AN: Wow, I am horribly sorry about this! I seriously did not mean to let this go a year and a half between updates (if I let this happen again, feel free to PM me and yell at me about it- I deserve it). Anyway, the recent release of the Korra Book 2 trailer finally got me excited enough to write again.
Regarding my other Avatarverse fics (if anybody follows them), it's not looking good, I'm afraid. Children of War can officially be considered dead, since The Search takes my Ursa backstory and carefully shreds it into tiny pieces. I might get back to Destinies Rewritten someday, though I'd likely have to do further revisions there to keep it canon-compliant before the AU sets in, and I'm not sure what I'll do there.
On a more positive note, here's a new chapter of Legacy of the Fire Empire!
Chapter 8: Spirit Hunters
Shiyan stood at the prow of the small ship, a borrowed cloak wrapped tightly around her against the chill as she stared forward unblinkingly, ignoring the crew as they fearfully went about their work behind her. One of them had tried to kill her already, as soon as she'd released the pathetic captain after explaining to them that she was commandeering their vessel in the name of the Empress. She'd skewered him neatly and dropped his body over the side, and afterwards had no trouble. The others feared her now and did as she commanded, and that was the proper order of things.
Is it really? Other Shiyan asked, her voice soft in the background of the Chosen's mind. Is this honestly what you want from your life, hated and feared by everyone, without any happiness when you're not on a mission? Can you live like that? Can anyone?
What else could there be? Another voice asked, this one cold and fierce and merciless: the voice of the Empress. People are foolish, ignorant, and cruel. You can't rely on them at all, unless you motivate them through fear- and even then, they will stab you in the back without a second thought. Even my Chosen are not immune to this- do you remember the traitor Cheng? There is only one way to live, and that is to find strength through loyal service!
"Yes, that's right," Shiyan whispered. "I know what you ask of me, Majesty- my task is clear! When it's over, my crime will be forgotten. I am still a loyal daughter of the Chosen. I am still yours."
Kanoda is my friend, Other Shiyan said sadly. He was kind to me. My guards were kind to me. Why did we kill them? I feel so terrible… this can't be right…
Friendship is an illusion, spat the Empress. Right and wrong are illusions. There is only duty, and you know yours, Chosen Shiyan! Obey me!
"AAAARGH!" Shiyan screamed, collapsing to the deck and clutching her head. She was a Chosen, she was loyal… she was sparring with Cheng, correcting the younger girl's form… she was sitting in her room at the Palace, reading a scroll of her favorite Old Fire Nation poetry… she was Azula, daughter of Ozai, Empress of the world, and she would not be denied… she was… she was…
Another voice, soft and toneless, that underlay all the others, said what she was, repeating it as a mindless, accusatory chant. Murderer, the voice said, murderer… murderer… murderer…
She didn't know how long she lay there, clutching her head and rocking back and forth, until she felt a shadow over her and looked up to see the captain, a look of mingled concern and terror on his face, standing over her. "Are you… all right?" he asked quietly.
Shiyan leapt to her feet as quickly as she could, drawing her sword and leveling it at the man's chest. "I'm fine," she snarled. "Leave me alone! The sooner we reach Earth Kingdom shores, the sooner you can deposit me and the sooner we can go our separate ways."
"Yes, of course," the captain said, backing away. Shiyan sheathed her weapon and leaned back over the prow, looking down into the waters. She fancied she caught her reflection there- her long hair loose, wild, and blowing in the wind, her face unpainted and her eyes wild, dark circles under thembecause she'd been unable to sleep ever since she'd fled from the Palace. The very image of a madwoman, Shiyan thought, and bit back a half-hysterical laugh. Maybe there wasn't any other word to describe what she'd become.
But she wouldn't stay one for long. She had a mission, a purpose for coming all the way across the face of the world. A charge had been laid on her by the Empress herself, and she would fulfill it or die in the attempt. She would do honor to the proud order of the Chosen.
She was going to find the Avatar, and she was going to kill him. Then, everything would be all right again.
