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|Chapter 4 - The Wooden Road (ALA)|
Aug 31, 2014
A Gift of Courage
Toph stood on the veranda of Pohuai Stronghold's pagoda tower, basking in the light of the early morning sun and letting the cool breezes beat against her face. She would have hoped for the winds to carry an inviting scent to her nose, better news to her ears and resolve to her heart, but all that arrived was the dread of her new labor.
"Sir!" a sentry shouted from the crenelations. "The Mechanist has arrived! His airship approaches from the north!" As the sentry's shouts subsided, the steady hum of an engine gradually began to grace her ears. She drummed her fingers on the veranda railing with an anxious beat, impatiently waiting for the distant airship's dull roar to crescendo into the hysterical symphony of clanks and torques that she had grown accustomed to hearing from machines.
"It will be alright," the Dark One reassured her as he ventured onto the balcony. "I'm sure the others will arrive soon. The Mechanist is already here and it's only been—"
"Almost a week," Toph spoke through gritted teeth.
"I'm as anxious as you," the Dark One ventured, "but we must be strong—and patient. The only thing we can't bend is time." Toph's fingers continued to drum along the railing, their pace unaffected by her student's attempts to console her. Sensing his failure as well, the Dark One reluctantly broke off and sauntered towards the tower.
"I'll be feeding Fafnir," he grunted as he left. "If there's...anything you need..." he added ashamedly, having caught himself, "just—"
"I'll holler," she said with an invisible smile of gratitude. "Thanks." The Dark One would have returned the smile, but was interrupted when a frazzled looking messenger pierced the pagoda.
"Sir!" he panted. "Your other student and the healers from Ba-Sing-Se have arrived by train, as well as Master Satoru. They—"
"Finally!" Toph groaned. "Tell them to gather in the courtyard—and bring the prisoner." The Dark One nodded with acknowledgement before departing with the messenger, leaving Toph alone on the balcony facing the rising sun. After they had disappeared, she was finally alone to contemplate what she truly desired. With trepidation she lifted herself onto the balustrade, standing at a dizzying height above the unyielding ground below, wishing with every breath she took to let her body go limp and become one with the earth that vouchsafed her sight. Never before had she been responsible for so many lives.
"Why couldn't Aang be here?" she thought. "He's the hero, not me. How can the greatest Earth bender in the world fight the world?"
It didn't matter.
With a deep breath she let her weight carry her down to her element, gradually letting gravity overcome her. For the brief moment that she spent suspended in midair she began to realize:
It didn't matter.
She swung her feet beneath her body before slamming her weight into the ground, willing the foundations of the fortress to shake with her might. The shock-wave was felt all over the base, from the Mechanist and his son disembarking from their docked airship to the jittery professors emerging from their train. The batty old healer accompanying them held out her hand, expecting a thunderstorm.
As the dust clouds cleared she strode away from the crater that lay as testament to her prowess, lifting each foot with new confidence and strength. She realized that it didn't matter what she had done in the past, it was what she had come here to do that was important. She wouldn't let her fear hold her back from doing a dirty job: she was an earth bender after all.
As she approached the center of the courtyard she found a crowd beginning to assemble in front of her. She felt the Mechanist carting his chair ridden son, Teo, towards the middle of the yard, his prosthetic hand creaking with anxiety. From the other side of the grounds she could feel the nervous cadence of Ba-Sing-Se's doctors and the shaky saunter of the Taku medicine woman as they waddled over towards her. Following them were the haggard footsteps of Satoru, devoid of the enthusiasm and effervescence she had fondly remembered. Completing the assembly, her other students reunited by her side just as the Dark One and a collection of Fire Nation soldiers came by, carrying the still cocoon of plaster containing their sleeping prisoner.
"Er—good morning Sifu Toph," the Mechanist stammered upon seeing the approaching earth bender girl. Prying his hands from his son's wheelchair, the wiry bearded man attempted a small bow.
"Does this look like a good morning?" Toph snapped. The Mechanist jolted at hearing the venom in her voice and though her eyes were milky white, they seemed to bore through him with iciness.
"Oh—no, of course, that's...not what I meant."
"Really?" Toph pressed, "because it seems like you don't know why you're here."
"Er—no, I have been thoroughly briefed on the situation, I assure you," the Mechanist struggled to retaliate.
"Well let me refresh all of you," Toph announced as she beckoned to the Dark One. "What we thought was a plague ravaging Ba-sing-Se was really a tool used by this man to press new soldiers into his own private army," Toph said with a motion towards her prisoner. "Take a good look at the face of our enemy." She motioned for her student to remove Skuult's mask. No sooner than he did, the old man snapped awake, sprouted slimy tentacles from his face and saluted with a resonating "BLUUUUGGGGHH!" The crowd erupted all with frightened whispers of fearful awe and astonishment, all while the Dark One moved quickly to end the wicked old man's fun.
"Fascinating!" the Mechanist exclaimed, his beady eyes twinkling. "Uh—I mean, how horrid! Er...Sifu Toph," he addressed turning towards the earth bender with wrung hands. "I'm flattered that you called upon me to help resolve this crisis," he whispered, leaning towards Toph with apprehension. "But I'm just not sure how to combat these circumstances—especially against a man like that!" he said, pointing to Skuult's, now muzzled, grin. "In recent years, most of my skills have been used for making weapons of war," he said with a foul glare at the assembled Fire Nation soldiers, "hardly devices to be used on poor souls like these, and these doctors tell me there is no cure for the plague so I haven't any idea how—"
"I'm hearing a lot of excuses from the ' great ' Mechanist," Toph said, "and for the record, we're not trying to cure this plague—not yet." She marched past the Mechanist's flummoxed expression and started pacing before the crowd. "I've brought the finest doctors in the Earth Kingdom here to concoct a drug powerful enough to sedate the possessed earth benders and give us time to find a cure in the prisoner's homeland. Should be easy enough, right?"
The healers all gave diffident nods.
"The hard part is going to be getting them to hold still long enough for us to apply the drug. That's why the Mechanist is here. But hopefully, this fortress should help him out with that," she said as she turned her digit towards the stronghold keep. "Excluding the top floor, that tower has a hollow space down its center—does that give you any ideas?" she asked tantalizingly.
"Well," the Mechanist murmured, unsure of what conclusion to reach, "it...it actually does!" The old man's eyes came alight and Toph could almost hear the gears turning in his head. "We could use the tower's architecture to suspend the counter-weight of a very large trap!" he declared. "We're not too far from the sea, so we should be able to get some fishing nets—"
"The fire navy has pledged us any and all support," Toph affirmed. A nearby officer raised his finger to protest, but wisely thought better of it.
"Yes!" the giddy old man exclaimed. "Then we'll be able to line the nets with tranquilizer and—"
"So you have your idea," Toph said, "and, reputedly, you're the greatest engineer this world has ever seen. Now it's time to start acting like it." The Mechanist's face constructed a look of uncertainty, but mustering his wits he re-contrived his confidence and devised his new spirit.
"You can count on me, Sifu Toph."
"That's what I needed to hear. So what about it Satoru, think the world's second greatest engineer can give him a hand?"
The young mechanic began to protest before seeing Toph's impish grin. "...uh, thanks for noticing...er-em, I'll get right to it."
"Good idea!" Toph erupted, making the doctors jump. "Let's get going! Look alive people, they'll be here by sundown!" As the crowd dispersed and began scurrying to and fro, she stood rooted for a moment, breathing a silent prayer.
She wished she could give herself as much courage.
Sweet Dreams, Sour Travels
The misty morning hung like a veil above the snoring Water Tribesman, nestled snugly in his mummy bag. Each serene inhale brought pleasant visions to the fog of his slumber, each cacophonous exhale dispelling bad dreams with a roar. Sokka's sleepy mind rested cozily between the softly rumbling clouds of his subconscious until a new and inviting sound coaxed him out.
"Oh Sooookaaaaaaa," a dreamy voice addressed. "Wake up, sleepy head..."
