Avatar said, “but even then, the ship might be able to shoot him down from this range before he got far with us. That would be horrible.” He hung his head. “I just don’t know.”

    “Wait,” Katara said, turning her neck to look behind them, “I think someone’s coming!”

    The guards came to a halt halfway between the temple and the shore and turned to see three of the red-robed men from the temple rapidly approaching. “Hold!” the leader, who looked somewhat younger than the others, shouted. “Prince Ozai has decided he wishes to interrogate the prisoners himself before we leave. He has ordered us to bring the Avatar and his friends to him at once.”

    “Why would the Prince do such a thing?” the officer demanded, stepping forward. “It would be easier by far to interrogate the prisoners on the ship, where they can be contained. Unless you have a written letter from His Highness to the contrary, the Fire Sages have no authority over the army!”

    “Well,” the lead sage said, leaning close, “what you have to understand is – “ before he finished speaking, the sage quickly looped one arm around the officer’s and twisted, sending him sprawling to the ground. The other guards stood for a moment, shocked, and then leaped into action, shooting fireblasts at the old men, who deflected them with ease and returned fire.

    “I don’t know what’s going on, but now’s our chance!” Aang shouted, drawing an inhumanly deep breath and then releasing it in a blast that sent several more of the soldiers sprawling. Behind him, Sokka wrenched his arms free of the soldier who was holding him and tackled one of the two who held Aang; when the soldier who had Katara lunged to help him, she bent a small amount of water from the pouch at her side and shot it on his hands, where it froze solid. The soldier stared in shock for a moment, and then rage crossed his features as he melted the ice shackles – only for Katara to seize his arm and pull him off balance, sending him sprawling to the rocks.

    “Kyoshi Warrior style,” she said. “Maybe you should learn it.”

    Sokka managed to wrench the helmet off the soldier he was wrestling with and then slammed his head into the ground, knocking him out. Aang, one of his arms now free, bent a slice of air that struck the other soldier who held him, sending the man flying several yards before he crashed to the ground. Quickly, the freed captives ran to the fallen guards and retrieved their possessions – Sokka’s weapons, Aang’s staff, and the bag that contained Momo, who quickly flitted out when freed and landed on Aang’s shoulder. They turned to face their rescuers – the Fire Sages.

    “Hurry!” the lead sage said, motioning with one hand. “Follow us before they regroup!” The three old men turned and ran, Aang and his friends following behind them.

    “So, I’m not the only one thinking this might be a trap, right?” Sokka asked.

    “Sokka,” Aang said, “they’d already taken us prisoner. Why would they free us just so they could take us prisoner again?”

    Sokka shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe this is some weird Fire Nation ritual. Maybe Prince Ozai and the Grand High Muckity-Muck Fire Sage don’t like each other and it’s some political thing. Who knows?”

    “You’re paranoid,” Katara said, shaking her head. “More running, please!”

    The sages led them partway along the island and then stopped; the leader launched a small fireblast into a seemingly-featureless shelf of rock, and Aang gasped as a door slid open, revealing a tunnel that seemed to lead into the island’s heart. The sages ducked inside, and after a moment’s hesitation, the three travelers followed them. The lead sage came last and shut the door behind him.

    “I’m still not completely sure why,” Aang said, turning to him, “but you helped us a lot. Thank you.” He bowed.

    The sage smiled and returned the gesture. “My name is Shyu,” he said. “It is my honor to have aided the Avatar. We were certain you would never return!”

    Aang looked at the floor guiltily, then back at Shyu and smiled. “Well, I’m back now,” he said lightly. “So, what’s going on?”

    “Walk with us, and we will talk,” Shyu said, forming a small flame and holding it up before walking further into the tunnel. Aang walked at his side (Momo on his shoulder regarding the Sage’s red hat with fascination), with Katara, Sokka, and the other Fire Sages following behind. “Our order was founded long ago, and one of our duties was always to serve the Avatar. After Avatar Roku died, we eagerly awaited the next Avatar, but one never came. Many of our order lost faith that you would ever return, and dedicated themselves instead to the Fire Lord, but some of us remembered. I never wanted to serve the Fire Lord, and when I saw that you were here, I had to act.”

    “Wow,” Aang said. “So, is that why those other guys are helping, too?” He glanced back at the other sages.

    “No,” one of them said. “We have served Fire Lords Sozin, Azulon, and Iroh faithfully for many years, and will serve whoever sits the throne. But Prince Ozai is not Fire Lord, however much he wishes to be, and he has no respect for our order, and his presence here in our sacred temple is an insult that we cannot allow to pass. I still serve the Fire Lord, but I am happy to thwart the Prince.”

