Time is an Illusion
Aang looked up at the setting sun and could feel that, somewhere, he was desperately needed.
But also knew that he was too late.
It was a feeling that reached past the soothing nature of the paradise around him, the river and lush grass banks and the rising mountains in the distance and the pale rocks that glowed golden in the sunset. Even though he'd spent the day just sitting on Appa's head with reins in hand, he felt as exhausted his buddy must be after flying south all night and day again. Aang couldn't even do more than nod as Sokka organized sleeping shifts so that someone would always be awake to prod everyone else as soon as Appa was rested enough to get going again. When Momo crawled up Aang's robes and motioned for a feeding, Aang just passed on his bag of dried fruit and didn't even make the lemur play some games for it.
It was like he had never fully returned from the Spirit World, back at the North Pole.
Just like Mai, still trapped there.
And the swamp where Fire Lord Iroh might already be ruining the whole world was still a day's flight away.
Aang had to assume that Iroh, with his flying machine, was outpacing a sky bison. Appa was a good friend and the best flyer around, but this last year had been hard on the big guy. He'd been shot with lightening back in the spring by Princess Azula, and never really recovered his old speed and endurance. Over the last few days, he'd been forced to fly all the way down from the North Pole as fast as he could go. Appa had been slowing up more and more, and even if they arrived at Foggy Swamp tomorrow, he probably wouldn't be able to help with any fighting.
And they hadn't encountered Iroh on their journey south. That didn't definitely mean he was ahead of them; he could have just been on a different path. But Aang knew, in his heart of hearts, that the Fire Lord was approaching the swamp. Something in his spirit could feel the danger.
If Aang couldn't catch up with Iroh, he wouldn't be able to save anyone. There was no telling what would happen to the world if Iroh tried his weird plan to harness a spiritual nexus (an unfortunate part of Aang hoped that Iroh would learn a lesson about sticking his hand into a fire, at the very least), and Aang would definitely miss his best chance to retrieve Mai from the Spirit World.
He sighed and sat down on the riverbank near where Appa was settling in to sleep. Ty Lee already had a campfire going, and Sokka and Katara were working on yet another quick dinner of jerky-seaweed stew. Momo was probably off hunting bugs somewhere.
And the Avatar had nothing to do but think about how he was late for saving the world again.
He had already been one-hundred-and-one years too late to keep the Fire Nation from destroying the world's balance. The oppressed nations, the spiritual disturbances, the ashlands- all of it was the result of Aang's first big failure. Now, he had a chance to keep things from getting worse, a chance to at least save the girl he loved from a fate worse than death, and again he couldn't manage to be where needed to be when he needed to be there.
Maybe he should take his glider and just go on alone, all through the night. It would be slower than Appa, and he'd have to sustain his speed with his Airbending the whole time, but maybe by setting out now he'd be able to shave an hour or so off the trip. He might be exhausted when he arrived, but- but maybe he'd get there ahead by a few minutes.
And those minutes might count!
Seconds could count.
By resting for the coming fight, was he betraying his duty?
He was so distracted by his worries that he almost missed the body floating face down in the river, moving with the current.
When he saw it, he screamed.
The body twitched and suddenly sank into the water. By the time his friends ran over, everything was perfectly normal again.
Sokka held his boomerang in one hand and a knife in the other. "What? What's going on? Did Momo hack up a hairball again?"
That's when the mud of the riverbank rose up in the shape of a man- the same shape as the body that had been in the river.
Aang pointed. "That's what's wrong."
Ty Lee nodded. "That's worth screaming over." Then she screamed, too, startling Katara.
The man made of mud opened his eyes. They were green and lopsided, one wide and staring, the other narrow and calculating. "What's with all the noise? Can't a geezer take an epic journey face-down in a river without people screaming at him? No one has any sense of decorum anymore." Then he cackled and finished it up with a wet snort.
Ty Lee screamed again.
Aang wished he could join her. This looked weird, and he was getting tired of that kind of thing.
It turned out that traversing a swamp without a boat was harder than it looked. The ground would often turn out not to be ground at all, which Zuko considered to be more than a little dishonorable.
He jogged along what was either a massive low-hanging tree branch or a huge up-reaching tree root, right behind the so-called Mechanist of the (well-named) Foggy Swamp. "How much further is this banyan-grove tree?" He couldn't see very far ahead in the fog and gloom, with the forest canopy completely blocking out the sky.
He also couldn't see where Uncle Iroh's floating spider-machine might be. It could have reached the big tree already, or he might have overtaken it without noticing. He couldn't even tell how long he'd been traveling, but it had to have at least been an hour.
It was hard to fight without an enemy in sight.
"We don't measure travel by distance, here in the swamp. We use time." The Mechanist gingerly stepped off the branch-root-thing and onto a patch of wet grass that rose up from the water. "And the time will depend on when we meet Huu. Without him, it might be another few hours of travel."
Zuko followed, and held back a grimace at the muddy squelch his boots made as they sank into the ground.
He wondered how King Toph and her rebels were doing against the Fire Army. Had they won, and Zuko was doing this for nothing? Or could they already be defeated, and Zuko was the only left to oppose his uncle?
Did he oppose Uncle Iroh? He still didn't know what the man was planning, or what exactly a giant mechanical spider was supposed to do here in a swampy spirit nexus.
The flying bugs that had been flitting around Zuko's head through this whole journey must have taken his pause as a sign of weakness, as they started swooping in at his face. He shut his good eye and swatted at them, feeling some disturbingly large impacts. Hopefully that would chase the disgusting things away. He opened his eye again, ready to continue his journey into this heart of gloom-
-and stepped back when he found a lumbering green monster of sinew and shadow rising up from the swamp-water to glare at him with a dead face-
"Ah, Huu," the Mechanist said. "I'm so glad we found you!"
Huu?! The Mechanist's sage friend was a monster? Or was it a spirit, a non-corporeal form given to the life-force of the swamp itself? Zuko prepared to bow in supplication.
And then the sinews parted like the vines that hung from the trees here, and Zuko realized that they were vines. From the shadows within the monster's body, a portly man stepped out onto the grass wearing nothing but shortpants made of leaves. He scratched at his beard as he looked at the Mechanist, and then Zuko. "This wouldn't have anything to do with the big machine thing flying towards the banyon-grove tree," he drawled, "would it?"
Okay. Unexpected, but Zuko could work with this. "We need to get there! My Uncle- the Fire Lord- the Fire Nation is invading the swamp! I don't know what they're planning with the tree, but I need to find out."
Huu nodded. "So you would be Prince Zuko, then."
Zuko's jaw dropped. "You've heard of me?"
"No, I met you, the other day. You looked older, but there aren't many one-eyed men with that pouty regal look." Huu shifted into a Waterbending stance, and the vines that made up his monster 'costume' flowed into something like a platform. "Hop on. I can get you to the tree faster than that flying machine."
Zuko was too confused to move until the Mechanist gave a little hop to land on the vine-vehicle, and then he followed quickly while still trying to figure out where he could have met Huu before. Certainly, the man seemed- memorable.
Huu leaned forward and waved his arms out like he was swimming through the air, and the vines beneath them pulsed and surged through the water as though pushed. The platform remained stable, and Zuko realized what the Mechanist meant about Huu being able to quicken their traveling pace.