From the voice's silky pitch to its buttery resonance, Sokka could almost swear it belonged to Suki. The sing-song tone it accompanied seemed out of place, but all the more inviting to his weary ears. He willed his reluctant lashes to part, expecting the smiling image of his loved one to greet him...
"...OR YOU WILL DIE ALONE!!!!!"
His lids flew apart to receive the horrendous image of a roaring monster, with fangs dripping, mandibles gnashing, dreadlocks swinging and cavernous throat bellowing with fury. Nearly matching the pitch was Sokka's horror instilled scream as he shot out of his sleeping bag faster than a rocket. Not taking his eyes from the hideous beast towering above him, Sokka didn't see the boulder he slammed straight into as he scrambled for his escape. Recovering from the sharp ringing in his head, Sokka slowly began to notice maniacal laughing beginning to take the place of the savage roar—an oddly human laugh.
"Hahahahahahahaha—get enough sleep Mister Sokka?" Liam chortled as he morphed his mandibles back into jaws.
"Why is it that the only times we hear him laugh are when he's torturing us!" Sokka groaned with rage as he massaged his badly bruised forehead.
"Oh that's not true," Liam jokingly rejoined, "I laugh quite often when I'm not torturing people." Liam continued to laugh with sadistic glee as Sokka, with teeth grit like a vice, groaned his way into his boots. In the distance, Aang, Katara and Zuko were packing their things into Appa's saddle, eagerly preparing to depart the morning's oppressive shroud of gray fog. Sokka finished dressing himself in a hurry, just as desperate to escape the gloom—as well as his tormentor.
"Hehe—oh you must forgive me Mister Sokka," Liam said as he strode beside the fuming Water Tribesman. "It's better you suffer a rude awakening than fall prey to a marauding wolverine-bear." Sokka's irate march hardly echoed any gratitude. Both Liam and Sokka joined their awaiting party in the saddle as Appa prepared to launch off the ground. With a reluctant lurch, the sleepy sky bison catapulted them all into the abyss of mist.
"It's a wonder you find time to heckle Sokka on a mission as important as this," Zuko said curtly, his eyes fixed on the pages of the journal sitting in his lap.
"Oh come now, your lordship," Liam said, trying to stifle his fiendish chuckles. "I simply seized an opportunity along the way. Otherwise, I deplore senseless merriment," he said with a grin.
"Apparently you don't feel the same way about senseless distractions," Zuko murmured, his venomous eyes meeting the Arbiter's. The statement attracted all other gazes as well, as if a pebble had disturbed a once tranquil pond. "Oh?" Liam queried, the steely glow of his eyes unsheathed in interest.
"I'll be blunt," Zuko began, closing his journal and formalizing his gaze. "We've wasted an entire day getting acclimated to a place we're planning to leave once we find the lost colonists."
"Well that's a part of our mission," Katara angrily interjected. "Didn't you hear your uncle? If we don't help prevent civil war from breaking out here then we'll never have a hope of finding the lost colonists!"
"But he does have a point," Sokka added in a serious tone. "Our primary concern is protecting our own, and Iroh said it was the Arbiter's job to keep peace here, didn't he?" As he spoke, his voice grew deeper in an unapparent frustration. Katara was the first to see this, but was interrupted as he continued his tirade. "So if things are going to the dogs in this part of the world, then that's his responsibility!" No sooner had Sokka pointed his accusing finger at the Arbiter that he found a furrowed brow staring back down it.
"Don't you presume to inform me of my duties, Mister Sokka," Liam whispered. His tone was so cold it gave the others raised hairs...or was it the cold morning chill?
"Whoa! Let's calm down," Aang intervened, crawling up the side of the howdah. "And for the record Liam, I think that prank of yours was priceless—"
"No," Liam interrupted, his face and body as still as stone. "The Fire Lord is right to be concerned for his peoples' safety." A silence followed that no one else dared to break for fear of snapping the drum tight tension between Zuko and the Arbiter. "If you all so clearly recall what was said that night in Cordéiba, then you will remember what my master, Archmage Emrys, said about the Druids."
"Who are they again?" Aang asked.
"For eons," Liam began leaning against the side of the saddle, "the Druids were the religious authorities in many parts of Midland, using their wood bending prowess to live off the land so that they could better interpret the will of our ancestors and the nature spirits of Anún, or the Spirit World. Since they have such a close communion with the wilds of Milesia, they will likely know if and where your people have been spirited away to by their captors."
"Can we rely on them attending this gathering if they're so reclusive?" Zuko queried.
"We can, your Lordship," Liam responded, "and if they don't then we should be meeting some on the way—in fact we're travelling over one of their sacred places now." Liam pitched himself over the howdah's lip and pointed into the abyss below, grabbing the eyes of all in the saddle. "Below us lies the Wooden Road, a series of thoroughfares constructed by the ancient tribes of Milesia, both to help cross the multitudes of bogs bellow them and to act as conduits to the Spirit World. Druids today sometimes use them as mediums through which to consult our ancestors in times of strife. So if I see one I'll flag him down for you, your excellency," he said in a cool tone. As Liam shuffled to the other side of the saddle, Zuko retrieved his journal and began reviewing it as Liam buried his face in a map. Detecting the resurrected tension, Aang moved once more to alleviate it.
"So," Aang began, desperate for a topic of conversation, "that's really interesting—what you said about the spirits...it seems similar to how I consult my past lives."
"Well," Liam began behind his parchment, "it might differ in the aspect that some Druids prefer to ' enhance ' their meditation with a certain few herbs, berries...and, er—mushrooms."
As Aang and Katara chuckled at the remark, Liam emerged from his reading with widened eyes, seeming to have heard the wails of a ghost. He began morphing his ears into those of a bat and started pitching his head over the side of the saddle. Everyone's ears pricked with anticipation of detecting a foreign noise, but only the Arbiter's head reacted to the unheard sound. Suddenly, he bolted to the front of the howdah, his eyes thrown open with alarm.
"Aang, we have to get out of here we're...GAH!"
All were tossed about in the saddle when what seemed to be a meteor with wings fell from the heavens and crashed into Appa's flank, sending him hurling through the gray sky. As the shaken sky bison hastened to make his desperate departure from the cloudy void, his passengers turned their heads to witness their attacker. With disturbing beauty, the heavenly missile unfurled into what appeared to be a billowing black cloak that began to slither through the clouds in pursuit.
"Wyverns!" Liam identified with dread.
They whipped back around as a hoarse shriek thrust itself from the clouds beneath Appa, accompanied by another dark creature from bellow. Before Appa could recoil in panic, the sky serpent's head darted towards his neck, plunging a phalanx of gnarled fangs into his skin. Accompanying his counterpart in the assault, the other wyvern dug his talons into Appa's hindquarters and yanked him into a careening dive towards the invisible ground below. The Water Tribe siblings struggled to cling to the saddle in the vertigo of their earthward plummet, their lives dependent on the strength of their weary limbs. Aang and Zuko tried desperately to keep the attacking creatures at bay, vehemently hurling balls of fire and gusts of wind anywhere into the dizzying backdrop of kaleidoscopic grays.
No amount of retaliation availed them...
Not until the Arbiter took his stand, grasping the saddle with feet fixed like oaken roots...
Not until he threw his furrowed brow, rune ablaze with light, upon the horizon of the abyss...
Until his haunting voice trembled with sonority, ever pervading, ever rousing, ever majestic...
Until his radiant eyes flung open and he threw his arms wide, his hands outstretched and crackling with heavenly light...
Until he lit up those heavens, blinding the dark foes and casting them to the winds.
Appa, now free of his assailants, fell resignedly towards the water, too weak and fraught to continue on. All grit their teeth in anticipation of a rattling landing, receiving only the brief jolt and cold splash of flesh meeting mire.
"We're sinking into a peat bog!" Liam shouted after feeling the sickening lurch of Appa descending into the depths of the sludge. Bubbles of thick slime erupted all around Appa's enfeebled bulk, threatening with raucous sloshes to smother and desiccate the poor creature.
