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March 18, 2014
Angry Sky Gods
"We've been flying for nearly two weeks. We've come this far and have found nothing, nothing but small, scattered, desolate islands. We don't even know if they continued this way or whether they turned back, but we keep searching, heading in the same direction. West. It's the only piece of evidence we have regarding the abductions. It's all we have. So for now we'll keep searching. But it's frustrating, having only little piles of rock and sand to show for all our effort. Still, the mere presence of such islands is somewhat encouraging. They could have provided shelter to the people we're pursuing, and they now provide much needed rest for Appa and— hey! Momo! Quit playing with my quill!"
Zuko shooed away the mischievous Lemur-bat and continued writing in his leather-bound journal.
"...everyone else. These past few weeks have been tough on all of us. Even Aang is glum, and Katara isn't doing much better. Sokka is being unusually moody and I'm not sure why. It's probably because of Suki, he's been worried about her ever since he found out she was taken with the other Kyoshi Warriors. I'd be upset too if something like that happened to Uncle or...Mai. I'm afraid that our search will turn up with nothing. Whoever these people are, they wouldn't have proceeded this far, they'd only meet endless ocean. Any sane person would turn back. Our supplies are running low as I write this. Maybe we should turn back. I'm sure the others are thinking it. We'll continue the search for now but if we don't find anything in the next couple days we'll double back and search in another direction; a direction that, hopefully, will yield better results. In the mean time, I really hope things aren't falling apart at home...I've been worried sick since we left—
"Ugghh, I can't take it anymore!" Sokka cried. "I've been roasting under this hot sun every day for the past two weeks, and know I have to listen to the annoying scratchety-scratch of your writing! Seriously would you give it a rest!?"
"It's important that we keep a journal to record our findings," Zuko retorted.
"Maybe Sokka's right," Aang said. "It's been getting on my nerves too."
"Yeah! And besides, what findings!?" Sokka added. "The only thing I've found is heaping loads of sand in my shorts!"
"Listen guys, we're all just a little tired," Katara said. "You know, from going two days without sleep, three days without food and almost a whole week without bathing. So let's all just take a deeeep breath, and calm down. AND YES, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, YOU SHOULD GIVE IT A REST ZUKO! YOU'VE BEEN DRIVING ME OFF THIS SADDLE FOR THE PAST HALF-HOUR!!"
"Fine!" Zuko relented before scrawling a final note in his diary. "End of Fire Lord's Journal, first entry." He stuffed the note-book back into his bag and leaned against Appa's howdah, sheltering his eyes from the oppressive sun. They all sat in bitter silence under the sweltering heat, their clothes fused to their bodies with several days worth of grease, grime, sand and sea salt. Momo entertained himself by batting at Zuko's ponytail. Too weary now to bark at the Lemur, he let the little creature have his fun. They continued drifting over the vast voids of ocean water, occasionally dipping down towards its gleaming surface for some refreshing relief from the near omnipresent heat.
"We should turn back now while we still can," Katara said, breaking the silence. "Frankly, I think we got lucky finding that last island. Our luck might not hold out for much longer."
"Yeah, I think you're right," Zuko replied. "All in favor?" Sokka mumbled something indiscernible while Aang was leaning over the side of the howdah, shading his eyes with his hand and trying to get a better view of something on the horizon.
"Wait a second," Aang said. "I see some clouds.
"Yeah, what else is new?" Sokka groaned. "We've been seeing clouds all this time— big clouds, fluffy clouds, clouds shaped like saber-toothed moose lions— where have you been the past few days?"
"No, I mean, really dark, low hanging clouds way ahead," he replied straining against the edge of the saddle. Sokka's eyes widened and he shifted in place to get a better view.
"Hey, you're right," Sokka remarked with a rising spirit. "There might be some sort of landmass providing enough cool air for those clouds to condense."
"Then we should head for them," Zuko suggested. "We've found nothing else of interest so far, it might be worth a look." Aang propelled himself onto Appa's neck with a gust of air, and with a firm crack of the reigns and a hearty 'yip-yip', the bison sped off in the direction of the clouds with an excited bellow. Before long they were hovering outside the imposing façade of billowing gray fog. Without hesitation, the giddy bison dove headfirst into the column of moisture, letting it caress his shaggy body. His passengers were tentative at first, but with the cool, icy air dashing against their weary faces, they embraced it with blissfully closed eyes. They all savored the rejuvenating wisps of condensation for what seemed like hours as Appa playfully frolicked between each fluffy column of sky foam. But before long, they all detected the subtle rumble of thunder.
"Whoa," Aang remarked. "I didn't know these were storm clouds."
"Well they are, apparently," Zuko said. "Let's try to get under these clouds and find some shelter." Aang shook the reigns and with a disgruntled growl Appa descended towards the waves. As they glided below the thick layer of clouds, the gentle murmur of thunder grew into rolling waves of rumbles. The sky grew dark with both the veil of night and the blanket of thickening storm heads.
"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," Sokka said with an edge of panic cracking his voice. They all grew increasingly frantic as the howling winds whipped into frenzy and conspired to toss them about on the foggy waves of the sky. The backdrop of clouds had turned almost pitch black by now and roiling waves of precipitation began coursing around the bison in a mad fury. The muttering of thunder that had filled the sky now mutated into a hideous roar. They continued their descent on the back of the frenzied bison but could find no escape from the congregation of foreboding storm cells. Then, a bright bolt of lightning split the sky, showering them all in a deafening thunder clap. Appa roared with panic and desperately cleaved his way downward through the torrent of storming clouds. Appa's passengers held on for dear life as the wind-buffalo tore through the clouds seeking respite from this oppressive medley of sound and terror.
Then, another bolt of lightning shot out from the clouds, coming dangerously close to grazing Appa's side. Sokka and Aang screamed with fright, while Zuko and Katara clenched their teeth, eyes wide with shock and terror. Momo issued an alarmed screech and scurried down Sokka's shirt for cover. Zuko clasped his heart, which was beating frantically in his chest. Then, another lightning bolt struck off of Appa's flank, and then another on his other side, and then another, and another and another. "I KNEW I SHOULDN'T HAVE COME ALONG!" Sokka screamed over the bedlam of rain and thunder claps. "THE UNIVERSE HATES ME!!!!" Appa kept plowing down through the clouds, a trail of lightning bolts following him as though he were target practice for angry sky gods.
Then, squinting through the inky black shroud of chaos, Aang could barely see a large, dark shape jutting out from sea. "Hey, what's that over there!" he shouted over the cacophony, pointing towards his discovery through a breach in the clouds.
"It looks like an island!" Zuko replied in the din. "Make a break for it!" Hearing these orders clearly despite the ruckus, Appa zoomed through the eye of the storm and rushed towards the dark floating mass. The hairy beast skipped over the white, foaming crests of the ocean like a pebble in a tumultuous pond, dashing over each one before coming to a thundering crash on the beach. The great bison lay there, defeated, with the rain pelting his hide and the thunder roaring victoriously above.
The beast huffed with exhaustion as his passengers crawled off his back and plopped onto the sand below. Zuko, crawling on all fours, gave a heaving lurch and vomited on the sand. Aang and Katara lied on the shore, gasping with fatigue while Sokka prostrated himself before the island beach and fervently kissed the gritty ground. "Oh land! Sweet, sweet land! I'll never part from you again!" he desperately avowed.
Another wriggling strand of lightning writhed across the sky, revealing with its unearthly glow a cave carved into the cliff-face standing before them. Its hollow grace towered above the shoreline, beckoning the beaten travelers with smooth, shadowy arms. Appa propped himself up on his six flabby legs and hurriedly trundled off towards the shelter, his battered passengers trudging along behind him. As soon as the shaggy beast entered the cave he shook himself from side to side, whipping his soggy fur about and sprinkling the cave's new occupants with showering drops. They were too exhausted to notice. The bison then shuffled to the back of the alcove and nestled himself beside its walls. Momo emerged from the back of Sokka's vest and hopped on top of Appa's empty saddle, enjoying his spacious new bed. Sokka, upon reaching the depression's lip, collapsed on the ground and immediately conked out. Not long after, the rest of the group joined him in his slumber.
"Aang, Aang," a soft voice urged. It was Katara's. "Aang, I'm sorry to wake you, but Zuko's got something he wants to talk about," she said, gently nudging him out of his deep sleep. He yawned and gazed groggily around the cave. A faint glow emanated from a small driftwood fire in the center of the room and he could see some of their clothes and belongings splayed out before its orange halo. Several hours had gone by, as Aang could reckon, and it was the dead of night. Outside he could see naught but darkness encroaching upon their secluded shelter. He could hear the gentle pitter patter of rain, the sloshing of water as Zuko washed his face in a shallow pool by the cave's entrance, the cadence of deep, throaty snores followed dutifully by Appa and Sokka, and the delicate breathing of Momo as he slept curled up in the saddle that now lied at the far end of the cave. Aang followed Katara and they sat beside the campfire, waiting for Zuko as he knelt by the pool.
"While we were being tossed like salad by that freak storm," Zuko began as he finished drying off his face, "I saw a whole bunch of little lights clustered around the far side of this island." He stood and approached the fire, sitting before its warm radiance. He held his hands before the flames letting the heat caress his sore palms and bare chest. Aang and Katara sat next to him with anxiety creeping into their faces as they waited for him to continue. Zuko gazed into the fire's hypnotizing glare. "This place is inhabited."
Aang just realized that he had nestled himself against Katara, and she against him. He could feel her hand on his arm as she looked troublingly at Zuko. He continued to stare at the flames. "Well..." Aang said, "There's not much we can do about it now. We'll have to look into it tomorrow." He stood and retreated back to where Appa was huddled on his side against the cave wall and plopped himself down on the bison's legs, wrapping himself in the creamy fur. Katara stood up and joined him, nuzzling next to his body and sharing his warmth as they both drifted off to sleep. Zuko kept watching the flames intently as he lied down next to his campfire, using his sack for a pillow. He tossed and turned, trying his hardest to fall asleep. But before he could so much as yawn he sat back up and reached into his bag. He drew out his quill and journal and started quietly scrawling some words on a blank page.
"Fire Lord's Journal: first entry continued. We were caught up in a strange storm and have crash landed on an island that may be inhabited by the abductors. We face them tomorrow. If anyone finds this journal let them know that I, Fire Lord Zuko, embarked on this journey for the good of the Fire Nation. If things don't go well, if these people find us before we find them, then...I hope the Fire Nation won't suffer because of my poor decisions. If this journal is found and I am not with it, then I am most likely deceased. Should such a thing occur, then my throne shall go to my living Uncle and his wisdom will decide how the royal line shall carry on. Spirits save the Fire Nation. Fire Lord's journal: First entry concluded."
He closed the diary and deposited it, with its quill, back into the bag. The Fire Lord lay on his side and watched the gentle glimmer of the flames, letting them lull him to sleep.
Dream? Or Nightmare?
