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|The Legend of Singh Sang, Part One|
March 12, 2013
Previously in Air
Aang and Katara are headed to the Western Air Temple to learn more about Avatar Haku, while Zuko and the others return to the Fire Nation to deal with the remaining threat of Ozai's escape.
Chapter Sixty: The Legend of Singh Sang, Part One: Ghosts
As dusk approached, and the sun sank in a flaming blossom of color, the songs grew sadder, the stories darker.
"Whoa..." Roh-Roh breathed, wide eyes fixed on Chong as he told the story of a murderous three-fingered man and a hapless traveler warned against the dangers of straying from the path. "And they never saw him again?"
Chong shook his head. "Nope." He shrugged, plucking guitar strings. "Of course, some say that the traveler really just ran into the love of his life, settled down, got married, and never went back."
His audience frowned, disappointed.
"If this a horror story," Toph snorted, "That's a really bad ending."
"He didn't really," Lilly was quick to assure her.
Chong chuckled. "Of course not. It was just a rumor."
"Then what really happened to him?" Sokka asked. Despite his best efforts, he had been drawn into the nomad's increasingly spooky stories.
Chong smiled. "Oh, he was probably just walking along, all by himself one night..." He plucked a few strings, then paused.
The others leaned forward eagerly; even Ming sat on the edge of her seat in anticipation and Haru forgot all about his sore feet and frustration at not being able to 'see' any metal, despite days of practicing.
Chong struck down on the instrument, a dark, creepy tune that sent chills through the audience. Several people jumped. Others stifled yelps. Ursa and Roh-Roh clung to each other in fear.
"That was when the three-fingered man got hold of him!" Chong finished, wriggling his fingers. "...and he was never seen again."
No one complained that this was the exact ending he'd used before throwing in the possible happy-ending poodle monkey wrench. Campfire tales were all about presentation.
"This guy knows how to tell a story!" Sokka whispered at Suki.
She gave him a look. "I thought you couldn't stand him?"
Sokka pretended not to hear her.
"Do you know any ghost stories?" Roh-Roh asked.
Chong thought about it, plucking absently at his guitar strings. "...ghost stories..."
Above them, the eerie, faint gold of the fading sun and the gray of twilight stretched across the sky.
"I suppose it's about time for ghost stories..."
Everyone scooted closer; Roh-Roh and Ursa clung tighter to one another.
"It's even a pirate story," Chong added for the sailors.
"It begins many, many years ago..." Chong said slowly, thinking back as if remembering the events for himself, "On board the ship of the dread pirate Singh Sang."
One of the older sailors –an experienced man of the sea, who'd heard tale of every rogue and scallywag– frowned. "Singh Sang? I've never heard of him."
The crowd shushed him, Sokka perhaps most violently of all.
Chong turned his head to the sailor, blinked. "I told you it was many, many years ago," he protested.
"Please don't mind the uneducated, Master Storyteller," Sokka insisted with a small bow. "Continue."
Suki rolled her eyes.
"Well, there was this treasure, you see," Chong continued in his languid tone.
"A rich man's treasure," Lilly added, nodding wisely.
"The biggest, brightest, shiniest treasure known to man!" Moku declared, his loud cheerful voice unsettling the chill of the atmosphere. He was shushed too.
"And this rich man," Chong continued. "He was practically challenging Captain Singh Sang and his crew to steal the treasure, flaunting it the way he did."
Chong paused for added drama. Either that, or he'd forgotten what came next. No one could tell for sure.
"So?" Ursa prodded. "Did they steal it?"
Chong blinked at her in surprise. "Yeah! How'd you know?"
Ursa and Roh-Roh exchanged uncertain glances.
"How did they do it?" Hoo asked, eagerly.
"They disguised themselves," Chong said, eyes shining. "They took down their pirate flag –always a smart idea if you're trying not to draw attention to yourself. The captain and most of his crew signed on as sailors for one of the rich man's luxury cruise voyages."
"Ooh!" Sokka beamed. "'Luxury cruise'...That sounds nice! Somebody could really make a profit off that!"
The audience glared, shushing him.
"The rest of the crew," Chong continued, "stayed with the ship, following behind the rich man."
"Didn't the rich man notice?" Roh-Roh asked.
"He would have," Chong nodded, plucking at a few chords, "If he was a good seafarer. And since he'd hired a pirate crew without knowing it, there were no good sailors on board to warn him."
