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|A Brave New Port|
May 15, 2014
Toph made the first move. With a sweep of her leg and a thrust of her arm, she sent a spire of rock shooting through the library floor, pinning the struggling creature to the ceiling. Thrashing and screeching, the writhing serpent wriggled out of its stony hold and was free to leap across the library with dumbfounding agility. Quick as a flash, book cases shattered, tables splintered, and columns crumbled under the predator's feline fury. The beast slithered across the tiers of the library like a shadow with a sledge hammer, pulverizing everything it fell across and demolishing all tranquility with it. Belching columns of flame at the earth bender girl, the dragon illuminated the room with a menacing glow. Toph shielded herself from the fiery tirade, mustering every bit of her strength simply to keep the beast at bay. In desperation, she hurled boulders, rocks, pebbles, dirt, dust; anything to buy her some time until...her friends would arrive. "Aang!" she swore to herself. "Where are you when I need you?"
"And that's how you do the Phoenix Flight," Aang declared with exuberance. He struck a flamboyant pose in Appa's howdah, having just finished a lively demonstration of a traditional Fire Nation dance. The rustling wind and midday sun both struck off his bald, arrow clad head as Appa soared over the ocean waves. His flamboyantly outstretched arms creaked with tension as he awaited a response from his audience.
"Oh, lovely Master Aang," Liam murmured with feigned delight. The Arbiter's face could barely be seen behind a wall of parchment but his underwhelmed commentary could be heard without muffle. "I've never seen such a flawless impersonation of a bogan-chicken on mushrooms." Aang knelt on the saddle floor with a self-conscious smile while Katara and Zuko snickered in amusement and Sokka clutched his sides in laughter.
"Forgive me Master Aang," Liam said, "but we'll have time for some cultural exchange later. Now we must look sharp, we'll be arriving at our first stop soon." He then splayed the map out on the floor of the saddle and its occupants all leaned towards it intently. Depicted on the sheepskin was a large, stout island with many notes and captions inscribed all around it in ink. "This is Milesia," he said with a finger on the green shape, "home of the Wood Clans. And this is our destination," he added, his digit drifting towards the top left corner of the map, "the city of New Caerleon. In about a week the leaders of all the Clans and the Imperial regional governors will meet there for the Tuath Comhairle to conduct diplomatic affairs. This," he said, dragging his finger to the lower right, "is Port MacLir; our first stop. It's a shady place, but we can at least get a cozy inn and something better to eat than rations."
"Sounds good to me," Sokka said, patting his stomach with anticipation.
"Not to sound blunt," Zuko began, sitting up in his seat, "but we shouldn't get too comfortable. What I'm most concerned with is getting to the capital as quickly as possible so we can restore peace and find the kidnappers; these 'metal bending rebels' that Emrys spoke of."
"About that," Aang interjected, shifting in his seat and tensing his shoulders. "How are we going to help restore peace, especially if we're strangers here?"
"I'm sure you'll think of something," Katara said, leaning towards Aang and placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. Their eyes met fondly for the briefest moment before they noticed that they had an audience. "I mean—we'll all think of something once we're well rested." Both Katara and Aang blushed as they tried to pry their gazes away from each other.
"To answer all your questions," Liam began, "our benefactors believe that your shared experiences and unique perspectives will make enough of an impression on the people of Midland to spur a peaceful resolution to their troubles."
"That shouldn't be a problem!" Sokka declared, grabbing Aang on the shoulder. "Not for the guys who saved the world as kids!—or at least...half of it. But don't you worry, Li Yum, this place is as good as saved."
"I'm relieved," the Arbiter murmured with a sideways glance. "And my name is Liam." As Sokka and Aang exchanged confused glances, the Arbiter rolled up his map and placed it in his rucksack. "What you all need to complete this mission is a good rapport with the people of these lands. That'll be an especially hard thing to acquire from the people of Milesia in only a few days, especially in a place where it's really bad to get..." He paused upon seeing a patch of hair shifting around in his rucksack. "...LOST!" he barked, seeing Momo pop his head out of the bag, shredded pieces of paper clinging to his muzzle. Seizing the Lemur by the scruff of his neck, he tossed Momo into Aang's lap. Unnoticing, the little creature kept contentedly nibbling on the feather of a quill as he curled himself in his master's sheltering arms. "Restrain your beast before it kills us all," Liam growled as Aang shot him a reproachful glance. "If we're fortunate," he continued, regaining his composure, "we'll have an uneventful trip."
"Don't bother telling us what happens if we're unfortunate," Zuko said as he sat up on the saddle floor, "because we're almost there." Zuko pointed to the horizon, all a periwinkle blue except for a dark shape that stretched for miles in either direction. As they approached the periphery of the island, all they could see was a thick white mist, pierced by the rays of the mid-afternoon sun. Getting closer, the curtain of fog began to part and they all leaned over the front of the howdah to behold the spectacle before them. Greeting their eyes was a tapestry of lush, verdant green draped atop towering cliffs of weathered, ochre black stone. They could see miles of undulating fields and majestic hillsides, shining like glittering emeralds as they reached for the sapphire sky.
"It's breathtaking," Katara gasped. "Who could be gloomy about this place?"
"Milesia may look pretty," Liam said. "But make no mistake. Between those hills there lay many things ancient and wild." Undeterred, they kept soaking in the scrumptious scenery, savoring it with the accompaniment of crisp sea breezes slipping gently over the coast. Reaching the cliff sides, they were greeted by flocks of screeching selkie-seagulls and shrieking merrow-gannets, soon joined by the excited bleats of many flying wooly creatures. "Sky rams, Liam identified. "Pay them no mind." Appa let out an excited bellow of camaraderie at the curiously babbling sheep that circled him, and bid them another grumble of farewell as he approached a large fjord. There's our destination," he said, pointing to a cluster of buildings and ships at the end of the passage.
Aang boosted himself onto Appa's neck with a gust of air and tensed on the reigns. An obliging Appa drifted down towards the water's mirrored surface with a drowsy grumble. In moments, the sky bison bore his passengers to a mess of sprawling docks attached to a small town. Upon alighting on an empty pier, the weary travelers began to dismount. Aang, disembarking first, took his first glance at Milesia up close. All around him he saw swarms of docked ships, brandishing russet brown sails and pitch black hulls. Between them he saw various bustling passersby, looking with apprehension at the furry beast that appeared in their harbor.
"Stay close to me," Liam said as he climbed off the sky bison. "And look sharp. This was the first place to report disappearances so people will be skittish, especially with foreigners in their midst." As they followed the Arbiter down the city streets, Aang couldn't help but stray a bit as he absorbed his new surroundings. Each gray cobbled road, winding path and meandering sidewalk moseyed on through the enveloping eaves of all the houses, shops, taverns, workshops and smithy's, relaxingly nudging their guests in the right direction. The atmosphere would have been that inviting without the slamming of shutter doors and the wary whispers of those they passed.
Passing besides him on the streets were various sailors and civilians, meandering about on their daily errands until sighting the parade of alien visitors. Before they could scurry or stride away, Aang could see their roughhewn and pastel clothing. To his first impression, the country's wardrobe consisted of a prosaic variety of woolen tunics, long sleeved shirts, sweaters, waistcoats, trousers and skirts; the latter being worn by both women and men. Looking at the people themselves, he could see the same light skin and aquiline features that the Arbiter possessed, only contorted with suspicion instead of interest.
With such strange surroundings and so many faces ostracizing him, Aang couldn't help feeling lonely for the briefest moment. But, as was his nature, he found comfort in the very visages that so loathed him. He saw faces ranging from the thin and gaunt to the stout and pudgy, the young and fair to the gnarled and dappled, all sprinkled with locks and beards in a rainbow of blacks, browns, blondes and riotous reds. As different as they were from him, at least they were a little different from each other.
"Oomph," Aang emitted. Getting lost in the mural of MacLir, he failed to notice the wall of a man that stepped right out in front of him. The stranger, garbed in an official looking uniform (that just barely managed to stretch across his corpulent frame), leaned into Aang with a stern look on his craggy features.
"Welcome to Port MacLir, wee one," the man declared with a wry smile. "Or at least ya would be if yew and your foreign friends had bothered to go through customs." Aang coughed as the rotund man exuded vile breath with each rhotic syllable. "And I thought yew Air Nomads wheyre suppohsed to be sneaky."
