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2 January, 2014
Shang Ye, Part 1: The Voyage
"Yeah, so he's an Avatar in training, that's all," his sister replied.
"No, that wasn't it. There was something else, something about the way he did it." Udokka was running the picture through his mind a million times over again, but he could not figure out what was wrong. He kept asking himself questions while visualizing it. Was it his stance? Kind of, but not really. His hand movements? A little. His form? Maybe. But any one of these things could be justifiably explained by Hulzaq's lack of experience in this particular art of bending.
Yarra could see that Udokka was deep in thought due to his extended silence. "Don't worry about it Dok, it's nothing," she said, trying to ease his mind.
At that moment Udokka realized that it was not any single one of these things, but rather the combination of them that was peculiar. If the bender did not possess any of the qualities necessary for earthbending, how was he able to manipulate the frozen earth and send it hurtling through the air with such speed? At that moment it hit him.
Out loud Udokka gave Yarra a compliant, "Okay," but in his mind he had not dropped the subject at all, and instead had taken it a step further by deciding to act upon it. He gave his sister a pitiful farewell and hurried on toward his house.
Hulzaq and Ballaq arrived at their far-from-humble abode – everyone is willing to donate to the Avatar's cause, plus Ballaq was a member of the Council of Elders – and they dismounted each of their buffalo yaks.
"He knows uncle, I know he does," Hulzaq blurted out as soon as they walked inside.
"Calm down. What are you going on about?" Ballaq asked in a quite composed voice. "Who knows what?"
"At the ceremony, I caught a glimpse of a man, and I could tell by the look on his face after I bent the earth that he knows."
"Don't be ridiculous. He was probably just as amazed as everyone else," his uncle responded, his voice displaying a complete absence of doubt in his mind.
"I don't know. We need to silence him, just to be safe."
"Don't be hasty now. Everything will be fine. Now pack your bags, we're going to Shang Ye Village."
They each packed a small bag of clothing and supplies and secured them to their buffalo yaks. As Hulzaq mounted the animal, Ballaq hurried back inside exclaiming, "Wait, I forgot something." Ballaq returned shortly, as he was tying something around his neck. It was a small vial filled with some sort of opaque liquid hanging from a thin piece of string.
"What's that for?" Inquired Hulzaq, also wondering what it was that was inside of the vial, but being more interested in the question which he had vocalized.
"Just in case, my dear nephew. Just in case."
Udokka hurried around his small hut, grabbing anything he thought he might need. He packed everything into a small bag, which could fit almost all of his possessions. The waterbender slung the bag over his shoulder and ran out the door, being sure to grab his water skin on the way out. After quickly making his way to the center of the city, Udokka arrived at the council member's house, but became discouraged upon realizing that it was empty. He looked around furiously, searching for some trace of Hulzaq. He spotted a small crowd of people and heard a faint voice say, "... Avatar Hulzaq..." Udokka tore down the street after the crowd, only to realize that the reason for the gathering was the appearance of the chief; there was no sign of Hulzaq.
Udokka questioned a man toward the back of the crowd, "Excuse me, what's going on?"
"Chief Kultuk just gave a speech sending his blessing off with the Avatar to complete his earthbending training in the village of Shang Ye," replied the friendly man.
"Where is he?" Udokka continued to inquire.
"You just missed him; he's heading to the harbor."
Udokka ran further down the street, thanking the man without even turning his head. As he made his way through the crowd and got up toward the front, he realized that he would not be able to push through the crowd in any reasonable amount of time, so, without skipping a beat, he jumped into the canal, bent himself to the other side, and peeled off to the left to race on toward the harbor.
Meanwhile, Ballaq and Hulzaq were having everything loaded onto their ship and preparing to shove off. It was a small transport ship, but still had a surprisingly luxurious sleeping quarters below deck. The men assisting them loaded the last item and Hulzaq and his uncle boarded the ship with a few other waterbenders to help them propel the ship. Just as they headed out to sea, Udokka came flying around the corner and he and Hulzaq caught a glimpse of one another. It must have been only for a split second, but it felt like an eternity for Ballaq's young nephew.
"There he is. That's him," he thought to himself, but suddenly smirked arrogantly, once he had realized that the man was too late.
For Udokka, the short moment of eye contact was all he needed; he made a break for the docks, eyes fixed on a small merchant ship nearby, knowing that he would not be able to catch up to transport boat in time. The fact that the merchant ship was already out at sea never entered Udokka's mind, as he sprang from the dock, quickly froze a small patch of water, giving him an extra step, and landed right on the deck of the ship.
Although slightly impressed, Hulzaq's grin was immediately wiped from his face as he watched from his own ship. He now became worried enough to voice what he had previously said to only himself to his uncle.