Aang found himself floating above a deep, dark chasm. He was swallowed up in an all consuming void of inky blackness, his only companion an eerie shape drifting towards him out of the gloom. There was no light anywhere besides that which steadily emanated from the immense figure now standing before him. It towered above Aang, emitting a blinding blue light from its eyes as well as from a strange rune carved on its forehead. He was weightless. He was paralyzed. His stomach filled with dread as the silhouette reached towards him. Just when Aang thought the figure was about to seize him, small, blue electrical arcs hummed around its finger tips and danced between each digit with a menacing buzz. Small bolts of lightning jolted from its hands and connected with Aang's body, enveloping him in excruciating, throbbing pain. He felt torture. He felt ecstasy. He felt terror, awe, disgust, wonder, madness, clarity, pity, pride, anguish, joy, despair... He felt all of these sensations coursing through his body with each hysterical strand of electricity. His body twitched and writhed through the darkness as he floated above the chasm, suspended in thin air, held in the thrall of this dark, menacing, foreboding creature. In the infinitesimal span of time before he decided to cry out in pain, he looked his attacker in the face and stared into the strange rune emblazoned on its crown. It seemed to grow larger and larger, filling all of his vision and his mind, along with a strange sense of...hope. He was going to die. He screamed. "AAAAAAHHHHHHHH—
Into the Unknown
"Aang!" Katara exclaimed. "Aang!" She was shaking his torso to and fro as he moaned in agony and underwent violent spasms.
"Wha—what," Aang muttered, rousing from his episode.
"Aang! You had me worried," she said with alarm. "You were screaming in your sleep, like you were in pain."
"Oh," he began, "I had the most awful nightmare. I dreamt that there was this huge person, standing over me, electrocuting me and—"
"I thought you were over your nightmares of Fire Lord Ozai," Katara said with apprehension. She knelt beside him as he lay near Appa's feet, still caressing his shoulder with her hand.
"It wasn't Ozai," Aang confirmed. "I'm not sure who it was."
"It must have been caused by the storm then," Katara concluded. "Anybody would have bad dreams like that after nearly getting struck by lightning."
"But it wasn't a dream, or, it didn't feel like one," Aang said. "The pain, it felt so...real."
"Well, whatever it was, I'm glad that you're over it," she expressed, embracing him and planting a soft kiss on his cheek. "Well, we need to get going," she said rising to her feet. "Sokka and Zuko are waiting for us outside. Here, put this on," she instructed, handing him a simple, rough-hewn cloak.
"We're going to where Zuko spotted those lights, aren't we?" Aang asked.
"That's right," Katara responded. "Let's go." Aang threw on the sand colored cloak and in doing so discovered that the cloak was covered in actual sand.
"You can thank Sokka for that," Katara grumbled. "He used our cloaks as tarps for the tent a while back." He continued fitting the cloak to his body, grunting at the discomfort, but not complaining. He then grabbed his staff off of Appa's saddle and followed Katara out of the cave and into the bright sunlight.
"Katara, wait," Aang motioned. She halted before leaving the cave, regarding him intently. "Whatever happens out there," he said, "if we don't come make it through this one, just know that I—"
"—love you," she said, finishing his statement. "I know, but we'll be fine as long as we stick together." She smiled and made her way out of the cave.
Before he advanced after her, he turned and addressed the two creatures still occupying the deep cliff-side alcove. "Stay here guys," he said to the menagerie. "We won't be too long." The beasts gave various grunts and squeaks of farewell as Aang headed off towards the unknown.
"Finally you're here," Sokka said as Aang and Katara caught up. "What took you guys so long; you two weren't necking again were you?"
"Put a cork in it Sokka," Katara retorted. "So what's our situation?" she asked Zuko.
"There's a large headland forming the center of the island," Zuko said, pointing towards the rocky cliffs that stood before the shoreline. "That's where the lights were coming from, and if you look closely you can see the tops of a few buildings." Aang and Katara squinted, trying to see what Zuko was pointing to as Sokka shrugged and started strutting towards the cliff side.
"Okay tour guide Zuko," Sokka jested. "So what are we going to do about it, just stroll right into town, hoping to receive a warm welcome?" he said pausing in the sand.
"Basically," Zuko replied, taking the lead. "But let's be prepared. Whatever's up there, I can't imagine it'll be happy to see us." Zuko brandished his Dao Swords and re-sheathed them in the scabbard strapped to his back. The others nodded with comprehension and followed Zuko down the beach-head. Most of the cliff-side forming the headland was drenched in the shadow of early morning with only its crown touched by the orange rays of the emerging sun. They strode nervously across the sandy shore, completely quiet, listening to the steady beat of their march mixed with the gentle roar of the foaming waves. They came to a narrow path winding its way up the cliff. They proceeded cautiously as the incline was formed out of smoothly worn paving stones dotted with patches of slippery seaweed, lichens and clusters of razor sharp mussels. After laboriously scaling the steep, meandering ramp they came to a stop at its zenith and peered over the edge. They saw a large adobe wall stretched out before them. As they edged closer they could hear the sounds and detect the smells of definite human activity.
"Let me take a look," Zuko said, heading towards a set of scaffolding. He ascended the wooden ramps with a few impressively athletic bounds. Upon reaching the top of the wall he crouched and peered over its side like an alley cat getting its bearings. "Guys," he said, motioning to his companions below. "You've got to see this!"
They gave each other puzzled, nervous looks before ascending the flights of hanging thoroughfares to where Zuko was perched. As their gazes glanced over the top of the wall their faces dropped with astonishment. Spread out in front of their view was a skyline filled with multitudes of turban domes, minarets, spires and pinnacles adorning the cambered, sweeping hills of a large city. Below them was a maze of cobbled streets, alleyways and stucco rooftops, all lined in between with throngs of people and stalls bearing heaps of goods and wares. Their faces were washed in a deluge of scents, ranging from the repugnant to the tantalizingly exotic.
"Come on," Zuko urged. "This will be easy; we just have to blend in." He barreled off the side of the wall and landed gracefully in the street below. With nervous looks, they all climbed to the top of the barrier. Aang, with Katara in his embrace, alighted on a whirlwind of air. Sokka, on the other hand, rolled clumsily off the top the wall and landed in the awning of an empty stall. A sickening crash resonated around the mercifully empty alleyway. He stumbled about with the awning draped over his head like a sheet.
"AAH, AAH...let me at 'em, let me at 'em" the muffled voice screamed as it raised its dukes. Zuko palmed his forehead before yanking the awning off a blushing Sokka, dragging him in step behind the group. They rounded the alleyway corner and were soon engulfed in the bustling crowds populating the narrow streets. They suddenly felt very conspicuous in their drab, shabby cloaks as they were quickly surrounded by a veritable kaleidoscope of riotously hued fabrics and an almost equally diverse palette of skin colors. They saw individuals garbed in strange clothes from simple cloaks to elaborate robes, humble shirts to extravagant tunics as well as varieties of shawls, vests and fabulous arrays of turbans, hoods, veils, headdresses and hats of every kind and color. Every available space on the street was filled with bodies. The space above the street was occupied by a potpourri of bewitching smells wafting their way to their noses on the breeze. They could identify the tantalizing aromas of exotic spices, tangy citrus fruits, piquant curries, bitter coffees and the sweet smoke of many hookahs being puffed by small crowds of men huddling outside of cafés and bistros.
As they weaved their way through the patchwork of buzzing bazaars they could see stands and stalls overflowing with a colorful hodgepodge of goods, trinkets, ornaments, tools, toys, rugs and clothes. There were commodities and luxuries pooling over each booth, littering the ground on mats and rugs, making it hard for them to walk down the street without stepping on anything. Though they tried to keep from drawing attention to themselves, at times they couldn't resist raking their gazes over the odd assortments of curios and knick-knacks. Zuko stole a surreptitious glance at a kiosk advertising some exotic looking knives while Sokka flagrantly gawked over a stand bearing an assortment of boomerangs. Aang practically had to drag him away. They huddled together and slogged underneath the hot, noon-day sun and the sound of loquaciously clattering carts and clamoring salesmen. Seeking respite from the mayhem, they rushed to fill an unoccupied space on a street corner. Zuko had to shoo away some priestly looking people that looked at the huddled group of strangers as though they were beggars. Once they were more-or-less alone he started furtively doling out small, heavy satchels to Sokka, Katara and Aang.
"Whoa," Aang gasped, winded from his wearisome journey. "There must be thousands of people here, where did they all come from and how could they all have gotten out this far?"
"I don't know," Zuko admitted. "But we've just stumbled onto a gold mine. In places like these, any sort of information can be had for a price. That's what these purses are for."
"Right," Katara said, nodding her head as she quickly stashed the satchel under her cloak. Aang and Sokka followed suit with savvy winks.
"Good," Zuko said. "Let's split up and ask around, but be discreet. We don't want people knowing were foreigners or that were searching for abductees; it might tip off the abductors. We'll meet back here at day's end. Good luck." With that, Katara and Sokka stood up and vanished into the crowd down the main street. Zuko stole off into a secluded alley while Aang veered off into a byway.
When in Cordéiba...
Katara and Sokka drifted into a seedy tavern, figuring it was the best place to search for the types of information brokers Zuko had alluded to. Upon brushing aside the swinging doors the pair stood in silence as they were scrutinized by the seemingly offended tavern patrons. "I'll handle this," Sokka whispered to Katara. She slinked to the side of the doorway, covering her face but for a small gap in her fingers through which she glimpsed Sokka strolling gruffly up to the bar.
The bartender, eyeing him threateningly, asked, "What's your pleasure, tourist?"
"I'll take a glass of your finest, whatever your establishment specializes in," Sokka ejected brusquely, ensuring the 'toughness' in his voice carried over.
"Would you like a little umbrella with that?" the barkeep scoffed.
"Actually, yeah, that would be nice," Sokka replied. The tavern erupted from all corners with hearty laughter and fist banging before its occupants went back to their mugs, tankards and tall tales. Katara self-consciously shuffled up to the bar next to her brother as the bartender poured them some tall glasses of tonic.
"Little umbrellas, as promised," the barkeep chortled as he adorned the drinks. "And welcome to Cordéiba, strangers."
Katara blushed as Sokka took a hearty swig of his tonic and said, "Told you I'd handle it." He leaned over the bar, wearing a self-satisfied grin and a bubbly tonic moustache on his face. She picked the umbrella out of her drink and took a sip from the glass as she shifted her gaze across the dark, musty tavern. The oppressive stench of ale and cigar smoke added to her growing claustrophobia as she scanned her surroundings. The small room reverberated with laughter and lively discussion being communicated in accents that were strange to Katara's ears. She could see all sorts of men through the gloom. They were all huddled in high backed booths, illuminated by small, dim lamps and dressed in clothing as diverse and strange as that she had witnessed outside. Their outfits all had some elements of crookedness or crustiness common to them though. Her glance drifted to her right where she saw a man whose fatigues registered a different tone.
The man wore a long, deep-blue, open fronted coat over a loose fitting tunic and light-blue waistcoat. In addition he wore loose fitting trousers and tall, black leather boots. On top of his heavily bearded and mustached head he wore a blue topped fleece hat. He also carried a sheathed saber at his side and had a large cross-bow strung across his back as he leaned over the bar with staid confidence and calm poise. He seemed the soldierly type. Almost, she thought...the fatherly type. They had to start somewhere after all.
