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|The Greatest Earthbender|
Book 1: Lunar
The Lady of Omashu
Toph is a name few fail to recognize in the Avatar world. It is a famous name, almost as famous as the Avatar himself. It belongs to a bender of great renown; an Earthbender as powerful and as firm as the foundations of the earth.
Those few that are fortunate enough not to have faced Toph in battle can only imagine what this notorious combatant looks like. What comes to their mind is a man of great stature. He is as burly as a Saber-tooth Moose-Lion and his expression is always stern. His arms are gigantic, with veins pulsing and muscles bulging.
"He can snap a man in half!" one person cried.
"He eats raw iron for breakfast!" another exclaimed.
Others think Toph is a living rock beast; a demon of cold stone cursed to roam the world for eternity. In fact, it is said the only living man that Toph ever lost a duel against was the Avatar, the most powerful bender in existence.
Truly this Toph is a fiend of a man. But no; they are all actually quite wrong. Toph is a name that doesn't belong to any man. It belongs to a young, blind woman.
One of the great Avatar Aang's old childhood friends, Toph assisted him in defeating the tyrannical Fire Nation long ago. After the end of the War, she traveled around the world with Aang and his friend Katara for six years to help restore the world to its former glory.
At age eighteen Toph finally returned to her parent's estate in the village of Gaoling, the house of the richest family in the Earth Kingdom. Her mother and father were overjoyed at their daughter's return and began to lavish her with expensive gifts and every luxury imaginable. After a few days Toph reminded her parents the stay was a temporary one, as she would soon be back on the road again. Her father's reaction was livid; he demanded Toph settle down for a change.
"It's not right for a vulnerable young woman like you to be on the street! You aren't a dirty vagabond!" he shouted at the top of his lungs.
"You need to be taken care of!"
Toph knew where this argument was going. She had heard enough. She snatched up her bags and headed for the door without any retort.
"It's that boy's fault, isn't it—" her father murmured; he smashed his fist down hard on the dinner table, noisily knocking over a cup of delicate lychee tea.
"I curse the day I ever let the Avatar into my home!"
Toph stopped abruptly and turned around.
"The Avatar saved me from the likes of you," she said coldly, rendering her father speechless. Toph's mother sat in a chair near her and was weeping.
"We need you, Toph," she said between sobs, "We love you."
"I love you too," Toph whispered. She sighed and continued towards the door.
"If you leave now," her father cried frantically, "Then you are no longer welcome as a member of the Bei Fong family!" This was his last, most desperate attempt to make his daughter remain at home. Tears streamed down his face, for he already knew what her answer would be.
Toph stopped, her hand pressing on the elaborately decorated door. She wasn't a little helpless girl anymore. She would live her life the way she wanted.
"Goodbye," she said quietly and walked out.
"Guards, seize her!" Lao screamed.
A large group of the family guards stood outside in the courtyard. They all looked at one another anxiously and dared not move an inch as Toph passed them. Lao fell to his knees and could only watch as his only daughter disappeared. Toph never saw either of her parents ever again; she wished they could understand, but she was sick of being treated like a weak good-for-nothing. If they couldn't grasp her feelings then they wouldn't have a daughter at all.
From then on Toph became a traveling fighter, just what she always wanted to be. Fighting was what she was the best at; she would carve a name for herself into the earth itself if that's what it took to reach the top. She focused on nothing less than becoming the greatest Earthbender alive.
For two years she wandered around the Earth Kingdom, picking fights with the strongest Earthbenders she could find. Toph encountered fighters of all kinds. Each and every time she would beat her opponent to a bloody pulp. While her skills are indeed renowned throughout the land, it is said that many benders lost out of pure infatuation, as Toph was as beautiful as she was deadly. As a little girl she appeared like a pure and delicate flower. Her skin was fair, her long hair dark as coal. Her sightless eyes were white as snow and twinkled like stars.
After six years Toph grew to become a woman of enchanting beauty. She never cared for her looks or took the time to make herself appear anything different, for she never even knew what she looked like. Many men found this to be her greatest charm.
By age twenty Toph was a legend in the Earth Kingdom, holding the champion titles for a dozen different Earthbending tournaments across the nation. There were even a few months she traveled around the Fire Nation and challenged many-a Firebender to duel. None she met could take her down. But she was not satisfied with this. She wanted to be the best, the very best.
Sure, she knew she would never surpass the Avatar but she always thought he was kind of cheating anyway, what with all that spiritual mumbo-jumbo and all. He didn't really count as an obstacle in her book.
But there was one man who she had her eyes set on for quite some time. It had crossed her mind eight years earlier, hearing him recount how he defeated an entire city of Firebenders. An old king, who by many accounts was indeed the world's greatest Earthbending Master. For over one hundred years he had lived; even knowing Avatar Aang before he was frozen in the iceberg. This man was named King Bumi, and he was the king of the great Earth Kingdom city Omashu.
One day Toph set out for Omashu. She had never been there before; somehow it didn't seem like a good place to find a worthwhile fight. She had passed it by many times on her travels, but not this time. She approached the great wall of the city and was met by a group of burly guards.
"State your name and business," one of the guards said to her.
"I've come to challenge your king to a fight," she answered quite simply and added with a stern face: "My name is Toph." The guards glanced at each other, perplexed. They looked the striking young woman up and down. Her frame was slim and her height was such that her head wouldn't reach the shoulders of any of the brawny men before her. She wore a loose, long green and yellow gown with short, torn sleeves. Its lengthy ends, which drifted behind her were battered and dirty. A dark, heavy belt was around her waist and she sported no shoes.
"Challenge our king?" the youngest of the guards said in disbelief.
"You? A mere woman?"
After a few seconds of silence he burst out laughing. The rest of the guards followed with uncontrollable mirth. All except one, who was the oldest and most experienced of the group. He was quietly staring at Toph and felt a wave of fear grip him. When the others began laughing he was suddenly seized with an urge to hide, for he knew something awful was about to befall his comrades. And he was quite right. Toph's white eyes narrowed dangerously as the guards roared with laughter. It had been quite a while since her name failed to precede her. She had carved it into the wits and sometimes even bodies of the Earth Kingdom citizens that the fighter named Toph is not someone to be made light of. She made sure the youngest guard was first. Toph stomped her left foot down and thrust her right fist forward. A pillar of rock shot out of the ground and struck him hard in the chest, sending him flying. With a frightened scream he fell into the chasm overlooking the city.
The other guards stopped laughing immediately and turned with fright towards the woman standing before them. Before any of them could move to defend themselves Toph struck the ground with both fists. Where each guard stood the earth sprang up and catapulted them, one by one off the cliff. They too fell screaming into the chasm's river far below. Only the oldest guard remained, quivering against Omashu's wall.
"Open the gate," Toph said darkly, approaching him. The tattered ends of her yellow and green gown swayed in the wind.
"Unless you want to end up like those dunderheads."
