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|The Underground City Part One - The Seal|
Aang dodged as a boulder whizzed by over his head. Crouched low, he kicked up a slab of his own and with a sweeping jolt shot it back across the arena. Toph merely moved her arms together, which caused a protective shield to shoot up from the ground and absorb the blow.
"Nice try Twinkle Toes but not good enough!" She cried. The two of them were in an enclosed courtyard that Toph used as a sparring ground within her house. There was no roof directly over them but an open passageway bordered the field on all sides, with a slanted roof to provide shade. Several benches lay there cemented into the ground. Zuko, Katara, Sokka, Suki, and Mai all sat there watching. A few paces away from them Lu Ten was rocking back and forth on a giant stuffed bear that Toph had had Mrs. Cai purchase for him. Momo sat twittering on the roof, as if he was providing commentary to Appa, who was resting contently in his stable a little ways away.
The group had been at Toph's for just under two weeks now and every day she had challenged Aang to a fight in the courtyard. It seemed to the Avatar that the robbery had shaken the blind earthbender out of her comfortable sense of security and now she wished to hone her skills even more than before. He had no objections obliging though as this also gave him an excellent opportunity to improve. He hadn't really been doing much earth bending recently.
Leaping to the side, Aang was sure to touch down lightly as he landed. However as soon as his feet felt the slightest grip, the ground underneath suddenly shot up and he was rocketed back into the air.
"Like I'd still fall for that." Toph was gloating. The blind earthbender shifted her feet and held her hands out openly in front of her, as if in invitation. Aang knew she was listening for him. Exhaling a soft gust, he pushed himself to one of the pillars that supported the passageway; maybe her feeling wasn't as good off the ground. Nope! The pillar burst against him as soon as he touched it and the Avatar was shot downward, straight into the ground. He lay there, coughing out dirt and felt Toph's approaching footsteps. "I win again." She mused, holding up one hand in victory. "Though you lasted longer that time, if it makes you feel any better."
"Loads." Aang replied gruffly, getting to his feet. "Shouldn't we have left by now? The zeppelin for the Fire Nation must be getting ready to take off." He looked at Zuko and Mai. "I'd hate for you guys to miss your ride back." The young Firelord shrugged his shoulders.
"We still have time." He stated calmly. "And if we miss it we can always travel with Piandao and Jeong Jeong."
"Uh...no you can't. The Order left the city over a week ago." Suki pointed out. "Remember? Pakku escorted Chief Hakoda home and everything?" Zuko blinked.
"Oh right." He remembered. Mai reached over and touched his shoulder.
"It's okay dear at least you have your looks." She joked lightly.
"If you say so." Katara put in. The whole gang laughed. Aang walked over and sat down next to his wife. She looked at him and started giggling again.
"What's so funny?" He asked.
"You have dirt all over your face!" She chuckled. "I'm sorry but it just looks so...so..."
"Rugged?" Aang suggested.
"I was going to say cute." She countered. Smiling she whipped some of her bending water out of her pouch. "But I know just how to fix it." Realizing what she intended to do Aang started raising cries of protest and waving his arms around but it didn't matter. The water hit him full on in the face and for the second time in a few minutes he found himself coughing, though this time he was coughing out water.
"Thanks." He groaned sarcastically. Katara grinned broadly at him. At that moment Momo belched and flew off from his perch.
"Yeah, that's how I feel too Momo." Sokka commented. He was cleaning his sword, his eyes completely focused on his work. The pearl-white of the bone shone as he ran a cloth carefully along it. "We should get going." He added. "I heard someone say there was going to be a festival in town today so the streets might be crowded."
"A festival?" Suki asked, appearing to brighten.
"What about?" Zuko cut her off before she could continue.
"Probably Bosco's birthday." Toph answered, waving a hand in dismissal. "There's some festival or parade or celebration every other week here. The Earth King likes inventing reasons for them in his spare time." The blind earthbender summoned up another spot for herself on the bench and sat down. "There's nothing exciting about them. The real excitement is under the city!" She smiled then. "I can take you guys down there today after we drop off Zuko, Mai and Lu Ten. The dig site should be open. I can't wait to show you what we found."