But how could he have met this swampy Waterbender before?
Zuko shook his head. "I give up. Where could we have met? I only just got to the swamp a few days ago, and I was with Toph's people the whole time."
Huu chuckled. "Oh, we didn't meet physically. Not at that point in time, anyway. The swamp is a network of connections, branches and roots intertwining and becoming one over time. It's all one big living organism. And so's the rest of the world, if you think about. You're Fire Nation, and I live in this swamp, and your friends and allies come from all over, but we're still all connected. Even when we haven't met yet, we're connected through the time when we will meet."
Oh, great. This guy was a mystic. Zuko never knew what those people were talking about. "That's- um, nice. But how did you know who I am?"
"Well, in most places, those connections are as easy to see as friendship and family, love or hate, feelings and thoughts." Huu continued his Waterbending forms as he spoke, carrying them through the swamp as quick as a dream. "It's invisible to the eyes, even if it's something we feel."
The Mechanist raised a finger. "Theoretical connections, then."
"Sure. But here in the swamp- it's a special place. Lots o' life here, free to grow and find its own balance without worrying about thinkin'. And so sometimes folk see those connections. Visions of people we've lost, people we loved, folks we think are gone."
Zuko blinked. "You're saying you had a vision of the future? Of me?"
Huu grinned. "Time is an illusion, and so is separation."
Zuko wasn't sure he actually believed this. But Uncle wanted something here in this swamp. Perhaps he wanted to affect the past in some way? Was that even possible?
Zuko sighed. "This sounds like Avatar stuff." He was starting to hate Avatar stuff.
Toph wasn't sure what she hated more- war, or this soggy fuzzy swamp.
She'd long thought that her grand uprising, the day when her forces would finally fight back against the Fire Nation for the first time since the return of Sozin's Comet, would be quick and bloody and effective. She'd imagined lightning strikes that would break Fire Nation supply lines, hardened populaces that would suddenly revolt with secretly acquired weapons, captured tanks that would infiltrate the enemy lines and take out commanders before anyone knew what was going on. All of it would be firmly unfair in the Earth Kingdom's favor, because only chumps fought fair. It wouldn't so much be a war as a country-wide string of assassinations.
But this wasn't that.
Toph pressed her feet deeper into the muddy, sloppy, moldy ground of this patch of the swamp and extended her senses through her Earthbending, trying to sense the movement she could hear around her. There were screams and shouts, boots splashing through water and bare feet slapping on mud, the roaring of Firebending and the swooshing of Waterbending. Trees creaked as they were brought down and engine-driven machines thrummed like massive metal insects. Through it all, the swamp beneath Toph's feet reverberated with activity, but it was distributed and indistinct, not the sharp telltale shapes that she was used to. Her usual level of Earthbending precision was impossible, in this water-logged pit of despair.
She was lost in a storm of war.
From somewhere near her, Bato of the Southern Water Tribe called out, "The Swampbender village is burning down!"
Toph decided to be the leader the situation demanded. "So get the Swampbenders to put out the fires, smart guy," she called back. "They're Waterbenders! Hello!"
"And there aren't any of them near us right now," Bato growled back. "They're helping our people spread out through the swamp. We need to get their women and children to safety for them! They trusted us!"
Well, how was Toph supposed to know that the Swampbenders were all away? She hadn't given any orders like that. She'd been busy at the time getting Mother Malu's report on the Big Flying Thing. Probably. There was a lot of stuff going on in this war, and Toph had been forced to delegate a bit.
She was going to have to get used to that if she was going to rule the largest landmass in the entire world.
"Fine. Bato, gather up your distant kinfolk or whatever. Anyone here have eyes that work and isn't busy defending us from evil Firebenders?" Toph put her hands on her hips and stood tall, projecting as much kinglyness as she could.
"Um," came a young voice, "I'm a runner but don't have any messages to pass on right now. My name is Ohev-"
"Great, Olive," Toph cut the kid off. She didn't have time for introductions. "Which way is our best bet to get the non-combatants to safety?"
"Um, that way will get everyone out behind our better defensive lines, but the bridge is on fire and without it we'll all get stuck in the mud-"
"Mud? No problem." Toph stretched her limbs. "Now, which way is the 'that way' you mentioned? I can't sense pointing arms in this slog."
The kid Olive (or whatever) grabbed Toph by the shoulders and turned her in the right direction. By the time they worked out where the bridge and the mud were, a steady thrum of reverberations signaled Bato's arrival with the evacuees. She was able to make out voices of higher pitch, shouting words like "Help" and "Please" and "Our homes are on fire oh no oh no oh no."
These must be the women and children stories always went on about protecting. Toph wasn't sure why these women and children couldn't fight, but whatever. Maybe none of them were Benders.
Toph went out in front of the group, coasting along on a wave of mud with the runner-kid hanging onto her.
"There," he barked. "We're at the bridge! It's almost completely burned! It'll never hold!"
Toph nodded. She didn't actually care about whether anyone could cross the bridge. She just needed its shape. She was going to make her own.
She brought her personal mudslide to a stop, pushed Olive (or whatever) off of her waist, and sank into a low horse stance. She shoved both of her fists towards the ground, taking control of the soupy mud beneath the bridge. It was heavier than she was used to, but she knew that wasn't because of any real weight. It was the water that was mixed with the dirt, the same thing that was keeping her from fully sensing her surroundings. As she raised her arms, holding on to her spiritual grip on the Earth within the mud, that water tried to resist her, tried to pull everything back where it was supposed to be according to gravity.
Toph ignored that water. It could come along for the ride if it wanted, but she wasn't going to stay here hanging out with it. And gravity could get stuffed. Because even if she couldn't be precise here, she was still powerful.
And so the mud rose to cover the bridge, a geyser that put the fires out and covered all the paths and supports. Some of it broke under the weight of the mud, but that was fine. She rose from her horse stance and brought her arms in towards her body, tensing her muscles and letting out all the breath in her lungs. The mud didn't move, but it started to compact, the Earth pressing together to tighten and harden and force out all the water within. As the mud solidified into dirt and stone, the coating all over the bridge became the bridge. The burned wood was now simply the inner core of a solid Earthbending bridge.
"Let's go," Toph called back to her evacuees.
She held her position as Bato led them all past her, adding her strength to the bridge. She hadn't had the time to make a really reliable structure, so better safe than sorry. She could feel the vague reverberations through the soggy ground, amidst explosions and the cries of people burning to death in the distance and clangs of metal, and wished for everyone to hurry up. She was absolutely positive that she could hold everything up long enough, but who knew when the lines of battle would change and Firebenders would be all up in her business? That would be annoying.
Amazingly, it wasn't Firebenders who eventually got her.
"The last two are on the bridge," the runner-kid said from somewhere on her left. "Two ladies who are- uh, with child. They're a little slow."
"Yeah, yeah, give them my congratulations." Toph clenched her jaw as she shifted her position to ease the strain on her muscles. The bridge wouldn't need as much strength if there were only two people crossing it now.
And then she felt the ground move in a way that it shouldn't, a way that didn't match this type of landscape at all, a way that had human intelligence behind it.
Hey, reinforcements. Nice.