    Sokka looked at Katara and grinned. “See? Politics. I knew it.”

    “So where are we going?” Aang asked.

    “These tunnels crisscross the island and the temple itself,” Shyu explained. “Avatar Roku made them, in my grandfather’s time. Using them, we can get you to the temple sanctuary and past the guards; only the Fire Sages have knowledge of this place.”

    “How did you know I needed to get to the sanctuary?”

    Shyu stopped and looked at Aang directly. “Because there can only be one reason the Avatar would come to this temple on this day, with the Solstice upon us. You must contact your past incarnation; only then will you learn how to set this world back into balance – if only we are not too late!”

    ///

    The moment their warship’s ramp touched shore, Zuko and Azula hurried down onto the island. They sped towards the path that lead to the temple – and came up short when they found their father standing on it, flanked by his own soldiers and facing a man in a lieutenant’s uniform whose face was drenched in nervous sweat.

    “You had the Avatar in your custody and you allowed him to escape?” the Prince snarled. “I should have handled the prisoner transfer myself; unfortunately I was left in the temple, trapped in pointless philosophical discussions with the High Fire Sage while the victory I had achieved was thrown away!”

    “My… my prince,” the lieutenant stammered, “it wasn’t my fault… the Fire Sages, they turned on us, this is their doing!”

    “Oh, I’m certain it is,” said Ozai in a voice that was softer than that which he’d used before, but no less dangerous. “And I will see to them shortly. But you are wrong on one account.” Without warning, Ozai’s right hand shot forward, trailing sparks. There was a flash of lightning, and then the lieutenant’s lifeless body crumpled to the stone. “You were the ranking officer present. Of course it was your fault.”

    The Fire Lord’s brother turned from the dead officer without a moment’s backward glance, and then stopped when he saw his children and regarded them coldly. Immediately, Zuko went down into a bow; beside him, he could hear Azula doing the same.

    “Father,” the princess said – as Ozai favored her, it was often safer to let her do the talking, so long as nothing recent was worth her lying about – “we have come to this island in pursuit of the Avatar, as you commanded us do. What is your will?”

    Ozai smiled coldly. “The Avatar is on this island, but I know where he’s going – the temple sanctuary. Rise, Azula – we shall defeat him together.” He glanced at his son out of the corner of his eye. “Zuko – try and keep up.”

    The prince turned and swept away, heading back towards the temple; Zuko and Azula fell into step behind him. “He didn’t even bother asking us how we were doing,” Zuko muttered under his breath, too low for Father to hear him.

    “Calm down,” Azula replied in the same hushed voice. “The chase is almost up. Focus on that – then worry about Father.”

    Yes, Zuko reminded himself – the mission. Help take down the Avatar, show your worth, and then Father will have to respect you – that was the inner fire that had driven him ever since they had set out. With Ozai here, now, it seemed that Zuko would have an audience either for his crowning glory – or his ultimate shame.

    The lieutenant who had just been executed was not the first man Zuko had seen his father kill, whether as punishment or in an Agni Kai, but his fate weighed heavily on the prince now nonetheless, both for the man himself and what his death indicated about Ozai’s mood. His grip tightened nervously on the swords that hung at his side. He couldn’t fail now.

    ///

    Aang didn’t know how long he and his friends followed Shyu through the hot darkness of the tunnels; it was impossible to tell time here, so far away from the sun and sky. Every so often they passed small openings in the rock where rivulets of lava flowed disturbingly close by, but otherwise there was little differentiation in this place. The Fire Sages apparently knew their way, though, and eventually they emerged through a trapdoor and into a pillared hallway that was obviously inside the temple. The day’s fading light shown through nearby windows.

    “The sanctuary is nearby,” Shyu said. “If we are lucky, then the Prince will not have ordered the chamber sealed – it can only be opened by five firebenders.” He held up a hand for everyone else to stop, and then stepped forward, peering around one of the pillars. “Oh, dear,” he muttered.

    “What’s the matter?” Sokka asked. “Did they seal the doors?”

    Aang stepped forward to stand beside Shyu. “No,” he said, “but it think it’s just as bad.” The doors were open only a crack, and in front of them stood two rows of masked firebending soldiers, their hands raised to meet any challenger.

    Sokka stuck his head next to Aang’s and winced at what he saw. “We’re going to get cooked if we go out there.”

