Chapter 1: The Dark Portal
She threw her hood back and grinned wildly at the dark, flashing sky above. Hot desert wind cut across her tattooed face, beckoned on by thunder, drawn in by the gaping portal. Its craving reach clawed at the air just as Azeroth pulled in the desiccation from the other side.
"We are nearly ready," reported a subordinate.
She snapped her glance to the stone gate where space spun on a sliver of reality like oil on water. It led to a ruined world -- a nearly perfect world, one which fit the Masters' design. The gate's construction had happened long before her lifetime, and no others had come since. A permanent causeway between realms was simply too difficult to create.
Far simpler it would be to redirect it.
"Excellent," she said. She strode toward the gathered cluster of cultists at the base of the gate. The casters had already begun chanting, and some of the non-casters had joined in, inspired by the energy moving between them. They rocked on their feet, moaning in tongues, occasionally raising their hands to the thundering sky and invoking the names of the Masters.
She ascended to the top of the ramp and turned to face the crowd, reaching toward the sky with her own ashen hands.
"Look at the void this gate has given us! Look around and see what its fel energies have given: DESTRUCTION!" Applause met her words.
"A lifeless land! Torn and thrown and blackened, stolen from the spirits' consent! A beautiful breakdown of the Titans' work! But the Legion has too been shaken. They were fought back. Illidan was destroyed, Archimonde was destroyed! All that remains on the other side is death -- wrought of anguish, plummeting through the Nether on the wings of chaos! We were never needed on that world, for our Master broke it first!"
Cries of Deathwing's glory arose. Her grin spread wider, revealing a feral smile to the gums. "Now we take this Dark Portal and redirect it to a new world, untouched by the Titans, where the elements rule unfettered! We will draw upon their raw power and take it for ourselves! FOR OUR MASTERS!"
The crowd screamed and cried in feverish glee over the droning of the casters, as she joined them with her own powerful voice and made the ritual complete.
Chapter 2: Katara
Katara opened her eyes and winced at the blazing sun.
Realizing this meant she was most definitely not in the building she'd fallen asleep in, she sat up with alarm. She felt for her waterskin and frowned in puzzlement to find it, and further to find herself fully dressed and shoed. This... was not how she slept. She could only conclude then that she had not slept, and somehow, this conclusion made more sense; but then, how did she get here without knowing it?
She stood and assessed the area. Most noticeably it was unbelievably hot; not the tropical heat of Ember Island, but dry, parching heat like the Si Wong. Hot, dry, hard, cracked red earth and stone pillars surrounded her.
"Aang?" she called out to no reply. "Sokka?"
She picked a random direction and walked it, and shortly found herself standing on a cliff side overlooking the sea... and across the gulf, a village!
She squinted at the distant architecture, but couldn't make out the shapes nor the colors under the oppressive orange glow of the sun. (This especially seemed odd to her, but she ignored it for now, packed somewhere in the mysteries folder between 'magic' and 'atmospheric phenomenon').
Deciding the cliff's face was far too steep to attempt climbing down, she instead focused on the water below, and attempted to pull a column up -- but it too, was too far and out of reach, and the air was so tangibly dry she couldn't pull more than a pint from it if she tried.
But now she had a destination, and a direction. She followed the cliff's edge downhill, keeping the town in sight as long as she could before having to move inland amongst the rocky columns in her descent.
It wasn't until the first huge, tusked figure charged at her with a roar that she realized she was far, far further than home than she first assumed.
Chapter 3: Toph
Toph let out a frustrated scream and kicked herself out of the snowdrift that just had to be Fussybritches' doing. She certainly knew Aang wouldn't dump a pile of snow on her in her sleep.
"When I find you... !" Toph snarled as she stood. She then scowled, realizing the snow was thick beneath her as well, enough to keep her feet uncomfortably far from the ground. And numb. "Okay, now that's just fighting dirty," she said, and couldn't tell if she felt anger or approval at the underhanded tactic.
She dug down to the ground with her hands and then planted her feet solidly on the wait she wasn't anywhere near the island anymore.
She concentrated on what she could feel even as her feet became increasingly numb...
Snow everywhere, for one, laying in huge blinding blankets on just about everything as far as her feet could see. Okay, so not Katara's doing. Aang could, but why?
For two, trees... but stationary as they were, she couldn't detect more than that, only their presence in the land. She thought she could feel movement, but the snow acted like a muffler, dulling the vibrations of anything that might be in motion.
For three... massive underground fortresses, one in each direction, of roughly equal size. No, not fortresses. Cities. In another direction, she could sense smaller subterranean structures, more like bunkers than anything. She could just barely detect movement among all three.
Well, she wasn't solving anything standing there freezing her toes off. She picked the fortress made with the most stone, committed its direction to memory, and began stumbling blindly through the frigid land and hoped to goodness to find some warm solid rock to set her feet on there.
She just wished she knew how she got here.
Chapter 4: Aang
"They look like some kind of komodo rhino! ...I'm going to ride one!"
Aang approached the herd of beasts slowly with his hands out wide in a peaceful gesture. "Hey, little buddies," he said, "I'm not going to hurt you."
They didn't seem to think he would anyway. They casually grazed on the lush grasses, paying the child very little attention.
So he sprang onto the back of the largest one.
It panicked and ran forward with footsteps that shook the ground, before seeming to conclude that Aang wouldn't harm it, and it returned to the herd, which had not moved.
Aang sat down cross-legged on its massive hump, and patted its neck. "I've never seen a komodo rhino as big as you..."
He welcomed this diversion, glad for something to preoccupy his thoughts other than defeating the Fire Lord. He also assumed this had to be a dream, because he would've known if he had gotten up and wandered off that night!
Fields of emerald and gold spread out for miles, rolling, rippling with warm breezes, dotted with groves of trees and the distant sparkle of a lake. Birds wheeled in the blue sky, and somewhere he heard a wolf howling the pronouncement of its territory. A paradise like this just didn't exist within the Fire Nation; they wouldn't let all this free space go to waste without planting a big, hideous factory in the middle of it.
Well, something was in the middle of the valley, but he didn't see any plumes of smoke or red banners flying from the top of it. It was a massive collection of mesas, with the tips of windmills just barely visible on top of their towering plateaus.
"I might as well enjoy this dream while I'm having it. Thanks for the ride!" he said the animals, and began leaping across the plains in giant strides enhanced by the wind.
Chapter 5: Sokka
Tyrande turned to see one of the Sentinels running up the ramp. The warrior immediately fell into a respectful kneel before her.
"What is it, Sentinel?" the priestess asked.
"We found a human just outside the city, wandering alone in the woods."
"That is not so odd. Are you sure it wasn't one of the worgen in human form?"
"Yes, Priestess. He... he's very confused, and he isn't from any known kingdom or affiliation. He does not recognize... us, either."
"How do you mean?"
"He has no idea what an elf is, Priestess."
Tyrande's long eyebrows rose in surprise. "Does he have amnesia?"
"I don't believe so, Priestess." The Sentinel stared up at her severely. "I believe he's from another world."
"Is he hostile?"
"No, well, at first, yes. He was alarmed by us. My unit is ready to escort him into the city with your permission, Priestess."
"Very well," Tyrande said with a nod. "Thank you for telling me. I will speak to him myself... if he is from another world, I need to know about it." She inwardly frowned at the thought of Kaldorei land being attacked by yet another alien world. She intended not to let her people be duped or surprised by outsiders again.
Shortly, the Sentinels arrived outside on saber-back, and brought the human in. Tyrande was surprised to see but a scrawny teenager with a ponytail, wearing nothing but cloth pants and a light tunic. She graciously descended the ramp from her balcony overlooking the temple fountain, and met him near the door, bathed in the pale light of the Moonwell.
The boy, to his credit, looked on in wide-eyed reverence and awe, not the slack-jawed way of the tourist humans from Stormwind, but as if he truly belonged here in the sanctuary of Elune.
He must have recognized Tyrande's importance as well, for he bowed deeply before her. "Ma'am," he said.
"Greetings," Tyrande said. "I am High Priestess Tyrande Whisperwind of Darnassus."
"I'm Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe."
No family name? she wondered. "We are Kaldorei, or Night Elves in the Common tongue. Do you know where you are?"
"Yeah," he said, with a small smile tugging at his mouth. "Your warriors said this is the Temple of the Moon."
Chapter 6: Zuko
Firstly, Zuko was on air when last he'd been seated on stone steps. Secondly, he tumbled over through palm fronds into shallow seawater. And thirdly as he tried to stand and cough for air, a line of spears jutted out at him from figures too quick to have noticed approaching.
He raised his hands in surrender, but only to take stock of his enemies, and he promptly did a double-take to notice they were most definitely not human.
They had long arms, long legs and even longer torsos, and painted faces with long noses and even longer tusks. Most noticeably they had blue skin and untamed hair every shade of the rainbow. In their dark leather uniforms, they reminded him uncomfortably of his Blue Spirit guise, somehow come to life and made into an army.
"Uh, hey," he greeted them in an attempt to sound casual and not at all highly perturbed.
They weren't in the mind for chit-chat.
He ducked under the first spear and leapt over the next, and deflected the next few with his forearm swept against the wooden poles. But they were unexpectedly quick for their tall forms, and were rapidly pinning him into deeper water as all he could do was duck, dodge and back away.
He let out a fan of flames that set each spear ablaze, and as the blue folk doused their weapons in the water, he ran to the side and made for land. They shouted strange words and pursued easily, and he rolled onto the sand while kicking flames from his feet. If he could get into the jungle, he might lose them and make it back to the house -- although, worryingly, he didn't recognize this part of the island at all.
As he broke through the undergrowth, however, he stumbled into an entire village of these strange beings, each of them looking very angry at his presence, and all moving to attack.
He held them off with fire as he tried to navigate away, but found himself backed against a vine-ridden stone wall, and the next moment the vines had come to life and ensnared him. He struggled in vain against their sure hold, and saw a blue woman nearby, obviously controlling them via plantbending. To his surprise, however, she motioned for the others not to attack, and stated something in their language.
The entire village waited with quiet snarls and Zuko wondered for a moment if they were expecting him to do something, until he saw their eyes drawn to an even larger figure lumbering his way. The blue man wore skulls on his pauldrons, their eyes lit with green flame, and he had an impossibly high blood-red mohawk.
"Vanira be tellin' me ya no normal mage, human," the figure growled.
"I don't even know what a 'mage' is," Zuko replied, hoping this meant he would be spared... not speared.
"Den ya definitely no normal human, human!" the figure laughed, but seemed suspicious. "Ya don't cast ya fire with magic words."
"No, I'm a Firebender. It's all about using your chi, making the right motions."
"Huhn, sounds like somethin' a Pandaren would say. Where ya be from, human?"
"Fire Nation, and my name is Zuko."
"I didn't ask ya name, human! Ya best be careful of da tone ya use, ya be talkin' to Vol'jin, chieftain of da Darkspear Tribe."
Just keep a cool head, don't make the chieftain kill you... "My apologies, Chieftain Vol'jin," Zuko said as respectfully as possible. "So... are you spirits?"
Vol'jin stared in surprised confusion, then laughed again. "Ya be da most addle-brained human if ya don't recognize a troll."
The female spoke suddenly, in a strange, raspy voice. "Do ya meet da spirits often, 'Zuko'?"
He paused, then said, "Well, no, not me personally, but I travel with the Avatar..."
"Da Avatar of whom?" Vol'jin said.
"Of... himself? He's a master of the elements, bridge between the mortal and spirit realms, uh, destined to bring peace to the world?" Zuko said hopefully.
"A powerful shaman, den... or a Loa disguised as one," the troll mused. "What be da name of dis Avatar?"
Chapter 7: Katara
A massive war axe slammed into the dirt as Katara just barely rolled out of its way. The things attacking her were huge, green-skinned brutes whose entire bodies bristled with preposterous muscles. And without water on hand, she had no chance against them. Her only stroke of fortune was this narrow corridor of rock, where not more than one enemy could come at her at a time.
She ran back up along the trail, hearing their guttural war cries just behind her. She found the cliff's edge overlooking the sea -- and jumped clear off.
As she raced down toward the water, she forced herself to remain calm and roll her arms in a lifting motion, and brought the ocean up to meet her in a cushioning pillar, and stood upon it. The hulks stared but could do nothing to stop her. Or at least, so she thought.
One jumped atop a rock with a bow and arrow in hand and fired without pause. She snapped the arrow in half with a water whip, but the enemy would not be discouraged. The archer continued to fire, and as she focused on blocking the shots while maintaining her pillar of safety, Katara didn't see another green figure slinking up to the cliff, unassuming in a tan cloth robe.
The robed one raised a wooden talisman in one hand and called up to the sky, and a sudden darkness coalesced over Katara. She gazed up to see a black cloud formed from apparently nothing, and before she could split her attention even further to disperse it, its core flashed and struck her with a bolt of lightning.
She had no time to register her surprise. Stunned by the electricity, she fell slack and felt the water fall away beneath her, and she tumbled head-first towards the rocks below.
Chapter 8: Toph
"Land, sweet laaand!"
Toph flung herself against the rocky ground where the snow thinned out at last. She'd long ago lost any feeling in her feet, and hadn't even been sure she'd been going the right direction.
"I've nae seen summin so happy to lie on tha ground before," a voice rumbled mirthfully from nearby.
Toph didn't move except to tap the ground with her hands, trying to get a feel for the person. She felt four hoofed feet... a moo-sow? A wooly-pig? Someone was riding it, whatever it was.
"I just don't like to be away from the earth for too long," Toph said casually. "Where'd all this snow come from, anyway?"
"Lass, it always snows here. Where'd ye come from? Ye nae dressed fer tha cold."
"Tell me about it. Last thing I knew I was on a tropical island!"
"Come on then, let's get ye into tha city, put some furs on yer back and some shoes on yer feet."
"You had me up until 'shoes'," Toph said, standing. She stepped toward the voice, already losing track of the person's position. A gloved hand grabbed her shoulder unexpectedly, and hauled her up onto the back of the furry mount. "What's this thing?" she asked.
"It's me ram, lass! Dinnae tell me ye've nae seen one before!" The 'ram' began to move forward and upward.
"I've 'nae' seen anything before, I'm blind."
"Och, me apologies. What's a wee blind lass doin' way up in Dun Morogh? Some kind o' portal accident?"
"Man, I don't know if it's the accent or what, but I have no idea what you just said."
The gruff voice laughed. "Arright then, who're ye family on this tropical island?"
"Oh no, I don't live there, I just..." She didn't know if she could trust this person enough to tell them, just yet. "We were just on vacation, my friends and I. My family... they live elsewhere. They're okay with it, they let me go."
"Did yer friends land here too?"
Toph swallowed. "No. Not that I know of. I really don't know how I got here, let alone where they are right now. One minute we were sitting around talking about -- uh... stuff, and the next thing I know, bam! I'm lying in the snow. I hate snow!"
"Then ye'll hate Dun Morogh, lass! But that's an interestin' tale, and smells o' portal magic gone haywire. Any o' yer friends mages? ... Or warlocks?"
"You keep saying these things I've never heard of! If you're asking if any of us can randomly appear someplace else, then no."
"Ye've nae heard o'..." The voice trailed off in bemusement, and she heard the person shake their head. "Are ye even from Azeroth?"
"But ye're human! Were ye born on Outland?"
"No, I'm from the Earth Kingdom, okay?! What kind of a name is 'Outland', anyway?'
"Earth Kingdom... tha plane o' Earth?!"
"Sure, whatever! It's a kingdom, where we have Earthbenders, and an Earth King, and everything's made of earth!" And she was really starting to miss it.
"Now ye're tha one usin' words I dinnae know. But it's pretty obvious ye're from another world, and not one we've ever heard of..."
Chapter 9: Aang
After cresting the edge of the plateau and gazing down on the city of tents and windmills atop it, Aang had only time to utter, "You guys look like Appa!" before swift capture.
The horned, hoofed, huge, hairy people questioned him in their deep, bouldery baritones and he answered cheerfully, still assured that this was a dream. They wanted to know who sent him, why he was there, where he was from, were any other humans in the land. It eventually became obvious that he wasn't spy, failing to recognize the name Stormwind other than to say, "it sounds like a cool place".
"You're lucky you came to us and not the Grimtotem," their young leader, Baine, said. Aang was still in binds, tied to a pole within one of their longhouses. Aang was also blissfully unconcerned.
"This place is so awesome, it's like one of the Air Temples! We built all our temples on top of mountains, see, where no one can get us, because they can't fly like we --" Aang halted, and his face fell a little. "I mean, like I can."
"There is no more 'we'?" Baine asked.
"No... not anymore," Aang said, hanging his head. "The Fire Nation wiped them all out. Because they were looking for me."
"Because I'm the Avatar, and I'm supposed to bring peace to the world. The Fire Nation's been at war for over a century now. They didn't want me to be around to stop them. And... I wasn't."
"Unless humans age very differently on your world, you're only a child," Baine said. "It's unreasonable to expect you to stop an army."
"I know! That's what Monk Gyatso said. But that's why the other monks thought he was too soft on me, so I ran away, which is why I wasn't there to save them!"
"Did these monks know the attack was coming?"
"No, it was an ambush. It was the first fight of the war. The Air Nomads don't even have a formal military!"
"Hmm..." The bull-man, or 'tauren' as they called themselves, stroked his chin. "This sounds similar to the Grimtotem coup. They waited until nightfall to attack, slaying innocents in their sleep. I, too, only survived by escaping beforehand."
"But how did anyone survive? How'd you take the city back?"
"Fortunately, the Grimtotem sought those who would be a threat... mere children and anyone unskilled in battle or healing would be passed over. Unfortunately, we still needed the aide of others to retake the city, but that is a tale for another time."
"You said I could've run into the Grimtotem, though. They're still around?"
"Yes, some fled the battle when things began to turn south for them. We offered the rest a chance to surrender, and exiled them. They once lived in our cities as our neighbors, by my father's hospitality." Baine's voice thickened. "He paid for his trust, but even so, once the Grimtotem were defeated, there was no reason to slaughter them all. Even their wicked leader Magatha -- though sometimes I question the decision to spare her."
Aang digested this for a while. "I wish we had the same option... we tried to take the Fire Nation city, just long enough to get at their leader. We got all the outside help we could get, from all the other nations, even swamp-people. But it just wasn't enough..." He sighed. "We ended up getting them all captured instead. And everyone keeps telling me I have no choice but to kill the Fire Lord, because he's too dangerous to leave alive!" He looked up plaintively, hoping somehow this tauren, who may or may not be just a dream, could offer guidance.