The guard quickly complied, signaling to the many Earthbender soldiers who were watching on top of the wall to bend it open. Slowly the stone walls retracted and Toph walked straight into Omashu. It was quite a sight to behold. The people, who literally flooded the city, were all quite varied and colorful. The Earth citizens were the most plentiful and easiest to recognize, for they all wore clothes of green and brown. Some of the men were tall and well-built, whose heads seemed no larger than apples between their huge shoulders. They were showing off their skills to a group of giggling young ladies by lifting large boulders and throwing them as far as they could.
"Typical Earthbenders," Toph said to herself, "Muscle-bound goons."
Merchants shouted from their stands to the people around, advertising what goods they offered. Some of the merchants were obviously Water Tribe, selling fish and furs and meats of all kinds. There were pirates about the place too, sinister-looking, bold individuals whom as one could see at a glance it was best not to tangle with.
Toph even heard some Fire Nation merchants making a racket, trying to convince people walking by that their random items were one-of-a-kind rarities. As Toph walked by one such merchant held aloft a funny-looking cap, claiming that the Avatar himself had once worn it. Hearing this, one young man frantically ran up to his booth and paid 50 silver pieces upfront for the hat. He excitedly put the weird-looking cap on his head and to the surprise of bystanders and Toph too, he entered a screaming fit and began foaming at the mouth. After a few yells the boy flopped to the ground unconscious.
As Toph kept walking towards the center of the city she was glad to see that eight years later the nations were beginning to get along fine on their own again. In her opinion the city was much better than Ba Sing Se. She would have gladly gone around and listened to all the interesting people interacting at the city's marketplace, but she was on a mission. A mission of utmost importance, she reminded herself.
After a while of walking the city began to converge sharply upwards and Toph found it difficult to progress much more on foot. She knew the palace of the king was at the top of the city but she was getting terribly impatient and frustrated trying to find a nice, simple way up. At length she figured the quickest and easiest way was simply to Earthbend herself up.
Toph stomped and threw her fists back forcibly. The ground beneath her rose up and carried her off rushing towards the palace. Passersby shrieked and several chunks of rock shot out from where she was standing and smote a few of the merchant booths around, sending their goods flying high into the air.
"MY CABBAGES!!" one unfortunate merchant screamed as his produce was smashed to mush.
Higher and higher Toph climbed on her earthen vessel, creating confusion where ever she went and leaving behind a trail of destruction. Houses crumbled and mail chutes were busted. Chute containers fell from their broken paths and caused more chaos. The city's inhabitants ran for cover as the rising wave of earth scaled the steep city. At last Toph reached the pinnacle of Omashu. She jumped from her wave (which afterwords struck an earth noble's mansion) and landed elegantly before the palace entrance.
Dozens of burly soldiers lined up before the large, immaculate palace door to protect their king, prepared to battle to the death with the city's wicked invader. When they saw it was none other than a slight young woman their guard slackened. Toph made sure they would regret it.
After assuming a firm stance she quickly thrust her hands up then forward. Five boulders jumped out of the ground in front of her and flew swiftly forth; each struck a soldier square in the chest, knocking them backwards.
The remaining guards looked back at their fallen friends, completely dumbfounded. They wasted no time in preparing to counterattack though, turning back to their enemy. But where Toph had once one stood only a hole in the ground lay. They looked about, confused. The earth shook violently beneath them and a great fissure opened up, knocking them clean off their feet. Before any of the soldiers could stand back up, the blind Earthbender rose, twisting out of the ground before them and immediately assumed a rigid stance.
Toph put her fists together, right fist over left and repeatedly shot her arms out. Rocks burst out of the ground and hit each of the fallen, struggling soldiers. When the dust cleared, if any of the soldiers were not unconscious, they were bent over on the ground moaning in pain. Toph elegantly stepped over their writhing and occasionally motionless bodies and came to the gigantic, emerald-green palace door. With a forceful kick she bent it to fly open ferociously with a clang.
The great door to the palace of Omashu flung open wildly. Toph walked in with a confident stride.
"King Bumi!!" she yelled at the top of her lungs into the building, "I challenge you to an Earthbending duel!" Her voice echoed throughout the vast palace. Toph stood at the door, eagerly awaiting a response.
"Well?" Toph cried impatiently, "What do you say!?"
After a while of silence she heard footsteps and sensed someone was coming closer.
"Goodness gracious me," came a strange old man's voice, "Who's causing all the rumpus?"
A squat old man wearing odd green robes slowly came towards Toph. Everything about this old man's appearance was strange, mismatched even. He had a tremendous hump on his back and shuffled along as though his bones could crack at the smallest movement. One of his emerald-green eyes was lighter in color than the other and so wide open it might pop straight out of its socket. The tuft of hair on the end of his chin was white, as were his thick eyebrows. What hair remained on his bald, liver-spotted head darted in opposite directions around his bushy ears. Stranger still was the cap he wore, which had two elongated feathers that flapped about as he moved. On each of his long fingers were many elegant rings.
Toph, of course, could not see any of this, as she had never been able to see anyone. She had heard his voice before and knew who the old man was, instantly. She never forgets a voice.
"King Bumi," Toph said in her most serious voice, "Let us fight."
"Lettuce blight?" the king asked, tilting his head, "Oh my, that's bad news for the farmers. Very bad news indeed. I was always a fan of cabbage myself, personally."
Bumi stared at her with his mismatched eyes for a moment before realizing.
"Ah!" the king exclaimed, "You're Toph, aren't you? One of Aang's friends? My, how you've grown. Been awfully busy these past eight years, haven't you?"
Toph remained perfectly still and silent.
"How is dear Aangy-Pangy now-a-days? He sure turned out to be a great Avatar, didn't he?"
Bumi chanced a look behind Toph and saw that a few of his servants were on the ground. He scuffled to the door, taking no heed of Toph and saw the rest of them.
"Funny time for them to be taking a nap, don't you think?" the king said, turning around and returning to his palace.
Toph could feel her blood begin to boil. She knew this was all a ruse. The frail old king act won't work on her. This man is the greatest Earthbender alive. She heard him tell the tale himself of how he liberated Omashu alone on the Day of Black Sun. If nothing else she could sense through vibrations in the ground that Bumi's steps were not that of a weak old king. They were the footsteps of an incredibly powerful man trying to act feeble. She could even sense how muscular his aged body was beneath the robes, and see how he was positioning himself to appear like a deformed hunchback.
"Come in, come in!" Bumi said, motioning inwards, "We should have a feast to celebrate your arrival." He was walking away from her, back into the palace.
"And you mustn't lurk in doorways!" the king called to her, "It's terribly rude you know. One might question your upbringing!"
Toph had enough. She stomped her foot down and a crack ran rapidly along the stone floor towards the back of the old, frail-looking king. A rock pillar jutted out of the ground and was less than a second away from striking him from behind, but without turning around Bumi held out his hand and stopped its movement effortlessly.
