A/N: Set several years before the start of Legend of Korra. As such Iroh (a very young officer) is a major rather than a general. This fic was conceived before the previews of Book 2 were released, so while striving to remain canonical, some differences will occur.
Rated T for violence, light ghostly horror and some language
I make no claim to Avatar: The Last Airbender or Legend of Korra. I did have a good time writing this and hope you enjoy reading it.
Grave of the Five-Thousand
Old fisherman Yanel waited for the guards to break from their stony stances and switch positions before he pushed his weather-worn canoe into the sea. Head down, he drifted slowly past the alert waterbenders and into the open waters. Above him the sky was black as onyx; stars glittered lightly through a heavy layer of clouds in the moonless night. In the distance he heard the splash of a fish and the braying of turtle-seals. He stretched out and let his boat glide silently through the vast expanse until the shore was only a thin white line against the dark water.
Embraced by the darkness, Yanel sat up and readied his equipment. He cast his net out, waiting for it to sink into the water. Once it did, he set it and waited, his mind drifting back to the warnings that old lady Kagaye had laid on him: about how La became displeased on nights of the no-moon. He tried not to think about the terrible stories she told of hungry ghosts that rose from the water to devour mortal flesh. So caught up in his memories, he jumped at the call of an ocean gull, rocking his canoe until his feet were soaked. For many long minutes he sat and listened. Every splash and ripple in the water raised the hair on the back of his neck and he found himself staring out into the night, focusing on waves of nothing.
Quelling his fear, Yanel laughed at himself. Superstitions and rumors, he thought, the North Pole was full of them and people listened simply because it's what the elders said to do.
A tug - his net rippled in the water, sending concentric shivers across the choppy surface. The old fisherman leapt into action, grabbing the ends of the net and hauling. There was a jarring waver of resistance, the net threatening to tear out of his hands. He gritted his teeth – either he had caught something larger than he'd expected or he had accidentally snared…
A shark eel! Yanel's breath hissed through his teeth as he immediately grabbed his spear. If he didn't dispatch the eel quickly, it would tear his net to shreds and take the rest of his catch with it. But, if he could manage to kill it, he would have lamp-oil for a week. Stepping on the rope that held the net, Yanel steadied, aimed, and tossed the spear.
His aim was true and the sharpened tip drove home into a large slick gray mass. The eel writhed in its bonds, teeth gnashing at the net, even in its death throes. The fisherman waited for the blood which drained from the eel to turn black, and for its movement to calm to a simpering flop, before he carefully pulled the net back in and retrieving his spear. Very pleased with his catch, he busied himself with untangling the net.
He didn't notice the way the water started to swirl and churn where the blood was spilled, or the hint of pale white light drawn to the carnage.
Instead he kept his head down and concentrated on freeing the shark-eel from the ropes. He even hummed one of the old sea-rhymes his grandfather had taught him as a boy: 'Boats of jade, boats of stone, freeze them all and send them home. Boats of fire, boats of steel, drown them all and curse the seal, boats of air, boats of wood, harbingers of the mighty flood...'
It was only coincidence that he paused to draw in a breath as something broke the surface of the water. Snapping his head up towards the sound, his mouth fell open in a wordless protest. In the turmoil of the dark sea, a thin haze of light spread out like a rolling storm cloud. From the center of the bubbling water an ephemeral grey hand reached up, gaunt with rot and bearing vicious claws. It grasped at the air, as if climbing into creation and it started to advance upon the canoe.
As a child, Yanel had been terrified of the dark. Long forgotten, he now felt this same terror begin to seep into his bones. He fumbled for his spear and brought it clumsily to the ready.
Despite the ocean current, the gaunt grey form moved steadily forward. Yanel stood his ground as best he could in the rickety boat, his knees shaking in dissent. With a sharp creak of tearing wood and sap, the claws sunk into the side of the canoe and a horror pulled itself out of the water. Bloated skin stretched against a waterlogged skeleton with bulging dark eyes. It opened its mouth to uncover a fathomless abyss, ringed in layers of razor sharp teeth.
A sharp sting of fear was tight in his throat as the old fisherman lunged forward. The point of his spear sunk into the hungry ghost's chest, and he yanked it back. The thing recoiled, hissing at him and spilling putrid water down its belly. It tumbled towards the water, the claws rending the sides of the vessel causing it to rock precariously. Yanel stumbled, holding on to his spear with white knuckles as he pleaded with La to spare his life and guide his spear.
The boat pitched backwards, flinging Yanel to the bottom as the ghost released the side. Pulling his spear back, the fisherman turned to see two more hungry spirits climbing the boat from behind him, their sharpened gray claws reaching out to pull him towards their ravenous maws.
Pure panic flashed through Yanel's body and his breath choked in his throat. He stabbed blindly with his spear towards the first one, and shoved it backwards out of the canoe. Bitter dread rising in his throat he realized his grip was slipping and his precious spear was sinking with the spectre. Crying out as his hopes started to crumble, he let go and watched his oldest weapon drift under the dark water.
More kept crawling forward and Yanel gathered the shredded remains of his courage. He ripped the hunting knife, which he always carried with him, from his belt. He lunged at his closest attacker, carving a deep line from throat to ribs.
Instead of blood it was water, smelling foul and old, that soaked across his hands. Yanel drew back to strike again, but the spectre was faster. As it tumbled towards him a hand snaked out, long claws digging deep into and through Yanel's leg. Before he realized what happened he smashed the knife into the sick grey wrist, severing it from the arm. But the damage was already done. As the old fisherman tried to pull back the claws stayed pierced through his flesh, pinning him to the bottom of the boat.
Pain flared and Yanel tensed as his vision narrowed to a thin dark tunnel. His agonized scream rent the moonless night and he didn't care if the guards caught him anymore. In fact, he prayed that they would. Desperate, he lashed out blindly, the knife flickering through the air.
Blood now drawn, the ghosts honed in to the smell like a beacon. In seconds Yanel found himself cornered and surrounded. Brave, like a man of the Northern Water Tribe should be he struck out with his knife over and over in a blind fury. He screamed as his arm was torn, he screamed as chest was dragged back and his knife was finally knocked from his bloody grasp. Helplessly pinned to the deck, all he had left were his screams.
And then there was only silence and dark water.
When his boat washed up on shore two weeks later, the tribe prepared the mourning rites and laid the pieces that remained to rest with the utmost respect.
But while they wondered, no one asked how he had died.