[ In Transit, Fire Nation ]
It had taken her the better part of an hour to evade the escorts sent by the royal guards. She had first noticed that she was being trailed when she reached the crested the great volcanic barrier of the Fire Nation Capital. Its high walls were not straight as the Wall of Ba Sing Se, and they leaned towards the fog-shrouded sky. From where she gazed out from the pinnacle of the great wall, she was briefly reminded of its history.
It was said in texts and scrolls that the Fire Nation Capital had been formed from Caldera, the largest volcano ever to have existed. At thousands of feet high, the volcano had lived for thousands of years, or according to the researchers it had. Constant barrages of meteors had pummelled the region until one had struck the volcano, thus forming the City.
Well, the foundations for it at least.
Back in the inner streets, the streets closer to the inner circle where the Fire Lord's mansion was situated, she had pulled on a cloak in order to conceal her identity. Considering the Capital was an island surrounded by walls (very much like, she couldn't help but notice, a prison) it would be difficult to get out unseen. There were ports and docks where the boats shipped things in and out of the city, but where ships were seen, so were pirates. Guards hovered at every opening, still bathed in the post-war tension.
And they would very easily recognise her.
Donning different clothes would only do so much when one rode a distinctive steed. A giant lizard streaking through the streets was near-impossible to miss. That left her with one alternative: using the swift creature's sharp talons to hook into cracks in the rock, and scale it.
After that it was a simple matter of holding on while the eelhound climbed down the other side, avoiding the sentries as they went. From there it was to Yon Rha village to the south-east. They managed to get there before sunset, which gave her time to snatch some provisions from the small, grassy village—something she hadn't managed to do before leaving.
She pulled out a map of the Fire Nation, tracing the tear-shaped string of islands, pressing her finger to the stained parchment as she located her current position and started to plan her route.
She knew where she was headed. Shi Jing, one of the furthest islands to the east.
That was where she would be.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ x ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
[ Location Unknown ]
Avatar Kuruk was filled with the strangest sense of melancholy as he stirred to find Avatar Yangchen stood over him, her eyes half-mast. For a moment he lay there, regaining his bearings, before everything slotted back into place and he sat. It was a movement what made him cringe as if he had just slammed his head onto a wall of vertigo. "Did you-?"
"It was captured," Yangchen reported, inclining with her head and her eyes to the hissing, spitting cobra. Kuruk felt dread like static ripple along his spine. "It was difficult to find and even more so to catch."
"And you?" Kuruk demanded, leaping to his feet. "Were you bitten?"
"No. I found this out in the forest. It came in very useful." Yangchen lifted a fairly miserable-looking shield, marred with smears of dirt and too big for her to handle. With one fluid motion she transformed it back into its original state; a golden fan. She handed it to him, and he took it carefully, grimacing as he did so.
"Well done," Kuruk praised, smiling at the wiry Airbender. "You couldn't have come at a better time, Yangchen."
"He needs guidance." It was said knowingly.
Kuruk's long-winded explanation died on his lips. "Yes." Of course she would know, being the oldest Avatar in their chain. Roku had probably informed her of the situation when she'd arrived. When that was, he had no idea. "Will you...?"
Yangchen suppressed an exasperated sigh. "You have been unconscious for much longer than you know. It has been nearly two sunrises." Kuruk stood and looked around for his coat before realising he had left it in the hut. "Aang has already gone. Something is preventing Katara from going back, and she is still here. As for Toph and Kyoshi, both are awake and will be fine."
Yangchen looked positively affronted. "If they're well enough to bicker, then yes, they're fine."
Kuruk's lip twitched amusedly. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be laughing."
They walked outside and into the sunlight. Shadows of leaves dappled the ground, skimming over twitching blades of grass. He felt exposed without his trademark coat. Yangchen's Sky Bison grazed beneath a tree.
They briefly checked on the two Earthbenders in their care, and Kuruk was overjoyed to see them on the road to recovery. They both slept deeply with mirrored expressions of relief, cast into their own dreams. "I take it you created an anti-venom," he started as they left the two in peace.
"Once I got the viper back, the healers tried desperately to find a cure," Yangchen told him quietly as they wandered aimlessly around the lake. "But no matter what they tried they couldn't contain the venom." Kuruk's steps faltered. Yangchen kept walking.
Kuruk watched her for a long moment, stunned. Thoughts spun around his head like leaves caught in a whirlwind. One in particular stood out.
"Have you told him?" The guarded, uncertain look she gave him reminded him that she wasn't able to keep track of his thoughts. Neither could he; his thoughts leapt about like fleas when he got worked up. "Aang. Did you tell him where to find Azula?"
Yangchen's eyes narrowed. "You know as well as I do that we cannot interfere in the affairs of the other world."
"She says, yet Kyoshi trains a mortal from the other world. You did. I know as well as you do that you'd do anything to keep balance," Kuruk argued. "You were renowned for your fierceness in protecting it. That's what kept the powers that be from warring for another hundred years."