"I'm going to guess rocks?" Mai wondered mockingly, causing a short snicker to echo across the courtyard. Toph looked indignant.
"Special rocks." She answered back at last. "But apparently nothing the Fire Nation cares about since you guys can't be bothered to stay."
"We'd like to." Zuko clarified. "It's just that right now things at home are still a bit too unstable for us to be focusing too much time in another country." Aang lifted his head at this, a few droplets of water still dripped off of it.
"I didn't know anything was going on in the Fire Nation." He said.
"That's because nothing is...right now. But I'm still uneasy. And with the recent...development in my family I want to make sure that nobody decides now is the time to start something up." Zuko glanced around the courtyard for a second before he went on. "Besides, you should be with Katara now. You know any day you could become a father."
"Then say good-bye to your social life." Mai put in.
"Bye social life!" Lu Ten exclaimed from on top of his stuffed bear. Everyone laughed at the child's innocent behavior. Presently Toph stood up.
"Well if we're going to get going I'll call for Mrs. Cai, she'll have your bags." And with that Toph strode over deliberately to the wall and knocked against it three times. The third knock had barely resonated before the old woman appeared in the doorway. Aang could see immediately that Toph had been right about the festival. The elderly woman's current kimono seemed to have been woven just for the occasion. Bosco's embroidered face stared back at him from above woven candles. The background was a light pink to match the color of the cake, which was outlined by darker frosting.
"Yes Ms. Toph?" Mrs. Cai inquired. "Are you quite alright?" Toph grinned and nodded, then she gestured to Zuko and Mai.
"The royal family will be leaving us today. Make sure their bags are waiting for us by the door. We have a zeppelin to catch."
"Very good Mistress." Mrs. Cai bowed and began withdrawing. "Be sure on your way that you all stop by the festival. It's not every day you get to play Dunk the Bear!"
Dunk the Bear turned out to actually be Dunk the Man in the Bear Suit. As Aang and the others hiked towards the zeppelin the festival swam with life around them. Everywhere children ran screaming as the adults watched costumed individuals acting out various styles of the performing arts. A woman in a bear costume rode a unicycle and juggled chunks of rock while someone else ran up and down the streets doing handstands. Glowing green statues of Bosco were on sale at every vendor stall, there were so many of them that the glint hurt the Avatar's eyes if he allowed his vision to linger. Luckily Lu Ten was the only one who wanted to spend any time amongst the celebration but another offer of a gift from Toph persuaded him otherwise.
"And you thought spoiling him would only be a bad thing." The blind earthbender smirked at Mai as they made their way across a bridge. The older woman shot her an agitated glance but said nothing in response. Aang smiled to himself as he kept walking, his hand holding Katara's. They had just cleared the bridge when a voice behind them caused all to turn.
"Avatar, Avatar Aang is that really you?" The airbender was startled by the voice. It came from a middle-aged man. He was bearded and bald, with a few missing teeth and clothes that clearly suggested he was from the lower levels. A pudgy woman was standing next to him; she held a bundle of blankets in her arms. It took a twitch from the bundle for Aang to realize it was a baby. Confusion settled in over his features. He had never met these people before.
"Uh...hi." He stated, slowly waving a hand. "Can I help you? Is there something you need?"
"Just a chance to meet you!" Proclaimed the man. He seemed to be heaving in excitement. "The Avatar himself! The legend! You have no idea the effect you've had on me and my sister's lives."
"Gee Aang effecting a brother and sister, that's a new one." Sokka commented. The Avatar blushed. He was used to random strangers addressing him when they needed help but the random bouts of worshipping always made him uncomfortable. He didn't need people telling him how perfect he was, especially as it wasn't the truth. Peeking sideways he could see Katara had a self-satisfied look in her eye. She liked it when people did this to him. She knew it didn't go to his head.