"Excuse me sir," Katara said tapping the man on his elbow.
"Yes miss, how might a humble Cossack be of service," he said politely. The stranger spoke with a thick accent, seeming to sink his teeth into his consonants.
"Well you see sir, we were looking for—"
"Say," the stranger interrupted, stroking his pointed, bushy beard. "Would you two young ones happen to be Water Tribesmen?" He pointed to the dark blue Water Tribe vestments that were poking their out of their sandy cloaks.
"Well yes," Katara began to reply. "But—"
"COMRADES!" the stranger exclaimed with glee. He flung his arms open and enveloped Katara and a stunned Sokka into a big, bone crunching hug. "The places I've been, the things I've seen, and all without a single glimpse of home has been more than I can bear," the man lamented. He broke from the hug and stood rigidly in front of the shaken Water Tribe siblings, preparing for a formal introduction. "Allow me to introduce myself," he said with a flourishing bow. "I am Alexander Seregovich Marzov, loyal soldier of the Northern Water Cossacks at your service."
"Hi!" Katara said in a feigned cheerful voice and a forced, blushing grin. "I'm Katara, and this is my brother Sokka. We're of the Southern Water Tribe from the South Pole," she said with an awkward smile.
"Hi there," Sokka said in a timid whimper. "Don't tell this guy where we live!" he whispered in Katara's ear.
"It is so good to meet you both!" he declared joyously. He then placed his hands firmly on Katara's shoulders and planted firm pecks on each of her cheeks, repeating the process with Sokka before he could skulk away. "Come comrades, we have much to talk about," the man said escorting his newfound brethren out of the bar. "We can have a discussion over a free massage, courtesy of some friends of mine at yonder bath house," he said pointing to an establishment across the street.
"Oh thank you, that's very generous," Katara said attempting to wriggle out of his grasp. "But, oh look at the time—"
"Nonsense," the Cossack responded. "There is always time for kith and kin. Come, Rasputin will treat you to a nice hopak massage."
Katara and Sokka then found themselves stretched out on tables in a hot sauna, several feet in front of the Cossack who was posited in a similar fashion. They each had towels wrapped around their heads and stretched across their backs as the room filled with dense, asphyxiating steam. "Ahhhhh," the Cossack sighed. "The sauna is very good for clear pores, clear thinking, and clear dialogue. So, tell me my friends, are their warriors in your tribe, what sort of dances do you have, have you ever tasted caravan tea, it is really good, and was that selkie-seal fur you were wearing, it looked magnificent on you, how many annual holidays does this Southern Water Tribe have?"
The two siblings could not answer his litany of questions as two other Cossacks had leapt on top of their backs and commenced a lively, hopping jig. "Oh, I ask too many questions," the man said, twisting his pointy moustache. "You must savor the muscle restoring power of hopak!" And they truly savored it as they clenched their teeth, gasped for breath and held onto the parlor table for dear life.
Aang waded through the busy harbor, struggling to take in the view of his surroundings as he was enclosed on every side by a shifting wall of passersby. Frustrated, he propelled himself to the top of a thick signpost on a bended breeze and balanced himself upon it with his staff. He was now able to absorb the entirety of surroundings. He witnessed a tessellating mosaic of sailors, dock masters, merchants, peddlers, laborers and beasts of burden. He saw a labyrinth of jetties, wharfs, peers and quays, sprawling across the bay like the parched roots of a banyan tree. There wasn't a single spit of naked dock; every inch of available space was occupied by strange ships of types that he had never seen before. Working underneath the patchwork quilt of sails and in-between the pincushions of masts were sailors unloading exotic cargoes of spices, fabrics, woods, jars of scented oils and perfumes, bundles of ivory tusks, and pelts once belonging to bizarre animals. A menagerie of equally bizarre living animals was carrying these goods to and from the port. There were gnarly looking Gnu-raffes carrying cords of wood and baskets of grain alongside stumpy, spiny Echidna-rhinos bearing loads of metal ingots or marble slabs. Rolling between their legs were small flocks of excitable Pangolin-lizards, each one curling into a tight wheel for locomotion.
He was daunted by the sheer scale of this spectacle. "How am I supposed to find an informant in this mess?" he thought to himself as he slumped down on top of the guidepost. "I came here thinking this was the best place to find people with news from abroad, but it'll take forever to ask everyone in this port! " Just as his spirits were beginning to sink they were buoyed again by what he saw on a far pier. Mooring itself on the dock was a ship with large blue arrows emblazoned on its sails. "Blue arrows? Could they be...Air Nomads?!" Aang's heart welled up with an effervescent giddiness as he hopped of the signpost and bended an air scooter beneath himself. He dashed off in the direction of the ship, blithely unaware of the bedlam that ensued in his wake. As he sped and hopped through the teeming crowds of workers he knocked over precariously stacked piles of goods, tripped bewildered laborers carrying absurdly heavy loads and scared large pack animals that stampeded off to cause more damage. He hurriedly hopped over the intermittent waterways and over the heads of panicked pedestrians who issued lists of profane curses in their consternation. "Whoops," Aang remarked, remembering that he possessed a glider. He quickly dismounted his swirling cushion of air and extended the wings of his glider-staff mid-flight.
Soaring through the sky, Aang spotted his destination and swooped down onto the deck of the ship amidst a crowd of its surprised occupants. "Umm...excuse me," Aang said. "But would any of you happen to be Air Nomads?" The ship's crew gazed in curiosity at their new, bald visitor. They were all dark skinned and wore orange hued robes and hoods fixed firmly to their heads by cotton bands. Each band was extolled with a familiar looking downward pointing blue arrow.
"We are indeed," one of the crewmen responded, "as you are, I see." A tall, wispily bearded man stepped forward out of the congregation. He spoke in a light, airy accent that rang with warmth and cheer. He bowed deeply to Aang with his companions following in imitation. "I am Yaffur Abdullah, the captain of this vessel, and these are my crewmates," the man said gesturing towards his entourage. "And you would be?" the man asked.
"Aang," the monk replied.
"Well it is nice to greet you young Aang, and might I say, that was an impressive display you performed with that glider," the man said, pointing to Aang's staff.
"Thanks," Aang said. He smiled along with the crew, as though he had finally found family in these long lost relatives of his. "I'm so glad to see other Air Nomads. I thought I was one of the last ones, but it warms my heart to know that some of our culture has survived."
"Undeniably," the man said. "Our culture has indeed lived on; our philosophy has allowed our society to survive by wandering on the waves of the never-ending sea and to make a living off of trade and commerce," the hooded man said with a wide smile.
"Wait, what?" Aang said, his expression of excitement shifting to one of perplexity. "Trade, commerce, what do you mean?"
"That is the one of the central tenets of our philosophy, the reason we bear the mark of the Air Nomads," the man explained. "It represents the power and grace of the four winds, the mighty currents that fill our sails and guide us towards prosperity and plenty."
"What!" Aang exclaimed incredulously. "No offense, but that isn't what the original philosophy of the Air Nomads is about at all."
"Oh?" the man queried, stroking his forked beard.
"No. I was taught that this arrow symbolized a philosophy of freedom and detachment from worldly concerns, concerns such as material wealth and profit," Aang responded indignantly.
"Well, that is curious," the man said, continuing to stroke his beard.
"What! What's curious?!" Aang snapped in irritated puzzlement.
"I do not see a trademark stamp on that little arrow of yours," he said pointing to Aang's tattooed forehead. The captain and all of his crew let out hearty chuckles as Aang's face turned a deep shade of crimson. Before he could enter the Avatar State from infuriation he zoomed up into the air on his glider, leaving the crew of the merchant ship guffawing merrily.
Zuko shuffled down the side of a crowded street that wove its way through a complex of ghettoes, shanty towns and hovels. The hood of his cloak was raised. He tried to look inconspicuous against the back drop of shabby buildings garnished in graffiti and unkempt streets covered in litter. He knew the poorer sections of the city would be the best place to look for an informant. The backwaters usually harbored the greater share of criminals and malcontents, those willing to part with valuable information for any price. As he peered out from under his hood he could see a crowd accumulating next to a makeshift stage set up against the side of a tavern on the other side of the street. He approached curiously, yet cautiously. He shifted his glance from left to right, taking in a mostly male crowd filled with very haggard and weary looking individuals. Deciding that it was a waste of time, Zuko began weaving his way through the huddle of men when he saw an ornately costumed man jump out on stage.
"Welcome gentlemen!" the man exclaimed merrily. "Gather around, gather around!" he shouted, beckoning to the crowds. Zuko found himself pressed in tighter and saw his chances of escape diminish. The announcer on stage kept beckoning to onlookers on the street with grand gesticulations. The man was garbed in flamboyant robes, boisterous collars and puffy sleeves, all of various shades of bright red, yellow and orange. What skin Zuko could see poking out from his riotous adornments was colored a dark tint. "Come one, come all!" the stage master declared with a flourish of his hand. "Gorge your eyes on the loveliest sights in all of Cordéiba!" Zuko grew increasingly tense as he was shoved on all sides by the excited spectators. He became bathed in body heat and eventually couldn't tell what sweat belonged to him or his neighbors. "Gentlemen!" the announcer invoked, "I give you...the Dancing Fire Gypsies!"
The curtains on-stage peeled back revealing three dark skinned, scantily clad girls. With voluptuous grace they skipped out on stage and danced to the rhythm of a vulgar tune that emanated from beneath the platform. Each dancer wildly swayed their hips to the beat of the music, with each gyration of their waists whipping the gathering into a conflagration of cheers and whistles. The prancing vixens then paused and flourished their hands, producing wisps of smoke, cascades of multicolored sparks and tongs of bright orange flames from their fingertips. The audience gaped with amazement as the streams of fire began dancing along with the frolicking stage girls, morphing into showers of flowers, fluttering flocks of butterflies and herds of flouncing animals. Zuko could barely hear or see anything over the jubilant hollering, whooping and whistling of the ecstatic crowd. He hurriedly squirmed his way towards the edge of the congregation of onlookers, desperately cleaving his way out. He had to find his way out! Upon reaching the edge of the swirling sea of male hormones he stumbled and fell onto the cobbled street in front of the stage.
Looking up, he saw one of the dancers eyeing him mischievously. She tapped her thigh with her tambourine with a shimmy of her hips and a teasing wink from her twinkling eye. Zuko's sweaty cheeks blushed as he covered his face with his hood and scrambled off down the street, tripping and stumbling as he went. Seeing her friend depart with such haste, she continued dancing; though halfheartedly and with a slight mope. When the finale came and the dancers shot streams of bright, colorful flames about the stage, she was too distracted to notice that she had set a bystander's turban on fire.
Seeing no reason not to, the two furry monsters strolled on into town. The now empty city streets gave a generous berth to Appa's generous girth. He moseyed his way down the promenades when he eyed a large wagon, filled to the brim with ruby red turnips. Tongue lolling, he ambled off towards his prize when a shrieking voice echoed its way down the deserted street.