"Appa!" Aang cried. "Appa, wake up! You've got to pull free!" The fallen creature gave no response, no look of acknowledgement from his glazed eyes, no grunt of response from his foaming mouth. Listlessly, blithely, peacefully, he succumbed.
It was Aang's turn for his light.
Ascended, he did.
Into the abyssal sky.
With tremendous force.
He extricated them all.
And laid them to rest.
On the ever winding path.
The road most wooden.
Into the Storm
"Alright everyone, it feels good!" Toph announced as she inspected the netting in her hand. She gave the piece of rope a firm tug, letting the vibrations course through the net and back to her feet. Feeling the tiny tremors gather around her feet like guppies in a pond, Toph could sense the immense complex of ropes, cables, cords, and fishing nets they had labored so hard to construct. She could feel with every finger and toe how each component was stitched together with pulleys and sheaves that would allow the intricate network of fibrous webs to contract and hold the weight of thousands of struggling earth benders. "How's the sedative coming along?!"
"We're almost finished applying it!" the old healer lady responded as she poured a chaser of viscous fluid on the lines. "Pick up the pace, you ninnies!" she barked at the doctors accompanying her in her chore. "We haven't got all day!"
"She's right!" the Dark One announced from the parapets. "I've sighted them!"
"Tell me what you see!" she shouted as she ran over to the inner wall, finally boosting herself atop it with a pillar of stone. Approaching her student's side at the top of the wall, she could feel his quickening heartbeat, pulsing temples, quivering fingers, shaking knees and windswept hair. She could almost imagine what lay before them simply from his response. He needn't have described it, and he didn't for all the tangible fear that clenched his heart.
Slowly, Toph began to sense the absence of sun on her cheeks. They began to cool from lack of light, and she knew that meant shade, a shadow that could only have come from a cloud that towered high enough to blot out the very sun. She could almost hear it now; the swirling and scattering of columns of sand and dust, whipping and thrashing about on a fierce wind bearing itself towards the stronghold with fury.
They were all engulfed in the darkness of the sandy tower's shadow, a seeming night during the day. The difference made little impression on her, though she could still feel the clouds of dread building in the Dark One's heart, almost as if a sandstorm of his own had seeped into his chest. For a moment she could almost say that she saw from another's perspective, as much as she could equate with seeing. For one of the first times, she had made another's fears her own.
She knew that this would be his moment of truth as much as hers. For better or worse, she knew they would come out of this feeling the way someone like Aang did; feeling the weight of the world on one's shoulders...whether it broke him or not.
"Lieutenant," Toph addressed.
"Yes sir," a nearby Fire Nation officer responded, his formal tone belying his fear.
"Bring our prisoner to the parapets," she commanded. "If we don't...if we don't come out of this," she said with hesitation, "then he's going down with us." The officer nodded in comprehension and rushed back towards the stronghold keep in compliance. "And tell everyone to brace themselves."
As she felt the wall of shadow and dust approaching, she reached out and clasped a firm grip on the Dark One's shoulder, making her strength his. The storm was upon them. Covering their faces in cloth, the earth bending master and her student stood together as they were slowly swallowed up by the sandy teeth of nothingness.
The Wooden Road
The shaken travelers were all pitched from the confines of the saddle to land on the hard surface of wooden planks below. Recovering her senses, Katara awoke to find the still sky bison hanging limp over the edge of the path. Just as still, and silent, was Aang's head, plunging itself into Appa's deathly cold husk of a body. Eyes wide with alarm, she rushed over to her wounded comrade's side, a queue of healing water at her hands.
"Hold on!" Liam groggily commanded. Nearly in torpor after being shaken so vigorously, Liam limped over to the wounded bison's side and laid his hands upon the great beast's neck.
"Wha—what are you doing?!" Aang demanded. His tear streaked face only barely managed to peel away from his beloved friend's body. With widening eyes, Aang witnessed Liam's fingers grow into a web of roots and tendrils that began to worm and creep their way into the bison's seeping wounds. "No! Get off him!" the distraught monk pleaded in a stupor of sorrow. "Have some respect!"
"Wait!" Katara urged, holding back the distraught air bender. "Look!" Turning his head, Aang saw Liam's tendrils rapidly pumping a viscous green liquid out of Appa's wounds. After several long minutes of extraction, Liam retracted his root-like appendages and expelled the venom from his swollen hand into the waters nearby, which sizzled and frothed upon contact with the sinister fluid.
"There," Liam beckoned to Katara, huffing with exhaustion. "Have at him."
The water bender quickly went to work, using her healing touch to dress Appa's wounds. With each wave of her hand, a wave of water, glowing bright as the moon, would caress and coax new life into the bison's shredded skin. Steadily, the furry mass began to manifest signs of life once again, from heaving sides to groaning sighs as he lay on his side. Shoulders slumped with relief, Aang collapsed onto the wooden floor, joining Liam, Zuko and Sokka in their incessant panting.
"Well," Sokka wheezed, "things could be worse. At least we landed somewhere safe."
"I said this place was sacred and revered," Liam huffed as he sat up. "Locations don't usually earn those titles by being safe."
"What?!" Sokka exclaimed in breathless panic. "You said that Druids come here all the time!"
"'All the time' and periods of spiritual strife are a bit exclusive to another don't you think?!"
"We can tell each other campfire stories about how perilous it is later," Zuko grunted with frustration, "just tell us how we get out of here now."
"Quickly," Liam replied. "New Caerleon isn't too far away after we cross the bog, but it'll be Helheim getting their without our transport."
"Appa is not just our transportation!" Aang exclaimed, shooting up from the ground. "He's one of our own, and we're not leaving him behind!"
"Yes we are," Liam said on a cold note. From the tone, all looked in shock at the Arbiter before he spoke again. "Listen, at least a few of us must make it to the Tuath Comhairle, whatever happens to the creature. You, Lord Zuko and I will have to split up in order to find a path through this Labyrinth of roads. I suppose Miss Katara and Mister Sokka can stay behind to tend to your beast and rejoin us when he is well," Liam said with a taciturn glance. Aang responded with a resentful one, but Katara intervened.
"Go, Aang. We'll have him back in shape soon. We'll be fine."
With worry laden steps, Aang followed Liam and Zuko over the planks and into the mist. Looking forlornly over his shoulders, he saw his friends beginning to disappear into the fog, each looking back with vanishing looks of hope for his safety. Steadily, some of the first friends, the first family he had in his life faded to dark shadows and then to nothingness on the horizon; much like a family he once lost a hundred and three years ago. He now traipsed after his former enemies as they went head first into danger.
Toph's student knelt beside her, shielding himself from the stinging torrents of sand while trying his hardest not to get blown away like a piece of rice paper in a typhoon. A steady smattering of lightning bolts erupted all around them in the storm of sand, through multiple means making the Dark One's hair stand on end. Toph also struggled to hold her position, all whilst keeping her hands fixed to the parapets, trying to make out a series of faint rumbles in the din of the windstorm.
A thunderous quake gripped all sides of the stronghold, another cloud of dust adding itself to the flurry. The outer wall had fallen.
The second wall fell.
A colossal sound slowly began to emerge from the white noise of the storm, a steady pace of tremors...a tempo of THOOM...THOOM...THOOM! She secured her student in her arms and propelled them away from the wall as a massive stone fist came slamming down into the inner fortification, smashing it asunder with a deafening rumble.
Landing with a softened thud on the ground below, Toph and the Dark One struggled to regain their footing in the deluge of shockwaves, noise and overarching chaos. Turning about, the Dark One saw to his horror the titanic silhouette of a monstrous stone golem, lit up by blinding flashes of lightning as it crashed through the fortress walls with absolute impunity. She could feel it clearly now, a large colony of beating hearts and hastened breaths, drawing the surrounding earth into a singular body like a hive of bees that could grow legs and strut about the earth. Perhaps to his benefit, she thought, he couldn't sense that this gargantuan construct was only the harbinger of a whole parade of megalithic titans. All the same, he could not contain his dread of what he saw before him.
"We're gonna need a bigger net."