"Thanks." Aang said at last. "I do it all for you people." He quickly scanned for some target to swift focus on. His eyes met the bundle. "That's a beautiful baby you have there. You must be a proud father." The man looked stunned for a second. Then he too looked at the bundle. In a few moments there was laughter.
"That's not my son!" He got out in between chortles. "That's my sister's. Heh, my kid!" He laughed some more. His sister blushed, the crimson deepening on her already rosy cheeks. Aang heard more laughter around him; his friends had joined in. He felt color appear to his own face.
"Oh..." He fumbled. "I'm sorry, well that's a very beautiful child you have there ma'am." She nodded in gratitude toward him.
"Thank you." She whispered. "His name is Deshi, after his grandfather."
"She thought of naming him after you for a while." Her brother put in. "But since Granddad died in the war with the Fire Nation..."
"Your grandfather was killed in the war?" Zuko suddenly piped up. The pair looked surprised, as if they had just seen him for the first time. The woman even jumped back a short step.
"Firelord Zuko!" The man exclaimed. Aang could feel the atmosphere sinking and tried desperately to stop it.
"Yes...this is my good friend the Firelord, and this is his family." Aang made the introduction with high anxiety. His move had not worked; already the two were retreating.
"How nice to meet you, all of you!" The man stammered as he drew back. "Well...must be getting back to the festival, it was an honor to meet you again Avatar, bye!" He was practically taking off at the last words. In moments the two were gone and Aang was left alone with his friends on the bridge.
"Don't let them get to you Zuko." Katara said in defense.
"Yeah...they're just...they don't know any better." Suki contributed. The Avatar looked at his friend. The young Firelord had averted his gaze to the ground and Mai was by his side. He appeared to be looking intently at his own child. In a minute he sighed and looked up.
"It's fine." He said simply. "I can't blame them for how they acted. It's their right..." A pause. "Let's go, I'm sure the zeppelin's begun loading and my family and I should be getting home."
The zeppelin was anchored to the outer edge of the inner wall. Painted a lavish green, the air transport bore little resemblance to the machines of war used by the Fire Nation ten years ago. The balloon portion was about twice as large while the under hanging compartment looked much more solid. It was like a floating hotel, complete with bellhops waiting to take the passengers luggage as they boarded. With one glance Aang knew that somewhere the Machinist must be very proud that his invention was now being put to peaceful use.
There were several lines onto the airship but as they approached it soon became obvious that the group was not heading for any of them. Instead Zuko seemed to be looking for something or someone. His face was sweeping back and forth, as if in an attempt to not miss a single detail of the scenery in front of him. Aang was just about to offer help when the Firelord halted. Raising a hand, he was signaling to some individual who was, at the moment, still indiscernible from the rest of the crowd. Yet at present a familiar looking figure appeared.
Dressed in scarlet robes a man of about forty was striding briskly over to them, walking with purpose. Though he was still young strikes of white had already parted the blackness of his hair, giving it almost a skunk-like appearance. Despite this the figure still emanated respect and authority. The confident posture and firmly set face gave off a definite air of competence. The fact that Aang knew that this was Zuko's most trusted general didn't hurt either.
"General Matora!" Zuko announced, bowing his head lightly to his old friend.
"My Firelord." Answered Matora, returning the bow, making his own much lower. "It is good to see you and your family again. I trust you have enjoyed your time in Ba Sing Se?"
"Almost completely." Mai spoke up instead.
"That is very good. The Fire Nation has weathered your absence well but I am glad to have you all returning to it." The General grinned. "I am happy to see you too Avatar Aang, and you as well Lady Katara." Katara blushed, Aang knew she hated anyone giving class to her simply because she was his wife.
"Ehem...aren't you glad to see us?" Sokka interrupted. General Matora studied him cautiously before laughing.
"I would assume you are Sokka. Of course I am honored to greet anyone who travels with the Firelord as friend." At this Momo fluttered up briefly from his perch on Katara's shoulder. "Yes, that includes you too little one." The General added. Then he turned and threw a look at the zeppelin. "Your room is prepared and I am ready to escort you aboard. Whenever you are ready Sire." He bowed and backed up a step, allowing for good-byes to be shared.