"Balance is still endangered," Yangchen told him simply. "Possibly even more so now than it was with Ozai. I am simply doing what I have been trained to do."
"Did you tell Aang where to find Azula?" Kuruk asked again. The following silence was harrowing. "Yangchen!"
Yangchen was the embodiment of calm … and, unfortunately, ambiguity. Kuruk wasn't sure what she was feeling, but he knew she wasn't impressed.
Being first in the chain didn't give Yangchen any additional responsibility or authority over the rest of them. However, she had been alive—and dead—for the longest, and that gave her experience and wisdom. She did not have Kuruk's exceptional mind or Kyoshi's brute strength. But she did have an abundance of experience, wisdom, forethought and patience, and that was something he lacked.
"I did not tell him where Azula hides," Yangchen revealed. "But I did advise him to retrace his steps and look closely. I am aware of what you believe, Kuruk. Maybe you'd better look closely, too." Her voice darkened. "You're wrong about what you think saved them. Just because an Avatar survived where other spirits died doesn't mean the Avatar Cycle protected them. We are all spirits. The only difference is the bond they share. You may kill two birds with one stone, but not two spirits with one bite."
"How do you know this, Yangchen? How did you find out?"
"You did." Yangchen glided closer to him, her hands clasped beneath her flaring sleeves. "I simply followed logic, as you are doing. You are quick to discover, but sometimes even you fail to see the implications of your own ideas in your excitement."
Shocked, Kuruk had to fight to find his voice. "What?" he choked after a moment. "What? What am I not seeing?"
Yangchen's answer made him feel as though he'd fallen into the coldest sea of the Water Tribe.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ x ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
[ Air Nomad Sanctuary ]
Neither spoke as they stood in the dark, damp underground, partly because neither Gyatso nor Arya knew exactly what to say.
As they stepped into the blackness, their very presence stirred the ashes long since settled on the tops of the torches. The last time we came here, there were Air Nomads … Sky Bison …
"It feels strange," Arya murmured, and her voice seemed to bounce off of the walls. Gyatso shuddered. "Being back here. I lived here all my life, and I wasn't sure what I felt about leaving. But when I … when we arrived at the Air Temple, it felt as though I'd never lived here at all."
This was where Arya had grown up. Darkness and isolation and community was all she had ever known. Now that she had tasted freedom and seen all the beauty that resided outside the caves, instinct was beginning to tell her that this place—this restriction—was unnatural. There was an unyielding darkness where stars were absent, and the only source of light was that which consumed the burning stakes in their hands. Gyatso could feel that very same unease creeping through his old bones—the fire and shadow.
"We won't be staying for long," Gyatso promised. "Just long enough to fetch what we came here for. Start gathering the old tools."
Arya heard the graveness in his tone and asked, "What are you going to do?"
Gravel and grit crunched beneath his feet. "What I should have done a long time ago," he said. "I'm fetching the bones of those who died in these caves and taking them back to the temple. They will not go without a traditional Air Nomad burial … nor will they be left to rot here in this place of banishment."
The burial place was much deeper, beneath the caves. Gyatso eased himself down the narrowing tunnels with Arya in front of him, holding a torch in one hand and holding onto his arm. It took a few minutes for them to reach the graveyard. When they did, they were greeted with the repugnant stench of death, even more powerful after their absence.
Gyatso had hoped it had faded, but it seemed all the stronger. The high mountain winds of the Southern Air Temple had cleaned their lungs, and now it felt like they were being tainted again. Memories flooded through his mind, as though the pools of chi running through his mind were rushing and breaking their banks, squirting lashes of power across the stepping stones that lined the banks. He took a moment to compose himself as Arya set the torch on a holder on the wall – they were resourceful, Airbenders, using their skills to carve rock – and summoned a swirling sphere of air.
He hurled it. A boulder sat guarding the entrance rocked and rolled out of the way. Gyatso surrounded himself with the wild energy and stepped inside, taking a shaking breath as he looked upon row after row of bodies.
"How are …" Arya's choked on her words and paused to reassert herself. "How are we going to move the bodies, Gyatso? We haven't enough for separate … holdings."
"Airbenders were and have always been a community," Gyatso answered, barely whispering. "We will collect them in one bag. They were together in life, why should that change in death?"
"It feels like we're being watched."
"That is because we are." Gyatso turned his head and gazed up, as if he could see the starlight dappled on the ceiling of the chamber. "There are spirits in here, Arya. Spirits of the lost, spirits in passing. Whenever you are alone in a room, and you feel as though you are being watched, or when a sudden chill touches your skin, it is a spirit wandering by. Everyone can sense them from time to time. Few people can see them."
One by one they unearthed the graves, pulling up bones and setting them onto a large sunset-bronze sheet. Gyatso touched his fingers gently against every one. Arya mulled over his words.
"Can you?" Arya asked eventually.
"Can I sense them?"
"Can you see them," she said. "After all, you are the oldest, most experienced monk here. Can you see spirits?"