The atmosphere tensed as the black of night sliced through the gray of twilight.
Chong set his guitar aside, leaning forward with the intensity of the moment.
"And when night fell," he breathed. "The pirates attacked."
A shudder passed through the audience.
"They stole all the man's treasure, loaded it up on their pirate ship, waved their flag high and disappeared into the night," Chong said. "They left the rich man, beaten and all alone aboard his luxury ship, with no way to guide it home."
"And he was never seen again?" Wei guessed.
Chong looked at him as if disgusted. "Of course they did." He settled back once more and took up his instrument. "The next morning a cargo vessel found his ship and gave him a ride back to the village."
Chong strummed at his strings again. Lilly nodded her head to the tempo, tapping the tambourine in tune. Moku kept the beat by swaying his hands and every few beats he clapped the tiny cymbals together.
...ping ...sway, sway... ping ...sway, sway...ping...
The audience frowned, glancing at one another in uncertainty and dissatisfaction.
"But...what about the ghosts?" Roh-Roh asked.
"Yeah!" Sokka cried. "What about the ghosts?!"
Chong stopped, and the music with him. He thought for a moment, staring off into the distance, mouth slightly agape. "Oh...right...The ghosts."
The crowd settled, waiting for the rest of the story.
"Well, the next day" –Chong paused– "the day after they rescued the rich man, they found the pirate's ship."
"Abandoned?" Hoo guessed.
Chong shook his head. "In pieces."
"Ooh..." The crowd said, awed.
"What happened?" Roh-Roh asked.
Chong shrugged. "No one knows."
"Ooh..." The crowd, again awed.
"There wasn't a storm that night," Chong said. "And there was no sign of an attack. The ship just shattered."
"What do people think happened?" Ursa asked, grinning with the thrill of it all.
"Some people say that the spirits were angry at the captain, and they sent a personal storm to swallow him and his crew, leaving his ship in desolate ruins."
"Hmm..." Sokka mused, stroking his fuzzy chin. "Adequate. What else you got?"
"Other people say that they were just really bad navigators, that they ran aground on the reef, destroying their own ship, losing the treasure to the ocean depths, and stranding themselves until they could be rescued."
Sokka waved it away. "Unacceptable!"
Chong slowly plonked three eerie notes. "Of course, there is one other rumor..."
Sokka leaned forward. "Yeah?"
"Some say..." Chong paused, glancing around his audience to gauge their intrigue. "That the treasure was cursed."
Sokka weighed the options in his hand. "Angry ocean spirit; cursed treasure." He grinned. "Let's hear about the treasure!"
"Well, think about it," Chong said. "It didn't bring much luck to the rich man, did it? He got robbed by pirates, and left for dead. And as soon as he got rid of the treasure, what happened?"
"He was rescued," Ursa replied.
"Nope," Chong said. "He was rescued."
Ursa frowned; Roh-Roh stifled a giggle.
"And as soon as the pirates got the treasure," Chong pointed out, "They disappeared."
"And...were never seen again?" Wei pressed, really wanting the horror cliché to fit in somewhere.
Chong ignored him. "Nobody ever figured out what happened, and it's likely nobody ever will." His voice grew as dark as the night sky. "But sometimes...in the dark of night, or the gray of a storm...probably on this very sea...people see the ship of Captain Singh Sang."
Ty Lee frowned. "But, you said his ship was torn apart."
"Oh, right. They see the ghost ship of Captain Singh Sang," Chong amended. "And if you can get close enough, you can actually see the phantom pirate crew, still as death, staring down into the watery confines of the ocean, forever searching for their lost treasure."
A cold breeze fluttered over the ship's deck, chilling the audience to their very souls.
"And those who have gotten so close to the spectre ship," Chong continued, "Have all disappeared."
The crowd gulped loudly.
"Now," Chong went on, in his chilling ghost-story voice. "Who wants more music?"
The last rays of the sun burst once more their with before succumbing to the night as Appa flew into the heart of the green mountains. The Western Air Temple looked much the same as it had when Aang and his friends made it their temporary home, back during the War. The damage done by their old foe known only as Combustion Man had left scars on the unique landscape, but new growth covered it with the tender care of a bandage.