"Well I guess this is it...thank you again for having us Toph." Zuko mumbled, trying to keep cool. "At least this time it won't be good-bye for too long. You're all still planning to come to Ember Island in a little over a month for our planned vacation right?"
"Wouldn't miss it." Toph spoke up. She knelt and hugged Lu Ten. "Don't drive your parents crazy okay. Try to forget my example till I see you again Little Spark." The toddler nodded and hugged her back.
"I know I'll definitely be there." Suki said. "Maybe I can convince Ty Lee to come out as well, it'll be just like old times!"
"Yeah, we can attack you and everything." Mai added.
"Provided Katara and I aren't busy with...other obligations," Aang began as he padded his wife's enlarged stomach. "Count on us to be there with Appa and Momo." Katara gave him a look before going on to say:
"Oh yeah, and we'll even drag Sokka there too."
"Har har." Sokka fumed. The group laughed together one final time before Zuko, Mai and Lu Ten began to follow General Matora away into the crowd. Just as they were getting out of sight Zuko turned around and called back:
"Remember Ember Island, don't forget!"
"We won't." Came the chorus of reply. And with that the Firelord and his family vanished, absorbed into the throngs of people.
Several hours later found Aang and his friends being lead by Toph through the pitch-blackness of Old Ba Sing Se. Nobody, other than Toph, could see more than three feet around them. The only source of light came from a ball of fire Aang had summoned. There was none of the green crystal in this part of the catacombs; indeed Toph had just finished explaining how increased trade value was causing it to be strip-mined from the place. Every now and then they passed what looked like doorways with light coming from them.
"Those are just the other researchers." Toph explained. "We've kind of fanned out into the city, since the breakthrough happened this project has gotten a lot more attention. It's kind of a waste though seeing how I'm the only reason it happened in the first place." She turned briefly and grinned. "Having really thick walls for protection didn't keep those secret rooms secret from me for long."
"Is that where you found that carving of Oguanga?" Katara asked so that Aang wouldn't have to.
"Yeah there was an entire vault devoted to the demons. It seems like they had a huge impact on the people's culture back then. You'll see what I mean farther up." They continued pressing forward. Aang could see collapsed houses now all around them. Stone buildings, which long ago had had their roofs, cracked open by stalactites. Deep tracks from wagons were still imbedded into the ground and shadowed spots revealed where wooden shops and stalls had once been open for business. Presently they approached a dry, rusted fountain.
"So Toph," Sokka began. "You ever find any big piles of treasure down here? Like chests filled with gold pieces or skeletons with jeweled teeth?" Suki gave him a look of exasperation.
"This was a city, not a pirate ship!" She exclaimed loudly. At her voice several small pebbles dislodged and fell from the ceiling. They clattered harmlessly around Aang and the other's feet.
"Shhh" Toph whispered. "Some parts around here aren't so structurally sound anymore since they've removed all the crystal. You have to watch it."
"Yeah...watch it!" Sokka gloated. He made a face at Suki. She glared and hit him on the arm with swift and silent accuracy.
"Ow!" Sokka yelled. A large boulder came tumbling down and exploded just in front of them. Reacting quickly Aang and Toph pulled up a sheet of rock from the ground to deflect the pieces.
"What did I just say?" Toph snarled.
"But she hit me!" Sokka complained in a whisper, still nursing his arm.
"Hey, I better not have to come back there and separate you too." Katara joked.
"You'd be a bit late." Sokka said in a whisper under his breath. It was faint but Aang had heard it, and he knew Suki had too.
"Hey what's up those stairs?" He asked, trying to lighten the mood. The blind earthbender beamed broadly.
"The temple." She answered. "And just wait till you see what's in there. Watch your step on the stairs, I wouldn't want any of you to miss out because you couldn't see well enough to avoid hurting yourselves." Toph always liked it when they were at a visual disadvantage.