"There's no use hiding it," Toph said to him, "I've come to have a duel and I won't leave until I get what I want."
Bumi stood still with his back facing Toph. "You are the greatest Earthbender alive," she said starkly, "And I've come to test that title." For a while there was mutual silence. "If I agree to the duel," Bumi asked, "Can we do it outside the city walls?" His voice was completely different from before. Now it was cold and deadly serious.
"No," Toph answered back, her mind was made up, "We do this here and now."
Bumi turned around and cracked a smile. Several of his front teeth were missing.
"Well now," said the king, "I can't have that in my city."
Toph sensed Bumi's first movement; it was lightning fast. A rushing wave of churning rock was about to strike her head-on. She bent a slab of stone to rise and shield her, but the force of Bumi's attack pierced her defense and knocked her straight off her feet. She was thrown out of the palace doorway, where her bare feet skidded along the ground for several yards until she came to a screeching halt.
Bumi emerged from the palace, disrobed and bare-chested. He cast his feathered cap off his head and threw it to the ground. He was incredibly tall for such an elderly man, and as Toph had sensed he was very muscular but not muscular like the blockheads she saw earlier. Bumi was lean enough that his muscles would not slow him down in the slightest.
"We will indeed duel, young one," the buff king said. His tone was harsh and his expression severe, but he immediately cracked a wide grin.
"But you'll have to catch me first!"
Then Bumi launched himself high into the air, cackling and snorting a strange laugh. He landed off to the side of the pinnacle, by one of Omashu's mail delivery chutes leading to the base of the city. He jumped into one of the chute's stone bins and slid down at incredible speed.
"Wait, you dumb old clown!" Toph shouted and ran after him. She jumped onto the chute and used Earthbending to pursue him. Bumi gripped the front of the gliding bin, laughing and screaming. Toph wasn't too far behind.
It was in this way that Bumi led Toph out of the city. As the two of them raced through Omashu, onlookers wondered who the crazy snorting old man in the chute was, not realizing he was their king. When the end of the chute came up, Bumi propelled himself off the bin. The ground where he landed sunk down and broke his fall, afterwards he tunneled under the city and headed for the mountains overlooking Omashu. Toph could sense his movements underground and followed him straight out of the city.
The chute bin Bumi rode kept on going until it reached the broken end of the chute, where it was catapulted towards the marketplace. It smote the cart of the same unfortunate merchant, who was collecting what undamaged heads of cabbage he could find in the wreckage from earlier in the day.
"MY CABBA—" the merchant threw his hands into the air and screamed, then cut short, "No. That's it. I'm done. Enough is enough."
His father, grand father and great-grand father had all been incredibly successful cabbage merchants. He had hoped to live up to the family name, but his dreams were dashed to pieces and stepped on time, after time, again and again. It had all started years ago with that group of meddling brats and the bald kid with the arrow on his head, he thought. The fuming merchant walked away from his splintered cart crammed with obliterated produce, and never once did he look back.
"Vegetables are obviously not my calling in life."
Later on, the cabbage merchant would become very famous; in fact, he would become the most famous merchant in the world, but not at all because of his cabbage.
Deep underground Bumi drilled through the earth, heading at incredible speed towards the mountains. Toph followed him closely on the surface. When she got to the great wall of Omashu she simply burst straight through it, spooking the guards stationed on top. On the outside she bent another earthen wave to rise up and carry her onward. For several miles the chase ensued, but at last Bumi emerged from the ground on the slope of a peak overlooking his city.
He was surprised to see Toph could keep up with him so easily. Bumi could feel the ground tremor as she approached on her earthen transport. When Toph sensed the king was standing still on the surface she leaped off her wave and landed a few feet away from him. The wily king and blind woman faced each other down on the rocky slopes of the mountain. Bumi motioned towards his city.
"Lovely view of my kingdom, don't you think?"
"I'm blind," Toph replied callously.
"Oh," the king muttered sheepishly, "Yes, I forgot."
"I trust there will be no more interruptions then?" Toph asked impatiently.
Bumi smiled; a swift kick was his answer. The earth ripped and churned just as before on the pinnacle of Omashu, rushing towards Toph at remarkable speed. But this time she was ready.
Toph stomped and threw up her fists. The ground she stood on rose rapidly as a great column of stone. Bumi's attack struck the face of the column and broke it, though the upper half Toph stood on remained in tact and levitated in the air briefly. She swung the serrated underside towards Bumi and launched it straight at him.
It astonished Bumi how agile and powerful her assault was. He clapped his hands together and the hurtling column broke in two; each piece landed with a resounding crash on either side of him. Toph was about to land on the ground but Bumi had already sent a boulder flying to strike her before she could recover. She heard it approaching, landed then hit the earth with her fists. A rock stuck out of the ground in front of her and took the blow of his attack. The two exchanged blows for some time. It was not long before Bumi began to notice all of Toph counterattacks came almost immediately after his own strike was set loose. Even a brilliantly fine-tuned sense of sight or hearing would not avail her to react so quickly to his movements. When Bumi made his stance to attack, Toph was already preparing to parry and counter while his attack was barely on the move. He had never seen such a mastery of neutral jing before. How can it be? he thought. What is this blind girl using to her advantage? A thought crossed his wild mind and he ceased his attacks. Toph remained at the ready for anything the king might throw at her. Through the vibrations in the ground Bumi was producing Toph could easily sense and pinpoint his attack's direction, power and velocity precisely, allowing her to respond with her own strikes accordingly. She didn't need eyes, all she needed to do was wait and listen for her enemy to strike.
At length Bumi stamped his right foot down on the ground and with a grunt lifted both arms to the sky. The ground around his feet rose and lifted him upwards, then crumbled away until Bumi only stood on a small, hovering boulder. Bumi and his boulder ascended slowly until he was quite high in the air.
Toph wasn't sure what the king was doing up in the air, but it bothered her quite a bit that she couldn't sense him any longer since he wasn't grounded. It immediately occurred to her that he was testing her. She became infuriated and sent a dozen boulders hurtling upwards in every direction. One whizzed right by Bumi's head and grazed his left tuft of hair, but he did not move a muscle. For a while Bumi did nothing more and Toph became additionally irate, believing the king was poking fun at her at this point.
"What are you doing up there!?" she yelled to him.
"Oh, just looking at the scenery," the king said lightheartedly, "It's quite a sight. You really should come up here!" Bumi was now completely certain his hypothesis was correct. Because he was air-born and made no sound, Toph could not sense his location. Her attempts to knock him down with randomly-launched rocks only proved his point further.
"So, you see through the vibrations in the earth?" Bumi asked, "I should have known."
Toph didn't say anything.
"You sure are something little missy," Bumi said, "Where on earth did Aang dig someone like you up?"
"I have yet to show you," Toph spoke darkly, "What I can really do!!"
