I have this storyline finished and I'm already many chapters in, so expect regular updates.
This story is set directly after the events of Ep 44 of Avatar; Sokka's Master.
All feedback much appreciated!
Aang, Sokka and Katara were looking over the lip of the valley, towards the city. On the downward slope, a few buildings clung to the road that wound
its way down to the city wall. Compared with the regular, neat rows of high dwellings within the city (for they were high enough on the valley to see over the wall),
these sad hovels seemed especially desolate, like victims of banishment.
Nearest them, in an enclosed stone wall set back from the path, were a barn, a shed, and a stone cottage with a creaking watermill on its side.
The group of four proceeded cautiously over the lip of the valley, standing a safe distance from the stone compound. Aang looked it over and tilted his head curiously.
"Looks safe enough."
Sokka hung back. "How do we know? This is the Fire Nation we're in now. I say we should assume whoever lives there is an enemy."
Katara gestured at the huts. "Does it look like people live here?"
They cast their eyes again over the stone hut, with its slowly creaking watermill, the crooked barn, and the beaten up shed; then again over the prosperous town
below - its high perimeter wall had crept up every side of the valley, defying the steepness as the city grew. Even in the twilight, its red roofs glimmered. Close to
the city's heart, two pagoda spires, not wooden but stone, towered over the surrounding buildings, their blue spires upturned as though reaching for the moon.
Next to this boast of prosperity, it was hard to believe anyone would choose to live in such a lonely stone hut, on the bare hill side.
"Feel anything, Toph?" Aang asked.
"Nope, nothing moving around. It's so… still" said Toph quietly. It was dark and silent, except for the slosh and creak of the turning watermill; everyone was hushed instinctively.
A savagely chill breeze suddenly whipped down the valley from behind them. The group grabbed their thin coats closer; Momo jumped under Aang's shirt. The wind was so strong it was like someone holding.
"Let's go look!" said Sokka, wrapping his arms around him. "We're just as exposed out here anyway. Exposed to the cold too!"
"Too breezy out here, Captain meteor-man?" laughed Toph, though she was secretly as cold as the rest of them.
"You're welcome to stay out here!" Sokka snapped back, suddenly in the lead again.
They all approached the main stone hut's small door. Aang gestured to Appa to hide behind the barn, out of sight of the house. Appa backed himself behind it
and waited, peeping out at them ridiculously as they knocked, his shaggy body barely hidden by the barn, his huge head not at all.
"Hello?" Called out Sokka. No answer. After ten seconds more, still nothing.
"It's abandoned! " Sokka sighed. "No one here."
"Gee, how did you work that out?" said Toph sarcastically.
"Never mind," replied Sokka absently. "we can hide out here, then head into town in the morning. And with a roof over our heads for once!"
Just as Sokka reached gleefully for the handle, the door suddenly swung inwards, leaving him teetering on his toes.
In the doorway stood an extremely old woman; wizened and tough, she was no taller than Toph. Her faced was less wrinkled than coarse, with leathery brown skin.
She had a shock of straight white hair.
"Who is it?" She asked loudly. Then she looked at Sokka and frowned. "You have to give us elders time to get to the door, young man."
The gang hesitated, Sokka still wobbling on his toes.
"Think we can trust her?" Toph whispered.
"I think we should play it safe" Katara said. "Let's pretend we're lost, ask for directions and get out of here."
But Aang had a big grin on his face. "It's okay guys."
He bowed to the old lady. "Nice to meet you, ma'am. Sorry to disturb you this late, but I hope you can help us out with a bed for the night."
"You're very trusting, young man", said the old woman, also smiling.
"It's okay," said Aang, still reassuring his friends. "You're one of the good guys."
"Is it my charming smile?"
"No, your necklace." Aang pointed to the white lotus tile hanging around her neck. Then he pulled an identical white lotus tile from a small bag at his waist.
"This was given to us by Pian Dao the sword-master. I'm guessing you guys have something in common."
The woman smiled warmly. "We do indeed - more than you know! Come inside, Avatar, and I'll get some food ready. My name's Sindu. You can call me Grandma!"
