In light of the assassination of Avatar Aang, a prominent citizen of the Mist Union, and the failure of the Fire Nation to prosecute those responsible or allow the government of the Mist Union to do so, I have no choice but to treat the Fire Nation as hostile to the Mist Union and its citizens. Therefore, in my capacity as Chief of the Mist Union, and acting with the full support of the Grand Union Council, I hereby declare a state of war between the Union and the Fire Nation.
--Declaration of war against the Fire Nation by Nanulak, Chief of the Union of the Southern Water Tribe, the Great Southern Commonwealth, and the Southern and Eastern Air Territories, dated 10/15/105 ABSC
CHAPTER ONE: INCARNATE (THE JOURNEY BEGINS, PART ONE)
Corona Island was one of the farthest Fire Nation islands from the mainland, very near the borders of the Mist Union. It was a small island, too small to be seen on anything but a very large world map. Nonetheless, due to its location, it was the home of a fully garrisoned Fire Nation outpost known as Fort Azulon.
Fort Azulon—originally simply Fort Corona, until Firelord Ozai decided to name it in honor of his recently deceased father—was theoretically the Fire Nation's first line of defense against any kind of invasion from the South Pole. However, since the Southern Water Tribe had never had remotely enough power to stage a direct assault, being stationed at Fort Azulon was just about the most boring thing that could possibly happen to a Fire Nation soldier. In the 200 years since it was built, the most exciting thing that had ever happened was a very distant sighting of a small Southern Water Tribe fleet near the end of the War of the Flames. By the time the fort had been raised out of its usual stupor enough to send out a ship after it, it had passed out of view again.
It is therefore easy to understand why, more than a century later, the two soldiers who were supposed to be on lookout duty at the time were instead down in the barracks planning some sort of elaborate prank.
"So, you see," one said to the other, "when the Sarge walks into the room, he trips this wire, which activates the catapult right here, which launches the tray right into his face!" The tray in question was from the lunchroom, and upon it were the usual unappetizing assortment of things that passed for food at Fort Azulon. Had the two known that this exact prank had been attempted no less than sixty times over the last two centuries, with varying degrees of success, they most likely would have gone ahead with it anyway. Fort Azulon had a way of making people desperate for some kind, any kind of excitement.
At that moment, though, things were about to get rather more exciting than they would have wanted. The new recruit the two soldiers had coerced into temporarily taking their place suddenly rushed into the room. "Aro? Sanku? Um, you know how you told me to tell you if I saw anything unusual?"
One of the soldiers—Aro—looked up in exasperation. "Please don't say it's penguins. A bunch of them migrate up here every winter; I swear, anyone could look this stuff up, but year after year…"
"Aw, give the newbie a break," the other soldier—Sanku—interrupted. "We made that exact mistake our first year, remember?"
"No, no, there aren't any penguins…I think you guys should come and take a look at this."
'This' turned out to be a large fog bank, heading directly for Corona Island far more quickly than fog banks usually tend to move. Both Aro and Sanku were as bewildered as the new recruit; neither of them recalled ever hearing about anything like this. So, they took the most obvious course of action: reporting it to their superior officer. He failed to recognize the signs as well, and reported it to his superior officer, who realized what must have been happening—unbelievable though it may have seemed—immediately, and sounded the alert. By then, though, the island was already enveloped in a thick cover of fog…
Yue awoke with a start, eyes springing open. As she stumbled out of bed, she noticed it was far brighter outside than it should have been at sunrise…unless, of course, it wasn't sunrise. Oh, no. She dressed in a hurry, and burst out the door with only a hurried "Bye!" to her parents.
The Northern Water Tribe's city had changed little in a hundred years; it was still a city of ice with canals instead of streets, which made it occasionally difficult for a teenage girl to run full speed to her waterbending lesson. Where the Fire Nation had steam-powered trains, and the Earth Kingdom had earthbending-powered monorails, citizens of the North Pole mostly got around by either walking or riding in small skiffs, whose pilots halfheartedly cursed at Yue as she hurriedly bended ice bridges to cross the canals, blocking their way. The city bore only the faintest hints of the continuing cycle of innovation that had driven the rest of the world, such as the occasional clock that let Yue know she was very, very late.
