The wind seemed to come from every direction, battering the inn with relentless fury, its ghostly howl penetrating through the thick blocks of ice and woolly hides hung on the wall. It was warm inside, at least, filled with carefully kindled firelight and the heat of bodies covered in thick coats, their features barely visible through the layers of fabric covering every possible inch of exposed skin.
The Tiger Seal was the very last outpost of the South Pole, and as such it collected all manner of oddballs and outcasts. Some stopped there to refuel and rest before they took off into the great unknown; others lived there permanently, having sought a home away from home and finding one at the very end of the whole world. The inn was still run by the same Water Tribe families who had first founded it over a hundred years before; even as the Fire Nation had raided village after village, the Tiger Seal had remained, steadfast and sturdy, offering a bed and a meal to anyone who came through its doors. The staff took pride in their heritage, uniquely able to flaunt their traditions without fear of repercussion, and were more than eager to tell old Water Tribe stories to anyone with ears, no matter how disinterested they might be. The inn buzzed and hummed with conversation, a hive of human activity bracing against the unrelenting cold.
The traveler was perched at the bar, gloved hand wrapped around a glass of something warm and alcoholic, when he heard the bartender say three words that made him go cold all over again.
“So then she ran, y’see? The last waterbender. And no one’s seen her since.”
The last waterbender.
The traveler knew better than to react; he’d been trained to remain stoic even in the most horrifying of circumstances, and a few gossipy nobodies at a remote pub wouldn’t faze him. That said, his father used to say that more information was always better before a battle, so he perked up an ear and tried to eavesdrop around the fur trim of his hood.
“That’s incredible,” the tourist said. “Where did she go?” The excitement and curiosity in her voice was thick like treacle, and the traveler rolled his eyes and took another sip of his drink.
“Down to the pole proper, where no one can survive,” the bartender replied. “She’s got a whole fortress she made there. No one can find it, and no one who enters it lives to tell the tale.”
“That’s nonsense,” another patron slurred, far too loudly. “If no one’s lived, how’n—how d’you know where she is?”
The bartender shrugged. “That’s just what my ma told me,” he said. “She used to say that the waterbender was the heart of the whole Water Tribe, and she was tasked with keeping all our old treasures safe until the war was over.”
“No,” the drunk patron cut in again, “it’s that her heart is made of gold. Anyone who can take it from her will be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams.”
I bet that’s a lie, the traveler thought to himself, and couldn’t help but smirk. I’ll bet her heart is just as much flesh and blood as mine. But no matter how many worthless trinkets she hoards, these idiots are right about one thing: her heart is priceless, and when I take it from her I will be rewarded indeed.
“That’s ridiculous,” someone else shot back. “How could a woman’s heart be made out of gold?”
“I don’t know!” the drunkard replied. “She’s a witch, ain’t she? It could happen.”
“Waterbending isn’t witchcraft,” the bartender said, refilling the traveler’s cup as he passed by. “She’s a human, just the same as you or me. Probably over a hundred years old by now.”
This was all getting just a bit too chummy for the traveler, and he downed his drink in one go and tossed a few silver pieces onto the bar, thinking already of his bed upstairs—the last chance for any real comfort for a very long while. But as he went to slide off his stool, a new voice cut through the din of the room, and this one made him stop in his tracks.
“You’re all fools,” it said, and the traveler turned to see an old crone of a woman standing there, her eyes quick and sharp. “The waterbender isn’t some children’s adventure story. She possesses all of the knowledge and power of our once-great tribe; she’s the strongest bender that’s ever been born. Do you know how many of you I’ve seen pass through this inn? Heads full of empty dreams of fame and fortune, so distracted by the promise of riches that you don’t even realize you’re walking into a trap until it’s too late. The waterbender has powers the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades; those who knew exactly what she was capable of have all died off by now. You look around and see our traditions and ways, and you think we’re some kind of primitive culture that hasn’t known glory. But waterbending isn’t fancy tricks; it’s more dangerous and incredible than you could ever imagine.”
The drunkard laughed—a short burst of denial. But the old woman paid him no mind; her gaze was squarely on the traveler, and he stared at the floor to avoid meeting her eyes.
“If I were smart,” she said, “I would abandon any notions of trying to find the waterbender, no matter your reasons. Because you won’t find her; you’ll die in the snow first, and no one will know to mourn you. But even if you do? The waterbender will see right through you. She’ll know every transgression, every sin, every scar. And her judgement will be swift and merciless.”
The traveler kept still, even as his heart pounded against his chest, and the woman’s words sank in.
Her judgement will be swift and merciless.
He shook his head of the thought. That wasn’t enough to stop him; he would simply need to be more swift, more merciless. He had plenty of experience with that.
With his bill paid, the traveler climbed up to his room, shut the door, and finally pulled off his hood. A polished piece of glass was hung over the washbasin, and he caught a glimpse of his reflection and stopped.
The months of travel were beginning to wear on him already; he had lost weight, and the angles of his face seemed particularly harsh in the cool light of the moon outside. He glowered almost by force of habit, but his heart wasn’t in it; as his expression fell, he swore he could see a flicker of the young boy he once was—handsome and full of promise, too emotional for his own good and too soft to survive.
That was why he was here, at the very end of the world, in the coldest place imaginable, and about to be a whole lot colder. That was why he had traveled for so long, from ship to ship and port to port, first with an entourage and then with just a small staff and then eventually alone. Everyone around him always seemed happy to leave, and he really couldn’t blame them; there was no honour in serving a monster, no glory to be found in following the orders of an embarrassment like him. It was just as well, then; the South Pole was a lonely place, and his quest fell on him and him alone. It seemed only right that the last part of his journey would be the hardest, but he was so close. Just a few more miles, just a few more nights, just a single horrifying task to accomplish, and then he could finally go home again.
Bring me the heart of the last waterbender. The tallest order imaginable, and yet he would do it. He would do anything, if it meant restoring his honour and setting things back to the way they used to be.
The old woman’s warning echoed back to him: The waterbender will see right through you. Her judgement will be swift and merciless.
Without thinking, the traveler reached his bare hand up to the left side of his face, trembling fingertips tracing the sickeningly familiar ridges of the burn that flamed across his eye and down his cheek.
Every transgression. Every sin. Every scar.