"Wait a minute," Aang protested. "We're with—"
"Maybe next tyme," the man interrupted with a commandeering paw on his shoulder, "you'll be a bit more—AGHH!" The man withdrew his throbbing hand, having been struck by a queue of icy water. Katara came rushing down the street, a furious look in her eyes and a water whip stretched out in her hands.
"Careful?" she inferred.
The man's squat face turned the same color as his sore hand as he whipped a stout bat off of his belt. "Perapps I haven't mayde maself clear!" the man bellowed, drumming the seal on his chest with his blunt instrument. "I'm the law in these parts and I say yer wee friend here is under arrest for lacking proper documentation!"
"Don't burst an artery Sergeant," Liam scoffed as the rest of the group approached the scene. "These bogtrotters are here under my supervision." Katara nearly winced at the mention of 'supervision', but continued to stand by Aang as the exchange continued.
"You have my assurances," Liam said, lacing his voice with warning. His caveat was reinforced by his triadic mark which glinted venomously in the sun. Glaringly, the constable lowered his club and turned to Aang. "Stay close to yer nursemaid, wee one," the Sergeant warned. Katara glared back as the ponderous constable waddled away.
"Ramhar McLeathanlód," Liam said as the rotund man slipped off into an alley. "Sergeant of the Port MacLir fuzz—I mean constabulary. Be grateful he didn't sit on you."
"I'll say," Sokka chuckled.
"I say things for a reason, Master Aang," Liam said in a cool tone, "not just to hear myself talk." Aang's spine shrunk as the Arbiter's stern gaze hovered imperiously over him, a full head above his stature. "That little jaunt of yours made the Sergeant think you were prey. Was he right?" Aang's innards became as icy as the Arbiter's stare. He couldn't tell which was making him hesitate as he tried to answer.
Aang was surprised that his voice was so firm, until he realized that it was Katara who had spoken. "Aang did nothing to invite confrontation, and he is nobody's prey."
"Then he had better quit acting like it," Liam reproached. "The eyes of Milesia will scorn and scrutinize all the steps you take," he announced, "so make them handsome." Without another word he strode past Katara and headed down the street with the group in hesitant pursuit. As they walked, Katara took silent strides, simultaneously fuming over Liam's treatment of Aang and begrudgingly acknowledging his wisdom. After a while, Katara's thoughts and eyes turned towards Aang and noticed something odd. Instead of carrying himself with his usual open-handed liveliness, he marched to a rigid cadence, carrying his curled hands with a steady swing.
"Why are you walking like that?" Katara asked.
"I'm trying to do as he said!" Aang snapped. For the briefest moment, anger flashed across his face, but faded to regret seeing the concern in Katara's eyes. He bowed his head and strode sullenly down the street with her sympathetic steps accompanying him. "I was just trying to imitate those guys," Aang said, pointing a thumb behind his back. Katara turned her head and witnessed a platoon of soldiers marching besides them, overtaking them on their way to some urgent objective. Seeming to invade the street, the glint of their shining steel armor made Katara's eyes squint. As they marched ahead, their black coats and gray trousers grew more apparent, especially the white insignias emblazoned on the tall metal tower shields they carried; pyramids enclosing two concentric circles—the symbol of the Metal Empire. "I'll bet nobody picks on them," Aang mumbled to himself. Just then, the Arbiter appeared beside him, making both Aang and Katara flinch.
"That's for a different reason," he said, keeping his eyes on the formation of hastily marching men. "Centurion!" he beckoned to the lead soldier. "What fuels your haste?!" The lead officer, bearing a large crest on his helmet, ducked out of the formation and stood at attention before the group that now paused at the side of the street. "Mister Arbiter, sir," the Centurion addressed in a formal tone. "Prefect Trelanus is announcing the new harvest taxes and, well—need I say more?"
"No you needn't," the Arbiter murmured gravely. He then did an about face, addressing his charges in an equally soldierly manner. "Forgive me, but a domestic dispute demands my attention. I shouldn't be long." Liam began to march after the Centurion when Katara took a step forward.
"Wait," she motioned. "Maybe we should come with you." Both Liam and the soldier halted, turning to hear her petition. "If we're going to be peacekeepers and ambassadors, then we'll need to understand the troubles affecting this place." Katara waited expectantly for her answer as Liam stroked his chin.
"Lord Zuko," Liam said, lifting his head from contemplation. "You shall accompany me." Zuko's eyes flashed with surprise and darted to the rest of the group as Liam turned and regarded the others. "As for the rest of you," he began, "I have an important task for each of you." Pricking their ears, Katara and Aang stood up straight to receive their assignments. "Master Aang, Miss Katara; you two go check us in to The Thistle & Harp Inn down the street. If they give you any lip," he said, extracting his silver torque from his neck, "show them this and tell them the Arbiter sent you." Katara furrowed her brow as she accepted the ring of metal and strode down the street with Aang in her company and Appa lumbering behind him. "Mister Sokka," he continued, "why don't you go and fetch us all some vittles at The Red Dragon Pub, over yonder." Upon sighting the half-timber building bearing the red sign, Sokka, with Momo perched on his shoulder, immediately detected the scrumptious aroma of spirits and roasted meats. With a grinning salute, Sokka headed straight towards the tavern and disappeared into its depths. Zuko wore a puzzled expression when the Arbiter turned to regard him. "After you, your Lordship." Hesitantly, Zuko marched after the Centurion with Liam in step beside him.
Entering The Thistle & Harp Inn, Aang and Katara became swathed in the embracing light of warm hearths and the tantalizing smells of food and ale that seemed to seep out of the very woodwork. The foyer itself was mostly empty, so no foul gazes despoiled the womb like surroundings. Katara walked up to what looked like an innkeeper and said, "Excuse me sir. We'll need some rooms for our friends and a stable for our sky bison." The innkeeper grew white as a huge furry monster eyed him through the front window. Hastily scrawling some notes in his ledger, the harrowed looking clerk then scuttled reluctantly out the door to retrieve the great beast.
"Enjoy your stay," he squawked anxiously as he disappeared out the door.
"Ugh," Katara sighed, leaning against the counter and crossing her arms in frustration. "If only we could call him a friend."
"What is it?" Aang asked.
"It's obvious what he's doing," she growled. "He's trying to get rid of us so he and Zuko can take care of business without us. He thinks we're just a couple of kids."
"Well, I guess I've given him reason to think that," Aang murmured. He leaned on his staff, having a doleful weight hanging on his shoulders.
"What?! No," Katara said with a contrite look as she leaned towards Aang. "With all the things we've done, we deserve to be treated better than—"
"WHATEVER YOU DO!" Sokka screamed, making all in the foyer flinch. "STAY AWAY FROM THE HAGGIS!!!!!" He stumbled into the room with a horror filled look in his eyes, sinking down into a leather backed chair as he clutched his lurching stomach. "I brought some stuff back for you guys," he gasped, holding a sack out in front of him as though having dragged vital intelligence from a war zone. "Anything that wasn't haggis or those ugly brown roots they kept shoving down my throat. ' Excyuse me, could you playse pahs the Tahrtars, '" Sokka parroted, mimicking the native accent. "' Wood ya lyke somar Tahrtars lahd? Wayter, does the fish come with Tahrtars? '" His rant coming to a close, his torso began to slump with resignation in the folds of the armchair.
"Thanks Sokka," Aang said, "but I'm not...that hungry." Accompanying a hysterical Sokka was another thing to make a dramatic entrance into Aang's spheres. As the nebulas of confusion had cleared in his mind he could remember sharply the admonitions of the steel eyed Arbiter, piercing him like the rays of the sun, recall poignantly his earlier failure to protect Katara, his moon and stars, hear wrenchingly the resurrected voice of a familiar pang in his chest; his void. Detecting his unrest with her divining eyes, Katara moved to rebalance his inner cosmos. That is, until Sokka's black hole of a mouth opened wide.
"So what was Zuko doing with Li Yum and that soldier guy?" Sokka asked.
"Taking care of business and leaving the kids at home to play," Katara growled.
"You know," Sokka said while stuffing his face with a roll, "maybe that's just what we should do." Despite the disbelieving looks of his comrades boring into his head, Sokka took his time swallowing the bread before elaborating. "I heard from the barkeeper that this place is having some sort of festival tonight. I'm thinking we should blow off old badger-head and just go."