"War is a complicated burden, and all too often are children forced to bear it..." Baine looked thoughtful, maybe wistful, whilst patting an ornate mace at his side. "If we had the resources to spare... perhaps the Horde would look kindly on your plight and be convinced to help. If they could look beyond the fact you're human."
"But everyone's human where I'm from," Aang said.
"I know, but then I'm sure they'd say it wouldn't matter if you all killed each other off. It's cruel, yes, but the hatred between our races has been sealed virtually since the first moment we met."
"Yeah... I don't know how anyone's going to trust Fire Nation again even if we do stop the war," Aang muttered.
"There's nothing we can do, however, while our own world is under such threat. More than war, crazed servants of the Old Gods are bent on destroying the world. An ancient evil few remember has returned. The elements here cry out in pain, and the walls between worlds wear thin as Deathwing... ah, I'm sorry. I shouldn't add more worries to your shoulders."
Baine released Aang, but asked him not to leave. Aang agreed and remained in the unused building, left to his thoughts, suddenly realizing this was no dream, and he must be here for a reason.
But how could he possibly save two worlds at once?
Chapter 10: Sokka
Sokka had listened in rapt awe as Tyrande explained Elune, the Goddess of the Moon, to him.
"So everyone worships the Moon, even if they're not a bender?"
The Priestess laughed at his curious terminology. "At least among Kaldorei, yes. Those particularly devoted wield her light in battle, or channel it to heal."
"That's just like the Water Tribes! We learned how to waterbend from the way Moon moves the tides, and there are warriors and healers and... well, I'm not a waterbender," Sokka admitted. "I never got into that spiritual mumbo-jumbo -- uhh, no offense! But it was always like, something they're just born with."
"What changed your mind on all that 'spiritual mumbo-jumbo'?"
"Well..." Sokka scratched the back of his head. "I sort of... dated the Moon. Or rather, I dated the girl who had Moon-spirit-juice in her and then she sort of died and reincarnated as the new Moon... spirit... person."
"Oh." Tyrande frowned. He wasn't sure if she was disappointed, sympathetic, or simply confused. "Our Elune is eternal. I've never heard of any mortal ascending to become a god."
"I think it was something the Moon knew had to happen... it took mortal form, see, uh, to be closer to us, but then Admiral Zhao came and killed it, and that's when Yue had to take its place, because the Moon had put a little part of its soul into her when she was born..." Sokka trailed off, feeling embarrassed at how badly he was explaining it. "I know it can't be the same person."
"In any case, we have two moons, but we recognize Elune as not literally being the rocks that orbit Azeroth."
"Whoa, I'd love to see a waterbender in action with two full moons..."
"So you became interested in spirituality because of your encounter with a spirit?" Tyrande pressed.
"When you put it that way, it sounds a lot better," Sokka said. "But, yeah. Even though I never really got it the way the others did. It's like, they can just feel the elements like a part of their own bodies or something, and move it around like nothing. Even before Katara learned how to control it, whenever she got emotional... it's like the water and ice was always just responding to how she felt. But it never did for me." He suddenly puffed out his chest and stated proudly, "Not that it matters! I'm a master swordsman now, and I'm killer with a boomerang."
"Our priestesses are also our warriors," Tyrande said. "Elune teaches us to avoid war if we can, but prepare for it if we must."
"So... do you have to be a Kaldorei to learn this stuff?" Sokka asked, feeling tentatively hopeful.
"Not at all, there are priests in every race, though their exact take on faith differs. Some take the light of the Sun, or the light of the spirit world, or worship the concept of 'Light' itself..." Tyrande sniffed a little at that, clearly not quite approving of it.
"But it's all the same energy in the end?" Sokka asked, and she nodded. "That's crazy! But in a good way, I mean. If bending were like that -- I mean, if it didn't matter where you came from, it's just a different expression of the same basic energy, that'd be -- it'd change everything!"
"Maybe it is, and you never knew it before," the Priestess said.
"Er... yeah, that's possible too. I mean, the Avatar knows every element, but that's a special case..." Sokka coughed, sobering again. "Would it be possible, I mean... I know I just got here and I don't know anything about this place..."
"You may learn under the Priestesses," Tyrande said with a smile. "If you don't mind working with all women."
"Trust me, that's no problem."
Tyrande suddenly looked past him, and he glanced over to see a huge purple panther charging right for them. He jumped to his feet and reached for a weapon that wasn't there, and Tyrande put a hand in front of him. "No, it's a druid. What is it?" she addressed the panther.
Sokka watched the animal melt upwards into an elven man, wearing a brown tunic with some kind of horned animal emblem.
"High Priestess, please forgive the interruption," the elf panted.
"Let me guess, strange humans from another world have appeared?" Tyrande said.
"No, I report from the outposts on Outland. The Dark Portal has closed!"
Chapter 11: Katara
Katara woke with an incredible headache.
She tried to make sense of her last memories, but none of them made sense, and she dismissed them as a wild dream. Maybe she'd come down sick again, and the fever had seeped into her brain. Yes, that was logical.
She recognized the Fire Nation heat bearing down on her, tempered by the night. She laid face-down on the sand -- no, stone. Probably the courtyard. She must have gotten dizzy and fainted after the argument with Aang. Of course.
Her muscles ached, and she tried to bring her arms up to summon her water and heal herself, but her arms wouldn't budge. Something bound them at the wrists, she realized. Her ankles, too.
She rolled onto her back, staring blearily up into the night sky, and felt a strange sense of dread as she realized none of the constellations were correct.
And there were two moons.
Was she seeing double? No, the moons were different. One familiar, large and white; the other small and blue. A new moon spirit? Some phenomenon they hadn't noticed in the planetarium?
A heavyset figure loomed over her, blotting out the moonlight. She gasped at its shocking, inhuman appearance -- and suddenly remembered what had happened. A strange, desert land. Stranger green monsters, coming at her with weapons and bending. The sea leaping toward her. It came in broken pieces, but she could put those pieces together into a working narrative.
The green, tusked man grunted something she didn't understand, and two more of the things approached, a male with top-knot and sideburns resembling Fire Nation style, and the robed female bender from before.
"Who are --" Katara started to ask, and the top-knotted one silenced her with a boot to the side of the head.
"Do not mistake this for 'mercy', human," he growled. "You live only as long as you are useful."
She dared not attempt to speak again, only looking up at them questioningly and fearfully. She glanced quickly side to side, trying to see any water, a puddle, a plant, a jug, anything.
"Tell us the locations and plans of the Alliance in the area!"
"Don't play stupid, spy! Your Northwatch dogs are obviously still skulking about."
"Northwatch?" Katara shook her head in confusion. What was even going on? Who did they think she really was?
His foot met her ribs this time. "Pah! For a mage, you make a convincing fool."
She let out a groan of pain. She surprised herself by wishing Zuko were there -- if only for the torches and bonfire in this dustbowl that he could make use of. She spotted only a scraggly plant and knew it would not be useful.
No, wait - the smell of fresh stew hit her nose. She pretended to roll onto her side with pain, using it as a chance to look in a direction she hadn't seen yet.
Aha! A huge cauldron full of boiling water!
"Let's turn her over to the Warchief, Kaltunk," said the first male, with an axe on his belt. "She'll spill the name of every enlisted human from here to Theramore!"
"And we'll look incompetent for failing to get anything out of her first!" spit the one with a top-knot, apparently named 'Kaltunk'.
"I'll talk!" Katara said. She tried to think quickly. She just hoped this all worked. "I- I was part of a small, elite force. We camped in secret, o-on the coast, and, we're supposed to meet with warriors from all the nations, and strike the capital during the eclipse!"
She had just described the Day of Black Sun. Assuming this was a different world -- or at least a vastly different region -- they'd hopefully not notice.
The creature-people exchanged looks. "I'll send scouts along the coast," Kaltunk said with a nod. "And inland, in the likely chance this girl is lying."
"We should warn the capital," the robed female said.
"We would have heard of an all-out assault on Orgrimmar!" said the one with an axe.
"Obviously you don't know what 'in secret' means!" she rebuked.
"I'll send a runner," Kaltunk said. "Or more. Wouldn't want any Alliance scum ambushing our messengers on the road."
Had the lie actually worked? Katara couldn't believe it. In the moments while they talked to each other instead of at her, she used the cover of darkness to twist her wrists, curl her fingers, do what little she could with her limited mobility...
The stew swirled readily. The cook standing near it jumped back in alarm as the cauldron tipped over, droplets of stew splattering on the dust with loud sizzles.
Kaltunk and the others half-turned to look over at the sound. Katara wrenched her arms as hard as she could, and the stew flew up like a snake, lashing them all across the torsos. They shouted in pain as the scalding liquid caught them. She rolled up to her feet.
She was about to see what she could do with two moons.
Chapter 12: Toph
"Amazin'," uttered the dwarf. His sentiments were echoed by several others who had gathered around.
Toph grinned as she performed, stamping her feet, flicking her hands, raising pillars and sliding the ground floor of their stone city around as easily as the wind ruffles the pages of an open book.
Their city - Ironforge - was amazing to her, awesome and beautiful. Shaped like a giant, spoked wheel, carved inside a mountain, with the weight of the world above and below. All one continuous mass of rock: homes and business carved from the rock, passages and tunnels, leading out to the air above and deep, crystalline caverns below. And they did all this without Earthbending! She couldn't help but respect anyone who took the time to carve the rock with their bare hands and pure gumption (even if she could do it better).
In the center of the city, she felt the rock fall off steeply where a vat of thick, frothing fluid filled the center. That, her guide had told her, was The Great Forge.
As Toph smoothed over the floor again, the entire world seemed to shake. She felt it come not from deep below, but above, like a powerful, percussive blast of wind had beat down on the mountain. It passed just as quickly as it began. "What was that?"
"Deathwing flyin' over," said her guide grimly.
"Sounds like a fun guy. What were his parents thinking?"
Someone in the crowd gave a snort of laughter, but no one else.
"He's a great black dragon, Toph," her guide said. "Burst from tha ground, tore it all asunder."
"A dragon! Whoa! I thought they were -- er, well, they're extinct where I'm from." Toph heard some murmurs of surprise at that.
"Not all dragons are bad here," the dwarf said, "but this one's tha worst. If ye want to learn more, the historians can tell ye. An' if ye ever hear him comin' -- run fer cover."
"Hah! I'll knock his block off, no problem."
"No ye won't!" he snapped. She felt him shaking slightly. "He's... he was tha Earthwarder. Ye throw tha earth at him, he'll throw it right back, an' toast ye to be sure!"
Toph wasn't used to people doubting her ability once they'd seen it for themselves. But a dragon Earthbender? She'd enjoy the challenge.
"I mean it!" the dwarf said. "He near tore tha continents in half, tossed up tha sea an', word has it, just about destroyed the Plane o' Earth itself! I dinnae want to see any more casualties." She heard his voice weaken with sudden sorrow on the last part.
"What made him go so bad?" she asked.
"We dinnae know. Like I said, the historians can tell ye more. All tha dragon aspects guarded tha elements, once, on order o' tha great Titans that made us. But only three o' tha five left be any good at it."
"Huh. Dragons were the first Firebenders where I'm from. Other animals taught us the rest. Wait... five? What's the fifth?"
"There's Earth, and Life, Magic, Dreams, an' --"
"Time!" said a bright, bubbly, feminine voice. It came from one of the gnomes, who were the very tiny humanoids that inhabited Ironforge alongside the dwarves.
"Those are some weird elements," Toph said. "I mean, what would a 'Dreambender' even do? Give you nightmares?"
"It's far more complicated than that!" said the gnome. "But I've already -- I mean, I'll explain it to you later. This time, it's time to talk about time!"
"You're not making any sense, squeaky."
"Not yet! I've actually come here to make sense of you -- Toph, was it?"
"I've never met you before..."
"Oh! That's right. I get mixed up sometimes! In that case, my name's Chromie. I'm a bronze dragon. A dragon of Time."
Chapter 13: Aang
A tauren guard stood outside the tent where Aang was held, less to keep him in and more to prevent over-reactive citizens from entering.
The city of Thunder Bluff did remind him of home in many ways, and sitting there in the dark, cool tent, taking in the scents and sounds, calmed his troubled mind somewhat. Somewhere a bonfire roared, and the people played drums and woodwinds around it, singing in their voices like thunder echoing over the plains. He could hear crafters working with cloth, wood and stone in the surrounding structures. The smell of sweet corn as it was mashed reached him.
Of course, he also smelled leather and meat, and that reminded him of the Water Tribes. But it was homey in a different way. He thought of Katara, wondered where she was. Was she back on the island, trying to find him to no avail? Or had she also been brought along, dropped somewhere in this weird, hostile world? If so, he hoped the tauren found her too.
Baine didn't visit again that night, and Aang easily slipped the ropes holding his arms, and laid down to sleep instead.
An hour of tossing and turning passed instead, and he sat up. He couldn't rest, worrying about everything. The Fire Lord, set to use the fire-amplifying powers of the passing comet to set all the Earth Kingdom ablaze. Deathwing, a giant, evil dragon ripping the planet of Azeroth apart at the seams. His own friends, either trapped back home without him to save them by stopping the Fire Lord, or trapped here, possibly getting kidnapped or killed because of a war they had nothing to do with! It was just too much, too much.
But he was here for a purpose, wasn't he? Because of Deathwing. Aang had spoken with dragons before. He had humbled himself before the last living dragons on his world, in exchange for their teachings. He couldn't believe a member of such a noble species could truly be evil. If he had a chance, he believed he could get through to this rampaging dragon somehow, turn him back to good.
He knew what his friends would say about that, of course. The same things they said about his hopes to deal with the Fire Lord non-lethally.
In times of doubt, he often reached back into the minds of his past lives to ask for their guidance. He settled himself into a meditative position, closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift into the midnight of his furthest memories, the ones no longer a part of his living body.
Avatar Roku appeared kneeling before him. Aang opened his eyes. Thunder Bluff was gone, replaced by a blue, misty expanse.
"Avatar Roku, you heard what Baine said," Avatar pleaded. "This world's in trouble as much as mine is! I must be here because I'm supposed to help them!"
"Aang," Roku said severely, "do not forget your duty to your own people. The Fire Lord will cement his conquest in just three days' time. You -- they -- cannot afford to have you wasting your time on a strangers' world."
"But how am I supposed to get back? As long as I'm here --"
"Use your time to find a way! You were born to be the protector of your world. It needs you, now more than ever."
Aang sighed. He knew Roku was right. But he knew his own thoughts couldn't be wrong, either. Was this supposed to be the greatest test ever? To choose between two endangered realms, or somehow save them both? He had to find a way. Compassion was his people's way. Balance was the Avatar's purpose.
The elder Avatar faded, but the spiritual realm did not. As Aang watched, new forms came out of the mists, standing before him. He recognized them all as tauren.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"I am Cairne Bloodhoof, father of Baine," said the one in front. "These are the spirits of tauren who have passed since the war."
There were so many. Aang's heart ached. "Why have you come to me, spirits?"
"All who seek the guidance of those before them may find us here."
"Am I supposed to save your world?"
"I cannot tell you the future, or the minds of fate and the Earthmother. Ordinarily I would tell you 'no'. But I know you're no ordinary child. You house a powerful spirit of nature in you. Perhaps the spirit of our world called out to yours, called for help when ancient evils threaten all. But, perhaps not. I must warn you: Baine and my people may stand with you, but the rest of the Horde will not. Do not ask to present yourself to Warchief Garrosh. Once, he cared for honor, but no longer. In his efforts to prove himself a powerful warrior and step out of his father's shadow, he lost his way. He would slaughter you without a second thought."
Warchief. The very title implied a belligerent position. Not a leader of people, but a leader of wars.
"I understand," Aang said humbly. "What about --"
"Deathwing is far more powerful, more dangerous and more corrupt. More than you can know. If your purpose is to help our world, it isn't by battling him. Use your magic to heal the land."
Cairne half-turned, facing north. Aang looked, and saw the Bluffs, but without tents, or firepits, or people. He saw further than a fire hawk, looking on over the green ranges, the mountains above, rising higher and higher, and the crown of a massive tree overlooking them all, as clearly as if it stood in front of him.
"If anyone can help you on this path," Cairne said, "It is Ysera, Dragon Aspect of Dreams, guardian of nature. She and the Ancients have returned at last -- perhaps too late -- and now dwell on Mount Hyjal, under the shade of Nordrassil, the World Tree. Ask the druids here to take you to her."
The vision began to fade, the darkness of true sleep creeping in at the edges.
Aang held on to those names, repeating them in his mind. Ysera... Hyjal... Nordrassil...
Cairne's voice receded into the mists. "May the Earthmother guide you, on whichever path you choose to take..."
Chapter 14: Sokka
Sokka watched the elves converse. Although they remained in the 'Common tongue' (whatever that meant), he barely understood what they said.
"What do you mean it's closed? How?" Tyrande asked the man who had just been a cat. Nobody in the room seemed to find someone being a cat strange, so Sokka pretended he didn't either.
"I was studying the fel boars in Hellfire when I noticed the Dark Portal wasn't glowing, like it should," said the man. "There was nothing in the portal at all. You could see straight through to the rocks behind it."
"Did you test it?" Tyrande's face grew more troubled.
"Yes. I could fly straight through it, as well. So I transported myself to Moonglade and flew directly here."
"Have you told anyone else of this?"
"The other druids."
"Then it won't be long before the tauren and trolls know... and the rest of the Horde, as well," Tyrande murmured. "It could be that the magic has worn off, or that concerted forces have closed it intentionally again. But until we know for certain how and why this happened, please refrain from telling anyone else."
"I understand, High Priestess." The man bowed. "What should I do?"
She mused for a moment. "Take the ship to Stormwind. Alert King Varian, but only him."
Sokka spoke up. "Excuse me -- I know I'm not from here, so I may be way off base, but -- I keep hearing the word 'portal', and if I'm guessing correctly, it means something to do with transportation?"
The cat-man regarded him as if noticing him for the first time, and found him highly peculiar.
Tyrande merely nodded. "Yes. It's a magical opening through the Nether that allows you to move instantly from one place --"
"-- to another," Sokka finished thoughtfully. "If some portal-thing is going wacky, do you think it has something to do with why I'm here?"
"It seems possible. Our people do not generally dabble in the arcane," she said with mild, vague disdain (although he had no idea what an 'arcane' was), "so I couldn't tell you the specifics of how it works. But a mage might enlighten you."
The cat-man eyed him incredulously. Sokka was getting used to that by now, every time an elf said a word he didn't know. Tyrande didn't stop to explain this time, instead moving swiftly for the exit. Sokka followed; the cat-man exited after them, changed into a bird and flew away.
