Qiu Fei had known for a while that this day was coming.
He could keep his face calm, as he stood before his earthbending master in the meditation room. But there was no hiding the quickening of his heartbeat, which his master’s seismic sense was undoubtedly sharp enough to pick up.
“Today, I give you your final task as my student. Once you complete this, you will formally graduate from my tutelage.” Ye Xiu’s hands were clasped behind him as he regarded the young earthbender. “Congratulations. You’ve done very well.”
Qiu Fei dipped his head at the rare words of direct praise. He’d always known just how precious this opportunity was, to learn from one of the most skilled earthbenders there was, and he was always incredibly grateful that Ye Xiu had chosen to take in a nobody such as himself. Over these past three years, he’d learned more than he ever could have imagined.
But, of course, this time would have to come to an end.
“What must I do?” Qiu Fei asked.
Something shiny was suddenly flying toward him, and Qiu Fei caught it on instinct. Opening his hand, he found a circular silver medallion attached to a metal chain with a clasp. One side of the medallion was smooth and unadorned, but the other side was engraved. He traced his fingers across the surface, its sections raised and lowered in strange patterns he couldn’t understand.
“That belt is a clue to guide you,” said Ye Xiu. “But ultimately, this journey will be yours to walk. I tell you now, it won’t be short, and it won’t be easy.”
“I’m ready,” answered Qiu Fei, and his master nodded.
“Your quest,” said Ye Xiu, “is to find the Avatar.”
The Avatar. The strongest bender in the world. The master of all four elements. The mysterious, reclusive legend who had spent this lifetime hidden away from the world.
The rest of the conversation felt like a blur. When Ye Xiu dismissed him, Qiu Fei made it all the way to the doorway before he stopped, and looked back.
Ye Xiu hadn’t moved from his position, but he raised an eyebrow.
“When will I see you again?” Qiu Fei said, the words tumbling out in an uncharacteristic rush.
There was something final, he thought, about walking through that doorway. This was marking the end of an era of his life. Once he left for this new journey, would he ever have a reason to come back here? This humble home, where the true power of earth had been revealed to him?
Had he ever even properly thanked his master for making him into who he was today?
Ye Xiu smiled at him. “Don’t worry,” he said. “This isn’t goodbye forever.”
Qiu Fei nodded again, and then finally walked through the doorway, his steps firm and decisive. First to his own room, to gather supplies and the few belongings he had. A quick goodbye to his master’s messenger hawk, who had always responded kindly to his affection.
He paused one last time at the front entryway, and then stepped forward.
On her way back home, Su Mucheng ran into Qiu Fei along the path. His voice was steady but his eyes were alight as he told Su Mucheng where he was going. Then he was off, on his journey out into the world.
Su Mucheng couldn’t help but pause to watch Qiu Fei’s retreating back. It seemed like such a short time ago that he’d been just a kid, scrambling to fulfill whatever Ye Xiu asked of him and hanging on his every word and instruction.
Well, she thought with a quiet laugh, in many ways he was still the same. Even as he’d gotten older, that earnestness and dedication hadn’t faded. But at least now, with his broader shoulders and filled-out muscle, he was finally looking like a proper, grown-up earthbender.
Speaking of proper benders…
Su Mucheng hefted her pack and continued along the path home, and it was only a few minutes more before the stone building came into view. Helping Ye Xiu construct this had actually been one of Qiu Fei’s first tasks as a student, and over the years it had developed further with new additions and decorations.
She entered, dropped her pack in her room – she’d sort through the supplies and money later – and then went to find Ye Xiu. He was most likely in his meditation room, and sure enough when she pushed open the door, perhaps a little rougher than strictly necessary, she was greeted by the sight of the man sitting cross-legged upon the ground.
Ye Xiu didn’t flinch at her entrance, of course, he would have heard her coming in or felt her steps through the ground. “Welcome home,” he said, his eyes still closed.
“I passed Qiu Fei on my way back,” she said.
“Did you now?” he replied mildly.
There was no way that he didn’t know where she was going with this, but Su Mucheng was going to say it anyway. “When exactly, may I ask,” she said, voice utterly calm, “were you planning on telling him that you’re the Avatar?”
Ye Xiu didn’t respond immediately, but the four elements continued to rotate around him slowly. It was one of his standard meditation exercises, done only when Qiu Fei wasn’t around, of course. Four equal-sized spheres of stone, water, air, and flickering flame hovered steadily around him.
Su Mucheng sighed, leaning against the wall next to the doorway and crossing her arms. She trusted Ye Xiu enough to trust his judgment, to believe that he had good reasons for doing this. The decision to keep this a secret from Qiu Fei in the first place had resulted from a few concerns – for one, it would be safer this way; for another, it would be healthier for him to learn and grow without the pressure of being a student of the Avatar himself.
But still, hiding such a large secret for so long, and then sending him on such a ridiculous journey… wouldn’t Qiu Fei view this as a betrayal when he found out the truth? Wouldn’t any reasonable person?
Eventually Ye Xiu pushed himself to his feet. The air and fire dissipated; the stone dropped and sank into the floor; the water bent and flowed into the open basin sitting against one of the walls.
“He’s already an excellent bender,” he said, turning to face her. “But he still has much to learn, and there’s only so much that I can teach him myself.”
“And you really thought that this impossible task was the best way to go about it?” Such an outburst was unusual from Su Mucheng, but she felt that this situation warranted it. “What if he fails?”
“What if he succeeds, and hates you for it?”
From a pocket, Ye Xiu withdrew a leather glove and pulled it over his hand. He was preparing to send a letter with his hawk Lord Grim, Su Mucheng realized.
“Yes, that is a real concern,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Su Mucheng followed him with her eyes as he crossed the room. At the doorway, he paused, and gave her a small smile.
“But I have faith in my student. Won’t you?”
It was a good day for a journey’s beginning.
Above Qiu Fei’s head, sunlight filtered through the trees to cast pools of light upon the dirt path. His pack was a comfortable weight upon his back, his map was tucked securely in a pocket next to his lucky coin, and the medallion belt – the clue whose use remained a mystery for now – was secure around his waist.
The current Avatar was of Fire, according to the cycle. But the Fire Nation was a sprawling region, and to find a single person would be a daunting task. Perhaps it’d be wiser to travel to one of the smaller Air Temples first? No doubt the Avatar would have visited them at some point, and they might have more clues to offer him.
Qiu Fei had no delusions about the difficulty of this task he’d been given. The Avatar, the most powerful bender of all, had made but few appearances during this lifetime, and always with his face hidden. People were always trying to learn more about him, of course, that was human nature, but to little success. For the most part, they were grateful enough to be living in relative peace, and had faith that he would appear in any times of dire need.
Of course, Qiu Fei wasn’t about to start a war to try and get him to appear. There was no shortcut he could take. And so this would be a long journey, a slow and steady search through the nations.
But the fact that his master had given him this task meant that he believed he could succeed. And so he would. That was all there was to it.