One final thing that had stayed the same: despite the efforts of numerous activists (including the Avatar's wife) over the years, waterbending lessons were still gender-segregated. This meant that when Yue finally arrived at her waterbending lesson, she was—as always—the only girl in the class, and indeed the only girl to learn Northern waterbending as a martial art in a century. She had no idea why; most of the people she had asked mumbled something about a gender equality initiative and changed the subject.
Her waterbending master, Sifu Sekkono, did not look pleased to see her arrival. But then, he was Sifu Sekkono. He never looked pleased, even on the rare occasions when he was, in fact, pleased. His words were somewhat more telling: "Well, look who's decided to join us. Pupil Yue, are you aware what time it is?"
Yue straightened up and answered, in as emotionless a voice as possible. "About eight o'candle, Sifu Sekkono."
"And at what time do my waterbending lessons start?"
"Sunrise during spring and autumn, half past five during summer and winter, Sifu."
"Which means that you are two and a half hours late."
"Yes, Sifu." Sekkono did not ask for an explanation, and Yue didn't offer one. To make an excuse would be a sign of weakness far beyond merely being late, and showing weakness was not something Yue could afford to do.
One of the students muttered something about "friggin' girl can get away with bein' late cause she's oh-so-special…"
Sekkono looked the student straight in the eye before Yue had the chance to give an outraged response. "Perhaps when you show the level of dedication Yue has put into learning waterbending, you may complain about her getting special treatment." He turned to face Yue again. "Which does not mean you are off the hook. I'd like to speak with you about this after the lesson. Now, let's not delay any further."
The students were paired up for sparring practice. Everyone did whatever they could to avoid ending up with Yue—rather pointless, considering everyone would face everyone else at least once per lesson. Her partner for the first round was the student who had complained about her, who was now quite visibly shaking.
Sekkono gave the signal to start, and every one of the students burst into motion. Both Yue and her opponent started by sending a simple blast of water in each other's direction. Yue, however, froze hers into a ball of ice, which the other student's blast splashed against harmlessly. She melted it again before it hit, knocking the other student back a couple paces and leaving him uninjured but utterly soaked. To his credit, he was only stunned for a split second, and he quickly began his next move—but by then, Yue was already in motion again, sending a water whip straight into his stomach. The hit knocked the wind out of him, but Yue didn't relent. With an upward movement of her hands, she quickly melted some of the ice around her opponent, surrounded him with it, and froze it again, binding his arms to his sides.
Expert waterbenders could melt ice around them without having to move; Yue's opponent, however, was no expert. He struggled for a minute, and then slumped, yet again muttering something about "friggin' girls." Sekkono noticed his stillness in the midst of the other, still-ongoing practices, and nodded to Yue. "Good job as always, Pupil Yue. And Pupil Hasook…er, good try."
"Thank you, Sifu Sekkono," Yue said, bowing. Sekkono braced himself for the inevitable follow-up question. "Was there any way my performance could've been better?"
"Um, I didn't see anything wrong with it."
"Nothing at all?"
"Well, you were a bit overly aggressive. Remember, practices like these are to help other students learn, too, not just you. WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT USING ICE SHARDS?" Sekkono bellowed, noticing another pair of students using techniques rather unsuited to a practice match. Yue made a mental note: Not so aggressive. Let other students learn, too. But wait…does that mean I'm just supposed to let them win? Let them hit me? She resolved to ask Sekkono about it after the lesson; in the meantime, the next round of practice was about to begin.
In all five practice matches, Yue managed to immobilize the other student within twenty seconds. None of them ever got a single hit of any kind through her defenses. At the end, Sekkono looked over his soaked, shivering students and stated, "I think it's time to call it a day. See you all next week." All the students left in a hurry.