Tyrande circled the white marble temple to a grassy patch in the gardens outside, where three more elves stood chatting. They wore intensely gaudy robes of bright red, blue and yellow, with collars whose backs were taller than their heads.
The trio bowed stiffly to Tyrande. "What can we do for you, High Priestess?" asked the male in front, whose robes were the most flashy and silly-looking. Sokka tried not to laugh at the sheer amount of swirly, shiny embroidery.
"Theoretically, if one of the stable mage portals were to close, could that cause another, elsewhere, to open?" she asked.
"Ah, a most intriguing question! It's important, of course, to understand the nature of portals, which in fact access the Nether itself -- with the exception to Dream portals -- and that portal magic is one of the most powerful yet most unstable of all magicks (the most stable being runic magic, as it relies on mimicking the shape of leylines which is about as close to the source as one gets) and so form a door, or more aptly a bridge --"
"Tarelvir," Tyrande interrupted.
The mage looked disappointed. "Simply put, it is possible, but not likely. Portals do not open themselves. It is a willful act of a mage -- or what-have-you -- to open it at all, since they are so precise, and holding them open requires a lot of energy. This is what makes the Dark Portal so extraordinary, of course, because it has no attending mages to focus on it. Unsurprising, considering who originally --"
"Pardon. Why do you ask? If a portal's opened up somewhere, you can be sure a mage is responsible."
"Or a warlock," muttered one of the candy-robe trio.
"Ehck. Warlocks!" Tarelvir spat the word like poison.
Tyrande narrowed her eyes in consideration. "If someone were teleported, could you learn whose magic was responsible?"
"Why yes, of course. See, whenever a spell is cast or an object or person is handled, the -- sorry. In short, yes. Do you have a someone recently subjected to teleportations of unknown caster?"
The High Priestess gestured at Sokka, who gave a little nod and wave of greeting. He thought Tarelvir's hocus-pocus talk sounded a lot like Aang's when the kid went off on his spiritual speech tangents.
The mage came over to Sokka, muttering and stroking his beard in thought. He then began to chant something in a strange language and continued doing so for a full minute.
"Ah!" the mage exclaimed so suddenly and loudly it made them all jump.
"What?" Sokka and Tyrande asked simultaneously.
"The magic is very strong! Hard not to identify. Why, he came through the Dark Portal just recently."
"I don't remember how I got here at all," Sokka said.
"Truly? Interesting, I've never heard of portal-amnesia before... What were you doing on Outland?"
"Uh... nothing? I wasn't there."
"Thank you for answering our questions, Tarelvir," Tyrande said. She led Sokka back inside once more.
"What did all of that mean?" he asked.
"I'm not certain," she sighed. "I wish I knew more, but it seems the only way to know what's going on is to investigate the Dark Portal in person, from this side."
Tyrande hailed over one of the female warriors (although it occurred to him that all the warriors he'd seen so far were female). "Sentinel Sunblade, take a small contingent through the portal to the Blasted Lands." The High Priestess lowered her voice. "Report back to me if you find anything amiss concerning the Dark Portal."
"We are not mages," the Sentinel replied, "how would we know?"
"If what I hear is true, you won't need to be a mage to notice."
"Is there anything I should do?" Sokka offered hopefully.
"No," Tyrande said. Sokka's shoulders fell in disappointment. She went on, "We can't ascertain what connection you may or may not have to all this, and I'd prefer to keep you here in the city, where it's safe."
Or where I won't run away and cause any trouble, he thought.
"You are free, of course, to study with the Priestesses here. There are people I must speak with, so I cannot personally tutor you." She began to turn away.
"Wait," he said. "If you hear about any of my friends, will you let me know? They're going to be just as confused as I am."
"I will. Elune be with you."
She smiled faintly, before gracefully striding out of the temple.
Chapter 15: Zuko
Zuko remained bound up in vines the rest of the day. Two of the trolls crouched nearby, armed and on guard for any sudden movements of his. He made no sound except for his stomach growling briefly.
Their leader, Chief Vol'jin, held council with the plantbender woman and a handful of others. Zuko had hoped to learn something from overhearing them, but they spoke in some strange language he'd never heard before. Of course, he'd never heard any language but the only one spoken on his world.
He at least had plenty of time to study the area. Superficially resembling the Fire Nation's tropical archipelago, the sandy string of islands, as far as he could tell, had no humans whatsoever, only the trolls living in their bamboo huts on stilts, roofed with animal hides and woven grasses. Standing around the structures were ancient stone ruins that reminded him of the Sun Warrior city.
Burning braziers cast out orange light on the sea around the islands, although the blue and white moons kept it all lit well enough. Trolls went about, training their weapons on wooden dummies, riding saddled bipedal lizards, and holding discussions around fire pits. Every one of them looked ready for war in some way.
Zuko thought he could see, through the palm trees, a stretch of mainland across the channel, with another troll village squatted on the red-rock desert. Even if he escaped, it didn't look like he had anywhere to go.
Aching in his awkward suspension, he yawned and decided to just let himself fall asleep, having no control over his fate by this point anyway, though he didn't suspect they planned to kill him at this time.
A sound roused him from his half-slumber. A strange, watery sound, like the white noise of the tide suddenly amplified. He lifted his head and saw several trolls standing to their full heights to look toward the water.
The sea was pulling away, pulling inland, as if scooped in by a giant, invisible hand.
Trolls shouted in alarm as the water lifted and gathered, leaving only dry land between the islands and the mainland. Then at once, the water came bodily off the ground and slammed into the desert. The fires twinkling in the village on the coast went out, leaving the shore ominously dark. Zuko couldn't see what else was going on, from this distance.
He heard someone on the island shout something and understood one word: "Deathwing", in a terrified, questioning tone. The one shouting scrambled up a tree and searched the sky.
The water lifted again, moving with an unnatural will, swinging and smashing around. Zuko recognized waterbending easily. But were they friend or foe to him?
The water surged back toward the sea -- and toward the islands. He suddenly felt very nervous, hoping the tsunami didn't drown them all. Or at least not him. He pulled against the vines as much as he dared while the guards still stood there.
He then noticed a dark shape on the water. As it came closer he saw it was a canoe, riding the wave!
The water towered over them all, the moons gleaming through it like blue glass. Trolls scattered in alarm; others stood their ground and raised their weapons.
The wave crashed down into the middle of the village, sending out frothy ripples that doused the fires and knocked the surrounding trolls down, as well as drenching Zuko. Sigh.
The canoe spun briefly on the sand before the rider put a foot out to stop it. Wait... was that? It couldn't be --
She turned her head toward him and gasped. "Zuko! What -- "
She raised her hand, the water responding like an extension of her, whipping aside the thrust spear of a troll. They had regained their footing and surrounded her.
"Someone - explain - to me - what's - going - ON!" she shouted, every word punctuated with a parry against the trolls' attacks.
But apparently, two trespassers went beyond the natives' patience for discussion. Spears and scimitars and elements and bolts of magic came at Katara from all directions.
Katara had little patience left for being attacked. The seawater lashed away their strikes with ease. Zuko boggled at the sheer volume of water she moved at once, having never seen her bend so powerfully before.
"Hey, cut me loose!" he called.
She sliced the vines away with barely a second glance. He slid quickly to the nearest troll with a sword, using a low spinning kick to send their feet out from under them, and then snatched up their scimitar the moment it hit the sand.
"Katara, we've got to get out of here," he said, running up to her side. "There's too many of them!" Not to mention no reason to stay and fight in the first place.
"What are they?! First those huge green things, now this!" she shouted. He now noticed several bruises and cuts on her. Apparently she'd been fighting for a while already.
"Trolls or Darkspears or something," he said quickly. "Come on, we won't get any answers out of them!"
She finally acceded, and used a wall of water to throw the trolls back. "Hop in," she said, bringing both feet back into the canoe. He sprang into it, and the seawater welled up from below where it had seeped into the sand. He sat down hard and grabbed the sides to keep from falling out as the entire boat was practically thrown into the ocean.
Arrows whistled by, barely missing them. "Hurry!" he shouted, pressing himself as low into the boat as possible.
"Don't need to tell me twice!" she said. Swinging her arms rapidly, she surged the water beneath them, pushing the canoe forward with incredible speed. Even if it had oars, attempting to use them would only get in the way.
She didn't stop her frantic waterbending until they were well away from land, keeping it in sight only enough to keep from getting lost at sea.
She then sank down to sit on her end of the canoe, letting out a sigh of exhaustion. "What happened, Zuko? Where are we?"
"I don't know," he said, with an apologetic shrug. "One minute, I was in the old vacation house with you guys, talking to Aang. And then I was here, getting attacked by blue people."
"I was getting attacked by green people." She relaxed as much as she could, resting her head against the crook of the boat. It continued moving forward, carried along by inertia for now. "Have you seen the others?"
"No, you're the first human I've seen."
"They thought I was a spy for some... enemy nation, or something... Northwatch, Alliance, I don't even know..." She put a hand to a large bruise on the side of her face.
"Same. They stopped to listen only because firebending is weird to them, I guess, and they wanted to know how I did it. Apparently when people bend around here, they're called 'mages'."
"What are we going to do?!"
"If there are humans here, maybe they'll be friendly to us. Especially if they're enemies of... all those other things. We should try to find them."
"You're right." She sat up, and made minimal motions to keep the canoe moving. "I hope the others aren't here, too..."
"I think they can all handle themselves pretty well. I mean, you managed to beat me every time I caught up with you," he said, with a half-hearted grin.
"Yeah, and you were the one that got captured this time," she said teasingly.
"Hey, they surprised me! And outnumbered me like, thirty to one."
"Yeah, yeah..." She sounded just a smidgen less totally stressed out. That was good, at least. "Two moons... Can you believe it?" She lifted her head to stare at them. "And both full. It's like I was supposed to escape."
"We're definitely not on our own world anymore," he murmured thoughtfully. He then yawned. "Uugh, I feel like I haven't slept in days."
"You probably haven't. It was night when we were on our own world, and it's been a whole day since that."
"Then I'm going to try to sleep. Wake me up if there's trouble."
He laid down, half-curled (the canoe didn't have room for him to stretch out without kicking Katara), finding the uncomfortable wooden boat surprisingly restful after being tied to a tree all day long. With the steady sound of lapping water lulling him, he fell asleep within minutes.
Chapter 16: Katara
Katara was achingly sleepy, but she dutifully kept awake, kept the shore in site, kept an eye out for signs of humans. Although, in this strange world, she didn't know what to actually look for.
She felt too anxious to sleep yet, in any case.
At one point she saw huge warships, their bronze figureheads fashioned into fearsome hawks. Though they lacked the foreboding smoke of fuel-burning Fire Nation ships, she couldn't be sure they were friendly, and didn't want to risk getting shot out of the water by an overeager cannoneer. She gave them a wide berth, glad that they made some much noise in the water lest her own movements be audible instead.
In the distance, she saw the pillars of red rock that she swore she'd walked amongst earlier. She scanned the horizon for the city she'd seen, but either she was mistaken about recognizing the rocks, or the cape went deeper inland than she thought. She didn't feel like skirting close enough to the desert to find out.
Soon, the parched red land gave way to yellow grasses instead, looking a strange green under the blue moonlight. She saw several tiny island off the coast, dotted with palm trees and brown wooden buildings. Docked were more large ships, these ones with ominous red and black sails, their prows decorated with massive spikes.
Her eyes grew heavy, and her bending started to wane in strength as the larger moon sunk below the horizon, replaced by the early glow of twilight. Her arms ached, her head throbbed. She didn't want to stop to heal herself yet; it wasn't critical and she could always do it later.
The rugged land suddenly stopped in a ragged split, like someone had driven a hammer and chisel directly into the continent and formed a wedge so huge the sea spilled into the canyon. It extended far beyond sight, and pieces of broken land tilted into the ocean at the front of the split. She mused, wondering if some great earthbender had done this, similar to the tale of Avatar Kyoshi.
Katara then gasped as a flaming projectile flew through the air, arcing high over the canyon and exploding against the walls of a stone fortress on the other side. As the canoe came closest in passing, she saw tiny figures engaged in battle all across the tattered shores, catapults and archers firing from both sides. She couldn't discern any of their species, and quite frankly it didn't matter. She wasn't about to stop and ask for directions in the middle of a warzone.
Sighing, disappointed but not surprised that even on other worlds war was a constant fact of life, she kept pushing the canoe onward.
Eventually the sun peeked up from over the ocean, turning the turquoise water a brilliant gold. Katara had never been so tired in her life. Zuko snored once and she gave him an envious glare.
Desperately needing some rest, she was elated to spot a seemingly uninhabited island among many, with what looked like an ancient, abandoned rowboat beached on the edge. She moved the canoe forward slowly, eyes peeled for buildings, fires, or anything else to warn her of potential hostiles. Seeing none, she pushed the canoe up onto the sand.
A rowboat sat half-buried and half-decayed to oblivion, but with its oars still thankfully intact. Old barrels and crates were scattered around, their wooden shells green and black with mold. She couldn't assume their owner would ever be back to reclaim them.
Zuko woke as she stepped out of the canoe to gather the oars. "Huh-- wha?" He sat up with a yawn. "Why'd we stop? Everything okay?"
"I'm exhausted, Zuko," she said. "Look, I found some oars." She yanked them out of the sand and tossed them to him. He caught one; the other one clonked him on the head.
"Watch it! And okay, I get the hint, I'll row. What's this boat doing here though?"
"Who cares?" she said in exasperation. "The owner's long gone, I can't feel bad about taking them."
"Yeah, well... Let's just get going again. I have a bad feeling about whatever happened that made the last person leave all their stuff behind like this."
"The boat's so rotten, it was probably ages ago," she said. "Can you pry open these containers? There might be something useful inside."
"It's probably all rotten, too," he said, not moving.
She gave him a huff and a glare, but was far too tired to press the issue. "Okay, let's -- what is that?!"
She pointed past him. Zuko jumped to his feet in an instant, dropping the oar and grabbing up the scimitar. He looked at the water and saw a hideous, slimy face the color of bog-water rising up. It had a wide mouth full of shark-like teeth, huge bulbous eyes, and spines like anemones on its back.
More of them began to appear, in shades of gray and green, uttering noises that sounded like frantic gargling. They emerged from the water, wading on bony legs and webbed feet. Their gangly arms held axes and staves.
"Now we know what happened to the last person. Let's get out of here!" Zuko said.
Katara needed no encouragement. She jumped into the canoe and started to push them away, though she lacked the power to move them as swiftly as before. "I need help! Start rowing!"
He dropped the sword and regathered the oars, sitting and rowing, pushing them against the sandbar. The fish-men gurgled and ran at them, weapons raised. An axe whisked by the side of the canoe just as it slid fully into the water and began to speed away.
"They're swimming after us!" Katara exclaimed. She was just too tired of fleeing and fighting, and she heard the note of desperation in her own voice.
The monsters' slimy forms moved easily through the water. But the second moon was setting, and she had almost no energy left, either physical or spiritual.
Zuko didn't try to stop to fight them off as they neared the canoe. He kept rowing, building up speed. Eventually the fish-men gave up pursuit, and turned to head back to their island.
"Is everything in this world trying to kill us?!" she said, and dropped her heavy arms on her lap. She couldn't bend a dewdrop by this point.
"We'll find someone who's not hostile eventually," he said. "Those things are off our tail. Go ahead and sleep."
She collapsed wearily where she sat, and was out cold.
Chapter 17: Toph
If Toph had to listen to the gnome-dragon-girl, she demanded to have some food first. Chromie gladly whisked her off to the nearest inn and bought her some fresh bread and hot chocolate. The dwarven guide had bowed out, perhaps not wanting to meddle in the affairs of dragons.
"Every type of dragon has a domain that we watch over. Bronzes keep watch over all of time: past, present and future," Chromie explained. Toph sat on a low-slung chair (as they all were, here) and warmed her feet by a fire.
"Huh." Toph didn't really believe it. "So what's my future like?"
"As much as it pains me to admit, I do not know. You're one of several anomalies in this timeline. I can only presume you're from a world completely undiscovered by the Titans. However --"
"Wait! You said several. Does that mean my friends are here too?"
"We detected several humans heretofore unknown in this timeline. I don't know if they're your friends."
"Let's assume they are. How do we get out of your timeline or world or whatever? We're sort of needed someplace else. Like, right now."
"If I could be certain it wouldn't cause any paradoxes, I'd gladly find a way to send you back -- proper time and all, right where and when you left. But I know very little about you at all, or how you might fit into things."
"So you're basically telling me that you have nothing to tell me." Toph snorted.
"There was already, a, shall we say, rough outline of events. I believe they are the future, from this perspective. And several that are merely concurrent, but tied together nonetheless..."
Toph yawned dramatically.
"What I mean is, the events I've already witnessed did not include you at all. Ever."
"So what? I'm not from here, why would I be in any of your events?"
"Because you are here, and will continue to be here, in a manner which changes many of these events."
"Okay, so... Are you going to keep me from doing whatever is it you saw me doing? Or are you just going to run it all by me so I can get to doing it right away?"
"Neither, yet. I'm just here to learn. Until we know the correct path, we're not going to act for or against these changes. We keep the timeline tidy, see. Anyone who goes back in time to start changing events has to be stopped! But there's no temporal magic on you. You came into 'right now' from another 'right now', not a past or future, which is rather unprecedented."
Toph groaned and slung her arm over her head. "All this weird time talk! I don't get any of this. Just get to the facts. I mean, the important ones, that I actually need to know."
"Well, there aren't any of those," Chromie said. "Tell me facts about you. Where were you before being here?"
"On an island in the Fire Nation."
"What do you mean, 'what world'? The only world I knew existed! THE world!"
Chromie went silent in thought, tapping her chin. "Interesting. Do you know how that world came to be?"
"Uh, no. I wasn't exactly around for that."
"Have you ever heard of the Titans?"
"The Old Gods?"
"The Burning Legion?"
"Just the Fire Nation... legion... I guess. They do a lot of burning."
Chromie waved a hand, looking relieved. "No, no, not the same. Thank goodness! So you haven't been exposed to any of the major forces that shaped our realm. Hmm. You have elemental magic there, yes?"
"Yeah, I'm the greatest earthbender alive!"
"What about the elemental spirits?"
"I'm not into all that spirit-y stuff," Toph said dismissively. "Aang is, though. He's the Avatar, which is like, an everything-elemental-spirit that gets reincarnated as a new person each time it dies. He's gone into the spirit world. I haven't, though."
Chromie sat forward in earnest interest. "Everything elemental?"
"Yeah. Air, water, earth, fire. He knows 'em all. Anyone else can only learn one type of bending, and most people can't do it at all. He gets reborn with a new element each time, then has to go out and learn the rest."