That evening the Gaang sat down around the fireplace with steaming bowls of noodle soup, while Sindu settled on to a stool by the fire. She looked still and sage-like
as the Gaang told her about their recent visit to Pian Dao. Her soft, lively eyes sometimes swayed shut. She could almost have fallen asleep, but whenever it seemed
like she wasn't listening, she would interrupt to correct their story, as though she were reading the story out of their minds. When Sokka said that he had introduced himself as Li, she raised a brow.
"Li? You look nothing like a Li, young man." Sokka slapped his hand to his forehead.
She proceeded to tell her own side of the story, of how Pian Dao had contacted her as soon as he'd met Sokka and told her to prepare for the Avatar's arrival.
"So you guys know each other? What's that got to do with the Pai Sho tiles?" asked Toph.
Sindu smiled warmly. "I'm afraid can't give that secret away! When the time comes, you'll find out. For now, all I can say is that our Order stretches across all the Kingdom,
an order of peace and security. Pian Dao and I are members, as is the man he wants you to meet. A hero of our city. His name is Kyuk Jun."
"Kyuk Jun," repeated Aang softly. "Why did Pian Dao want us to meet him?"
"I don't know, but I can hazard a guess. He's a wise man, is Kyuk, and an old friend of mine. He's one of the most Senior Members of our Order. Besides Pian Dao, the only
more senior members are… well, I can't give their names away can I!"
Sokka jabbed the air with his chopsticks in mock combat. "So you guys are like a secret society? Like an underground resistance, right? Or are you more like undercover bandits?"
"neither," said Grandma Sindu ""No. We're just like-minded Pai Sho players, Mr Li! And as for Kyuk - he's an advisor to Feng, the Governor of Hongtu!"
The Gaang let out a collective gasp.
"He's a stooge of the Fire Nation?" Cried Toph. "That earthbending phoney!"
"He is our double-agent," Sindu went on. "He has spent years winning the Governor's trust, a powerful man in the Fire Nation and a friend of Lord Ozai himself,
if a tyrant can be said to have friends. He's our eyes and ears into all the Fire Lord's plans for the war. Their military plans, their customs, their superstitions.
Who is loyal and who is… a bit fed up! Even," she laughed. "What their generals like to eat and where they like to go on holiday."
She now looked pointedly at Toph. "He is also an Earthbender."
"He can't be!"
Toph exhaled slowly. "That doesn't make sense."
Grandma Sindu paused for a moment, then went on. "He is one of Feng's oldest friends. He protected me for many years. I don't know where we'd be now without him."
It was the deepest moment of night. The stone hut's small fire was the only light for what seemed to be miles away, the cracks in the window shutters peeping out
into a vacuum of dark. Outside, the wind howled. When Sindu didn't go on, Katara finally asked what was on all of their minds.
"Why live all the way out here, not in the town?" she asked.
"Because my home is here!" Sindu replied with a smile. Suddenly the wind, with a renewed breath, blasted open one of the flimsy shutters over the window by Sindu's stool.
The unleashed wind raced through the house, wobbling the fire in the hearth and putting a chill in all their bones.
Katara leapt up to close the shutters, but Sindu shook her head, her smile fading. she looked out the open window, which faced east, into the town. She sighed deeply;
in the silence the howling wind seemed louder than ever.
Finally she spoke up, raising her voice above the wind. "There are other reasons not to live inside Hongtu's walls. It looks peaceful now, but it's a cruel, mysterious place to call a home.
The war runs deep as a mineral vein here - it's in the city's very foundations."
It was like watching a sinister puppet show. Sindu on her stool, by the window, looked out over the scene of her sad tale. At that moment, as if on a cue,
a flicker of fire lit up within the city walls. It was so distant that it could have been a spark, or a single hot coal; then suddenly it bloomed into a coat of fire
that perfectly enveloped a three-storey house. It raged higher and higher until the building was totally enveloped, and a thick column of tar-black smoke was clouding the sky.
Aang leapt up. "We need to go help. Maybe we can put it out!"