After an agonizing span of time, the three comrades met a tridactyl split in the ominously beckoning arms of the wooden road. With only short and gloomy discourse did they reach consensus on the paths they would follow; Aang to the left, Zuko to the right and the Arbiter to the middle. At first glance, it didn't seem to matter, but each road seemed to be a different head, whispering different things into their ears.
Liam treaded softly along the path of planks, watching anxiously as his companions steadily disappeared at his side. Softly he walked, softly so that he could keep track of the faint footsteps of his departing compatriots until they could no longer be heard. He was alone. He was afraid.
The very feeling felt as foreign to him as his surroundings. Being educated in the Metal Empire imbues one with the hallowed values of wisdom, intellect, knowledge and innovation, for courage is rarely needed when understanding makes a superior substitute. Though he could understand so little of his environment now, with its air of mystery, wonder, enchantment—that god damned feeling of inscrutability!
So his mind wandered through the mist now, desperately grasping at the gray vapors for courage if not understanding of this unfamiliar place. His mind's hands began molding the swirls and folds of the mist into the marble walls and arched windows of his classroom at the Ferraria Skye academy, complete with the echoing lectures of his old science teacher, Archmage Emrys. With ease did he harken to the curricula as the wise old sage would expound upon it with the pantomime of a thespian and the tenor of an orator. With such wonder was his mind filled from his masters lessons, told with the grand illusions of metal bending, that he could almost feel the thrill of innovation and drive for discovery experienced by the Magisters of the Empire's golden age. He could almost bear the listlessly droning monologues of his host mother and father—grammar and history instructors respectively—who pontificated endlessly on their own spin of ' the gilded times gracing the Empire today. ' Even as a youngster he knew better than to swallow that blather.
"No, this isn't working," he thought. "Reminiscing the days of endless study will only worsen my nerves—maybe a change of scenery?"
No sooner had the thought graced his mind when the images of the Imperial capital's gaunt halls and elegant vaults transformed into the resplendent arbors and jovial trails of Milesia's very own Parthalón forest. They were just as he remembered them. He could easily recollect the summers when he would jog the length of those woods with his father beside him in the form of a wild panther-hound. Each day was filled with lessons of poetry, music, crafting and storytelling, all taught under the shade of a cordial oak tree, all taught for the enjoyment of the moment as well as for education's sake. He was fond of embracing nature's mysteries then, when she seemed friendlier. But the autumns grew colder, harsher crueler! They became unbearable after his father was taken from him...claimed by the hunters...murdered by the Firbolg—
"No! This won't do at all!" he thought as he pinched his brow, willing his eyes to stay dry. "Think of something else!"
But he could not. His meant was kept fixed on the cold autumn's that he would spend in service to the local farmers, collecting the harvests that the Empire relied upon for the grain doles.
"Gilded times of the present indeed," Liam scoffed to himself.
The chilled winds of those bleak days of labor sliced at his skin, but sharpened his resolve as sharp as the swords he was trained to use by Thane Lorencandra. He paused in the center of the road. A great job he was doing of distracting himself, he thought. But he knew he couldn't help it. She had made that disgusting season bearable.
Even so, those were still dark days, times when the wonder of the world's mysteries became lost to him, when he clung even harder to the lessons of science and rational thought, when he began to fear what he couldn't learn to understand. It was only when he saw Archmage Emrys' smiling beard aboard that sky ship that he knew he had a home in both worlds. It was for these reasons, he felt, that Lord Camulos would not have words with him. If only he could've found a home in this place.
Liam about-faced, his heart pounding and eyes darting desperately through the mist, searching for the noise and its maker. His breath came in shallow spurts though his poise remained steady, his muscles tensing.
"Mister Aang?" he ventured. "Lord Zuko, is that you?"
Liam reached over his back and with a swift, steady, deliberate motion, drew his five-and-a-half foot claymore from its sheath. Brandishing his sword alongside his teeth, the Arbiter spread his feet and held his stance, relinquishing neither his ground nor his fears.
"I warn you menace," he hissed from the depths of his diaphragm, "I come armed!"
From behind him, the hissing head of a wyvern emerged, bellowing from the very caverns of its emerging body as it crept closer across the planks. Liam whirled around to face his challenger, his sword whooshing with fury, only to lose his footing to a sharp pain on his calves. The wyvern's screeching counterpart arrived from the direction Liam had previously travelled, its wingtips clacking on the wooden floor as it inched closer to the frenzy and sunk its fangs into the Arbiter's legs.
Liam's grunts of pain soared into notes of agony as the other serpent latched onto his wrists and began to pull at his body with vigor. His calves were shredded, his arms were strained and twisted, his spine creaked, his joints cracked, his tendons frayed. Pulled from both sides by vices of venomous fangs, Liam had no choice but to let his body stretch like wood taffy between the two hungry beasts.
Mixed in with his moans of pain were the grunts of strain between the creatures fighting to tear him half like a rubbery wishbone. Each sordid serpent gave a heaving growl of effort to accompany each jerk and twist of their sinuous necks, forming a rhythm of seesawing snarls that grew more familiar with each aching minute.
He had taken enough. With eyes aglow with fury, he sent rivulets of electrical arcs coursing through his legs and arms, shocking his attackers until they flailed away in bewilderment. One hadn't gotten far when a massive set of jaws erupted out of the water and clamped onto its wing, yanking it into the bog with terrified screams and sickening gurgles. The remaining wyvern hovered fearfully above before flying away with horrified screeches as the amphibious jaws manifested eyes to gaze hungrily at the floating morsel.
As the cavalcade of monsters sped away into distant waters, the Arbiter laid limp upon the wooden road, his mangled body as tattered and unraveled as a shattered loom. Slowly, the mass of shredded and torn wood matter constituting his limbs began to mend and shrink back into place. As his broken body began to heal, his haggard face turned towards the sky, seemingly as stretched and warped as he was now. His sagging eyes slowly peeled open and looked with lament on those contorted heavens.
"Tell me, great Lord Camulos, why—why must I...choose..."
Their cleverly crafted net proved only a minor obstacle to the monstrous band of stone titans as they cut and shredded through it with ease. Each snap, each yank, twist, pop and crack of a rope or chain did the same to Toph's stomach as she listened to the symphony of her unwinding plan.
"THEY'RE CUTTING THROUGH THE NET!!!" she bellowed at the top of her lungs, hoping someone would hear her through the storm. When no response reached her ears, her mind could only race frantically to find a solution. In the end, she could only think of one. Willing a shelf of stone to propel her through the air, she slammed her full weight into the sternum of the nearest giant, shattering its torso and sending its occupants falling to the earth below.
Upon reaching the ground herself, she began twisting and turning her body, willing the surrounding soil and rock to crumble and churn into a massive whirlpool of earth. As her blender of stone and rock sunk into the ground and grew in diameter, more of the earthen giants got caught up in its fury and were sent tumbling down into the typhoon of soil. Each earthy carapace, each stone suit of armor fractured and broke apart in her trap, revealing the hissing, protesting bodies of her possessed captives.
Toph anchored her feet to the ground and grit her teeth with the strain of maintaining her gambit. The world seeming to crumble all around her, she was determined to be the last thing to remain standing. If her plan failed, she would not; not if it cost her life.
Zuko paced lightly across the Wooden Road, keeping his hands firmly clasped atop the hilts of his Dao swords. The fog was impermeable, even to his keen vision, but his sight grew with the alleviating grace of a prevailing wind. With gentle hands the breezes cleared some of the fog, when, to his surprise, he glimpsed the dark shape of a human figure in the distance.
"Hello?" he beckoned through the mist. "Who's there?" he clutched the handles of his swords even tighter, minimizing his shape against the backdrop of gray as he gradually inched his way towards the stranger.
"It's me," the shadow responded. "Don't you remember?" The voice was feminine, sonorous, and from the tone seemed playful, almost mocking, but most of all...familiar. "Or have you already forgotten me?" she said, her once melodious voice beginning to break with hurt. As he got closer the silhouette began to assume more detail, taunting his memory even more, a sneaking suspicion nagging his mind but one he could not believe.