"Momma Mía!!! My Turnips!!!" A stubby, bushy bearded turnip merchant came scurrying down the road and flung himself in front of his precious produce. "Shoo, Shoo you vile monster!" the merchant squeaked. "You shall not lay hide or hair on my turnips!" Ignoring the squawking salesman, the bison started munching merrily on his newfound snack. The merchant issued more hysterical cries of protest and bounced around the massive creature's feet. He began to wail as he begged and pleaded for the beast to halt its voracious repast. It was like a lone sparrow-keet was trying to mob a majestic eagle-hawk.
Meanwhile, from down the street, Momo was raiding a bakery. He sailed out of the shop window with a baguette in his grasp as he was being chased by an outraged constable. "Hyeww misraayble varmaint!!!" the constable cried as he pursued the bread stealing lemur. He chased the creature in circles, the coattails of his uniform swinging behind him. He struggled to sprint after his quarry without knocking the tall, floppy bicorn hat off his head. "Yeww cannot ruun from me, I am ze laaaaaw!!!" The constable eventually grew tired and stopped to catch his breath. Panting, the officer shouted after the lemur, "Oweyr leetle chaase shall never aynd François!! I zhall peyrsue yeww for ze rest of my lyfe or my nayme is not—♫JAAAAVIEEEEEE♫—Ooophh" The exasperated constable was unable to finish his rant as he was being swept up into a stampede of frenzied warthog-water buffaloes. The streets were empty for a reason.
Katara and Sokka sat glumly on the street corner, haggard and sore from their ordeal. Zuko plodded dolefully towards them in the empty square. Katara ventured, "What did you—?"
"Nothing!" Zuko shot back immediately. "Absolutely nothing!" The late afternoon sun was beginning to darken the sky. Against it, they could see Aang descending towards them on his glider.
"Did anyone find anything?" Aang asked as he alighted and twirled his glider back into a staff. "I must have asked dozens of merchants and sailors if they saw anything weird. They did see weird stuff, REALLY weird stuff, but not the sort we're looking for."
"We were too busy being beaten to death by kith and kin!" Sokka griped, mocking their acquaintance's accent. Katara leaned next to him and gave out a short, faint groan.
"Well," Zuko began. "I wasted my gold bribing this peddler to tell me where to find the underground network here, but...there is none."
"How is that possible?" Sokka said, "This place has got to have a black market."
"I know," Zuko replied, "But I checked the catacombs and alleys of half this island myself. There hasn't been smuggling or slave trading here for years. This port is run by a man called the Arbiter from what I hear. Whoever he is, he does a good job with security."
"We'll just have to try again tomorrow," Katara sighed. "Let's go back to the cave."
"Ugh, I'm too exhausted to travel that far," Sokka grumbled. "Do we have any money left to pay for an inn?"
"I spent all of mine on supplies," Aang responded, patting his shoulder bag. "If this all were going to find here, we'll need them for when we leave."
"We still have some cash," Katara said holding out her half empty satchel. "We spent most of it getting away from our little friend, but there should be enough to buy us a few nights."
"Then it's settled," Sokka said. "And it'll be easier finding a place to stay now that the streets are empty."
"Yeah, why is that?" Aang said. "These streets have been crowded all day, why are they abandoned now?" The answer to Aang's question came rushing around the corner down the road. They could hear the rumble of many thundering hooves coming from down the lane but could only see a dust cloud pursuing a group of merrily whooping and 'ye-haw'ing men. They turned tail and ran down the road as the herd of wild beasts and excited merrymakers gained on their heels. From the sides of the street they could see cheering crowds of people behind fenced barricades, whistling and rooting for the runners or taunting the angry warthog-buffaloes. As they rounded an avenue they could see a large hairy monster blocking their way.
"Aapa! Get out of here!" Aang shouted. The bison reared on his back legs and gave a frightened roar as the herd of gnarly beasts came rushing towards him. The warthog-buffaloes gave out panicked grunts and squeals as they slipped and slid on the smooth cobblestone and veered off into the byways and alleys. Scrambling, the crusty creatures leaped and scampered over the wooden palisades and into the crowds of terrified people behind them. Aang, Katara, Zuko and Sokka stood in the street with the now frightened roisterers and could hear loud screams and crashes echoing off in the distance. The suntanned men scowled at Appa and the group of foreigners giving them awkward, apologetic grins.
Just then, a group of ornately dressed soldiers and guardsmen surrounded the group and fenced them in with a wall of pikes, cross-staves and bayoneted rifles. "You there, foreigners!" one of the guards said. "You're coming with us," he commanded, "The Arbiter wishes to speak with you."
They followed dismally behind their captors as they marched through the squares and avenues towards the center of the city. The flamboyantly outfitted Janissaries kept in perfect cadence, their red silk robes and headdresses swaying with each step. Momo would have had a gala batting at the finials of their costumes had he not been locked in a cage being carried by one of the guards. Appa would have crushed them all flat with his tail had he not been restrained by the soldiers now leading him from the rear of their formation. As they got closer to the city's interior the buildings became more grand and elaborate. They passed under majestic arches and vaults and crossed over ornate bridges and canals. But their sightseeing was cut short as their escorts quickened their pace towards a magnificent palace complex that perched itself on top of the hill overlooking the city. The procession halted in front of a large, lavishly designed wrought iron gate that led into a spectacular courtyard furnished with bubbling fountains, lush gardens and luxurious pavilions.
"The Arbiter is waiting for you in the main hall," one of the Janissaries said, "Don't keep him waiting." The soldiers brandished their weapons, barring them from any alternatives. The companions looked at each other with dread and taking deep gulps proceeded into the courtyard, leaving Appa and Momo behind.
As they walked across the splendid thoroughfares towards the large building, Sokka whispered and nudged Zuko in the side. "Why are we doing this? We can take these guys in a fight easily," he said whipping out his boomerang.
"We came here looking for answers," Zuko replied. "We just might get the information we need from this Arbiter, whoever he is." Sokka sheathed his boomerang and trooped glumly after his friends as they approached the grandiose palace doors.
"Well, here goes nothing," Aang said as he pushed open the doors with a loud creak. Zuko and Aang took the lead into the dark, shadowy hall. Their footsteps echoed poignantly across the gleaming, white marble floors as they continued guardedly through the room. Attempting to absorb their surroundings in the light starved hallway, they could barely observe the tall ceilings, arches, vaults and walls inlaid with pearly, ceramic tiles, traceries of elegant gold calligraphy, painted black stucco and a dizzying array of geometric patterns and tessellations. Each opulent embellishment, crafted with the intent to enthrall and amaze, went without notice by the visitors. They were far more intrigued, and a bit frightened, by what lay towards the halls termination.
Standing on an imposing marble dais at the head of the hall was the silhouette of a tall man, defined by the sunlight streaming through a mullioned window behind him. He carried on a hushed conversation with several other obscured figures that almost groveled beneath him on the floor. They could hear several harsh hisses bombarding the hunched men, with only sheepish murmurs of response. The tall figure emitted a quick "excuse me" before turning to regard the newcomers. He spoke.
"My intrepid guests..." the shadowy sentinel placidly intoned. "Welcome to Cordéiba." The voice spoke with a soft, smoothly flowing intonation that carried subtle hints of erudition. Its sonorous, baritone key would almost have sounded soothing if its owner's emerging face didn't look so stern and austere. In a long, protracted pause, the Arbiter quickly examined them all from head to toe, his invasive stare seeming to judge them just as expeditiously. Sokka started to shift in place nervously as the man's steely gray eyes bored into his skull. Katara regarded the figure with a bemused glance. Zuko stood unwavering against his gaze. Aang looked upon the man with unease beginning to tie knots in his chest. He seemed...familiar.
"You are all simply astonishing," the man said with affectation. "Never before has our annual running of the warthog-buffalo exacted so much damage. And yet, you have brought something even more deleterious into my humble port..."
"Does anyone have a dictionary?" Sokka whispered.
"...You're snooping," the figure growled. Just then, the two other figures turned around and faced their visitors. Aang recognized the Air Nomad merchant while Sokka and Katara flinched at seeing their Cossack friend standing before them. The two men squirmed awkwardly and looked at the shaded man with expectant glances. "You are dismissed," he mandated. They quickly skittered out of the room, leaving the shadowy shape alone with his guests. "Your presence here has caused me a great deal of trouble."
"Forgive me for interrupting, sir," Zuko rejoined. "But we did not come here to be chided." The Arbiter's steely gray eyes shot a quick chagrined glance at the audacious retort. But as the Arbiter saw the gleaming confidence in Zuko's amber eyes, he began to regard the young leader with interest. "I am Zuko, lord of the Fire Nation and this," he said motioning towards Aang, "is the Avatar, Aang, with his friends Sokka and Katara." The man's irritancy seemed to fade as he descended the platform's steps towards his visitors."Well met," he said with new found politeness. "I am the Arbiter; prefect of Cordéiba, at your service." As he reached the bottom step, his form could be seen in greater detail. The light skinned man wore long, dark hair with braided sideburns while his stalwart face was framed by a dark goatee. He donned a steel-studded leather jerkin and was trailed by a grey, fur napped cape that was fastened to his broad shoulders by a silver draconian brooch. On his neck, he wore a silver torque. Despite the stranger's civility, Aang broke out into a cold sweat upon witnessing a strange rune inscribed on the man's forehead; a bright blue triadic knot. His heart now relentlessly pummeled his throat as the man spoke to Zuko.
"I realize that the former was an accident," he went on, "but your prying is all for naught. As I understand, you are all here searching for your missing compatriots. Am I correct?"
"They were abducted," Zuko corrected him. "And the people who did it came this way. That's what brought us here."
"I have labored extensively to ensure that this port is free of pirates and other scum-of-the-earth. You," he said looking at Zuko, "Have seen that for yourself."
"Even so," Zuko continued, "the culprits could still be hiding somewhere near here. We humbly ask for your aid in finding our stolen comrades." The man's eyes darted contritely to his lower left and returned to meet Zuko's with ill news.
"There is little I can do for your friends that does not overstep my boundaries as prefect," the man said solemnly. "All of my responsibilities lie here. I am truly sorry."
"You're sorry?" Katara said with her voice staggering in disbelief. "Innocent people are in danger and all you can do is stand here and say you're sorry?!" Sokka stood firmly beside Katara while Zuko shifted uncomfortably, hoping this wouldn't end badly. Aang stood as stiffly as a board, his skin pale and his eyes sharing Zuko's sentiments.
"What would you have me do?" the man questioned with returning aggravation.
"Step over some boundaries. Do something; anything besides standing here and doing nothing while people suffer!" Katara was standing directly in front of the tall man, meeting his furrowed brow with an angry scowl.