She raised her hand up, clenched it into a fist and threw it back. The rock Bumi stood on shattered into a hundred pieces and he fell with a yelp. Toph bent the land below him to split into two great masses, which rapidly pivoted upwards to clamp down on the plummeting king. The two chunks slammed together where Bumi fell. The ground quaked and a deafening crash echoed throughout the mountains.
For a moment it appeared as though Toph had won; when the dust cleared only a heap of crumbled rock remained. But then the earth began to rubble and Toph got ready. The rubble burst open violently, sending chunks of rock flying all about; she bent a thin slab of stone to rise up and shield her from the pelting debris. Then her ears caught the sound of a huge boulder hurtling through the air towards her.
With a kick she shot her stone shield to stop it, but the slim stone wedge only crumbled on contact and did nothing to slow down the enormous rock. With a huff she bent a wave of stone to rise up in front to protect her; she braced herself against its back and prepared for impact. Toph grit her teeth as the shock of the collision shook her whole body to the core. The dust cleared; the ground was ruined and shattered stone littered the area. A snorting laugh came from behind her maimed earthen shelter.
"That was a close one!" Bumi said, peering over the top.
Toph spun around and punched her shield. A small rock shot out of the other side and nearly struck Bumi in the face but he jumped back and nimbly dodged it. Toph kept punching and more rocks flung out at the king. Bumi deflected each stone by hitting them with his fists and feet, causing each to splinter into harmless pebbles. Bumi punched forward and a rock the size of a Platypus Bear Egg shattered into dust an inch before it would have crushed his knuckles.
Toph continued to send a barrage of rocks at her enemy until Bumi managed to catch one with his bare hand. The stone's force pushed him back a little but he got control of it and threw it back to its sender. The impact obliterated what little remained of Toph's rubble shield.
Now the people of Omashu, recovering from the distressing events of earlier in the day were becoming steadily more aware of the great battle taking place in the mountains. Thunderous crashes emanated from the mountains and clouds of dust rose and began to blot out the sun. The scenery was being wrenched to ruins while tremors shook the entire valley. The Omashu citizens grew concerned that the ferocity of the fight would put everybody at risk. A request was sent by messenger hawk to Avatar Aang pleading for him to put a stop to the destruction.
Fortunately for them, the Avatar was visiting a small Earth Kingdom village on the western coast not very far from Omashu. Aang had grown quite a bit since escaping from the iceberg; in fact, he was now the tallest among his friends. The Airbender was now a wise young man who bared witness to the atrocities of the war. It was the duty of Aang and his friends to mend the wounds of the world. This task never daunted him, and even eight years later he remained a kind-hearted jokester.
The messenger hawk squawked as it flew into the village and then landed on Aang's shoulder. He read the written message to himself, grimaced with annoyance and bid farewell to the villagers. He quickly launched himself onto Appa and grabbed the reins.
"Yip yip!" he exclaimed, and they were soon soaring through the sky headed towards Omashu.
By mid-day the clash between Toph and Bumi was swiftly becoming a stale mate. The fight progressed for quite some time and there was no sign that one would tire out before the other. Neither of the two combatants could outmaneuver their opponent, no matter how hard either tried. Though Bumi had pure power and wisdom on his side, Toph's assets were agility and youth; they were almost perfectly balanced.
The king was as clever as he was insane, but for some reason even his most reliable bag of tricks failed to benefit him in this climactic battle. He tried to think of several ways to upset Toph's seismic sight, but nothing was working like he had hoped. After some time a cunning idea popped into the old man's head, and he set about to exact his plan.
With a great upward heave, Bumi bent all of the rock and earth around the two of them to disintegrate into pure sand. Thinking the shifty quality of the grains would disrupt her ability to 'see,' Bumi hoped to get an edge on her. But he was quite mistaken. Toph merely chuckled at this change in tactics.
"Wrong choice, clown king," Toph said mockingly.
Unfortunately for Bumi she had spent several months in the Si Wong Desert training to perfect her Sandbending. She wanted to make sure that a repeat of what happened on her travels with the Avatar would never happen again. It was a miserable first few months for her, unable to see where she was going in the sandy earth. The sun baked her pale skin and she remembered the many restless, cold desert nights she spent as her burned skin kept her awake in agony.
It was bitter work, but the payoff was well worth it.
Bumi shot multiple streams of sand at her, but they didn't even come close before she swiped them away. He tried to drag her down into the sand, but before he could gain control of the sand around her feet she solidified it. Sooner than Bumi could realize, a dozen blasts of sand were moving towards him at incredible speed. He whisked up a wall of sand to intercept them, but the blasts condensed into solid rock before impact and easily pierced his defense, striking him in the torso.
Bumi stumbled backwards, coughing and clutched his stomach, feeling as though the wind was blown out of him. Toph wasted no time and prepared her next strike, intending to finish him off. She waved her arms in a wide, fluid motion. Bumi looked up.
"Clever girl," he said with a smile.
A massive wave of sand reared up and was a second away from pounding Bumi hard into the dust. He already realized he created a disadvantage for himself by turning the ground into sand. It had been many, many years since he had been in the desert; long ago when he was still a young whipper-snapper and had hair on the top of his head. Too long had he spent on solid ground; now when he lifted his fists to bend the earth he expected a large chunk of rock to shoot up, not a glob of sand. This was throwing him off a bit, but he intended to right that problem immediately.
The sand wave crashed, but Bumi was not struck. He dove directly into the wave, to Toph's surprise. When he emerged on the other side, he took up a fluid stance completely unlike Earthbending, for King Bumi was not without knowledge of the other elements. In fact, he was quite informed on how other benders performed their art, and knew incorporating other facets of different elements into his own practice could make him stronger. He figured his opponent must know this too, for Toph's last attack resembled the fluid power of Waterbending entirely. He began his counterattack.
Before the sand behind him had settled, Bumi bended it to shoot forward as three small, fast-moving streams. As they twisted and flew closer to Toph, she could hear the streams whiz in the air and shot her fist forward. One stream exploded. The other two flew and whirled towards her even faster. Again her fist was thrust forward and the second stream burst. She shot her fist out again to stop the third, but at the last second Bumi bent the sand stream to break into three smaller streams, which zoomed around her fist and struck her hard. She was blown off her feet onto the ground.
Toph sat up with a scowl and shook the dust out of her long, dark hair. She spat out some grains. Bumi simply gazed at her with his mismatched eyes; his pinky was in his ear digging out a large deposit of sand.
"A healthy dosage of earth never hurt anybody," he said.
"I'll give you a dose of earth!" Toph snapped, jumping up.
With a flowing movement of her arms she sent an air-born torrent of sand hurtling at the king. He bent the torrent around himself and shot it back at Toph, who had already prepared a second stream by the time it reached her. She combined the two torrents and shot them back at Bumi. This exchanged continued for several turns, with Bumi sending the large torrent back to Toph and Toph doing the same and adding more sand to it. The stream became monstrously huge, yet Bumi knew Toph wouldn't be able to keep it up for much longer.