"I'm not surprised," she said, once again with injury. "You spend so much time with your friends, going off on your adventures; yet you spend so little thinking about your country, your home, your people—your family." The girl turned towards him, revealing an all too familiar face.
"Azula?!" Zuko gasped. "How did you—"
"I'LL ASK THE QUESTIONS!"
The Fire Nation princess lunged at her brother, leaving a scorching trail of blue flame in her wake. Zuko already had his swords drawn to greet her when she stopped just short of them.
"Drawing blades on your sister?!" she spat with amused rage, her face contorted with demented anger. "You'll have a lot to answer for besides desertion!"
"Please, let me explain—" Zuko pleaded.
"Oh, you'll have plenty of time to explain," she said with a jeering smile on her tauntingly tilted head. "Explain to me why you didn't do what a responsible leader should have done and delegated this little errand to one of your generals or heralds! Why did you bounce off on one of your adventures with your little friends, leaving all the responsibilities with dear old uncle, hmm? Why did you leave when your people needed you?—when I needed you?!" "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!!" Zuko bellowed from the bottom of his lungs. His skin was nearly as moist as the fog, while his breath was dry, parched, and desperate for the nourishing air. For a time, Zuko only heard the admonitions of his sister's manic eyes as they burrowed into his soul. "I...I had already failed to protect my people once," Zuko staggered in short breathed reply, his gaze fixed on the path beneath them. "I wasn't about to let someone else add to failures that were mine."
Azula simply stood against his rebuke, quietly giving him the same stare. Zuko waited silently for her answer, looking upon her for some clue to her inner thoughts. But she betrayed none. She only kept staring with white, blank, soulless eyes.
"You never fail to disappoint Zuko," she spoke at last, her breath a resigned whisper. "I was expecting these kinds of excuses." Zuko stared back this time, but with a face of regret and shame showing the humanity in his soul. "You're wrong about another thing, brother," she added, "I do understand. I understand what I have to do now."
Without another word, she slowly strode away towards one of the mile-posts along the road and propped herself atop it, facing towards Zuko with the same blank, apathetic stare. She showed no fear that would be usual for one standing near the precipice of such an abyss. Zuko's chest filled with icy dread when a tear slid down her pale cheek.
"I understand that if you won't help me, dear brother...no one will..."
Her fall was Silent. Slow. Peaceful.
Zuko rushed to the edge of the road, madly leaping towards the surface of the glassy water, forever stained with the pale, serene visage of his sister. He would have saved her, or if not, then joined her so they could've paid the world's dues together. He would have, were it not for a pair of hands seizing him by the shoulder and dragging him away from the murky quagmire.
"Peace amigo, peace."
The arms dragged his reluctant body to the center of the road where a ring of dark cloaked men awaited him. Their faces and bodies were all concealed in dark foods and tunics as they stood above the flustered fire bender.
"She's in the water!" Zuko screamed. "She's drowning!"
"No one else is here," one of them said, "none but us."
"You are very lucky my friend," another man said. The addressing man wore tall leather boots, a black cape and jacket, a round, wide brimmed hat and a dark scarf to conceal most of his face. Beneath the rough cloth came a voice as soft as satin with an accent just as smooth. "If you were any further in that bog, you would've been beyond all help...your mind that is."
"Who—who are you?" Zuko panted.
"Oh," the man gasped, recoiling with embarrassment. "Forgive me, your excellency." The man stooped down and offered his hand to Zuko's, lifting him off the road upon consent. "I," he began with a flourishing bow, "am Jingo. And this," he added with a grand wave of his arm, "is my merry entourage—or rather, a semblance of it." Zuko's amber eyes scanned the panel of 'merry' men, returning to Jingo's expectant glance with one of skepticism.
"The Black Hoods I presume?" Zuko ventured.
"Why did you help me?"
"Why so cynical?" Jingo replied in a shocked tone. Zuko maintained his suspicious stare, sinking his benefactor's shoulders with the weight of his doubts. "Aye, your excellency," Jingo relented, "I will cut to the point. We have been seeking you out to petition your company's exodus from Milesia."
"If you know who I am and why I'm here," Zuko began. "Then you'll know why that's impossible."
"Oh, but you misunderstand," Jingo objected. "We wish to aid you in your quest as to hasten your journey home. You see, we believe we know the location of your missing compañeros."
"What! How do you know this?!"
"Well, it's no secret as to who is responsible; Pirates from Imperial shores, brigands who will exchange the freedom of others for their own. They have taken some of my men as well."
"And that's supposed to make me trust you?"
"You are right to be skeptical, my Lord," Jingo sighed. "But see for a moment, mi amigo that we have much in common." Zuko kept his eyes on his petitioner as he circled around to his side, whispering into his ear. "Just as you wish to redeem the spirit of your nation and set your people free from their dark past, I fight to win independence for mine! Your guide, the Arbiter, is simply trying to compensate for his failures."
"Well, first he failed to keep your world secret from us," Jingo replied, "and all the while he only panders to the demands of the Imperial swine while leaving his countrymen to suffer the consequences—all affairs which, frankly, are none of your concern. Even if they were, one week is hardly enough time to become familiar with them. That is why we ask that you leave."
"Even if all of what you're saying is true," Zuko said with unease, "I can't risk the outcome of my mission on your intel."
"Well even I am not so credulous, but for us, as leaders, to not at least look into matters would be negligence...on both of our parts." Zuko paused, his face unintentionally betraying the consternation he felt, inadvertently assuring his benefactor of his cooperation. With smiling eyes, Jingo motioned for his company to follow him away from the bemused leader as he stood silently in the fog. "Join us in New Caerleon," Jingo shouted over his shoulder. "It shall be there that we liberate both our peoples."
With that, the stranger and his gang disappeared into the mist, leaving Zuko alone, looking inside himself for answers to the questions swimming in his mind like the monsters in the bog. Who could he afford to trust? This man? The Arbiter? Himself?
A Godsend...and a Hell-raiser
In the din of the swirling vortex of earth, stone, mortar, brick and bodies, she could barely hear the overhead sound of an approaching godsend.
"GAS GRENADES, AWAY!" the Mechanist's voice shouted from the gondola of his overhead airship. Just as promised, the skyward vessel produced a shower of missiles, each dispersing a trail of noxious mists into the already unruly mess beneath. As each clay missile began to fumigate the chaotic crater, the liberated earth benders caught in the fray were steadily subdued, growing weary with the ferocity of their dissent.
"Yes!" Toph thought with relief. Her heart pounded with joy as she slackened and slowed her motions, bringing the whirlpool of rock to a slow halt. The air above her began to calm as well, the dust storm beginning to settle, allowing both the sun's rays and Toph's allies to rush to her aid. Her plan had worked...
The Dark One was the first to slide down the sides of the crater to greet her, wrapping her in a warm hug of celebration. Toph reciprocated with another bone crushing embrace, smiling gleefully and twirling her lanky student in circles through the air.
Toph's heart stopped at hearing the pain filled scream, sensing that it came from a Fire Nation soldier at the lip of the crater. All around her she could feel the rustles and stirrings of buried earth benders, all exploding out of their earthen prisons to attack the surrounding soldiers. Within moments,several soldiers were dragged, screaming and clawing with desperate protest into the ground and asphyxiated under the breath crushing, steaming hot loam. The other soldiers fared far worse as they were pinned to the ground, wailing in protest as the infected earth benders exhaled clouds of black spores into their face masks, converting them into brethren for their horrific army. In the distance they could hear the, rumbles, crashes and rage filled screeches of what they assumed to be Fafnir grappling with yet more stone golems.
Forming an eye in the tempest of terror, a tall, wiry figure approached the edge of the crater, smiling with wicked satisfaction at his work. Toph and her student stood in shock as the sadistic grin of a freed Skuult smiled down upon them.
Her plan had failed...
Across the Sea
Aang rested his craning body on a mile post, his weary joints creaking with the agony of carrying his body weight across the vast distances of the bog. His staff laid askew beside him, equally strained at having to ease its master's burden without the aid of air bending. For the length of the journey he dared not unfurl his glider for fear of losing the path through the omnipresent haze. For the entirety of his foray, he was tied to the Wooden Road, left no escape from his dismal surroundings, no way out.
