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July 2, 2013
Previously in Air
The battle has turned. While Sokka and the others struggle to maintain the upper hand, back in the bunker Ling is revealed as a traitor by taking Princess Ursa captive. Zuko and Aang arrive at the cave only to discover it is too late.
Chapter Seventy-Two: Last Hope
"The sacrifice has been made."
Darkness encroached upon them. Chaos leached the strength and energy from the air, the earth, the spirits themselves. Somewhere above the shadows, a tube of light stretched from this world to the next. Pulsating with the life force of the Anchors beyond, its ethereal presence began to take solid shape.
"The Avatar has failed," Bheri announced. Her ethereal presence dimmed in the onslaught of the coming night. She regarded the six remaining spirits gravely. "The Anchors are in place. We have only now to wait for the passage to build itself."
Miku growled. "I told you it wouldn't work."
A spark of moonlight from Yue's temper made the boar spirit wince. "Can anything be done?" she asked.
Haku looked out into the darkness. Soon, he knew it would swallow all of the Spirit World, and the world of mortals as well.
"We can fight," Enma replied.
"With what?" Miku retorted. "Have you already forgotten our last fight against such a Chaos?"
Golden hair bristled along the monkey spirit's back. He bared his teeth. "Perhaps it is you have forgotten, Miku. We fight as we did then, with all the balance left in our world. We still stand, so there is still a measure of Order we might use to stave off the Disorder."
"Fool! At that time we were an army of spirits against one monster, nor were we tethered to the weakness of the mortal world. Do you expect us to battle such odds with only six?"
"What else are we to do, Miku?" Bheri's words were gentle and composed. One serene eye blinked out at them from the milky cloud. "We cannot sit by and allow ourselves to be overrun."
The others swiveled to face the boar spirit.
Miku scuffed the earth with one massive hoof. "We excise."
Yue gasped. "We can't!"
"We are meant to guard the mortal world, Miku," Enma hissed, "Not abandon them."
"They have brought this fate upon themselves," Miku snapped. "Your precious Haku himself admitted the reason the Balance swayed in the first place was because of the genocide of the Air Nomads. It was a result of war, a war those foolish mortals rushed headlong into. They and they alone are responsible for their fate, just as we are responsible for ours. The Spirit World is not defeated yet. We should salvage what we can."
"Doing so," Enma seethed, his chest heaving, "Would permanently separate the two planes. The mortal world would perish in a sea of Chaos! We alone would survive of all existence. What fate is that?"
"Survival," Bheri answered. She turned to Miku. "Do we even have the strength to conduct such a separation?"
"Just enough," Miku replied. "If we cut the Tree from the spiritual plane, the source of the Chaos would no longer reside here. Most of the darkness would dissipate or leave with it."
"And into the mortal world," the antlered man, called Gintu, pointed out.
"It is no more than they deserve!"
"Stop this," Yue cried. "You are talking not only of abandoning a world we have guarded and guided for millennia, but hoisting our own misery upon them."
"Misery they themselves have wrought," Bheri conceded.
Haku stared at the ethereal spirit. He always assumed she was more level-headed than Miku's panic, and less antagonistic towards mortals. "Surely you're not considering this! They don't deserve this kind of punishment anymore than they did after Quera forced his passage into the Spirit World. The acts of many mortals may have triggered the shift in the Balance, but they cannot all be held accountable. Already you forget Nithe. He also was only one, yet he nearly collapsed the Balance of existence. Did you ever once consider cutting yourselves off from the mortal world to spare them should you fall?"
The spirits shifted uncomfortably, knowing just as well as Haku that they would have dragged the mortal world into Chaos with them. Not as an act of malicious intent, but a result of stubborn pride. Only Enma puffed out his chest in approval at the harsh reprimand.
"We cannot abandon them," Yue said again.
Miku sneered, but did not speak.
"You all forget one thing," Wan Shi Tong said, his voice booming through the quiet. "This is not a matter of whether or not we wish to save the mortal world, but if we are even able. And there is no question. It is an impossible task. The Anchors are set. The passage is forming with their energies. We have only until it merges with the Anchor in our world. Time alone separates us from destruction. The Anchors are bound both physically and spiritually. To break them, a connection of both is needed."
The owl spirit turned his head, regarding each of them gravely, but when those eyes met Haku, the former Avatar wondered whether Wan Shi Tong's prejudice against mortals swayed his words. "We are spirits," the knowledge spirit concluded. "None of us maintain any link with the spiritual realm. If the Avatar cannot break them, we are lost."
"Then we pass into the mortal world," Yue said. "We find Aang and help him reach the Anchors."
Bheri's essence shivered. "In the throes of Chaos, passing between the planes would be fatal. Either we would die in the darkness, or succumb to a fate of mortality."
"And that is only if we survive," Miku spat.
Out of the corner of his eye, Enma watched Haku's face furrow in concentration. He knew that look too well. The monkey spirit turned his back on the other spirits, bounding to his friend's side.
"What are you thinking, Haku?"
The former Avatar started out of his reverie. He smirked, recognizing the admonishing tinge in Enma's tone. The monkey spirit had a tendency to disapprove of the schemes Haku devised. Usually with good reason.
Hake had been thinking about the journey he took with Aang to the Tree, about the veils of darkness surrounding it. He remembered passing through the Chaos, and looking down upon his own solid hands once more.
He stood. "We can break the Anchor."
The white glow cast about the dark cave flickered. Aang ran his gaze around him –Koh, peering out from a veil not unlike the one by his Tree; Azula, standing by the far wall; Ozai between them, his arms spread to usher in a new world. And at his feet –Aang's breath caught. A body. He only glimpsed the young woman's face, but he knew it was Min.
Koh looked disappointed. "Do you always interrupt, Avatar?"
"Stop this, Koh. Stop it now."
A disdainful smile stretched across the spirit's face. "It is too late, Avatar."
"It can't be."
The spirit laughed. "You and your blind optimism. Not everything goes according to plan, my dear Avatar." He gestured down at the woman's body. "The ceremony is complete, the passage underway. She has already surrendered her life force to its completion. It guides the energy across the planes, and soon both worlds will be joined together once more."