"I'm not sure," Katara said, "Liam has a point. Maybe we should let this place get used to us before we start interacting with its people."
"Well, what better way to do that than to attend a festival?" Sokka said. "I mean, think about it, that's where people will be loosened up and free to mingle. That's where we will have the best chance of building a dialogue with this place and begin building our reputations as ambassadors. If he's not going to let us learn about this place when we're with him, then we might as well do it our own way." Katara tilted her chin and raised her brow with contemplation. Aang also cocked his head with interest.
"Come on," Sokka pressed, "everything about their culture will be spread out right in front of us. There'll be food, lights, music...dancing," he added enticingly.
"Well," Aang pondered, "we do need to learn about the native culture. That's why Zuko left with the Arbiter after all," he added with budding cheer.
"That's the spirit, Aang!" Sokka declared. "What do you say, sis?"
"Alright," Katara said, a devious grin beginning to grow on her face, "let's go. I doubt ' Mister Badger-head ' will even notice that we're gone now that he and Zuko are off frolicking in the fields together." With hysterical laughs from all, Aang's spirits were restored to their former buoyancy. In the company of two good friends, Aang departed the inn and would have a night to remember.
Toph & the Dragon
Toph's absent friends detracted from her already short list of allies. The curiously absent palace guards, her scattered and bewildered students, even her own senses seemed to have abandoned her. The heat of the dragon's scathing flames seared her sweaty skin. Clouds of discharged dust and ash clogged her nostrils and coated her tongue. Her ears throbbed in the din of destruction. Her naked feet, her only eyes, were drowned in the in the tremors of the beast's erratic acrobatics. Her communion with the earth had failed. She was now a reluctant servant of the sheer chaos that enthroned itself in the palace halls. Toph refused to give in, fighting to a battle hymn when her weary joints seemed to be singing a lullaby. Alone, she defiantly fought what seemingly grew to be the inevitable.
With each passing second, the lithe predator drew closer and closer, scenting her growing exhaustion with its forked tongue. Upon reaching the stone barricade, the creature smashed through it with impunity, destroying with it the last of Toph's resolve. Panting in the penumbra of the approaching predator's shadow, her sweat basted body lay as limp as a corpse. Toph waited as the creature circled her, sniffing the air and pacing around her. In the quiet, she could now feel the creature's unspoken frustration tying knots in its sinewy muscles. She hardly cared. She only felt a twinge of satisfaction in denying it the thrill of the hunt. All she was concerned with now was getting the next part over with.
A wickedly calm voice echoed from across the room. Skuult's pet reared its head and parted its fang lined jaws, losing any trace of hesitation at its master's order.
Liam and Zuko marched mechanically behind a squad of Imperial Legionnaires as the organic, sweeping curves of the town roads gave way to the rigid thoroughfares of the Port MacLir Forum. They stepped from a haven of cobbled black rock to an arena of smoothly paved, gleaming white stone. Marching into the square, they shrunk under the towering officious buildings, framed with sturdy looking architecture and draped in façades of shining marble. Resonating around the square was the din of a bellowing crowd, directing its anger at a man posited on the top of a platform at the head of the Forum.
The shouting throng parted before the group of soldiers, admitting them along with Liam and Zuko as it seethed with uproar. Getting closer to the stone platform, Zuko could see a tall, skeletal man flanked by ornately armored soldiers. Garbed in a solid black, long tailed, double breasted jacket, he clutched a collection of scrolls and tablets in his bony, ring laden fingers. "Yes, yes, I'm sure you're all upset!" the man shouted over the crowds. "But restitutions must be made! The Empire will not suffer this kind of behavior!"
"What is Trelanus babbling about this time?" Liam murmured aside to the Centurion.
"An attempt was made on his life not a week before you arrived," the officer reported. "He was caught in a firefight with the Black Hoods."
"I should've assumed," Liam murmured.
"A lot of good officers lost their lives that day," the soldier went on, his stalwart voice beginning to falter, "and now the Prefect is demanding righteous compensation."
"Since you have demonstrated the wherewithal to furnish a festival for yourselves," the Prefect went on, "you should have no trouble paying this quarter's taxes." Meeting only more waves of resistance, the official continued his rebuke. "I cannot simply deduct bushels of grain from the seasonal quota, it does not function so! The harvest taxes are based on percentages," he derided. "Honestly! Why does the Empire bother to spend countless Sestertii to furnish schools for you Wood Clan guttersnipes?" Zuko could see protestors reaching for vegetables and Legionnaires patting their revolvers in their holsters. Between the frenzying crowds and the orator's pompous demeanor and technical jargon, Zuko could tell that the others would appreciate sitting this out. This was the part of diplomacy they were all least looking forward to.
"If your dunderhead fisherman can't keep up with demand, then the Imperial Bureau of Taxation is not to blame!" the official shouted. "This year's taxes are set to sixty percent! No negotiation!"
"We'll see what's righteous," Liam said before hiking up the side of the platform.
"And if you—oh Mister Arbiter," the Prefect stammered upon seeing Liam ascend the stage. The tax collector shrunk a bit, seeing the Arbiter's six and a half foot stature approaching him. The throng began to calm as the Arbiter took the stand, his tattooed forehead shining brightly in the sun.
"Mister Trelanus," Liam said in a cool tone. "May I be of assistance?"
"As refreshing as it would be, collaborating with a man of good education," Prefect Trelanus said with a growing heir of pomp, "I have matters here under control."
"I can see that."
"You realize you're only further antagonizing the Black Hoods?"
"I am performing my duties as Prefect," Trelanus said with his nose in the air, straightening the lapels of his gold-buttoned jacket. "I will not reduce taxes until proper restitutions have been made to the families of our fallen Legionnaires."
"I doubt that Sestertii will soothe their disembodied souls," Liam said, "as much as an act of honor will." Liam stood before Trelanus, placing a hand on the Prefect's shoulder and craning his head in earnestness. "These people have endured enough punishment from famines past, desperately supplying fish and goods to the Empire at cost to themselves. Let them enjoy the fruits of this year's bumper crop. That way, these gracious men would be more than willing and able to pay your restitutions next season. My friends and I can deal with the rebel problem." Trelanus' eyes darted from the hand he perceived as invading his shoulder to the gaze of the man admonishing his pride as he stiffly stood against his petitioner's demands. After a protracted pause, the Prefect looked Liam in the eye with an icy stare and a stony face.
"Sixty percent taxes," Trelanus whispered, "for sixty percent casualties. These peasants should be grateful it isn't steeper." As Trelanus pulled away he was jerked back by the Arbiter's steely hold. Despite the distance, Zuko could swear that he saw claws develop on Liam's fingers and burrow into the officials coat. In a swift, discreet motion, Trelanus was jerked aside until Liam's whiskered chin nearly pricked his ears.
"Unless I'm mistaken," the Arbiter whispered into Trelanus' ear, "none of this would've happened in the first place if it wasn't for you." Even with Zuko's acute hearing, he could only barely discern the exchange. "Before you arrived here and started strangling these people with your purse strings, this port was bald of dissidents. Now we're crawling with them; they could be watching us right now."
"I will not be goaded!" Trelanus growled, his breath growing uneven. The Prefect's temples strained and his nostrils flared as his skin grew moist. "The Black Hoods are an unorganized rabble," he hissed, "the manifestation of all the temper tantrums you Wood Clan heathens restrain. I do not fear them."
"But you do fear...the Imperator..."
Trelanus stood as still as a statue, his face as pale as marble and his eyes blank with horror. He nearly disappeared into the plaster white background, or at least he wished to do so. The Arbiter leaned in closely to the Prefect's petrified face, his steel gray eyes and abyss blue tattoo glinting wickedly in unison. Zuko stared at the two men, unnerved at how much it looked like the Arbiter was thrusting a dagger into the politician's back and twisting it. All was quiet. Both Zuko and the crowds strained to listen as the Arbiter continued whispering into the Prefect's ears.
"...And wisely so. I can only imagine the things he would do to you if he discovered that your overzealous tax policies had resulted in a famine."
Not a sound was heard. Not a whisper. Not until Trelanus' lips began to slowly pry apart and utter something indiscernible.
"I'm sorry?" Liam said. "What was that?"
