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February 16, 2014
Long ago, the Wood Clans lived together... well... more or less peacefully.
Then, one day, the Metal Empire attacked.
We were once a proud and strong nation, united by bonds of friendship and brotherhood; but old feuds and grievances divided us... and we fell...
Not even the Arbiter, master of both elements, could save us.
It now falls to me, the newly anointed Arbiter, to maintain peace and balance between the now humbled Wood Clans and their Imperial occupiers.
It used to be the Arbiters duty, once found by the Draconian clerics, to mediate between our world and that of the spirits of nature and the souls of our ancestors.
Now it is my burden to stand between the disgruntled Clans and the pompous Imperials, whose hold grows tighter with each passing year.
I strove to be worthy of my weighty station, to keep the two nations from descending into civil war.
Each day was a new challenge, but I resolved to face each tribulation head on...
but I despaired when my compatriots, the clerics, disclosed a dismaying secret...
that on the other side of the world their lay four nations, each more alien and backwards than the next and that they were united in a cause to rebuild their war-torn countries and explore beyond the limits of their realm.
It was now my duty to keep both of our worlds separate...
I was beleaguered... if the disparate clans of one small island nation could not accept each other and live in harmony, how could two worlds...
An Ominous Message
"Each individual in this world is as unique as the pattern of veins on a peach blossom..." recited the monk. The morning sun shone brightly through the soft pink petals of a lone peach tree. Its warm light washed the vivid orange robes of the Air Acolytes with a warm, dappled glow. They sat attentively in a shallow semi-circle around their young, bald teacher and inhaled his every word along with the crisp, morning air. The monk lifted a tiny bloom up to his tattooed forehead, letting the light of the peach skinned dawn sift through its translucent surface and emerge as a rosy glimmer. "... just as this blossom filters the light of the sun, we filter our experiences in life, based on how we've grown, on how the veins of time have woven their way through us..."
The monk, using a wisp of bended air from his sigh, suspended the petal on the warm morning breeze that wafted its way over the Western Air Temple every morning. It carried with it the blossom, as well as the last inklings of warmth from the cloud-covered night before. The Acolytes shivered from the bitter chill, but still kept their unwavering attention on the young air-bender's words. "We are each a blossom from the same tree, each of us shining with our own light, yet most people see only the different hues cast by their fellow petals instead of the branches that tie them together..." The young master cast his eyes towards his pupils, all females, with their foreheads bearing similar blue, arrow shaped tattoos; tattoos that marked them as disciples of the Air Nomads, the tattoos that bonded them to this hundred-and-fifteen year old boy and the long departed culture that he preserved. "... and like that petal that I surrendered to the air currents, so do we become dispersed from the tree that unites us all."
The boy shifted his gaze to the lower right of his congregation. He reached into the annals of his mind, attempting to procure a memory, a fond memory, by reaching across vast recesses of pain and grief... now assuaged, but never forgotten. "Only by learning to tolerate each other's differences and diversities can new life bloom on the tree from which we all spring. My mentor and friend, Monk Gyatso, once told me that those who are best suited to teach us tolerance are those we disagree with or consider our enemies." Just then, a tall, dark figure appeared at the gated threshold of the courtyard... or rather it loitered there for some time before being noticed by the monk. The silhouette belonged to a tall, young man of at least 19 years, garbed in regal, sharp robes of muted red. His attire culminated with a golden, flame shaped comb worn in his drawn-up hair. The stranger adorned his face with a half-smile that hung below the scar engulfing his left eye. The monk ascended gracefully from his cross legged seating position to acknowledge the newcomer. "That concludes our session for this morning, go ahead and resume your meditation in the shrine, I'll be with you shortly." The master bowed to his students, and with reciprocal bows the Acolytes rose to their feet and shuffled off through the western gate, leaving the monk and his guest alone in the courtyard.
"What brings you here your highness, the fresh air, the aura of tranquility and harmony?" inquired the monk.
"None of those I'm afraid," the Fire Lord replied with a staid tone. "I was on my way to a conference in Republic City when I decided to stop and visit a friend of mine who has been oddly reclusive lately," said the monarch, finishing his statement in a warmer manner. "It's good to see you Aang."
"You too Zuko," said the Avatar as they drew together in a warm embrace. "It's been too long."
The pair strolled together through the temple's foyer as it was being meticulously restored by a few of the Acolytes. After admiring the newly refurbished murals, they continued out through the vaulted ceilings towards the western courtyard. There was a momentary, and somewhat tense silence that was broken when Aang asked, "How is Katara, I hear that she's been working with Sokka in Republic City when I last left her." His gaze drifted poignantly to his reflection in a nearby pond before adding, "I miss her a lot."
"They're both doing well as far as I know; it's been a while since I've attended one of the Republic's sessions, they kind of bore me to be honest." There was more silence as the two passed under the shade of a large tree that sheltered a white stone bench. "You would know the answer to that question if you had stayed."
Aang sighed. "I know." He sunk down on the bench, looking downcast. "I just... didn't feel up to the task..."
"What do you mean," Zuko asked. "Not up to the task? You're the Avatar..." Zuko sat down on the bench beside his friend. "You saved the world from destruction and restored balance and harmony... If anyone's qualified to take part in the birth of a new nation, it's you," said Zuko with a warm smile.
"Well..." he began, "you and Sokka always knew more about 'government policies' and 'diplomacy' than I did. I was raised to be a simple monk, detached from worldly concerns and free from politics and bureaucracy and... all those things. I guess I just decided to stick to what I knew best." Aang gave a brief reflective pause before continuing. "Looking back, I think I made the wrong choice coming here." He briefly tensed up before adding, "I mean... I like teaching the Acolytes, don't get me wrong. They're so attentive and dedicated, it's an honor, and they keep great company and everything and..." Aang stumbled over himself as his concerned companion listened with sincerity. "I'm trying to say that I might not have rid myself of all my worldly attachments. Missing the people I care about has been... painful."