Appa settled on one of the bison landing platforms and up close Aang could better see the colored tags left behind by The Mechanist. Some day soon he and Teo would be back to fix this place up. Aang couldn't wait to see the Temple restored to its former glory, but another part of him would miss the overgrown plants that had made it their home.
"Have you ever heard of this Sister Ama?" Katara asked, as Momo settled on her shoulder.
He shook his head, helping her out of the saddle. Many theories had arisen regarding the nun and her claim that Haku kept a private journal. One gutter-minded historian even theorized that there was something much more scandalous going on between the sister and the Avatar, and that the guilt of such a sordid affair may even explain Haku's neglect of his duties.
For once, Katara had been glad that Aang didn't have access to the Avatar State. Reading that sent him into a fury, and if he'd had the power of all his past lives the University likely would have been reduced to rubble.
"If there really is a journal," Aang said, "It could tell me exactly what I need to know about Haku. Whatever that is. Let's just hope this isn't a wild goose mite chase."
Katara nodded enthusiastically as his words fell flat. It was little enough information to go on, but it was the only lead they had, and she wouldn't let him give up hope.
"The only way it would have survived," Aang went on, "–if it even exists– is if it was stored in the sanctuary."
"So we know exactly where to look," Katara said with a smile.
Aang looked at his wife, and her giddy excitement rubbed off on him. After all, when all was said and done, they were on a treasure hunt. "Should we take a look, or do you want to call it a night?"
"What, is it night already?" She glanced at the sky to affirm the twinkling stars had taken their places. "I hadn't even noticed."
The intricate contraption barring the Temple's sanctuary was riddled with old scorch marks, but the door remained locked. It hadn't budged in almost a hundred and thirteen years. Katara stepped back to give him room, and Aang stood alone before the massive door.
He closed his eyes, breathing deep to calm the turmoil raging within him. Air was an element of peace, and the only way to reach it was through peace of mind. He breathed again, focusing on the steady rise and fall of his chest. In, out. In, out. The swells of frustration adhered to the pattern, shifting one way as he breathed in, and to the other as he breathed out. With each breath, the swells sank lower and lower until the once-storming sea of emotion settled into rest.
Pirouetting, Aang caught the air in his hands, breathed it through his lungs, and released it into the waiting trumpets of the lock. Wind screamed through the pipes winding over the surface of the doors. Catches caught, wheels turned, passages were forced open by the rush of wind. A loud clank echoed through the virtually abandoned Temple.
Katara stepped forward, slipping her hand into his as the door creaked open.
Aang smiled at her, nervous and excited. "Here goes nothing."
The sanctuary remained untouched. As the dust settled, revealing one last surviving piece of his culture, Aang's breath caught in his throat.
He stepped away from Katara, rubbing the cobwebs from statues of great monks and nuns; running his fingers over the brilliant artwork painting the walls; wiping away tears as he gazed up at the intricate carvings far above on the domed roof.
"Oh, Aang," Katara whispered, crouching down to examine the mosaic in the floor tiles. "It's beautiful."
Aang laughed, his cares momentarily forgotten. "It's perfectly preserved. I thought... After I found the Mechanist's workroom behind one of these doors, and after we saw that the sanctuary at the Eastern Air Temple had been destroyed, I lost hope. I didn't think there was any chance that the sanctuary in the Fire Nation could have survived. I never imagined..." He shook his head, wiping away tears of joy. "Now I don't have to start from scratch."
Katara smiled. "Look, Aang." She pointed to a darkened corner lined with shelves. "Books."
There weren't many volumes; the monks had been known for their wisdom and enlightenment, but not for writing it down. Several were recipe books, which Aang carefully returned to their place for later examination. One contained the birth record for every child born in the Western Air Temple and Katara cried over the number of blank pages that would never be filled.
Aang took her hand and placed it over her stomach. "They will be, Katara. We'll take this book with us, and we'll fill it with the name of our children, and our children's children, and our children's children's children."
All of the books held immeasurable sentimental and historical value, but as Katara reached for the last one, they still had not found what they were looking for. She lifted the cover and Aang held his breath.
Katara turned a few pages. "It looks like an activity log."
Aang's heart plummeted.
"Wait... These entries are almost twenty years apart."
Aang frowned. He peered over her shoulder as she flipped forward.
"There are entries from nearly every century. Aang, this is an account of every major event that happened concerning the Western Air Temple." She looked up at him and grinned. "This is exactly what we were looking for."
