AN: This is a sequel to "Fall of the Fire Empire". Though I offer a brief summary of the events of this AU, reading the original story is strongly encouraged if you want to understand the specifics of this one.
Legacy of the Fire Empire
What has gone Before:
Two centuries ago, the Fire Nation, under the leadership of the visionary but merciless Fire Lord Sozin, began a war of conquest against the other three great bending nations, striking first at the temples of the Air Nomads. To those who studied such matters, it was known that to them would next be born the Avatar, the mortal incarnation of the spirit dedicated to preserving the balance of the world, and Sozin was determined to remove that threat to his growing power. The Air Temples were destroyed, falling to firebenders empowered by the comet that would come to share the Fire Lord's name, and the Nomads themselves slaughtered, but the Avatar was never found.
A hundred years later, the Avatar resurfaced as the Fire Nation neared victory, and was quickly captured by Prince Zuko, son of the reigning Fire Lord, Ozai. Zuko brought the Avatar, Aang, back to the Capital with him, and there he was imprisoned in catacombs beneath the earth, kept drugged so as to be unable to bend; Ozai's intention was to brainwash the young monk and turn him into a weapon of conquest. Shortly thereafter, Sozin's Comet returned and once again granted the Fire Nation its power. The Earth Kingdom cities of Ba Sing Se and Omashu fell to invading armies, and the Northern Water Tribe was overrun by the Fire Navy under the command of Admiral Zhao. Prince Zuko was killed during the Battle of Ba Sing Se- by friendly fire from his own sister Azula, some said- and in the North, the mortal forms of the Moon and Ocean Spirits were taken captive, rendering waterbending across the globe powerless and disrupting the natural cycles of the mortal and spirit worlds. In the wake of these great victories, Ozai proclaimed himself to be the Phoenix King, risen from the ashes of the old order to rule the new; his domain ceased to be the Fire Nation and became the Fire Empire.
Over the next several decades, Ozai's control of the world tightened, while Azula, now his heir, began to assemble what she called her "Chosen"- young women of noble birth trained extensively in the art of combat and sworn to have undying loyalty to the princess herself. Patterned after a group of female warriors Azula had once encountered, and based on the island named for Avatar Kyoshi, they soon began taking new recruits practically from the cradle, and raising them to know no other life. They were lethal and fanatical, and were instrumental in helping Azula put down a rebellion in the former Earth Kingdom lead by an earthbending woman of extraordinary skill known only as the Blind Bandit. Shortly afterward, Ozai died in his sleep, and Azula assumed his throne, taking the title "Dragon Empress".
All was not well in the Empire, however. Azula soon began to spiral into madness, though only those closest to her dared to say anything aloud, and became convinced she was haunted by the spirit of her brother, who she struck from the histories in response. Meanwhile, rumor surfaced that a waterbender still walked the earth- a white-haired woman who seemed more spirit than flesh, and who claimed to be a survivor of the attack on the Northern Water Tribe despite looking barely out of her teens. At the same time, Azula ordered Ba Sing Se be rebuilt under the name Long Du Shi- City of the Dragon- so that the once-great capital of the Earth Kingdom would become the greatest jewel in the Fire Empire's crown. As a final twist of the knife, most of the construction was handled by earthbender slaves- rather than the proud warriors of old, these benders knew of nothing but life under the lash.
A hundred years after the Fire Empire's rise, the governor of Long Du Shi was a nobleman of high standing named Yan Li. His daughter, Jiazin, was a talented firebender who was summoned following her sixteenth birthday to the Capital by High Minister Qing Xi, the Empress's right hand man. There, she learned that Azula, consumed by fear of her own mortality, intended to create the illusion that she had become immortal by having Jiazin assume her identity following her death- but the idealistic young woman was also forced to confront the dark truth of the Empire's rise to power. Fleeing back to her home city in horror, she soon fell in with a group of earthbender rebels, even as her path crossed with those of two other young travelers- Kanoda, a hunter of the Southern Water Tribe who had departed his home in search of a chance to become a true hero, only to run afoul of the Empress's Chosen and then join forces with Yue, white-haired waterbender and mortal agent of the Moon and Ocean Spirits; and Tong, an earthbender slave who had rebelled and killed his overseer, in the process discovering that he possessed abilities similar to those of the legendary Blind Bandit.
Jiazin, Yue, and Kanoda set out to liberate the Moon and Ocean Spirits from High Admiral Yuan, grandson of Zhao, while Tong and the rebels prepared to seize Long Du Shi. Both quests proved successful, but at great price- both Yue and the rebel leader Shu Bei Fong were killed. At the same time, however, the release of the spirits freed Avatar Aang from the deathlike trance he had fallen into during their captivity; he escaped from beneath the Imperial Palace, destroying much of it.