Zuko extended his hand and placed it on his best friend's shoulder. "I know what you mean," he said looking Aang in the eye. "It's been like that for me a lot recently. If it weren't for Uncle, I wouldn't have a friend beside me." Zuko then looked away with compunction, as though he too felt alone, as though he too was missing someone...
"Anyway..." he resumed. "I have a favor to ask of you."
"What sort of favor," Aang inquired. Zuko rose to his feet and strode towards the reflecting pool, shaded by the overhanging tree and dotted with golden-orange leaves.
"There have been strange things going on with the outer colonies and exploratory fleets, strange... disappearances." Aang sat up, looking anxious as his friend turned back towards him. "It's like nothing we've ever seen before; we find Fire Navy ships that were assigned for scouting and exploration, either missing or completely derelict and drifting towards our borders as though the crews had just vanished into thin air." Aang rose to his feet and approached Zuko, listening intently to his worrisome report. "And that's not all; our patrols have encountered supply depots that were established in the far western islands to supply those fleets... they were abandoned too. There wasn't a sign of struggle, no stolen cargo, no messages, not even any messenger hawks... no pirate or slaver did this." Zuko scowled. "I knew something like this would happen, it was only a matter of time. I knew it was a bad idea to expand so aggressively, everyone was just so ambitious, so eager to take part in this new 'renaissance'." Zuko bowed his head. "What's worse is that it all happened..." he said as he frowned at his reflection in the water, "... under my watch".
"Don't blame yourself", Aang said. "You've only been Fire Lord for a few years, but a lot can still happen in that time."
"And don't worry; you still have friends that are willing to help you. I'll gladly offer my service if there's anything I can do."
"You don't have to make a decision right now; I know I'm asking a lot of you. I know how important to you all of this is," Zuko said, beckoning towards the temple's majestic turrets and serene spires.
"Helping my friends is important to me," Aang said. "And you're right. I should be playing a greater role out in the world. Peace has just been restored and it's up to the Avatar to keep it that way. I'm sure the Acolytes will understand... I'm not sitting this one out." Aang gave his friend a smile and a brief nod of reassurance, watching as relief slowly slackened the tension in Zuko's scarred face.
"Thank you Aang", the Fire Lord said with a slight bow, his half-smile now restored. "It means a lot to hear you say that." The two companions kept walking under the shade of the overhanging trees, along the cobbled stone path through the gardens. "Normally we would handle such situations ourselves, but as these raids penetrate deeper into Fire Nation territory, the more the people grow worried," Zuko added. "A lot of rumors have been springing up, ranging from natural disasters and plagues to attacks by restless spirits. If people knew the Avatar was overseeing the investigation, it might alleviate public concerns and make us better able to deal with the situation."
"I'm your Avatar," Aang said.
"Good," Zuko replied. "Our first stop will be in Republic City. We'll meet up with the rest of the Fire Navy and start a search of the areas surrounding the abandoned colonies," he continued. "While we're there, we'll be able to meet up with some old friends," he added.
Aang's heart skipped a beat at this news. "That's great, so... when are we leaving."
"Tomorrow, if you're up for it."
"Fantastic! I mean... I'll make arrangements with the Acolytes for when I'm gone."
"Splendid," Zuko remarked with a smirk.
Zuko was shown to the guest quarters by one of the Acolytes while Aang finished his daily sessions with his pupils before announcing his departure to them. After they all bid him a preliminary farewell, Aang went to go spend the rest of the evening catching up with Zuko. The night began with a game of Pai-Sho over a cup of tea and then progressed with a lively discussion about meditation and calisthenics techniques. The conversation then drifted to obscure friends, the state of the weather and then dismally wandered to politics and diplomatic affairs. It most particularly concerned politics in fact. Politics and how boring politics can be, how boring politicians can be, how fun it can be to set fire to the pants of a certain politician you don't agree with from down the hall and run like mad before he figures out who did it. All-in-all, it could've been considered an enjoyable end to the day. Unfortunately for Aang, it didn't last.
All that night, Aang lay awake anxiously waiting for the following morning. "At long last," he thought. "I'll finally be able to see Katara again." The Avatar rolled over on his side. "Ohhh, why did I ever leave?" He knew the answer to his question. "What more would I have been to her than just an extra, useless appendage. Sokka and Zuko are all natural leaders, real men, and I'm just a young monk; practically a boy." Aang stared out the window towards the moon and recalled a bitter memory of when he and his friends visited a play on Ember Island several years ago.
His heart welled up with a cold, panging feeling as he rolled onto his side and curled himself into a fetal position. He laid that way for a while, letting the feeling throb within his chest and spread a cascading, chilling sensation down through his whole body. This pain he had felt many a night for almost a year, ever since deciding to leave Republic City for the Western Air Temple. Aang extended himself back out over his mat, grasped his head pillow and drew it in close to his body, pressing it close to his chest as if to numb this ache that he felt deep within his heart.
Then, he pictured himself and Katara, standing alone on the balcony at Ba-Sing-Se. He could almost feel Katara's warm body, safe in his arms as they embraced and shared a soft kiss under the blazing orange sky. He could almost see into her deep blue eyes and hear her soft, sonorous voice telling him that things would be alright from now on, that they would be together again at last. With that, Aang's icy grip of despair lessened its hold. The cavity he had felt in his chest started to thaw with the anticipation of being reunited with the one he loved. "I'm sorry I left you Katara," he thought. "I'm coming back to you." He paused and once again looked out his window into the dark, deep-blue sky. "I love you," he whispered to the night. He slowly drifted off to sleep and his dreams were filled with sweet visions of their tender reunion.
"Master Aang". Knock, knock, knock. "Master Aang". Knock, knock, knock.
"Wha-why are you calling me master, Katara?" Aang mumbled, still asleep.
"Master Aang" one of the Acolytes said on the other side of the door. "I am sorry to wake you, but Lord Zuko insisted. He says it is urgent."
"No... no, Katara's my girlfriend, Zuko can get his own," he muttered non-coherently, still not roused from his slumber.