"Fo—forty, forty five."
"FORTY FIVE PERCENT!!!"
The crowd began to erupt with cheers and bellows of approval as the tax official descended the podium. "AND NOT A BUSHEL LESS!!" he screamed in retreat. "You!" Trelanus squeaked, pointing a shaking digit at a smug Liam. "As the locals say: Damn you to Helheim!" The wiry windbag then retired to an opulent office building at the far side of the forum, badgered by jeering protesters as he did so. Liam, meanwhile, strode down the steps towards a stunned Zuko and began to march back down the street in his company.
They strode in silence with Zuko trying to analyze what he had just seen. He had just begun to formulate a question when the Arbiter broke into his line of thought. "This wasn't quite the way I'd hoped to introduce a head of state to Milesia, but I hope you've been somewhat prepared for the task ahead."
"Then why didn't you bring the others?" Zuko asked. "They need to be prepared for this mission too."
"Because they might not be in attendance." Zuko whipped around to face the Arbiter with an incredulous expression that demanded explanations. "I'm considering the option of sending them home on their sky bison so that we might accomplish this mission ourselves. We can cover just as much ground on the back of a sky ram; even more since it will only be the two of us."
"But why?! Aang is the Avatar. He and his friends saved our world, they saved—me! We need them on our roster—this world needs them!"
"This world needs seasoned diplomats and peacekeepers! It doesn't need epic heroes, or dashing warriors, or...dancers..."
Liam gestured towards the end of the street. Zuko buried his face in his palm.
Facing Death & the Soulless Eyes
Had death come? She hadn't anticipated how noisy the road to the afterlife would be. All that Toph could hear was a gentle trickle of plaster dust followed by a crashing crescendo of falling debris. Her ears then began to throb with deafening, pain filled screeches followed by the rushed pitter patter of approaching feet. Toph's students stood triumphant, palms outstretched in the air, willing the stone beams, plaster lining and clay tiles of the palace ceiling to entrap the monster's majestic wings as though they were crumpled umbrellas.
"NO!" Skuult hissed as his pet writhed in struggle under the heap of rubble. One of Toph's students rushed to her side and helped her to her feet. Enough strength returned to her limbs for her to stand on her own, albeit a bit shakily. After boosting his master to her footing, the Dark One turned and beheld the incarcerated beast that lay before him.
And that was all he could do. He did not possess his master's keen senses. He could not feel the resignation twisting at its sinews or the fear that ran cold through its veins. He could only the see the beast's subsiding struggles; see it laying under the pile of wreckage almost as if in surrender to its impending death. He could not tell what flowed through its mind as Ho Tun raised a fractured column above its back or as Penga sharpened the point of the stone spear with quick slashes of her hand. It sat there, its lithe, feline muscles relaxed, with its gnarled horns and aquiline visage as blank as the marble surrounding it. He could not hear the creature's breathing—now shallow—but instead, the disappointed groans of its master as he looked on from the corner.
"Wait!" the Dark One shouted, staying the poised pillar with his hand.
"What do you mean wait?!" Penga shouted.
"This thing just tried to eat Sifu Toph, and kill all of us!" Ho Tun added with alarm.
"This thing couldn't help it," the Dark one reproached. He turned his head to glare at the imprisoned Druid at the far side of the library, getting an equally nasty gaze in return. For some reason, some urge had overtaken him and prodded him into doing something foolish under the guise of doing something right. He clenched his outstretched fist, crumpling the stone weapon into dust over the creature's hide. With astonished looks from the other disciples, the young metal bender cautiously drew towards the imprisoned animal. With gentle waves of his hand, he began shifting debris and shrapnel off of the dragon's wings.
For several agonizing moments the creature simply laid there, indolent and indifferent to its new freedom. Then, in a sickeningly slow motion, it raised its serpentine neck and propped itself up on its wings with cautious trepidation. Its piercing head then drifted towards the Dark One, roasting his shrinking form with its blazing orange eyes. Slowly it advanced, its clawed wingtips clacking on the ground.
The Dark One stood like a splinter, unmoving yet with eyes frantically trying to discern what indecipherable thoughts coursed through the beast's body. It betrayed none as it inched closer to the terrified youngster, scenting the fear on his skin with its cavernous nostrils, feeling the pulse of his heart with its wiry whiskers, seeing the tremors of his form with its abyssal eyes. It betrayed none; no emotion, no fear, no anger, only cold interest. The Dark One shuddered with contemplations of oblivion, having seen a trace of it in two tall, void like slits of darkness; having seen nothingness in the dragon's eyes.
"The gods have granted us a bountiful harvest!" a withered old Druid announced as he stood above a cheering crowd. "There is only one way to perpetuate our good fortunes and ensure fertile fields for the years to come!" The crowds howled with anticipation and stamped the ground in frenzy. "...human sacrifice!"
The hooting and hollering throng parted, revealing two burly men dragging a small girl, dressed all in white and crowned with flowers. She whimpered and dragged her feet in protest as the men carried her to her fate; a large fissure in the cliff around which the horde was gathered. The crevice splashed and spluttered with rushing water, a set of jaws slavering for its offering. As the men poised the girl at the fissures lip, the Druid declared, "May the gods bless us!" The girl was then thrust into the cleft and carried down its twisting shaft at blinding speeds, her screams of terror being heard along the way. After rushing through a dizzying gauntlet of twists and turns, she was hurled out of the cliff face; tossed like a piece of jetsam into the water below.
For a moment, all was silent. Not a sound was heard but the dull roar of the waves bellow. Then, a head emerged at the surface of the foaming water. "Come on in!" the girl squealed with delight, "The water's fine!"
"I, Druid Ariel" the old Shaman announced merrily, raising his oaken staff in the air, "officially declare this year's harvest festival initiated. Let the celebrations begin!" The crowd let loose loud cheers of jubilation as its occupants rushed to save a place on Port MacLir's cliff-side water slide.
The town below became alight with many colored lanterns and the music of countless fiddles, flutes, accordions, mandolins, Uilleann pipes and Bodhrán drums. That night, Port MacLir became a beacon of joy and light under the dark skies of Midland. The riotous rhythms, the upbeat cadence, the flowing beat, it all ran like a river through Aang's heart and coursed through his limbs as he danced to the music of the festival. Dancing just as merrily were troops of mummers, all littering the streets and writhing with the beat of the music. Each dancer cavorted in a different covering with some flouncing in the furs of wolverine-bears, others prancing in the pelts of saber-toothed-elk-tigers, some sashaying in salmon scales, and all wearing odd masks or skulls resembling those of animals.
Aang was surrounded by a group of these merrymakers now, enveloped in a fast paced cadence of clops, clacks, cracks and shuffles. Hoping to impress them, Aang embarked on the full list of forms he knew, from the Phoenix-Flight to the Camelephant strut. Each slide, each wave, each thrust and stamp was mirrored perfectly by his dancing companions. He saw no fatigue in their limbs as they mirrored his movements, not a bead of sweat down their faces, not a twitch in their limbs; only delight.
"Well at least nobody's bothering them," Zuko said as he shuffled past crowds of merrymakers with Liam on his tail.
"Just you wait," Liam said as he brushed past ornately adorned musicians. "All the same, we should keep an eye on them just to make sure." Spotting an empty street corner, Zuko and Liam perched themselves next to a lamppost as they kept watch on their charges.
"So where were we?" Zuko said as he leaned his back against the light fixture. "You were getting ready to boot them off the mission. Why? You've only known us for a few days, and you already claim to know what we're capable of?"
"I know of your group's exploits," Liam began, "and while your achievements are great, we face different circumstances now. We are not fighting a belligerent nation, but trying to reconcile a sovereign one with a disgraced people; trying to garner some dignity for a culture that feels like it doesn't exist anymore."
"It seems to exist to me," Zuko said, observing the festivities surrounding him.
"Only barely," Liam said with a downcast tone. "In fact, this is one of the few times I've seen the Milesians happy in recent years. Things used to be calmer before bastards like Trelanus started complicating matters, to put it politely."
"It can be that way again," Zuko said. "We've done so much recently. I know they don't operate as formally as you're used to, but give them a chance and their experience will show."
"But Milesia won't be so willing to give them that chance," Liam said. "The Clans have been pushed into the muck for so long they'll exploit any weakness, make any excuse to drag someone down with them for company. Being foreign and possessing a more casual demeanor, your friends will not be in a good position here."