His anxieties knotted in his chest when his ears heard a faint noise in the distance. It was a grunting, slavering pant akin to that of an animal, a kind of creature Aang, for once, wouldn't entertain the idea of meeting.
"Who's there?!" he barked into the void, standing with staff in hand.
"It's me!" the voice of Liam responded. In the distance he could see the bounding silhouette of a scruffy, dog-like animal approaching him. After it came into sharper focus, the creature began to transform into the hastily striding form of the Arbiter. Aang's twisted stomach briefly lightened in relief of seeing his ally, though it quickly faded when he saw the look of pure loathing in his eyes.
"Finally!" the Arbiter snarled. "I manage to find a way out of here and you haven't even made it halfway through!"
"What!" Aang exclaimed. "How's that possible, I've been walking for miles—"
"Save it!" Liam barked. "Let's go find your bogtrotter friends and get out of here before we're all eaten."
Incredulous at such hostility, Aang paced uneasily after the Arbiter as he commenced a hasty march back down the road. "One would think that an individual as skilled at running off as yourself would have made more progress through here."
"That's getting more difficult to do every day," Liam responded over his shoulder. "It was thanks only to the glowing testimonies given to me by Lord Zuko and Grandmaster Iroh that you were able to stay on this mission, but they seem to have been...misinformed."
"What do you mean?!" Aang demanded, circling around to face the menacingly marching Arbiter.
"Oh, so now you show some spine," the Arbiter jived under his breath. "I'm referring of course to your many desertions and idiocies, none of which seemed to have left a stain on your gilded reputation. What I wouldn't give to be able to do that," he said, his face growing distant with longing, "to run away from the Helheim that it is to be the Arbiter..."
"Enough!" Aang erupted, his blue arrow pulsing with rivers of blood. "I didn't run away from my duties as the Avatar then and I'm not going to now! Why are you even bringing this up after what we've been through together?! What's gotten into you?!" Without response the Arbiter brushed past Aang and continued down the road. "I'm going to help both our worlds," Aang went on, "even when the others said we don't have to."
"That's right," Liam replied, "you don't have to be here at all." The Arbiter froze in his tracks and turned to face the Avatar. "You may have stopped a mad tyrant, but you never restored balance, never moved the masses with the words of the wise counselor that I do need on this quest." Aang froze as well, along with his heart, which beat faintly under a frozen tundra of doubt growing over it, his certainty being swallowed up in the swirling mists and churning bogs around him. "You have accomplished much, Avatar, but you have served your purpose. Your services as the keeper of balance aren't now, nor ever will be, needed."
Just then, in the distance, Aang heard a scream. It was one he was familiar with, one he dreaded and wished with all his might that he would never hear. He could almost see its owner now, a faint light on the far horizon and he on an island, separated from it by a vast ocean of water, clouds and sea breezes. The scream, a horridly desperate, sickeningly piteous, distressingly innocent sound awakened an aurora of shining blue over the tundra in his heart, a radiance that pierced his eyes and arrows with a corona of light that burned brightly to preserve the one far over the vast waters.
He ascended into the murky heights, propelled upon a wave of furious winds, carried upon a wave of somber black waters to the fading light of his love. The image of the Arbiter had vanished in his wake, as though into thin air; as though he, like the threat the Avatar charged off to face, never was.
"Nu, uh, uh."
Skuult waved his finger jeeringly as Toph moved to hurl a boulder at his brittle body. "You're in no position to fight little mud weasel," he the old man taunted. Toph soon arrived at the same conclusion as she heard the hoarse hisses and snarls of infected earth benders gathering around her. Up close, she could now feel the slow, alien tempo of their heartbeats and smell the heady, noxious odor of their spore tainted breaths.
"If I had been free to speak before," Skuult began in a victimized tone, "I would have informed you that using anesthetic would have been a wasted effort. The Black Blight is fueled by wood bending itself. Nothing can stop those possessed by it besides a cure or...death." The devilish Druid grinned with pleasure at uttering the last word, seeing the disquiet in Toph's face and the fury in the Dark One's eyes.
"As though you went out of your way to tell us," he spat at the sadistically giggling sage.
"Oh, no need to be so irate, young one," Skuult snubbed, approaching them with candor. "There can still be a happy ending to this for both of us." Toph's clenched fist and the Dark One's gritted teeth reluctantly loosened as they kept an ear open for Skuult's petition. "I maintain a laboratory in my homeland, equipped with the resources I need to formulate a cure for the Blight. If you would agree to my terms, then, once my campaign has concluded, I would be only too happy to release what's left of my army to your custody."
"You bastard!" the Dark One roared. "What kind of a deal is that?!"
"The only one you're going to get," Skuult said, his tone hushed with warning. "So don't deliberate long. It isn't as though you have that many options." The Dark One rushed forward to tackle his foe, but was stayed by his teacher.
"No," Toph murmured, her voice a faint, injured squeak. "He's right."
Skuult chuckled with satisfaction.
"The first thing I'll need is some transportation."
To Seek Peace
Katara knelt in the nape of Appa's neck, stroking his wounds with the healing touch of her hands as his labored breathing rocked her back and forth. The beast's grunts of discomfort escalated with each wave of her palm, growing louder as he arose from his coma.
"I'm so sorry, Appa," she said with remorse. "I'm doing the best I can. HEY SOKKA!" she called out, "how are those herbs coming?!"
"Just give me a minute!" he barked back as he rummaged through some sacks. "Let's see," he murmured to himself as he sifted through the contents of a bag, "Boomerang—Awesome. Zuko's diary—Boring—"
"Alright, alright! Medicine bag—Bingo." Upon lifting the flap of the pouch, Sokka found something small and furry blocking the entrance. "MOMO! You slept through the entire thing! I oughta—oh no!"
"What do you mean, ' oh no! '"
"I just figured out why he conked out on us," Sokka responded glumly, holding open an empty medicine bag where a fat, happy, overdosed lemur used to be.
"That's just great!" Katara fumed. She ceased her healing motions, letting her hands fall by her sides as her brows fell over her frustrated eyes.
"Calm down," Sokka urged as he knelt beside his harrowed sister. "I'm as anxious to leave as you, but it's going to take longer to heal Appa if you keep putting pressure on yourself." Katara was still, silent, her eyes now fixed pensively on the fields of gray and black before her. "What is it?" Sokka asked.
"Nothing," Katara said, turning away. "It's just...why do you do it?"
"Why do men sometimes feel like they have to be somewhere else...somewhere far away on some mission, away from the people that need you—I mean, I understand having to be called away...but wanting to?"
"I don't know about that, but the Arbiter seems to know what he's doing."
"I wasn't talking about the...the—"
"I hear it too." Both Sokka and Katara pricked their ears to the surging crash of a mighty wave that grew in the distance. Soon it came into full view; a cataclysmic spout of black water propelled by an immeasurable hurricane of fog. Shielding them both from the stinging spray of the epic torrent, Katara could barely glimpse through the gaps in her fingers a solitary pinprick of light at the epicenter of the swirling blades of mist.
"Aang?!" Katara called out. "AANG!!"
The Avatar showed no response as he floated upon dizzying heights, catatonic with the power surging through him. Then, without warning, he struck out with an immense blade of icy water, shearing them off from the wooden road no more than a furlong in front of them. The Water Tribe siblings clutched the deck with all their might while Appa reared in panic, almost squashing them underfoot as he bore back down on the road.
"AANG! STOP!" Katara pleaded, her hoarse voice lost on the roar of the winds. Another monstrous wave emanated from the cyclone of water and ripped the other side in two, setting their peer adrift as a raft. As the platform of wooden planks beneath her bobbed and shook, she crawled out to the edge of the raft. Her teeth clenched with determination, her hands waving with focused gestures, she willed a water spout of her own to carry her up to the center of the burgeoning storm. As she pierced the swirling fog, she saw the Avatar, glowing with fury, as he almost made a gesture to bat her away like a fly. But in the moment she was seen hurling herself into the fray, The Avatar hesitated from his rebuke, long enough for Aang to see her fury filled fists encase him in a pillar of ice.