All of this was, in the end, only the beginning of Azula's last, most terrible scheme. Lost to madness, haunted by a legion of the spirits of her victims, the Empress vowed to drag the world down into death with her, arranging for the Empire to collapse into a devastating civil war when she was no longer there to lead it. The rebels joined forces with the Imperial High General Xia to confront Azula's loyal forces, but even when she was confronted by Jiazin, Kanoda, and Avatar Aang, the Empress was too powerful to be defeated. In the end, her death came, through a twist of fate, by the hand of one of her own loyal Chosen, who sank into madness herself when she realized what she had done. To prevent the war Azula had intended, Jiazin claimed the throne of Fire Lord, but declared the territories of the former Earth Kingdom to be free once more.
It is now five years since the fall of the Dragon Empress. Much of the Earth Kingdom is independent again, but in many places occupying Imperial officers have set themselves up as petty tyrants answering only to themselves. Strange cults, backed by surviving Chosen and worshipping the Empress as divine, have also arisen, in some cases joining forces with the occupiers. Into this world come Avatar Aang and Kanoda, who have spent the past several years traveling together to work to preserve the balance and, perhaps, recover the lost secrets of the art of waterbending.
The cold wind howled from between the dark trees, and Pong shivered as he wrapped his cloak more tightly around himself. Cursed cold weather, and cursed luck on top of that for not being able to find a job in order to be able to get in out of it. The Earth Kingdom had settled into an uneasy peace after regaining its independence from the collapsing Fire Empire, but that could break at any moment, and Pong comforted himself with the knowledge that then, at least, mercenaries would be in high demand.
He looked across his campfire and glanced at his small group; half a dozen men and women with skill at weapons but no bending ability or social connections, the sort of people one would expect to sell their swords for a living. It was the empty space closest to him, though, that caught his eye; she was gone again. The latest member of their band was a mystery, all right, but she was good with that skinny sword of hers- better even than Pong himself, though he'd never admit it out loud. She was a shy thing, too, who never spoke much about herself, but from her skill alone- and the bright gold color of her eyes- he had his guesses as to where she'd come from.
"Pong?" a soft voice from beside him, and he jumped to his feet and had his sword half drawn in shock before he saw that it was her. Think too hard about the Face-stealer, and he comes for you, the mercenary thought as his gaze took the girl in. She was young looking- surprisingly so, maybe eighteen at the most- and her eyes had the haunted quality of someone who'd seen too much in too short a time. She was dressed in the same plain leathers as the rest of them, but her posture was different, somehow. They were soldiers; this girl was a true warrior.
"What is it?" Pong asked her, forcing discomfort aside. "Don't scare me like that."
"Sorry," the girl said. "But I found something, and… well, I think you should see it."
Pong shrugged and followed after her, wondering what this was about- but he kept his hand on the hilt of his sword, just in case. He followed her for a short while deeper into the forest, then stopped as she knelt on the ground in front of him. He knelt beside her, and saw what she had pointed out- and drew in a deep breath in shock. They were tracks, but tracks unlike anything he'd ever seen before. They somewhat resembled an ostrich-horse's, but much larger, with razor-sharp talons that dug deep into the ground, and Pong wondered how the creature had fit between the trees. Then he shook himself; obviously, it had fit, and the question was only where it was now, and whether it was dangerous.
"I'm going back to the camp," he said. "We all need to be on alert, and if this thing comes back…"
"I don't think it will," the girl said. "Look more closely." Pong did so, and gradually realized what was wrong with this scene. The tracks suddenly ended just a few feet in front of him, and none of the trees or other plants seemed to have been disturbed in any way.
"It can't be," Pong whispered, shivering from something other than the cold this time. "Whatever this was, it must have been from…"
"The Spirit World," the girl said, nodding. "Thank you. I needed someone else to see it- I needed to know I wasn't crazy."
"Well, you're not," Pong said, standing up. "We're going back to camp; I don't know if we can defend ourselves against a spirit, but by the elements we're going to give it a shot." He turned and began to swiftly make his way back towards the others, but stopped and looked back over his shoulder to see the girl still standing there. "Come on, Cheng. Don't dawdle; there's safety in numbers."
She nodded once and followed him in silence back to the others. Swiftly, Pong explained what he'd seen and gathered them together around the fire, facing out with weapons at the ready. After what felt like agonizing hours of fearful waiting, however, nothing came, and finally Pong found himself drifting off to sleep.
When he awoke the next morning, Cheng was gone. Pong never saw her again.