"Maybe I should have stayed surface side with Appa and Momo." Sokka wondered as they climbed. Toph blew her hair out of her eyes.
"And miss all of this just because of a chance of injury. You'd have to be crazy!"
"Miss all of what? All I see is a dark void and some stupid crumbling stares!" Sokka went on. His tone radiated a sudden frustration that seemed to have come out of nowhere. Toph's face showed surprise.
"You mean you can't see it?" Then to Aang: "Hey Baldy make that flame of yours bigger, you guys are missing the sights!" Aang nodded even though he knew she couldn't see it. Then, focusing his energy, the flame grew in his hand. He was extremely careful and only let it grow for a moment but that was enough. An expression of awe escaped the group.
Around them the supports of various stalactites and stalagmites had been replaced by glorious pillars, each with a demon carved into it. Their fierce eyes stared menacingly down at those below while they held the ceiling up with their massive arms. Each figure was slightly bent to show all the muscles flexed, every lip was curled back to reveal the row of jagged teeth. It was such an awesome display that Aang couldn't help be feel humility coupled with the terror that shot through him. His hand searched wildly for Katara's. He was grateful when she grabbed it and squeezed, it made him feel safe.
"Wow..." Suki breathed.
"Hey Toph, I'm just a humble fisherman guy who likes meat and throws boomerangs. Can you tell me just exactly who these guys were?" Sokka managed to breath out as he inspected the towering statues around him.
"We know very little." Toph responded as she turned to continue walking. "But based on what some of the team found on bits of decrepit pages, the demons once walked the lands in a very similar way that we do now, only they were one nation, not four. But then one day for some reason they vanished. It is believed that they merged into the Spirit World or that they became a part of nature." The blind earthbender shook her head in puzzlement. "They were said to be the balance keepers, whatever that means. Again we know virtually nothing. I've only been onboard a few months. Give me a year, then I'll have figured it out." They reached the top of the staircase.
Aang was startled to see a green glow pulsating just ahead. Toph seemed to increase her pace as they neared it. For several paces the Avatar could only wonder what the glowing green light was then they were right there and it became obvious. A gigantic piece of radiant jade stood before them. It was cut like an octagon and was big enough for all of them to walk through, had there been an opening. Yet the piece was solid. Aang noticed that unlike every other crystal he had seen down here though, this one looked carved. It's lines and ridges had been carefully shaped and it appeared to have been fitted into place. They most distinguishing sign of human presence though came in the writing that was engraved into it.
"Huh...I don't recognize the language." Katara wondered aloud. She reached up and ran a hand across its surface. As she did so Aang all at once felt it come to him.
"Enter...in peace." He said slowly.
"Huh?" Toph inquired.
"That's what it says." Aang stated. Then with focus he repeated: "Enter in peace," At his words the floor shook violently. Sokka instantly grabbed Suki to protect her and Aang flung himself around Katara. Toph was the only one to stay calm as she shot out another barrier to deflect the falling debris. Sokka and Suki realized what they were doing and pulled apart quickly. Aang smiled slightly at this before looking down at Katara.
"You okay?" He asked. She tilted her head up at him and nodded slightly. Then her vision drifted sideways and she gasped. Turning Aang could see what had caused her reaction. The seal had opened. Vanished completely from sight, only a tunnel now lay before their gaze. Toph broke out into a quiet cheer.
"Wait to go Twinkle Toes! This is the biggest breakthrough ever! I can't wait to write mom and dad, they'll –" Suddenly she stopped. Her feet tugged at the earth and she knelt, placing a hand upon it as well, as if she was very unsure of herself. Her eyes were wide and her expression showed extreme alarm and surprise.
"Toph..." Aang asked. "What is it?" The blind earthbender was silent. Slowly she rose and stood, as if completely stunned. Finally she turned to them.
"I hear voices." She replied at length. "People's voices...down the tunnel. Somebody's down the tunnel...and I think they know we're here."
To be Continued...
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