Zuko stepped forward. "Then you will no longer be immortal."
The Spirit looked surprised. "Someone knows something of the spiritual realm, eh? Normally, you would be quite correct." His smile stretched. "However, I will be on the right side of this passage when it is complete."
The breath escaped Aang in a terrified gasp.
Koh chuckled. "That's right, Avatar. When Chaos abounds, I will be immortal still. A spirit among the humans." His eyes sparked. "A god."
"Albeit one on a tether," Ozai reminded.
The spirit's eyes dimmed. "Oh. Yes." A hiss escaped between his clenched teeth.
Ozai turned to the Avatar and the Firelord, a triumphant smile on his face. "And I will be the one holding the reigns. You look uncomfortable, Zuko. Perhaps you should have considered all this before you betrayed me."
Aang scanned the room again, and this time he caught sight of the two figures lying prostrate at the back of the cave.
With a whirl of his staff, Aang sent a gale-force wind at Azula, knocking her off balance as he ran for the Anchors. He ignored Ozai, leaving Zuko to deal with him. Right now, he needed to save the world from a fate worse than even the Phoenix King.
Two men stretched along the back wall of the cave, lying head to head. Skin as pale as bone, they looked worn, almost stretched. Their eyes were closed, their faces contorted as if in an unpleasant dream. One wore the shabby garb of an Earth Kingdom peasant, while the other wore the remnants of a Fire Nation army uniform. Aang's breath caught. This must be one of the soldiers Ozai captured. Aang examined the strange ornaments adorning them –animal bones, strange incense, and each were bound with strange cords the color of blood. What had been done to them?
Haku? he called silently. Can you hear me? Can you give me any clues?
No reply came. Aang wondered if the presence of that window into the Spirit World might be distorting his Avatar abilities. Or if all of his abilities had not yet fully returned while the Anchors remained.
He gazed down at the two, mind racing. What was he supposed to do? How could he break this bondage? Haku had said it would take both a spiritual connection, and a physical one. But what did that mean?
Taking a deep breath, Aang reached out to place a hand on each of their heads. He had blocked out the rest of the cave, relying on Zuko to defend his back, and so he did not realize that no sound of battle ensued. He did not see that Azula nor Ozai made no move to defend their plan, and Koh's stark face only smirked from beyond.
With a physical link established, Aang's mind reached out to the comatose men, hoping to connect spiritually. As his fingers brushed one of the binding cords, a jolt rushed through him. He caught his breath as the sharp pain subsided, but instead of avoiding the cords, he gingerly touched them again.
Pain shot through his fingertips, up his arm, and into his soul. But in his mind's eye, he saw the energies swirling inside the unconscious soldier. Mostly there was darkness –unnatural darkness– as the last of his colored energies swirled and fought, but drained away from him despite the valiant effort.
In that moment, Aang understood that Min tied objects to people and their energies, and through that third party was able to control them to some degree. He had only to break the bond and call the energy back.
Aang followed the energy as it drained from the soldier's body, down to his toes, and as it was sucked away into the window of the Spirit World. Each second that window grew more solid, and Aang sensed the passage stretching out before it. Wake up, he called to the Anchor. Wake up!
The soldier did not respond. He lay, fixed and unmoving, not even a twitch of the eyelid.
Gritting his teeth, Aang reached out toward the energy. Not physically, but with his mind. As he watched the blue and red energies swirl away like water in a drain, Aang saw his own life force –a brilliant white– join them. His energy curled around that of the soldier, slowly drawing it back.
The warmth of triumph, the reassurance of victory, flooded through Aang. Ozai had lied. It wasn't too late.
He dispensed more of his energy to usher what belonged to the soldier back into his body. As he drew it back once more, the energy attacked, sucking at the white brilliance and yanking it from Aang's being.
Aang gasped. He released the cord, but the attack did not end. The energy had a hold of him now, and no cord had linked them. Desperate, he scurried back but the energy continued to leach his life force. Strength ebbed from him with every drop of energy sucked away. Fatigue clawed through his being. An image flashed through his mind, his own body lying beside the Anchors, the energy of an Avatar joined in the passage to destroy both worlds.
With a cry that was both fear and determination, Aang jerked away, not only physically, but spiritually. He thought of a scythe slicing through the piece of his own infected energy and suddenly he was free.
Zuko leveled a sword each at his father and sister as Aang knelt beside the Anchors. Ozai merely smiled, amused. Like a tigerdillo toying with its prey. A chill racked up Zuko's spine. Come on, Aang. Hurry.
Azula was another matter. She stood immobile, eyes staring off into nothing. She didn't even seem to be aware of his presence. Her ashen face lacked the assured confidence he was so accustomed to seeing. If their father noticed the difference, he ignored it. Normally smiling at his right hand, Azula stood several paces back, shoulders hunched. In the screen behind Ozai, the spirit leered out at them. Zuko fought to keep his composure. Aang had warned him of the Face Stealer's bad habit.
Aang gulped down a breath as the swirling images of energies faded away and the cave came back in full focus.
"Aang?" Zuko called, voice tight in alarm. "Are you alright?"
Panting too hard to reply, Aang could only shake his head. He felt weak, so weak. But it was not merely a tiredness of body that assailed him. Aang knew that by sacrificing even a remnant of his energy, he had just surrendered a piece of his life force, a year or perhaps two of his future. It was not a wound from which he would recover; the energy lost would never be regained.
"I told you," Ozai said. "You're too late. Min's work is finished. The Anchors are secured."
Dread clamped onto Zuko's gut. He knew he shouldn't take his eyes off them, but he couldn't help it. He turned to Aang, knowing the truth would lie in his eyes.
That gray gaze stared back at him, defeated.
Rat and Ryuk stumbled as their captor shoved them forward.
"What is this?" Admiral Liang demanded.
"Stowaways, sir," the infantryman replied. "I found them skulking around the lower decks. These are the mechanics who upgraded the trebuchets," he added bitterly.