From bellow, Sokka could see the rescinding storm cloud produce two large drops of dark rain, one diving with urgency into the black glass bellow, the other falling into it with submission. Sokka sat bolt upright, his eyes searching madly through the waters until, to his relief, he saw Katara's head surface and swim towards him with Aang in her grasp. He could see her swimming over to the edge of shattered timbers and planks that formed their raft and helped her yank the limp air bender's body over the edge. Katara took her place beside him, drawing the water out of his lungs until he began to splutter and cough out the rest, all while Sokka shooed away Appa's affectionately licking tongue.
"Uggh," Aang groaned. "What—what happened?"
"You went berserk on us is what happened!" Sokka cried. "What's the matter with you, you almost killed us!"
"No!" Aang protested. "I heard you both screaming, and then I saw it—you were both surrounded by these horrible sea monsters, they were going to—"
"Aang, slow down!" Katara urged. "We weren't in any danger. Maybe you were imagining it."
"Well, I certainly didn't imagine him going into the Avatar state," Sokka added.
"But I saw—I had to come back for you," Aang said with desperate finality. "I couldn't leave you again...I couldn't fail you again."
"Aang...Why!Why do you see yourself as such a failure!" Katara cried, vexation cracking her voice. Both Sokka and the bog were completely silent, the mist seeming to freeze in time as Katara knelt next to the Avatar, her eyes beginning to surrender tears of frustration. "A hundred years ago, the first time you left, I could understand—it even worked out for the better. But when you left for the Western Air temple...why? The world wasn't on your shoulders then, so I don't understand why you felt like you had to leave...why you didn't see yourself as being worthy of those who love you!" Her breath came in shallow heaves, every ounce of her effort devoted to eliciting response from the withdrawn monk that rested before her. "I understand having to leave...but you didn't have to, you just left...without telling anyone."
"I left..." Aang murmured, "Because I'm not the Avatar...not what it should be." Aang sat up, resting his head on his knees as he mustered the courage to show his friends the void in his heart.
"I don't understand, Aang?" Sokka pressed. Katara remained silent.
"The Avatar is supposed to be a peacekeeper, a bridge between the four nations...and I failed."
"Remember that time we visited the Great Divide, when I couldn't resolve the feud between the Zhangs and the Gan Jins without lying to their faces?"
"And that time in Yu Dao? I nearly failed to prevent the hundred year's war from starting all over again...and I didn't even end the last one."
"What?! What do you mean, of course you—"
"Even if I had killed him, even if a solution hadn't dropped out of the sky to settle my selfish qualms, I would've just made a martyr out of him, like I did anyway. I never convinced the people of the Fire Nation why Ozai's tour of destruction wasn't in their best interests, why it was wrong. His followers are still lurking in the fire Nation as we speak. Zuko has good reason to be worried about his throne...and it's because of me."
All were silent as Aang rose to his feet and paced towards the edge of the platform.
"Time and again I've failed as a diplomat, but succeeded as a bender...but the world I see now, the one being built on industry and science, won't have use for the latter...it won't—it doesn't—need me. That's why I left, not because I had the world on my shoulders, but because it didn't need me anymore. I can see why the Arbiter didn't want me on this mission."
Aang turned to regard his friends.
"But I'm not running away this time. Whether I'm needed or not, the one's you love are in danger, and I'll do whatever I can to help them."
"I know one of them is in danger," Katara said, rising to meet Aang, "from himself. Aang," she implored, taking his hands in hers, "if you're not the Avatar now, then you have another hundred years ahead of you to work on it, and we'll always be there to help you, whether it takes a hundred years or not." His somber face softening, Aang clutched the pair of hands in his own. He slowly began to feel the nebulous pang in chest fade away again, finally gone, releasing his heart to boundless new freedoms in this new world.
"Settling feuds and making peace," he sighed, "all in a day's work for an Air Nomad—"
Before he could speak again, the raft began to quake and rock from side to side. Looking over the edge of the platform, they could see multitudes of spindly roots crawling up the sides, greedily worming and crawling up their ankles. Before they could rush to slice away the spidery invaders, the raft gave a massive heave as it was thrust up out of the water. A titanic root had emerged from the depths of the bog that proceeded to rocket them into the dizzying heights of the sky.
The occupants of the raft sunk to the floor, clutching whatever branches or slivers of wood for dear life as the tremendous gravitational forces yanked them about like ragdolls. The gargantuan tentacle of wood continued to propel them mightily about over the bog until it suddenly ceased. Cautiously peeling his eyelids open, Aang's face was greeted by the warm caress of the sun's rays as they pierced an opening in the choking fog of gray like heavenly spears. Aang urged his companions to their feet so that they could behold the spectacle before them. Stretched out for furlongs ahead was a recess that had developed in the fog, a grand tapestry woven out of the gold, crimson and sapphire threads of the sunset.
But then, out of the corner of his eye, Aang found a sight even more breathtaking. From the wall of clouds before him emerged a colossal silhouette, one that he could recognize as belonging to only one kind of creature on the face of this earth. Aang could barely utter the words...
"It's a...Lion Turtle."
The Ancient One
As Aang spoke, an immense, lithe, serpentine neck emerged from the clouds, draped in a curtain of pond-weed and water vines that constituted the creature's mane. From beneath the façade of foliage emerged what seemed like a craggy precipice or cliff face that shuddered and tore long gashes into its own surface. Soon the cracks and tears began to part, revealing two vast orbs of darkness, each as black as the water beneath them. It was then they saw the eyes of the creature upon them, bearing into their souls like the folds of the nighttime sky.
"Do you know what I am, Guardian of the East?"
The voice was immense, all-encompassing as it seemed to resonate throughout the entire bog. Yet it seemed gentle and feminine, reassuring Aang as he trammeled up his fear of addressing the titan of a creature.
"Yes," Aang responded, his voice seeming like that of a gnat. "But I don't believe we've met."
"I am Danu, lioness turtle..."
Aang folded his hands and took a solemn bow, the others responding appropriately.
They complied, and found they were now even closer to the lioness-turtle's void like eyes. Aang once again moved to speak in his miniscule voice.
"It's an honor."
" NO !"
All flinched at her thunderous bark as the gust of breath nearly scalped their heads bald. In his roaring panic, Appa nearly tumbled over the edge.
"It is an outrage!" she snarled with cold fury. "It is desecration! It is sacrilege for your kind to intrude upon this abode! Or...it would be..."
"We meant no disrespect," Aang pleaded, his voice still a pinprick of sound to the lioness-turtle's ears. "But please, what's the cause of your anger?" Hearing the small voice of the protesting Air Nomad, she lowered her head, seeming to examine her quivering quarry as they laid at her mercy. Then, with a seeming look of resignation, she willed the giant root over to her side, displaying the vast stretches of a sprawling ruined city atop her colossal shell just poking out through the shrouding clouds. The sight seemed to echo with lost glory as each castle and tower reflected the light as though made of glass instead of pale stone.
" This was once Tyr-na-nOg, a paradise on the Earth...even when my children left it vacant to explore the world, I furnished these lands as a safe haven for them...but they could not band together, instead fragmenting into three tribes and fighting one another...because of this I could do nothing as the Milesians came across the sea and sacked our home...they each fought until they could no longer, whence they repaid my hospitality with abandonment...I was alone...left to conceal myself in this place...to stand by while my lands are plundered...to watch as history repeats itself with this island's new custodians...to wait until this Helheim of shadow and illusions becomes my tomb...
"We...we can feel your pain," Katara whispered, her voice even fainter than Aang's. Danu turned towards her, having heard her murmur clearer than any shout.
"You do more than that...you rise above it," the great creature said, contrition puncturing her face and voice. "None of you gave up as easily as they—or I—did...none of you belong here with me..."
The companions looked at each other, overjoyed and buoyed by her words, gratefully bowing to her in thanks.