Right before Bumi was about to catch the torrent he stomped his foot down and a wave of sand rushed towards Toph. He caught the huge stream of sand and barely managed to turn it around. He let out a bellowing cry; his old muscles strained. He sent the stream flying towards her at twice the speed it was already moving.
Toph stopped the wave, but was completely unprepared for the stream by the time it approached her. She bent the stream to split in half, hoping to divert its force but she was still completely engulfed in sand. Bumi chuckled to himself. The dust settled and Toph was nowhere to be seen. He looked around, wondering where she went.
At length a single hand poked out of the sandy ground.
"You shouldn't bite off more than you can chew!" Bumi called out with a grin.
Toph bent all of the sandy earth back into rock. She walked out of the ground on a self-made flight of stone stairs.
"Don't mock me," she growled, "Let's finish this here and now!"
"My pleasure," replied the king.
Bumi and Toph tramped their feet on the ground and heaved their arms upward. The earth quaked and the ground of the devastated mountains cracked, crumbled and tore asunder. The king huffed and his veins began to pop out in his wrinkled skin.
"If it's a show of strength you want," Toph howled, trying to out-yell the roar of the quaking earth, "It's a show you'll get!"
She gritted her teeth and grunted, putting every last ounce of strength she could muster into her last assault. The people of Omashu were caught in the violent surge of earthquakes. Houses crumbled and great fractures appeared in the streets. Weeping mothers clutched their screaming babies and tried to seek shelter, but to no avail. Everyone in the city began to believe the end had finally come and the entire world would shake itself until nothing was left except smoldering stone.
The guards stationed on the city's wall were having a difficult time standing on their feet, but they worked together to save each other from the threat of the abyss that loomed below. One of them looked towards the mountains and cried to his fellow guards. To their horror the mountains cracked and they witnessed the peaks of two mountains break from their roots and levitate together in the sky. The resulting severance sent a torrent of boulders down the face of the mountains. Trees were smashed and crushed. Entire rivers and lakes filled with rubble.
Toph and Bumi, who were in the middle of all this, each now controlled a colossal, levitating, snow-covered mountain peak which floated behind them. Their bodies labored and strained to keep their quarry air-born. At last both Earthbenders screamed to the heavens and threw their arms outwards. The concluding attack was unleashed. Both levitating peaks moved towards each other at incredible speed.
The terrified Omashu citizens looked outside their city and knew doom was imminent. The crash of the peaks would send boulders the size of houses flying for many miles. Their city would be pelted into powder. Nothing would be saved. But a second before impact the peaks suddenly halted their progress. The quakes ceased and everyone, including Toph and Bumi looked with surprise to the sky where the two enormous snow-crowned peaks hovered. Someone with glowing eyes was floating between the two rocks, holding them apart.
"It's the Avatar!" the people of Omashu cried and cheered.
"The Avatar has finally come!"
Aang was holding the two masses of earth apart, flying in a cocoon of twisting air. His eyes and arrow tattoos radiated a cold blue light. He sent two powerful vortexes of wind towards the both of the bewildered Earthbenders. They were carried off, high into the sky by the gusts. They twirled and wobbled in the air as they fell. Toph, who is afraid of heights and wasn't sure what was going on, screamed and shrieked. Bumi fell beside her, grunting, laughing and having a jolly time.
The glowing Avatar thrust a fist toward each of the peaks. They quickly retracted back to where they had once been located on the earth. Aang whizzed around the valley in his air cocoon, mending each and every crack in the land. The rubble and boulders reformed into hills. In a matter of seconds Aang had repaired nearly every bit of damage the two Earthbenders had caused to the countryside.
Toph and Bumi were swiftly approaching the ground, but Aang appeared below them and made two billowy currents of air to break their fall. They landed safely while Aang's eyes and tattoos ceased glowing. Toph was very shaken up and could barely keep herself from hurling. Bumi smiled at Aang, but the Avatar sent him a grave look and the king's grin disappeared. Toph recovered and strode angrily towards Aang.
"Hey what's the deal, twinkle toes!?" Toph yelled at him, sticking her face directly up into his, "Who said you could stick your nose in our fight!?"
"Want me to send you flying again?" Aang replied, threateningly.
"Oh, uhh," Toph hesitated, "No, no!" She quickly backed away from him.
For a while there was silence between the three, but at length Aang spoke.
"Do either of you have any idea," he began slowly, "What you could have done?"
Neither Toph nor Bumi said anything. Both anxiously evaded Aang's harsh gaze.
"I hate to do this," he said, "Bu I forbid you two from having an Earthbending duel against each other ever again."
Toph's jaw instantly dropped.
"You can't do that!" she shouted, "We need to decide once and for all who the greatest Earthbender is! I want an answer! I won't be satisfied until I know!"
Aang looked at her and sighed heavily.
"Aang," Bumi said in his gentle voice, "If I may suggest, could our duel rather be postponed until we can decide upon a better location?"
"Somewhere no one will get hurt, perhaps?" the king added.
"And who will decide where? I want no part in this," Aang said.
"One of us will," Bumi replied, motioning to him and Toph.
He grinned, and added: "After we play a rousing game of Pai Sho to settle which one!"
At first Toph wanted to snap at Bumi for again forgetting she is blind and has absolutely no knowledge of silly board games. But a vicious idea entered her mind. She remembered eight years ago how she had scammed Fire Nation swindlers using Earthbending to win. That was in fact the only experience she ever had with such games.
"I'll agree to it," Toph said, to Aang's surprise, "But only if I get to choose which pieces we use."
All three approved to the terms of the deal and the game was scheduled to take place in a week. During that time, both Toph and Bumi assisted Aang in rebuilding Omashu. Toph set aside some time to find earthen Pai Sho pieces. To her aggravation, it turns out such pieces are quite a rarity as most are made of wood. In the end she had to pay a craftsman to carve some.
"Twinkle toes!" Toph snapped at Aang the day before the game. She stomped over and grabbed him by the collar. "Teach me how to play the game!"
"Good grief," Aang moaned, "Can't you ask nicely like a normal person?"
"Shut your mouth, arrow boy," she growled angrily, releasing him and plopping down next to her game table. She took out the bag of stone pieces and spilled them out onto the surface.
"Teach me how to play! Just the basics, I don't have all day y'know."
Aang sat down at the table with her and began to brilliantly explain the intricate strategies and rules surrounding Pai Sho. He tried to enlighten her on the importance of each of the pieces and the different gambits she could perform in the right situation. But if Toph wasn't picking her toes or fiddling with her meteor bracelet, she was flicking the game pieces off the board. Whatever she was doing, it was clear to Aang she was not paying attention whatsoever. Toph stuck a finger into her nostril and began picking eagerly, which was the absolute last straw for the Avatar. With a sweep of his arm he shoved all the pieces onto the floor and stood up irritated.
"If you're just going to fool around then why am I even bothering?"
"Hey!" said Toph, taking her finger out of her nose, "I never asked anything about gambits or tactics or whatever else you just spent the last thirty minutes babbling about. I said 'basics' not difficult junk."