As if on cue, one of the deadly weapons released, its loaded arm flying up and releasing its burden high. Every pair of eyes watched as the flaming rock flew at the approaching airship. It struck the hull with a metallic thud, grazing the side.
Admiral Liang grinned as he turned on the newcomers. "As you can see, we caught on to your little trick." He gestured to Qin, held tightly between two sailors. "Did you come back for your leader? Admirable, but stupid, I'm afraid. Qin isn't a man I'd risk my hide for; he'd turn on you in an instant."
"I have to agree," Ryuk said.
The Admiral frowned, but before he could do much more than that Ryuk lunged for him. Caught by surprise and the midriff, Liang hurtled back into the wall and was held there by his would-be prisoner. In that baffled instant he wondered why the sailors or infantryman didn't come to his aid, but as the fog cleared from his head he saw that the two sailors and the helmsman had been brought down by swift blows.
The infantryman dusted off his hands. "That wasn't so hard."
On deck, another trebuchet fired. This time, the missile hit the airship head on.
Rat scowled at Jee. "You've really got to stop doing that."
"What was that?" Haru cried in alarm.
"Navy ships," Kio grunted, holding back the blade of his enemy. He heaved forward, throwing the assailant off, and swiping at his exposed side. "Sounds like they've got their trebuchets back. They're trying to bring the airship down."
Another blow thundered along the beach.
"And now they're trying to bring down the wall," Mai observed.
Two more blows in quick succession sent a tremor through the sand. Haru winced, for the first time realizing that in the panic and chaos of battle he hadn't blocked out the vibrations of the earth. Maybe there was something to this.
Ryuk pressed his forearm against the Admiral's windpipe with casual grace, cutting off his air supply. "Tell them to stop firing."
Pinned against the wall, the Admiral was helpless. If he tried to go for a weapon, this mechanic would only press harder and cause him to black out. He heard the distant whump of another missile released. He smiled. Choking for air, he rasped, "Never."
Ryuk pressed a little harder. "Pretty please?"
The Admiral sputtered. At first, Ryuk thought he was already blacking out, but he realized Liang was laughing. He turned to Rat. "I don't like it when people laugh at me."
"They just don't realize how serious you are," Rat assured him, "Because you're face gets all cute and scrunched up."
"It what? My face is not cute when I'm serious!"
Rat shrugged, as if that were a matter of opinion.
Ignoring the Admiral still struggling for breath, Ryuk realized someone was missing. "Hey, where did the Captain go?"
They both glanced around the room. Not until they heard his shout did they spy him, leaning out the doorway of the bridge.
Still masked, Jee called down to the decks. "The Talon and the Wolfbat have been compromised. Send them to the bottom of the sea!"
The operators scurried about to obey, adjusting their aim and loading the next missile.
Beneath Ryuk's grasp, Liang squirmed. "Oh ho! I don't think he likes that. Good thinking, Jee."
"You'll –You'll pay for this," Liang spluttered.
"Sure, sure. You guys always say that, you know." With one deft move, Ryuk tweaked a few nerves and sent the Admiral slumping to the ground, unconscious. He turned to the others. "Seriously, Jee, I like the way you think. Ever considered giving up the hum-drum life of the sea for some high-riding adventures with the 114th?"
Jee eyed the Admiral with misgivings. "Are you going to do that to me if I say no?"
Rat snickered. "Not if you say it nicely."
Corporal Xi watched from the deck of the warship as the Talon, set ablaze by their missile, slowly sank toward the waterline. Armored figures raced about in a panic, shouting and diving for safety.
The Wolfbat watched too, probably guessing their fate was next. The mechanics scurried about, adjusting the trebuchet's aim once more. The two ships were close enough that Xi could see the lone man on the bridge of the Wolfbat, bellowing orders down to the crew. He'd recognize the ship's captain, Wun-Tu, anywhere; Xi had once served under him and those sideburns had quite a distinctive shape.
There was one thing Xi always remembered about Wun-Tu, and that was his unerring –even blind– loyalty to Ozai and the old Fire Nation. The corporal scowled. If his ship had been compromised, there was no way Wun-Tu would return fire.
"Halt the trebuchets!"
Sokka cursed as the last remnants of the wall shuddered, and fell. "There goes our last line of defense."
"Get ready for the party," Kio muttered.
The airship spewed black smoke from above, damaged from the blow it had taken. It still fired on the ships below, but it limped through the air at a spider snail's pace.
Ryuk's grin fell away. "Looks like the jig is up."
All four looked out over the deck. The trebuchets lay at rest, abandoned. The mechanics and crew congregated and, as the intruders watched, their heads swiveled to face them. They did not look happy.
Someone barked indistinct orders and the mechanics scurried back to the trebuchets, readjusting.
"At least we bought the airship a few moments," Arn said.
Shading her eyes, Rat examined the maritime battlefield. "Enough time to take out another ship, anyway."
The crew marched for the bridge. Ryuk clutched a spear he had retrieved from one of the fallen sailors.
"Let's go down fighting, shall we?"
Something exploded past Sokka's feet. He jumped back with a yelp of surprise. Mai and Kio whirled in alarm, just in time to see the tail end of something that glinted in the firelight disappearing across the sand.
"What was that?" Sokka cried.
"Sorry," Haru said, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. "Didn't mean to scare anybody."
"What did you–"
Behind them, the grating scream of metal against metal rent the air. The noise escalated in an explosion and a ball of fire erupted on the water.
The four watched as the warship bled smoke and flame into the night.
Three heads turned to stare at Haru. The earthbender flushed. "Couldn't have them bringing down the airship," he said.
Sokka grinned. He clapped Haru on the back. It might have once knocked the earthbender off his feet, but it was nothing more than a tap compared to Toph's encouraging blows. "See, you are a metalbender! I told you you could do it."
On the bridge of the warship, the four intruders were wrenched off their feet and thrown against the wall. Below, the crew was less fortunate, exposed to the elements and the fire of the unexpected explosion. Some were tossed into the water, and others jumped willingly to escape the flames.
Rubbing the point of impact on his neck, Ryuk winced. "That's going to leave a bruise."