Then a good-size chunk of hardened clay slammed into her stomach.
Toph's breath burst out of her and she folded up around the projectile, but she didn't fall. Instead, she told the pain in her middle to go take a hike, and focused on keeping upright. She sank her fingers into the clay boulder, and went into a low stance that let her take on its full weight.
Then threw the thing back with all her Earthbending strength.
Amazingly, she didn't hear anyone give a surprised death-cry. "Did I hit him? What's going on?"
"The pregnant ladies," Ohev gasped. "The bridge is coming apart!"
Great. Toph swung and reached out to the mud again, telling it that no, now was not a good time to lie down. Suck it up and stay solid, you good-for-nothing ex-mud!
"Get them across," Toph bit out, "even if you need to carry them!"
She heard Ohev's running more than felt it, on this soggy ground. At least the kid knew how to take orders. The problem was that she couldn't be sure that he knew how to complete orders. How long would it take him to get a pair of mothers-to-be across her mud bridge? How long would she have to hold it up?
As she wondered, she felt the ground shift again like it did before, and she tensed for another battering.
Then the ground beneath her opened up, leaving her freefalling, and when she reached out to pull the dirt walls to come to her aid-
-the Earth resisted her.
Because she was fighting another Earthbender, and he wasn't distracted by having to save anyone.
She slammed to the ground with a suddenness that drove fear into her heart, because the impact was both unexpected and not hard enough to let her sense her opponent. She was at a major disadvantage, simply because she was her, and that hurt more than any injury.
And then the mud fell in around her, trying to bury her, or maybe drown her, and when she pushed at it, it pushed back. She put all her strength into it, sure that she was the most powerful Earthbender in the world, and in a pushing match she had to be able to beat anyone. Right?
But the mud pushed in from behind her as well, and the sides, and she was surrounded by enemy Earthbenders. What-
But she didn't stop pushing. Even when it flowed down over her head and buried her.
All her sense went as dark as her sight.
But then the mud became lighter, moving more easily according to her will. She kept up her pushing, creating a bubble of dirt filled with water, and she felt the water moving away from her, too. Either she'd somehow just become the Avatar, or some help had arrived.
The water surged upward, punching a hole in the makeshift tomb that had been constructed around her, letting in a flow of air. Along with it came the impact of a heavy pair of boots that even she could sense, and strong arms scooped her up. In that grip, she could recognize the heartbeat of her helper, and relaxed as Bato of the Southern Water Tribe leaped up out of the hole and ran with her over her bridge. As they passed across the hardened mud, she focused on her Earthbending, and sensed the vibration of two Swampbenders running alongside Bato.
A whole rescue team just for her.
Toph deigned to let Bato carry her royal person. "Thanks. What was that all about?"
"I don't know." She could hear the stress in his voice. "The Fire Nation just got reinforcements. Warriors in robes of blue and white, and not in any style that belongs to the Water Tribes. Earthbenders and Waterbenders and plenty of Firebenders, not to mention how good some of them are with weapons. Anyone you know?"
Toph didn't say anything. Better for a King to remain silent than admit complete ignorance.
Aang wasn't sure what to do when the mud-covered weird guy slopped over to their campsite and began poking around. Air Nomads believed in friendliness and hospitality, but this was really, really creepy.
Sokka leaned over and whispered, "Should I attack him?"
Katara slapped Sokka's shoulder. "He's a confused old man. We aren't attacking him."
Aang nodded. "Katara's right. We should probably help him. I think? And- uh, Ty Lee should be the one to do it."
But Ty Lee took a step backwards and raised her hands. "Nope, not me, not doing it!"
Katara came over and put an arm around Ty Lee's shoulders. "Come on, he can't be that dangerous. Not to someone like you. And you're so good at charming people."
"Pffff!" Ty Lee leaned her head against Katara's. "His aura is silver, Katara, and normally I'd be asking him to show me the path to enlightenment, but he also has these flashes of dark reds and black! I'm not going near that mix. None of us should."
Sokka raised his boomerang. "So, we attack? Normally, I'd be against listening to aura-based advice, but I like the idea of attacking the inconvenient weirdo."
Aang sighed. "I'll go talk to him." He went over to the camp, where the mud-covered man was having what looked like a staring contest with Momo. "Um, hi! I'm Aang. Um, the Avatar. Do you need help- or-"
The weird guy swung to stare into Aang's eyes from a very uncomfortably close angle. "I don't need help. Keep it straight, sonny! I'm the Mud Man, and I'm the wise-but-slightly-disturbed-mentor figure who sometimes loses students in ashlands and tells Grand Lotuses to go jump off a cliff. You're the young chosen one in need of help."
"Right." Aang backed away using only the power of his toes. "Good to know."
Reinforcements arrived in the form of Katara, who held up her hands and stepped in front of Aang. "Do you at least need help cleaning yourself off, sir? The river is right-"
"Clean my mud off?! What are you children trying to do, kill me?!" The- uh, 'Mud Man' sat down on the ground next to Momo, who took that opportunity to scamper off like Sokka had stepped on his tail (again). "I might as well cut my own ears off and serve them in dumplings! Ear-dumplings, chewy and waxy and full of flavor! No, I need my mud. Otherwise, I won't be able to get updates from The Tree, and we're just getting to the good part of the story!"
Katara looked back at Aang, her wide eyes delivering a stirring recitation on the critical need for compassion in elder-care but also an admission that she was starting to get a little freaked out.
Aang put on a polite smile and stepped forward again. "Okay, we'll leave your mud. We- uh, wouldn't want The Tree to get lonely, right?"
The Mud Man snorted. "Oh, it won't be lonely. Prince Zuko is already on his way, and the big metal spider is about to bring a real party. No, I just want to know who's going to win. It's the best story I've heard since the one about the princess who was someone else who didn't exist."
Aang realized that his jaw had dropped. Zuko? The platinum spider?! And did that mean that 'The Tree' was the one at the center of the swamp that Sokka said Iroh was targeting? How did-
The Mud Man gave a grin that was only partially insane. "Everything is connected, Avatar. I would have expected you to know that. Whether it's through mud or friendship or even time itself." All of the sudden, he was standing again, pushing past Katara to get right into Aang's face. "And you, young man, are going to be late!"
"I-" Aang looked at Katara, but she just shook her head at him, clearly as overwhelmed as he was. He looked to Sokka, who just raised his boomerang again in a useless suggestion. (Why had they even let him keep that thing?) And Ty Lee was cowering behind Sokka.
Ty Lee had said that the Mud Man's aura was silver, that he was on the path to enlightenment.
And he knew about Zuko, the platinum spider, and that Aang wouldn't get to the swamp in time.
Was this a trick?
Aang bowed his head. "I'm sorry. We've been going as fast as we can, but things kind of got away from us."
The Mud Man slowly leaned backwards until he toppled to the ground, but he transformed the moment of impact into a roll that left him sitting in front of the campfire. "Yes, I know how that can be. A century can go by, in the blink of a rooster-pig's eye, and then all we can do is die. Also: fly, pie, sigh, and why! Heh, I love rhyming." He snorted. "Well, you might be sorry, but you're still late. The only way you could possibly do your job properly, Avatar, is if you reached back through the past to harvest the goodness you've seeded across the world."