"Most interesting. Was he with you when you came here?"
"Yeah. Him, and... Zuko, a firebender... Katara, a waterbender, her brother Sokka and his girlfriend Suki. They don't bend."
"How does one 'bend'?"
"Oh, well..." Toph scratched her head, thinking of a way to explain it. "It's different for every element, I guess. Earthbenders have to be tough, strong, resolute, stubborn. You have to be the rock! Feel the rock! Then you can move the rock. I can move metal, too," she said smugly. "No one else can."
"I don't know, I just... do! I just feel it... and I move, and it moves for me... I learned it from the badger-moles, who were the first earthbenders. Firebenders learned from dragons, and they have to be... hot-headed, I guess. Kind of over-emotional sometimes. And waterbenders learned from the moon, and airbenders learned from flying bison."
"So you don't interact with the elemental spirits directly, except for the Avatar. I'm going to tell you about our elementals -- I'll be as brief as possible."
"All the elements are alive, in a way. Anyone who uses any magic, gets it from them. Shamans ask permission. Mages do it by force. Warlocks steal and corrupt. The elements always existed, long before people. Nothing but the raging war of elemental forces, clashing and destroying everything!
"They once did the bidding of the Old Gods. To put it bluntly, those are the most malevolent entities in this world. Literally -- they're inside it, now. The Titans came, saw what a mess Azeroth was, and reordered it. They put the elements in their place, and buried the Old Gods deep, deep within the planet.
"Unfortunately, the Old Gods managed to cause trouble anyway, in a lot of ways not even worth listing, but in short they'll make you go insane and evil if they can. Which is what they did to Deathwing."
Chromie paused briefly, her heart giving a small flutter of melancholy and fear.
"Many people fell under the sway of the Old Gods, and began to worship them. They call themselves the Twilight's Hammer, a cult that wants to break Azeroth open and release the Old Gods, ushering forth the chaos of the original, ancient world."
"...Whoa." Toph shook her head. "That's crazy! At least the Fire Nation just wants to conquer the world, not blow it all up!"
Chromie nodded grimly. "There are other interfering forces that make keeping things as orderly as the Titans would like darn near impossible. The Burning Legion are demons actively opposing the Titanic order. They want to destroy everything, too. They destroyed many planets before, including Draenor, now called Outland --"
"I've heard of that! The dwarf was asking me if I came from there..."
"It's nothing but a few chunks floating in the Nether, now. It will never be whole again. Deathwing, too, is responsible for that."
Toph began to grasp the gravity of these names. "You mean these Burning Twilight guys are going to go blow up my planet?"
"I... I don't know. They're working hard on destroying this one. But I have a feeling they have something to do with your sudden appearance. They often summon elementals and force them to do their bidding. Perhaps, in attempting to do this, they called you -- 'the greatest earthbender alive', and your friends. Whatever the case, I believe it has placed both our worlds in great danger."
Chapter 18: Aang
Aang woke the next day when one of the tauren guards brought in a plate of breakfast for him. Aang said thanks, and proceeded to heartily enjoy a meal of spiced bread, pine nuts and fresh fruit. He left alone the seasoned fish, and felt a little bad it had to die for nothing, and ended up giving it to the guard so it at least wouldn't go to waste. All in all, he was surprised at their hospitality, considering he was still their prisoner.
But then he guessed Baine did his best to act civilly in these circumstances. Aang bet the chieftain didn't really expect leadership to fall on him so soon, let alone in the middle of a war.
Baine eventually came to visit the Avatar personally. Like the guard, he noticed Aang had long since slipped the ropes, but didn't comment.
"If I could let you tour this city peacefully, I would," the chieftain said. "But..."
"Not everyone would be okay with it. I know," Aang said. "That's how it is right now with Zuko. He's the Fire Nation prince. He used to be a bad guy, but then he joined us so he could stop the war. But now everyone thinks he's a traitor, just for wanting peace!"
"Ahh, yes. You do know," Baine said with a heavy nod. He lowered his voice. "Any who resist the war efforts tend to be branded a 'traitor', here. The eyes and ears of Garrosh Hellscream are always upon us, as they say."
Aang gulped. "I wish I could help."
"I know. Of course, you can do nothing from inside a tent. And, as fortune has it -- I have no use for you inside a tent, either."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm letting you go, Aang. I see no need to keep you prisoner any longer." Baine frowned. "I don't know where I can send you, however."
"It's okay, I know where to go." Aang smiled reassuringly. "The World Tree!"
Baine's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "How did you hear of that?"
"I had a vision last night. I, um... I spoke with your father. He told me to go to N... Nordiss..." Crud, he couldn't remember all those weird names now that he was awake.
"Nordrassil?" Baine scratched his chin. "Yes... This makes sense. The druids are there, under Ysera. They are neutral in this war. Or at least, they do not belong to either Horde or Alliance."
"Cairne said I should ask the druids to take me there." Aang paused, then smiled self-effacingly. "What's a druid?"
Baine was briefly at a loss for words, probably never having to explain the word to his own people. "They are guardians of nature, to put it simply. They draw power from the Earthmother, the Sun and Moon, the Emerald Dream. The druids can explain themselves better than I can, I'm sure."
Aang liked the sound of them. He stood up. "So when do I leave?"
"Soon. Come with me," Baine said, turning to leave. Aang followed after.
He marveled at the city of Thunder Bluff now that he had a real chance to see it. The tauren had built their entire city on top of a series of mesas in the middle of a wide open valley. Everything was green and lush, and the breezes carried the scent of soil and verdancy. The tents and lodges were decorated with colorful beads, kites and feathers, and massive, multi-colored totems stood over them.
The locals, of course, stared at the lone human in their midst, but saw that he accompanied their chieftain and nodded deferentially. Aang smiled and waved.
Baine led him across a wooden rope bridge spanning the gulf between two mesas. The city was like a set of islands, floating on a sea of open air.
A gigantic tent almost completely dominated the other mesa. The top was open, letting sunlight in and campfire smoke out. Tauren filled the single space within, most of them in robes.
"This is the Elder Rise," Baine explained, crossing the dirt floor. "Our druids convene here. Our Archdruid Hamuul is already in Hyjal, but one of the others can take you there."
They stopped in front of a female tauren with tan and white fur and two long braids made of her brown mane. She eyed them curiously, but bowed before the chieftain.
"Sheal, this is Aang, host of an elemental spirit from another world. Aang, this is Sheal Runetotem," Baine introduced.
"Hi!" Aang said. "He said you can take me to Hyjal?"
Sheal glanced between them several times, before nodding in surprise. "Yes, I can. But why?"
"He had a vision of my father," Baine said, "and was directed to Nordrassil by him. And it is too dangerous to have him use the Hyjal portal in Orgrimmar..."
She nodded in understanding. "Yes. I am ready to leave any time," she said.
Baine looked down at Aang, and seemed concerned, in a way most adults never seemed to on his own world. They were probably too used to war there after a hundred years to worry about kids anymore.
"Be safe. It would not do for this war of ours to claim the life of one uninvolved," Baine said. "May the Earthmother guide you both." And with that, the chieftain left the Elder Rise.
Sheal began to move her hands like a bender, speaking in her own language. Aang watched in fascination as an emerald light formed between her hands, a circle growing in shape, as if she weaved the air into a green dreamcatcher. In the center betweens the threads, a hole gradually opened, soon large enough for even the towering tauren to step through.
She had opened a hole straight through to another location!
Aang moved all around the opening, to see if he could look at the back side of it, but it seemed to follow him, always facing him. "How did you do that?"
"It is a simple portal. Please step through quickly; I can't maintain it for long."
He jumped through and she followed soon after. The portal closed immediately, leaving no trace of itself behind.
Aang gazed around in awe at where he stood, an incredibly lush field of thick grasses and huge flowers colored like opals and amethysts. A lake that shimmered like white crystal spread out before him. Surrounding the vale were tree branches -- no, roots! Each moss-coated root was as wide as the widest tree on his own world, some as big around as Appa's head. They all arched up and up, forming a dome that could have easily housed the entire palace of Ba Sing Se. Their bark had so much moss, vines and flowers that each root was a garden in its own right. Birds and fireflies flew far above, and white and blue moths fluttered close to the ground.
On the edge of the lake was a lodge made of white wood with silver filigree. It was open to the air, having only the minimally necessary amount of pillars and walls to remain standing, and leaves covered the floor, and the giant white flowers grew all over the walls.
Aang stood breathlessly a moment, taking in the sights, the scents of pure air (and, he recognized, the crispness of a mountain altitude), the sounds of animals all around. Even Sheal was awed and reverent, before striding toward the lodge.
Aang followed, and saw many people in and around the lodge. Some were tauren, but the rest were like very tall humans, with long ears like lemurs, glowing eyes, purple skin, and hair in bright, flowery colors. They gave him puzzled glances, but otherwise didn't seem to find him as strange as he found them.
"What are they?" he whispered to Sheal.
She blinked at him. "They are night elves..."
Since she said it in a way that implied this was common knowledge, he didn't bother clarifying for now, figuring there were more important things to learn.
She led him out to a veranda overlooking the lake. A night elf woman stood there, with long green hair and a long green cape, and two long horns sweeping back from her head. She wore a coronet shaped like a crescent moon, and had tattoos like leaves on her face. She stood with three other druids, who channeled beams of green energy onto her, which she coalesced between her hands in a motion like what Sheal did earlier.
Sheal bowed before the elf, and Aang followed suit.
"This is Ysera, She of the Dreaming, Aspect of the Green Dragonflight."
Chapter 19: Grommash Hold
Garrosh Hellscream, Warchief of the Horde, stormed back and forth in Grommash Hold, a fearsome fortress of black iron walls decorated with weapons, and red tapestries decorated with the black symbol of the Horde. The only light in the sharp-edged room came from the flaming braziers behind his steel throne, and small lanterns of wrought iron along the walls. Hides of prey-animals covered the hard floor, stitched into a map of the world in the very center.
He booted feet stomped back and forth across the map, his tusked, brown face drawn into a snarl.
"Those wretched Alliance curs!" he shouted. "I should have known the moment we found Northwatch dogs setting up camp in Durotar, that Theramore would betray this pitiful truce! They have enjoyed our mercy too long. Thrall was a fool to trust that Proudmoore bitch!"
Two messengers, one orc and one troll, stood off to the side, afraid to invite his wrath by sin of having delivered their news in the first place. The assorted delegates, ambassadors and other trusted few who lined the walls watched Garrosh with bated breaths.
"It is just like those cowardly humans to turn on us during a cease-fire. Pah! And laying waste to our villages. As if Sen'jin had any value to us in the first place!"
The troll winced at the dismissive mention of his home village, which had just been flooded by a mage's tsunami. He said nothing, however, knowing he was lucky to even have audience with Garrosh at all -- trolls had fallen out of favor of the new Warchief after Vol'jin bluntly expressed dissenting opinions on Hellscream's warmongering. Vol'jin was one among many who longed for the return of the more peaceful Thrall.
"If they thought they could make this move and live to regret it, they were wrong," Garrosh snarled, orange eyes glittering hatefully. "When all is done, the Alliance -- and the world! -- will look on a smoking crater once called Theramore, and none will dare challenge the might of the Horde again!"
Jaina Proudmoore quailed and fretted, her stomach turning loops, her mind overflowing with grisly futures.
A canoe of troll design had drifted into the bay of Theramore. The local fishermen had pulled it ashore and discovered two unconscious human teenagers inside, wounded and starving. Apparently they'd been adrift for quite a while and eventually fainted from dehydration, an ironic if not uncommon fate for those lost at sea.
The town had brought them in, nursed them back to health. Jaina hadn't heard of them at this time -- why alert the sorceress to nothing more than a couple of stranded children?
But it turned out the kids had come from another world, one wholly unknown to Azeroth. They'd somehow landed in Durotar, where the orcs and trolls had captured them under the reasonable assumption they were Alliance spies.
And then the children escaped with their marvelous 'bending' magic. Unfortunately, their escape left many trolls and orcs injured, not to mention flooded no less than three villages with a tsunami.
Jaina heard of them after this knowledge got out, because everyone knew what this would mean, what it would look like to the Horde. If Thrall were still warchief, he'd no doubt contact her personally and ask for an explanation; he'd wisely realize there had to be some misunderstanding, that these children were not affiliated with her nor acting under her orders.
But he was not. Thrall stood on a stony precipice in the middle of the ocean, overlooking the raging Maelstrom, trying to quell the destructive elemental forces that Deathwing had awoken.
Garrosh would take any excuse he could to justify spilling Alliance blood. And he'd assuredly make Theramore his first target.
She needed to warn someone to avert disaster, but who could she tell without tipping off an even greater one? If she told Varian, he'd only take this as an excuse to strike the Horde pre-emptively, which would only further cement Garrosh's misguided opinions. She couldn't warn Thrall; his duties were larger than war itself. Who amongst the Alliance could benefit from this, could help her smooth out this misunderstanding? Who amongst the Horde would listen to reason, let alone convince Garrosh of it as well?
The answer came quickly, and she nearly bonked her own head over its obviousness. Prince Anduin and Chief Baine! They had both come to her for guidance and aide during the Grimtotem coup, which had, ultimately, been set off by a belligerent misunderstanding by Garrosh due to Twilight Cultists sabotaging a peace talk. Tauren had always been more level-headed and open to peace than their Horde brothers, and Anduin, Light bless him, served as a foil to his impetuous father Varian.
Asking her fellow mages to evacuate the city's residents through portals if an attack came too soon, Jaina whisked herself away on the winds of the Nether to bring the warning along.
Chapter 20: Sokka
As The Moonspray pulled away from the island, Sokka leaned back to gaze up and marvel at what he wouldn't have believed on word alone.
He saw now that the sheer cliff they passed was in fact a sawed-off root, and all the island was made of roots, like giant dragons twining together until forming the trunk of a tree that simply should not exist.
As tall as Omashu and its mountain combined, with a canopy that spread out to blot the sky, was Teldrassil. And up in its leafy crown somewhere sat the entire city of Darnassus, the Night Elves' home.
Of course, he couldn't help but think, briefly, how vulnerable such a home would be against the Fire Nation.
The sleek elven caravel cut swiftly over the ocean, as the tree receded into misty silhouette, and Sokka could almost trick his eyes into believing it was a normal tree just behind them.
Not many were aboard the vessel. Captain Windsinger and his small crew of elves, Sokka and a contingent of sentinels and priestesses, and the High Priestess herself. Tyrande looked forward over the waters with a disquieted gaze.
Sentinel Sunblade had sent a report from another city, the closest one she could get to from the 'Dark Portal', apparently. Sokka understood very little - the Portal led to another world (but not his), and even though people could still get to that world with mini personal portals, closing the big one (which was also Dark, he supposed) was bad news. The people behind it were all cultists, who were, as far as Sokka knew, in league with every one of the most evil and destructive beings in the universe.
He really hoped they had just exaggerated that bit.
At the same time, some reports had come in undoubtedly about Sokka's friends landing in some of the other cities, and one of the kings in one of those cities called a meeting about it. Were they really that important?
The voyage was long, but Sokka was used to long trips at sea. He passed the time practicing with the throwing glaive the priestesses had given him - it wasn't Mr. Boomerang or his space sword, but it was deadly sharp, well-made, and returned when thrown. Eventually the captain put a stop to that when he nearly cut the sail in half, though.
The rest of the time he learned as much as he could. He sat and talked with everyone aboard about everything he could think to ask about this world, the political climate, the fighting and magic (not quite bending) styles of different nations. He knew he had been pulled into a war, and needed to prepare himself for conflict. He sparred with the sentinels, and listened intently to the priestesses' lectures on Elune.
Elune. The White Lady. Sure, spirits were real. But such a powerful one, so powerful she could lend power to mortals all around the world? He wanted to believe that. He just didn't know if he could.
The moons were full again when The Moonspray docked at Stormwind. From the name, Sokka had expected an Air Nomad temple, worn smooth by winds and lashed by lightning. Instead, he saw a massive stepped city of white brick and bright oak, with golden lion emblems and statues at every corner, and flowering apple trees lining the cobbled streets. On the city came bright sunlight, salty winds off the coast, and the sounds of gulls and bells.
It was also full of humans, which gave Sokka immense relief. He felt out of place around the purple-skinned, seven-foot-tall elves all the time.
A guide met them on the docks and led them through the city, which Sokka barely had time to take in. Humans and other species -- more elves, and very small human-like people, and the occasional tall blue person with horns and hoofed feet -- crowded the streets, which wound around narrow wooden buildings and towering stone spires. The crowd parted for Tyrande, many bowing or saluting as she passed.
The city had an impressive system of canals, which forced the group to take a more circuitous route over the bridges, until they arrived at the castle of white stone.
A long white hall lined with guards in silver and blue led them all to the throne room, where a massive bear of a man stood with other presumably important people. Sokka's eyes darted immediately, however, to three familiar faces.
"Katara!" he exclaimed in relief. Everyone looked at him. "Sorry, I --"
"Go ahead," said the large man.
Sokka needed no further encouragement. He dashed forward and hugged his sister. Toph happily joined in, and pulled Zuko into the hug as well. They parted after realizing they were holding up the proceedings, and Sokka got a better look at them. Not much had changed, except that Katara's waterskin had been exchanged for a glass gourd, and Zuko seemed to have a new sword. This did tell Sokka that they must have disappeared at the same moment when they'd all been unarmed.
"I am Varian Wrynn, King of Stormwind," said the large man. He had a dark, wild wolftail and a scar cutting across his face. "This is my son Prince Anduin," he said, gesturing at a blonde boy about their age. "Lady Jaina Proudmoore." Varian indicated a blonde woman holding a staff. "And Chromie of the Bronze Dragonflight." That was a tiny girl -- woman? -- with blonde hair in two buns.
Sokka did not bother to question why people had yellow hair around here. He supposed it was as normal as elves having blue skin.
He did bother to ask, "Where are the others?"
Varian frowned. "We do not know. I have contacted our other allies, but none have reported finding humans from other worlds."
Anduin and Jaina shared a glance, as if mutually asking each other a question.
Varian went on. "We do have a clue how you got here, however. Sentinel?"
Sentinel Sunblade stepped forward. She was recovering from semi-recent injuries. She bowed and said, "The Twilight's Hammer have seized the Dark Portal. It appears closed from the Outland side, but from this side it remains active. Whatever they're doing, the area around it is abnormally charged with magic. I was the only one to escape the ensuing battle." Her expression darkened.
"I believe I can expand on this gap in your knowledge," Chromie said. Her voice was ridiculously high-pitched. Sokka still couldn't tell if she was an adult or not.