Ballaq glanced over casually and, remaining completely composed, he said, "There is nothing to worry about. Look, he's a cop," taking notice to Udokka's uniform, "He answers to the chief, and we have Kultuk eating out of the palms of our hands; there's nothing he can do to us."
During all of this, Udokka had paid just as much attention to the merchant on the ship as the merchant had to him before the waterbender had boarded; however, the sudden noise and the rocking of his boat undoubtedly grabbed his attention.
"What in the world do ya think yer doing?! Get off my ship or I'll call the police!" the sailor yelled, furious at first.
"Sir, I am the police," Udokka responded in a respectful yet condescending tone, "... and I need your help. I've got to catch that ship." Udokka pointed to the boat on which Hulzaq had departed. The merchant glanced over to the transport ship and turned back to respond.
"Got any idea where it be going?" he said much more calmly.
"Straight to the Earth Kingdom, to Shang Ye Village."
"Well what do ya know, that's right where I'm headed, but what's in it for me?"
"Um... I am a waterbender. I can get you there in a third of the time."
"Son, ya got yerself a deal. 'Name's Kota," he stretched out his hand.
Udokka reluctantly shook his hand and replied, "I'm... Udokka."
"Nice ta meet you Udokka." Kota handed him a bowl of stewed sea prunes. "Now eat up, you'll need yer strength fer bendin'."
That night in the village of Shang Ye a small group of earthbenders, who made up the militia, gathered for a meeting in a small governmental building (which had mostly been used for matters regarding commerce, since most of the inhabitants of the village were merchants). Feng, who carried himself in a way that made it obvious that he was the leader of the group of men, began to speak and everyone quieted down immediately out of respect.
"We have just received word that there is a group of waterbenders from the Northern Water Tribe planning to attack and raid our village," Feng started.
"We'll be ready for them! We've fought off invaders before, and we'll have no problem doing it again!" shouted one of the younger men, interrupting his unofficial superior.
"... but that is not why I called you all here," Feng continued, providing the outspoken soldier with no response or consequence, save for a disapproving glance. "It is the manner in which this raid is expected to take place that concerns me. I have been informed that the invaders will come disguised as merchants, but I am unaware of when they are coming. There will be no way of knowing when we will be attacked or how the attackers will arrive, but they will come, and they will try to take from us what is ours. But they will not succeed. We have worked too hard to protect this village from outside threats to let it fall to a couple of waterbenders. We will be ready for them, and we will be watching their every move. And the moment something appears to be out of the ordinary, we will strike, and we will prevail."
The soldiers proudly stood up and withdrew from the meeting room, inspired by their commander. They all returned to their homes to receive a good night's rest and to inform their loved ones of the situation.
Hulzaq stood at the bow of the ship thinking; he had been able to clear his head of thoughts of the police officer who had followed him, due to his uncle's earlier comment, but he could not prevent other questions from flowing into his head. He had no idea what his uncle was planning, let alone why, but everything had always worked out in the past, so why should he expect this situation to be any different. "But still," he thought to himself. Everything had changed so much in the past couple of months, and he had not really understood his uncle's recent actions. Hulzaq looked up to the dimming sky as the vibrant colors poured over the horizon. After a few more minutes of thinking, Hulzaq decided he would secure some answers. He walked confidently across the deck and proceeded on to the sleeping quarters where his uncle had been resting. Hulzaq had become insistent that he would receive the answers for which he had been searching.
By the time Feng had reached his house, the sun was still barely peeking over the mountains, providing a final glimpse of light for him to fulfill his promise to his daughter that he would be home before dark. He walked into the small, yet surprisingly vacant home. There was a small couch in the middle of the main room and a table along the left wall by the doorway to the kitchen. He made his way over to it to blow out the candle in the center and rested his hand on one of the three chairs surrounding the table. He paused and just stared at the chair. It was the chair in which his wife had always sat, but it had not been used since the night before she died two years prior. He hesitated, just thinking for a moment. Suddenly, for some reason, he decided to sit in the chair. As he sat, he closed his eyes for a few minutes and let the presence of his wife in his mind overpower the physical reality that she was gone. He thought about how they had met, when they had wed, how they had spent their time, when they had had their daughter – Song Li, the thought of her brought him back to reality. He blew out the candle and walked over to the side bedroom and opened the door. At first his daughter did not appear to be in the room, but Feng proceeded to the center of the room and tapped his foot on the ground, "Song Li? You down there?" He stepped back as he felt the ground shift underneath him.
The earthen floor opened up and Song Li stepped out into her room. "Dad! You're home. How did the meeting go?"
"Fine. How long were you down there?" Feng asked worriedly.