"Those are the basics, Toph," Aang said irately, "If you're going to play against someone like Bumi to win then you should at least understand what I've been saying."
"Not me, I don't need your silly strategies to kick his royal highness' behind," she replied with a grin.
Aang raised his eyebrow.
"Whatever. It's your funeral," he said and walked out the room.
Toph took no heed. She got the necessary stuff down pat for sure, all she needed to know was how to win. She picked up one of the pieces off the floor and put it back on the table. With a slight motion from her finger the game chip slid by itself across the surface. A simple distraction and the king will be too senile to notice any change in the game, she thought to herself.
And so the long-awaited day of the game arrived. The two Earthbenders and the Avatar met at Omashu's palace. The king was adorned in hideous violet robes and the again wore the funny cap with the odd floppy feathers. The three walked into a spacious room with a high ceiling lit by many florescent green crystals. In the middle of the room was set the Pai Sho table with Toph's chips already arranged on it. Toph and Bumi sat down at chairs prepared on either end while Aang held his staff and stood against the wall a few yards away. Momo the flying lemur sat on his shoulder and surveyed the scene with big green eyes.
"Alright guys, remember," Aang called to them, "Whoever wins this game gets to decide where the final battle will take place."
Toph knew exactly where she would choose upon winning. She had one last ace up her sleeve she knew the king would never expect: Metalbending. Her choice was going to be that they duel on a metal platform in the middle of the ocean, far away from any earth. To her, it was the only choice and the best way to humiliate the stupid old geezer.
"My honored guest has the first move," Bumi said kindly.
"Hmph," Toph grunted and picked up one of her pieces. She pushed it forward with her finger and slid back into her chair. Bumi then made his move. For a few minutes the game progressed normally with neither player really taking any risks. It seemed as though it would just be an average game. But then Bumi began to capture some of Toph's pieces. Bumi set up a move to capture an important chip; next turn it would be done. Toph decided to put her plan into action.
While Aang was busy playing with Momo, Toph motioned under the table and bent a pebble to shoot out of the ground behind Bumi and strike one of his floppy feathers. It fell out of his cap and landed beside him.
"Oh my," said the king and he turned away from the table to retrieve it.
While he was distracted Toph motioned under the table. One of her pieces slid silently further down the board without her touching it at all. Bumi poked the dislodged feather back into his cap and faced forward. Toph sat in her seat innocently with her arms crossed.
"It's your turn my dear," the king said.
"Oh, right," Toph said. She picked up the piece she secretly moved further down the board and captured Bumi's chip he was about to use against her. Bumi looked at the table puzzled and scratched his fuzzy chin. In this way the game progressed; Toph would manipulate her pieces to move quietly whenever Bumi's attention was not turned towards the game, which happened frequently thanks to Momo. The lemur flew about the large room chirping and chattering.
It came to the point where the two players were evenly matched in the game. Bumi had captured a large portion of Toph's pieces while Toph had managed to cheat her way into capturing many of Bumi's chips. The game could teeter towards either's victory at any turn, and Toph knew she only needed to cheat once more to cripple Bumi for good.
Toph secretly bent a pebble to pop out of the ground and roll across the room. Momo, who was entertaining Aang, caught sight of the rock running along the floor and dived for it. Toph made it run into Bumi's robes, which were draped on the ground behind him. Momo plunged into the king's robes for the pebble, but got caught and began thrashing about. Bumi turned around and Aang approached to save Momo.
Toph saw her opportunity and waved her finger to move the piece. But it didn't budge. She thought maybe her movement wasn't forceful enough, so she tried again. No movement. Aang picked Momo out of the fabric and Toph panicked. She grunted and fidgeted, trying everything to subtly manipulate the stupid little stone Pai Sho piece to move. She waved her hands around, hidden under the table, but nothing was working. She was becoming very, very irate. Bumi turned back around and saw her squirm.
"Need to use the bathroom, little one?" Bumi asked with a smile.
Toph glared at him. He had kept one of his hands pressed flat on the table when he turned around. To anyone besides her it would look like he was just sitting there normally, playing a nice little game of Pai Sho. It was obvious to Toph that he was now quietly Earthbending the pieces to remain perfectly still when they weren't being picked up.
Aang leaned back against the wall with Momo, who was holding the little pebble. He was quite aware of what was going on and had been for a while. He was with Toph when she scammed the Fire Nation gamblers out of their money using Earthbending eight years ago. He figured King Bumi was a smart enough man to suggest playing Pai Sho, realizing what Toph might figuratively have up her sleeves. In his opinion it was silly of Toph to think she could trick someone like Bumi, who was a very high White Lotus member, an organization based around Pai Sho. To them, it wasn't just a simple game.
But Aang was in a bit of a fix as he watched them. He wasn't sure himself which of the two Earthbenders he wanted to win the title of "Greatest Earthbender Alive." The both of them were his really good friends. He just couldn't choose.
"It's your turn to move, you know," said Bumi, smiling a little wider.
"Yeah, I know, alright!" Toph yelled angrily. She immediately picked up one of the pieces and smacked it down hard on the table, not caring where it landed. Afterwards, she slumped back into her seat with a scowl and crossed her arms.
"Hmmm," said the king, looking at the table very intently. "A nice move! You're really starting to drive me into the corner now!"
"Really?" Toph said, surprised. She had never guessed she might win the game fair and square. The idea had never occurred to her; she spent so long calculating how she could cheat to win. Maybe Pai Sho wasn't as tough as is looks, she thought. Maybe I can still win!
Her hopes began to rise. She sat up and smiled.
"Nope! Just kidding!" Bumi said suddenly. He cackled and picked up the White Lotus piece. To Toph's horror he tapped it in several squares around the table, performing a masterful move. Nearly half of Toph's pieces were captured instantly. There was no way she could win now. She slumped back into her chair and silently swore to herself never to play Pai Sho again.
Aang approached the table, leaned on his staff and surveyed the game.
"Oh wow, Toph," he said, "I've never seen anyone lose like that before."
Toph swung her arm around to punch him in the leg, but Aang easily avoided the strike and continued to survey the table as if nothing happened.
"Looks like you're the winner, Bumi!" Aang said, "So, where will the deciding battle take place?"
Bumi placed his elbows into the table and sat, humming to himself in deep thought. Toph was quite nervous at this point, because she hadn't counted on her losing the game. Now her plan was ruined. Where will he choose? she thought. We can't do mountains. A cave? No, way too obvious. Maybe he'll pick the desert. Ugh, I still haven't gotten all the sand out of my hair...
Toph continued to think to herself until at last Bumi shouted out.
"Ah-hah!" exclaimed the king, "I've got it!"
Aang and Toph both drew nearer. The king's expression was stern, but he remained quiet for some time. The silence was unbearable to Toph. She couldn't take it much longer.
"We will battle on..." the king began, slowly and clearly.