    “Let me try to talk to them,” said Shyu. “Maybe they haven’t heard about what happened below.” He stepped out behind the pillars and walked in front of the soldiers, who didn’t attack, but neither did they lower their guard.

    “Out of my way!” the sage ordered. “I must enter the sanctuary to perform an important ritual before the solstice passes. You know that Fire Lord Iroh puts great store by our ways.”

    “That may be,” one of the soldiers said, “but the Fire Lord isn’t here. Our orders come from Prince Ozai, and he told us not to let anyone into the sanctuary. If you have a problem with it, take it up with him.”

    “I intend to,” said Shyu darkly, turning away as the picture of affronted dignity. Before he got far, however, Momo leapt from Aang’s shoulder and darted into the open area, seizing the startled sage’s hat and knocking it to the floor.

    “What is that?” the soldier who’d spoken before demanded. “It might be with the Avatar. Kill it!”

    “No!” Aang shouted, running forward and throwing himself between the soldiers and Momo. Beneath his mask, the leader’s eyes widened before he launched a fireblast, which Aang caught on his staff and deflected. The other soldiers responded with blasts of their own, which were caught and throne back towards them by Shyu and the other two sages. Katara and Sokka ran to stand beside Aang.

    “Listen, Aang,” said Katara, “you need to get into that sanctuary. Cant’ you, I don’t know, do that air scooter thing and blow past the guards before they know what hit them?”

    “I can’t just leave you all out here!” the Avatar exclaimed, horrified.

    Sokka shrugged. “What? You think we can’t handle twenty or so firebenders?” He glanced up nervously to see that those twenty or so soldiers had pinned the three sages in a semi-circle around Aang and his friends and were slowly forcing them back.

    Aang hung his head. “I just don’t want you –or Shyu, or anybody – to have to get hurt because of me!”

    Suddenly a bolt of lightning sizzled through the chamber, stopping the combat in its tracks. All parties turned to see what looked like dozens more soldiers pouring into the hall – at their head, Prince Ozai, with Zuko and Azula close behind him.

    “When did they get here?” Sokka demanded, gesturing at the prince and princess. “This isn’t fair!”

    “Surrender, Avatar!” Ozai called. “You’re outnumbered and outmatched – there is no escape from us now. Surrender, or you and your friends will all perish.”

    “Go, Aang!” Katara said. “It’s now or never. Go!”

    Aang looked from Katara to Sokka and back again and nodded wordlessly. Then he leaped lightly into the air, formed a spinning ball of air beneath his feet, and propelled himself forward at a speed no ordinary human could match. He knocked the firebenders aside with the sheer force of his passing, and then he was through the doors and into the sanctuary. The doors slammed shut behind him.

    ///

    “No!” Ozai snarled as he swept forward. “Seize them!” he ordered to his troops, who surrounded the two Water Tribe adolescents and the traitorous Fire Sages, and then he, his children, and two officers approached the sanctuary doors. The mechanism looked simple enough, he noted; a lock made in the shape of a five-headed dragon. It appeared that the only necessary technique was a basic fireblast into the dragons’ mouths.

    “Ready,” he said, “and fire!” Five blasts struck the lock in unison, but the doors remained closed.

    “What is the secret?” Ozai demanded, wheeling on the sages. “I swear on Sozin’s legacy that I will burn those doors down if you do not tell me how to open them.”

    One of the Sages – Shyu, Ozai thought his name was – smiled thinly. “It will do you no good,” he said. “The doors are sealed until the Avatar is done. Avatar Roku does not wish to be disturbed.”

    Rage boiled inside the Fire Lord’s brother, but he held it in check. “Very well,” he said. “He can’t remain inside forever. When he comes out, he will face our massed power.” He turned back to face the doors. “We wait.”

    “Oh, Aang,” the voice of the Water Tribe girl said behind him, “I hope you know what you’re doing!”

    ///

    The temple sanctuary was as Aang had seen it in his vision – a large room, bare save for the statue of Avatar Roku on a raised dais at one end. He approached it cautiously, looking up at the golden image, and tried to find some trace of himself there. “Um, Roku?” he asked. “I’m here to talk to you, and – “

    Before Aang could finish speaking, clouds swirled around him, cutting off the sanctuary from view; when it cleared, he found himself standing on a rocky plain under a clouded sky – and there, in front of him, was Roku, an old man with red robes, a white beard, and a kind smile, no statue but very much flesh and blood, or at least spirit.

    “Aang,” the previous Avatar said gently, “what took you so long?”