"Did the airship fire on us?" Jee craned his neck to look up, but there was no trail of smoke to indicate their assailant.
"Doesn't matter," Ryuk said, struggling to his feet. Thick black smoke began to leak under the doorways and through the window. He tugged his shirt collar over his noise to shelter his breathing and the others followed suit. "We weren't going to keep control of these trebuchets, so it's better than the alternative."
Another explosion rocked the ship.
Rat scrambled to keep her balance. Ryuk caught her around the waist, pushing himself against a wall to keep them both upright.
"Whatever it is," Rat said, "Sounds like it hit the engine room. There ought to be a couple more explosions, but the water might muffle them."
"Water?" Ryuk questioned.
Rat nodded. "Engine room's below the waterline. She's going down. The only question left is what will finish us off, the water or the explosions?"
"Neither, if I've got a say in it. Can we make a jump for it?"
"We can try," Jee answered. He was already forcing open a door on the far side of the room. "Assuming they don't intend to hit us again, and we can clear the wreckage, and the other ships don't decide to take shots at us, we might even make it."
Ryuk glanced at Rat. Her face was covered in soot and her tangled hair was even more of a mess than usual. She caught his eye and broke into a grin. "Sounds like an adventure."
"Nothing like a good win or die situation to get the blood pumping," he agreed. Clasping her hand tight, he raced alongside the others out the door, just as a few of their more stalwart attackers burst into the room on the other side.
Toph took a step forward, palms raised.
"Stay back!" the man snarled, jerking Ursa in his grasp, effectively scattering those remaining bystanders who had succumbed to shock.
Toph halted. The vibrations indicated others had stepped forward as well –Yuki, Katara, a few of the soldiers. They all stopped. None of them would risk endangering the Princess.
Silently, she cursed. The man had his back against the wall, to one side the small stack of provisions and to the other bodies that could not move farther back. The Faceless pressed away from him in terror, but there was so little room in the bunker that they merely formed a barrier of open space around him. They might have a chance at jumping him, but he would see them coming, even if his eyes weren't glued to the soldiers and others he deemed threats. If only she and the others were closer!
Gritting her teeth, Toph said, "Let's just calm down, okay?"
The man chuckled. "Oh, I'm perfectly calm." With his free hand, he stroked the Princess's hair. Ursa flinched.
"What's your name?" Katara asked, her gentle voice compelling.
The man's smirk widened to a grin. "Ling. But name exchanging won't gain you much empathy with me, Katara."
It didn't surprise Katara that the man knew her name. Her identity wasn't exactly unobtrusive.
Muscles clenched in frustration, Yuki growled. "Let the Princess go, scum."
"And give up my leverage? No, I don't think so."
"Leverage for what?" Toph demanded. Her legs trembled beneath her, threatening to collapse, but she refused to show it. That one blow of earthbending she had served had wiped her out, and it hadn't even done a bit of good. This Ling had danced right under it, and now Toph was helpless to do anything but negotiate.
Ling smiled, and the sight sent shivers down all their spines. "To keep you sitting tight. This battle won't last long, whatever you may think. You have no idea what you're dealing with. The Phoenix King will rise again before the day is out, and he will reward me handsomely for such a prize as this."
The spirits stood at the edge of the darkness, encircling Haku.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Enma murmured.
Haku grinned. "Of course I'm sure."
The monkey spirit's tail fell limp. He clasped his friend's shoulder. They both knew the dangers involved. To stop the passage, there was no telling how much energy would be needed, and how much of that energy would be Haku's.
As he gazed into the shadows, Haku felt no fear, no despair. Down in the darkest part of his soul, the words of Koh had festered. The idea that Haku's sacrifice so long ago may have been selfish– Haku could not escape the possibility. What if it had? Could he have had an alternative motive? But he smiled now because those worries were laid to rest.
The world was in danger, and he was going to save it again. For its own sake, just as he had in his own time as Avatar.
"Let's get started."
Miku snorted but kept his mouth shut.
"There is a chance this won't work," Bheri cautioned. "And in the process we may all perish."
Wan Shi Tong nodded. "Because this Anchor has already been claimed by the darkness, we will forfeit much of our own energy. We will become only shadows of ourselves. In time, we may regain our forms, but such a feat would take centuries."
"Then you are welcome to remain here," snapped Enma, his tail lashing.
Yue shot the short-tempered monkey a withering glance. "This is the only opportunity we have," she told the others. "If you are not willing to take the chance, you are welcome to watch your fate beyond the shadows."
Their eyes drifted to the indistinct passage in the sky, pulsating with white energy, stretching to the Tree and disappearing into the darkness. Perhaps many of them did not care for the human world. Perhaps they felt this destruction was the responsibility of the mortals. But for all of them, the Spirit World was their home.
Braced for the blow, the spirits plunged into the shadows.
Ozai smiled at them. "The Avatar and the Firelord have failed, and now there is only the wait until your demise is complete."
Rage swelled in Zuko's chest. This couldn't be the end. It couldn't happen like this. There had to a way, some way, to stop this. Clenching his swords tight, he charged.
Ozai only shook his head in pity. He waved his fingers and Azula answered the unspoken command, stepping out of her reverie to kick her brother off balance. As Zuko scrabbled to regain his footing, Azula picked her way towards him on tiptoes, swaying dangerously. Zuko retreated and, gnashing her teeth, she lunged after him. This time he was ready, catching her heel on his wrist as it came down and flipping her around.
Insanity seemed to lend Azula the limberness of a drunk. Her body spun through the air but she landed, almost unaffected, on one knee.
Zuko leveled his blades at her. She grinned back.
"Fool," Ozai spat. "Even if you could kill me, nothing can stop this now! I bring this world an era of peace through control and calculation. It will thrive under the tutelage of the great Fire Nation, which shall rise from the ashes with its king."
Gritting his teeth, Zuko cried, "Without you, at least the world would have a fighting chance to save itself."
"Ha!" His eyes flashed. "You understand nothing. If I cannot rule this world, Zuko, then no one can." He stepped wide, gesturing to the vision of Koh and the shadows consuming the world beyond him. Throwing back his head, Ozai laughed. "Chaos can have it!"