# # # # # # # # # # # # #
The spirit creatures circled, and Kanoda regarded them warily, all of his hunter's instincts on alert. Any of these beings looked like they were capable of killing a human, and they had every tactical advantage as well- they'd taken the three travelers by surprise, had them surrounded, and (not counting Benchi or Cheng's ostrich-horse) outnumbered them two to one. Worse still, Kanoda thought, were their eyes, which glittered with intelligence and malice. Those were not the eyes of a dumb animal; rather, they spoke of an intelligence that was at the very least the equal of a human's, and possibly superior.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cheng backing up warily, her sword held at an angle in front of her. "Still want to try and kill me?" Kanoda called.
She shook her head slightly. "The situation has changed," she said; he thought she was putting on a brave front, but there was a hint of something under it that might have been fear. "Perhaps we might… for now… make an alliance?"
"I'm not real happy about fighting alongside a Chosen," Kanoda said. "But I'm even less happy about ending up in a lizard's belly. For now… allies."
Both warriors raised their weapons towards the creatures, but the spirits didn't advance. They just continued their circling, red eyes never blinking, while the mist swirled around them. Benchi made a soft whine and pawed the ground, and Aang patted the eel-hound's neck reassuringly. Then he stepped forward, gaze uncharacteristically impassive and staff raised in front of him. "Spirits!" he called out. "I'm the Avatar, the bridge between our worlds. I don't know what you want, why you're threatening us, or why you kidnapped the villagers! But I want to understand. Let's talk about this. We don't have to fight."
The creatures stopped their pacing and all was still for a moment that seemed to stretch into an eternity. Then one of the spirits stalked forward and locked its gaze with Aang's. It was close enough now that Kanoda could see that its edges weren't solid, like a mortal creature's were; instead they wavered and seemed almost to blend into the thickening mist that surrounded them. The lizard sniffed the air once, and then it spoke.
Avatar, it said. You are alive. We had heard you had vanished.
"I… had some problems," Aang said, and his voice was subdued. "But I'm here now. Please tell me what you want. Maybe we can help each other."
We do not require your help, the spirit-voice said as the red eyes narrowed.
"I don't understand," Aang said. "I only ran into one spirit before the Fire Nation captured me, but he only hurt people because he was angry that his forest had been burned. Did something like that happen to you? Is that why you've been attacking people?"
The spirit gave a soft rustling sound, and Kanoda's blood chilled as he realized it was laughing. You speak of Hei Bei, the black and white spirit. We heard you had aided him, and we thank you for your kindness. But we do not require your aid. It is not to avenge loss that we have come to your world. We are here to fulfill another purpose.
A look of frustration crossed Aang's face. "All right. Can't you just tell me what that is?"
You would not understand, the spirit hissed. You were not meant to be here, now. You should have stayed lost, Avatar. The cycle has wound down. The hour of reckoning has come. We are its harbingers. The villagers you seek- their removal was merely the beginning of what we have come to accomplish.
"I guess that means you're not going to let them go, then?" Aang asked.
"Well, I can't just sit back and let you take them!" the Avatar said. "I didn't want to fight you, but it looks like you're not giving me another option!"
So be it. The spokesman ("spokespirit"? Kanoda wondered) backed away, and its fellows leaped forward, fangs bared and claws raised. The young Water Tribesman pulled back and raised his spear up, ramming it into the exposed throat of the nearest creature, only to watch in horror as the point simply passed through as though it was made of mist. The spirit's jaws passed through him as well, and though they didn't leave a physical mark, they caused a sensation of unbearable cold to shoot through him. Kanoda collapsed to the ground, shouting in shock and pain, and his spear clattered from his nerveless hands.
Nearby, he saw another of the spirits pass through Cheng, and she fell to her knees beside him, mouth open in an expression of pain and shock. Behind her, her ostrich-horse reared fled, her packs sliding from its back to land beside their owner as it did so. "This… is not how I'd imagined I would die," she managed to gasp out.
"Neither did I," Kanoda said, shaking his head as the spirit that had struck him came back around for another pass. "Neither did- wait. Look!" Cheng raised her head in the direction his gaze indicated, and her eyes widened.
Aang had flipped through the air and landed neatly among the spirits, and was bending thin slices of air from his staff that seemed to cut straight through the creatures, not appearing to do any actual damage but rippling them somehow, and when they rippled the paused in their tracks. Then he tried earth, flinging rocks at them, though this produced little noticeable effect. Finally, expression intense, he bent a jet of flame from each hand- and where each struck a spirit, it collapsed into mist. The spirits reformed nearby a moment later, but now they seemed wary, almost… afraid.