Sindu shook her head. "You won't get there in time. Look again. It's already burning down."
Sure enough, the entire building had been engulfed now; it was sinking under the weight of the flames as though being sucked underground; disappearing from the neat rows
of houses and leaving a ghastly gap, like a pulled tooth.
Sindu turned her face away, heaved a deep sigh, and began.
"The first settlers here discovered a fabulous mineral in the earth, known as Red Agate. Greedy, they built mines here. Earthbenders dug the tunnels,
and firebenders melted the ore. With the earth they dug, they built homes, which is why there are so many safe stone buildings in this valley. These four
walls were one of those first huts. Not doing too badly, this old place, for being a few hundred years old, is it?" she laughed, briefly and good-heartedly
despite her story. "But the real prize was the agate itself, which they used to make jewellery, roof tiles, and dazzling statues. But they dug too deeply and
hungrily, and disturbed the spirits of this valley. They closed the mines, and built underground burial sites from the old mining tunnels to honour their first ancestors and the
valley spirits, side by side."
"This was when the Four Kingdoms were young. Later, as the Four Nations established their borders, Hongtu fell under the dominion of the Fire Nation; but
no one could remember whether it was firebenders or earthbenders who had first inhabited this place. There was bitter, bitter conflict, more fearsome as the
years passed, until - so it's said - an Earth settler found a way to defeat the forces of the Fire benders. It's been passed down to us that he spoke to Fire and Earth
and commanded them to destroy the Firebenders, whom they saw as the Intruders. In the Fire Nation story, the original earth Settler betrayed the fire benders,
defeating them by trickery; and to this day they call us The Betrayers. Regardless, this early victory secured peace and safety for the Earth settlers for many years,
even once the Fire Nation encompassed all around it. And then came Sozin's Comet."
"After the Fire Nation invasion of the Earth Kingdom, Governor Feng's great grandfather persecuted us. Martial law was imposed, many of us were imprisoned, and any
attempt to collaborate with the Earth Kingdom was punished. Most of all, earth bending was forbidden, and anyone caught would suffer the harshest punishment of all.
My own grandmother was one of those caught, and after that, my mother never again dared use her gift."
She paused. Katara had closed the shutter as quietly as possible, blocking out the wind, but a cold chill remained. "I never learned to use my own gift," continued Sindu.
"It was too dangerous to learn in those days. There are so few of us left now. All that remains are those that learned from Kyuk Kui, Kyuk Jun's grandfather. He taught a
select few earth benders in secret, using the old mining tunnels as practice grounds. He taught Kyuk Jun's father and Jun himself, when Jun was a child. When Jun joined our
Order of the White Lotus as a Young Man, he was able to complete his training in secret in the Earth Kingdom. But his grandfather and father weren't so lucky. They were captured
by Feng in Jun's absence. They were never seen again."
She smiled grimly. "But they did have one more trick up their sleeve: Kyuk Jun himself! They'd raised him as distant relatives, never giving away their
true connection to Jun. Even now, Feng doesn't know that one of his closest relatives is the descendant of two secret Earth Bender criminals, that
he captured almost thirty years ago."
"I guess by that burning house that the conflict hasn't stopped," said Katara grimly. Sindu shook her head again.
"A week or two ago, strange things started happening. Houses going up in flames. And strange sightings in the night. People are more scared than ever. Kyuk Jun says
that the Governor is considering imposing martial law, like his grandfather once did. His troops terrorize the citizens. None of us are safe."
The Gaang 's noodles had gone cold, untouched, whilst they listened. Sindu, who had leaned forward dramatically to reveal this information, suddenly slapped her knee
and laughed. "But we can't do anything about it now, at this time of night. You children ought to sleep. And no staying up all night gossiping and storytelling!"
That night the Gaang set up sleeping bags in the main room of the stone hut. With a cosy fire even Toph was convinced to stay indoors rather than take her usual spot in
an earth-tent under the stars.
Despite Sindu's scolding, none of the Gaang were getting to sleep easily. The wind was still howling outside, and the story of Kyuk Jun and the Earth Settlers was fresh in their minds.