Except for Yue, of course. "You wanted to talk with me, Sifu Sekkono? Because I was wondering about what you said after I beat Hasook. I mean, don't I need to be the absolute best I can? To prove that girls can be good at waterbending, too? I mean, that's why I was put in this class, right?"
"Yes, Yue, you're right. You always need to do your best, in everything. That doesn't mean you should always take the offensive, though. Do you remember the fundamental philosophy of waterbending?"
"Of course. Brute force should never be met with brute force; it should always be redirected or dissipated. But what if brute force is just the most effective way?"
"It never is, and that's something that everyone who's ever tried to make war against our tribe has learned. Let me demonstrate. Here, stand up." She did. "Now, I want you to hit me. With anything. Surprise me. A wave, an ice shard, even a punch or a kick." Yue stood motionless for a moment, and then executed the same form she had done earlier against Hasook, sending a ball of ice hurtling towards Sekkono. Instead of trying to block it, though, the waterbending master simply sidestepped it, and then took control of it as Yue began shifting into the whip stance. Without slowing, the ice ball turned an arc around Sekkono, and flew back towards Yue, who had no time to dodge. It stopped just short of her head. "See? Redirection. Now, if you had been a firebender or an earthbender, I couldn't have sent that back at you, but sidestepping your attack would still have given me an opportunity to hit back, especially at this range."
"I think I understand. But—"
Sekkono held up his hand to stop her. "But that's not what I wanted to talk to you about. I know why you were late today, Yue; I'm a good friend of one of the night guards. While I certainly admire your dedication to learning advanced waterbending, might I suggest a good night's sleep as a possible alternative?"
"Well, I saw the advanced class practicing that form, and I just decided I had to learn it. Maybe I'd do better if I was in the advanced class? Or maybe taking private lessons?" She added a note of pleading to the thinly disguised requests.
"I'm sorry, Yue, but you have no idea how many strings had to be pulled just to get you into the intermediate class." Sekkono went silent for a moment. "You know, I've been wondering for a while. You have probably the greatest innate waterbending talent I've ever seen, even putting aside your dedication to learning the art. Does it seem strange at all to you that of all the girls they could have picked for this sham of a gender equality initiative, they just happened to choose you?"
Yue wasn't sure how to respond to that, and was saved from a reply when she saw Sekkono look up at something behind her. She turned around and saw none other than two of the Water Sages.
"Ah. Sage Kulu and Sage Halin. Hello," Sekkono greeted them, bowing. "What brings you to my training grounds?"
"Actually, she does," Kulu responded, turning towards Yue. "There is a matter of great importance that needs to be discussed with you and your parents, Yue. As a matter of fact, I think it would be best if you came along too, Sekkono."
This left Yue thoroughly confused. What could the guardians of the Water Temple want with her and her family?
The fog around Corona Island was now so dense that there was no hope of navigating a ship out of the harbor, and hurricane-force winds met any messenger hawks that managed to make their way out of it.
"The Mist Union is attacking us? Do you have the faintest idea how insane that sounds?" The commanding officer of Fort Azulon, Admiral Raizon, looked with disbelief upon the lieutenant who had sounded the alert.
"I know it's unbelievable, sir, but the fast-moving fog cover is a textbook waterbender invasion strategy—well, according to our textbooks, anyway."
"…Well, then." Raizon pushed a button on his desk, activating the built-in microphone. His voice echoed from the loudspeaker system that had been retrofitted into the fort three years prior. "All land troops, defensive positions! All naval, man your stations! We are under attack by Mist Union forces! This is not a drill; repeat, this is not a—" BOOM. Raizon released the button as a massive explosion rocked the fort. "What the HELL was that?"
"Sir, they appear to be firing on us already."
"That's impossible; they're not in visual range, and they can't see any better than we can through this—" BOOM. Another explosion went off, this time much closer. Soon after, Raizon heard a very faint whistling noise from—directly overhead? He looked up and saw something impossible.