"I hypothesize that the cult tried to summon elementals. Since our new friends here are almost all imbued with elemental power, it seems logical to assume they were summoned instead. Obviously something went awry, likely because the Portal isn't intended to be used that way."
"So we ended up all over the place," Sokka said. "But what happens if these cultists actually did get one of us?"
"I saw no children with them at the time," Sunblade said.
"The cultists have spells to control elementals of this world," Chromie said. "But you're all technically human. They probably wouldn't be able to control you directly."
"They aren't incapable of affecting the human mind," Varian said darkly.
"Indeed. They resort to brainwashing and torture --"
"No!" Katara shouted suddenly. "They can't do that to Aang!"
"Well --" Jaina started to speak.
Zuko's generic scowl turned into more of a concerned kind of scowl. "He's the Avatar, they won't be able to keep him," he said in a vaguely-reassuring tone. "Even the whole Fire Nation couldn't keep him."
"The cultists have magic, weapons and numbers," Varian said. "If they're after him now, we can't underestimate what they'd do to control the power he wields."
"I don't think --" Jaina tried to say.
"What is the plan now?" Tyrande said. "Send more forces to retake the Dark Portal?"
"If they're trying to use it for whatever end, we must stop them," Varian said.
Jaina suddenly raised her staff, emitting a flash of light from its green crystal head. "Everyone!"
She successfully held everyone's attention.
"I know where Aang went. The last I heard he had gone to Mt. Hyjal to aid the druids in the fight there."
"How did you learn this?" Varian asked in surprise. The only ones not surprised were Chromie and Anduin.
"I have my sources," Jaina said. "In any case, I believe he is as safe as anyone can be right now, surrounded by archdruids and Ysera herself."
"Why didn't you tell anyone about this sooner?" the human king said.
"What could we have done about it?" she replied. "We don't know how to send them back and we don't need to keep them prisoner!"
Just then, the air split open and several humans rushed out of it. Toph looked briefly startled. "Did a bunch of people just appear?"
"Oh, no," Jaina whispered.
"What's the meaning of this?" Varian said, bristling. The guards nearby prepared to defend him, setting hands on their sword hilts.
"I told the other mages in Theramore to evacuate people here if..." She gulped.
No one had time to ask 'if what'. One of the people who'd just come through the portal announced: "Theramore is under attack by the Horde!"
Chapter 21: Zuko
The room was full of people Zuko didn't know talking about things he didn't know anything about. He did know the city of Theramore, and about the Horde, though. He also knew this new attack was ultimately caused by his and Katara's appearance.
Jaina had asked them not to talk about their capture by the Horde to anyone else. Apparently King Varian would've used it as an opportunity to attack first. Zuko frankly didn't know if that was so bad, but he understood the value of peacetime, however brief or tenuous, and that secrecy, even from your own side, was sometimes necessary to forestall conflict.
Unfortunately in this case it only let everyone else get caught unawares.
"What are their numbers like? Where are they coming from?" Jaina asked the people from Theramore.
"From the sea, with ships and airships. We're not sure on their numbers. As soon as we saw them on the horizon, we evacuated like you said."
Varian glared. "How did you know this attack was coming, Jaina?"
"Because the two off-worlders appeared in Horde territory," the sorceress said curtly. "I thought an attack in retaliation was possible."
"Retaliation for what?! They're two children, not an army!"
"Excuse me," Katara said. "But we happen to be benders, and pretty good ones too."
"And we sort of... flooded a village or two when escaping," Zuko said.
Varian's already impressive chin became even more sharp and protruding. "Why wasn't I told?! Of course the Horde would attack after that! You can't expect those tusked savages to act any better, not when they think they've been provoked!"
"Because you still think of them as 'tusked savages', that's why," Jaina said. "And it was Theramore's business. I took measures to ensure my people would be safe if something happened, because I am Theramore's ruler."
Varian glowered, nostrils flaring. When he finally spoke, his tone was terse. "Would you accept my aide, or am I no longer allowed in Theramore's business at all?"
She sighed. "I would."
He immediately turned to the nearby guards and began shouting commands for gathering troops. Jaina rubbed her head and continued to question the portal newcomers. Chromie quietly nodded to herself as if this all made sense somehow.
"Do you get any of this?" Toph asked no one in particular.
"Yeah," Zuko said. "Looks like we sort of tipped off a war."
"Oh, no," Chromie said. "The war has been going on a long time, taking a break every now and then."
"But we got Theramore attacked."
"Actually..." Chromie looked up at him. "If it's any consolation, this was going to happen anyway. Just a bit later on, under different circumstances."
Zuko gawked down at her. "What?"
"She's a time traveler, just roll with it," Toph said. "So, are we gonna go knock some heads?" She pounded one fist into the other with a grin.
"Somehow I doubt they'd let us go," he said. "They actually have something against teenagers getting involved in battles here."
Anduin had moved over to them by now. "Jaina may be persuaded to take you, knowing your abilities. But don't feel pressured to go." His voice had the slightly stilted, well-enunciated quality of royalty, without all the harsh bite of the royalty Zuko was used to.
"Thanks for your concern, but we've sort of been fighting a war in our own world for a while now," Katara said. "Besides, I did cause a tsunami and Zuko, well, he shot a bunch of fire."
"Hey!" Zuko said.
"I'd really like to do some good here, not just because we caused a lot of trouble," she went on, "but because I know we're good assets."
"Katara, no way!" Sokka said. "Do we have to get involved in everyone's problems? Can't we just let them fight their own battles for once?"
"It's a double full moon tonight!" she said. "I'm even stronger than I was on the full moon back home. I know I can help them!"
"Just because you can doesn't mean you have to!"
Anduin looked like he felt out-of-place standing there with them, but didn't have a way to politely retreat now. Katara addressed him. "You're a prince, right? You must have some influence."
Anduin smiled self-deprecatingly. "My father barely lets me participate..."
"Doesn't want to let you go to war, huh?" Sokka said.
"He doesn't believe I'm fit for combat, although I'm good with a bow. My main calling, however, is with the Holy Light. Of course, I'm sure even if I could wield a sword as good as he can, he'd still say I should stay home. But that's just him being overprotective."
Sokka nodded. "Dads can be like that. But don't worry, someday they come around and really see you as a man."
Zuko felt a sharp jab of jealousy.
"I don't know about that," Toph said. "Even when I totally kicked all the bad guys' butts with my Earthbending, my parents still wouldn't let me leave!"
"I thought you said they let you go..." Sokka said.
"Uhhh... That's not important! What's important is letting the grownups let us go fight! I'm getting bored sitting around listening to everyone talk!"
"Apparently so is Garrosh," Anduin sighed. "Jaina and I spoke to Baine -- Chief of the tauren -- to see if he could get through to Garrosh, but it obviously didn't work."
"What does Garrosh hope to gain?" Zuko asked.
"What do you mean?"
"What are his goals? Why is he at war?"
"To take more land, primarily. He makes any grab for land he can, and constantly pushes into Alliance territory. But he also dislikes our races on principle. He believes we're weak and not fit to rule." Anduin said this all matter-of-factly, as if merely repeating what he'd been told.
"Where I'm from, my father is the one doing that."
"Oh, um," Anduin said. He didn't seem to know what to say. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"Oh no, Zuko," Katara said, suddenly fearful. "The Comet!"
They all gasped collectively with the exception of Anduin.
Helpless dread washed over Zuko as he realized all the implications of their absence, as he remembered the Fire Lord's plans for their home planet, and that no one was around to stop them from happening.
The day of Sozin's Comet had come and gone. And with it, all their hopes of saving their own world.
Chapter 22: Katara
Katara imagined the forests of the Earth Kingdom all set ablaze, all the enemies of the Fire Nation killed or enslaved, and any spark of rebellion extinguished forever.
She didn't have time to dwell on it. They weren't there, they couldn't act; they were here and had to do what they could.
She turned to Jaina. "We're going with you," she said resolutely.
The sorceress regarded Katara and the others. "I don't think that's--"
"You know how powerful we are. We can help."
Sokka looked unhappy about this, but didn't try to argue anymore.
Jaina finally, slowly nodded. "Very well. But don't try to be heroes and go off on your own. Stay with the rest of our forces and follow orders."
The group nodded in return. Jaina glanced to Anduin. "Are you coming as well?" she asked the young prince.
He appeared surprised to be asked. "I can lend my healing..." he offered.
Varian overheard. "No. Absolutely not, it's too dangerous."
Anduin acquiesced without further argument. So much for his royal influence.
"You will have our aide in this as well," said the elf that had brought Sokka.
"Thank you, Tyrande," said Varian. He looked toward Toph and Chromie. "A shame the dwarves aren't here as well. Not that I can expect better from Moira..."
"Now's not the time," Jaina said. "The rest of the refugees should have appeared in Stormwind by now. I can create a portal for our forces to go to Theramore. We won't be able to bring ships or extra artillery, but we will get there in time."
The king considered it, then nodded. "My forces will be assembled soon. And then we fight for Theramore."
Jaina formed the portal, and the combined forces of Stormwind's infantry, Tyrande and Sunblade's contingents, Jaina and her mages, and Katara, Sokka, Zuko and Toph went through.
Theramore was another coastal city, in a misty marshland, with a lonely lighthouse beaming out over the sea.
The lighthouse light fell on an iron Horde warship. Three approached Theramore, with two airships above. They were nearly upon the shore.
"Archers, mages, line up on the walls and begin firing!" Varian ordered. "Anyone trained in manning artillery, get behind those cannons and ballistae! Aim for the hulls and balloons!"
"What should we do?" Katara asked.
"What can you do?"
"I can control the water. I might be able to capsize them."
"I can shoot fire," Zuko said. "But it's better at close range. Do you have any projectiles I can set on fire?"
"I can move rock!" Toph said. "And metal! Tell me where to build a wall or hurl a boulder and I'll do it!"
"Right." Varian paused a millisecond to consider. "Katara, go on the docks near the ballistae, use your water magic there. Zuko, go on the walls and light the archer's arrows. Toph, go with Katara, launch boulders at will and cover my men from incoming fire."
"I'll tell you where to aim," Katara said to her.
"What?" Varian said, confused.
"I'm blind," Toph said.
"What?! I can't have a blind little girl --"
Toph stomped one foot, rumbling the earth beneath the king. "Don't even start with the helpless little girl stuff, because I'm not!"
"It's fine, really," Katara said. "She's really great. She just needs some help aiming at targets in the air."
Varian grunted. "Too late to send you back anyway."
Katara and Toph dashed down to the rocky shoreline and docks, which were lined with ballistae already manned.
"Toph, when one of those shoots, just throw rocks in the same direction," Katara said. Toph nodded.
The mighty contraptions began to fire, launching their massive missiles at the oncoming ships. The enemy was prepared, however, and several of the giant arrows exploded in midair when Horde mages hit them with fireballs.
They had more trouble stopping boulders, though.
Katara focused on the ocean. She rocked and swung her arms in a motion to mimic the tide, falling into rhythm with the waters, until they had perfectly synchronized and she felt the ocean like an extension of herself. And then when she had the water under her thrall, she moved quicker, pulling the tide with her heightened movements. Waves frothed at the shore, and then she pushed the water away, rocking the ships on the sea.
A cloud of flaming arrows arced over them from the walls. Magical shields blocked many, but many more got through, pelting the enemy and their ships.
One airship turned, facing the city with its port side. Katara wondered why they'd expose the long side of the balloons like that, when she saw the swivel guns.
She barely shouted a warning before the airship let loose a full broadside of mortar shells.
"Toph, walls!" Katara broke off her waterbending to raise her hands, pointing at the incoming missiles.
Toph managed to read her movements quickly enough to raise a single, solid wall of stone in front of them and the nearest ballista. A second later, the shore shuddered with explosions and the splintering crack of a destroyed ballista she hadn't shielded.
Toph lowered the wall while the artillerymen reloaded the ballistae that survived. "Have I even hit their ships at all?!"
"Not much, they're still far out and your rocks are mostly hitting the water," Katara said. "They don't have any catapults here."
She looked up to the walls, where archers discharged flaming arrows, and mages shot bolts of fire and ice. While many connected with the ships, their metal hulls were barely damaged by such small projectiles, and the balloons didn't lose air quickly enough from such tiny punctures. None of the fire had gotten close to the balloons; the Horde's defensive mages quickly prevented that. The ships weren't coming any closer either.
A shout of warning came from someone on the walls. "Horde troops coming from the north!"
Katara couldn't see them yet, but she heard a hundreds of roaring orc voices, shouting one battle cry in tandem, followed by the drone of wolves howling.
"Toph, you should go fight with the infantry," she said. "You're a lot more dangerous at close range."
"Now you're talking! But what are you gonna do?"
Katara looked over the water at the ships. "They're too far for me to effect from here. I need to get closer. Maybe I can board one."
"I thought Jaina no one should try to be a hero."
"I'm not! Okay, maybe a little. But I'm also trying to be efficient! I'm not doing much good over here on land."
"Hey, I'm not stopping you. Just expect the king-guy to throw a fit about it afterward."
"I know." They said no more. Katara slipped away from the ballistae to find a place where she could slip into the water unseen, while Toph ran inland to join the infantry against the swarm of orcs.
Chapter 23: Toph
The cacophony of battle nearly deafened her. Shouting voices, howling wolves, clanking armor, running feet, all punctuated by the booms of cannon fire that simultaneously screamed and growled, rattling the air 'til it split.
Toph managed to make her way to the Alliance army, though the din and vibrations from every direction made it something of a challenge.
She heard Sokka call her name from somewhere nearby and angled toward him. "Toph," he repeated when she reached him, probably just to let her know it was him.
Varian and Tyrande shouted orders at the same time, and the whole crowd moved and merged in different directions. Sokka pulled Toph along with him, and she sensed the tall elves around them.
"Okay, start hurling boulders that way," he said. She oriented herself the same way as him, as he and everyone assumed a combat stance. The enemy hadn't closed in yet.
Toph pounded the earth, bringing up boulders and kicking them forward as rapidly as she could. At the same time, Sokka and the elves flung their razor-edged glaives, the circular weapons whistling through the air, cutting into the enemy without stopping, and returning to be caught.
They had no time for another volley before the wolf-riders met them head-on, and then everything dissolved into chaos.
Massive wolves sprang on them, biting and tearing anything they could bite. The orcs riding them swung bladed weapons to cleave whatever got in the way. The tall elves made easy targets, and in seconds many had been cut down.
Toph flung a dozen wolves into the air with a single, sudden pillar.
The Alliance forces engaged in melee, and soon swords and axes met each other with a constant, discordant song of ringing metal. The two armies became one, and Toph could no longer tell who was on her side anymore, as it seemed orcs on foot had joined the battle, and now everything was a mess of bipeds going one-on-one.
She felt uncharacteristically confused, and incredibly small, as everyone around her was unnaturally large. She lost track of Sokka, and tried to hear or feel him nearby, but the stomping of hundreds of soldiers made it impossible to distinguish any one person among them.
A huge set of wolf jaws suddenly clamped down on her shoulder.
She shrieked in pain as the animal lifted her off the ground and began to shake its head furiously, jarring her body and tearing deeper into her flesh. She had no contact with the earth and instantly lost all sense of direction, of anything. She was blind and deafened and senseless and terrified.
The wolf yelped suddenly, dropping her. The moment she hit the ground, she jabbed towards the wolf with her hand, slamming a block of rock into its torso. Its ribs collapsed on impact. An orc voice above growled and she then heard one weapon striking another very close to the top of her head. She heard her savior breathe out in exertion, and recognized it as Sokka.
She solidified her stance and tried to bring up twin pillars to smash the orc betwixt, but searing pain in her torn arm allowed only one pillar to rise. It was enough -- it struck the orc in the head and knocked him off his dead wolf. Sokka moved around her to finish it off before it could get its bearings; she heard the snicker-snack of cut flesh.
"Are you okay?" he asked, kneeling next to her.
"I'll live," she said, which was the most optimistic way to put it. In truth, the pain was intense and she could barely move her arm.
The din of battle seemed to recede suddenly, as if everyone made the decision at once to just give it a rest. Toph could only assume something very dramatic and visible was happening.
"What's going on?"
Sokka didn't answer. He held still, turning towards something, the same way soldiers on both sides were beginning to turn. Many hadn't acknowledged whatever it was yet, and continued fighting, until they noticed the descending silence around them and quieted as well. Soon they all stood still.
Toph's pulse sped up in anxiety. "What is it? I can't see!"
Someone on the walls shouted the answer: "DEATHWING!"
Panic broke out. Both armies began to yell and flee for cover, while Sokka and Toph stood still.
"It's huge! There's no way-- what are we supposed to do?!" he said.
A terrible voice boomed across the sky: "THE WORLD WILL BURN!"
She heard the cannons and ballistae firing, followed by the dragon's hideous, mocking laughter.
Working as quickly as possible, she broke open the ground beneath them, and both she and Sokka dropped into the sudden pit. With a swipe of her good arm, she sealed it off with a stone slab.
"The others!" Sokka said, his voice high. "Katara's still out there!"
"We don't have time to go get her!" Toph said. In reality, the thought of emerging from this hole to find her friends dead squeezed her heart with cold fear.
There was a roaring sound, a sound of flame too immense to measure. Screaming and shouting, and trampling feet in all directions. A sudden series of explosions that shook the air. Splintering ship hulls and toppling stone walls.
The unbroken roaring continued, enveloping any other sounds. Toph could feel the boiling heat even through solid rock; she began to sweat, and pushed more earth out of the way, deepening the pit they sat in and pulling them away from the inferno above.
She didn't know how long they waited down there. The screams stopped, and the fire went on. It seemed like ages before the heat receded.
She opened a small wedge in the rock ceiling. She didn't hear the dragon anymore. "See anything?"
"No, bring us up."
She opened the pit and lifted the ground beneath them, bringing them above ground again. The air was still hot, but not with the immediacy of an inferno in progress. She smelled smoke and burnt flesh, and tried not to gag.
Sokka was silent next to her, shaking slightly. She could feel his pulse racing. She didn't want to ask him what he saw.
Chapter 24: Aang
Aang landed with the force of a bellows, blasting wind forward. The fire choked and sputtered out.
"That's the last of it here," he said. "This would be a lot easier if I had my staff, though."
"I've never seen a human use nature magic so easily at all," Sheal the tauren said.
"It's only humans where I'm from." He walked among the charred trees, looking for any embers that might restart the fire.