Cold sweat broke over both the Avatar and the Firelord. Surely these were the words of a madman, Aang thought. But Zuko knew the determination behind his father's words. He remembered how Ozai hated to lose. There was no madness in him, only cruel, cold resolve.
The passage faltered.
Koh felt the combined energies shudder. He frowned. What disturbance could that be? His legs skittered as he thought of the Anchor the Tree provided, the spirits standing stalwart and helpless in this realm. There was nothing they could do, even if they wanted to. Only the Avatar possessed the qualities capable of disrupting the link and severing the passage.
The dark of his soul shuddered as the energy once again quivered. Perhaps he should investigate...
Koh turned, but a sound stopped him. The sound of laughter.
Koh's attention shifted back to the mortal world beyond the screen and he gazed down at Ozai.
"If I cannot rule this world," the Phoenix King laughed, "Chaos can have it!"
Yes, Koh thought. Chaos. Then, He really should have known better.
As the Phoenix King's triumphant glee echoed off the cave walls, the Face Stealer pounced. Insectan legs pushed through the film of the screen, latching onto that grinning face. Ozai's laugh turned to a cry of dismay. He stared at the spirit, uncomprehending. He struggled against the grasp, but Koh only tightened his grip.
The spirit dragged the Phoenix King toward the screen.
"We –we had a deal!" Ozai shrieked. "You swore an oath!"
Koh grinned back at him. "Yet I have broken nothing."
No one moved as the window swallowed them both back to the Spirit World. Once so full of confidence and triumph, Ozai now writhed and screamed. The desperate pleas were muted behind the screen, but each word still rang clear.
Aang, Zuko, even Azula, stood stunned, unable to move, unsure how to act. As the spirit lunged once more for his father, Zuko looked away. When his gaze returned, the familiar features had vanished.
Koh released the body of Ozai. Its hands clawed over the smooth, unblemished flesh of its face. It staggered away, tripping over a root jutting out from the earth. As it fell to the carpet-like mist, it writhed and contorted with unheard screams. The mist rose up to cloak him, higher and higher. But as it stretched over the body, it hid it from sight before quickly dispersing, and Zuko realized it was not mist at all.
"What's happening?" The words croaked from his dry throat, and thick with an emotion that surprised him.
Aang swallowed hard. "He's fading."
Before their eyes, Ozai disappeared. First one limb, then another, until the Phoenix King was simply gone.
A sob clung to Zuko's throat, but he choked it back. He felt Aang's hand on his shoulder, but this wasn't the time to realize he would still weep for his father, cruel and murderous as he was.
Koh turned back to the screen with a grin. "It seems this one had no Hope to speak of."
People screamed. They scattered in panic and the world swam in the boy's eyes. His mind raced with horror and confusion. Part of him did not understand what was going on, and another part recognized exactly what had happened. Grandmother Ursa had scooped him up and planted herself between him and the danger, but he could still see his sister. He could see Ursa held helpless in the man's grip, tears of terror brimming at the corners of her eyes as his hand tightened around her neck. Held captive, just as he had been.
Roh-Roh clutched at his grandmother's skirt, his heart pounding with the pace of a racing mongoose dragon. The past few days, wrapped tight in the protection of his family and friends, his captivity had felt years ago. But now, watching Ursa in the grasp of a stranger, the horrors came back, catching him by the throat and the heart and squeezing tight.
Let her go. Let her go!
He heard indistinct words, saw Toph and Yuki and the others stepping forward, but the man tightened his grip. Ursa gave a little whimper. He wondered if anyone else could hear. She did not fight or struggle and a voice screamed in his head for her to escape, but he saw the meaty fingers cradling her throat and terror drowned the voice again.
Toph and the others stopped. He waited for something to happen. For Toph to earthbend, or Katara to waterbend, or Yuki to charge forward and bodily separate the man from his sister.
But nothing happened.
He glanced at them and their clenched jaws, and the fury and helplessness in their eyes made him realize there was nothing they could do.
Roh-Roh choked back a sob. How could they do nothing? How could everything go so wrong so fast? His sister stood just out of reach, helpless and in danger. He once thought that being taken captive would be the worst thing that ever happened to him, but he knew now there were things much, much worse.
He couldn't bare the thought of his sister experiencing that. He couldn't even let himself think something horrible might happen to her. Unwelcome thoughts of disaster and sorrow leapt to mind, no matter how hard he fought them. He wished there was something he could do. But he was too young. What could he do? If Toph and Yuki and Katara couldn't rescue his sister, what could he possibly do? He wasn't a quick thinker, or a fighter. He had always assumed that, if something ever did happen to him and his sister, he would be cowering behind Ursa and she would take care of it.
The tears dried in his eyes. When he had been kidnapped, Ursa wasn't there. She couldn't help him or protect him. And he did plan escapes, and he did fight back, and the words that had kept him thinking of ways to look out for himself jumped to mind once more. What would Ursa do?
A surge of powerful heat erupted in his chest. It felt like firebending when he lost control, and he began to panic. But when he looked down and saw that no sparks of anger sputtered between his fingers, the fear ebbed. He realized the feeling was not fury, but determination.
Roh-Roh looked around him with new eyes. It was true that Toph and the others couldn't help Ursa, or they would have done it already. They were stronger and smarter and more skilled and experienced than he. But he was smaller than they were, and maybe even quicker. With his spindly limbs, he would certainly be harder to catch.
So was there something he could do that they couldn't?
Ducking under Grandmother Ursa's protective hand, he poked his head out from behind her. The crowd nearly reached the man. They pressed tight together, but Roh-Roh might be able to work his way between their legs without drawing attention.
Without a conscious thought as to what would happen then, Roh-Roh pulled away from his grandmother and slipped into the crowd. If she noticed him leaving, she didn't cry out or give him away. He was glad. Someone had to do something, and it might just be up to him.
The hand around her neck tightened and Ursa trembled. Her fingers gripped his forearm as she fought for breath. She fought them hard, but tears filled her eyes. Crying wouldn't help anything!