Wha- Aang shook his head. "Okay, well, I'm also interested in knowing more about The Tree, so if you could explain about that-"
"Oh, very well, I'll teach you how to reach beyond the veil of time with your Avatar powers." The Mud Man blinked. "Wait, that wasn't what you were going to ask, was it? Oh, phooey, I messed this up. Let me go back into the river and we can try this again. I knew I should have just floated along until I reached Foggy Swamp!" He got up and began skipping (and oozing) his way towards the river.
Aang reached out to him with a hand. Was it possible that the Mud Man actually knew what he was talking about? And something about him was so familiar, too.
Sokka grabbed Aang by the wrist before he could reach the Mud Man. "You're not actually taking this nutjob seriously, are you? Offering strange new powers that defy the laws of science is how they get you! Everyone knows that!"
Aang was about to object, because more and more he was getting a feeling about the Mud Man, but then he realized that the pop-eyed, mud-covered visage of the man himself was leaning right into the space between him and Sokka.
Both boys shrieked and jumped back.
The Mud Man cackled. "Well, you convinced me! I'll teach you the secrets of Timebending!" His laughter abruptly cut off and he sidled over to Katara, stage-whispering to her, "Actually, I was going to do it, anyway. I'm kind of on your side already, and the mud knew you'd be stopping by here. But don't tell anyone I said that! I have a reputation to maintain."
The Mud Man hopped back over to the campfire and raised his arms dramatically. "Now I shall reveal secrets that have been remembered only by the mountains themselves, secrets lost since before the first Avatar rose up to cleave the world!" He slumped and pointed an arm off to the side. "And to do it I'm going to need that thing."
The Mud Man was pointing at Momo.
Momo's ears flattened as he tilted his head.
Zuko had to admit, it was the biggest tree he'd ever seen. Its trunk might have filled the whole Royal Caldera.
Too bad he was seeing such immensity by the light of the fires of warfare.
After a long stretch of travel that had been even smoother than a carriage ride, Huu the Swampbender's walking platform of vines rose upward in a burst that took them straight into the canopy. Leaves and branches slapped at Zuko, but before he could so much as hiss in discomfort, they were clear of the foliage and the fog and the bugs, rising in the light of the moon and the stars.
What had to be the banyan-grove tree rose up in front of him, blocking out so much of the sky-
-and above it, the flying mechanical spider obscured the rest.
And it looked like a spider, now. The sides had extended and opened to dangle above the tree, the tips coming to sharpened points that looked like needles from this distance but had to be as wide as a rhino even near the end. Flames glowed beneath the balloons that kept the thing aloft, and plumes of fire shot out randomly for reasons Zuko couldn't discern. Could the machinery be malfunctioning?
There were shadows flitting around the balloons and the spider.
The flames were from Firebenders keeping attackers away.
As Zuko watched, several the shadows drew fire and moved towards the south. He immediately looked to north, and sure enough, another shadow was moving against the backdrop of the cosmos above. It seemed to contract in shape for a moment, then expanded into something like the shape of a bird.
No, not a bird.
Zuko squinted his good eye.
The balloons moved and contracted on the north side as if battered by something, and the whole spider drifted as the leaves of the trees below fluttered in the same direction.
The Airbender nuns were attacking the spider.
The spider continued to drift so that it was no longer directly over the trunk of the tree. In the light of its torches, Zuko saw massive fans turn and push the whole thing on a curve that would eventually take it back to its original position.
Next to Zuko, the Mechanist said, "Ahhhh! The placement needs to be precise! And if it isn't in the right position, it can't land! Perhaps there's a balance issue? Although I still can't fathom the purpose behind all of this."
Huu grunted. "All I know is that I have to protect the tree. Join in or not, but I need to-"
"Take me up there," Zuko interrupted. He pointed to the mechanical spider dangling from the balloons. "I have to know what's going on. And it might be the only way to stop all this without anyone getting hurt."
Huu looked at him, expression not giving anything away, and then nodded. "What about you, Mech-anist? You sticking around?"
"Ah, perhaps my expertise can be of use, and of course I want to help defend my home. Also, my lack of skill in personal defense leaves me requiring your assistance, if you would be so kind, in protecting my-"
And that's when Huu sank into a low stance, raised his arms, and pushed towards the sky.
The vines beneath them tightened and rose-
-and it was all Zuko could do to keep his balance as the legs of the platform swung up to become tentacle-like arms that grasped the branches of the banyan-grove tree and began climbing its way into the night.
As they passed into the thick canopy of the tree, thicker even than that of the whole swamp around it, they were covered in darkness deeper than the night itself. Zuko thought about raising a flame, but decided against it. He didn't need to see right now, and didn't want to distract Huu.
Soon enough, they burst through the top layer of branches and back into the light of the stars and the moon and the flames. Zuko could see the Airbender nuns clearly now, their white and gold robes glowing a bit in the moonlight, but they became blurs as the vine-crawler began grappling its way up one of the legs of the spider. Huu was moving his arms in time with the vine-tentacles, and despite his pudgy build, he didn't seem at all winded by the activity.
Then they were pulled up over a railing onto something like the deck of a navy ship, the central body of the spider-form. Before Huu settled, Zuko leaped forward, kicking flames in one direction even as he punched a fireball in the other, knocking two nearby soldiers off their feet. He landed between the pair of groaning bodies in a crouch, quickly orienting himself. He recognized something, a short distance away, like a command tower from a battleship. That seemed like the best start. He moved forward, Huu and the Mechanist following him.
A shadow passed in front of Zuko-
-faster than he could react-
-something hard jabbed into one shoulder-
-then the other-
-pain exploded where he was struck-
-traveling up and down his arms-
-and then they both flopped down to hang useless at his sides. He tried to raise his arms again, but they didn't respond. There was only a cold tingling and lingering achiness.
He tried to will some life back into his arms, to channel his Inner Fire into heat and light and fight, but they wouldn't obey. He heard Huu grunting in pain and turned to help - somehow - but the shadow moved away again and Huu sagged to the ground bonelessly.
There were only two people he knew who could do such a thing. Ty Lee was one, and she was supposed to be with Aang. The other-
Zuko turned as the shadow finally stood still, and his eye was able to resolve the figure's features in the moonlight.
Bangfei, former Weapon of the Fire Nation, stood in a fighting stance. He was, oddly enough, wearing robes of blue and white, with a mantle on his shoulders decorated like a White Lotus tile.
Zuko didn't recognize the uniform, but knew that anything having to do with Pai Sho must belong to Uncle. "What's going on here? What is this machine?"
"Something wonderful!" Bangfei actually smiled as he folded his hands together. "The Fire Lord has found a way to set the world right! No more death, no more imbalance. This machine will allow him to touch the flow of energy throughout the entire world and fix it."
It was what every decent person could ever want to hear. Zuko distrusted it immediately. "Then why fight a war for it?"
"Not everyone is enlightened enough to accept the Fire Lord's word. The locals would oppose anyone who sought to exploit their swamp, and the Earth rebels are mired in the Avatar's misunderstandings." Bangfei shook his head and sighed. "I hate that more people have to suffer, but this time it's for a reason! A war to really end all wars!"