    Memories of a desperate nighttime flight, a storm at sea, and an iceberg flashed through Aang’s mind, but before he could respond, Roku continued. “I have something important to tell you, Aang,” he said. “That is why, when you were still on the border between the material and spirit worlds from your encounter with the ancient spirit and the Spirit Walker, I sent my dragon Fang to find you.”

    “Fang showed me something about a comet,” Aang said. “Is that what you mean?”

    “Yes,” said Roku; he gestured at the sky and the clouds vanished, replaced by another vision of that great mass hurtling through space. “A hundred years ago, Fire Lord Sozin harnessed the Comet’s power and used it to strike a deadly blow against the world, beginning the war. It made him and his firebenders a hundred times stronger than they ordinarily were – stronger than you can possibly imagine.”

    “But if that was a hundred years ago, why is it important now?”

    “Because,” Roku said, “comets follow paths in the sky. Sozin’s Comet has been gone for a century, but now it is returning, and when it does, the Fire Nation will have the power it needs to finish the war once and for all. You must face the Fire Lord and the rest of the Fire Nation’s Royal House and defeat them before the comet returns.”

    Roku gestured to his side, and a great wall of flames shot up from the ground. Within it, Aang caught flickering glimpses of six figures – in front stood Lu Ten, his expression serious as he gazed with purpose into the distance, and beside him Zuko, who had two drawn swords in his hands and a scowl on his face, and Azula, who smirked coldly and held a fireball in one hand. Behind Zuko and Azula stood their father, Prince Ozai, who regarded all he beheld with an expression of utter contempt, and beside him a hauntingly beautiful woman who must have been their mother. Behind Lu Ten was a shorter, stouter man, his hair and beard gone to grey, but he was richly robed and wore a crown like a rising flame, and in him Aang felt like he could almost feel a power that was not visible, and yet was greater than any of the others. This had to be Iroh, the Fire Lord.

    Then the figures vanished in a wall of flame that rose higher and higher with a roar; Aang shouted and stumbled back as it rose above him, seeming to become huge enough to devour the world, and then it vanished and he was alone with Roku again.

    “Mastering the elements takes years of practice,” Roku said. “But you must do it before the end of the summer, when the Comet returns.”

    “I don’t know if I can do that, “Aang said, looking down at his hands.

    Roku smiled. “I know you can. You have mastered the elements a thousand times in a thousand lifetimes. Now, the solstice is ending, and we must go our separate ways. You know the danger that awaits you outside. I can help you face it – if you are ready.”

    Aang paused to draw a deep breath, and then looked up at Roku. “I’m ready.”

    ///

    Katara’s heart hammered in her chest as the doors to the temple sanctuary opened. “Aang!” she shouted, “No! Don’t do it!”

    “It’s too late!” Prince Ozai shouted triumphantly. “The Avatar is mine! Don’t bother taking him prisoner this time – as soon as he comes out, kill him!”

    The doors opened all the way, and Katara’s heart sank as smoke poured from them, followed by a silhouetted figure – but then she paused, realizing that this couldn’t be Aang, it was too tall… and then the smoke cleared completely, and she realized it wasn’t Aang at all.

    It was an old man, an old master, bearded and robed; white light was in his eyes, and power was in his hands. “Avatar Roku!” Shyu exclaimed from nearby, and he and the other sages slipped from the now-limp arms of their captors and fell to the ground in deep bows.

    “It cannot be…” Ozai whispered in disbelief, and then he struck, launching fireblasts of immense power from both hands; at his side, his children and the soldiers did the same. Roku caught the flames as effortlessly as a child might catch a ball and sent them spiraling back towards their originators. The soldiers scattered, and with them Zuko and Azula fled and ducked behind the pillars, but Ozai remained, deflecting the redirected blasts and them charging lightning bolts from both hands. He was a firebending master the likes of which the world had seldom seen – he was supremely confident that no foe, not even a dead Avatar, was beyond his power.

    His lightning bolts never struck. Roku regarded him with burning, inscrutable eyes, and then struck with a blast of airbending as powerful as a hurricane. Katara was rocked off her feet by the force of the wind; Ozai, who took the full blast of it, was flung through the hall’s windows and out into the island’s sky, his final, disbelieving cry echoing on the wind.

    When he was gone, Roku raised his arms and brought them slashing down, and the temple shuddered beneath him. Deep beneath the foundations the long-dormant volcano awoke, shaking the island with tremors, while the stones themselves began to collapse.