At first he thought it was some kind of bird; his mind had nothing else to compare it to. But it was far too large to be a bird, and indeed too stiff to be any living creature. On the other hand, it was too small to be an airship, and too long and sleek to be a war balloon. It had a thin, roughly cylindrical central body, with a glass windshield at the front. Long, wide wings protruded from each side of the body. The rear of the body narrowed into a smaller, vertical wing.
The…craft, whatever it was, flew directly over the fort, with fog clearing in a wide arc in front of it while yet more fog rose up behind it. If Raizon had been able to get a closer look at the thing, he would have seen a large, round metal object frozen to the bottom of it. Frozen, that is, until the ice holding it spontaneously melted, allowing the object to free-fall to the ground. Raizon saw it fall, and realized what it must be. His eyes followed it to the ground, not ten feet away from him.
As Yue entered the Water Temple, she saw that her parents had already arrived, and were apparently in some sort of heated argument with the Sages. "You can't do this to us—to her. Not yet!" her mother yelled.
Her father spoke up. "You said when she was sixteen. Not before. She's still got a year left to go!"
One of the Sages calmly responded, "Circumstances have changed. We have already told you about the news Chief Karnoka received a week ago. Clearly, the world needs her as soon as possible."
"All right, what's this all about?" Even in the presence of the holy men of the North Pole, Sifu Sekkono's voice commanded attention.
"Ah, Sekkono—and Yue!" High Sage Senulak smiled when he saw they had entered. "Come in; we were, er, just talking about you, Yue."
Yue's mother rushed over to her, hugging her tightly. "Mom? What's the matter? You act like you haven't seen me in months.
"Oh, honey, they're saying—they're saying they're going to take you away from us!" Yue's mother was now quite clearly sobbing.
"Now, now, I think your daughter deserves a bit more explanation than that. Everyone, have a seat." The High Sage produced a simple leather bag, from which he took two children's toys—a miniature lion-turtle and a lollipop-shaped rattle. "Do you recognize these, Yue?"
"Yeah! Those were my favorite toys when I was little. Why?"
"They are two of a set of four, previously owned by the Air Nomads. The other two were given to the Southern Water Tribe, long ago—even before the Fire Nation war, in fact."
"Why…why would I have Air Nomad toys?"
"Let me answer your question with another question. You've heard of Avatar Aang, correct?"
"Yes. He was the last Air Nomad, right? He died before I was born."
"Not long before. Only six days, in fact."
Yue suddenly realized what Senulak was getting at. "You mean…no way…"
"These toys, and their companions, are known as the Avatar Relics. They belonged to Avatar Aang when he was a child and Avatar Roku before him. And when you were only a small child, you picked them out of dozens of other toys. That was when we knew." He motioned to the other Sages, who all stood up and faced Yue. "And now you know." In unison, all of the Sages bowed to her. "It is our honor to serve you…Avatar Yue."
Yue was stunned silent. Sekkono spoke up first. "That's…impossible! There, there must be some mistake—"
"I assure you, Sekkono, there has been no mistake here. Or haven't you noticed Yue's incredible talents?"
Everything fell into place at once in Yue's mind. "So…that's why I learned waterbending, even though I'm a girl."
"Er, yes. Our tribe has not produced a female Avatar in recorded history, so there was no real precedent. You were placed under Sifu Sekkono's tutelage under the cover of a gender equality initiative, of the type so often championed by…progressive-minded individuals. You were to learn and master waterbending until the age of sixteen, and then travel abroad to learn the other elements."
"But…I'm only fifteen."
"Yes, well…as I was telling your parents, circumstances have changed somewhat." Senulak pulled out a piece of official-looking paper. "The Firelord received this one week ago, and sent copies to the leaders of the other nations, asking for aid." He handed it to Yue.
"In light of…assassination…citizen of the Mist Union…prosecute…hostile…a state of war between the Union and the Fire Nation?" Yue read the document with growing disbelief.