"So what makes the difference with me? I'm foreign."
"There's potential for you here, Lord Zuko, despite that fact. You seem to know what it's like to make a name for yourself. That scar on your face isn't the only thing that shows your experience."
"You're reading my mind, aren't you?" Zuko said, his features crumpling with resentment.
"I'm not yet that proficient at metal bending. Even if I were at the moment, I wouldn't dare to invade your privacy in such a way."
"You might as well have."
"Forgive me your Lordship," Liam said, regret garbing his solemn voice. They both bowed their heads and stood in silence as the festival continued all around them. "Consider what I have said. I know your friends are strong, and mean well, but their inexperience is a liability that neither of us can afford."
Zuko raised his head and then looked with shame at his friends, dancing blissfully before his eyes, unaware of the decision brewing in his mind and the pain that the deliberation caused him. Aang, in particular, was quite absorbed in his dance with his newfound mummer friends. He turned his grinning head towards Sokka and Katara, both grinning back as they tried in vain to match the rapid rhythm of the mummers' feet. Aang could scarcely remember times like this, times when the world in its infinite complexities boiled down to a moment of joy and bliss.
But as his eyes returned to the gala, Aang was astonished to find that the mummers had disappeared. They were now replaced with wiggling heaps of wood-colored ooze, each of them slowly morphing into a different image. Before long the squirming blobs coalesced into human like forms, slowly whittling themselves into more detail.
The dancers were gone, and in their place stood Air Nomads. Each pelt was an orange robe, each headdress was a shining blue arrow tattooed to a bald head, each mask a face he hadn't seen for a hundred years. Aang jolted as the newly formed Air Nomads whipped themselves into the air before landing on the ground to commence a fluid, flowing, swaying dance in a circle around him. It was a perfect reenactment, a beautiful homage; a tribute.
The dance continued for what seemed in his mind to be hours before it ended with the Nomads smiling and giving deep bows before dissolving into ashen gray dust and floating on the winds. His senses seemed numbed for a short while after that. He barely sensed the audience that gathered to applaud the dancers' performances. He could barely feel the nostalgic tear that ran down his cheek as he whispered a final goodbye to his people amongst the loud clamor of the spectators. Before he could react, a wooden tendril seized him by the waist and dragged him to the side of the street towards an awaiting Arbiter.
"We need to get out of here," he said with an urgent tone.
"What's the matter?" Sokka said with a smug grin as he walked over. "We're just gaining our bearings."
"Tell me Mister Sokka, were they in your sights? —don't look you bollix!" Before Liam could stay the pivot of Sokka's inquisitive head, Sergeant Ramhar McLeathanlód and a group of burly looking constables came marching over from the other side of the street. "Oh, fantastic!" Liam groaned.
"That was quite a bit of dancin' there, wee one," the rotund constable said. "I'm sure you impress all the boys at the local cotillions." Aang and Katara simply folded their arms and ignored the fat man and his companions as they guffawed with glee. Sokka's bared teeth gleamed as white as his boomerang, which he would have hurled with fervor had Zuko not held back his throwing arm.
"And you, Sergeant," Liam rejoined, "must have really wooed MacLir's women when you got your fat arse kicked in last month's hurling tournament." Just noticing the Arbiter's presence, the fat man gritted his well exercised jaw. "They tell me that you whined like a wounded panther-hound, so I suppose you must have spoken."
"Where do ya get off speakin' that way to law enforcement, ' Mister Arbiter '?" the Sergeant spat.
"The same place you pluck up the nerve to badger my guests," Liam retorted. "Honestly! If dancing was a crime then I'd arrest every roll of fat on your body for each time you'd strut down the square." Unabashed laughs erupted all around the incensed officer. Even Sokka, fuming as he was, couldn't stifle a chuckle.
"We'll see who's laughin'," the Sergeant murmured. The corpulent officer then turned his back on the group of irate foreigners and marched down the street with his cadre of constables in tow.
"What was that about?" Sokka queried, scratching his head.
Following the thunderous blast, rattling shockwave and fiery rain of wood splinters, were the cries of panicked partygoers as they scrambled away from the scene of the explosion. Rushing into the fray was Liam who ran past the terrified townspeople, heading straight for the plume of smoke that towered above the black streets. Approaching the scene, he could see a giant crater in the river of dark rock, smoking, fuming, and burning with remnants of charred wood and linen. Dashing to and fro were Legionnaires, carrying buckets of water in an attempt to wean hungry newborn fires. Kneeling at the craters edge was Prefect Trelanus, a badly burned soldier in his arms.
"Corbulo!" Trelanus pleaded. "Centurion Corbulo! What is your status?!"
"W—worthy," the wounded soldier moaned. Coughing up blood on his shattered armor and gasping for breath, he managed to only wheeze his dying words. "I f—feel worthy of the Empire at last... Axios!" As the breath of Centurion Corbulo faded, his eyelids were shut by Trelanus' shaking fingers. The Prefect remained fixed upon the pavement, his eyes wide with shock, his wiry body trembling, his lips quivering, and his tongue writhing for the freedom to speak what he truly desired. Fear suspended his right.
"See what good this has done, Arbiter?!" he wailed. "See how useless it is to negotiate with these heathens! These barbarians...these savages!" Ignoring the distraught Steel Citizen as he fell to pieces like porcelain, Liam searched for an officer that hadn't lost his head.
"What happened?!" Liam shouted at a passing soldier.
"Someone lined the Prefect's carriage with blasting jelly," one frightened officer bleated. "It went off just as the Prefect was entering it. He'd be dead if it wasn't for Corbulo, sir."
"We'll all be dead!" Trelanus howled, his face melting into putty. "Those hooded hydras will make corpses of us all!"
Just then, Aang, Katara, Sokka and Zuko came running up to the scene of destruction.
"Let us help," Aang said. "We can put out the—"
"Lord Zuko," Liam said, cutting them off. "See to it that your friends get to the inn and stay there."
Liam then whipped around and hurried off to join the frantic Legionnaires as they secured the area. Before any of them could protest further, Zuko beckoned them to follow as he made for The Thistle & Harp. Leaving the bedlam behind, the four friends entered the shelter of the inn, finding a warm fire and an agitated Momo awaiting them.
"Jeez, what's that guy's problem?" Sokka said. "We could have helped."
"He's trying to be a good leader, that's his problem," Zuko rejoined. "Believe it or not, he has this team's best interests in mind."
"Well, he's not doing us any favors by sheltering us," Katara said. "We'll have to face the good, bad and ugly of this place if we're going to have any success on this mission." Zuko remained silent, leaning against the fireplace and gazing remorsefully into the flames.
"Let's all get some sleep," he murmured.
Now alone, the group settled in for the night, hoping the trauma of the day would dissolve by morning. Zuko peeled off his tunic and loosened his ponytail before splaying himself in front of the fire. Katara and Aang nestled themselves in a woolen blanket on a large, leatherback sofa while Sokka unpacked his mummy bag and laid it under the window.
As Katara nuzzled up next to Aang, she could sense his further unrest. "Aang," Katara whispered. "Are you still upset about what Liam said earlier today?"
"It's not what he said, it's what I've done," Aang said. "I haven't been acting like a man lately, especially not towards you."
"If this about not being there for me; don't worry. I can take care of myself."
"But can I take care of myself. It's up to me to impress everyone here when they've already made up their minds to hate me. And then a bomb goes off in the street and what am I doing? I'm busy smelling the roses. I'm acting like a...a..." A tear rushed down his cheek before he could say, without meaning to, "an Air Nomad."
"There's no shame in that," Katara said, wiping away the tear with her gentle finger. "He may have been right about building a reputation with these people, but he was wrong about one thing. You are who you are because of what you've done and because of the choices you make...personally, I'm glad you chose me." Aang's lips broke into a loving smile as Katara rested her head on his shoulder and let the lullaby of his heart sing her to sleep.
"I'm glad you chose me too," Aang whispered, planting a kiss on Katara's head before joining her in slumber. Zuko had less success in conking out. For minutes, and then hours he kept tossing and turning on the floor before the fireplace, his mind burning with thoughts of his exchange with the Arbiter, with regret of the betrayal budding in his mind. Suddenly, it began to flare with a new thought. It engulfed his mind as with a sudden remembrance: Who is the Imperator?