After the green dragon Ysera explained that here, on Mt. Hyjal, the Twilight Cultists had been pushing up the mountain with their fire elementals, he'd volunteered to help the druids fight them back. Unfortunately, it was easier to set a fire than to put it out, let alone repair the damage left behind. Half of the mountain had already been burned, and in many places, the cultists had warped the very earth into dark metal that resisted growth and healing.
"Oh no!" He knelt down at a tree stump, next to which a rabbit huddled, its hindquarters severely burnt. As he reached out to take it into his arms, it started up and pulled away, shaking with its eyes full of fear.
"No, little buddy! I'm here to help!" he pleaded with it. The rabbit turned and bounded away, despite the injuries to its leg and the pain it must have felt. Aang ran after it, ignoring Sheal's confused questions.
It raced down a steep path at a quick clip, through brush and ash. He didn't want to try to snare it with earthbending, afraid he'd only hurt it further.
He saw it heading for a burrow, and he made one last leap with his arms outstretched - missing it narrowly as it slipped past his hands and disappeared into the ground.
Well, if it could run like that, maybe it would be alright after all. He could only hope.
He stood up and brushed dust off his torso. Below, the narrow path curved down into a cliff-walled valley, littered with elven ruins, which he'd grown accustomed to seeing. The short growth of grass ended abruptly on the far side, as the unmistakable Twilight taint had converted the entire half of the valley. Spiked iron railings and twisting edifices punctured the ugly landscape. On the overlooking cliff, creatures made of whirling air and lightning stalked, and below, the huge lumpy beings known as 'ogres' growled about with giant maces.
And they had slaves.
Even from a distance, Aang could tell the people in the encampment weren't cultists. They wore chains and shabby clothes, and mined the rock while the ogres looked on.
He paused, unsure of how to proceed. Should he return to the druids for help, or could he rescue the slaves himself? They wouldn't expect him to have elemental control, and once the slaves were freed, they could start to fight back.
But he didn't want to rush in if he didn't have to. And the slaves looked starved and tired; they might not stand up well to the ogres after all.
Taking advantage of the fact he hadn't been spotted, he turned to go back up the hill, when he heard an ogre's shout echo across the valley, and an immediate yelp of pain following.
He recognized that voice.
He didn't want to believe it.
He bit his lip, fighting the anger that urged him to protect his friends. He knew he shouldn't make things worse by jumping in. The druids could help, he'd go get backup and they'd get all the slaves out together.
The familiar voice kept shouting, on and on. He took a step up the path.
But what if they died while he was gone? What if something happened and then it was too late anyway?
He couldn't take that chance. He had to move in now before they spotted him, extract the prisoner, and get out to go get help for the rest. One person he could save, at least, right now.
He charged down the hill, letting gravity propel him forward, and moved his hands to build the wind with him. He cut swiftly across the grass, and the ogres noticed him, and shouted while hefting their maces. He didn't need to deal with them yet, he could dodge around their bulky forms.
Aang jumped at the last minute, twisting his body and ripping the gale forming around him into a small tornado that surged into the camp and threw the closest ogres backward while leaving the slaves unharmed. He'd aimed high, for their tall heads.
He landed and ran across the metallic ground, which seemed to whisper at the touch. Kneeling down, he grabbed the fallen slave by the arm.
"It sees!" she shrieked, writhing and gripping her head. "The shadow sees me!"
"Suki! It's okay, it's me, Aang! Let's get out of here!" He tried to pull her up.
She raised her head and he stepped back. Her face was drawn and dirty, with heavy bags under eyes, her cheek and collar bones pronounced from starvation. Her hair was unkempt, her eyes glazed and shining like a sick animal's.
She let out a strangled noise, uttering gibberish with a choked voice, as if the words forced themselves out of her against her will. "Gul'kafh an'shel!"
The ogres had stood and begun to charge.
"Come on!" Aang said desperately. He tried to yank her to her feet; she flopped forward onto her face. "Yoq'al shn ky ywaq nuul!" she cried into the dirt.
He didn't have time for this. He dropped her and pounded the earth, but instead of raising boulders, only tore up scattered pieces, and realized the dirt had somehow truly become metal, resisting his bending - if only Toph were there!
He used a gust of wind to scatter gravel at the ogres' faces; it hardly impeded them, and soon a massive spiked hammer fell down at him. He nimbly dodged away, but now the ogre stood between him and Suki, who was in no state of mind to help herself.
If wind and earth wouldn't work, maybe water would.
Aang backed away toward the small pond in the center of the valley, not quickly enough for the ogres to lose interest, letting them get close misses as he jumped and rolled. He saw their frustration rising as he darted around, making mocking faces at them, drawing them away from the camp.
When his foot hit damp earth, he raised the water up and surged it over and around the ogres' feet, and twisted his hands, hardening it into ice before they could react. While they yelled and tried to free themselves, he ran by them, back to Suki.
"Come ON!" he said as he tried to lift her once again. She was taller and heavier than he was, and he couldn't fly them both out of there, at least not without his air glider to help.
Frustrated, he grabbed both of her wrists and dragged her across the ground, away from the eerie, shining Twilight earth and onto Hyjal's natural living dirt. Maybe air couldn't live her, but the earth could!
Once there, he kept one hand holding onto her and used the other in tandem with his feet to raise waves of earth, surfing it quickly. He knew it would chafe and scrape Suki, but he had no choice; the ogres could free themselves any moment, or other cultists might notice and attack. She'd thank him later.
He nearly ran Sheal over at the top of the path, and halted with a flying of debris.
"Aang! What happened?" the tauren asked. "You suddenly ran off!"
"I saw a rabbit -" he started, stopped, and said instead, "It's not important! My friend's hurt! And crazy, I think!"
Sheal's eyes widened at Suki's gibbering and drooling. Without a word, she hefted the girl in her arms, and ran back toward the druids' camp at Wolf's Run.
Chapter 25: Sokka
Sokka put a hand on Toph's shoulder, not to guide her but to steady himself. Even during their own war, he had never seen so much fire and destruction.
Thick smoke filled the air, and bodies covered the ground, flesh burnt and armor warped. He tried not to be sick as he led her across the battlefield, stepping carefully around the corpses.
He couldn't see out to the water, and didn't know how the ships had fared. He only caught glimpses of the city ramparts through plumes of smoke, but couldn't be sure if he saw movement.
Was Katara alive? Or Zuko? Or anyone?
He heard coughing, and ran for it, beginning to cough himself. He used his spare hand to cover his mouth and thought of how useful airbending would be right then.
"You... you are alive!" Tyrande said, on her knees on the ground. She was ashy but unharmed, as were several sentinels around her.
"How did you survive?!" he asked.
"Elune..." The elf stopped to cough again. "The light of Elune protected us, but... I could not save us all."
"We have to find the others."
"I know." She and the other elves stood. "Are you hurt?"
"Toph is," he said before Toph could disagree.
"I will do what I can." Tyrande set a hand on Toph, and began to chant in the Night Elven language a prayer to Elune. A pure white light emanated at her touch, and the severity of Toph's injury lessened, but did not disappear completely.
"Thanks," Toph said quietly.
"I'm going to look for Katara," Sokka said, before quickly walking away to do just that. Toph kept his pace, even as he hurried into a jog, and then a run, bolting through the city toward the beach.
The artillery looked no better than the infantry. Splintered ballistae lay mingled with charred soldiers. His pulse raced as he frantically ran among the bodies, looking for a mane of long brown hair and praying for movement if he found it.
"Wait! Sokka!" Toph yelled as he left her. "Katara ran into the water, she was going after the boats!"
He waded out into the water immediately, feet sliding on the silty shore as it sloped steeply into the sea. Toph waited at the water's edge, as he swam out to the ships.
Both airships had fallen, all four balloons detonated, their hulls smashed into the sea vessels below. Fire lit them all, a roaring blaze that turned the water golden and the sky black around them. Sokka heard screaming Horde soldiers, splashing, burning, shouting.
"Katara!" he called. Panic choked his voice; his fear made him sound like a child. It made him feel like a child.
He reached the wreckage, huge, looming, burning above him, all five ships turned into a conglomerate, mangled mass. He pulled himself forward on floating timbers and barrels, ducked under iron framing and ashen sails. The few living orcs he passed ignored him, intent on their own survival.
In the narrow space between an airship and a half-capsized warship, he saw the hem of Katara's red skirt before it disappeared under the water. She did not swim; she sank.
He gulped in air and dived after her, plunging into near total darkness. Only flickers of occasional firelight pierced the depths shadowed by the ships, like lightning through the clouds.
He grabbed her foot and swam up again, but where he'd dived no longer had a surface, as the airship had sunk and tilted to occupy the space. His lungs burned as he searched along the wood and metal for a place to breach.
He finally surfaced through a window to the airship's gun deck, and pulled Katara onto one of the beams so he could hold her right-side up. She was unconscious, or barely conscious, and blood ran down her face from a wound he couldn't locate yet.
The airship was fully sideways and sinking quickly. Water surged up through the windows, and the fire-weakened wood began to splinter under the weight of the ship's iron framework. Sokka wrapped one arm around Katara's waist and half-climbed, half-swam through the deck for the windows on the opposite side. Cold, dark water frothed around him.
He emerged starboard amidst a flurry of embers, muscles aching. "Come on Katara, wake up..." He couldn't bend the water away, he couldn't heal her!
The airship creaked loudly as it settled into the sea. Only the remains of its balloons, laying over top of the warship, kept it afloat for now.
Sokka could barely see the shore through the smoke and diminishing sunlight. The ship shuddered beneath him. Katara continued to bleed, and he saw the gash on her head. Could he swim her to the shore and find one of the priestesses in time?
He quickly unwound the cloth from his wrist and wrapped it around her head, trying ineffectually to stymie the blood flow. He knew nothing about healing; he always saw it as something for girls and grannies to learn, while the men did the fighting. He only vaguely knew about treating hypothermia, that was all. He realized he'd always taken Katara's skill for granted -- always assumed she'd be there to take care of him, and after she learned healing, he'd always assumed she'd be around to do that, too. It never occurred to him that someday she'd be disabled and he'd be left helpless.
The makeshift bandaging didn't seem to do any good, and he could hear the rattling in her lungs when she breathed. She'd inhaled a lot of water already, but he didn't know how to treat that, either. She did. She knew everything he needed to know right now!
"Katara! Come on, breathe, throw up the water!" He pounded a fist on her chest, reckless with panic, trying to wake her up, or force the water out, or anything. "You have to wake up and heal yourself!
"This would be a great time to suddenly find out I'm a waterbender!" In desperation, he mimicked waterbending hand motions, trying to imagine the fluid rising out of her lungs. Nothing happened. "Katara, come on, we've still got a world to save, remember? We've got to take out the Fire Lord! You're not supposed to die yet! Didn't that oracle say you'd have grandchildren first? Well she was right about everything else, wasn't she?!" He shook his sister by the shoulders, his voice rising and cracking. "This isn't how it's supposed to happen, we don't even belong here! Wake up! Wake up!"
He slapped her hard across the face; her head lolled and she didn't respond. His heart beat hard in his chest, his hands shook, his throat and eyes burned. He pulled her up against him, wrapping his arms around her. He felt her temperature ebb away, her breathing slow.
"What were you even doing out here? Why do you always have to be a hero?" He gripped her tightly.
Looking up, he tried vainly to catch glimpses of either moon in the sky, but all he saw was smoke and broken masts. "I know I've only been here a month, and I'm not an elf, but I could really use your help right now. I promise I'll -- I don't know, I'll help out with this war, and tell people how great you are, and...
"Don't let her die. Moon spirit -- Elune -- whoever you are, don't let her die."
The ocean breeze parted the smoke like curtains briefly. The white moon shone down. Sokka's hands shone in response.
Snowy moonlight spread from him to Katara, enveloping her head to toe. It felt cool as a night breeze, calming and soothing, and for a moment Sokka closed his eyes and felt like he was in his mother's arms again.
The light reached a peak and then faded with a gentle whisper. Katara coughed and sputtered, water falling from her mouth all at once. She took a deep breath, her airways clear, and lifted her head to look at Sokka in confusion. "What happened?"
"You got knocked out and --" The hull of the ship suddenly plunged into the water fully. "No time to explain!"
They stood as the water came up to their ankles. She needed no prodding to waterbend, creating a path of ice all the way to the shore. They ran across it, Sokka feeling buoyant with relief and disbelief.
He turned his head up to look at the moon, now clearly visible, and mouthed the word, "Thanks."
When they arrived, they found Toph moving injured soldiers up the beach with conveyor belts of stone. "Hey," she said. "I could feel which one's hearts were still beating. Sweet, huh?"
"Toph, you're alive!" Katara said.
"Yeah, so are you! What even happened out there?"
"I-- it's hard to remember. I was swimming out there and suddenly that dragon..."
"Everything was exploding and on fire and the airships fell and something hit me on the head," Katara said, reaching up to touch her scalp. Blood still slicked her hair, and Sokka's wrist-wrappings were still there, but the wound was gone without a trace. "I don't remember healing myself."
"You didn't," Sokka said. "I did. Or Elune did. Whatever! The important thing is you're alive."
"Well whoever's got the healing juice had better use it on these soldiers," Toph said. "I can't stitch them up with rocks."
Katara nodded, and lifted seawater over to begin healing the soldiers. She moved quickly and easily, as if nothing had happened to her at all.
Sokka looked at his hands. The light hadn't come from him, but it had moved through him, like pouring water through a funnel. Could he do it again?
He knelt down by a burned soldier and put his hands on the man's shoulders, concentrating on what he'd thought and felt earlier -- a desire to act, to reverse harm, to help, though it lacked the same edge of desperation. What he didn't need to trick himself into feeling was belief. He knew Elune was real.
It was hard to believe that just this morning he had found it hard to believe.
Katara looked over and gasped in shock when she saw the white light spread from his hands over the burns and relieve them. They weren't entirely healed, but at least stabilized.
"How did you do that?!" she said.
Sokka smiled sheepishly. "Well, I've been studying their moon goddess here..."
"I missed it, what happened?" Toph said.
"He used bending to heal someone!"
"I told you," he said.
"I didn't -- well, no offense, but..."
"Hey, I get it. But now I'm not just the boomerang and meat guy! Now I can do stuff too! Magic stuff!"
"Wait, so you're telling me you can just learn new types of bending here?" Toph said.
"It's not really bending, it's a whole different kind of magic," Sokka said. "But basically? Yeah."
She mused on this a moment, then slapped a hand on her chest. "The greatest earthbender alive doesn't need any fancy-schmancy new magic. It would only detract from my natural greatness."
After partially healing one more person, Sokka's magic had noticeably waned, and he wasn't sure he could do much more. "Hey Katara, you feel alright, right?"
"I'm wet and cold, but that's nothing new. Why?"
"I'm going to look for Zuko and any other survivors."
"I'll come with," Toph said.
While Katara continued to heal -- her powers seriously boosted by the presence of two full moons -- they set off through Theramore, toward the walls where Zuko had gone with the ranged support.
Many of the walls and towers had been destroyed. Piles of rubble filled the streets, and Sokka felt glad that the general populace had already evacuated beforehand. "Feel any more heartbeats?"
Toph stopped to concentrate, digging her toes into the dirt. "That way!" She pointed ahead, and they ran forward to a collapsed stone wall. She wasted no time in digging it out, flinging boulders aside.
A groan came from underneath.
"Zuko!" they both exclaimed at once, and pulled him from the rubble.
He was burned, not mortally, but either way Sokka lacked the energy to heal anymore. "Toph, get Katara. I'll look for Tyrande," he said. He was glad for the moons that night, and the boon they gave to both waterbenders and priests.
Toph ran back to the beach without question.
"You'll be okay, it's not that bad," Sokka said. "Don't go anywhere."
Zuko nodded weakly. Sokka ran for where he last saw Tyrande and the other living elves; he found her on the ravaged battlefield still, tending what very few survivors they had found. Of the combined forces that had met today, only handfuls lived, and most of them only barely.
"High Priestess -- " he called.
He stopped when she turned and he saw the intensely mournful expressions on all of their faces. They stood over a large body, a blackened silhouette.
Tyrande drew herself up and announced in a steady voice, "King Varian is dead."
Chapter 26: Zuko
Zuko folded his hands over his chest in thought. He had nothing else to do at the moment, really.
The dragon had been terrible, monstrous, not at all like the dragons of his own world. Instead of sinuous and graceful, it had been huge and bulky like a bear, covered in black jagged scales whose seams bled lava. He remembered the dragon's false jaw made of black iron - just before it opened wide and engulfed the peninsula in flame.
Zuko had reacted on instinct, fighting away the flames with his own, expending all his energy to do so. But he'd survived, unscathed, and so had the few archers standing next to him - at least until the wall melted at the bottom and collapsed. He didn't remember much after that.
He peered up through the smoke and saw Jaina Proudmoore and several other mages moving through the ruins, using their spells and summoned water elementals to extinguish the flames. She spotted him and jogged over.
She was likewise unharmed, though the hems of her clothes were burnt and her hair was sticky with sweat. "Are you alright?" she asked. Her voice trembled slightly with fear, but she remained calm and poised.
"Yeah," he said, sitting up to prove it. He coughed, and then groaned as it pulled his bruised muscles.
"Have you seen anyone else?"
"Toph and Sokka. Apparently Katara's alive too, and Tyrande."
Jaina nodded, looking somewhat relieved. "That's good news. Come," she said, reaching down to help him stand. She then turned aside, sweeping her gaze over the ruined city, her blue eyes wet with sorrow.
"Listen, I, uh," Zuko said, "I'm sorry that Katara and I -"
"No," the archmage said. "Garrosh would have taken any excuse to attack. And if I didn't have forewarning, all those people would still have been here when Deathwing came."
"That's one way to look at it," he murmured, then asked, "Where did the Horde go?"
"I saw their survivors fleeing. There's no need to pursue them. Perhaps Garrosh will think our civilians are dead..." She sighed, and moved on to find more survivors.
The survivors numbered few, and once reconnoitered, returned through a portal to Stormwind. The mood was morose, tense, exhausted. Several of the veterans had tears on their faces; others stood wide-eyed and shivering.
Jaina and Tyrande went aside to speak quietly together. Zuko sought his friends to stand near, though he had nothing to say. Castle guards approached the group to question them about the battle, but their questions were met with shaking heads and quiet stares. No one wanted to describe what they had seen.
Anduin Wrynn entered from a side corridor, bags under his bright eyes. He stifled a yawn as he went to the two women, asking, "How did it go?"
Priestess and mage exchanged a heavy glance before looking back down to him. "Anduin," Jaina said softly, then halted.
"What? Has something happened? Did the Horde win?"
"Nobody won," she said. "Deathwing came."
Anduin's face froze in shock. He looked over those assembled, and seemed to realize they were all who had returned, or would ever return.