"You see now why you are needed. It is the Avatar's duty to maintain balance between the four nations, and things like war tend to get in the way of balance."
"…Yeah. Now what?"
"Well, you are already a highly proficient waterbender, if not quite a master yet. Sifu Sekkono will accompany you to the Earth Kingdom to seek out an earthbending teacher, completing your waterbending training on the way. I would get ready—an Earth Kingdom ship will be arriving to pick you up within the week."
The attack was over almost as quickly as it had begun. Fort Azulon had no defenses against a high-speed aerial assault, and by the time the fog began to clear and the Mist Union warships moved into the harbor, it had no defenses left at all. Admiral Raizon was dead, as was anyone who knew of his death and could inform Colonel Kozin that he was currently acting commander of the base. Quite a few of the surviving soldiers had abandoned their posts and just run for it.
Finally realizing that there was nobody in charge, no way to win, and nowhere to retreat, Aro and Sanku had grabbed a white bedsheet from the barracks, tied it to the flagpole line, and raised the "flag" of surrender. After a few seconds, the continuous bombardment slowed to a stop, allowing the survivors to get their first clear look at the incoming warships.
The lead battleship, Kyoshi, was the biggest any of the soldiers had ever seen (indeed, it and its class were the largest warships in history). Where Fire Nation warships had flat decks with a nearly vertical bridge tower, the Mist Union ships were tiered, giving them an almost pyramid-like profile. Instead of the trebuchets that were typically mounted on Fire Nation ships, these had long, hollow metal tubes on rotating platforms—it wasn't clear exactly what they were, but they were definitely weapons.
Despite the impressive display of weaponry that the ships had, they were still based on the same basic warship concept that the Fire Nation had pioneered two centuries before. Far more disturbing was a vastly different ship at the rear of the armada, just barely in view. It didn't appear to have much weaponry; instead, it had a very long, flat deck with an off-center bridge tower. Upon the deck, some of the survivors could just barely see several of the strange flying craft, lined up and ready to take off.
"Gliders," Aro muttered. Sanku looked at him, confused. "They're gliders. Like the Air Nomads had, but…bigger. More complex. And with bombs." He shook his head. "They're not even going to need all those battleships with those things. We don't have anything that can go up against them."
The Mist Union warships now released several smaller boats, open-air craft that each appeared to be carrying a dozen or so soldiers. Waterbenders in each boat directed them towards land. When they hit the beach, the front of the boat folded out in a manner reminiscent of some old Fire Nation warships, allowing the soldiers to disembark.
The Mist Union infantry were dressed in dark blue, white-trimmed uniforms clearly meant to evoke the wolf-skin armor of old. A few carried swords, but most either had airbender staffs or were unarmed waterbenders. Judging by the number of them, they didn't trust the sudden surrender despite the pounding the fort had taken.
As the Mist Union forces entered the fort, most of the surviving Fire Nation soldiers were standing near the entrance, hands behind their heads in a very clear posture of surrender. Silently, the Mist soldiers moved to handcuff all of them.
"Well, well, well," a voice boomed out from the entrance. "I come all this way, I get dressed up in this big fancy uniform, and you fellas don't even put up a fight? Little disappointing." The speaker revealed himself: a big man in an admiral's uniform, with native Water Tribe features and a gold-plated airbending staff. "So…who's in charge here?" Nobody spoke. "Anyone? Anyone?" He whirled around suddenly, pointing the staff right into Sanku's face. "You, maybe? What's your name?"
"Uh, uh, Corporal Sanku Fifth Infantry Division pay number 4NS3456D79 please don't hurt me!"
The admiral laughed, somehow managing to make it sound friendly despite the situation. "Relax, Corporal Sanku. I don't do interrogations. My name's Akoya, by the way, Admiral Akoya of the Mist Union's First Fleet." He bowed; Sanku wasn't sure whether or not to bow back. "Anyway, I just wanted to know who's the commanding officer here."