"A male Avatar hanging around a nunnery would definitely be considered a major event. He must have had a good reason, or the Sisters wouldn't have let him stay."
"Here it is," Katara said. "Fall in the year of 148. Avatar Haku arrived for research and granted accommodations in the northwest wing."
Aang frowned. "Is that all?"
Katara squinted at the page. "No, it looks like there's another entry here, but it's harder to read. The handwriting isn't as clear."
"Let me take a look."
She handed the book to him. She wasn't kidding about the poor penmanship. The characters were slanted and cramped, lines running into one another.
...sorry...left...Avatar Haku...expedition...research...please forgive me.
After a long moment of study, Aang looked up. "I think someone accompanied the Avatar on some kind of research expedition. There's an apology in here, too. It almost sounds like someone snuck off to help Haku, even though they weren't supposed to, and left a note."
Katara examined the indiscernible note again. "Aang! The signature! This was written by Sister Ama."
They skimmed down the page. The next entry detailed Ama's reprimand for her disobedience. There was even a note about some of the Sisters' desire to evict the Avatar, but there was no indication it ever happened. The entry after that declared the date of Haku's passing, ten years later.
Katara smiled. "Wild goose mite chase my foot. Our next stop is the northwest wing."
Late into the night the party on deck finally ended. Most people retreated below decks and into their quarters. The hippies insisted sleeping on the deck, and lay out on the metal floor, staring up as the night sky passed over them before slowly drifting to sleep.
Sokka strolled along the deck, careful not to arouse attention. The slightest noise might wake the sleeping nomads, but it might also alert the patrolmen. Of course, if someone caught sight of him, he could always explain he was just stretching his legs because he couldn't sleep. Which was of course what he was doing. Not looking for pirate ghost ships. That would be ridiculous.
He rounded the deck to the aft of the craft, his eyes glued to the horizon. Only a sliver of moon shone down on the water, and even that was obscured by the bumper of clouds.
"There's no such thing as ghosts," he muttered under his breath.
Cold fingers brushed against his hand.
Sokka jumped back with a shrill yelp.
Someone stifled a giggle.
"Uncle Sokka, it's just us," Ursa whispered, taking his hand once more.
Sokka blinked to clear the imagined spectres before his eyes. Roh-Roh and Ursa stood at the rail by his side, shivering in the night wind. Thoughts of ghosts and pirates momentarily fell from the surrogate uncle's mind. "What are you two doing out here? It's freezing!"
Roh-Roh grinned. "We want to see the ghost ship of Captain Singh Sang!"
"That's—" Sokka closed his mouth around the word 'ridiculous' just in time. "Hmph. You should have at least brought cloaks." He took one child under each arm and they snuggled gratefully against his warmth.
"What are you doing out here?" Ursa asked.
"Oh, well, you know. Just stretching my legs. Got a cramp after all that dancing today. Couldn't sleep."
"You were dancing?" Roh-Roh asked incredulously.
"It's a new style," Sokka sniffed. "It'll catch on, trust me."
Ursa looked up at him, moonlight sparkling in her mischievous eyes. "Fools and dreamers may partake of the same tea, but they do not drink from the same cup."
Sokka eyed the Princess with suspicion. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Ursa grinned. "You came to look for the pirate ship too. But that doesn't make you a fool." She turned her gaze back to the horizon. "It just means you see more possibilities in reality."
Sokka shook his head in wonder. This girl... "Possibilities. I can live with that."
No one was certain how long they stood there. Five minutes, ten, or an hour. Sometimes the moonbeams would glimmer off the ripples in the water, and Roh-Roh would point to them and wonder if the ghost ship would break through surface. Other times, the clouds would part, and Ursa would squint at a vague shape on the horizon, asking whether anyone else saw its faint glow. But none of these sightings amounted to anything but a small thrill along their spines.
Sokka fought back a yawn. Roh-Roh and Ursa pressed into him on either side, their heads sagging. "I think it's about time for us to turn in."
"I would have to agree."
For the second time that night, Sokka's heart tried to break free from his chest. He jumped straight into the air with a squeal of fright, jerking Ursa and Roh-Roh wide awake with shrieks of their own. All three tumbled to the deck in a jumble of arms, legs, and terror.