Zuko snorted, even as he tried to will some life back into his hands. If he could just keep this idiot talking- "What makes this one so different? My grandfather said the Hundred Year War would do the same thing. It's why I went to Ba Sing Se with my father." And something made him add, "My eye wasn't the only thing I lost there, but it took me a long time to realize it."
"Because," Bangfei replied, his own pair of eyes shining in the starlight, "people will never want to stop fighting. They'll always be flawed, disgusting warmongers. Death is a part of them- of us. To change, we need to take it away."
Zuko shook his head and opened his mouth as if to disagree- and leaped up and kicked out and summoned his fire-
Bangfei ducked under the flame, under the kick, and jabbed a pair of fingers into Zuko's extended leg right under the knee.
When Zuko landed, his leg gave out under him, sending him crashing to the deck.
Bangfei loomed over him. "We have no prison onboard, but I'm sure your uncle would want you to live. We'll have to find a way to keep you out of harm's way."
And then he jabbed Zuko in the neck, taking away the light of the moon and the stars and the flames of war.
Mai wore many faces, as she observed the physical world through Koh's power. She had no control over who she became and no access to anyone's thoughts but her own. She didn't even know if Koh was controlling all of that or if it was simply the nature of this power.
She also didn't like how her spirit-self was hanging, speared through the chest, from Koh's insectile legs in the center of the creature's domain.
All in all, it was almost as bad as one of Mother's dinner parties.
"Aang is trying to get there," she managed to gasp in between spying sessions. It was disorienting, having her existence brush up against the life-energy of other people so directly, connecting with them and sharing their lives for a few minutes here and there. Sometimes, she came back to this cave and had forgotten who she really was for a moment or two. But her face was trained not to move without her permission, so she was safe enough from Koh. "You can't punish him for trying."
"Can't I?" Koh's legs lifted, raising Mai's skewered form further up into the gloom of this cave-like pit. She was tilted until she was splayed out horizontally, limbs hanging lifelessly. Without her knives, she didn't have much use for them right now.
Koh was looking straight down on her with the face of a chubby-cheeked child peeking out from the bug-flesh and glistening plates, though whether a boy or a girl was impossible to tell.
"You said you only punish traitors, including traitors to their duty." Mai licked her lips (whatever the point was here in the Spirit World) and kept all pain and disgust from her voice. "If you count failure as betrayal, then you're no cosmic force. You're just a thug with a flimsy excuse and a grudge against the world."
Koh loomed over her, the child's face going blank, the eyes going glassy. It could have been the face of a porcelain doll, if not for the soft skin and the tears that glistened on the delicate eyelashes.
Then Koh laughed, a grating sound that echoed painfully off the cavern walls. Mai swallowed a wince.
Koh twisted so that the face pressed against hers, cheek-to-cheek. The skin was cold. "It's the way you fight me that makes you truly delicious. So many try to oppose me physically, but I cannot be destroyed, not without destroying all the spirits I've removed from the reincarnation cycle. Others fight me with their passion for the ones I've taken from them, and I'm sure you can imagine how far that gets them. But you-"
Koh's voice lowered to a whisper. "You fight with your heart, a sharp little loathing for all that I am, and yet you give me nothing with which to fight back. It's beautiful, in a certain way."
"I bet you really do think that's flattery." Mai blinked up at him. "So which one was Kuruk? Physical fight or passion?"
The child's face smiled. "I doubt you'll be surprised to hear that he was both. The Avatar contains multitudes, after all. I defeated him so completely that I even felt sorry for the man, offering him a boon of recompense. Sadly, he never collected; I have always wondered what he would have asked for, once he emerged from his grief."
"Is that why you focus on Aang? And me? To see if you can play the same game again?"
"Oh, don't worry, my interest genuinely comes from finding you interesting. Avatar Aang, on the other hand, is merely business. You've seen how I observe the world, but not the paths I can map into the future. We spirits are talented, that way." Koh pulled back, and began lowering her down again so that the tips of her boots didn't quite reach the floor. "No, this boy who loves you has a choice coming up. And in making it, he might give me the chance to add some rather delightful faces to my collection. Everything else is- well, how I have my fun."
It was the same kind of fun that Azula used to like, the fun that came from all the extra little tortures she could add to an already draining life. And, to be honest, Mai had kind of enjoyed that thing, too, for a long time.
That was what happened when there were no other real joys to be found. Or no way to find the joys that might be there.
But that didn't meant Mai felt sorry for this creepy bug. She was still going to stab it the first chance she got.
The faces in the real world descended on her spirit once more, familiar faces whose voices rang in her heart like the lullabies of her earliest days.
Aang sat in a lotus position across from the Mud Man, the only light coming from the campfire nearby. He tried to relax, breathing in and out and seeking the part of the world - the part of himself - that existed beyond the physical.
It was kind of hard with the Mud Man noisily chewing on something pulled out of the river- and with Sokka, Katara, and Ty Lee sitting off the side and staring at Aang protectively.
The Mud Man slurped up the last of his- uh, 'meal' and belched. "Well, have you made Time your plaything yet? It's just a matter of acknowledging that Now doesn't really exist and finding the extra dimensions of our connections that can't be put into nice visual metaphors because our minds can only process three dimensions. Simple stuff! Also, don't forget to use your lemur; that part is verrrrrrrrrry important."
In Aang's lap, Momo looked up and trilled.
Aang breathed in and out again. "I'm trying. I can sense my connections to my friends, and even the paths to the people I've met during my travels. But- um, I'm not sure what you mean by extra dimensions?"
"Really? I thought it was as plain as the mud on my handsome misshapen face." The Mud Man scratched what was presumably a little beard and not, for example, a mud-covered prawn hanging from his chin. "Maybe you need to ask The Tree for help. I've never actually moved outside of time before, so I might not be describing it right."
Aang looked over to his friends. Sokka shook his head, Katara nodded her head, and Ty Lee waved.
Aang didn't find that helpful at all. "Um, aren't I trying to get to The Tree? It's not here, soooo- not sure how I can ask. Sorry."
The Mud Man blinked.
The Mud Man blinked again.
The Mud Man sniffled.
Then the Mud Man slapped his own forehead, splattering mud as far as the campfire. "I knew I forgot something! Now, where did I put it?" He stood up, turned in a slow circle, scooted through the campsite poking things, climbing up on a sleeping Appa to get mud all over the inside of the saddle, and then hopping down to stand in front of Aang again in his original position.
As Aang was about to ask what the guy was looking for, the Mud Man stomped a foot on the ground and something popped up out of the dirt right between them. It was-
-a leafy twig stuck to stand in a clay pot full of dirt?
Aang could only stare at it in confusion.
It was Katara who finally said, "Maybe I'm misunderstanding something, but that's not a tree."
"No, but it was," the Mud Man hissed, "and someday it will be again. I snapped that off the tree at the center of the Foggy Swamp so that you could talk to it. The Tree knows all about ignoring time. Or you could just stick the twig in your ear and listen to its echoing whispers, but then you'd look silly."
So instead of looking silly, Aang gave a helpless shrug at his friends (who all averted their gazes), and addressed the twig in the pot with, "Um, hello, can you help me?"