"Uh, normally it'd be Admiral Raizon, but, well, he's, uh, dead, so…uh, Colonel Kozin, then, but he's, uh, kind of locked himself into his office right now, so...I'm not sure."
"Right. So, who gave the order to surrender?"
"Uh, actually, that'd be me…well, I didn't give the order, but I put up the white flag, and I guess everyone kind of agreed it was a good idea once I did."
"Ha! Surrender by democracy. I love it! I have a feeling your Colonel Kozin won't disagree much with the whole surrendering thing. I'll go send some of my troops to extract him from his office—which way is that, by the way?"
"Uh, down the hall, second right, first door on the left."
"Right, right, I'll send some people to go get him, get him to sign an official document of surrender—don't want to have to deal with some war crimes tribunal after this whole mess is over, y'know what I mean?" He apparently thought that was hilarious. "And then you fellas all get to be PoWs for a while. I promise the conditions aren't too bad, not like what your folk did back in the last war—no offense meant to any of you, I know you weren't even a glint in your great-grandparents' eyes back then—and hopefully you can all be back with your families by the time this is over." And with that, he walked away towards the colonel's office.
Sanku blinked. "Uh…what just happened?" Aro shrugged.
Yue was packing her bags when her mother came into the room. "So...you're really going to go through with it? You're going to leave with Sekkono?"
"Mom…even if they gave me a choice…I'd still go. The world needs me…I guess. Can I…can I ask you something?"
"Of course, Yue. You can ask me anything."
"Did you and Dad…know?"
"That you were the Avatar? Yes, we were there when they did the test…You want to know why we didn't tell you, right?" Yue nodded. "The Sages were right about one thing. The responsibility of being the Avatar is too much for a young child to bear. But I guess you aren't a child any more, are you? You're a brave, strong, beautiful young woman, and…and just be careful out there, all right?" She hugged Yue tightly.
"Mom, I'm the Avatar. I think I'm gonna be fine."
"Of course, honey…I love you so much. You know that, right?"
"Yes, Mom. I love you too."
Sekkono and Yue were already waiting at the dock when the ship came in. "Well, this is it, Yue. Are you ready?"
"I don't know. I mean, am I up to the job? I was supposedly selected by some big important cycle of reincarnation, but what if I'm just not cut out for it? What if I'm not good enough to be the Avatar?"
"To be honest, Yue, I was…hoping you weren't." At her shocked look, Sekkono quickly corrected himself. "I mean, hoping you weren't the Avatar, not that you weren't good enough. Being the Avatar is an honor, yes, but it is also a great burden." He seemed to be choosing his words very carefully now. "In addition to having all that power, you're sort of…a political figure now. People will try to influence you, to get you on their side—or, failing that, they will make you a target."
"Like I told my mom earlier. I'm the Avatar. I think I can handle myself."
"I hope you're right, Yue. For your sake—for all our sakes, I hope you're right." And with that, they boarded the ship, heading off to the Earth Kingdom.
A/N: It's Chapter One, THE DIRECTOR'S CUT. Featuring more story, extra foreshadowing, a big villain, and names for the nameless Fire Nation soldiers. Dunno if Sanku and Aro will show up again, but I can guarantee Akoya will. Um…it isn't technically against the rules to remove a chapter and repost an updated version to bump it back to the top, is it?
When I wrote the first couple chapters of this story (which have both been demoted to prologue status) back in January or something, I had only a vague idea of where the story should go—I had an Avatar named Yue, an evil Southern Water Tribe, and that was about it. So before I started on this one, I did a little brainstorming, and I now have several more characters waiting to be revealed, a completely planned-out story arc for "Book One", a general idea of the overall story arc, and Space Sword. Yes. There will be Space Sword. (Though not for a while.)
And yes, I do plan on making every single chapter this long, though hopefully you won't have to wait quite as long between them now that I've discovered an ancient method (coughADDmedscough) of vanquishing writer's block and speeding up the writing process immensely.
Next chapter: The Girl on the Beach (The Journey Begins, part 2)