Yuki and Toph and Katara glared at her captor from a distance, but Ursa knew that they could not move. She tried to shift, to test his hold for leeway, but he wrenched her to the side.
"Be still, brat!"
Pain exploded in her neck. Squeezing her eyes shut, she felt a hot tear trickle down her cheek.
"Hurt her and you die," Yuki bellowed.
The bodyguard's words were so authoritative, so confident, Ursa opened her eyes, half-expecting to see Yuki charging to the rescue. But Yuki hadn't moved. With jaw and muscles clenched, her murderous eyes bored into the captor. It wasn't just Yuki. No one was moving.
It was as if time had stopped in this world, and the only movement at all was the frantic beat of her own heart, and her captor's. He wasn't as calm and cocky as he pretended.
Something caught her eye. Movement. Down low, between the legs of the crowd, she spotted Roh-Roh slinking forward and her heart skipped a beat.
Her body went limp. What was he doing? What was he thinking? She wanted to call out, to cry, tell him to stop. But what if her captor hurt him? He had told everyone to stay back; what would he do if he realized a little boy had challenged him?
Swallowing back her plea, Ursa choked down a sob and averted her gaze just as Roh-Roh crept behind the meager stack of supplies in the corner.
This, Roh-Roh decided as he ducked behind one of the boxes, was definitely something neither Yuki nor Toph could do. They were far too big. Even he had to scrunch himself into a ball to keep out of sight behind the small boxes.
Crawling around the corner of the box, Roh-Roh pressed himself between it and the wall. He peeked out and saw exactly what he'd hoped to see –the back of Ursa's captor. If he could just surprise the man, he would let Ursa go. And he knew exactly what to do.
Nothing was quite as surprising as a fistful of flame to the small of one's back. There was one catch. Roh-Roh still knew little about firebending. He could not conjure flame by will, only through forms. And there was no room for forms.
Crouched behind the box, Roh-Roh forced himself to take a deep breath. He could do this. Fire came from within; he just needed to draw it out. It wasn't an impossible feat. All firebenders could do it, after training and experience. As his little heart hammered in his chest, he thought of everything his bending master had ever told him about fire and never playing with the element or attempting on his own a feat far beyond his skill level.
But I have no choice.
He tried not to think about how hopeless it was. Mere desperation and determination couldn't account for lack of experience. Even Ursa had not yet been able to conjure fire at will, and she was far better in their lessons than he.
Stop it. You have to do it, and that's the end.
The inferno of determination blossomed in his chest. He closed his eyes, trying to picture that feeling as the potential flame waiting to be released. It felt so much like the fire inside, that maybe focusing on it would help. He pictured his firebending as a cold ember in his chest. With a push and a nudge, he urged it to spark. Heat sputtered from the ember and it blazed with warmth. He tried to grasp at it, to draw it out, but the heat died as it left the center.
Roh-Roh gritted his teeth, but he refused to give up.
He focused on the blazing determination once more. Come on. Come on. As he focused, he remembered to regulate his breathing. In. Out. In. Out. With each inhale the ember glowed, the heat building up within, but with each exhale, the red spark faded back into its gray depths.
He took a deep breath and as the glow blossomed he caught hold of it. He exhaled, and he held it steady. The spark remained, in the center of his focus, rather than fading back again.
Inhaling, the spark grew brighter. He tugged it further. The glow sputtered and he paused, willing it not to extinguish.
Koh turned to Azula wearing the face of her father. "You should have warned him, little emissary," the spirit admonished playfully. "I can't resist a face."
Zuko and Aang swiveled to face her. No expression crossed Azula's face as she stared at the screen, where her father had disappeared and the spirit stared back.
"You–" Zuko looked from his sister, to the screen, and back again. "You did it on purpose."
Azula swayed, leaning closer to the shimmering veil and the leering face behind it.
She is my prize. Her father's words echoed once more through her head, filling her chest with one last surge of warmth. But it was not a glow of joy. It was a flush of fury. After all, what was a prize? A trophy. A possession to be envied and admired. She had even given him one last chance. Do you love me? she had asked. A simple question, and it gained a simple reply. Of course, my angel. But those words were not his. Stolen words of endearment, leached from memories of her mother. My angel. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. Zuko had been right all along. She was not a daughter to their father. She was only a tool.
She shrugged, indifferent. "Turns out you were right." Her impassive face twitched. "He was only using me after all."
Sudden terror washed through Zuko. "Azula," he urged, "I understand. Why don't you step away?"
Azula giggled. She danced a step closer to the window. The spirit lunged but could not reach her. Zuko cried out but Azula did not seem bothered by the spirit drooling at her shoulder.
"Why?" she demanded. "There's nothing left. Father was the only person I had, Zuzu. And you shattered even that illusion!" Tears slipped freely over her grinning lips. "There's nothing left."
"Yes, there is," Zuko said. "Our mother."
Azula sneered. "Do not mock me. Mother is dead. She abandoned us!"
"No." Zuko held his hands out to her, easing forward. "She didn't. She—"
"Stay back!" Azula shrieked.
Zuko paused. Madness raged in her eyes, hot tears streaming down her face.
"She came back, Azula. She's waiting for us." He stretched his hand out to her. "Please. Azula, come with me. Let me take you home."
Azula stared at the offering, trying to decide whether a cat viper laid in wait. She raised her eyes to meet his, and for an instant they were the wide, innocent and hurt orbs of his little sister.
"Will you teach me?"
"Father never makes time for us!"
The madness returned in an instant. Her lips twisted in a sneer. "I can always tell when you're lying, dum-dum." She threw back her head, cackling, and leapt back, turning to face the shroud.
"No!" Zuko screamed. He leapt forward, but Aang caught his arm.
"It's too late, Zuko," he whispered, as the spirit slithered back through the veil, Azula's writhing body like a doll in his grip.
The spirit's laughter drifted from one world to the next, filling the cave.
"What a pity. The passage is nearly complete, and I am bound no longer by my oath." Koh's eyes blazed as he turned on Aang. "What shall you do now, Avatar? Perhaps barter for my pardon? Or fight. Oh, I do hope it is fight."