"No," barked the Mud Man, "no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no NO!" He picked up the twig-in-a-pot, shoved it into Aang's lap right next to Momo (who startled and tried to escape but the Mud Man caught him and put him right back where he started), and snorted. "It's a plant, Avatar. It doesn't really talk. Well, so much for not looking silly. I guess the gloves are off, now! Here it comes! The whole and terrifying truth!"
Aang tensed, ready to dodge an attack-
The Mud Man crouched in front of him and sighed. "It's all about connections, Aang. Everything is connected, whether or not we realize it." His voice was soft, now, lacking its previous force. "You and I share a connection that you don't have time to figure out. You and Momo have another that's deeper than you guess. And you and The Tree will join together, soon. You already have a connection to it, in the future, and so you have the same thing with what was once part of it. It's not a matter of looking or sensing, like you've already been taught to do. Take the twig in your hands, and use the connection that's already there, whether or not you can feel it."
That almost made sense. Aang put one hand on the twig, and gave Momo some soothing rubs with the other. He closed his eyes, focusing on the feel of the twig's bark against his skin, the way the leaves tickled him between his fingers, and the moisture within that imparted life and kept the twig from drying out into nothing more than firewood.
As Aang concentrated on the twig, breathing in and out, the Mud Man whispered, "Connections aren't even real, to tell the truth. They're just a little lie we tell ourselves so that we can acknowledge the One but pretend we're still separate individuals. There really isn't a Self at all, not like we think about it. We're all One, just a One that expresses itself in lots and lots of different ways at the same time. And not even as the same time, because there is no time. Those who know how to look past the Self have had visions of the future, and Avatars talk with the past regularly."
"So you're saying," Aang whispered back, as he basked in the light of the spirit that was shining out the twig in a place beyond vision, "that if we're One, we've always been one."
"That's what reincarnation is all about." The Mud Man gave a chuckle. "Just ask Momo."
And Aang did.
But he didn't talk directly to Momo. He let himself fall into the infinite depths of the twig in his hand, riding the light within across an eternity to a tree in a swamp, but not just a tree in a swamp. That was merely a glimpse of a shadow of a reflection of the true tree, one whose roots ran through both the Spirit World and the Material World. There was a tree in the Spirit World, too, but that was just another mere glimpse at the truth. They all were just glimpses, the trees and forests and nations and ashlands and people.
Clothing himself in that truth, Aang looked to Momo, following his connection to the lemur in his lap.
And the Tree of Time remembered Momo, remembered Momo from before there was a Momo, and Aang found another connection to follow.
When he opened his eyes, he was sitting in front of a Pai Sho board in a room in the Southern Air Temple. The air was sweet with the fragrance of the coming harvest, the floor warm beneath him, and sunlight angled in through the tall windows.
Across the Pai Sho board, Monk Gyatso smiled and bowed his head. "Hello again, Aang."
Aang gaped, and then had to laugh. "So you were Momo all this time?"
"This time, and all times, from what your friend says." Gyatso raised his head and gave his own chuckle. "Friendships can last more than a lifetime, it seems. And being reborn as a lemur has been very enlightening." He reached his hands across the board.
Aang reached out and took them in his own, finding a warmth there so familiar he nearly burst into tears. "I'm not really sure of most of what the Mud Man was talking about, to be honest. It's pretty high-level stuff."
"But you were able to find me." Gyatso motioned around with an incline of his head. "You were able to find this place, in our shared past. Think of what else you might be able to find, with the help of your Tree."
Aang thought about it. Now that he had reached into the past he shared with Momo, he thought he could do it again, at least in his current state. But what could he actually accomplish? Seeing Monk Gyatso was a little different than somehow reaching into the past to make himself defeat Iroh sooner, or wake up earlier at the North Pole and leave before it was too late.
Gyatso let go of Aang's hands and motioned at the Pai Sho board between them. "Can you take back a move you've made once your finger has left the tile?"
Aang looked down at the Pai Sho board, but found that instead of a game grid, it was a spread of the entire world, a living and moving representation of everything, so detailed that he could even see a war going on in the Foggy Swamp if he squinted. "No, not if I play by the rules."
"Good answer. But cheating has its own consequences, and you haven't lost the game yet. If you make a wrong move, how do you fix it?" Gyatso folded his hands in his sleeves and waited.
Aang looked up at his teacher, and then down at the world again. But now it was just a Pai Sho board again, with tiles placed as if in the middle of play. He'd played lots of games against Gyatso, games that the other Elder Monks said were waste of time he could have spent training. "I try to play better?"
"More specific, please. Let's say you left your White Lotus tile all alone, and I've cut if off from everything else. Its movement abilities are useless without other tiles to which it can lend support."
"Well, I'd try to move my other tiles in to get to it, so that it could boost their functions before your tiles take them."
Gyatso's smile was radiant. "Good answer. Now, what's your next move?"
Aang blinked, and the board was once again replaced by the entire world. "Do you think the Tree of Time will help?"
"I think it already has." Gyatso winked.
Aang laughed again, and soon Gyatso joined in. It was a sound better than music
Dreams could be walked by more than the Spirits, more than Wise Men. Memories could inhabit dreams, too, including memories of things yet to be.
A memory of a swamp, and a tree, floated across the dreams of certain people. It floated beyond time, reaching out to before the dream was even spun by a boy with an arrow on his head. It found resonance in sacred lands, in ceremonies honoring the earth, in drunken hallucinations, in celebrations of the dawn, in drowsy contemplation of a beach sunset, visions in a fire, and nightmares fed by anxiety. All of them occurred at different times, and yet all were happening now.
All those dreams, but just one dream, shared amongst people connected in ways they couldn't imagine. They had yet to meet, but in a way they already had.
Aang's eyes snapped open.
Momo trilled in his lap. Aang looked down at him, but the lemur looked back with animal dullness, the light of the campfire reflected in big staring eyes. Had it been a dream?
Well, yes. But that didn't mean it wasn't real.
Aang looked up again, and across from him, in the light of the campfire, the Mud Man nodded.
Aang looked over at his friends.
Ty Lee's eyes were wide, and her hands were clasped together. "I've never seen your aura so beautiful." She sniffled, and wiped tears from her eyes.
Sokka and Katara exchanged glances with each other, and then Sokka said, "Well, you were glowing and we didn't get any dangerous weather or volcanos, so that's good. Right?"
Katara glared at her brother for a moment. "So, Aang, did you do what you needed?"
"I think so." Aang looked down at Momo again, and then at the twig he still had in his other hand. "But we're not done yet. Let's wake Appa. We still have a long trip ahead of us."
Zuko had been battered by the winds for hours now. He'd lost his eyepatch at some point in the night, and perhaps had seen it as a small shadow plummeting down into the canopy of the swamp. Or perhaps that had merely been a dream. He might have also dreamed about the Airbender nuns who landed beside him to try to free him from his chains; he preferred that to the idea that those nuns had been real, and they'd simply failed in their rescue when Bangfei attacked them.
He didn't know how much more his body could take of this.
The mechanical spider didn't have a brig, Bangfei had said, so the soldiers aboard had lashed Zuko to the front rail of the spider's body-deck with chains, letting him hang over the open air cradled only by links of solid metal. He could have tried heating them, but the concertation it would take to melt them would have left him nothing with which to prevent a plummet to the ground far below.