"Is it Singh Sang's ghost?" Roh-Roh demanded, his voice quivering and muffled at the bottom of the heap.
"Worse," Sokka whispered. "It's Captain Jee."
The Captain did not look pleased. "The deck is not a playground, Your Majesties," he said sternly, "Especially at night."
Ursa picked herself up, dusting her bedclothes. "I'm sorry, Captain." She reached down to pull a shame-faced Roh-Roh to his feet. "We're sorry."
The Prince nodded in agreement. "We just..." He averted his gaze when the Captain looked toward him. Twiddling his fingers, eyes glued to the deck, he hurried on. "We really wanted to see the ghost ship of Captain Singh Sang, because these are the waters he haunts and I've never seen a ghost before, or a pirate either, and a ghost pirate would be the best of all."
The Captain suppressed a smile as the boy sucked in a breath.
The Prince glanced up to glimpse his reaction, but when his eyes met the Captain's he dropped them again.
Jee turned to Sokka. "What's your excuse?" he asked, smirking.
Sokka straightened himself up. "Hey, I'll have you know that fools and dreamers drink the same tea!"
"He had a dancer's cramp," Ursa explained. "But anyway, we're very sorry to inconvenience you. We were just hoping to catch a glimpse."
The Captain nodded, but none of the three budged. They didn't plead with him directly, but each glanced hopefully out of the corner of their eyes.
"Well," Captain Jee said with a sigh, "I suppose since you've never seen a pirate or a ghost, and since you haven't caused any trouble... A little look wouldn't hurt."
Ursa and Roh-Roh beamed. Jee ignored the fact that Sokka did the same.
"But then off to bed, Your Majesties," Jee said. "Or I have to answer to your father, Princess."
Ursa smiled at him. "Just for a little bit," she promised.
They turned back to the ocean and, with a shrug, Captain Jee joined them at the rail.
"See anything yet?" he asked, after a moment.
Ursa frowned, shaking her head. "No."
Roh-Roh tugged at her sleeve, pointing. "What's that?" he asked, his voice squeaking with excitement.
The Captain squinted, peering out in the direction. "It...looks like a light."
Sokka looked too. "Could be the moon," he said, stroking his beard. "It's given us false hope before."
Slowly, the ship plowed through the calm water. It drew closer, but the glow did not dissipate. The fixed light grew brighter.
"That's not the moon," Jee said with a frown. "That's a lamp."
"Look!" Ursa cried, tugging at his sleeve and pointing wildly.
The lamp was positioned at the bow of a ship, shaped as a dragon, with the lantern dangling from its open jaws. The strong flame burned bright, revealing the silhouette of a great ship with creaking masts, fluttering sails —and an empty deck.
"Do you think it's the ghost ship?"
The Captain's frown darkened. "I know one way to find out."
A small rowboat pushed through the ocean, toward the mysterious ship. They all wanted to call it the ghost ship, but Captain Jee had ground it into their brains that there was no way to know yet if it was, indeed, a ghost ship. So they had to think of it as the 'mysterious' ship.
The investigators were mostly the Captain's own sailors, but he had roused a few of Jeong Jeong's soldiers for good measure.
"I don't like mysterious ships sharing my water," the Captain had told them after waking them all from a very good night's sleep. "Find out what it is, who it is, and what they're doing."
"Hello, aboard!" Hoo hollered up as the rowboat pulled alongside the ship.
There was no answer.
"I'll bet they're all asleep," Wei said, reassuringly.
One of the sailors snorted. "Then who's steering the ship?"
Another sailor swung a grappling hook, tossing it up onto deck. He gave the connected rope a good tug before heaving himself up the side of the 'mysterious' ship.
"Well?" the Captain demanded upon their return.
The investigative party shuffled, pale and abashed.
Wei gulped. "It was...empty, sir."
A sharp knock roused Zuko. He climbed out of bed, careful not to wake Mai, and picked his way through the darkness to the door. He opened it a crack, wincing at the soft light in the corridor.
A sailor stood outside. Though he forced his stance into perfect attention, Zuko noticed a tremor run through his shoulders.
"Captain Jee fears there might be a situation, Your Majesty."
Thoughts of sleep drained from the Firelord's mind. "What kind of situation?"
"Well..." The soldier gulped. "We came upon a ship off to starboard and...and it appears to be uninhabited."