"Uhh... alright," Aang yawned as he slowly woke himself up. He groggily stumbled over to his clothes rack and slipped on his leggings and shawl, and struggled to fit his left foot into a shoe before he realized that it was a hat. He ambled out into the corridor, still shrugging of his drowsiness when Zuko came running down the hall. He was only half dressed with a piece of paper clenched in his fist and a wild look on his face to match his wild, unkempt hair.
"Aang, you're awake! I got a messenger hawk from Republic City, it's been attacked!"
"What!" Aang said, now fully alert with the shock of this news.
"We need to leave, now! The acolytes have already packed your saddle. Appa's waiting in the courtyard for us."
Aang rushed off after Zuko through the halls of the temple, flying through corridors and down stairwells, past tapestries and murals until finally emerging in the central courtyard where the Acolytes were gathered. Some of them were still packing Appa's large, rotund howdah as Zuko was climbing into it, changing into his tunic as he was doing so. "Come on!" implored Zuko. "The letter says it's urgent that we get there as fast as possible." Aang twirled his staff, propelling a jet of air below him that boosted him onto Appa's furry neck.
He took hold of the reins and addressed his Acolytes. "I'm sorry for leaving so abruptly, but a matter of great urgency has called me away. I don't know how long I'll be. Keep devoting yourselves to the ways of the Air Nomads. Keep their culture alive." They looked at their teacher with mournfully as they wove to him and bid him 'goodbye's, 'luck-be-with-you's, 'farewells' and 'all-speed's. "I'll be back," the Air master said with a final parting glance. With that, and continued farewells from his students, Aang's bison crawled out to the cliff outside the courtyard's entrance on his six furry, pillar like legs. With a crack on the reins and a firm, "Yip Yip," the bison issued a great bellow and took to the sky with his two passengers, leaving the Western Air Temple and its devoted residents behind. They grew smaller and smaller as the bison climbed higher and higher. The Acolytes watched solemnly as they disappeared on the horizon.
Appa, with Aang and Zuko astride his broad shoulders, ascended above the clouds and into the azure upper troposphere. The sun was bright, the sky ahead a sea, and the wind an erratic series of battering rams. The bedlam of air pockets and wind shears, combined with the fretfulness and angst he was laboring under, made Aang's stomach want to heave as Appa was being churned like butter by the sky's treacherous terrain. "Now I really regret leaving Katara," Aang thought. "She could have been kidnapped or killed because I wasn't there. Oh if only Appa could fly faster-ahhhh!"Aang started and nearly fell off Appa's neck at having felt a rustle emanate from his bag. "Oh, it's just you Momo," said Aang after discovering that his Lemur-bat was the stow-away. The furry creature gave a series of little clicks and chatters as he crawled up Aang's back and struggled to stay perched on his shoulder as its large ears were tugged about by the wind. With a below of protest from Appa, Aang eased on the reigns. "Sorry buddy, I didn't mean to be so tense." Appa emitted another guttural growl of complaint, having nearly exhausted himself from plowing through the oppressive air currents. With accompanying whimpers from Momo, Aang relented. "Me too, I don't think I can take it anymore either," he moaned, clenching his stomach all the while.
"Me three!" Zuko shouted over the wind. Appa drifted down below the clouds where the wind ameliorated to a dull roar. Aang could hear Zuko spitting out his own hair which was being tossed about like chaff by the flurrying breezes.
"What exactly did the message say?" Aang projected back to Zuko.
"Ptew, Ptew, Ptew," was his reply. "Just give me a sec," Zuko stammered. He drew his hair up into a pony-tail and reached into his bag, pulling out the letter that the messenger hawk had delivered him. "It's a bit cryptic but here's what it basically says. 'Republic City... sustained attack by unknown assailant... defenses completely circumvented... took multiple captives including several delegates of the republic council... number and identity of assailants unknown... any and all assistance requested as soon as possible... circumstances matching those of previous anomalies... one difference... two eyewitnesses', and that's all it says." As Zuko finished reading the message, Aang's anxiety only worsened.
"I don't even know what I'm up against. How am I supposed to fight someone... or something... that I can't identify. How am I supposed to save Katara!!!?"
"Aang, relax!" Zuko urged, leaning over Appa's howdah. He could see the tension in Aang's shoulders and the distress in his eyes.
"You're right," he relinquished, letting out a deep sigh.
"We don't know exactly who got taken. Katara and Sokka might still be okay," Zuko said in an attempt to console his friend. Aang looked back at him, but the expression of worry that plastered itself on his face didn't change. "And besides, even if they did encounter trouble, they could handle it. Katara is a master water bender, and Sokka has really been... uhhh... 'improving' his swordsmanship skills. They're more than just a couple of green-horned sailors, they're real warriors; more than a match for anything the world could've thrown at them."With these words, some of Aang's tension dissolved, but didn't disappear.
"Of course he's right. In fact, if I had been there, Katara probably would've had to rescue me-ha-ha," Aang laughed to himself. But at this line of inner-dialogue came a twinge of that old feeling again. The cold, prickling feeling he knew all too well.
Appa kept flying for several hours, floating over fluffy clouds, flocks of screeching sea birds, and the deep blue ocean, crosshatched with white foam. The flying beast continued to cut his way across the sky until it evolved from a light turquoise to a dusky azure and then a ruddy orange until it finally settled on the deep indigo of early night. All the while the two friends sat in utter silence with only the sound of the sloshing ocean waves or the faint whisper of the sea breezes perforating the silence. Zuko spent most of the time asleep while Aang ruminated over his self-doubt. "Hugh," he sighed. "I still can't help feeling like this is my fault." Appa issued a soft grunt of reassurance from below. "Thanks buddy," Aang said, patting his bison. "But I'm still right."