His mind and body remained still, however, when he heard footsteps outside the door. Slow and soft, they began invading the room even before the door slowly creaked open. Zuko lay as still as a stone, keeping his eyes fixed on the portal. There was no sound except for Momo's quiet hiss as the Lemur-bat crawled behind Zuko's tensed body for protection. As the footsteps began to resonate across the room, Zuko expected to see their owner. There was only air.
His heart beat rapidly. His naked torso exuded sweat. His greasy fingers began reaching for his Dao swords. His ears were pricked, hoping that what he heard was his imagination. His eyes were wide open, hoping to never see the origin of the sounds. His breath was still. His hair stood on end. His mind was blank.
"Oh, you're still up."
Zuko leapt to his feet, drawing his swords, baring his teeth, scowling in anger and tensing for the strike.
"Relax, it's me," the voice whispered again. Before his eyes, Zuko saw a cloud of energy appear. It began to thicken and coalesce into the shape of a man, finally revealing the form of the Arbiter. "Metal benders can control light, remember?"
"Ugh," Zuko sighed in relief. He sheathed his Dao swords and sat cross-legged in front of the faint remains of the fire.
"Forgive me if I startled you, your Lordship," Liam said. "I didn't want to wake the others." Liam crossed the room and settled himself in a wingback chair. "It was the Black Hoods again."
"Are these the rebels we're looking for?"
"No, the Black Hoods are indignant Clansmen, not disgruntled Imperials, but they could have relations. They won't be a problem if we're careful, though. But if they find out who we are and what we're trying to do here, our job will be much more difficult. The Black Hoods would see Helheim ablaze before a peace with the Imperials." He then folded his hands across his middle and pitched back in his chair. "You should get some rest. We have a long journey ahead of us."
"Define we," Zuko asked expectantly.
"That'll be decided in the morning. For now—"
"For now, you can tell me who this Imperator is."
"I have only—yaaaaawww—the faintest idea," Liam yawned as he settled himself in his seat. "I always thought of it as some metaphor for Imperial rule. A man as tightly wound as Trelanus would naturally avoid inspections like they were the Black Blight. Why do you ask?"
"I ask because I've never known red tape to arouse such fear...and that's saying a lot, being the leader of the Fire Nation."
"Well, just the fact that it does makes me grateful, and I've never been inclined...to look a gift dragon-steed...in the beak." Before Zuko could press on, Liam leaned back in his chair and closed his eyelids, eventually reciting a sonnet of snores. Unsatisfied, yet too tired to write in his journal, Zuko stretched out on the floor. As seemed to be his new habit, he stared into the dimly glowing coals of the fireplace until he begrudgingly fell asleep.
On Leather Wings
The Dark One was imprisoned by the Dragon's fiery stare. The two orbs of glowing flame pierced his soul when their owner showed none.
"So, what's...what's your name?" he asked. Only silence replied. "Fafnir is it? That's a pretty name for a pretty dragon." He searched through his mind for anything he could say, anything he could do to coax a reaction out of the scaly creature. He would have settled for a bellow of fury and another rampage of destruction, anything besides the galling silence and grating stare. In the void of movement, his mind was forced to race between images of his own gruesome death, from being burned to a charred husk or squashed into a bloody smear...or perhaps only being ignored. But the decision rested with a creature whose intentions were unintelligible to the point of eliciting fury in the young earth bender. "Do something!" he almost whispered.
The beast obliged. Its head dipped down to his level and its fangs parted wide. Imagining a searing torrent of fire, The Dark One was instead engulfed in a deluge of saliva as a wriggling pink tongue lifted him off the ground. Hopping back to the floor, The Dark One smiled in surprise (no small feat) and began stroking the creature's feathery beard. The gigantic beast's eyes closed with bliss as she began to purr like a housecat. The two other disciples, joined by their teacher, heaved a collective sigh of relief. With respite beginning to restore some of her vitality, Toph stood up straight and began to dust herself off until she heard an indignant screech issue from the corner of the room. "What's wrong with you, you stupid wyrm?!" Skuult hissed, still trapped under a pillar of rock. "Kill them!" Fafnir's orange eyes blazed with annoyance as she emitted a stream of hostile, guttural growls in the old Druid's direction. The man's expressions grew anxious as his turncoat pet eyed him hungrily. "Thanks for reminding me scruffy!" Toph said with restored spunk. She encased the Druid in a cocoon of plaster and sent him rolling towards her across the floor. Toph then raised her leg and aimed it towards the lower half of the plaster chrysalis. From the cry of agony and litany of curses, Toph could tell that she had hit her mark. "We've got words with you," she said, leaning on her perched knee.
"Not to sound nonchalant," The Dark One said, "but we don't want any part in your war against this Imperator. Free Ba-Sing-Se and we'll reconsider feeding you to your pet." Skuult's eyes darted the hungry dragon, now looming over him. Without flinch, his eyes then calmly confronted his captor's.
"Do that and your kin will be enslaved to the Blight forever," he said. "And you are too late to stop them by any other means; I have already sounded the call. My new soldiers are marching west towards my homeland as we speak. They will breach your city's outer wall before the hour is over, and with the Blight spurring them, they will cross the sea in a matter of days."
"That's not going to happen," Toph growled through gritted teeth. "Not if there's anything I can do about it."
"Oh it will happen," Skuult foretold, a complacent grin beginning to spread across his face. "And it will be in your comrades' best interests to see to it that it does." He spoke with an emerging tone of self-satisfied staidness that caused Toph's stomach to churn. "And why would I do that?" Toph questioned with a snarl. She pressed the old man's chrysalis even tighter under her foot; deriving solace from her prisoner's quickening heartbeat. "Because...urgh...the only known cure for the Black Blight is derived from a plant that grows in my homeland," the crooked old Druid wheezed. "If you want to release your friends then you will have to let them finish their work." Toph ceased quashing her captive as the gears in her bowed head began to grind with frustration. Seeing the consternation in her face, Skuult's smug grin returned and taunted the earth bender's blind eyes. After several agonizing moments, Toph stood up, jacked the imprisoned Skuult into the air and marched towards her students with the wriggling cocoon slumped over her shoulder. Confused and sore from Toph's punishment, the old man began to grunt and heave with discomfort as his cocooned body swayed to and fro across her strong, broad shoulders. "Ho Tun, I need you to go to the Northern Air Temple and then to the Earthen Fire refinery," she ordered. "And Penga, once you've rounded up some of those eggheads from Ba-Sing-Se University, go to the Ruins of Taku. Tell them all to meet us at Pohuai Stronghold. We're going to have ourselves a little reunion." With a pillar of rock, Toph boosted herself on top of the Dragon's back and urged The Dark One to do the same. "I'm not going to give in to this old weasel without a fight!" she declared with her fist in the air. "We're going to stop them before they reach the sea, and we're going to find a cure, no matter what this crotchety old loony says."
"You have a candle's chance in Helheim, runt," Skuult snubbed. "If you think you're—hrrmf" Toph gagged the squawking old geezer with some plaster and nestled herself between the creature's wings. "Alright droopy," she said, addressing her mounted student, "you fly us there." The Dark One patted Fafnir on her neck and urged the reptilian creature to crawl out onto the veranda outside the library. "And another thing," she called down to her departing disciples. "Find out where Aang is. I could really use the Avatar right about now."
"But there's still no sign of him," Ho Tun replied glumly. "Ugh," Toph groaned. "Keep looking for him. Come on," she said to her mounted student, "let's go. With another pat on her haunches, Fafnir took to the air and carried her passengers over the walled capital of the Earth Kingdom on her leathery wings. Toph's stomach lurched with vertigo at each flap of the dragon's webbed arms. After her ordeal, she could only barely tolerate being separated from the earth. Feeling the bright morning sun on her skin and the chilled wind on her face, Toph could also smell something familiar as they flew over the city. "You smell it too?" The Dark One shouted over the wind. "It's smoke, coming from the city's outer ring." As they flew towards the edge of Ba-Sing-Se, a panorama of destruction greeted them. Whereas the inner, more affluent rings of the city were relatively pristine, the outskirts were charred and torn. Hanging black against the sun, many plumes of smoke wove their way into the air above a forest of fire and ruin. The blackened remains of slums, ghettoes and streets were further darkened by these sun blotting pillars of ash. "You're lucky you don't have to see this," The Dark One said. Below them, Toph could hear the rumble of moving earth, as if a tidal wave had erupted from the ground. The Dark One could see multitudes of bodies; young, old, strong, weak, healthy, sick, rich, poor, all gliding on waves of soil and rock with the power of earth bending. They moved seemingly without will in their bedraggled, outstretched limbs, yet they went with a singleness of mind that could only be seen in an ant hill. It was a graveyard where the corpses walked.