Zuko nodded, trying to hide a smirk. "I'll be right up." Closing the door, he flicked a small flame on his fingertip, flooding the room with the soft, jumping light.
Mai moaned, pulling the covers over her head. "Who would wake us at this awful hour?"
"The Captain," Zuko said quietly, shrugging into his robe. He chuckled. "The crew thinks they found the ghost ship."
Pretty soon, everyone was awake. Whispers of the ghost ship had made its way through those on board, and they crowded along the rail to gaze out at the abandoned vessel sharing their water.
"It's a ship," Mai said finally, unimpressed.
"I don't know what the big deal is, either," Toph griped. But even she felt a tremor of excitement, it just seemed to be the only part of the adventure she would experience. Her 'vision' went no further then their own ship.
"But...maybe it's the ghost ship," Sokka insisted, his voice low.
Mai glanced at him. "Wouldn't a ghost ship have ghosts on it?"
Everyone frowned at that. She made a good point.
"Well...Ghosts can only be seen in the moonlight," Sokka said. He had no idea if this was true, but he was grasping to maintain this tense, eager atmosphere.
Chong strummed a dramatic tune. "He's right!"
"So you want to wait until the moon comes out?" Zuko asked. "And see if any ghosts show up?"
"Yes!" the crowd in general cried.
Toph slumped against the rail. "Whoop-de-do."
"Cheer up, Toph," Haru said. "I'll give you a play-by-play."
Toph pulled a face and wrenched the metal rail from under his arms. A dull thud through her toes boasted her success at knocking her pupil flat on his butt.
The night was cloudy. Very cloudy.
Nearly an hour passed before the moon showed her pale face, beams of light gently settling over the water like tumbling locks of white hair.
But Sokka kept them all on edge with his enthusiasm, and Chong kept them concentrated with an occasional addition or repetition of the ghost story.
Finally, a beam of the soft moonlight gracefully lit the decks of the ship. Of the ghost ship. For on its deck, staring down into the watery depths of the ocean, stood a pale, desperate crew.
The night air filled with the muffled cries of those on board the Fire Nation vessel. A few shrieks even sliced through the cold. Sokka squealed, whether in excitement or terror, even he wasn't sure.
"You're sure you searched the entire ship?" Captain Jee demanded.
The search party nodded vigorously.
"There was nothing but a bunch of barrels in the hold," Hoo said.
Jee raised an eyebrow. "Did you check the barrels?"
Noooo, Wei felt like saying, We're complete idiots! He opted instead for a polite, "Yes, sir."
"Hmm," the Captain mused. He looked at the Firelord. "I don't like ghost ships sharing my water, Your Majesty," he said. "Permission to send another party aboard?"
A part of Zuko almost believed it really was a ghost ship. But another part wondered if its crew had an ulterior motive. He turned back to the ominous vessel. "Permission granted, Captain."
This time, Sokka insisted on accompanying the searchers to the other ship. Like Hoo, Wei and all the others loaded into the tiny little rowboat, they trembled with uncontrollable fear. But they weren't going to miss this for the world.
Unfortunately, they didn't make it to the ghost ship. Something stopped them, halfway across the water between the two vessels.
It burst from the waves, casting an eerie glow on the water with its luminous sides, shrieking at the night sky and sending walls of water in every direction.
Those on the warship stepped back in shock, while the helpless explorers shouted and screamed.
"Well," Sokka gulped, staring at the huge red sea serpent, "I think we just found out what happened to Captain Singh Sang!"
"Bring her around!" Captain Jee hollered to the helmsman.
The sea serpent turned its large head on the men in the rowboat. It opened its jaws, revealing large fangs, hunks of rotten meat caught between them. Putrid air enveloped the searchers as the creature bellowed in their faces. They screamed back, more terrified than before. Wei swore he saw a skeletal human hand waving cheerfully at him from inside the horrific gob.
Jeong Jeong turned to his remaining soldiers. "Those men need to get back to the ship. Distract the creature!"
The non-benders dragged everyone else back while the firebenders lined along the rail. As one, they shot a line of fire into the creature's side.
Fire scorched flesh and the creature shrieked in pain. It squirmed back from the flaming torrent, thrashing the calm water.
The searchers rowed desperately for the ship, but the sloshing water around them made headway impossible. The rowboat leapt up swells and plummeted down the other sides. The violent pitching nearly launched Hoo from the boat, but Wei seized him by the belt just in time. After that, the soldiers clung to one another, fighting hard to keep everyone on board.