"If anything it's my fault," Zuko said, having been roused from his nap by the bison's grunt. He started fumbling around his bag for his dress robes as he continued speaking. "I, as the Fire Lord should have participated more in the exploration efforts. It was the thing that mattered most to my people ever since we gave up the colonies," he added as he changed out of his casual garments and into his royal apparel. He finished slipping on his robe and shoes before continuing. "It was time for a fresh start in Fire Nation history and I missed it so I could lounge around in the Imperial palace, listen to boring lectures and attend conferences on foreign affairs." He began fixing his pony-tail into a bun, which he had great difficulty doing as Momo had settled on his head and had begun to play with it like a cat with a string. Zuko brushed him off and fixed his golden, flame shaped cone to his bun, completing his outfit. "But we can't keep beating ourselves up, as much as we'd like to; now's the time for action. How far are we from Republic City?"
"We're almost there. I think I can see it on the horizon."Aang pointed to a small light that pierced through the dark, blue night. Zuko leaned over Appa's howdah to get a better view. The light became brighter and brighter as Appa approached the mainland. The single light soon became many twinkling, orange-yellow flecks of opal adorning the faint outlines of houses and buildings. As Appa steadily descended towards the city's skyline, they could see all the buildings in greater detail, despite the hazy fog that draped itself over the bay. They saw tops of tiled roofs, arching pagodas, resolute spires, cambered roofs, wooden cantilevers and walls of white stucco and stone all forming the graceful exteriors of each building. As Appa approached further, they could see cobbled streets and alleyways being bathed with warm lamp light and traversed by the various denizens of the city all commingling and intermixing like grains of sand in a creek-bed. It was a beautiful city, despite its small size, and its citizens carried on their typical duties in this fair hub almost as though nothing had happened. While relieved by this, the two companions were also perplexed.
"The city looks pristine," Zuko said. "No smoke, no rubble, no screaming civilians. What is this?" Zuko and Aang looked at each other quizzically. They glided through the cold, salty night air and passed over the sails and awnings of the docked ships that dotted the harbor in multitudes, a display of the city's growing wealth and importance. As they got deeper into the web of wharfs and piers they could hear the deafening sounds of bells, foghorns as well as the shouts of busy sailors and barking dock masters.
"There," Aang declared, pointing towards one of the large dry-docks. "They're waiting for us." He was referring to a large congregation of stalwart looking men, some he recognized as being Fire Nation soldiers and others that he assumed were the new Republic City Guardsmen. They were easily distinguishable by the shiny armor they donned as well as the sloppy manner in which they were assembled. With a flick of the reigns, Aang directed Appa to land in the middle of the semi-circle formed by the awaiting soldiers.
The great beast descended like a furry typhoon, creating a whirl-wind as he alighted on his six stubby hooves. The inexperienced Guardsmen gawked at seeing this gargantuan monster drop out of the sky like a hairy meteor. One of the more weak kneed Guards let out a faint squeal. "Newbies," one of the Fire Nation soldiers chortled. As Appa settled on the dock, his passengers succinctly dismounted and approached their welcoming committee. Zuko alighted first with a graceful leap belying the fragility of his attire. Aang followed close behind with his staff in hand, lingering next to Appa while Zuko marched straight towards the Fire Nation officer standing stoically in front of his entourage.
"Commander Zhan, what is the meaning of this?" Zuko demanded in an imposing tone. "We were summoned here on account of an attack, yet it seems the only ones who have overrun this harbor are grimy sailors and merchants." Zuko looked especially intimidating in his royal trappings, even more so in the faint glow of the harbor lights which emphasized his tall, dark figure. Some of the guardsmen fidgeted in their armor, while the Fire Nation soldiers stood at perfect attention.
"Sir," the officer responded stolidly. "We were barely aware that an attack had occurred before the morning we sent you the message. We believe that it was a cleverly orchestrated stealth raid, sir."
"Apparently more clever than a certain few guards," Zuko remarked. The Guardsmen continued to fidget in their uniforms, with beads of sweat rolling down their poorly shaved faces. The Fire Nation soldiers remained perfectly still.
"This time we have witnesses, sir," the officer continued. "Although many of our guards and soldiers were incapacitated before they saw anything, one of them claimed to have caught a glimpse of the perpetrators before being detained, and our own captain of the guard claimed to have sighted an anomalous vessel departing the harbor."
"Who's this eyewitness?" Zuko inquired.
"She was one of the Kyoshi Warriors that guarded the council members' chambers. She's in the infirmary being tended by our medics."
"Take me to her," the Fire Lord promptly commanded.
"Yes sir," the commander replied with a bow and salute. He then executed an about-face and called his troops to attention. They fell in and marched out from the dock towards the harbor with the Guardsmen and the Fire Lord in step. Aang followed impatiently with Momo perched on his shoulder and Appa in tow behind him.
"Commander, do we know exactly who was taken?" Aang asked anxiously, catching up to the officer.
"Several Republican Guardsmen and Elite Fire Nation soldiers are missing sir, as well as most of the Kyoshi Warriors." Zuko looked agitated but continued marching. "We are still conducting head-counts, so it will be hard to tell who else is missing until they are all completed. Does that answer your question, sir?"Aang nodded glumly and lagged behind the formation, unsatisfied and unsettled by the officer's report. The column of soldiers continued marching their way out of the port's entrance, followed by their visitors, and headed towards the series of buildings that formed the Republic City Barracks. The officer halted his charges and split them into two columns, each facing the Fire Lord as he continued through the entrance with the officer on his flank. A Guardsman led Appa and Momo to the Komodo rhino stables, leaving Aang alone outside the barracks. He still meandered far behind with hopeless eyes and a bowed head, until he heard a familiar voice calling his name from down the street.
"Aang!" it cried out with jubilation. Aang's head quickly jolted up and turned towards the source of the sound; a tall girl, wearing long flowing hair and Water Tribe garments ran towards him, smiling with joyous haste.