"An earth bender and a double agent," said Sokka dreamily. "This Kyuk Jun sounds awesome."
"Did anyone else notice that Sndu and Kyuk are kinda assuming that our plan for the Eclipse… doesn't work out? I don't know, should we be worried about that?"
"Meh, they're just making a plan B," said Toph evenly. "Nothing to worry about."
"And I bet he has tonnes of other information we could use on the day of the eclipse," Sokka went on, "maybe he knows a Fire Bending master too!"
"Maybe he even knows Jeong Jeong", suggested Katara. "Who knows, maybe they're working together; maybe he's down there with Kyuk Jun right now.
It would be awesome to meet Jeong Jeong again! Right, Aang?"
Aang, lying on his back, was staring into space. He didn't reply for a moment. Then: "Even here. Can you guys believe it? Even here in the Fire Nation my
disappearance caused so much suffering."
They all looked at him in surprise for a moment, consternation wrinkling Katara's brow.
Sokka snorted. "Forget about it. They're Fire Nation; they were probably just as angry and miserable before the war!"
"Do you really think that house was burned down by Fire Nation troops attacking their own town?"
"Where did I just say we were again?" said Sokka loudly. "Oh yeah - the Fire Nation."
"I think Captain Boomerang's right on this one, Aang," added Toph. "Burning stuff is kinda their whole thing."
"Yeah. I guess." Aang fidgeted.
Sokka made a gesture of dismissal. "Besides, whatever's going on Kyuk Jun will be able to help us. He'll know what's going on."
"Yeah. We can trust him, he's a Double. A-gent," mimicked Toph, "I bet he's so awesome, right Sokka?"
"Hey, we're all excited," said Sokka, going red.
"Wow, an earth bender and a double ageeentt!" Toph said, mimicking Sokka's voice. "You mean you're a real spy? I bet you can sneak into government bases and trick dumb officials and -"
"Cut it out!" Sokka blustered. "besides," he mumbled, "I'm the only boomerang pro round here."
He rolled over, followed by Toph, and they were both soon snoring away. Katara threw Aang a look, and in the gleam of the fire their eyes met.
It was nothing much, just a wordless show of support, a small comfort. Whatever's going on, she wanted to say, we'll figure it out.
Katara was finally asleep too, but Aang didn't feel tired. He tossed and turned for awhile, then sat up, still wide awake. He groped his way to the front door and
opened it a crack. Good, he thought, the wind had died down. Letting himself out, he splashed some water on his face from the stream. A brilliant near-full moon cast a silver glow.
"You're still awake" came the old lady's voice, making Aang jump. She was sitting on the low stone wall that circled the house.
"I thought you would be. The others can't sense it, but you and I can."
"What do you mean?" asked Aang. A chill went up his spine. A cold feeling, like ice drops falling from the moon, filled the air. In the moonlight Sindu looked a different person,
older and unfamiliar. Her bent head was almost meditative, but there was no peace in her posture, only dread.
"Something has been unleashed. But is it human, or spirit? Real, or an illusion? Alive, or dead?"
"Whatever's going on here, it's not good. Is it?" said Aang slowly.
The old woman didn't reply for a minute. Then she slowly raised an arm and pointed. "Look."
Aang followed the line of her finger down to the town: the tiles and bronze of crowded rooftops were bright in the moonlit night. It was easy to identify the burned house.
It stood like a pulled tooth amid the orderly rows of red roofs, empty, a blackened stub.
"Something has been unleashed" she repeated. "Something powerful. Something dangerous! And it's getting worse. The town is not safe for anyone. "
"They don't understand. They will do anything to protect you, but they may not have any choice or chance. Sometimes in matters like this, the Avatar stands alone."
"I don't believe that," said Aang quietly.
"Believe what you will. Tell them if you will, though they may be safer knowing less! You are the Avatar. You must find the answer to these evil fires or Kyuk's mission will fail.
For our people, there may be even worse consequences. If you must tell your friends, choose the moment well!"