    “Avatar Roku is destroying the temple!” Shyu called; he and the other sages scrambled to their feet and fled towards the other end of the hallway. “You need to get out of here!”

    “We’re not leaving without Aang!” Katara shouted back. She rose and turned to face Roku, knowing that Aang had to be inside there somewhere – surely the only way a past Avatar could interact with the world was through his living self? The old man regarded her for a long moment, his expression unreadable, and then he stopped bending and folded his hands before him. Avatar Roku vanished into smoke, and when it cleared, Aang remained; he groaned once and then collapsed into Katara’s arms.

    “Now we can get out of here,” she said, lifting the Avatar up and carrying him towards the secret tunnel. Sokka got there before her and shook his head.

    “No good!” he said. “The whole thing’s full of lava!”

    “What are we going to do?” Katara asked – and then she realized that Momo was gone. Before she had time to process that fact, the lemur returned, shooting in through the broken window – and behind was the great bulk of Appa.

    “Come on!” Katara shouted, climbing on to the bison’s back with Aang still in her arms, Sokka close behind. Appa gave a loud rumble and then launched himself out the window as the temple began to collapse into fire behind them.

    ///

    On the shore below, a ragged but still enraged Ozai regarded the collapsing temple with disgust. As a master firebender, he’d been able to save himself from his fall by using flaming jets to slow his descent, but it hadn’t bought him enough time to keep the Avatar from escaping. Even now he could see the unmistakable shape of a sky bison flying to the east, far out of range of bending or catapults. Clenching his fists tightly, Ozai turned to face the now-captive Fire Sages and his children.

    He addressed the Sages first. “Why?” he demanded. “Was it for power, glory? Some vengeance against me or my family? Why betray the Fire Nation for the Avatar?”

    The Sages regarded him coldly, but only Shyu spoke. “You are blind, Prince Ozai,” he said, “to all that is not yourself. I did not betray the Fire Nation – I merely fulfilled my duty, which was to the Avatar before the Fire Lord. I do not expect you to understand.”

    Ozai snarled and turned away. “You are fortunate that I do not have the authority to execute you. Let my brother deal with you.” His gaze went from them to his son and daughter. “Zuko, why did you let the Avatar strike me? You had a perfect opportunity to strike while he was focused on me, and you didn’t take it!”

    “Father, there was nothing I could have done!” Zuko protested. “If Azula or I had tried to fight that head on, we would have been overwhelmed!”

    “He’s right,” Azula said; Zuko’s eyes widened at her support. “We faced Avatar Roku tonight, not Avatar Aang; the latter is a child, but the former was a master of all four elements, a fully realized Avatar. Don’t blame Zuko – we couldn’t have defeated him, not in his own temple.”

    “I’m disappointed that you take his side, Azula,” Ozai said. “I must return to the Capital and report to the Fire Lord. The two of you will resume your hunt. And this time,” his eyes lingered on Zuko, “I expect you not to fail me.”

    “Yes, Father!” they both chorused and bowed, as Ozai swept away and returned to his own ship, rage still gnawing at his heart.

    ///

    Once they were on board their own vessel, Zuko turned to Azula. “Why’d you do it?”

    “Do what?” she asked, as if she didn’t know; Zuko scowled.

    “Defend me to father,” he said. “I’d always thought you agreed with him that I wasn’t worth much.”

    Azula shrugged. “You came to help me against those earthbenders when you didn’t need to,” she said. “I returned the favor. You didn’t need me to put in a good word for you with Dad – I certainly didn’t change his mind – but I did it. We’re even. Don’t expect it again.”

    “Don’t worry,” said Zuko as he rested his arms against the ship’s railing and watched the volcanic island as they pulled away, “I won’t.”

    But inside, he wondered.

    ///

    Aang stirred and came awake to find that he was on Appa’s back, flying under a dark sky. Katara leaned over him, a relieved smile on her face. Exhaustion and the weight of what he now knew he had to do hung over the young Avatar, but they’d escaped, and as Katara leaned in and wrapped her arms around him in a warm embrace, he found that, for now, he could be content.

    ///

    This was a somewhat unusual chapter to write, because the central events (Aang goes to the temple and makes contact with Roku) had to happen very close to how they did in canon by necessity, while surrounding events were made different by my AU. I did want to go ahead and introduce Ozai (not the last time we’ll be seeing him in this book, by the way), show a bit of how Zuko and Azula’s relationship is evolving, and put emphasis less on the Fire Lord personally as the ultimate enemy and more on the Fire royal family as a whole.

    -MasterGhandalf
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