"Katara?" Aang said his eyes wide with astonishment. "Katara!" Aang dropped his staff and ran towards her, eyes streaming with joy and relief. They collided and embraced for the first time in their long year apart, wrapping their arms around each other like they had each dreamed for ages. Aang tightly caressed her warm shoulders and ran his fingers through her soft, flowing hair as it cascaded over her robes like a glistening waterfall. He breathed in her sweet scent, only begrudgingly exhaling it into the greedy, chilled air. Katara pressed her warm, soft cheek on his neck with blissfully closed eyes, savoring the tender moment under the moon's pale, silvery light."I'm so glad you're safe," Aang whispered into her ear.
Katara raised her head and looked deeply into his eyes. "I'm so glad your back," Katara whispered in return. Their heads drifted slowly towards each other. They pressed their foreheads together, still gazing into each other's pupils until, finally their lips met each other, and they shared a passionate kiss. One of the Guardsmen, looking on from afar, let out a tiny sob and wiped away a tear before one of his companions nudged him in the side and he snapped back to attention. They stayed locked in each other's arms for what seemed like an eternity. An eternity cut disappointingly short by Sokka.
"Oh I'm fine, just fine; don't worry about me..." he said approaching the couple. "But really Aang, I am touched by your concern." Katara shot him an annoyed glance, while Aang smiled and laughed.
"It's good to see you Sokka", he said as he bear-hugged his friend.
"You too Aang, h-whoa," he remarked, noticing Aang's stature. "You shot up a few inches, I'll barely be able to give you any of these anymore," Sokka said rubbing his fist on Aang's bald head. Aang and the two Water Tribe siblings laughed in unison and walked towards the Barracks, arm in arm. Just then, one of the Guards came running out of the building.
"Captain," the soldier addressed Sokka, issuing a salute. "The Fire Lord has requested your presence in the infirmary; he wants details regarding the attack."
"Tell the Fire Lord that the official, recently appointed, super important, Captain of the Republic City Guardsmen and witness to the events of the night before last..." said Sokka leaning towards Aang with a smug look on his face "... will be right there."
"You saw something from the attack?" Aang queried.
"Yep", replied Sokka in the same self-satisfied tone. "I'll tell you two lovebirds about it later, you know, after your done swapping phlegm." Sokka then abruptly turned away and marched haughtily after the Guardsman into the Barracks.
"Well, try not to take too long Captain of the Dorksmen!" Katara shot back with another irritated glance.
Aang chuckled and said, "Come on, maybe we should be a part of this too." Katara smiled, and they strolled into the barracks side-by-side, hand-in-hand.
Aang and Katara proceeded down the dark, secluded hallway leading towards the infirmary. Its muted red walls added to the gloominess. There was an occasional wall sconce that casted a faint glimmer, but the only true light came from the doorway to the infirmary. Sokka and the Guardsman had rounded the corner and disappeared into the pale yellow glow emanating from the junction in the hallway. Aang halted mid stride and looked at Katara.
"What is it Aang?" Katara asked with concern.
"I'm sorry I wasn't here Katara," Aang said with regret in his eyes. "So many people have been taken and I was too far away to do anything about it. But if something had happened to you, I don't know what I would have done."
"Well, nothing did happen to me, and that's what matters," Katara said, caressing Aang's cheek. "Besides, Sokka and I were here when it happened that night," Katara said with a troubled glance to her right. "We were all asleep and we didn't know what had happened until the morning after. We all woke up and found all the Guards unconscious and the senators missing. There wasn't a lot you could've done..."
At these last words, Aang's eyes shot away from Katara's. The cold void surged through his veins again. "Oh, I'm sorry", Katara said having seen the look in his eyes. "I didn't mean it like that." Aang took a step away from her and started sauntering down the corridor when Katara grabbed hold of his arm. "Is that why you left, you didn't feel like you were good enough to stay..." It sometimes shocked Aang, the way Katara was able to read him so well. But this time he almost felt relieved; he wouldn't have to explain the feelings that had been gnawing on him for so long. Katara always knew when you were feeling down on yourself or when you were confused, and she always knew what to say to put your mind at ease or point you in the right direction. Aang knew why he loved her.
"Aang, you've helped countless people purely out of the goodness of your own heart. You've done things that people twice your age would've been too unwilling, stubborn or afraid to do." Aang paused and faced Katara, looking into her kind face. "You're already more of a man than most men in this world claim to be. As long as you are who you are, I will always love you, and you will always be my hero." These words pierced Aang's heart like an arrow and shattered the dark tentacles of doubt that had clenched his soul for so many months. The cold, dreadful feel that had been his constant companion was now gone and replaced with new love, stronger than any he had before. Tears welled up in his eyes and he embraced Katara once more as they stood together in the long, dark hallway. In the darkness, their hearts merged and shined as brightly as Republic City on the horizon.
In the infirmary, Sokka, a doctor and a pair of soldiers stood by a bed, with Zuko perched on a stool besides it. The infirmary was dark, with only an accent of pale yellow lamp-light revealing the features of the room. There were rows of beds lined up along the walls and two in the middle, each facing outward. The room was half-full of other wounded soldiers and guards, most asleep or unconscious. The bed they were gathered around was occupied by an injured Kyoshi Warrior.
"Can she speak?" Zuko asked the medic. He nodded.
"Ty Lee. Can you hear me?"Zuko asked in a hushed voice. The girl slowly raised her eyelids and pivoted her head towards the man speaking to her.
"Oh, hey Zuko... I mean... agh!" She attempted to sit up, but strained herself doing so and leaned back into her bed. Her blankets, which were pulled up to her neck, receded, revealing a heavily bandaged torso, flecked with bruises and scars. "Sorry, I'd bow, but... cough, cough." The healer reached for a ladle, filled it with water and brought it up to her lips, cradling her head to let the water trickle gently down her damaged throat.
"It's okay," Zuko said. The healer finished feeding her the water and dabbed up some of the drops that had spilled on her bandages. "Can you tell us what happened?" he asked softly.