Teeth and fists clenched, Zuko seethed.
The anger tempted Koh's palate like the aroma of a delicacy. He turned toward the Firelord, wondering how he might bring the mortal closer. But the Avatar's hand clutched his friend's arm. Ah, well. He could wait.
Koh flicked to his newest face, and smiled at Zuko with the cruel familiar condescension of his sister. "Would you like her back?"
Before Zuko could comprehend the words, Koh disappeared from sight. A body hurtled through the sheen, rolling to a stop at their feet. A faceless body. Azula.
Aang lit up like a firework. "Enough!"
Koh laughed. He flicked from one face to the next, reveling in the ecstasy of new choices. "What will you do, Avatar? You have already lost." Ozai's face grinned down at him. "And my new collection has only just begun."
How never crossed Aang's mind. The only thing he knew was that he had to stop Koh from entering his world, from endangering his people and hunting them down like cattle for prizes. Staff raised high, the Avatar lunged at the screen.
Before he even drew near, the screen shuddered.
Koh's grin faltered. Flicking back to his own face, he whirled, glaring out into the shadowy curtains veiling the Tree. Something was wrong. The energy recoiled, as if stirred against the grain.
"You have sold yourself to the Chaos, Koh."
The Face Stealer's gaze flickered left and he caught sight of the indistinct white glow. "Bheri. What a pleasant surprise."
The darkness around the base of the Tree began to part, revealing one by one each of the remaining spirits. Yue. Wan Shi Tong. Gintu. Enma. Miku. Their hands pressed against the trunk.
"So we're all here. Well," Koh conceded. "Mostly."
"Forgetting me?" Haku asked, stepping out from the behind the last wisp of shadow.
"Ah. So that is everyone." Shifting to Azula's face, Koh made the most of her sly smile. "It's a little late to come charging to the rescue, don't you think?"
Haku smiled back. "Not in the least."
Koh blinked. This pest should not be smiling. He should be bartering, or caterwauling, or commencing some ill-fated attack. Yet he smiled. The spirit's mind raced. There was something. Something he had missed. Why else would they stand there, staring at him?
As the shadows receded from the spirits, Koh thought how they would soon join the worlds together, meshing them with erratic and disjointed pieces thrust together, how spirit and mortal would become –
The air left Koh's lungs in a hiss. His eyes locked onto Haku's. Haku, a spirit who had once been mortal.
Haku's smile widened across his flesh and blood face as the Chaos tugged him ever closer toward the mortal realm. He raised his hand to the trunk of the Tree.
"No!" Koh lunged, but too late.
The fingers of the mortal brushed the rough bark. Brilliant white exploded on contact, consuming the darkness, the Spirit World, and Koh with it. The screen shattered, fading once more to a cave wall in a cliff by the sea.
A brilliant flash burst from Roh-Roh's fingertips as the fire inside erupted as white hot justice. The internal inferno continued to fuel the flames. Roh-Roh leapt from behind the crate, hurling back his arm and driving a fistful of fire into the man's back. "Let go of my sister!"
The man shrieked in pain. His arms instinctively released the girl as he recoiled from the blow, his back arching as his cries filled the bunker.
Roh-Roh skipped around the man, leaving him to writhe in the remnants of white flame. He grabbed his sister's hand and together they dashed into the relative safety of the crowd.
No sooner had Roh-Roh struck, then Yuki and the others charged. Before the last of the flame had simmered from Ling's back, the lieutenant was lashed down.
Grandmother Ursa caught them both, smothering them in kisses. "Are you alright?" she kept asking. "Are you hurt?"
Others crowded around them. Yuki, checking them over for damage; Toph, crowing in delight at her two little 'daredevils'; Katara, weeping tears of joy. They spoke, asking questions or demanding answers, he wasn't sure.
The words sailed over Roh-Roh in a blur. He couldn't see or think straight. The world swirled around him and he sat down hard. The only thing he knew –the only thing important right now– was that his sister was safe.
Ursa knelt beside him, hugging her brother close. "You saved me, Roh-Roh."
Only he knew she was crying. She never liked it when people saw her cry, but he felt the hot tears as she held him tight. He had saved her. Somehow, he had. Yet he still couldn't believe it.
His sister eased back, looking him full in the face. He didn't understand the surprise in her eyes. "How did you do that?"
"I was just wondering the same thing," Yuki muttered.
Roh-Roh shrugged. "I just did what the masters told me. I pictured the fire inside as emotion, and pushed it out as flame."
"But..." Yuki frowned, apparently at a loss for words.
"What emotion were you feeling?" Ursa asked.
Roh-Roh scrunched his nose. "I don't know." His face flushed as he realized just how many faces stared down at him. He ducked his head. "Fear, mostly. I just wanted you back."
His sister and Yuki exchanged a glance.
When no one responded, Roh-Roh worried he had done something wrong. He glanced up at his sister. "Didn't I do it right? Wasn't I firebending?"
Ursa smiled at him. She squeezed his hand tight. "You did it exactly right. But, Roh-Roh, your fire wasn't red. It was white."
Aang ducked, flinging his arm over his head as the white explosion shattered the window between the worlds. He half-expected the light to ravage the cave. Instead, it severed the connection between the worlds, plunging the cave into the natural darkness of the night.
Desperate gasps of air pierced the silence. Aang whirled round, but Zuko stood motionless and silent over his sister.
The Anchors, he remembered. Dashing to the back of the cave, Aang saw the two men struggle against their bonds. As he approached, they flinched away, tangled as they were in cords and incense.
"Relax," he soothed. "I'm the Avatar. I'm going to the cut you free." He retrieved Zuko's fallen sword and quickly sliced through their bonds.
The soldier was the first to struggle upright, flexing his limbs, and massaging his wrists. The second man shuddered, but allowed Aang to help him sit up.
"Do you remember who you are?" Aang asked, "And what happened?"
The soldier chuckled weakly. "Sure do. Name's Si Yung. Not sure what that black witch did to us. I don't remember much, only..." He winced, rubbing at his face as though the memory pained him. "Something in the darkness. And floating, I'm pretty sure I was floating. I was going somewhere, too, but there was this light..." He shook his head. "I'm not sure that helps."