Toph leaned in closer. What will he say? Where will it be decided? Say it, you stupid old king! Say it! Say it or I swear I'll pound you!
"... a metal platform in the middle of the ocean!" Bumi said quite quickly. He finished with a wide smile.
Toph couldn't believe her ears. She slumped back into her chair and barely contained the urge to laugh aloud. You stupid, ugly old king! You've really done yourself in this time. You have no chance. I am the greatest Earthbender in the world, and you've practically just handed me my victory. I'm going to thoroughly enjoy kicking your wrinkly butt!
With that, a metal platform was constructed by the Fire Nation and placed in the middle of the ocean a day later. Aang flew Bumi and Toph on Appa to the site of their last great battle. He later Waterbended a small island of ice not far from the platform to stand on and monitor the fight.
The ocean was as smooth as glass. There were no waves at all and little wind, if any. The sky was completely devoid of clouds. The platform was flat, several dozens of meters wide and long. Toph stood on one end of the platform and Bumi stood on the other. They stared each other down, waiting for Aang to announce when the final battle would begin.
During the silence Toph thought to herself: I'm not sure exactly why Bumi would make such a huge disadvantage for himself by having the fight out here. It makes no sense whatsoever... But then again, neither does anything else he does. He probably thinks I won't be able to do any kind of Earthbending out here, but boy is he mistaken. You're going down faster than a ten ton boulder off a cliff-side.
Bumi simply stood on his end, smiling.
"The only rule in this fight is to disable your opponent," shouted Aang from his ice island, "Are you two ready?"
The two of them nodded.
"Alright then," said Aang.
"FIGHT!" yelled Aang.
Toph wasted no time. She stomped her foot down hard on the platform, raised her hands up then threw them down. The metal platform warped and made a deafening screeching sound. A wave of metal rushed from Toph towards Bumi. Before the wave struck him, Toph clapped her hands together and threw them apart. The wave of metal shattered and turned into many twisting, writhing bands.
Bumi yelped as the metal of the platform around him reared up like many snakes. The metal bands curled around his ankles and quickly yanked him upwards, straight off his feet. With another fluid motion from Toph, the remaining metal bands coiled around Bumi's arms and legs and trapped him, leaving him dangling helplessly upside-down in the air.
Aang figured that was her plan. Get the Earthbender off the ground. It was simple enough to work. But Toph had clearly spent a lot of time practicing her Metalbending since the last time he saw her. He had never seen her fight like that. She really must want to win, he thought.
"Oh, my..." at length said the king, as he dangled high in the air above the deformed and ruined platform.
Toph burst out laughing.
"I win! I win, I win!" she exclaimed and began to dance in place. "I am the greatest Earthbender in the world! Don't you ever forget it, loser!"
Bumi only smiled his nearly toothless smile as she celebrated. His arms and legs were trapped, but his chin was not. With a grunt he threw his chin up, then forcibly down.
Toph paid no attention to Bumi, but Aang, who was watching from his ice island, knew exactly what was about to happen. Deep below the surface, from the sea floor a column of rock rose from the depths. It rose at incredible speed, frightening several schools of fish. Finally it struck right below where Toph was celebrating her supposed victory and made a massive dent in the metal platform. Toph screamed as she was flung into the ocean by the force of the impact.
Bumi cackled to himself as Toph squirmed in the sea, screaming for help.
"I can't swim!" she repeatedly cried.
Aang sighed and got on his glider to save Toph. Soon enough she was on the back of Appa, drenched and gasping for air. Aang shattered the metal bonds restraining Bumi, who was declared the winner. Bumi got on Appa with them, who started to fly back towards Omashu. The king looked down at Toph, who was quite upset. He sat next to her but she turned away from him and scowled. Several hours later they were back at the city. The king donned his kingly robes (the green ones) and held a massive feast for Aang and Toph. Aang had a great time catching up with his old friend Bumi, who told many stories of his time as the king before Aang was free of the iceberg. Bumi's silly jokes repeatedly made the Avatar burst with laughter, but Toph sat on the other end of the table and remained very quiet.
She ate little and was fiddling with her food. Aang could tell her loss was bothering her, and so too could Bumi. The both of them would try to cheer her up, but it was quite difficult when they forgot she was blind. Later Bumi praised her for her ability to think 'like a mad genius,' but at length Toph excused herself from the table and went to her room in the palace. Bumi and Aang frowned at each other.
Toph lay in her bed for hours and pondered about how the fight could have turned out differently. She was still full of rage, frustration and most of all embarrassment over the unexpected loss. She felt like such a fool for letting herself get beaten by a dumb old geezer like that. Suddenly a knock came at her door, but she could already sense it was Bumi on the other end.
"What do you want?" she said irritably, not moving out of bed.
"Toph, I really need to talk to you," Bumi's muffled voice said from behind the door. She didn't reply.
"Well... Specifically, I need to ask a favor of you, if you'll hear me out," the king added a moment later.
Toph felt her face get white-hot with anger. You have the nerve to ask a favor of me now? Toph thought. She wished she could send a huge boulder flying at him to get him away from her.
"Forget it," she grumbled to him.
"But this is really, really important, my dear," said Bumi. "I want you to know that I truly meant what I said back at dinner."
Toph remained silent, and after a moment heard the rumbling of rocks.
Bumi Earthbended the room wall to make another, open doorway into her room. He walked in, and this time he was noticeably wearing the purple robes. Toph turned in her bed to face the opposite side of the room wall.
"People who think outside the box are a rarity now-a-days," he said kindly, walking around the bed to face her. "You are truly one-of-a-kind, the likes of which is rarely seen once a generation."
Toph didn't want to listen. She wanted to attack him, to rip him to pieces. I am destined to be the greatest Earthbender in the world, she thought. I know it's my destiny. Bumi stopped to face her.
"And it is for that reason why..." Bumi paused, "I want you to take the crown of Omashu after me," he said softly.
Toph's heart almost stopped. The anger she felt melted away immediately. She wasn't entirely sure if she had heard him right. A few seconds passed before she reacted. Toph slowly rose herself out of the bed and faced him.
"You-- want me to become king after you?" she muttered slowly, in disbelief.
"Yes, my dear," said Bumi with a slight smile, "Though, I think you would be called Lady, not King, of Omashu-- Then again, you can call yourself whatever you want if you'd like!" Bumi added cheerfully.
Toph just sat on the end of the bed, unable to say anything. She wasn't sure what to do, or even if this was real. And so she sat for several moments.
"I'm not going to live forever," Bumi said. His voice became very grave, even a little sad, and his expression was serious, "I want someone to take care of the place when I'm gone, someone I can rely on."
"Why me, though?" Toph said, alarmed, a little nervous. "Why not someone responsible? Someone-- someone, I dunno... more... royal?"
Toph sat on the bed, unsure of what to say to the king. Her heart raced and her head spun. She buried her face in her hands.