"Yes," Ty answered weakly. Her voice was dry and rasped like sandpaper being drawn over glass. It was almost as if someone had taken her cheerful, effervescent voice and dragged it helter-skelter through a nettle patch and left it to bleed out in a cold, soggy ditch. "It was late at night..." she began. "Everything seemed quiet. A few of the Kyoshi Warriors and I were flirting with some guards..." She blushed but continued. "... we heard something weird coming from outside the Capitol building... we rushed out to see what was going on... cough, cough." The healer reached out for the ladle, but Zuko stayed her hand. Just then, Aang and Katara entered the room. They quietly stood next to Sokka with looks of condolence and concern.
"Then... then, when we got there, we didn't see anything. Suki got worried and she ordered some of us to search the building and some others to comb the streets around it. We did. But we didn't find anything... We settled down and Suki decided it was just the wind, or some kids playing a prank... But the noise started up again, louder this time... It was some sort of humming." Everyone in the room, even the soldiers, leaned in closer to hear her words as they crawled their way out of the back of her mangled throat. "Wait... no... it wasn't humming it was more like... singing, or... whatever it was, it sounded really beautiful. But then my armor started to get really tight."
"What do you mean?" Zuko asked, almost afraid of the answer.
"It just started tightening itself around my chest... almost as if it had a mind of its own." The infirmary was completely soundless. They waited in silence for the Kyoshi Warrior to continue. "It hurt so much... I couldn't make a sound... I could barely breathe. I saw everyone else collapsed on the floor with me, and then, out of the corner of my eye... I could see shapes moving towards us from down the hall." Everyone listened with baited breath. "I was in so much pain I couldn't see straight, but... they looked like people... tall, grey people... they just floated over us... like they were..." She paused, looking for the right word to describe what she saw. "Weightless... they hovered over us, and... and..." Her eyes began to well up.
"Please Ty Lee, try to remember, this is important," Zuko urged, taking her hand in his. Her face was contorted and full of tears. She nodded.
"One of them looked at me sob... but he didn't have a... a ... a face."A chill spread through the room and up everyone's spine. Their eyes were widened in shock, dread, perplexity, or a combination of the three. Ty Lee continued to sob quietly. "I was so afraid... and in so much pain that I sniff... passed out, and when I woke up... all of the other Kyoshi Warriors were gone and I was sob... alone." Zuko's eyes widened and he sat up on his stool.
"Alone!" Sokka exclaimed. "Alone! You mean you're the only Kyoshi Warrior that didn't get taken! That means they got Suki! Why didn't anyone tell me!?..."
"Shhhhh...!" The healer hushed him.
"We didn't want you to panic. We needed you to stay calm until Aang and Zuko got here," Katara said, clutching Sokka's shoulder. His face contorted and a tear streamed down his cheek.
"She's been through enough tonight," the medic said. "Let her catch her breath."
"Thank you," Zuko said to the healer. "Don't worry Ty Lee, everything's going to be fine," he said with a false smile on his face.
"Thanks Zuko," she responded, attempting a smile in return. "You always make things better." She slowly closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. Zuko rose from his stool and quietly, solemnly, marched out of the infirmary with the soldiers beside him. Sokka, with Aang clasping his shoulder, left the room next and Katara, after bidding the brave Kyoshi Warrior sweet dreams, departed last.
Sokka slumped himself on one of the benches in the mess hall. It would have been deserted, noiseless and dark, had it not been for the haunted individuals entering the room and the dim lamp-light illuminating the table. Aang sat beside him with Katara on his other flank. Zuko sat by himself on the other side of the table, clenching a cup of tea in his hands. The room's occupants sat in silence, pondering the unnerving details they had just received. The mess hall would usually have been a bright, warm place, echoing with the laughter of off-duty soldiers and wafting with the scent of good, hot meals. Now it was a dark place, filled with tension, cold, damp air, and silence. Zuko was the first to break it.
"What does it all mean?" Zuko thought out loud.
"What does it all mean?!" Sokka shot back in outrage. "It means we go and try to find Suki, that's what it means."Sokka was now standing up and shouting at Zuko. "What are we all doing just sitting here? We should be out looking for Suki... and the Kyoshi Warriors and... everybody! Now!"
"Calm down Sokka, we'll think of something," Katara urged. "We can't go running off without knowing what we're trying to find or where we're going." "Katara's right," Zuko said. "And besides, charging off without thinking is usually my specialty."
"Really funny," Sokka retorted.
"Guys, guys, let's just calm down and try to figure this out," Aang intervened. Sokka sighed and sunk back into his seat pouring his head into his palms. "Let's go over what we know. Ty Lee said that her armor constricted itself around her body. That makes me think of metal bending."
"But the only metal benders we know of are Toph and her students, but they would never do something like this," Katara said. "The only other explanation would be if somebody else had discovered metal bending besides Toph, but... I just don't know."
"She also said that her attackers didn't have faces," Aang pointed out. "That reminds of me of only one thing; Koh". Everyone gave Aang puzzled looks before he continued. "Koh is a spirit that delights in stealing the faces of his captives. I met him while I was exploring the Spirit World when the North Pole was under attack during the war. This has Koh written all over it."
"Well, this 'Koh' guy sounds evil, but would a spirit really be doing something like this?" Katara inquired.
"No, and that's the thing," Aang responded. "No spirit I've ever known of has ever been this aggressive. Even Hei Bai, the forest spirit, didn't go rogue without thinking he had good reason to be angry. Koh is one of the oldest spirits around. He should know better than this. I haven't got any other ideas," Aang said with resignation. "What about you Zuko?"
"My guess is as good as anyone else's concerning what were dealing with," Zuko replied. But we still need to know where to look if we're going to find whoever did this. Sokka, you said you saw something that might have been their vessel."
"I don't know. I saw something weird the morning after the attack. I saw some weird... I-dunno-what... leaving the harbor, fast." The other members of the group sat themselves up, listening carefully to his report. "Whatever it was, it seemed to gleam in the sunlight, and-I don't know but I'm guessing- it... floated above the water." More surprised glances accompanied Sokka's description.
"In what direction?" Zuko asked promptly.
"Out of the harbor, to the west" Sokka replied.