"I do intend to do something," the Arbiter said. "I intend to give you all good lodgings and fresh supplies so you will be prepared for your journey home. Allow my cleric friends to escort you to your room." From the side doors of the hall emerged a troop of men clad in shining plate-mail armor. Each man wore a tabard emblazoned with an emblem resembling a fierce gray dragon. The armored men surrounded them and patiently waited for their stir. "Before you go, heed my words," he commanded, pointing an imperious finger at them. Katara looked lividly past his digit. The man stood nonchalantly against her riptide of rage, simply staring back at her ferocious eyes and flaring nostrils. To her fury filled stare, his stoicism only represented arrogance. "Leave Cordéiba. Return from whence you all came. Nothing lies beyond this port besides an endless ocean that not even your flying yak can traverse." He started back up the steps of the dais. With a tone of finality and a broad sweep of his hand he said, "Go home."
Katara begrudgingly relented and followed one of the beckoning Clerics with Sokka beside her. Zuko awkwardly traipsed out behind them with Aang following. He couldn't help but feel relieved as he was escorted away from the domineering room and its intimidating master. But his relief was replaced by confusion as he saw another man enter the room. He wore a tall, tapered black hat wrapped around his head with a turban. His wiry frame was covered in long, blue, flowing robes that were adorned with strange symbols and runes. The old man strode into the room carrying a stack of scrolls and a prodigious gray beard that he wore tucked into a silken sash. The old man caught one wide eyed glimpse of Aang before he hurried up the steps towards the Arbiter. He could hear them engaging in a heated argument but could not discern the exchange as he left the room with the hall doors clanging ominously behind him.
"Ugh, what a jerk!" Katara said, flinging herself on a sofa-bed. They all strode into the spacious room, enchantingly decorated with red, purple and gold silks and wafted with sweet perfumes. It had apparently once been a harem. Aang and Sokka sunk into some of the many plush cushions and shams that littered the floor while Zuko turned and regarded one of the Clerics.
"If there's anything you need," the Cleric said behind his visor, "just—" Zuko slammed the door in his face. "Ouch," they could hear behind the carved wooden portal.
"They don't look much like monks to me," Aang mumbled sullenly.
"That's it, that's all you can say," Sokka erupted, "after some guy with a badger-mole devouring his head grounded us and sent us to our room like a couple of kids!"
"Yeah Aang," Katara said leaning against the arms of the sofa. "You didn't say a word the whole time we were in there. You just stood there, looking nervous." Aang shifted himself in his cushion while Zuko was stalking the length of the room, rubbing his chin pensively. "What's wrong?" she inquired with a concerned look.
Aang turned towards Katara and said, "He's the one I saw in my vision last night." Her eyebrows jumped up on her forehead and Sokka shot up out of his cushion.
"That explains it!" he exclaimed with a hysterical smile as though he were having an epiphany. "This dude is evil! All we have to do now is charge in there, kick his butt off that throne and interrogate him! It's brilliant!"
"Shhhhh!!!!" Zuko hushed, covering Sokka's mouth with his palm. "He could be listening to us!" he said in a whisper. Zuko released his grip and Sokka slouched dispiritedly back into his cushion. "And besides," Zuko added, "he never actually sat on that throne."
"How is that important?" Katara asked.
"Well," Zuko started, "nothing here seems to fit. This place looks like it once belonged to some royal family, but now it seems more like a barracks. Their militant dress doesn't seem to match the opulence of the palace either."
"That guy's language sure did," Sokka remarked.
"And like Aang said," Zuko continued, "those 'Clerics' are definitely not priests. They remind me more of soldiers or drones than of religious men. And just the way they act and talk... it's almost like they're...faceless." All of their eyes widened. He turned towards his companions, shifting his eyes across the room. "But...I guess there's nothing we can do about it," he said with a wink from his scarred eye.
It was the dead of night. An eerie blue light filtered in through the harem window. Standing before the glowing panes of glass was a lithe figure, its toned curves starkly silhouetted against the silvery light of the moon. The harem door slowly creaked open and the form whirled around, brandishing two cruelly curved swords.
"Zuko?" Sokka whispered, peering into the room. "Whoa! Sorry, I'm still not used to seeing you all stealth mode like that."
"What is it Sokka?!" Zuko growled. "Why aren't you waiting for my signal like the others?"
"I just wanted to say...sorry for that incident before, uh... you know, when climbing over the wall." Sokka rubbed the back of his neck and looked dejectedly at the carpet as he went on. "And...that thing a few hours earlier...sometimes... ugh—"
"Spit it out," Zuko pressed. He didn't have time for this.
"Sometimes... I just don't know when to shut up."
"Okay...how is that important right now?" Zuko demanded.
"It's just," Sokka began, "...never mind, forget it."
"Whatever...just...go back and wait with Aang and Katara like we planned."
"Alright," Sokka murmured morosely as he ducked out of the room.
"Ugh," Zuko groaned. He pried open the window pane and slid stealthily onto the ledge and into the night, enveloping himself in the cool breezes of the sea. Below him he could see the city streets illuminated with the pale glow of torchlight, and off in the distance could glimpse the silvery moon reflected in the ocean waves. Catlike, he crawled and slinked his way across ledges and precipices, finally arriving at the roof of a courtyard in the center of the palace. He crawled across the terra-cotta tiled roof noiselessly, edging towards the lip of the atrium. In the courtyard, he could see a large bronze statue sitting atop a gushing fountain and the cloaked figure of the Arbiter kneeled on one leg in front of it. He heard him murmuring something under his breath, almost like a chant or prayer. Zuko paused for a moment, watching silently as the man bowed his head before the icon. As much respect as he wanted to have for this stranger's religion, his recent impression of this authoritarian figure left a bitter taste in his mouth. He could see Aang, Katara and Sokka each hidden behind a column at the far side of the courtyard, poised for action. He tensed his muscles, crouching and gaining leverage for a great leap.
Suddenly, the man whipped away from the statue, muttering curses and flailing his arms. The abruptness of the motion startled Zuko and nearly sent him toppling over the eaves. The Arbiter continued pacing agitatedly around the square; too busy pantomiming with frustration to notice the flabbergasted black blob wobbling on the rooftop behind him. Zuko regained his footing while just barely regaining his poise. "Is this guy insane?" he thought. Then, the Arbiter pointed at the effigy and directed all his anger towards it, seemingly out through his fingertip and into the bronze figure's brow. Confused, Zuko glanced up at the sentinel. The features of the blackish brown colossus were just fleshed out enough by the pale moon for Zuko to distinguish a heavily crowned, furrowed brow donning the statue's face. It seemed to look down upon the animated little dwarf remonstrating at it with a somber disappointment. The Arbiter continued railing against it as though he was fervidly arguing with the tall heap of metal.
Zuko understood. He pictured himself standing before paintings and murals of Fire Lord Ozai, arguing with the portraits as though with the man they portrayed. He remembered all the things he wanted to say to his father, but couldn't before that fateful day; the day of Black Sun. In the interim, the only thing he could ever talk to was a colored sheet of paper with a condemning scowl. "Is this his father?" he thought, gazing at the monument. He shook his head rigidly, dispelling his pity and empathy, banishing it completely as he drew his Dao swords. He couldn't let sentiment stand in the way. He had a mission to accomplish. His people were counting on him.
After recovering from the initial shock of the man's explosive outburst, Katara minimized herself against the bronze plated pillar listening intently to the Arbiter's rant.
"Some foreigners just drop out of the blinking blue on the back of a flying yak and threaten to undo all my years of hard work, and what do you do?! You just sit here, all prim and pretty on your pedestal as always you fat, stupid lump of clay! They're probably skulking about as we speak! Or ... I speak...gagh!" The livid man dashed his hands into the water of the fountain, sprinkling the base of the statue and the edge of Katara's hiding place with droplets of water.
She stole surreptitious glance around the stone column, attempting to discern more from this man's curious conversation. "Where are you?" he moaned, a sorrowful frustration leaking out of his panging throat. Katara saw his face begin to contort with longing, lines of distress etching their way through his face. "I'm here every night performing this damned invocation ritual and you stand silent. Why? You're supposed to be my guide...I need your strength..." He turned and slumped on the ledge of the fountain, hunching himself over the water. "...Because mine is failing." She shifted her gaze towards the object of his lamentations. She could see now the full features of the statue, highlighted by the moon. She could see its gaunt, broad face, molded with a flowing curtain of a beard and a mane of thick hair. Below its head stood a broad, sturdy frame along with a set of strong shoulders and two hands clutching a resting sword with confidence and assuredness.
The more she gazed at the stolid figure, the more it began to resemble her father. She remembered how he would once lift her young self up into the air and swing her around his head with joy at having returned home from a long tiger-seal hunt. She remembered giggling and squealing with delight as her father kissed her cheek and pressed his prickly stubble against her soft, ticklish cheeks. She remembered being held tightly in his arms, feeling safe and secure, as though for a moment all her confusion and fear melted in the warmth of his embrace. She then looked back up at the statue as it stood coldly in the night, casting a stern, reserved glance at the harrowed man below him. She knew the feeling that was beginning to creep into his haggard heart; the sensation of absence and abandonment. A feeling she knew from years of being apart from her father during the war; a feeling she had known for months of being apart from Aang. But she could not give in to sympathy; not this time. There were people that needed her. She stood quietly in the shadows, awaiting Zuko's signal.
Meanwhile, Aang and Sokka had also eavesdropped on the Arbiter's conversation with the metal memorial. They peered at the sullen man, wondering if he saw something in his reflection that they would recognize; the visage of a failure. But they had little time to reflect on this as they saw Zuko and Katara tensing up for the strike. It was time.
He drew a quiet breath and tensed his muscles for the coming fray. "This is it," Zuko thought. "One mistake and I, along with a lot of other people, could end up dead." He shut his eyes, bowed his head and made a quiet plea to the spirits, begging them for good luck. His lids shot open, revealing determined amber eyes, gleaming with fire as he leaped into the air. "NOW!"
The others whipped out from hiding as Zuko landed and dashed towards the center of the square. Before the Arbiter could as much as flinch, he was encased in a mound of earth and had a Dao sword pressed against his throat. "We know you've been behind the kidnappings," Zuko said. "Where are they?"
"I assure you, I have done no such thing," the Arbiter calmly replied. He just sat there, enduring the anger filled stares of his captors without a struggle or even a stir.
"Then why were you so hostile to our investigations?" Zuko demanded.
The detained man paused before answering grimly, "If you knew, then you would be flying back home on your yak as fast as he could carry you."
Then, suddenly, a deep rumble issued from the ground beneath them. It began to tremble and crack as several huge roots shot out of the ground like inverted lightning and pried the arbiter out of his earthen prison. He perched himself on one of the gargantuan roots and with a wave of his hand lofted himself into the sky. Standing boldly against the moonlight on his tall pedestal of wood, he shifted his weight and swung his harms, willing the other roots to thrash against the ground and fling his opponents to and fro across the courtyard. Aang frantically dodged each bristling tendril, zooming through the air on his glider. Katara bended whips of icy water out of the fountain and vehemently sliced at each grasping tentacle. Sokka and Zuko dodged each wooden whip and bounded across the courtyard, trying not to get strangled by the alien vines. The Arbiter continued gesturing on top of his platform; leaping, twisting, twirling and swinging his weight back and forth as though he were engaged in a bizarre dance with nature. With each fling of his arm or kick of his leg, a root sailed through the air towards his adversaries.
