Suki adjusted the wide-brimmed straw hat she had bought at the last oasis, squinting in the glare of reflected light. "You're sure this is it?" she asked, with understandable skepticism.
"Oh yeah," said Sokka. "The crater's been mostly blown away, but you can still see the shape of it from the air. Plus, I double-checked our position last night when we made camp. We should be right on top of it."
"All I see are some rocks…"
"Exactly," said Sokka. He bent down to pick one up: a fist-sized chunk of yellow sandstone, its corners worn smooth. "This came from that mesa we passed yesterday."
"Professor Guo said it used to be a quarry."
Sokka nodded. "It's been abandoned since the Kyoshi era, but the oldest cuts are pre-historical." He tossed the rock onto the ground, and it left a wavering trail in the sand. "This is definitely it."
Sokka had known, going in, that they would have to excavate. But as he stood amongst the windswept dunes of the central Si Wong Desert, half-blinded by sun and sweat in his eyes as he scanned the undulating horizon, he wondered if he had somewhat underestimated the scale of the task he'd taken on.
Free of the restrictions of checkpoints and blockades and occupying forces, the economy of the post-war Earth Kingdom had exploded. Not only in the cities and towns of the wealthier ports and provinces, although the first, electric shock of new money and reborn optimism had been the most obvious in such places. In the months since Ozai's defeat, the flood had trickled out to even the most remote, inhospitable corners of desert, mountain and tundra. The half-forgotten indulgences of tourism and pilgrimage reemerged, dusted off and tried on by those too young to remember when such things had been common. Grandmothers recalled the hot springs near the Eastern Air Temple. The ice spring at the Misty Palms Oasis had been coaxed into something resembling its former glory. Kyoshi Island built an inn.
This renaissance of free travel and trade had been of great benefit to academics of all shades as well. No longer confined to the sometimes-safe walls of their universities, they roamed the Earth Kingdom in search of answers, updating their chronicles and encyclopedias after years of ignorance born of isolation. The scholars of Ba Sing Se, in particular, were starved for unfiltered access to the world; maintaining any kind of academic standard was difficult when the government forbade you to discuss a century-long and still-unfolding war. So many expeditions had launched in that first year that certain courses had been forced to consolidate, or else were canceled entirely, due to a lack of students to attend them.
A passion for travel and exploration — a thirst for knowledge and new experiences — seemed to thrum in the hearts of everyone Sokka met in the course of his (largely self-appointed) duties. And now those forces had combined to enable his latest and most ambitious venture, the trouble and expense of which he never would have managed on his own.
Twenty-three Earthbender landscape specialists, four of whom had particular experience with desert excavation; ten of the top archeologists from Ba Sing Se University; twenty scribes from the three living kingdoms, all of whom were literate in at least two ancient languages; a pair of large, temporarily deflated airships and their compliment of pilots, navigators, ruddermen, engineers and sailmakers; five members of the Hammi Tribe, who had offered to serve as guides as a show of their good faith toward the Avatar's friend; four messenger hawks and their keeper; a cook and her assistant; and a dozen or so porters to aid with transporting equipment and maintaing the camp itself, which now spread out over the dunes, the tents low and flat and carefully staked down against the wind. All assembled at Sokka's behest, and following his plans.
And Suki, of course, off-duty and following no plans but her own. She had come with him because she'd wanted to, which was exactly how Sokka preferred the matter.
Sokka turned and beckoned to Professor Tong, chief of the archeological team. "What do you think?" he asked once the older man had crossed the sand. "Should we wait for sun down?"
Tong thoughtfully tugged at his beard. "It would be preferable to work by daylight. Greatly reduces the chances of damaging the underlying structure."
"It's past midday," said Suki. "Will they be able to finish before it gets dark?"
"Due to the unusual nature of the dig, there won't be a need for trial trenching or stratification. Any context for artifacts we might find within the crater would have been completely destroyed during the rapid descent of the tower. Provided we continue with the plan of minimum excavation needed for access to the interior, over-cutting is extremely unlikely. " Tong nodded to himself, satisfied. "My team should be more than capable of removing the necessary material and securing the boundaries of the dig before sunset."