From below, updrafts of warm air came to greet them, supplied by the many greedy fires resident in the ruin below. Taking advantage of the rising thermals, Fafnir circled around the inky black clouds, soaring ever higher into the sky before she broke off and glided west; trailing after the possessed earth benders. "If we don't stop them," The Dark One began, "they'll plow through Pohuai Stronghold and cross the sea. They'll arrive at wherever this monster calls home," he said pointing a thumb at Skuult, "and probably die fighting in his war. I sure hope you have a plan." "I do," Toph said. "I just hope it works." As Fafnir's wings steadied and the wind calmed, Toph's weariness steadily returned. She leaned against her student's back and slowly drifted off to sleep. "Aang," she murmured. "Where are you when I need you?"
Return of the King
Aang and Zuko awoke with a start, leaping onto the ground and poising for action. "What was that?!" Aang cried. Sokka, Katara and Momo leapt to their feet as well, but Liam only seemed to sluggishly rise from his slumber.
"That—yaaaaahhhhww—would be the cry of the banshee-rooster," he yawned. "Either it's time to wake up or somebody's about to die. I was beginning to hope that it would be the latter." Transforming his arms into long vines, he stretched his night cramps out towards the ceiling. "We should get ready to go. We've got a long journey ahead of us," he said with a glance in Zuko's direction. The young Fire Lord bowed his head in shame. He knew that this was the morning that they would all know. They all packed their things and made their way out of the inn, passing through a parlor that was empty but for a lone stranger, garbed in a black cloak and puffing on a pipe. As they headed out the door a wall of white fluff greeted them.
"Hey Appa, what's going on?" Aang said. "What are you—?"
As the sky bison shuffled out of his view, Aang could see the street before him awash with chaos, filled with scuffling bodies and the clouds of dust they stirred. In front of the inn, they could see a formation of Legionnaires forming a wall of shields. Attempting to scale the barricade of soldiers was a mob of angrily shouting Wood Clansmen, baring their teeth and their rage. Most of them were young men, their bodies tensed with pent up rage and frustration that panged for release. Above the noise of the mob, Zuko could hear the clangs and bangs of shutters, windows and doors emanating from the surrounding town. The residents of MacLir were bracing themselves for the storm to come.
"What's the meaning of all this?!" Liam shouted.
"Allow me to explain!" a deep voice issued out from the crowd. The throng parted (really) wide to admit Sergeant Ramhar McLeathanlód. The constable strutted with a predatory self-confidence, his helmet and sword glittering with malice. "Yew and yer friends are under arrest, and with a warrant this tyme!"
"A warrant?" Liam queried. "Under who's authority?"
"It was issued by the order of our estimable Prefect," the smug Sergeant replied. "Ya see, me an' the Prefect 'ave been puttin' our Imperial funded educations to work. It seems the Clans and Imperials can work together quite well ahfter all," He added with a chuckle. "We find it to be more than just a koinkydink that yer lot showed up just when the assassinations were rampin' up."
"That's absurd!" Liam rebuked. "We had no hand and no motive in the assassinations. My guests have no quarrel with the Empire or the Clans."
"Oh really?" the Sergeant said. "Think about it lads!" the Sergeant announced as he turned to address the crowd. "He may not look it, but their leader is an Air Nomad, and we all know of their avaricious ways!" The mob began to reform with murmurs of suspicion and agreement, rising into a rumbling crescendo. "Their kind 'ave taken advantage of our misfortunes in the past! They bled us dry for food when taxes where high 'cause they knew we'd 'ave no choice! If ya ask me, I think seein' our Prefect lower the taxes, seein' his edge tayken away, would set this little sea rat off somethin' fierce. Might 'ave mayde him do somethin'...irrational."
"This is ludicrous!" Liam burst in outrage. "This is inane! This is unfounded!"
"This is Milesia!" the Sergeant shouted. "And this'd be an arrest!"
The mob continued to draw near, their anger filled bellows growing louder and more threatening. Appa growled and stroked the ground before him while Momo arched his back and hissed. Liam, Zuko and Sokka all tensed, keeping their hands near their weapons while Katara's fingers hovered near her canteen. Aang held his staff close to his body, until he realized something. "It's time I started acting like a man." He stood firm against the wall of seething hatred and widened his stance.
"Hear me people of Milesia," Aang announced. "I am the Avatar, a humble monk, and these are my friends. We bear no ill will towards you."
"Stuff it, wee one!" the Sergeant barked. The lumbering constable now headed the pack of snarling Clansmen, carrying his sword as it shined with malice. "We'll 'ave none o yer lies."
Aang paused, but continued to hold his ground. "If you're all convinced that we had a hand in the attempted assassination of your Prefect," he said, slowing his words to conserve his fear soaked breath, "then I'll submit myself to your investigation." Aang held out his upturned hands, waiting for a response from crowd, now murmuring with misgivings and cynicism. "Take me in, but let my friends proceed with their errand of peace. As long as I'm in your custody, you'll see no trouble from them."
Some in the crowd were silent and unsure, looking to each other for counsel on their enemies' actions. Others booed with disbelief, but clamored for his arrest nonetheless. One man, one of McLeathanlód's constables, stepped forward with a pair of cuffs to accompany his pair of staid eyes.
"That's right Seamus," his companions urged. "Bring him to justice!" As the constable approached with fetters in hand, a Legionnaire broke formation bearing manacles for the air bender's feet.
"Don't do this Aang," Katara protested, grabbing his shoulder. Zuko and Sokka reflected the sentiment in their faces as Aang became bound in his restraints. "We need you."
"I'm doing this for you," Aang said with a resolute glance. "And besides, I have faith in you all," he added with a loving final look at his companions. "You can take care of yourselves. Hopefully I won't be detained for so long this time."
"You can do more than hope, lad." Aang looked down to see that it was the constable who had spoken. "The terrorists I've seen in recent years wouldn't have turned themselves in with so strait a face as yours," he said as he linked the cuffs. "Your gesture won't mean much here, but if I can make a difference, then I'll do my best to see to it you get a fair trial." Aang's face formed an appreciative smile as the constable stood and clasped Aang on the shoulder. "This is awful big of ya, more than I've—AGHHH!"
Abruptly shattering this dialogue was the piercing whistle of an arrow, appearing out of the crook of Aang's arm to lodge itself into the constable's hip with the sound of meat being butchered. After a fleeting silence, the enraged voice of the Sergeant rung out through the street.
"Those bastards just shot at us!" the Sergeant cried. "Don't let 'em get away!" The mob burst forth over the line of Legionnaires like water pouring over a dam, nearly trampling the wounded constable underfoot. Zuko set a tier of flame between them while Katara showered them in slush.
"Bastards!" the constable bellowed. The Sergeant pushed aside a Legionnaire and leapt in front of Aang. The young monk tried to escape with a blast of wind before he remembered his self-imposed handicaps. Before the others could react, the Sergeant swung his sword over his head, whipping it down on the surprised air bender with blinding fury. "Aang!"
He thought Katara's panic stricken voice would be the last thing he would hear as the sword flashed before his eyes...along with something else. Prying open his eyelids, he saw the blade of the sword hovering before his face, seized in the grip of a shining blue hand. The Sergeant stood in amazement, still clutching his weapon as it was rested from his grip by a giant man standing behind Aang. The statuesque stranger glowed with a blue light, his aura humming with power as he willed the Sergeant's sword to melt into slag in his very hands. Before the Sergeant could flee in terror, he was seized by the collar and flung twenty feet across the road into a fountain, engulfing it in a thunderous splash and an obscene tidal wave. The rest of the mob shook with fear and parted as the man slowly advanced on them, the ground shaking with his every step.
The towering stranger raised his outstretched hand, and with a quick wave of it, sent bolts of lightning hurtling down from the clouds to crash over every rooftop in the street, sending a gut wrenching shockwave rocketing through the ground.