"Now," the lioness turtle continued, "I believe it is time you collected your friends."
A Solemn Vow
Zuko stumbled onto shore, kneeling ardently in the soft sand, rapturously savoring the evening sun on his skin and the wind on his face. He lay there, relishing his freedom from the fog when he began hearing the approaching sounds of shifting sands.
"Your Lordship!" a voice called out in a heavy gasp. "Over here, sir!" Zuko turned his head to see the disheveled form of the Arbiter, advancing like a walking corpse, leaning on his claymore like a walking stick. Zuko could see Liam's skin had turned pale and his limbs quaked with each step he approached. Zuko bolted out of the sand and came to Liam's side, helping the Arbiter's sword shoulder the burden of his weight.
"What happened to you?" Zuko asked with concern.
"I've been torn apart," Liam sighed, "...by more than just wyverns." Zuko helped the beleaguered Arbiter to the ground, letting his claymore fall by his side. "Please, my Lord," Liam besought, "forgive me."
"It's alright," Zuko replied with confused features. "This trip has messed with everyone's head." Liam only clasped the Fire Lord and implored further.
"I know what it is to love one's people," he whispered, nearly out of breath. "I promise you, your Lordship...I will see to it that you return home with yours."
Zuko looked away, unsure of what to say until he saw a familiar shape on the rosy fingered dusk. It was Appa that approached in the distance, no doubt with Aang and the others astride. He looked away again, his eyes distracted with thought, his mind burdened with choice, all until he faced the Arbiter again.
"No," he said..."I will."
With that, Liam's eyes began to relent as he slipped off into unconsciousness. Zuko held the Arbiter by his side, all the while waiting, waiting for his friends to bear them both away...away from the road most wooden.
Any Fort in a Storm
Toph stood on the gondola of the mechanist's airship, the steady hum of its engines nearly lulling her weary body asleep, coaxing her into closing her watery gray eyes. By her flank she could feel the whiskered muzzle of Fafnir gently tickling her ribs. She could feel the creature's fatigued heartbeat and labored breathing, symptoms of the battle they had both braved and suffered. She flinched as the Dark One's hands appeared on her other shoulder, her senses having been made lethargic from her futile labor.
"I'm sorry," he retracted. "I just...I only wanted to—"
"It's fine," she murmured, her voice soft and hoarse. "You don't owe me from before."
"I just wish I had enough strength for both of us now," he said, his eyes squeezing together with frustration.
"There's something else you can do."
"Tell me what you see...It's so high up here. I can't feel anything."
He craned his head mournfully over the railing, taking in what lay beneath their lofty perch. It was not a pretty sight. Spread out before them were the docks and wharves of Pohuai Stronghold, lined with hundreds of ships of all different sizes, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of sickeningly silent bodies, all queuing up to stuff each and every ship to the gunwales. Some were departing as they spoke, rushing full speed off to the west, vouchsafing their destination with a loathsome cargo. She felt the Dark One's eyes drifting elsewhere to spare them both of the poignant panoramas.
"The Mechanist is saying farewell to his son," he said. "They're both hugging, tighter than I've ever seen before. I can see their tears," he described with a faltering voice, restraining tears of his own. "He just kissed his brow and is starting for the ship now, almost limping with the effort...and his son is just sitting there in his wheel chair...watching...like they're never going to see—" He knew better than to carry on. He simply cleared his throat as the Mechanist approached.
"I'm so, so sorry," the old man atoned. "We did all we could...and that was a brilliant plan of yours Sifu Toph," he said, trying to lift his capitulated voice. "By rights, we deserved to win that one."
A faint, "thank you," was his only response from the beleaguered earth bending master. With a defeated look, the Mechanist marched away, preparing to man the bridge as Skuult walked by.
"Head North-by-Northwest," Skuult shouted up to the cabin. "From there, follow the prevailing winds and we should be there in no-time."
"What'll be waiting for us once we get there?" the Dark One asked, a scornful pinch in his brow.
"Oh, you'll see..."
The Mechanist manned the pilot's cabin and prepared for takeoff. Wiping away his tears on his jacket sleeve, he grasped and pulled a series of levers until the airship jolted into action, slowly rising into the dusky sky.
"What else do you see," Toph murmured.
Looking before him, the Dark One gazed into the peach skinned horizon, ablaze with a palette seemingly chosen by the gods of the sky to mock the occasion. Holding back tears with a choking lump in his throat, he averted his eyes and desperately sought a less contemptuous, less ironic sight.
"The rest of the Fire Soldiers are repairing what remains of the fort. They're working tirelessly...piling brick by brick, stone by stone...clearing away the rubble, finding some use for it."
"Why are they doing that?" Toph asked, her weak voice intoned with confusion.
"Because..." the Dark One paused, puzzling over the answer in his mind. The more he did, the more he felt his spirits rising, rather strangely until he realized the answer. "Because," he said, clasping his teacher's shoulder, with confidence this time, "it wouldn't do anyone any good just lying there like that." Toph's head turned to face the Dark One, her eyes more confused than sorrowful.
"We tried our best," he continued. "And we must keep on trying. All we can do now is bide our time and wait for an opportunity to salvage this situation. We must stay together, and stay strong...your friends would."
From what he saw, the Dark One would have acknowledged defeat for she showed no response to his words. But from what he felt, from his hand still bolstering her ragged form, from the slowly slackening tension in her back, from the weary crane of her head onto Fafnir's supporting snout, from her resignation to rejuvenating slumber, he could tell he had at least begun to repay her.
Together they stayed until their ship vanished on the horizon, off to who knows where.
Azula awoke in shock. Her skin was damp with cold sweat. Her manic eyes darted in all directions, seeing nothing but the now familiar darkness of her iron cell. It was an abyss of shadow, the only light emerging from an artificial source in the ceiling during daylight hours to reveal the cold sterility of her surroundings.
She sat up on her bunk, her steel yokes and roughhewn garments chaffing her shivering skin. She curled into a fetal position, nuzzling her kneecaps with her chin, desperately trying to conserve heat in the flesh slicing cold of her prison. She had just awoken from the most horrible dream. She had been trapped in a land of endless fog, all alone until she had found Zuko. She remembered the joy she felt to have finally seen his face again, the only human face she had looked upon for weeks. But when she ran to embrace him, he seemed scared and angry. He kept yelling at her and she couldn't figure out why before she awoke.
An icy tear slid down her cheek. She tried to restrain herself, but she couldn't help it. She buried her face into her knees and let her sorrows soak into the fabric of her trousers. She wept, for she knew nobody would come to her rescue. Anyone she would've been able to call friend or family she had alienated, estranged by trying to enfetter them in fear. Now she was the one wearing shackles.
"What are these?!" a smoldering ember in her heart hissed, "The sniveling whines of some sobbing school girl! You are Azula! Queen of the Fire Nation! Your one and only fault was in not taking after your ' darling ' father, for underestimating the triumphant power of love, adoration—godhood! Yes, your father was worshiped as a god!"
That spark of her former self had begun to die in this frigid fortress of solitude, replaced by a vacuum of despair. She realized that she had gambled away the true kind of love, the love that would have saved her from this frozen abode and her father from the fate that now seized him. For all his 'divinity', no one had come to save him from his destiny; one worse than death. Yes, she had seen it. She couldn't have imagined a worse punishment than losing one's bending, a part of one's self.
She bit her lip and shivered from more than just the cold. She didn't want to remember what she had seen in her last days on Fire Nation soil. She wanted only to remember the faces of the ones she had the nearest facsimile of love for. Even the once tormenting visions of her tender, sweet mother would have been welcomed instead of the apparitions that now haunted her; the tall, ghostly forms of men in grey robes, bearing only blank metal faces full of questions and queries that she could not remember the next morning. She wanted only to remember the faces of Ty Lee, Mai...Zuko—though she was now beginning to forget what they looked like.
Above all, she wanted desperately for one of them, any of them, to deliver her from this—what did they call it? Helheim?
-For reasons that will become more apparent as the story progresses, I have chosen to rename the figure "Draco Arcturon" as "Lord Camulos"-
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