"Then we have our heading," Zuko affirmed, rising from his seat. As his voice grew firmer the lamp grew brighter, along with the collective resolve of everyone in the room. "We leave on Appa, first thing tomorrow. We're going to look for these people, whoever they are, and make them pay for this." A fire was alight in Zuko's eyes and his stance was sure and firm.
"Are you sure you want to come with us Zuko?" Katara posed. "You're the Fire Lord. Your people still need you."
"My people need to know that their leader is strong and willing to defend them at any cost. This isn't the work of some bandits or pirates; this is a new threat, one that's hit home and one that I want to deal with personally." They all stared at Zuko in unison with new courage in their eyes. "Is Team Avatar ready for another adventure?" Zuko held out his hand, waiting for his response.
Katara, and then Aang, stood up and approached Zuko. "We're ready," Katara said. "These people have to be stopped." She placed her hand over Zuko's.
"I know I'm ready," Aang avowed. "I've been on the side-lines long enough. I'm in," he said adding his hand. "Besides, it'll be good to have the old team back together." Aang then raised his eyebrows, just realizing something. "Speaking of which, where's Toph? I haven't seen her this entire time."
"She was called to Ba Sing Se by King Bumi shortly before the attack took place," Katara responded. "There's been some sort of plague going on there for the past several months and he wants her help, apparently."
"Jeez! Did this entire world up and decide to go crazy while I was away!" Aang lamented. Katara extended her free hand to Aang's shoulder, and looked at him with reassurance.
"We'll have to leave without her," Zuko said. "What about you Sokka? Are you coming or not?" Sokka rose to his feet as well, with a determined, furrowed brow.
"I'm in it to find Suki, and the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors," he affirmed. "I owe them a lot, especially after letting them down like this", Sokka said, bowing his head. He added his hand to the circle, completing the group.
"It's settled then," Zuko confirmed. He parted from the group and started to leave the mess hall before adding, "Let's all get some sleep, we'll be leaving early." With that, the rest of the room's inhabitants followed Zuko out of the mess hall and retired to their quarters.
Zuko rose to the zenith of the barracks, ascending towards the messenger hawk tower. He contrived orders for his admirals and advisors, instructing them to safeguard the Fire Nation in his absence, exhorting them to carry on while he vanquished whatever foe that dared molest the Empire and the Republic. On wings, his decrees were carried across the winds, in the trust of those regal birds. Once again, he felt that he was being tested by the universe and once again he would face it, as the Fire Lord. He would not fail his people again. But was Katara right? Should he be going off on another adventure with Team Avatar, leaving his people behind? He knew that this was something he had to do; for the good of the Fire Nation. He was brimming with resolve and determination, but also... something else. Did he have another reason for wanting to leave, to venture out into the world again at the peril of his throne?
Sokka was in his room, kneeling before his possessions, sorting, organizing and packing them; a routine that gave him comfort when he was unsure of himself. He felt so much happier when he was obsessing over minor details or contriving hare-brained schemes. It gave him comfort, knowing he was in control. He knelt by the light of a small lamp, taking inventory of his weapons and tools. He had his scimitar, his boomerang and his club. But his armor... He glanced around and found it; one of the armored suits he had designed for the new Republic City Guards. He smiled as he remembered the effort and ingenuity that he had poured into its design. But he frowned when he gazed at his reflection. The reflection he saw was that of a failure. He had retired early the night of the attack, hoping to be well rested for the speech he was going to give at the conference the following day. He was so nervous and so worried that he wouldn't convince, much less impress anyone, with his proposals. He was afraid that he would make a fool of himself in front of the officials, and in front of Suki... again. He wouldn't let his fear prevent him from doing his duty, from protecting the ones he loved. He would make things right. "I'm sorry Suki," he whispered before drifting asleep. "I'm coming for you."
Aang lay awake, next to Katara, anxiously waiting for the following morning. The aching feeling that ravaged his heart was gone as Katara rested her head over it. There was no trace of the void, none at all. He was sure. But... something about what Katara said perplexed him. 'You will always be my hero', since when did she say things like that? She's always so confident, spirited and strong. When has she ever needed a hero? A seed of coldness sprung up in his heart-strings. "Was she lying to you just to make you feel better?" the seed seemed to say from within the recesses of his mind.
"No, we've always been honest, and honest with each other," he said to himself.
"Just like she was honest in stealing that water scroll from those pirates and hiding it from you; just like you were honest with your friends when you lied to them about being the Avatar, not to mention that incident in the Great Divide," the seed replied. "And do you really love her or the shoulder on which she lets you cry?"
"NO!" Aang exclaimed to himself, almost speaking it out loud. "We've been across the world and back together! We've been through so much, TOGETHER! We care about each other, we're apart of each other and I'll face any danger if it means I'll face it with Katara; if it means we'll finally be together again!" The seed was silenced. Aang sighed, his mind at peace again. He slowly stroked Katara's glistening hair, softly peering at her as she followed the slow cadence of inhales and exhales that was beautiful sleep. Aang lay awake, next to Katara, waiting hopefully for the following morning when he and his friends would embark on another adventure. The tiny seed of the void was silenced... but not gone...
"Who are You?"
Meanwhile, in Ba-Sing-Se...
"So what does old 'fancy-britches' want with me anyway?" Toph asked as she and her metal bending students followed High Earth King Kuei down the tall, green hued hallways. "I don't know jack-squat about medicine, so I can't do anything about this plague. Unless he wants a rematch from the last time we butt heads..." she said slamming her fist into her palm, "... I don't understand why he called me here."
"Earth King Bumi has become afflicted by the plague," Kuei responded solemnly.
"Oh... I didn't know." Toph paused tensely and tersely in the extravagant, marble paved corridor.
"Soon King Bumi will descend into total madness," Kuei said forlornly as he turned to face Toph. "We will have to immobilize and incarcerate him to prevent him from doing damage to himself and everyone around him."