As his friends battled relentlessly against the rampaging roots, Sokka dove off behind one of the pillars. The slashing creepers now seemed preoccupied with his element bending allies. Perfect. He whipped out his boomerang and held it out from his body, aiming it towards the man who was dancing high up on his roost. Achieving a perfect angle, Sokka threw his projectile with all his might, sending it careening towards its target. But just as the boomerang was about to hit its mark, the weapon froze in mid-air. So too did the Arbiter stay his movements. The roots began to slow their squirming and for a moment all seemed still. Then, with a flick of his wrist, the Arbiter sent the suspended boomerang flying back to its master, hitting an astonished Sokka on the forehead and knocking him unconscious.
"He's a metal-bender!" Zuko shouted with urgency. Hearing this, the three remaining combatants hurled waves of water, torrents of flame and shards of earth with renewed vigor and fury. In little time at all, the roots were shred to pieces. Before the Arbiter could generate new ones, he was knocked off his purchase by a gust of Aang's bended air. After he tumbled to the ground, the Arbiter staggered and struggled to lift himself to his feet. Before he could revive himself he was confronted by the three benders crouching before him. "Give up!" Zuko commanded.
"If only I had..." the Arbiter wheezed, "...the luxury to." With a great heave, he morphed his arms into long tendrils and flung himself at his enemies. With their surprise, he was able to whip the combatants about and thrust them apart. But, suffering from fatigue, he was quickly pushed back.
"He's made it clear that he's not going to stop and it won't be long before his friends come to his rescue," Zuko thought. "I have to finish this now." He streamed his forefingers through the air, creating queues of blue, humming electricity behind them. His fingertips crackled as they released a brilliant blue light that gave pause to the fight and moved the combatants to shield their eyes from its harsh glare. Battered, beleaguered and surrounded by his enemies, the Arbiter could only press himself to the side of the fountain and brace himself for the onslaught. With a sharp motion, Zuko brought his hands to bear in the Arbiter's direction and released a slithering stream of pure power. The man disappeared behind a blinding flash and a deafening clap of thunder that carried them all off their feet.
For a brief moment, silence returned. There was only the light of the moon casting a dark veil around the court and the gurgling of the fountain echoing off the palace walls. The stunned warriors awoke from their brief daze, rubbed their eyes and let their wits reacquaint themselves with the dim quiet. A dumbfounding sight greeted their returning senses. Standing serenely before the moonlit sky was the imperious, shadowy form of the Arbiter. The three benders quickly recovered their stances and tensed for another strike from the silent man. Instead of a movement or blow, a steady sonorous hum emerged from his deep, resonating voice.
It reverberated through the air, the stone, the ground, and their very bodies. The sound was hypnotizing, enchanting; chilling. It sent a shudder through their spines as they hesitantly awaited the man's next move. Suddenly, the Arbiter's eyes darted open, revealing glowing blue orbs of light that filled the courtyard with a haunting radiance. His tattoo glowed likewise as he widened his stance and streamed his hands through the air, electrical arcs dancing between his outstretched fingertips. Barely before Zuko had time to react, the Arbiter ceased his humming and sent fierce streams of formidable lightning shooting towards him. Zuko winced and gritted his teeth, tensing his legs and back, trying desperately to direct the energy through his stomach and away from his heart. He then redirected the electricity through his fingertips and back at the Arbiter, managing only to strike his outstretched palm and create a circuit of ferocious energy.
They both stood locked in this coursing link of lightning as Aang and Katara looked on in awe. Zuko and the Arbiter strained against each other's power, squinting against the dazzling light. All around their sliding feet writhed tertiary bolts of electricity, frolicking at their sides as they slowly lost their grip on the surging bond of energy. But then, a great ball of flame erupted between them, abruptly breaking their circuit and bathing the previously blue courtyard in a warm, orange glow. Zuko and the Arbiter collapsed to their knees, wheezing and huffing with exhaustion at having been delivered from the threshold of cardiac arrest. Aang and Katara rushed to Zuko's side while two new visitors rushed into the courtyard. As Katara was busy healing Zuko, Aang could see that one of the figures was the blue robed old man, rushing to the Arbiter's side. The other figure stood between them, shrouded in a cloak. He removed his hood as he calmly approached the scene, revealing his full face in the moonlight.
"Uncle?!" Zuko gasped.
"Grandmaster Iroh?" the Arbiter uttered. "What brings you here?"
Iroh poured a stream of hot Jasmine tea into several shallow cups that were laid out on a finely carved table. He had completed his sixth and was moving on to the final when the Arbiter held out his palm.
"Oh, no thank you," the Arbiter refused politely. "I'm not a tea person."
"You westerners sure are strange," the old man chuckled with a wide grin. "'Not a tea person', who had ever heard of such a thing!" He replaced the tea kettle on its harness in the fire of a glowing hearth that bathed the cheerfully decorated parlor with a warm light.
"No sir," the Arbiter said with a half-smile. "I prefer stronger liquids." He reached under the table and drew out a bottle of caramel colored fluid and poured a small dose into a snifter. "Brandy?" he offered. Bruised and battered, Aang, Katara, Zuko and Sokka sat stiffly in a wing-backed leather sofa, glaring at him with murder in their eyes. "You gave me headache," he mumbled facetiously as he downed the liquor. Iroh looked at them all and a wide grin started crossing his face. He sniggered, trying to hold in his amusement until it burst out and he almost started crying with laughter. They all looked at him with expressions varying from crossness or bewilderment to concern for the guffawing geezer's health.
"Ho, ho, hrm, oh, I'm so sorry," the cheery old man apologized. "It's just, this whole situation we find ourselves in, it's all just...ahh," the old man sighed from the effort of containing his humor. "It's just that life really has a way of putting us in these sorts of situations; instances that seem confusing and upsetting, but you just can't help but laugh when you stand back and take it all in." With his words, the companions couldn't help but grin or wheeze a bit. A half-smile even managed to creep across the Arbiter's face. The mood overall rose to reflect the lighthearted embellishment of the room.
"What has transpired here is no laughing matter!" a deep, haggard voice declared from the corner of the room. Sitting in a shadowy cleft near the mantle-piece was the old man that Aang had seen before. The gaunt old creature rose from the shadows. Standing nearly as tall as the ceiling with his pointed hat, he drifted towards the center of the room, his dark, starry robes creating a space-like void in the warm comfort of the lounge. He wafted his wispy, ringed hands towards the group, revealing the only bit of his wiry frame that tapered out from his robe bolstered form. "Had you not arrived when you did, Grandmaster Iroh, these two," he said pointing a bony finger at Zuko and the Arbiter, "would have murdered each other, leaving a horrible mess to tarnish one of our most cherished historical monuments." The companions looked at him in darkened surprise, while the Arbiter widened his grin and Iroh chuckled.
"Always the dramatist Archmage Emrys," Iroh said mirthfully. "But don't be too hard on them. I remember the first time when I visited Cordéiba as a White Lotus Acolyte. I was so bewildered. The only center I could find to latch on to was the city's exotic selection of tea, and your knowledge of this world Master Mage," he said with a bow to the wizened old man. With only a slight raise of his eyebrow the wizard folded back his robe and sash so he could sit stiffly upon an ottoman before the table. "Perhaps our guests could use some of your knowledge; it might do well to settle their frayed nerves as, I'm afraid, tea has not done the trick."
"Very well," the mage relented with a blasé tone. He fumbled and fished around under the table until he procured an antique wooden box, engraved with cartographical symbols and meridians. He pried the container open, extracting various scrolls of parchment, measuring instruments, writing utensils, quills and inkwells.
Sokka groaned nervously at the erudite paraphernalia before Iroh leaned in and whispered in his ear. "Don't worry; Archmage Emrys' storytelling arts are legendary around these parts. You're in for a treat."
"Let us begin," the mage said, snapping his fingers. Within an instant, all the candles in the room capped themselves and a large metal grate slid itself over the fire. They all sat in darkness, a stunned silence coming over the four companions. They could hear the deep, grave voice of the magician emerge from the darkness, seeming to originate from nowhere and everywhere at once. It was without an echo; simply omnipresent. "The Brotherhood of the Draconian Clerics, the Order of the White Lotus, and your host, the Arbiter, have worked together for many years to maintain one of the best kept secrets in history. You have just stepped over the threshold of a new world."
From all around them emerged multitudes of bright, twinkling lights; the coronas of thousands of stars. Swirling from the ceiling to the floor were clouds of luminous stellar gases and glowing nebulae. Circling their astonished, wonder filled eyes were comets of light that left sparkling trails as they passed by. Were it not for the force of gravity holding them to the floor they would have felt suspended in the shining darkness, as though in space itself. Before them they could see a blank piece of parchment unfurled on the table in front of the mage. He dabbed his quill in an inkwell and scrawled a circle across the paper. Closing his eyes, the old sage twisted his hands and fingers in odd motions above the drawing, murmuring strange incantations. Then the marks on the paper seemed to glow and emit rivulets of light. The shining ribbons hovered above the table, twisting and writhing around until they formed a blue hued sphere. On the surface of the sphere they could see a green light begin to form strange shapes that they eventually recognized to be the familiar continents of the world they knew. It was as though they were looking upon the earth from the heavens.
With a flick of the Archmage's wrist, the globe circled through the air, presenting them with a set of shapes that were foreign to their eyes. "This...is Midland," the old mage said. "A land occupying the part of the world you thought was only ocean; existing thousands of years in ignorance of the rest of the world and with the rest of the world ignorant of it, thanks to our efforts." Their eyes widened, and they looked at each other with amazement before returning their gaze to the luminous blue-green orb. The old man scribbled some more shapes on the parchment and as he did so several lines began to simultaneously etch themselves into an insignia on the hovering sphere's surface. The symbol resembled a tree, glowing russet brown against the globe's blue surface and positioned next to a small island on the eastern side.
"The Wood Clans," Archmage Emrys began, "are self-reliant and proud. Much like the trees themselves, they stand tall and strong while being rooted firmly in the ground. Their culture and heritage has endured for several millennia, drawing strength from brotherhood and valor. But at times they stand more like oaks than willows, being unwilling to bend with the breeze or to stand beside each other through the storms." The master paused to slake his thirst with a cup of tea before continuing, leaving his audience famished for his words. "The people of the Wood Clans practice a style of bending that involves influencing and directing the growth of living things. Almost any organism in their possession is a tool for them to use, their own bodies included."
"Whoa, cool," Sokka remarked with a whisper.
"Very," Iroh concurred in a hushed voice. The mage then added more scribbles to the parchment, producing a metallic grey shape on the surface of an immense landmass that dominated the far western side of the globe. The sigil was formed by a sharp triangle with a small dot and a circle concentric to it centered within its borders.
"The people of the Metal Empire are stoic and cerebral...Ideally," the mage added with a troubled tone. "Their philosophy is one of logic and control. They seek to learn all that is learnable and to disavow human emotions for the sake of this objective; an enlightened philosophy for an unenlightened time."