Sokka rubbed his hands together. "Then it's settled!" he said. "We dig."
For the next several hours, Sokka and Suki sat at the crest of the highest dune, a woven blanket protecting them from the burning sand and a tarp haphazardly rigged above their heads. Unable to help in any meaningful way, they watched as teams of Earth and Sandbenders dismantled the desert floor, lifting great blocks of sand above their heads and carefully maneuvering them through the air to neighboring valleys between the dunes. As the crater reappeared, another team of benders reinforced the new walls with canvas bags filled with the excavated sand.
Their shadows flowed and lengthened. The benders gradually dropped out of sight, legs and then torsos and then shoulders swallowed by the rim, such that Sokka and Suki had to move closer to be able to see the work at all. From time to time, one of the Hammi would crouch and dig his fingers into the ground, and announce they were almost there.
The point of the highest tower appeared at a depth of twenty-three feet. By the time Sokka and Suki had climbed down into the pit themselves, the curved peak of a window had emerged from the sand. Sokka knelt beside it, and as he pressed his fingers to the stone a chill ran down his spine.
"Get everyone out of the pit," he said, hoping his tone would discourage questions. Whatever shape his life had recently taken, he had been born and raised a hunter; he could feel when he was being watched, and the gaze that bore down on him now reeked of icy malevolence.
Professor Tong herded the benders up and out of the crater. Suki did not move from where she stood, several feet behind and to one side of where Sokka crouched. A glance passed between them, and the set of her jaw made it clear that she had retreated as far as she was going to.
Suddenly wishing he had thought to bring a shovel, Sokka pulled the sand away from the window with cupped hands, excavating a shallow divot against the tower wall. The prickling of gooseflesh was now almost painful. He imagined he could hear how intensely this place hated him, manifested as a low roar in his ears.
His fingertips found open air. Using both of his hands together, he exposed the inner edge of the window frame, black and unnaturally empty. He caught a whiff of dust and dry bamboo. Then a sudden, violent gale poured out of the darkness, blasting Sokka's face with sand and knocking him backwards onto the ground.
His vision blurred with tears and grit, Sokka looked up at the enormous silhouette that had blocked out the sun, black wings spread across the sky and obsidian eyes glittering from a round, white face.
"I remember you, human." The voice rolled over the landscape like thunder. A fierce wind howled around them, sand in the air and his mouth and his eyes. "Foolish boy with his knots and his lies. You dare return to this place after what you have done? Did you think that I, Wan Shi Tong, he who knows ten thousand things, would forget so wanton a betrayal?"
Sokka fought against the wind; struggled to his feet; pulled the collar of his tunic up over his mouth and nose. He felt Suki's hand on his back, glanced over his shoulder and saw that she had taken the sash from her waist and wrapped it around her head, covering all but a narrow slit for her eyes.
Sokka took as deep a breath as he could manage and shouted into the tempest. "Hey, I thought you were an owl of science! Is this any way to have a conversation?"
"I have nothing to more say to you."
"Oh I think you will!" Suki's voice rang high and clear through the din. "Once you've heard what we've brought!"
The wind subsided. The great, dark shape settled at the peak of the tower, looming over them but no longer swallowing the sky. "So you've come bearing gifts of apology, then?"
Suki pulled the sash down past her chin, the skin it had covered noticeably lighter. "Not gifts," she said. "We're here to trade."
"We want you to allow humans in your library," said Sokka, his own mouth now uncovered as well. "Only peaceful scholars who want to study and make copies for their own collections. Nothing would leave the building."
"The war is over," said Suki. "We have nothing to gain from your library but knowledge for its own sake. No one will abuse it again."
"Lofty promises from small minds," the owl sniffed. "Why should I ever trust one who so brazenly and recently deceived me?"