He could only presume Huu the Swampbender was suffering the same fate on another side of the central body of the spider, and maybe the Mechanist as well.
The other option was that both his new allies had been tossed over the railing with limbs numbed by Bangfei's Qi-blocking arts.
Zuko wished had stopped to tell Toph where he was going. But then, Azula hadn't said anything to him before disappearing. Ozai and Ursa had not raised children with much common sense, it seemed. He wondered if Toph would miss him, if he died. She seemed to really be his friend, but it was hard to tell if that was the truth or just an especially long-term exercise in sarcasm.
Out of the corner of his eye, Zuko saw a flicker of motion, and raised his head to see Bangfei take a leap from the top of one of the balloons that kept the spider aloft. The former Weapon of the Fire Nation intercepted one of the Airbender nuns who were still trying to bring the floating craft down. Zuko couldn't make out what happened next, both because of the distance and the dim light provided by the moon and stars, but when it finished, Bangfei was leaping off the nun's body to arc back towards the deck, while the nun herself plummeted from the sky with loose limbs.
Some of other nuns angled their wing-like robes to dive after their sister, but they all passed out of Zuko's vision, so he couldn't see what the result was. He offered his own hope that Bangfei's victim could be saved.
He kept none for himself.
It was hard to breathe, now.
Bangfei hadn't wanted to kill Zuko, but the man was a fanatic. He'd rather risk Zuko's life than risk this mad scheme. And the rest of the soldiers on board didn't seem concerned. They knew that Zuko was an exile, not even in the royal line of succession anymore. They could treat him like an honorless criminal.
Zuko agreed with them. He should have fought more fully against the Fire Lord. Against Uncle Iroh. He didn't want to lose what family he had left, but he would give everything up to save the world. More than his own loss, he feared the suffering of others. He could bear his own suffering, but knew the agony so well that he couldn't stand the thought of it touching others.
This had to be what had driven Mai to save Aang, back on Crescent Island. He wished he had been kinder to her about that. He wished she could have been kinder to him about it, too.
The winds battered him again, perhaps naturally or maybe as the result of Airbenders nuns' ongoing assault. He had to acknowledge their tenacity; they'd fought for so long, with his own efforts against this mechanical beast lasting only a blink of the eye. They weren't even warriors, just monastics who had been gifted by fate with the legacy of a lost nation. They might not stop his uncle, but they'd held the line and kept this spider-vehicle from landing.
Zuko couldn't even feel the cold of the winds, anymore. He'd tried to summon his Inner Fire, but fire came from the breath, and breathing was so difficult while hanging from these chains.
He wouldn't close his eye and give up. He would witness, just as he promised Toph. His witnessing might be lost when he died, but he would not fail in his vow.
Somehow, though, he managed to miss the rising of the sun.
The mists that hovered over the swamp canopy diffused the light, and he didn't even realize that the darkness was fading until he saw a black shape rise up from the trees and arc towards the railing on the deck. It would have been lost in the night sky, before.
It landed with a clank a short distance from Zuko, and he realized it was a grappling hook. A long rope trailed down into the treetops.
The guards didn't seem to notice, so concerned were they with the Airbenders. Zuko strained his neck to see, and realized that the nuns had increased the intensity of their attack, engaging the Firebender guards directly rather than the balloons of the spider-construct. They dove and dodged around fireballs, shooting funnels of wind back, and kept everyone's gazes upward.
Zuko's neck started to cramp, so he lowered his head again.
And saw the person climbing up the rope.
The person moved quickly, obviously practiced at this kind of mission. A well-trained warrior, then. Had Toph's forces finally arrived? Zuko had seen the lights of Firebending and the echoes of warfare in the distance, all through the night, so he couldn't imagine that they'd been able to get this far. So who could it be?
And would this newcomer be defeated as soon as Bangfei noticed?
Zuko forced his single eye to focus. The sun started to rise above the pooling fog of the swamp, and in the new light, the climber looked up to meet his gaze-
And Suki of Kyoshi Island smiled up at him.
As Zuko gaped, she doubled her speed, hauling herself up with an agility that would have put a tiger-monkey to shame. She reached the railing and tied the roping around her waist, anchoring herself as she started exploring his chains.
But first she leaned over and dropped a kiss on his lips. "Hi, Zuko. I found you."
Zuko could only blink at her, the warmth of her lips lingering on his own. "I- You went home! And- how-"
"I had a dream," she said in a voice that almost drifted away on the wind, one hand gripping the railing and the other working a pin in the padlock on his chains, "of this exact tree. I just- I knew how to find it. So I followed my dream and found- well, you."
"Oh." He felt his face warming, even in the cool winds. "I'm- I'm really glad to see you."
"And I found a lot more!" Something clicked, and the chains loosened, but Zuko barely started to drop before Suki's arm snaked around his chest and pulled him against her. Despite his added weight, she was able to climb up over the railing, letting him sit and rest of the deck. He desperately sucked in air now that his lungs could properly expand, while Suki crouched next to him and rubbed his back. "On the way here-"
Zuko looked up at her beautiful face, saw Bangfei coming up behind her, and barked, "Look out!" He snapped an arm up to punch a fireball, but it was a weak thing, a messy mix of light and smoke that Bangfei avoided simply by stopping short and standing still for a moment.
Suki stepped in front of Zuko and took a fighting stance.
"Please," Bangfei said, bowing his head to her. "I don't want to have to hurt you. I'm a Weapon of the Fire Nation. You can't win."
"Not by myself." Suki took a step towards him.
Bangfei shook his head. "Prince Zuko can't help you. Not enough."
"I know." Suki launched herself at Bangfei, who raised his fists-
-and a woman in aquamarine clothes with a tonfa-club in each hand flipped up over the railing and sprang past Suki to swing her club at Bangfei's head-
-who managed to duck beneath it and roll away from Suki's sweeping kick-
-and another woman in clothing identical to the first's except for its yellow color climbed over the railing and attacked with another pair of tonfa clubs, managed to tag Bangfei's back with echoing smacks-
-and more tonfa-women in clothes of bright blue and green and purple and orange joined the fight on the deck, moving with coordination and precision and a speed that was the almost the equal of Bangfei's. But they outnumbered him and had him surrounded.
And all of them shared a single face, a face Zuko knew best as belonging to Ty Lee.
Her sisters had come all the way from Ember Island to join this war. But why?
As the sisters all fell on Bangfei with their clubs, Suki came over to Zuko to help him to his feet, saying, "I was trying to tell you: on the way here, I found more people who wanted to help. The Ty Sisters and I bonded back when I was staying with Mai on Ember Island, so they came with me to find and help you. And they're good enough to impress even Mai, so six of them together must add up to more than a single Weapon."
Zuko tried to make himself understand, but either he was too tired or just not smart enough. "I don't get it. Why- how- you just happened to meet up with them on the way here?"
Suki shrugged. "I know. I can't explain it. So many people-"
Wait. She had met more than just the Ty Sisters? "How many people?"
King Toph had become blind to her own war.
She had completely lost track of where she and her army were in this stupid swamp. The fighting had spread out beyond the Swampbender village, and then the new arrivals in the weird blue and white Pai Sho robes had joined in with the Fire Nation to scatter her army across the bogs. With Bato's help, she'd managed to pull together a core group of warriors - Earthbenders, fights with spears and swords and clubs and slings, newly recruited Swampbenders – to try to punch a hole or win a rallying point, but after a long night's work, it was starting to seem like she had just been setting up for her last stand.