"If you ask me, it sounds like they really need to lighten up," Iroh whispered with quiet giggles constituting his response.
"Er-em," the sage cleared his throat. ""As I was saying, practitioners of metal bending once (and some still do) used their arts to aid them in the pursuit of higher knowledge. Metal bending grants one the ability to control the forces of electromagnetism, letting one experiment with metal objects, electrical energy, light and even the thoughts in our own heads. All stem from or are affected by electromagnetic energy and can fall under the sway of a metal bending master... like myself." The four companions looked at the Archmage with perturbed eyes, keeping careful tabs on their inner dialogue. The mage grinned and continued. "The Metal Empire is just that unfortunately: an Empire. About a thousand years ago, a small settlement of metal benders grew into a powerful city state that ambitiously conquered its neighbors." The sage pierced the parchment with the quill, staining it with ink that spread steadily through the paper. A grey shadow appeared on the sphere that grew in tandem with the ink stain, voraciously clawing its way towards the corners of the continent like wildfire, only ceasing its repast once it had devoured the small island hovering near its borders. "A little over a century ago the Wood clans succumbed to the might of the Metal Empire, paying the price for their disunity. With the subjugation of the Wood Clans the Metal Empire became the undisputed master of Midland. In what they now view as a splendid golden age, the Imperials have grown arrogant and decadent, allowing corruption and poverty to fester where their intransigent regime does not rear its porcine head."
The bright sphere dissolved into glowing tendrils of smoke that twisted into a blue triadic knot matching the one emblazoned on the Arbiter's forehead. "As you all may have noticed in your scuffle this evening, those in Midland with the power to bend the elements do so much differently from what you are all accustomed to. Wood bending Druids and metal bending Magi focus and control their bending with the arts of their disciplines, such as tribal dances, songs, incantations or chants. This is because eons ago the power of bending was regarded as a mystical or divine force, endowing benders with influence in addition to physical might. The most powerful of these figures was the Arbiter who used his powers primarily to mediate between the physical realm and that of Anún, else called the Spirit World. You know, gazing at the clouds, eating psychedelic mushrooms and berries, reading pig entrails; all that tripe," he said with a brush of his hand. "But several millennia ago, one Arbiter began the tradition that is the current Arbiter's toil; maintaining peace between the nations of Midland." With finality, the Archmage snapped his fingers once more and the room returned to light. The grate retracted itself from the fireplace, returning the salon to its original inviting atmosphere.
"Whoa," Sokka remarked. "So, how did you produce those illusions? Did you use metal bending to create them out of light or did you just beam the images into our heads?" he inquired with a forefinger at his temple.
The old man sniggered sadistically and stroked his beard. "An Archmage never reveals his secrets."
"That's awful," Aang piped up. "I understand that things are pretty tense in your part of the world, but I helped restore balance to mine. You're saying that for all this time, two worlds have shunned each other when they could have helped each other bring peace and understanding."
"You can't be serious," the Arbiter said incredulously. "Look at the damage that's been done from just one day of your band being here."
"Stay your tongue!" the mage barked at the Arbiter. "You will not chide our guests in front of me! Perhaps with you here, Master Iroh, you can help me straighten out my stubborn apprentice. His belligerence has been running me bow-legged!"
"Oh, I'm the belligerent one!?" the Arbiter exclaimed with umbrage, standing and pacing across the room. "It was these bastards that attacked me!" he said, pointing at the four scowling individuals huddled in the sofa. "I was by myself, performing the invocation ritual, when these cowards burst out of the shadows like a couple of panther-hounds and mobbed me. Apparently these bogtrotters don't know good hospitality when they see it," he added jestingly. He then laughed fiendishly as the room erupted with protest at his gibe.
"Now hold on!" Iroh intervened. "Things could have been much worse."
"That's right," the Arbiter said. "I could have had your lot clapped in the stocks to be pelted with vegetables."
"Yeah," Sokka retorted. "Or we could have pounded you into pulp and fed you to Appa."
"Stop it, both of you!" Iroh commanded, raising his voice. "To answer your question Aang, this is why we have kept our worlds apart. This is what the whole world would be like if it truly knew itself. Only, far more dire results would spring from much more petty squabbles. If these circumstances hadn't emerged, you wouldn't have been told any of this."
"If I had been allowed to do my job, none of you would even be here," the Arbiter said. "But good Lugh, not even a lightning storm could keep you away!" Their eyes widened with shock and realization, but the Arbiter ignored them and proceeded. "So, exactly what circumstances prevent me from expelling these interlopers, which ex officio, is part of my profession?" the Arbiter queried.
"We have just recently received banshee-falcons from New Caerleon and Ferraria Skye," Archmage Emrys said. "Their reports indicate a rash of disappearances cropping up within Wood Clan territory and Imperial borders." The Arbiter fell into a nearby chair, seemingly taken aback as he listened to the mage's report. "Similar anomalies have occurred in their part of the world. This situation affects us all."
"Wait, I thought you were responsible for the kidnappings," Zuko said, referring to the Arbiter. "We know the people who attacked us were metal benders and if it's your responsibility to keep our worlds separate, then it would follow that you would want to stifle our attempts at exploration."
"Actually, we have detained some of your exploratory convoys," the Arbiter explained, glancing up at Zuko from his chair. "I scuttle the ships, drop off the crew on a tropical island and bribe them into saying that they were shipwrecked. But I haven't touched your colonies or your city."
"Then it must be the Metal Empire," Sokka interjected. "I mean, guys, it's called the Metal Empire."
"No, the Imperials wouldn't kidnap their own citizens," Master Emrys said. "This is likely the work of rebellious metal benders. They have used impressments to bolster their cause before, but they have never reached this far. Nothing about this situation bodes well," he said, stroking his beard.
"That is why you are all here," Iroh said, addressing the young compatriots. "Tensions between the Wood Clans and the Imperials have reached a fever pitch in recent years and these disappearances have only added fuel to the fire. You all must go with the Arbiter to the Wood Clan capital of New Caerleon and help him negotiate a peace." Before they could all shoot up out of their seats and protest, Iroh held out his hand and motioned them to silence. "If peace does not prevail in this land then any chance you have of finding the abductors will evaporate into the fog of civil war."
"While you are there," Archmage Emrys added, "you will be able to consult the Druids; shamans and sages that live in the wilds that are home to the Wood Clans. Those regions have sheltered rebel metal benders before. If your friends are being held there then the Druids will likely know."
Iroh looked at the companions expectantly and said, "It is imperative that you all work together in order to see this through. It will not only mean a resolution to both of our conflicts, but it will also be an opportunity to build an everlasting peace between our cultures."
Katara and Sokka folded their arms and looked crossly at the Arbiter, who was looking on as he sat hunched over in his wing back chair. Zuko and Aang glanced at each other with uncertainty before nodding in agreement with Iroh. With cynical looks, the Water Tribe siblings relented as well. "And what is your decision master Arbiter?" Iroh asked. The man still sat in the chair, resting on his knees and looking downcast as he pondered his answer.
"Very well Grandmaster Iroh, I respect your judgment," he said rising from his seat, "even if I disagree with it; letting these vagrants traipse around our country to clean up after my negligence. I am used to not having much of a choice," the Arbiter sighed. "I'll play nursemaid to your 'ambassadors'." With that he left the room, leaving Archmage Emrys shaking his head and the three friends scowling.
"Well then," Iroh said clapping his hands together. "Now that it is decided, we will have to make arrangements for your departure. The city of New Caerleon is hosting a summit between all the leaders of the Wood Clans in about a week, so if you want to get there in time you will have to leave tonight. I hope your sky bison is well rested."
"He should be," Emrys said, "after the barrels upon barrels of tranquilizers that my student has had fed to him."
"WHAAATTT!!!!!" Aang exploded.
The four companions stood out on a veranda overlooking a piazza enclosed on all sides by the palace walls. The night air was cool and the moonlight cold. In the square below, they could see several Clerics packing Appa's saddle and feeding the lethargic creature large bushels of coffee beans.
"A whole other world," Zuko recited in awe. He leaned on the banisters, taking in the night sky as though it had suddenly expanded and filled itself with new stars.
"I know," Aang remarked with wondrous eyes. "We'll be able to see an exciting new place with exciting new people. And the best part is we'll be able to see it all together. It'll be another one of our adventures. "
"One does not simply waltz into Midland and take in the scenery," Archmage Emrys said as he emerged onto the veranda with Iroh. "This is no garden party."
"Well," Aang began to respond, "Team Avatar usually likes to start its missions with a more upbeat attitude."
"The word, 'upbeat', is going to vanish from your vocabulary pretty quickly where you're going," the old wizard said grimly. "Cordéiba may seem like a cultural hub. But it is, in fact, a refuge; a rubbish bin for all the peoples that our world has rejected out of prejudice, bigotry and grievance. Expect neither a warm welcome nor excitement from Midland. This is a labor." He broke apart from the group and walked down the length of the balcony. Katara decided to follow after the old man, leaving Iroh and her three friends sitting on the banisters, eyeing each other sullenly.
"Excuse me, sir?" Katara approached. The mage halted and turned towards his petitioner. "Um...you're a Cleric, right?" she asked with apprehension.
"Wrong," the old man rapidly replied. "The oldest of the Magi are far too reclusive to join the likes of the Brotherhood. But I assume that you mean to ask me about the statue that you saw in the courtyard earlier this evening. You wonder as to whom it depicts and what significance it has to my student, the Arbiter," the sage concluded.
She could only thinly disguise her unease at the old wizard's seeming omniscience, but she nodded her head and waited patiently for his answer. With hesitation the old mage began to explain. "It is a memorial dedicated to our most revered leader and the ancestor of all the Arbiters, Lord Camulos; the King, once and ever-after." The name almost seemed to uplift her, to fill her with a hopefulness that appeared out of nowhere. Whether it was the sound of the name itself or the dramatic tone with which the wizard declared it, she didn't know. With a primed and eager curiosity, Katara listened as the old man's voice deepened with nostalgia.
"Centuries ago, he united the various tribes of Midland into one nation, then known as the Middle Kingdom, and for a short time in our history there was peace and prosperity. The Clerics devote themselves to aiding the Arbiter in his many duties, one of them being to learn a ritual like the one you and your friends interrupted this night." Katara looked abashedly at her feet as the mage elaborated.
"The ceremony entails the invocation of Camulos' spirit, to seek his knowledge and guidance in dark times. And now, of all times, he refuses to approach my pupil," he said forlornly.
"I think I'm beginning to understand," Katara said. "He must feel...abandoned." She looked condolingly on the Arbiter as he walked out into the square below and started helping the Clerics pack Appa's howdah with various containers and satchels. Camulos is meant to be his guide...there is only so much advice I can impart without making things more difficult for him," he said with frustration. The old sage looked dolefully upon the Arbiter as he heaved under the weight of heavy satchels and trunks.
"I'm sure you do all you can," Katara said. "You definitely seem like the fatherly type," she added with a smile.