"They fear fire," Cheng said. "Of course they do- they are creatures of darkness and cold, why wouldn't they be afraid of light and heat? Quickly, spy- Kanoda, I mean. In my pack."
He pulled himself to his feet and grabbed Cheng's pack where it lay nearby. Inside were knives, some coins, some food, and there, at the bottom, a handful of long, thin torches. "Found them!" Kanoda called. He took one for himself, and tossed another to Cheng. "Catch! Aang, do you have a moment?"
The Avatar suddenly leaped from his position at the center of the once-again circling spirits and landed beside the hunter and the Chosen. They held out their torches, and he quickly lit them using firebending. Together they turned back to face the spirits, Kanoda and Cheng with lit torches, Aang with his staff in one hand and a flame in the other. Behind them, Benchi growled and crouched low, waiting to spring, though it would do little good.
The spirits faced them, eyes gleaming, seeming to be daunted by the fire. Then slowly, more carefully, they began to advance again. Kanoda and Cheng waved their torches, and Aang struck one spirit with a fireblast, but they didn't stop, and the one that had been blasted reformed almost immediately. Obviously, Kanoda thought, they didn't like fire, but they were perfectly willing to go through it to get at their prey if they really wanted to.
Aang glanced to each of the others. "There's one more thing I'm going to try," he said. "I'm not sure if I can pull it off, but the two of you might want to brace yourselves, just in case." Both warriors nodded, and then the avatar extinguished his flame, dropped his staff, and closed his eyes. He brought his hands together as though he was meditating, and for a moment all was still, with even the spirits seeming to pause as if they were waiting to see what would happen next. Then Aang's eyes snapped back open, and they blazed with a fierce blue-white light. Wind blasted away from him, and both Cheng and Kanoda ducked away from the force of it. Slowly, Aang raised both of his hands, and then a vast wave of flame shot from them. It was too large and fast for the spirits to escape, and they were all struck by it and reduced to mist.
Aang lowered his hands, and at once the flames died. For a moment all was silent once more, and then slowly the spirits began to reform. They stood still, and Kanoda had the unnerving sense that they were somehow communing with one another. Finally, one stepped forward- whether it was the one that had spoken before or not, Kanoda couldn't tell.
The time is perhaps not right for this confrontation, the spirit said. We realize now that we cannot defeat you. But we are not your enemies, Avatar, though you may believe us to be. We hate no living thing. Therefore, we shall give you a warning before we go- we are only the beginning. The end of the age is upon us. The cycle prepares to end, and begin anew. The Sleeper wakes. Remember that, Avatar. The Sleeper wakes. One by one the spirits faded into the mist until nothing but their burning eyes remained, and then the eyes too vanished. Slowly the mist itself parted, until once more they stood on an Earth Kingdom road as twilight overtook the sky.
The glow faded from Aang's eyes and he began to sway; Kanoda ran to his friend's side and caught him. "You all right?" he asked.
"I'll be okay," Aang said, his voice weak. Kanoda had only seen him use the Avatar state a handful of times before, and it always seemed to have this effect. "What do you think it meant there, at the end? I didn't understand it, but it didn't sound good."
"No idea," Kanoda admitted. "There's nothing that comes to mind from Water Tribe legend that matches up. But you're right- that would've been ominous enough if it hadn't come from a bunch of giant lizards that just tried to kill us."
"If the two of you are done admitting to each other that you don't know what you're talking about," Cheng called, "you might want to look at the road." Both boys turned to see that she was pointing along the road, deeper inland. In the gathering gloom they could just make out the line of footprints- just like the ones they had seen before and mistaken for some huge bird- heading away.
"They're going the direction you came from," Kanoda said, but Cheng shook her head.
"No, I there's a crossroads that's not very far in that direction. That's where the road I was on joined this one, and I was already tracking the creatures. I think they're going in the same direction they were when I first followed them." She looked back at the footprints. "South and east. Always south and east."
"We need to go after them," Aang said, pulling away from Kanoda and standing up. "We need to find out what this is all about."
"Yes, I think you should," Cheng said. She knelt and retrieved her sword from where it had fallen on the ground and held it before her. "And I will see this through. That means that whether you like it or not, I'm coming with you."