"Just a little while, there's no need to worry. I was just connecting with the earth."
"I know, I know, but just remember you're not an airbender; don't be down there too long."
"Alright Dad," Song Li responded as she lay down in her bed underneath the covers.
Feng sat down beside her, "Now Song Li, tomorrow I'm going to be guarding the docks all day, and I want you to stay here in case there is any trouble. I'm not sure what is going to happen, if anything, so please don't go on one of your 'expeditions' tomorrow; I want to make sure your safe. Okay?"
"Dad, I'm not a kid anymore. I'm fifteen." Song Li was slightly annoyed that her father still saw her as a six-year-old girl instead of the teenager she was, something which she often forget herself. She had always been daddy's little girl, and she did not want to grow out of that, but she had a desire to do things on her own.
"I know Song Li, I just..." He paused for a moment, what he was about to say brought him back to the day his wife had died. He breathed in deeply, exhaled, and finished his sentence, "I just don't want anything to happen to you."
Song Li realized that her father was afflicted and attempted to cheer him up and, at the same time, assured him that she would be safe. "Don't worry dad," she started, but continued in a voice mimicking that of her father, "I am a fearsome earthbender, trained by the best."
Her plan had worked. Feng could not help but smile, "Alright, Master Song," Feng responded, playing along; although, he still insisted his daughter's ensured safety "But you should still stay home tomorrow. I'll let you use my boots." He added this part in an effort to convince her, as it had often been a successful bargaining chip.
"Alright," Song Li conceded. She had some sort of a fascination with his old boots, which she herself did not understand. They were a regular pair of boots that had been given to her father as part of his uniform when he had fought in a small civil war between Shang Ye and a neighboring Earth Kingdom town. There was nothing special about them except for the fact that they were three sizes larger than her father's own feet. There had been a mix up when the boots were made and, since Feng had been the last one to pick up his uniform, he had been stuck with them.
Song Li always enjoyed wearing the boots. When she was little, she used to clomp around the house in them, walking no more than two steps before falling over. The boots always reminded her of her father and she very much enjoyed practicing her bending while wearing them. She felt empowered by wearing them; they seemed to reanimate her father's spirit from his glory days when he had been younger.
"Thank you Song Li. I just want to make sure that you're safe," Feng responded, now hugging his daughter.
Song Li could almost hear the words her father was about to say, but her father had not actually said them since the incident two years ago, yet she yearned so much to hear them. "I know... but you better be safe too tomorrow."
"Don't worry. Nothing bad is going to happen." Feng stood up to blow out the candle and walked out, the light leaving the room at the same moment he did.
"That'll be good enough fer today," Kota commented, much to Udokka's relief. "Now make sure ya get a good night's rest. I'm gonna need yer strength tomorrow ta finish the trip."
Udokka stepped to the back of the boat and slumped down; all that bending had left him completely exhausted. He had no trouble falling asleep, but could not resist the thoughts of the earthbending display he had witnessed as he passed into unconsciousness. He did not know how Hulzaq had done it, but he was going to find out.
Hulzaq waited outside Ballaq's room for a few minutes, but could not wait any longer and went inside the small, cozy room, expecting to startle his uncle awake. However, Ballaq had, in fact, been sitting in a chair, just reading.
"Yes?" The man asked without looking up from the page.
"I have a few questions uncle, and I would much appreciate it if you would answer them," Hulzaq announced, his voice strong and sturdy at first.
As Hulzaq continued, he progressively lost his boldness to his typical rashness. "Why are we really headed to Shang Ye? You told everyone that I am going to learn earthbending, but a real earthbending master would easily realize that something wasn't right. I don't understand what reason we would have for going there."
"Patience, you will understand shortly," his uncle said, setting the book aside. "I have made some arrangements that will result in your preoccupation upon our arrival in Shang Ye, rather than initiating any form of earthbending study."
"It's just that nothing makes sense. I'm not a real earthbender. Why did you teach me that technique? Why are you trying to convince everyone that I'm the Avatar when I'm not." Hulzaq's emotion now turned toward rage.
"Keep your voice down." Ballaq stated angrily, yet still making little noise above a whisper. Ballaq regained his composure, "No one would dare question the Avatar as long as he is performing actions in the name of balance. With the slightest of reasons, almost anything is ours for the taking."
Hulzaq lowered his voice to a whisper, "But what about the real Avatar? He would have realized his identity by now. Why hasn't he stepped forward and revealed himself to our tribe."
"Because there is no Avatar in our tribe."
"So, is the new Avatar in the Southern Water Tribe?" Hulzaq sounded deeply confused.
"No. There is no new Avatar." Ballaq paused for a moment. "Yangchen is still alive."
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