That was really annoying.
People had died through the night, fallen in the waters and mud, and it was likely that no one would ever be able to find the bodies.
Toph was almost, sort of, starting to expect it to be her fate as well. The last stand of the last Earth King (more or less).
But she was going to take a huge chunk of Fire Lord Iroh's army down with her, if she had any say in it. On the patch of muddy grasses where she'd chosen to make her stand, she stomped a foot with all of her Earthbending power, sending tremors through both the solid and more liquid parts of the swamp. She couldn't see or sense the enemy's response, but she heard the crackling of burning foliage, the buzz of motorized swamp boats, and the ringing of weapons clanged against armor to form a marching beat. The Fire Army was coming for her.
Toph stomped her foot again, sending another seismic wave, and called out at the top of her lungs, "Get ready! Fight for your king! Or I'll save the Fire Nation the trouble and beat up all up myself!"
Behind and around her, her rebels and allies answered back with a cheer. It was enthusiastic, and she loved them for it, but there were far too few voices. She hoped most of the lost were simply turned around the in the swamp and not dead. But even if they had passed on in the reincarnation cycle, she knew she still would have started this war. Losing was no worse than not doing anything. Not against this enemy.
And then another seismic tremor shook the swamp.
Except Toph hadn't moved.
It had come from behind the massing Fire Army. Toph plopped down to lie fully on the ground, her whole body acting as a receiver, and stomped her foot again.
Another seismic wave went out, and another answered her.
But this time, she 'heard' more in it. It wasn't being produced by a single powerful Earthbender, like her. More of these weird 'Pai Sho Warriors?'
Toph got and lifted her arms to raise herself on a column of sloshy earth, rising high above her army. She reached within herself with all her power and put what she found there in every last bit of earth and dirt and mud around her, so that when she shouted, it echoed along with her, "Who are you people anyway?"
Bato started to say, "Your Majesty, it's not them! It's someone else-"
There was another seismic pulse, and then Toph felt a whole mudslide burst through the trees and scattered a portion of the Fire Army. A deep, booming voice called out, "Tyro and the hidden Earthbenders will fight for the Avatar and the Earth King! Haru, let's take back our homeland!"
And there was a roar of water, as if the whole swamp had suddenly decided to become a waterfall, and so many of the fires whose crackling had been a constant noise through the night went silent. An aged voice called out, "The free Waterbenders of the Southern Water Tribe have come to avenge our imprisonment!"
And another voice added, "The Faceless Tribe of the North will stand with our sister tribe and fight for the Avatar!"
And that was all good, but even with the newcomers and their attacks, there was still a lot of noise and ground-rumbling come from the Fire Army's side. Toph could feel the air heat up and hear the whooshing of incoming fireballs-
-but a voice called out, "The Sun Warriors will no longer let Fire be used as a tool of death! For the dragons and the Avatar!" And the heat in the air immediately cooled, as if all the fires were snuffed out, and only a smoky breeze was left in its place.
More cries rose up, some representing villages or groups and some just announcing individuals whose names Toph had never heard before. Mercenaries declared patrons, weird Water Tribes came out of ancient history, and one nice voice even told something called Nyla that maybe if they helped save the world someone would pay them.
So Toph answered them all. "For the Earth Kingdom and the Avatar, let's trounce these flame-heads and shoves their faces in their toilets! Yeah!"
And then she twisted a foot to have her platform launch her forward into battle.
Her army - her new army -followed.
Bato stuck close to her, as he had since last night, and while she fired off boulders of mud and peat, she said to him, "Tell me what's going on. Be my Royal Eyes."
"It's-" Bato's voice faltered. "It's amazing. I see warriors- hardened warriors, in armor, with sprigs of dogwood pinned to their hats."
Toph nodded and buried a Firebender in mud. "That's how mercenaries acknowledge their patron. They wear a token on their hats."
"I see men and women in red loin-clothes and golden jewelry, their faces painted in burgundy and white, overwhelming the enemy soldiers with Firebending that's brighter and hotter than any other I've seen."
Toph grinned and wondered if Ham Gao was somewhere in there complaining about everything.
"I see warriors and Waterbenders, some in blue and some wearing black, some young and some older than my parents would be."
Toph hadn't personally met anyone like that. "Northern Water Tribe?"
"I- I don't think so. The ones in black move in a style different from those who served Iroh. And- and amidst it all, a creature as big as a sky bison is swimming through the swamp, its tongue lashing the enemy and bringing them down with a single blow. Riding atop it is a woman in black with a whip. I- I'm very confused, Earth King."
Toph grinned. "That's fine. We don't have to understand; we just have to win. Now point me in the direction of the most enemies. I want to put some royal hurt on people."
Zuko couldn't believe what he was hearing from Suki. "All those people arrived at the same edge of this swamp at the same time, coming from all over the world, and claimed they had the same dream about the Avatar needing them here?"
Suki shrugged as she watched the Ty Sisters wrap Bangfei up in the chains that had once held Zuko to the spider-construct's railing. "Everyone had the same story. And I had that exact dream. I don't know how Aang did it, but he is the Avatar."
Yes, he was. Zuko would have liked a better answer, but he supposed that this was what it was like to live in an age guided by the Bridge Between Worlds. And Zuko still had his part to do.
He put a hand on Suki's shoulder, got a wink in return, and turned to the Ty Sisters. "We need to bring this thing down. If you can protect me and Suki from the guards, we can handle the rest. Ready?"
Six identical faces, all of them eager (except for one, who just seemed annoyed by everything) nodded. And then they broke into coordinate motion.
Firebenders from the Crimson Guard, the Fire Lord's personal unit, tried to stop them. They did their duty honorably, and Zuko could not fault them for that. But that didn't stop him from fighting them. It didn't stop him from storming the command tower and making his way to the bridge as the Ty Sisters and Suki watched his back.
And it didn't stop him from capturing the bridge crew, finding the lever that would release the balloons, and allowing the mechanical spider to crash down on the swamp canopy beside the banyan-grove tree, where it could do no harm.
Iroh wished he could have arrived at his destination to find victory waiting for him, but he supposed that no part of this was going to be easy for him. That was, in a way, appropriate, because he certainly deserved to have to work for this.
As his airship glided over the swamp, he stood at the front of the bridge and looked out with a spyglass through the window. He studied the main battleground just ahead of the airship, where in between the gabs in the tree leaves it appeared that his army was losing to a rather colorful opposition group. He shifted his view to the distance, where the platinum spider sat like a drunken pest on the wrong set of trees.
No, this was not going to be easy. But it victory was still possible.
He lowered the spyglass and turned to his airship captain. "Could you please summon Lian the Maker? And also bring Zhao from the brig. Sadly, it seems we are going to have to make use of one of the more extreme tools in our possession."
He had hoped to avoid this particular gambit. But he would do anything for Lu Ten.
Anything. No matter how hard it was for him.
But Iroh could admit, at least, that it would be much harder for Zhao, as well as those who had made themselves into Iroh's enemies.
TO BE CONTINUED