The sea serpent hissed. Smoke billowed from its smoldering leathery flesh.
Captain Jee ordered several soldiers to escort the nomads below decks, as well as the Prince and Princess. "Anyone else who can't fight the creature, clear the decks!"
Haru stumbled toward the hold, caught in a throng hurrying to do the same. He hated leaving his friends in danger, but he had no earth to assault the creature with, and hand-to-hand wasn't exactly an option.
A hand caught his shirt and yanked him out of the crowd. Haru whirled round.
"Toph? What are you doing? There's nothing I can do here!"
She replied with a weak smile. "Does your offer for a play-by-play still stand?"
Toph dug her heels into the deck, waiting.
"On your left!" Haru shouted.
She ripped a chunk of metal from the deck, thrusting it left.
A satisfying squeal resounded through the night.
"Sorry about your ship, Captain!" she shouted, though her wild grin betrayed her delight.
Jee launched a fireball at the serpent's head. "Just make sure you don't rip out something vital."
Toph grinned. "Hey, that's a good idea!"
Haru was about to roll his eyes, but they widened in horror. "It's lunging at the bow!"
"People-speak, Stache Man!"
"The front of the ship!" Jee shouted. "Behind you!"
Toph ripped the ladder leading to the crow's nest, scrunching the metal into a thick ball. It flew at the beast the same instant the ship's trebuchet launched a fiery missile. They struck one after the other. The metal sphere drove the serpent back, but enraged it at the same time. As the flaming ball neared, the serpent whirled on it, snapping the missile in its jaws. The serpent shrieked in pain, spitting the burning pieces out.
The sailors in the rowboat cried out as they were pelted with flaming debris. Their cries caught the serpent's attention. It twisted its neck for a better view. The little boat was close to the ship now. But as the serpent moved toward them, they knew they weren't nearly close enough.
"They're not going to make it," Mai said.
Suki glared at the beast with determination. Flicking her fan open, she growled, "We'll see about that." She leapt onto the rail and crouched, waiting for the beast to lunge passed.
"What are you doing?"
Suki grinned over her shoulder. "Catching a ride."
The sea serpent surged along the side of the ship toward the rowboat, and Suki jumped, slashing at the quivering tentacles of its face. The serpent reared back, away from the rowboat, just as Suki had planned. As she plummeted toward the roiling sea, she reached out, catching hold of one of the serpent's neck spines. Brandishing her fan, she plunged the razor edge into its hide.
The serpent screamed again, squirming away from the little rowboat as it tried to wring Suki from its neck, but upsetting the surface of the water and sending the boat pitching.
"Nice plan," Mai decided. She loosed several knives at the creature. Many bounced uselessly off the serpent's thick, slick scales. But one lodged itself between the spines of its back.
The sea serpent recoiled farther, shrieking in pain. It moved back so far that it brushed up against the ghost vessel.
A cannon exploded from the supposed spectre ship.
Even in the midst of frothing water, chaos and terror, Sokka still had time to be suspicious. "Since when do ghosts have cannons?"
The red hot ball of lead blasted into the creature's neck, and bounced off. Back onto the wooden ship's deck.
Suki thought she heard yelling and shouting from the ghost ship –terrified, human shouting. But she couldn't be sure, clinging for life to the neck spine, so close to the source of the horrendous shrieking. She wouldn't be able to hear right for days.
Sparks from the cannon lingered on the creature's scales. Slowly, the heat of them began to burn through. The sea serpent shrieked again, shaking its neck in attempt to dislodge the searing pain. It only succeeded in flinging Suki.
"Suki!" Sokka cried. He almost bolted upright as she fell, but the cries of his companions and the slosh of water around his ankles reminded him of his precarious position. He looked up again, but he could no longer see his wife.
He seized hold of the closest soldier, Wei. "Did anyone see where Suki landed?"
Wei felt the world whirl as Sokka shook him in his panic. "She's on the other ship, sir," he managed.
"What? I've got to rescue her!" He glared at the sea serpent with the same determination his wife had treated it to a moment before. "I will have to wrangle the beast myself and ride it to the opposite ship. It will be dangerous. I must do it alone. Remember me fondly, good men, and tell the others–"
Hoo coughed politely.