"By your King's command," he declared, his voice a haunting echo, "FLEE!!!!"
The horrified rioters all scrambled for their lives in a mad rush to escape the ghostly giant. As the street emptied, the towering man turned to regard Aang and his company who now stood in shocked silence. He revealed, along with his glowing blue eyes, a brow, radiant with a shining blue sigil; a triadic knot. Above it rested a golden circlet, fastened upon a mane of kingly brown hair. All else below it, from the man's giant like build to his royal cloak, tabard and chain-mail armor bespoke of a King.
"It is a shame," the man said, his sonorous voice growing deep and forlorn. "...It is a shame that men can only seem to unite against an alien foe. It is a shame that you all had the misfortune to be the aliens."
"Are you the Imperator?" Zuko asked, his body becoming rigid with hesitation.
"No," the man responded, showing no anger. "I am Camulos; King of Midland—once and ever since."
"You're the man Archmage Emrys spoke of!" Katara declared in awe. "You're the one who united this world."
"Indeed. With you here, noble champions of the east, these lands may yet again become reunited. I come before you all to grant you my blessing in your quest."
"Thank you sir," Aang said with graciousness, folding his hands as he bowed.
"I also come to vouchsafe a warning." Aang rose from his salute, looking into the King's glowing eyes with concern. "The Arbiter's anger released me from my incarceration for but a short time," the King said with a foreboding tone. "I have uncovered a vital new insight in my imprisonment. The Imperator is—AGGHH!!!!"
Everyone flinched as the man doubled over in pain and cried out in agony as though an unseen dagger was piercing his flesh. As Aang rushed to his side to aide him, the man's radiant aura began to fade and his form began to shrink. Like mist, the apparition of the King was drawn into the sky by an unseen void to disappear in a flash of blinding light. Crouched over the spot where the King had once stood was Liam, heaving and coughing with exhaustion.
"What...ugh... what happened?" he gasped.
"Liam!" Katara exclaimed. Both she and Aang rushed to his side as Sokka and Zuko looked on with concern.
"Take it easy," Aang said with urgency, trying to ease the Arbiter onto his back. "You went into some sort of Avatar—or, Arbiter state. You were channeling your ancestor, the King of Midland. He said—"
"Camulos!" Liam gasped. "He was here?! What did he say?!"
"He said something about the Imperator," Zuko replied, "right before your connection with him was severed." Liam and Zuko were the only ones that didn't look confused, and somewhat disturbed at the mention of the name. Liam looked troublingly at Zuko before attempting to prop himself up on his feet. As he regained his footing he staggered over towards Aapa and rubbed his face in fatigue. As his hand peeled away, it revealed features that seemed, stunningly, more haggard than before. The lines of his face appeared starker and his skin pale—almost ashen.
"Are you alright?" Katara asked. "If you need, I can heal—"
"No! N—no, no thank you Miss Katara. I'll manage." He rubbed his tattooed brow once more, and in almost an instant the vitality of his feature's returned. "What I don't understand is...why has he approached me now, after all the years I besought him?"
"He said it was your anger that brought him," Aang said. "That's similar to the way I sometimes enter the Avatar state and channel my past lives. In a time of great personal distress or danger, it can act as a defense. What was it that made you so angry?" he asked in earnest. Liam stood silently, his gaze averted, his head hung. Slowly, he met their eyes.
"I have a confession to make."
They all looked at him with curiosity; all except for Zuko, who knew what approached. "I had considered completing this mission with only Lord Zuko by my side," Liam said. "I had considered leaving you all behind." Aang, Katara and Sokka stood in silence, their faces stretched with surprise. "I didn't believe that you were prepared to face a challenge like this, that only the stoic and levelheaded could bring peace to my world. Now, I am ashamed to say, my judgments were both premature and biased." The Arbiter's face was wrought with reluctance, his words weighted with contrition. "What angered me was my own hypocrisy. What I really wanted was to keep you from seeing my homeland like this. I wanted to keep you from seeing the disgrace of my people; from both the Metal Empire and Wood Clans."
They looked at each other, unsure of what to say. "I was actually happy that you defied my orders last night. I was glad to see that something still remained of the days when things weren't so turbulent here." They listened intently, growing ever more surprised as he spoke. "I was also...very surprised and...humbled, seeing what you did today Master—er—Mister Aang. I saw great bravery and solidarity in you all; enough to make me think twice about judging you all so quickly ever again." He then brought his feet together, curled his palm over his other fist and gave a deep bow. "Will you all accept my humblest apologies as well as my services as a guide to these lands?"
"It would be an honor," Aang began, issuing a bow of his own, "to have you as our guide." Rising from his salute, Liam found grateful smiles awaiting him. "We know what you're going through," Aang said. "For the past hundred years, our world has been through a war in which all sides lost a little dignity. We gave everything we had to end that war and to repair the damage. We've learned a lot from what we've done, and we'll do our best to show it," Aang affirmed. "We'll do whatever we can to help both our worlds." Aang then walked over to Appa's side, grabbed his reins and offered them to Liam. "You lead the way."
Liam looked as taken aback as they had been before. For a few moments he simply stared at the young air bending monk. Slowly, his remorseful expressions turned to those of gratitude, before accepting the reins and nodding his head in appreciation. His eagle like gaze returned, however, when he spied something on the ground. Bending over, he extracted the broken, bloodied shaft of a black arrow, fletched in eagle feathers of the same dark color.
"Black Hoods," he said with a grave voice. Zuko reflected Liam's troubled face.
"We'll explain on the way," the Fire Lord said to his compatriots.
They all climbed aboard Appa, and with another ' yip-yip ', ascended into the azure sky and sailed over the verdant waves of Milesia. She would reveal many things; good, bad, ugly, ancient, wild, beautiful, and dangerous.
Watching the sky bison rise into the clouds above was Sergeant McLeathanlód, sopping wet and hiding behind a stack of crates in a secluded alleyway. He tiptoed down the street, hoping to avoid drawing any attention, but failing miserably as his waterlogged boots sloshed and squished. Just then, a shady figure materialized out of the shadows, nearly causing his weak heart to pause. Falling on his posterior, the Sergeant inched backward as the shadowy form of a man stepped forward, puffing on a smoking pipe.
"The Black Hoods are very disappointed in you, amigo," the figure whispered with a serpentine accent. "You have some explaining to do."
"I—I tried, Mister Jingo sir," the Sergeant stuttered. "I tried to get rid of the foreigners and pin the assassination on 'em like you said, but the Arbiter watched 'em like a panther-hound stalks a bahby."
"We are tired of your excuses. You had plenty of chances to shoo away the interlopers...but even with our help, you are helpless." The Sergeant's skin became moist with both water and sweat as the shadow stepped towards him. His boots followed a steady beat of solitary, sepulchral clops, until one went flying into the Sergeant's gut. Doubling over, the porcine constable let out a squeal of pain as the shadow propped his foot atop his back. "Besides that, I remember something that you said," the hooded man breathed, resting on his bolstered knee. "...Something that truly aggravated me. The Empire and the Clans...working together?" The Sergeant grunted under the weight of the shadow, nearly cutting his tongue with his pain and dirt filled jaw. "Do you forget so soon how they have, for so long, disgraced and plundered our people, pushed our faces into the filth as I do to you now?"
"I meant only—uggh," the Sergeant began as he begged for the slightest breath. "—I meant only to—cover our tracks, like you ordered."
"That reminds me," the hooded man said. "Speaking of tracks, I see the Arbiter has returned from his hermitage in Cordéiba. Where is he off to on that giant sky ram of his?" The shadow dismounted the poor Sergeant who hacked and spluttered froth all below him.
"They're—cough, cough—headed northwest," the Sergeant gagged.
"To the Tuath Comhairle, no doubt." A long pause accompanied the shady man's jaunt down the alleyway before he turned and snapped his fingers. Two other hooded men emerged from the shadows and surrounded the profusely sweating Sergeant. "I am afraid I must leave you now, amigo. I have an appointment to keep in New Caerleon." The men produced two longbows, notching them with eagle feather arrows. "While the Black Hoods are grateful for your aid in our fight against the Imperator," Jingo began as the two men took aim, "your initiation has been rejected." He snapped his fingers a final time.
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