"I wish I could do more," the old man muttered dejectedly. "Each of Camulos' descendants is entitled to his wisdom," the old man said growing hoarse. "And by rights he deserves it!" he burst, slamming his fist on the banister. Katara was amazed to see the old sage's eyes begin to well up, leaking tears onto his snow white beard. "Forgive me," he shuddered, trying to mop up the moisture and straighten his face.
"It's alright," Katara consoled. She grasped his sleeve in commiseration, causing the man to flinch at first but then to settle at seeing the earnestness in her face.
"He is so attentive to his studies...so committed to his duties... and he's dealt with so much," the man rued. "It is difficult seeing him like this." They both continued to watch the Arbiter heave under the weight of his burdens. "At times, I suppose, the grand order of things just deigns to point its finger at someone and say 'you're it, you're the bastard!'," he said with a furtive sniff. "And yet...without my help...without anyone's support, he keeps trudging on...all on his own." The old man wiped away another tear and smiled as Katara looked into his deep gray eyes with reassurance. "No one has made me more proud."
"We'll do our best to help your pupil Master...uhm...—"
"Emrys," the mage said with a small grin. "I realize it's difficult to pronounce." They both chuckled a bit and strolled back towards their companions.
"I know that this is all a lot to take in at one time," Iroh said to the three companions. "I was just as disoriented at learning all of this as you are."
"Actually," Aang began, "that's not what's troubling me."
"Oh?" inquired Iroh. Aang shook his head. His friends looked at him concernedly, expecting the young monk to explain himself, but he hesitated.
"Don't worry," Iroh reassured him. "You needn't fear sharing your feelings, especially with your closest friends."
"Yeah Aang," Sokka encouraged. "Tell us what's on your mind."
Aang bowed his head and stared at his feet before murmuring his answer. "I'm afraid."
"Of what?" Sokka asked.
"Of this world," Aang answered. "Of what that man said. Of..." He tried desperately not to say 'the Arbiter'. "...everything. I feel like all that we went through during the war is happening all over again. I'm facing another war, another Fire Nation...and I ran away again. I could have missed all of this and neglected my duty as the Avatar."
"Don't blame yourself for this, young Avatar," Iroh said. "You could not have known about this world before all of this; that has been our doing," the Grandmaster Lotus said as he pointed to his pedaled collar.
"I meant about leaving Republic City," Aang mumbled.
"Ah," Iroh remarked, stroking his beard. The old man paused reflectively and then smiled, approaching Aang as he sat on the banisters. "If things are starting to seem familiar to you, then you should also remember how you were able to unite four peoples and defeat the Fire Nation, all without having to take a life."
"But what if I can't do it again?" Aang posed to the world. "I'm not that good at politics. What if I won't be able to help the Arbiter on his mission of diplomacy?"
"I wasn't calling your abilities into question, young Avatar," Iroh said with warmth in his old, raspy voice. "I was saying that not too long ago you had hope for a brighter future. You held faith in the belief that the people of the four nations were not as separate as they believed. With that faith in your heart, you united four cultures. If you keep that faith and believe in yourself then what are two more?"
Iroh's eyes twinkled as he saw his wisdom begin to lift the spirits of his audience. "Do not let Master Emrys' words discourage you," he said to the three friends. "It is true that this world is a dark one. Around here, old wounds open and close like a shutter flapping in the wind, and they fester and stink like Zuko's attempts at making black tea," he said with a sly grin. Aang and Sokka giggled while Zuko gave an awkward smile and a pair of upturned hands. "Sorry," Iroh chuckled. "But it's true. Anyway...as I was saying, such adversities can create beautiful things. In the smoldering coals of this world's strife a beautiful and rich culture has bloomed. If you just mind the thorns then you will be able to appreciate the flower." They then started hearing grunting noises in the distance. Shifting around, they could see the Arbiter groaning as he tried to lift Appa to his feet. He made surprising progress considering that the sky bison weighed ten tons.
"Come off it ya fat lummox!" they could hear him grumble.
"The same goes for the Arbiter," Iroh added. "I know you all have mixed feelings about him, but try not to be too harsh. He is just as confused and conflicted as all of you. For a long time it was his duty to prevent two nations and two worlds from ripping each other apart. You can imagine how that can put a lot of stress on a man." They observed a pensive silence and watched as the Arbiter struggled to coax Appa into liveliness. "On my last few visits to Cordéiba, I have gotten to know the Arbiter quite well. Once you get past his standoffish exterior, he turns out to be quite the young gentleman."
"MOVE DAMMIT!" they could hear in the distance.
They turned and looked at the old man skeptically, but Iroh continued to smile. "In fact, something about him reminds me of you," Iroh said, looking at Zuko. The young Fire Lord raised his scared eyebrow quizzically as his uncle explained. "Like you, he has endured many internal struggles and uncertainties. Give him a chance and I'm sure that you all will find more in common with him than you expect." Zuko looked downwards in introspection before nodding to his uncle.
Sokka leaned over and said, "Well I just hope he doesn't give us any more of his attitude. I just want to get in there, find the hostages and get out. And so help me, if he quotes the dictionary one more time I'll..."
"Alright, your cow's conscious," the Arbiter shouted. "Let's get a move on!"
"It was good seeing you again Uncle," Zuko said as they embraced. Iroh bid them all farewell as they descended down the steps into the piazza, but Zuko hesitated. "Before I go there's one thing...do you..." Zuko stammered, "...do you think I made the right choice coming on this mission? Was it irresponsible of me to leave my throne vacant to come on this journey?"
"Zuko," Iroh said with an affectionate sigh. "You should not be as concerned with where you are when you lead the Fire Nation, but with where you are going." Iroh approached his nephew and put a reassuring palm on his shoulder. "When many leaders would have directed this mission from within the safety and comfort of a palace, you instead decided to lead the charge. You make me proud, my nephew. Now go, there are people who need rescuing," he said with a grin.
Zuko smiled in return and rushed out to join the group. They each mounted Appa, who was ill tempered after his rude awakening, and nestled themselves in the howdah with an awaiting Momo. The excited creature greeted his friends with delighted chatters before climbing on Aang's shoulder. The Arbiter shouldered a rucksack as he approached the growling bison.
"Pack it in Bessie!" he barked at Appa. "I'm working nights. And that goes for you too fluffy," he said, pointing at the hissing lemur-bat.
"Wait a minute sir," Aang said. "Before you come with us, we have to know one thing."
"And that would be?" the Arbiter asked impatiently.
"Your name. We only know your title, not who you are." The Arbiter paused and shifted his gaze to the side as Aang patiently waited for his answer.
"I have a lot of names, depending on where I travel," the Arbiter said, groaning as he climbed into Appa's saddle. "Call me what you like besides 'sir'. Unless this job has been putting years on me that I haven't counted, I'm no older than your friend in the nightgown," he said, pointing to Zuko in his black jumpsuit.
"That still isn't an answer," Aang said expectantly.
"Well," the Arbiter began, scratching his neck and looking downward with hesitation. "I suppose you could call me Liam. It was my first name."
"Mine is Zuko by the way, just in case you forgot," the young Fire Lord said with slight irritancy.
"Pleasure to meet you," the Arbiter replied, regaining his courteousness.
"Why don't we all start again," the young monk proposed. "I'm Aang, and this is Sokka and Katara. The sky bison," Aang said placing special emphasis on the beast's taxonomy, "is called Appa, and that Lemur-bat playing with your hair is Momo."
"Charmed," the young man grumbled as Momo batted at his braided sideburns.
As he shooed away the Lemur and settled onto the floor of the saddle he set down a bundle of metal objects wrapped in a leather tarp. They could distinguish a multitude of menacing weapons poking out of the package; an array of formidable thrusting knives, an assortment of throwing hatchets and a collection of strange looking swords.
"What, are you going to war or something?" Katara jested.
"In a manner of speaking we all are," the Arbiter answered. "The road to New Caerleon is going to be dangerous, we'd best be prepared. Now enough chit-chat; let's get this space cow in the sky before I get even more years put on me." With a crack of the reigns and the usual 'yip-yip', Appa sluggishly took to the air, leaving the two old men waving on the balcony in the distance. As they climbed higher into the silver lined clouds and cool wind of the night, tension started to build between the occupants of the saddle. The Arbiter was busy sharpening his Claymore as Zuko, Katara and Sokka looked at each other with silent desperation.
Katara, rubbing her neck, ventured "So, Liam...tell us about yourself." The Arbiter's steely grey eyes darted towards them as he kept whetting his blade. Appa ascended into the night sky, becoming a black dot against the bright, full moon.
I am Skuult
"I said, who are you?!" Toph demanded. Her bony prisoner glared at her through reviling eyes, gathering the breath to answer in a voice that grated like scraping metal.
"I...am High Druid Skuult."
"Alright scruffy," Toph began with apprehension. "Why did you bring this plague to Ba-Sing-Se?" The alien's tongue darted quickly out of his mouth as a snake's, as though tasting the fear filled air. Toph's students could have sworn they saw a forked tongue slide across his chapped lips.
"My people..." the Druid commenced, "are fighting a monster known as...the Imperator." She didn't know why, whether it was just the sound of the name or some foreboding bewitchment that it carried, but the very mention of it sent shivers down her spine. She tried to hide her disquiet as she held her captive, but his reptilian eyes only seemed to glitter with wicked satisfaction. "We are in dire need of more soldiers to resist him. How has my recruitment drive been progressing?" he said with a malicious grin.
"What are you talking about!?" Toph barked, pinning the Druid even tighter to the wall. The stranger gagged and clutched the spire of rock with his skeletal claws.
"The Black Blight," he wheezed, "is a fungus that invades the minds of its victims and...gargh...binds their will to my own." Toph's arms started quivering as she tried desperately not to smear her hostage all over the wall.
"Well..." she said, her voice beginning to tremble with fury, "unbind them!"
The ancient man's grin parted as he began to fill the library with echoes of his cackling, wheezing laughter. Toph's eyes twitched with rage as he began to recover from the exuded breath of his chortling. The withered stranger stared malignantly into Toph's blind eyes before he emitted a sudden, blood curdling screech.
Toph could hear the beat of enormous wings before a sickening crash and echoing clatter resounded across the grand library. Toph's students ducked behind furniture and book cases to avoid the hail of glass shards and debris that rained across the room. Shielding herself with a slab of rock, she waited out the shower of shrapnel. When the hail of rubble ceased, Toph's disciples peered out from their shelter but became paralyzed with numbing fear at the sight awaiting them.
An enormous black shape crawled across the darkness, its colossal frame made visible by the light of the library fireplaces. The huge creature ambled about on its titanic, leathery wings; a steady beat of THOOM...THOOM...THOOM. A long, serpentine neck emerged from the mass and sniffed the air with a deep, throaty hiss. Toph's students dove for cover as the monster's cat like eyes raked their way across them. Spotting its master, the creature's great glowing orbs widened with rage. The shadowy creature reared on its legs and extended its wings, filling the room with its vast form. Its long snout pried open and drew a great breath.
The imprisoned Druid let loose more maniacal cackles as his pet filled the entire palace with a warbling, ear shattering bellow. Toph diverted her attention away and braced herself against the nightmarish monster.
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