Sokka pouted at him for interrupting his moment.
"Or we could row." Hoo pointed toward the surprisingly nearby ghost ship.
The swells caused by the sea serpent must have driven the tiny boat away, closer to the spectre ship.
Sokka deflated. "Oh. That'll work too."
On board the warship, the defenders were too busy blasting fire at the sea serpent as it once more turned its attention on them to notice the rowboat's predicament, or even that Suki had launched herself at the beast.
"The ghost ship is retreating!" Haru cried, watching the ship slowly turn away from the battle.
"I really doubt they're ghosts," Zuko grunted, exhausting his chi in a long rope of flame. He twirled it like a lasso, flinging it around the creature's neck. The serpent bucked and pulled at the scorching lead, but he fought to rein the beast in.
Others saw the maneuver and began to duplicate it.
As more fire looped around the beast's neck, it screeched, twisting and writing away. The would-be monster tamers clung tight to their ropes, fighting to keep the serpent steady, but it threw itself back, snapping the flaming leads in half. As it its neck pulled away, beneath the water its tail lashed upward, striking the belly of the ship.
The warship jolted, tipping dangerously. Sailors and soldiers grabbed hold of one another and the rails, bracing themselves against the impact. Toph twisted the metal around her feet into braces. Haru flew past, but she caught hold of his arm just in time.
"Forget the ghost ship, Haru! Where's my target?!"
"Uh..." Haru shook his head to clear it and cast about for the serpent.
The ship pitched again and his knee banged into the deck.
Toph shook him. "This is no time for 'uh'! I need my target!"
Haru winced. The serpent was too far out for Toph to hit with any missile, whether she knew where it was or not. At least, not above water. "Below! It's below the ship trying to capsize us."
Toph released one foot from its metal brace and, as the ship pitched once more, she punched downward.
In the belly of the ship, a sheet of metal peeled itself away and slapped at the serpent's tail, jagged edges slicing into the leathery flesh of its underbelly.
The serpent threw back its head with a shriek. Its tail lashed on impulse, again striking the ship, and again Toph retaliated. She grinned with glee as the monster shrieked once more, but she didn't see it lunging toward the warship.
"Behind you, Toph!" Haru cried.
Her grin fell as her body stiffened, startled. "What?"
"Behind you," he said again, this time thrusting his arm out to point at the creature as it surged toward them
Looking back on it, he still didn't know why he pointed. Toph couldn't see his hand, so perhaps it was a force of habit.
In that moment, the world slowed around Haru. The only thing he saw were the murderous glowing eyes of the sea serpent and he knew that if it got close enough, the beast would kill them all. He was vaguely aware of the firebenders launching attacks in attempt to keep the creature at bay, but the beast was driven by fury now. The flaming missiles bounced off its scales, never giving it pause.
But what Haru really noticed –what held his complete attention– were the echoes of movement throughout the ship. In that single instant, the deck beneath his feet came alive with activity, with racing footsteps and cries of battle, all reverberating through his toes. As he thrust out to gesture at the charging serpent, every vibration, every echo, connected with his gut, and the arm of the trebuchet answered his call.
The hunk of metal ripped itself from the deck and slammed right between the serpent's eyes just as Toph whirled to face it. The serpent may not have wanted to stop, but it was forced back in a daze.
A slight frown tugged at the corner of Toph's mouth. "Did you do that, Stache Man?"
Haru swallowed hard, eyes the size of serving platters. "I –I think I did."
- I needed a name for my ghostly pirate and the only thing I could come up with was Sing Sing. I gave it a little variation but yes, he's named after a prison.
- While editing this chapter, I realized I had two Lillies here: Chong's wife and Mai's second bodyguard. What a coinkydink.
- The year 148 is BG.
- "It could be the moon. It's given us false hope before." –Even as I wrote that, I winced. It sounds very loaded, considering Sokka and Yue's past, and it was completely unconscious. But I decided to keep it because, hey, what's to say it wasn't an unconscious comment on Sokka's part? Sure, Suki is awesome and he loves her, but Yue was his first love and she died. I don't think that's something you ever really get over.
- like locks of white hair –Okay, now I'm just exploiting the moon/Yue comparison. xD
- "People-speak, Stache Man!" –Originally, Toph said 'English', but given the universe I figured this probably wouldn't be right.
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