Aang patted his shoulder. "Don't worry. It tells me you remember just enough. All you need to know is that it's over."
"Good," Si Yung said with a chuckle. "I'm glad to hear that. Those Loyal had us pretty outnumbered."
Aang's heart sank. In the wake of the passage's destruction, how could he possibly forget about the battle on the beach?
"Would you excuse me for a minute?"
Zuko had not moved. Azula lay motionless except for her breathing. She had begun to dissipate, but had not yet vanished. He gazed down at his sister, horror and sadness and revulsion fighting in his chest, as he waited for her body to fade.
Hearing Aang approach, Zuko said, "That spirit said my father had no Hope." He turned to face his friend. "Is that why he didn't become like one of the Faceless? Is that why he...vanished?"
Aang nodded, and Zuko's gaze returned once more to his sister.
"Then what about her?"
Looking down, Aang saw that the edges of Azula's body had begun to fade. But Ozai had vanished almost instantly, and even now her disappearance proceeded slowly. He turned back to Zuko.
"Something has given her Hope." He laid a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I'm going back to the beach, to help the others." He hesitated, casting a quick glance at the former Anchors. "Will you stay here and keep an eye on them?"
A wry smile twisted Zuko's lips. Somehow, Aang knew, even when Zuko didn't understand it himself. He nodded.
Flipping his glider open, Aang vaulted out the cave opening, catching an upward current and drifting out of view.
Why, Zuko didn't know, but he felt obligated to stay by his sister's side until she, like their father, vanished. The nothingness that claimed the outline of her figure began to creep inward. It wouldn't be long.
Crossing his legs, he sat beside her. Zuko hesitated, then reached for her hand.
Azula yanked it back, shooting a spurt of weak flame in his direction.
Zuko brushed the blue Fire aside. He was careful not to touch her after that. She had hope of something. What was it? he wondered. Did it have anything to do with them? Their mother? Or was it some faith in a diabolical vision?
"Do you ever wonder," he whispered, knowing full well she couldn't hear him, "How things could have been? If our mother hadn't disappeared, or you hadn't been a firebending prodigy?"
He thought about his sister, and a wry chuckle broke his solemnity. "No. I doubt you ever did."
The warship had sunk, along with several more vessels. Smoke curled up from the airship's side, but she still held the advantage. Three of the remaining ships had recognized the futility of their position. They had lifted anchor and headed for open water, but not to escape as Sokka first supposed. Distance was what they sought, hoping they're own weapons reached farther than those of the airship.
Scuffles still churned the sand as soldier battled Loyal, but the enemy had lost the advantage with its ships, and most of its men besides.
"I can't believe I'm going to say this," Sokka said, "But we're actually going to win this."
"Thanks to our help," reminded the dripping wet Ryuk with a wink. He held his arm close to his side, and wouldn't be surprised to learn he had broken it in three places. A small price to pay to escape a sinking, burning warship through the waters of an aquatic battlefield. Jee had only retained some ugly bruising, while Arn and Rat remained virtually unscathed.
"I don't know," Sokka said, ignoring a jab from Suki, "It was my brilliant plan..."
"And our airship!" Ryuk cried. "And who sabotaged the enemy ships? Oh, yeah, us."
Kio shook his head, grinning from ear to ear.
"Look who's late to the party," Mai said.
The familiar silhouette of a glider nosedived for the beach, wings snapping shut at the last second as Aang hit the sand in a crouch.
"Sorry, Aang," Sokka cried, "There's no more fun to be had."
"I didn't realize saving the universe from complete chaos and destruction was 'fun'." Aang stood, taking the petering battle in at a glance.
"Well not when you put it that way," Sokka muttered. He instantly brightened. "So how'd things go on your end?"
Aang frowned. 'Good' didn't seem the right response. It had been close. Far too close. "The passage has been destroyed," he said. "Ozai and the others..." He hesitated. "Min died opening the passage."
"And Ozai?" Sokka pressed. "What about Azula?"
"Azula...forgot to tell Ozai about Koh's habit of stealing faces."
Sokka winced. "So now the tyrannical evil overlord is one of those Faceless? That seems unfair. I mean, now is Kaori stuck with him?"
"No," Aang replied, voice flat. "Ozai didn't exactly survive the transition."
"Oh. Well." Sokka shrugged. "Good riddance."
Mai's fingernails bit deep into her palm. Her dark eyes bore into Aang. She spoke the words she was almost afraid to ask. "Where's Zuko?"
Aang met her gaze. "He's fine. He's still in the cave."
Azula's body faded more rapidly now.
Zuko watched silently. He'd finished talking. He didn't have time to wonder what could have been. He didn't want to.
He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and glanced over. Mai knelt beside him, staring at Azula's missing features just as they vanished.
Azula's entire being faded from existence in an instant.
Mai didn't know what to say. She looked at her husband, and her eyes were full of concern.
"Azula never had much use for help," Zuko said quietly, offering this as explanation.
Then he looked away from the place where his sister had been. He looked at Mai, watching him so worriedly, and smiled at her. He took her hand, wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "I'm glad you're not dead."
Mai smiled back, relief slowly creeping in, and flooding through her. "I'm glad you aren't either."
She kissed him, and they held each other tight as the glow of the rising sun crept toward the sea's horizon.
- There is still an epilogue to follow, so don't worry!
- I love Ryuk and Rat. Can you tell? Extra bonus was how well they interacted with Jee. *score*
- Captain Wun-Tu -I totally went there. XD
- Way back in 2009, when I was first plotting this story, one of the things on my Must Do list was bring back Koh. I always wanted more of him in ATLA, so I wanted a really good reason to bring him in. And as I worked it out, I knew what Ozai and Azula's fates would be. So you're looking at the first actual decision I made with this series. It seemed so...perfect.
- Initially, when Aang went to help with the battle on the beach, he was going to single-handedly end the battle. I decided that was too convenient, and since I'd added Kio and the airship after the act, I realized they actually had a fighting chance of beating the Loyal.
For the collective works of the author, go here.