"Oh, I know what sort of damage he can do," Toph said with a slight chuckle, trying to reassure herself. "But I still don't know why I'm here. If he wanted to share some final words, why didn't he call on twinkle-toes, uh... I mean, Aang? I thought they were best buds or something."
"Master Aang was unreachable for some reason," the King replied in his gossamer voice. "He asked for you in his stead. I'm afraid I'm just as puzzled as you," he relented with a shrug.
"Well, only one way to find out", she said glumly. They progressed down the spacious passage before coming to a stop in front of a tall, dark, ornately carved pair of wooden doors.
"You'll need to wear this," Kuei said, holding out a mask. "With benders, the plague is especially contagious, and dangerous." Toph took the mask and wrapped it around her face.
With a muffled sigh, Toph said, "Okay, I'm ready if he is." Two attendants cracked open the doors, which only relented with haunting creaks. Ho Tun, one of Toph's students, tensed up and fidgeted, while his two companions, Penga and The Dark One, stood dolefully beside him. "Wait out here for me guys; I'll just be a few minutes." Her charges nodded in response, and she proceeded into the room with the imposing doors shutting behind her.
The room was dark and dreary, with only a faint, green light. It filtered through muted, dark green curtains that were shrouding two small windows. Two nurses sat beside an imposing four poster bed, framed with dark curtains, completely drawn. Toph tentatively approached the center of the room, noticing only the soft carpet under her bare feet and the scratchy labored breathing of the bed's occupant.
"Come... closer... child," a faint voice issued from behind the curtains. She approached the side of the bed. "Leave us," the infirm king said to his nurses, wheezing with every word. "I wish to speak with dear Toph... hughh... alone." The two servants stood up, bowed, and departed the room through the creaking doors. "Are they gone?" the 'frail' king asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Yep, they've flown the coop."
"Goooood," the old man yawned. He sat up in his bed and stretched his arms over his head, shrugging off the illness he had been feigning.
"I knew you were faking it," Toph said as she peeled off her mask, revealing a toothy grin. "But why? Why all the smoke and mirrors? And what's this plague about anyway?"
"Why indeed?" the mad King replied with a snorting series of giggles. He sat up in his bed and cast his twitching gaze around the room like an eagle-hawk surveying its territory. "Why on earth did they put me here in this awfully decorated room?" the King lamented with disgust. "It looks like a funeral parlor and I'm not even a corpse... yet," the eccentric leader said, issuing another series of cackles.
"Seriously, why are you pretending to be sick?" Toph pressed.
"Because something suspicious is going on as to the cause of this plague," Bumi replied in a more serious tone. "This disease just erupted out of nowhere, even with the meticulous scrutiny of those, umm... lovely... ladies in customs," he said, adding few more sniggers before regaining his composure. "The professors at Ba-Sing-Se University have identified it as some sort of airborne fungus spore. It infects people when they inhale it, starts multiplying in their lungs, and then spreads when they breathe it out, beginning the whole cycle over again. Once you inhale it, it starts infecting your brain and turns you into a mindless, marauding... lunatic," he said, waving his arms to illustrate the travesty. "Those happy-hooligans out there are even crazier than me, as hard as that is to imagine."
"Yep, that is pretty hard to imagine," Toph snickered.
Ignoring her quip, King Bumi persisted in his rant. "Once the fungus takes hold of your mind, you start rampaging around with reckless abandon, without worry of pain or injury, without recognition of family or friends, completely without impunity! You should see the damage some of the infected earth-benders did! " the old man continued, an edge of hysteria creeping into his voice.
"A couple of days before this plague started, some obscure noble arrived from... oh... what was it? The 'such-and-such' province," he quoted through the air. "I got suspicious and had some agents of mine follow this guy around. They swiped a few of his belongings and found high concentrations of these spores on them. Because of this, I thought that he might be the one who is spreading the plague through Ba-Sing-Se."
"Whoa", Toph remarked. "So what can I do?"
"I needed someone I could trust to investigate, someone with muscle. Whoever this noble is, he's dangerous", he replied. "With Aang gone for whatever reason, I knew there was one other tough little badger mole whom I could count on", he said smirking.
"Thanks", Toph said with a reciprocal smile. "What should I do first?"
"You need to do some snooping around. Figure out who this man is. Find out why and how he's spreading the plague and how he can be stopped. We don't know what he is capable of," he added. "Now listen, I know subtlety isn't your strongest Pai Sho tile, but you really need to be sneaky about this," he urged in a hushed tone of voice.
"Don't worry King Bumi," she responded with a grin of reassurance. "You can count on me."
A loud, thundering blast issued from the far wing of the royal palace. Toph rode into the main library on a giant, rolling wave of rock and paving stones, blasting furniture to splinters and toppling book cases with loud crashes. Followed by her students, the powerful earth bender rode her roaring rockalanche of destruction towards a short, squat man wearing opulent attire and a stunned expression on his flabby face. She hopped off her receding wave of regolith and slammed her fists into the ground, forcing stone spires up from the floor around the aristocrat's feet. He was trapped.
"The jig's up tubby! Why are you spreading the plague around the city?!"
The plump senator's expression changed from outright shock to bewildered anger as Toph pinned him to the wall of the library with a pillar of rock. "Talk!" Toph commanded. "Who are you anyway?!"
Just then, the little man's skin began to roil and course about his body, taking on the texture of liquid wood. His corpulent silhouette molded into an amorphous blob of this foreign substance before warping itself into another form... On the completion of this hideous metamorphosis, a new figure occupied the space of the small, fat nobleman that she had menaced. The withered, crooked old man wore a wild mane of shaggy hair, braided with small bones or bizarre trinkets and punctured by sinister, spindly twigs and jagged branches. He was completely enshrouded in thick, shabby brown robes but for small patches of skin that bore twisted, knotting tattoos or equally twisted ornaments. The gnarled stranger had piercing grey eyes hanging from his wispy brows; eyes painted with murder to match his angry snarl and viper-like hiss.
She could not disguise her shock in discovering this new, alien creature. "Who are you?"
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