"Where is my father?"
Jaina closed her eyes and bowed her head.
Anduin let out a ragged breath, and then pinched his eyes shut, forced himself to stand straighter and smoothed out his tunic. He swallowed hard and opened his eyes, clearly struggling to retain composure. "What is the next course of action?" he asked stiffly.
"We don't know yet," Jaina said. "But the Horde have also taken severe losses, and are unlikely to attack again soon. We have time to plan."
He nodded. "Your people can stay here in Stormwind, of course," he said, and cleared his throat. "E-excuse me." He turned sharply and exited down the hall from which he came.
"We should go talk to him," Katara said suddenly.
"What? Why?" Sokka said.
"He just lost his dad!" she hissed in a low voice. "We all know how it feels to lose a parent, we should comfort him!"
"But we barely know him, and besides, he's a prince and we're just some strangers, he's got stuff to do."
"So? Zuko's a prince too!"
Zuko raised his hands. "But -"
"And you're both going to be leaders of your nations soon."
"What am I supposed to say?! 'Hi, sorry your dad died, want to come hang out with me and my other half-orphan friends and chat about losing parents'?"
"I don't know," she sighed. "But nobody else is talking to him."
"Maybe he wants to be alone."
"Well, I'm going to talk to him," she said.
She began to move, but Sokka grabbed her shoulder. "He's got his own friends to talk to him, alright?" he said.
"Does he? I haven't seen another kid or teenager here at all," she said.
"It's the middle of the night, they're probably asleep," Zuko said.
By then, most of the survivors had filtered out, the room steadily emptying. Jaina and Tyrande discussed strategy, their voices occasionally rising in some disagreement, before they both stopped and seemed to remember the kids were still present.
Jaina approached them. "You all need a place to stay, don't you? I'm sure there are quarters available here." Without waiting for a response, she ushered them all down a hall and asked the first servant she saw to find them some rooms.
Zuko dreamed of Deathwing descending on the Fire Nation, standing over the bodies of dragons Ren and Shaw like a firehawk on its prey, before turning to speak in Fire Lord Ozai's voice, even while clutching Ozai's body in its massive claws.
Zuko fearlessly looked up at them, looked at his father's body, and only uttered, "Thank you."
Zuko woke before dawn and wiped his brow of sweat. He did not enjoy dreams like that - but recent events had turned his thoughts to home, and the similarities between Deathwing and his father were too strong to ignore, as was the selfish wish that someone else had dealt with Ozai by now.
He rose from the plush bed in the guests' quarters. The room was large and lavish, but at least not decorated in red and gold like the Fire Nation palace. The white walls and blue tapestries were refreshingly cool-colored.
Across the room, Toph slept like a rock on the floor next to her own bed.
Zuko exited quietly, shutting the door with care, before walking down the hall. He had no destination in mind, only hoping to clear his head before sleeping again.
He found himself in the open, grassy courtyard, quiet but for the songs of night birds and crickets. The walls had open arches, allowing an impressive view of a lake below.
As he made his way for the ledge, white cloth caught his eye, and he turned his head aside and saw Anduin sitting at the base of a tree. Noticing him in return, Anduin stood quickly. "Is there something you need?" the Stormwind prince asked in a courteous tone.
"I didn't know anyone was out here," Zuko said. "I'll just g-"
"It's ironic, isn't it? How because of the attack on Theramore, there were fewer casualties overall."
"There were still a lot of casualties," Zuko said, and immediately regretted it. How stupid! Of course Anduin knew that!
"But they were all soldiers. People who... who knew it could happen, who risked their lives anyway. I think that's how my father would have wanted it. Him, instead of innocent civilians."
Zuko tried to think of something positive to say. "He was pretty brave out there."
"He was a soldier at heart. He had always hoped I'd -" Anduin broke off, clearing his throat.
"Sometimes parents want their kids to turn out a certain way. But it doesn't mean you have to. If he hadn't told you to stay behind..."
"I know. I... I almost didn't listen. I was tempted to sneak in with the rest of you, to do my part."
"What are you going to do now?"
"I wish I knew. There'll be a funeral, a huge one, all the other leaders will be there probably, then a coronation ceremony... I wish Bolvar were here."
Anduin smiled weakly. "An old friend." He sat down on the edge of the courtyard overlooking the lake. "He stood in as Regent when my father went missing, when I was a child."
Zuko sat as well, secretly relieved not to have to stand anymore. "What about the Queen?"
"She died when I was an infant."
"Oh." Zuko frowned. "Mine went missing when I was young, too. No one ever found her."
"I am sorry to hear that." Anduin paused thoughtfully. "You mentioned your father earlier..."
"Yeah, he's... trying to take over the world, where I'm from." And probably succeeding, by now. "My friends and I are on a mission to stop him."
"That must be very difficult."
"Yeah. Well, at first I was trying to stop them," he admitted with a sheepish shrug. "I was obsessed with his approval. I thought I could reclaim my honor that way. But joining them was the smartest thing I ever did."
"I pray you succeed, then, and bring peace to your world," Anduin said, staring off at the valley below.
"Yeah. You, too."
The Stormwind prince looked over, his expression troubled and torn. "I don't know how easy it will be. Garrosh won't stop until we're dead, neither will Deathwing. There's so much hate between all sides that no one even wants peace except a few of us! And now I- I'm going to be King. The people will expect me to follow in my father's footsteps, to be a warrior, and aggressive, and try to take back Azeroth from the orcs. But I'm not like him. And I'm just a boy. Will they even listen to me?"
"I don't know what to tell you," Zuko said. "It's the same for me. My father's Fire Lord. We've been at war for over a hundred years, and my people think I'm a traitor for trying to stop it. I have no idea what I'm going to do once I'm Fire Lord instead."
"You- are also a prince?"
"Yeah. But, I have my friends, I have the Avatar and a lot of others on my side. A lot more people want peace than it looks on the outside. I'm sure it's the same here. You have Jaina and Tyrande, right?"
"Yes, and Prophet Velen and the dwarven Council..."
"...Uh-huh." Zuko nodded absently, not knowing what those were.
"When this is over, it would be good to have you and your friends as allies," Anduin said, forcing another faint smile.
Zuko nodded. "We'll both need all the help we can get."
Chapter 27: Katara
Rains fell over the procession, the pall-bearers, the quietly lamenting crowds that lined the streets. Salty winds off the sea brought a sudden autumn chill, stripping the trees and sending leaves down the swollen canals. The white city turned gray to match the sky.
Through the din of rainfall came voices in mournful chorus, singing in a language Katara didn't understand, but which sounded unbelievably broken and sad. Though members of the church had begun, lead on by the piping tenors of young boys, the citizenry joined in until every stone wall reverberated with its words.
Prince Anduin had become King Anduin Wrynn of Stormwind and High King of the Alliance, crowned under the downpour by one of the city's religious figures. Katara had heard someone comment on the oddity of their lacking Archbishop, gone on a mission somewhere and apparently too busy to return for this occasion.
She thought back during it all on the numerous funerals and memorials of her home village -- affairs which became smaller and quieter each time, and many times without a body to honor, only the assumption that, like all the rest, they would not return from the Fire Nation's clutches. She wondered who would honor Aang when his time came. Would the world mourn him as one and talk of how he brought balance to the four nations? Or would they whisper prayers in secret while the reigning Fire Nation danced around his effigy?
Her heart shivered just to think about it. She glanced aside at Zuko, searching for some distraction from the gloom. He stared up at a flapping lion pennant, his upturned face wet and placid. Perhaps he thought ahead to his own coronation.
If they even got to have one. How long had they been stuck on Azeroth already? One, two months? Sozin's Comet had come and gone, and Ozai and Azula --
No! Katara grit her teeth. They had to have hope! Even Kings, even Firelords, died. If she could find any optimism in this day of despair, it was mortality itself, the inevitable cessation of warmongers. Just as the tide came in, so it also went out.
A high voice interrupted her reverie. "I apologize if I've come at a bad time, but I've been sent to collect the four of you."
Katara, Zuko, and Sokka turned to face the gnome standing behind them; Toph merely turned her head. "Chromie?"
"Oh, we've met?" Chromie said.
"Yeah, in Ironforge, remember?"
"Hmm... I will learn more on this later. Nozdormu, the bronze Aspect, has asked for help from mortal champions, including you four specifically."
"Chromie, there's a funeral for the King going on right now," Katara said. Although she hadn't known Varian personally, it seemed rude to leave in the middle of this.
The gnome's eyebrows lifted slightly. She appeared to register this information briefly before saying, "Fortunately, your mission is not 'right now', but in the distant future."
"The future?!" Sokka said. "Come on, that's ridiculous."
"We Bronze dragons are time travelers. I'm sure I could replace you right here, right now, and no one around you will have noticed your absence, regardless of its length from your perspective."
"Well, can't you zip us up ahead to when someone figures out a way to send us home, then?"
She smiled ruefully. "I know nothing of your situation, or even about you as individuals."
Toph stepped toward her. "Chromie, it's me, Toph! We --"
"Have met before, and to that end, will meet again. If all four of you are ready, I can take us immediately to meet with Nozdormu."
"We don't even know what we're supposed to be ready for," Katara said.
"I can share no more while here, I'm afraid."
"Please, accompany me to the future and I can tell you more there. If you still refuse after that, I can send you right back."
"I don't see why not," Zuko said, crossing his arms.
"Fine," Katara sighed, and looked to the others for confirmation. Sokka and Toph both shrugged; what else was there to say? As usual they had their weapons on hand, and possessed little else to worry about.
Chromie nodded, and a brilliant, bronze light enveloped them all, drowning out their other senses. The rain, sky, and stone all vanished, replaced by the sound of frantic ticking and sensation of falling down a narrow tunnel.
Katara gasped in fear and reached out blindly for the others, unable to see or even feel anything for a terrifying ten seconds. When the magic cleared, she found one hand flailing in the open air and the other clasped on Zuko's cloak, squeezing water through her fingers. She withdrew her hands and opened her mouth to utter an embarrassed apology, but no sound came as her jaw remained open in shock at the scenery before her.
They all stood in a wasteland, an endless field of cracked gray earth littered with gigantic, bestial skeletons. The dry air smelled of ash, dust and ozone. Shattered Horde airships lay lie dead animals. Everything sounded so dreadfully quiet, with not a single buzz of a gnat nor distant call of a bird.
Far across the valley stood an immense tower, its ancient patina gleaming with what little sunlight broke through the choking, dusty clouds. Pierced on the tower's spire hung the body of Deathwing.
"He's dead?! But -- " Sokka started.
"Remember, this is the future," Chromie interrupted. "One of many. After his successful bid to end all life on Azeroth, he took his own, in sacrifice to those he called Master."
"What's the point of bringing us here?" Zuko said. "We can't change anything if everything's already dead. Shouldn't we stop him in the past? I mean, the present... whatever."
"Exactly." Chromie stared out over the landscape, her face sad but poised, calm with reverence for the desolation before her. "But it's dangerous to discuss things when he's still alive. He has ears everywhere, even in the earth itself."
"Hmf," Toph grunted, curling her toes in the dust. "It really is all dead here. I can't even feel any worms."
Chromie nodded, and led them forward through a rocky pass. "In the time we just left, Thrall almost met an unfortunate end by communing with the earth, and meeting Deathwing there, far beneath it. One of the red flight's attempts to purify black dragon eggs ended disastrously, as he could sense their efforts to hide the eggs inside a cave -- how can we keep secrets from one whose entire domain is the soil on which we walk? The answer, of course, is to make them in a time he's already dead."
"That's pretty clever," Sokka said. He hugged his arms in a shiver, still wet from the rain, and likely chilled by this strange, lifeless reality.
"What can we do, though?" Katara said. "We were all there in Theramore when Deathwing showed up there. All we could do is hide, we just got lucky."
"Don't worry, you won't be alone!" Chromie said. "We've sent calls out to many heroes, and gathered the forces of the dragonflights. In truth, the steps of our plan are all going off simultaneously -- from a certain perspective -- and one step involves a fight here in the future. I won't bore you with all the details; that'd require a course on Azerothian history. But the gist of it is that thousands of years ago, Deathwing created a powerful weapon deadly to dragons. It was eventually destroyed, but -- just as I have plucked you safely from your point in time, standing there in Stormwind -- one of my sisters has gone to pluck this weapon from its own past. After we use it against Deathwing, we can set it back exactly when and where it was before."
"A weapon? I can't imagine any weapon is even big enough for Deathwing, and still be wielded by someone else," Sokka said.
"It's not a traditional weapon. It's called the Dragon Soul. It looks like nothing more than a large gold coin, but has been infused with energy from all the dragon Aspects. Which is why they're weak to it."
"Why the heck would they make a weapon that hurts them?" Toph said.
"Desperate circumstances, and Deathwing's trickery; none of that is important here."
"So, we're supposed to use this Soul thing?" Sokka asked.
"Not you personally; Thrall will. Deep in the past, a small strike force has slipped amongst the now-dead ancients to recover the Dragon Soul. From your original time's perspective, Thrall's just launched an incursion on that temple you see ahead, with the Dragon Soul already in hand. And from here -- if you agree to help -- I will send you to meet him and the others there, where the final assault on Deathwing will begin."
"Urgh, all this time stuff is making my head hurt," Toph said. "Or should I say it's already going to have made my head hurt tomorrow?"
"Don't worry, it's not a mortal's job to keep track of it all."
"So, if this is the future, does that mean the plan failed?" Sokka said.
"Only in this version. Your native timeline is, thankfully, still salvageable."
"Yeah, but... Okay, you're a time traveler. You've seen the future, right? Our future? Does the plan work there?"
Chromie turned her pale eyes on him. "Unfortunately, future events are muddied. We can't make them out. For once, we must act like the mortals do -- on blind intuition, without concrete knowledge of the outcome."
"Hey, doing things blind has always worked out for me!" Toph said. "Oh, wait... Things are muddied because we're here, aren't they? We messed things up by showing up."
"That may be part of it, but no. Nozdormu's just ahead, he will explain more as he sees fit."
They rounded a bend and the crevice opened up to a wide crater. Several groups of heavily-armed Azerothians stood about, both Horde and Alliance (but keeping separate). In the center of them stood a lone man, with the pointed ears and glowing eyes of an elf, but the tan skin of a human. "They are children?" he said incredulously when Chromie and the quartet stepped into the open.
Katara looked around and everyone with their extravagant armor, glowing weapons, and fearsome beasts, and felt terribly underdressed.
"These are the four you sent for, master," Chromie said. "The strange humans from another reality."
"Mmm. Indeed, I can sense that now." The man approached them and eyed them piercingly. "Normally I would not trifle with... such ill-equipped mortals. But your interference in the past demands your presence in the now."
"A... are you Nozdormu?" Katara asked.
"Yes," he said curtly, and turned away without elaboration, retaking his place in the center of the groups. He raised his voice to be heard by all. "Welcome to the End Time. I apologize for bringing you all here under such suspicious circumstances, but I have a good reason for doing so. We are going to kill Deathwing, and you are going to help."
The crowd murmured their assent, several thumping their weapons on the ground. Several more openly eyed the corpse of Deathwing on the tower.
"A creature blocks us from accessing the time needed to retrieve the Dragon Soul. This creature is named Murozond, and must be killed here in this twisted future. That is why I've brought you here."
"How can you block the past from the future?" Sokka mused quietly.
"The same way damming a river causes a flood upstream," Chromie answered just as quietly.
"Several entities exist here as well. Time-twisted remnants of the past. They must be dealt with as well." Nozdormu began pointing out groups. "You will take the Ruby Dragonshrine. You will take the Emerald. You will take the Azure. And you four -- you will take the Obsidian." His finger fell on Katara and the others. "The rest of you will take down Murozond."
"Why can't we all take them on one-by-one?" a night elf shouted from the crowd.
"Like I'd work with an elf!" an orc growled.
"Leave it to tha orcs t'risk extinction out o' stubborn prejudice!" a dwarf jeered.
"Oh, great," Katara sighed as the groups fell into shouting.
"Silence, all of you!" Nozdormu shouted, his voice echoing around the crater. The shouts died down. "I did not bring you here to bicker like children! You will do this task appointed or you can go back to your own time and leave things to the rest of us!"
"Like I'd let the Alliance take all the glory," the same orc muttered.
When no one dissented, Nozdormu nodded sharply. "Good. Now get to your mission objectives."
"I still don't get," Sokka said, "why we're killing this Myrmidon guy if Thrall's already got the thing from the past."
"Circumstantial simultaneity," Chromie answered with a wave. "Don't worry about it."
"Um, we don't know where this Obsidian place is," Katara said.
"Don't worry, we've prepared a portal just for this purpose." The gnome pointed ahead to a device resembling a circular gate filled with light. "It's calibrated to take you to your particular destination."
"What's going to be there? What do we do?"
"A time-lost echo of someone Nozdormu believes you, specifically, will know how to defeat. Don't worry -- this isn't the real person, only a figment of their soul left behind."
"Well who is it?" Toph said.
"We have no idea. I'm sorry. We only know it's someone from your world."
Thoughts of having to destroy Aang's spirit made Katara's heart flutter. But no -- even if he died, he'd only reincarnate, wouldn't he?
She looked around at the others, afraid to speak her concerns. Zuko, however, spoke them for her. "So we're going to have to kill some version of one of us."
"They're already dead by now," Sokka said. "So..."
"So then we'll know which one of us is going to die here," Toph said, fists clenched at her sides.
No one spoke for a long moment as the wind howled around them.
"Let's get this over with," Zuko said. "I'm sorry ahead of time at how this might look -- attacking one of you again."
"And I'm sorry if it turns out to be you," Katara said. He nodded, mouth a thin line.
One by one they stepped through the gate, and seemed to fly through another tunnel of light and time, if only for a half-second. They stepped out on the other side somewhere else in the same landscape, judging by the changed position of the tower on the horizon.
The gray ground sloped downward into a blackened pit, its steep walls filled with angry red lava. In the lava were islands of rock, and on the center island stood a figure facing away from them. The figure's form flickered like candle smoke in the wind, their own shadow fluttering around them as if two of them stood there, transparent and overlapping.
The figure's shoulders stiffened as soon as the group approached the edge of the lava, sensing them without looking over.
"You left me here to die," the figure's hollow voice echoed out. "You traded me away to make room for your perfect world. And you left me here to die on this one!"
All four of them froze, paled in shock.
"Wasn't I good enough?!" the figure screeched to the sky. "I hate you! I HATE YOU!"
The ragged figure turned to them with insurmountable venom gleaming in her golden eyes.
In the center of the Obsidian Dragonshrine stood the time-lost echo of Azula.