"I have seen spirits before," Gyatso told her. "They are unlike anything in this realm we live in. Perhaps I will tell you about them, but not now. Please concentrate on the task at hand."
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ x ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
[ Location Unknown ]
Suki lifted her head, her grogginess overwhelming. None of her senses wanted to function, and whether that had been because she'd been beaten or drugged, she wasn't sure.
It felt a little bit warmer than before, like her captors had set a fire in the room beside her, but rather than be grateful for the warmth, she could only pray that whoever was – or had been – in the room beside her, hadn't been burned alive. The prison cell she had was small, a striking replica of a dungeon, complete with chains, bloodstains on the corners of the stone walls too dark and stubborn to leave. Someone had left their mark here, and one thing was for certain.
This place was evil. She hadn't been here before, but she knew it was filled with pure, unadulterated evil. It was like poison in the atmosphere. There was hate in the air she breathed, filling her lungs with pain. A sour bitterness that made her want to break free and run, but at the same time, just sit in the corner and await her death.
A guard entered the chambers. Suki bit back the growl in her throat as she was approached by the short red-cloaked soldier. No, not a soldier, a traitor. If they had one shred of decency and loyalty, they wouldn't keep us here like this.
"What is your name?" the guard asked coldly.
Suki remained silent.
"I did not ask you. Keep your mouth shut." In an aggressive motion, the guard slammed the door shut with a kick.
Suki flinched involuntarily, and snarled inwardly at the unease circling the edges of her mind.
No. I'm a Warrior and I won't show fear, no matter what.
"I'll ask you again. What's your name?"
Silence was not an appropriate answer, it seemed. The guard sent a roiling plume of fire towards her. It petered out at the last second, scorching the tip of her nose. Suki did not flinch.
"Hmph." The guard neared her out-of-stance. Suki bristled the closer he came, but she kept her shoulders flat and gaze steady. When he was a few feet away from her, he stopped.
And dropped to the floor.
Brown eyes widened in horror. Her heart clenched painfully in her chest. What happened? Is that...?
"Stay calm," whispered a voice slowly.
A figure stepped from the shadows, dressed from head to toe in black. The obi around the intruder's waist supported two long, silver blades. But where a face should be, there was a strange blue mask.
"I am the Blue Spirit. You don't have to worry, I am on your side."
Blue Spirit. I've heard that name before. I know I have. But I can't … I can't think. Sokka told me about this person once. I'm sure he mentioned a name! Suki thought frantically for an answer, but she couldn't come up with anything.
"I can't help you now. There's someone I need to find first."
"I can't tell you that," the Blue Spirit added. But a tone of gentleness entered their voice. "Relax. Just trust me. I'll come back with some food and medicine for you, so please hold out until then."
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ x ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
[ Location Unknown ]
Mai had a sneaking suspicion the moment she saw a flash of ragged uniform in the distance at the base of the volcano. As far as she was aware, most if not all of the Fire Nation's forces had been recalled. Either this was a straggler group, or it was Azula's militia.
And for some reason that defied her usual stoic bored-out-of-my-mind attitude, Mai hoped to Sozin it was Azula.
She spurred the Eelhound a little bit closer before she dismounted and led it on foot. She needed to stretch her legs after that lengthy ride. Even though she tried to walk normally, her legs still felt like they were parted by the saddle and she wounded up waddling and giving the most serenely slightly-annoyed-but-mostly-unimpressed expression she could muster.
Which wasn't hard, really. She wore it all the time.
I had a feeling it would be here, Mai thought. Where better to hide out than in the Fire Lord's bunker? It's heavily fortified, equipped, protected … hardly anyone knows about its existence. Unfortunately there are more than one, but I've checked as many as I could find over the past few days and this is the first to show signs of activity. But why would Azula place patrols outside where they'd be noticed?
Mai wasn't sure if it was a mistake or deliberate act. The only way for her to find out would be to invade, and she had no map of the internal structure.
If it is a ploy I have no way of knowing. It could be an attempt to mislead enemies into attacking. Mai looked across the ridge, narrowing her eyes. I bet there's a watchtower somewhere along here monitoring the people going in and out. If I try to sneak in, no matter how careful I am, they'll notice. Her smouldering hawk-sharp stare turned towards the horizon as she checked for anything that looked even remotely out of place.
But there was nothing.
Mai observed the patrols warily, ready to move out if she was spotted. It didn't even seem as though they knew she was watching them. They walked with a degree of laziness, as though they didn't expect any trouble – and why would they? The volcano had been asleep for a hundred years. The last eruption had ravaged the ground and hardly anything lived near it. Nobody came close to it.
"There's nothing we can do here," she said, tugging the reins on the Eelhound. I'll have to go back to the palace. I need to check on Zuko. Now we know where Azula might be, we can – oh, damn it. We can't attack without revealing the location of the bunkers! This was your plan all along, wasn't it?
Azula, you crafty bitch.