"I was not royalty when I took the crown, and I am certainly not responsible. But I am definitely willing to do whatever is necessary to win," Bumi said. "And to protect my people. I know you are the same way."
Toph got off the bed and started to pace about the room. She wasn't sure what to make of this offer. She felt very uncomfortable in this situation. At last she sat down on the floor.
"Toph," said the king. He approached her and placed his hand on her shoulder.
"I have been all over this wide world. I have witnessed many things. I have seen war, I have seen peace. I have seen life and death in an eternal dance. But never in all my one hundred and twenty year life have I ever seen someone like you."
His voice was unbelievably gentle and smooth. The fact it came from such a powerful, earthly man was difficult for Toph to grasp. His words reverberated in her mind, and small tears beaded on the edges of her cloudy eyes. To think the man who for so long was her enemy would say such a thing.
"So," said Bumi, returning to his odd way of speaking, "What do you say?"
For a long while Toph was quiet, facing down in deep thought. Her black hair hung like a veil over her face.
"For the longest time," she said at last, "People would tell me I'm going to have to settle down one day and make a living somewhere. But I've never wanted to be bound by somebody else's rules. The thought of settling always terrified me. I want to experience the world. And I guess traveling around the world and being a fighter has always kind of been an excuse for me to escape that."
Toph lifted her head and her lips curled into a small smile. She wiped a tear off her cheek. "Geez," she muttered. "I'm starting to sound like an Airbender."
At length she stood and grinned.
"If I agree to this, will I still get to kick butt?"
The old king nodded his head and smiled.
"My dear, if you are king then you will make the rules."
"Then I accept," Toph said.
Bumi clapped his hands together and laughed his strange laugh.
"Good, good!" he said, "We should have a feast! I'll invite everyone we know. It will be a glorious feast! Best in all the land. I'll be sure to have Flopsie bathed and groomed." With that, he walked out through his self-made doorway.
Several days later, Toph's coronation was to begin and the entire city was invited. To say the celebration was a blast is an understatement. Long had it been since the four nations came together for such a joyous event, not since the Fire Nation ended the War. The guests of honor were the Avatar and Katara, Fire Lord Zuko, Earth King Kuei, the Kyoshi Warriors and Sokka among others. Friends from all across the world came to greet the new king.
Aang and Katara were the first to arrive on Appa. Katara hugged Toph warmly; she had grown to become an even more beautiful woman in the eight years since the end of the War. The eyes of every guard around the palace followed her as they walked. Aang took notice, grabbed Katara's hand and glared at them. Toph suspected Aang had known from the beginning that Bumi was going to give her the crown, so she made sure to give him a good, hard punch in the arm upon greeting him. The resulting bruise didn't go away for quite some time, to Aang's dismay.
Suki, Sokka and the Kyoshi Warriors traveled around the Earth Kingdom, assisting Aang in restoring the world. They were the second to get there for the ceremony. Sokka had let his hair grow out, though he continued to sport a wolf's tail. Dark facial hair lined his jaw and chin, though he was still quite lanky. When he saw Toph he couldn't believe how different she looked since it had been five or six years since they last met. Toph, who could not sense looks, simply said she couldn't believe his voice.
"What, you can't believe how sexy I sound now?" he said in his deepest tone possible, raising an eyebrow and grinning.
"No," said Toph, "I can't believe you still sound like a pre-pubescent boy."
Zuko and Mai arrived on the back of a red dragon, which frightened many onlookers because it was believed they were extinct. Aang too was slightly disturbed, seeing how much Zuko now resembled his father. After ending the War, one of his first orders as Fire Lord was ceasing his great-grandfather's custom of hunting down dragons. He and Aang spent some time with the Sun Warriors and worked to restore the dragon population.
Zuko's uncle Iroh came to Omashu too, and Toph was especially glad to see him. His tea shop the Jasmine Dragon became world-famous, but because it was in Ba Sing Se Toph never got to visit him on her travels. She apologized and explained how much she detests the Earth Kingdom capital. Iroh accepted her apology and personally volunteered to cater the ceremony. Toph later found out he declined being escorted and traveled to Omashu by himself, enjoying the beautiful scenery.
"The road to a friend is never a long one!" he told her.
For a week straight Omashu became the center of festivities. Toph enjoyed herself immensely, even if she couldn't see the celebration, she had the time of her life surrounded by friends. At age twenty, Toph had become the Lady of Omashu. In the back of her mind she knew she was only second best to Bumi, but she really didn't care. Her life was just beginning. She felt quite optimistic about the future.
After the coronation she only saw Bumi one last time. He no longer wore his kingly robes or tried to make himself look old and decrepit. Instead he wore a typical Earthbender outfit. She felt no enmity towards him whatsoever; in fact, she had grown to like him very much over the course of the festival. She almost looked up to him as a very wise and eccentric man she could live up to one day.
"I hope you aren't still upset over losing the fight," Bumi told her as she sat on the throne one day, after the guests had departed.
"What?" she said, surprised, "Oh no, not at all. It's all water under the bridge now."
The both of them smiled.
"Besides, you're the better master," she added.
Bumi let out a snort of laughter and placed his wrinkled hand on her shoulder.
"I'll let you in on a little secret I've learned over my long life," he said, "The title of 'master' is a complete illusion. Once you claim to be a master, you are not one in the slightest."
"What do you mean?" Toph asked, puzzled.
"If you are a master, then you have ceased to learn and grow by believing you've arrived somewhere satisfactory. But life is a series of plateaus; you will never stop learning."
Bumi motioned upwards with his other hand.
"You reach a level only to see all of the levels above."
"Wow," Toph said, "I didn't realize that."
"Nonsense," said Bumi, "You wouldn't be sitting on that throne if you didn't know that. You have never stopped climbing, never found satisfaction in your abilities. That is what separates you from the rest of them."
"Then I guess I should say you're the greater Earthbender," Toph said.
"Perhaps," said Bumi. "But I have age on my side. One day, when you're as old as the hills, you will certainly be the greatest. I know it in my heart."
He turned his heel and walked towards the palace door. But after a few steps he stopped and turned around.
"Oh, one more thing," he said. "When you do become as old as the hills, seek a powerful bender to take the crown after you. Someone who, eh, you know--"
"Someone who thinks like a mad genius?" Toph asked with a smirk.
"Precisely!" exclaimed Bumi. "Oh, and tell Aang I'll be seeing him, will you?"
He continued walking until he was out of the palace and Toph could no longer sense his footsteps. She never met Bumi again, and he was not heard of or seen by anyone else. Rumors arose that he turned to stone and returned to the earth. Others say he spent his last days feasting on vast amounts of Jennamite on the top of a tall mountain. And one traveler once swore on his mother that he saw Bumi entering the restored Cave of Two Lovers.
Toph felt a fleeting sense of admiration for the old man. He had ruled his city for many years of war and yet carried on as though nothing was amiss. Toph intended to continue the legacy of the city until she too would one day pass on the crown.
For the collective works of the author, go here.