She straightened a little, her shoulders thrown back. "I am Suki of Kyoshi Island, first among its warriors and heir to its namesake's legacy. We have honorably and faithfully served the Earth Kingdom for centuries. Surely our word is worth something, even in dusty old backwaters like this."
Wan Shi Tong ruffled his feathers irritably. "Perhaps," he said. "But that is beside the point. I have allowed one human to peruse my collection, who willingly offered his life and his freedom as the price for ultimate knowledge. I have no need for further acolytes, and have paid too great a price for past indulgence of the whims of mortals. What could you possibly offer to an all-knowing spirit that would be worth the risk and inconvenience of your presence?"
Sokka had rehearsed this part for weeks. He licked his lips and tried for easy confidence. "The palace of the Fire Lord contains the largest intact record of Fire Nation history in the world," he said, "including meticulous records of the progress and impact Sozin's war and histories and census data for all colonies and military outposts in the Earth Kingdom. Fire Lord Zuko has provided a complete reproduction of his library, with all associated maps and illustrations, and has sent them with us to offer to you as a sign of our good faith."
Wan Shi Tong narrowed his black eyes. "A Firebender destroyed an entire wing of my library. Replacing what was lost seems the least that you could do," he said. "Enough to keep me from killing you, perhaps."
"How generous," Suki drawled, fantastically unimpressed. Sokka's heart swelled a little.
The owl cocked his head. "Don't tell me that's the best you can do?"
It wasn't. "Toph Bei Fong, the greatest living Earthbender, has discovered the secret to bending metal," said Sokka. "Her new discipline, which is entirely unique, has been meticulously documented for your perusal."
Wan Shi Tong snorted. "There have been Metalbenders in previous ages. Secret schools that never shared their knowledge and vanished from history with the death of their youngest disciples." He paused, presumably for effect. "Except for the first-hand accounts in my collection, of course."
"Of course," said Sokka, who had expected most of this. Haggling was something of an art, after all.
Suki pursed her lips. "I'll admit, your collection does sound impressive," she said. "Avatar Aang told me a little about it…he said that was a first time he'd ever seen a picture of a Lion Turtle."
"Ah yes. The Book of Mists. The most complete surviving record of mythological creatures."
"Mythological?" she said, one eyebrow arched. "Interesting."
"In the ancient stories, a Lion Turtle would live for centuries and could grow to the size of an island." The owl sniffed again. "Such a creature could exist only in realm of the Spirits, an area of study with which I am intimately familiar."
"Innnnnnteresting," said Sokka, relishing the moment a little. "Suki, isn't that interesting?"
"Very," she said.
Wan Shi Tong glowered moodily from his perch. "Are you wasting my time for a particular reason?"
"Well…" Sokka gestured vaguely with one hand. "You see, it's just that we have this long, gratuitously detailed account of when the Avatar spent a day traveling across the ocean on the back of a Lion Turtle."
The owl blinked.
"Not to mention the transcript of their conversation, during which the most ancient creature that's ever lived decided to teach him the forgotten technique of bending spiritual energy, which no human has practiced in recorded history and which predates the Avatar cycle itself."
"You aren't serious," said Wan Shi Tong after a long, uncertain pause.
"A technique which he then used to successfully remove the bending ability of Fire Lord Ozai, in front of two witnesses."
"Us," Suki cheerfully clarified.
"There's a first-hand description of the process," Sokka went on. "We figured, you know…someone might be interested."
"But not you," said Suki. She flashed a bright smile. "I'm sure you've got shelves and shelves of this sort of thing, right?"
Wan Shi Tong pulled his long neck back into his shoulders, his feathers puffed unevenly and his eyes narrowed to slits. He clicked his beak, glancing between the two figures standing before him on the sand.
"I suppose some of what you describe might be of…minor intellectual interest," he muttered. "Perhaps…an arrangement can be made."
Sokka reached for Suki's hand, slim and strong and warm in his own, and tried very hard not to smirk.