Chapter 28: Zuko
"Azula?!" Zuko gasped.
"But we never even heard of her coming here!" Katara said.
"That means my father could be here too," he said.
The shade of Azula clawed at her hair. "It isn't fair! I did everything for you! You left me here, you LEFT ME BEHIND!"
"What do we do?" Katara said.
"We -- " Zuko halted. After all the times he'd told them to kill Ozai, he couldn't bring himself to order them to kill his little sister.
"We destroy her," Sokka said. "It."
"Wait," Katara said. "What if she has answers about what's going on? Why we're here and how to get back."
"It's pretty obvious she never succeeded at getting back."
"But she was here before, she must know something at least! What did she mean about being traded away?"
"She's unhinged," Zuko said. "Whatever was left of her mind before is completely broken now."
"Let's stop yammering and get this over with!" Toph said. "We already knew it'd be someone we know. Nothing changed! If we really need to get answers out of Azula, I'm sure we'll run into her in our own time, back when she's alive and slightly less crazy."
"Right." Sokka drew his glaive. "Toph, Zuko, you --"
Azula didn't wait for them to plan. Zuko barely had time to cut through the blast of blue fire, deflecting it away from the group. As it cleared, she launched herself at them with a burst of propelling flame from her fists.
“Look out!” Sokka shouted as the airborne Azula bore down on them. Toph pulled up a rock shield and the next instant Azula split it in half with another superhot jet of flame.
The group descended on Azula from all sides. Toph summoned a rapid line of stony spears that Azula leapt and dodged, only to be shot down by one of Zuko's quick firebolts. Sokka moved in, slashing his glaive, as Katara lashed out with her water whip.
For a moment it looked like they'd pinned Azula down, and the next she erupted with a scream that shook the earth, her shadowy body issuing trails of black smoke. The earth beneath them all snapped with a concussive noise, bucking and boiling, lava rising flush to the surface like blood out of a wound.
Katara screamed as her foot slipped and touched lava, both sandal and skin catching fire. Her water whip fell and evaporated with a hiss. Sokka reached out for her; their hands just missed as the crevasse between them shuddered even wider.
Toph slammed her feet and thrust her hands to stabilize the shifting plates, as more and more succumbed to magma and turned their platforms into islands. “I can't bend this!”
Katara fell to her hands and knees and crawled unsteadily to the center of her ever-shrinking island. She patted the fire out on her foot and then clung to the rock as it shook and then began to splinter. The island was seconds away from falling apart completely; she ran out of places to grab as glowing veins spread across its surface.
“Katara!” Zuko shouted. He took a running leap from his island to hers, grabbed her arm and leapt again without stopping. The hems of their tunics caught fire as they cleared the gap.
“Watch out!” Sokka warned again. Zuko looked to see Azula taking aim at their turned backs. Her eyes smoked and glowed like molten gold.
Sokka's flung glaive caught her bracer just in time, her shot going wide. She screamed in frustration and flew from the island in a wake of spectral black ash, focused entirely on Zuko.
She landed on their island and began to assault him with quick, potent strikes like a cobra, each blow punctuated by fire and sparks of electricity. She looked less whole or human with each motion, as if her hate were turning her inside out and leaving nothing but shadow and flame.
He blocked and parried her attacks with his own, but couldn't redirect the zaps of lightning on her fists when they connected. Katara maneuvered around the narrow strip of earth to flank Azula, but Azula didn't seem to notice, all energy and attention directed at Zuko, ignoring all else even as Katara struck again and again at her back.
“You left me here,” Azula snarled. “You gave me away like a prize! I WAS GOING TO FIGHT BY YOUR SIDE!”
Zuko grit his teeth, using every ounce of dexterity to deflect her blows, put on the defensive by her inhuman strength and speed. She'd been formidable before, now she wasn't even herself, but something else, otherworldly and overpowered.
“Zuko, the island!” Katara said.
The rock was breaking again, sinking into the magma. It had already drifted from the others, leaving a gap that looked impossible to jump – but they had to if they were going to survive.
“Hang on!” Zuko said, ducking under Azula's arm and weaving around her to grab Katara. She clung to him without delay. He sprang from the very edge of the rock, hoping against hope he'd clear the jump. But the lava was rising up and not the precipice, they weren't going to make it --
Toph motioned from afar, and a pillar of black stone jutted out like a dock on the sea. His feet connected. He wobbled, almost losing balance as Katara's feet hung over empty air, for a moment nothing but dead weight, until they both twisted themselves at once and half-jumped, half-stumbled the rest of the way onto solid ground.
They turned, expecting another attack from behind. Azula, alone on the island, sank with it. Flames licked up her sides, replacing her clothing with itself, wreathed in fire like armor. Her smoky skin blackened until she looked carved from the very landscape, a miniature volcano in human form. Her bracers flecked away to reveal heavy iron manacles gleaming with runes.
“What is she?!” Katara gasped.
“Not my sister,” Zuko said, only for himself to hear. “Not anymore.”
“Attack all at once! On three!” Sokka said.
“I hate you,” the elemental Azula uttered, her voice crackling with embers. “I hate you, Father.”
She launched herself at Zuko, moving over the lava as if it were solid ground.
“OnetwoTHREE!” Sokka shouted.
Flame, glaive, and stone connected at once with her. Her form detonated from the combined impacts in a massive cloud of blue flame, smoke and cinders filling the air and obscuring her.
When the air cleared, Azula hovered there again, human once more, shimmering blue-white and transparent. Only the manacles on her wrists and twin streaks of tears of gold remained to hint at what she had become.
“Where am I?” she said. “What happened?” Her voice was sursurrus and disconsolate.
“Azula, it's – me, Zuko, your brother --”
“Why did you leave me, Father? I thought I was...” She began to dissolve, blowing away as white smoke. “I thought I was good enough...”
Within moments she was gone. The manacles, left hollow in the air, fell onto the lava, which was now rapidly cooling and darkening without Azula's hate to fuel it.
“Well, that was fun,” Toph said sarcastically. “Let's get back onto real solid ground again and go tell the dragons we won.”
The others muttered assent and hopped across the rocks back to the gate. They stepped back through to the meeting place, where one group of Azerothian adventurers had already returned to nurse their wounds.
Zuko and the others sat down against a sloped rock wall to rest. As Katara had no water left, Sokka used his fledgling healing magic in her stead.
One by one the other parties returned through the portal, some helping the wounded, some carrying their dead. Chromie, standing guard, hummed and frowned to herself. Nozdormu appeared impassive and grimly self-assured; either he already knew about these outcomes, or he just didn't care.
At last the final group appeared and made their report to him in hushed tones, his demeanor shifted, his gaunt face managing to look even more taut. “As I thought,” he said only.
He went to the center of the clearing and addressed them all. “The Echoes have been defeated. Murozond has fallen as well. All of you will be rewarded in your own times.”
The spirit of the assemblage was not celebratory. From their haunted expressions, Zuko judged they'd all seen someone familiar, warped beyond reasoning. They'd all slain someone they never wanted to, and taken heavy losses in return.
Chromie went along through the groups to direct them through the gate to their own times. When she arrived at the gang, Zuko said, “What was she?”
“Who?” Chromie said. “Who did you fight?”
“My sister. Princess Azula,” he said. “But she was... different. She changed into something, something not even human.”
“And she had things on her wrists,” Sokka added, “like manacles but without a chain.”
“And glowing markings on them,” Katara said.
“She said...” Zuko went on, “She said something about being given away. By our father. Traded and left to die.”
Chromie's eyes widened in worry. “That is an unforeseen consequence.”
“What is? What happened to my sister?!”
“Oh... This is troubling. Was she a 'bender'?”
“Yes, now tell me!”
“Uh oh,” Toph said. “I think I get it. Those cultists --”
“The Twilight's Hammer,” Chromie said severely. “The manacles you describe are signature of their elemental binding practices.”
“What's that mean?” Zuko said.
“It's becoming clear now that they intended to summon and bind ever more powerful elementals, to use as personal slaves and warriors. And if my hypothesis is correct, they have succeeded with your sister.”
He jumped to his feet. “They turned her into a slave?! ”
“It is worse than that,” Chromie said. “Even a slave may disobey. A bound summons is – their free will is entirely imposed upon. They are aware of their actions, but in most cases, unable to do anything but what their master wills.”
“Our Father, he – he let someone do that to her?”
“It's not like he hasn't turned on his kids before,” Toph snorted.
“But not her! He actually liked her,” Zuko said. “She was his favorite, the one he said was 'born lucky'! Why would he – how?!”
“I don't know yet,” Chromie said. “But this bodes very ill. We can surmise that either your father came to this world, unbeknownst to us, or the Twilight's Hammer gained access to your world. Either way, they have or will work together toward a mutual end, it seems.”
“This is just great!” Sokka said. “Thanks to them, stopping him from taking over the world's going to be a hundred times harder! If he comes at us with an army of slave-elementals like that, we're done for!”
“No!” Katara said. “We can't give up hope! Maybe he will, but – but maybe it's not as bad as we think! Or maybe we can prevent it, because it hasn't happened yet there!”
“These are all possibilities,” Chromie said with a nod. “But you must know, that if one bender was enslaved as such, you are all at risk.”
“But we're humans!” Toph said.
Chromie shook her head. “We have seen their ability. There is no doubt.”
“But Aang,” Katara said. “He's too powerful. They couldn't... right? Not the Avatar. Not him.”
“I don't know. But our plan, now, must change. It is imperative we find him before they do.”
Chapter 29: Sokka
”Finding Aang before the cultists should be easy if you can time travel,” Sokka said to Chromie.
“There are many things that, from your perspective, should be easy,” she said, “but in practice, aren't.”
“You can just put us back in the time we were, right? And we already know where Aang is; Jaina told us! We'll go get Aang, and if he's already been turned into some crazy all-elemental spirit monster, you can send us further back.”
“And have several sets of you all in one point of time, attempting to alter events you've already interfered with? The paradoxes alone, not to mention the toll it can take on you...” She shook her head.
“Please understand, only the bronze dragonflight has mastered the magic of time. We can sense the timeways in ways no one else can, and we must navigate them cautiously. One mistake in the past will resonate down every branching timeline to follow.”
“Like yanking out one rock can knock down a whole pillar,” Toph said.
“So what does that mean for us?” Katara said.
“I won't burden you with the exact details,” Chromie said. “Just know that some events are unalterable, even for us. I can take you back to near the time you left, directly to Mt. Hyjal, unless there's anything left for you to do in Stormwind.”
“No, but if you could tell Anduin where we went... We don't want him to be worried.”
“Katara, he's not going to be worried about us, he barely knows us,” Sokka said. “He's got a lot more on his mind now.”
“I can tell him regardless,” Chromie said. “Are you all ready to leave?”
The group nodded and stood in preparation. Chromie raised her hands and whisked them away with a golden glow. They materialized on a grassy ledge overlooking a desiccated mountain valley. Behind them stood an elven encampment. Swiftly several leather-armored night elves, humans, and tauren brandished weapons at them.
“Wait!” Sokka said. “We're friends!”
“We're looking for Aang!” Katara said.
“The human boy?” one of the guards said. “He's been going off on rescue missions ever since he found one of his friends taken captive.”
“One of his friends?” she echoed.
“He can't mean Azula,” Zuko said. “Not even Aang is that nice to call her a 'friend'.”
Realization shot through Sokka like a bolt of ice. “Where is she?!”
“Over there, recovering,” the man said, pointing to a tent.
Sokka ran over and flung open the tent flap. Suki laid there on the bedding, her eyes closed.
Sokka fell to his knees by her side and reached out to touch her face. Her eyes fluttered open, flicked around in different directions, then finally focused on him. She smiled weakly.
“Sokka...” she said. Her voice was hoarse and quiet.
“I'm here.” He took her hand. “Suki, what happened? Are you okay?”
“The Twilight...” she said. “I was put to work... in the mines...”
“Did they hurt you?”
She nodded once. Anger boiled in him. How dare they! But he kept his face calm for her sake.
“And I saw... I saw...” She squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her hand.
“What? What did you see?”
“Darkness, and the End. It was so, big, and empty, and loud. The voices, the whispers,” she groaned, “they wouldn't stop. I saw them with my eyes open. They saw me back, they – they had so many eyes.”
The guard had approached from behind, with Katara, Zuko, and Toph.
“All the servitors we rescued from the Twilight's Hammer say the same thing,” the man said. “If they say anything at all. The cultists infect everyone with their insanity. We brewed up a draught to heal them, but we can't reverse all the damage done by... what they saw.”
“But what is she talking about? Who's 'they'? The cultists?” Sokka said.
The man shook his head. “No, their 'masters'. The Old Gods.”
Suki shivered at the name. Sokka patted her hand with his other one.
“They're not gods like, well, like anything else we properly call a god,” the man said. “They're not like Elune, or Goldrinn and the other Ancients or any other spirits. They're just monsters of pure chaos who want to unravel reality. They're the ones responsible for all this madness – the cultists', and Deathwing's.”
“Have you tried using healing magic on her?” Sokka asked.
“Of course. We've done all we can. Physically, her brain is fine. It's her memories of the experience that will haunt her.”
“Thank you. I mean it.”
The man nodded, then said, “Are you here to join the fight?”
“We're really just here to get our friend Aang out of harm's way,” Sokka said. “No offense, but our own planet's got its own problems, and we need to get back and save it – Aang's the only one who can.”
“Ever since he found Suki, he's been going back down again and again to rescue more slaves.”
“This is bad,” Katara said. “We can't leave him around those cultists.”
Zuko finally spoke up. “By any chance, have you seen a girl who – looks sort of like me, but with longer hair and without the scar?”
“I can't say that I have,” the man said. “The name's Ian Duran, by the way.”
Zuko just huffed a bit and walked off to stare out across the valley.
Sokka rolled his eyes. “I'm Sokka, and the brooding one is Zuko. This is my sister Katara, and our friend Toph.”
Ian nodded. “Good to meet you. The closest Twilight base is straight across from us. That's where Aang will have gone. Watch out, the place is full of ogres and enslaved air elementals.”
The group collectively gasped or frowned.
Sokka turned back to Suki, leaning down to give her a kiss. “We'll come back for you. We'll get Aang and then we'll all get out of here.”
“I know.” She smiled at him, but it didn't reach her eyes.
Chapter 30: Aang
Aang crept carefully over the rocks, on the side of a steep ridge opposite of the Wolf's Run path. The path wound up and around the entire valley, starting below the Guardians' encampment, on toward the peak. The Twilight's Hammer used it to run goods between bases, usually on the backs of slaves.
The road had been quiet, save for the occasional ogre or human cultist staking out a patrol. Aang didn't want to fight anyone he didn't have to, so he kept out of sight, hopping lightly and clinging to the stone. When there wasn't anywhere to cling, he'd use a short burst of air to leap to the nearest hand-hold. So far he'd gone undetected.
He couldn't understand why these cultists did what they did. Sure, Sheal, Ysera, the Durans, and the others had explained as much as they could. But “the Twilight's Hammer serve the Old Gods because they want to bring about the end of the world” made as much sense as “a platypus-bear can grow wings because firebenders have purple polka-dots”. Who would want to end the world?
He heard voices nearby and paused to listen, crouched on a rocky outcropping with the ridge still between him and them.
“They are ready,” spoke one.
“Excellent,” said another. “Prepare the altar for the live sacrifice.”
“The Council's will shall be done.”
Departing foot steps marked the end of the exchange.
A live sacrifice? They were worse than Aang thought. Using people for labor at least made sense, even if it was cruel, but killing them just for the sake of killing them? He had to stop this!
He grabbed the edge of the ridge and peeked over it cautiously. Beyond was a wide ledge on a cliff overlooking the valley. The entire area was darkened with typical cultist shadow magic, and spires of their Elementium jutted up between spiked barricades, spiked cages, and spiked hammer banners. They really liked their spikes.
He saw several of the robed cultists heading in the same direction from the spot where he'd heard them talking. He ducked down again and snuck on ahead, peeking up again every so often to make sure he hadn't lost them.
They gathered in a clearing of dirt, with a blood-stained stone altar in the center and strange glowing rods and mechanical devices surrounding them. The cultists entered a nearby cave and returned dragging along a human woman by the arms as she fought and cried out.
“This heathen traitor's blood shall be given to the gods!” shouted one of the cultists pinning her.
“Her tongue will be cut out for speaking lies against their power!” said another.
The third said nothing but raised an elaborate dagger.
Aang had no time to waste. He sprang over the ridge and landed with a flurry of forceful air, guided by the staff given to him by the druids. The cultists were knocked back and the dagger landed in the dirt.
Aang jumped over to the altar and held out a hand for the woman. “Come on! I'm here to rescue you!”
She sat up, pushing her long black hair away from her tattooed face before reaching out to take his hand. “Thank you.”
“No time to thank me, let's go!” He tried to pull her away as the cultists stood again and surrounded them.
She flashed a feral, toothy grin to the gums, her grip on his hand tightening painfully. “You're not going anywhere.”
His confusion shifted to alarm. “Wha--”
She shouted a spell in her hoarse, husky voice, and shadows clamped around him like twine and lifted him into the air. She released his hand but held onto the magic like a string tethering a balloon.
“Wait! What's going on? Why are you --”
“You bleeding-heart little fool!” she said, standing up on the altar. “You think we're blind to you? You think we cannot see you – see into you, the power in you shining like a fallen star?”
He struggled against the magic but it held fast, nearly choking him. “No --”
Her voice grew manic. “You think that the High Priestess who summoned you would not recognize you? You, who houses a thousand souls in one?”
“You – summoned us?” he gasped out.
“The power in you is immense. It's a waste of a pitiful mortal shell to contain the potential to move mountains, to boil lakes, to tear the sky apart! With you, this world will be reborn in FLAMES!”
“What – makes you think – I'd do anything for you?”
“That glowing, monstrous spirit inside your flesh is why. We have bound others from your world. Yours will be no different, and it will unweave this mistake the Titans have woven.” She grinned again. “You should feel honored.”
“Milady, enemies approach!” one of the cultists shouted.
“Hold them off!” the woman said. “And once this – this all-elemental is bound, it will take care of the rest!”
The cultists nodded, drawing weapons or charging spells. Aang couldn't see them anymore as they ran past him, nor who they were fighting in the distance. He writhed and pulled against the twilight magic holding him in place. It felt like it was going to crush all the air out of his lungs.
He tilted his chin down and expelled the last air he had left in one powerful blast. The High Priestess was knocked back off the altar, breaking the spell and letting Aang drop to the ground. They both scrambled to their feet and moved to act before the other. Just as he turned to spring into the air and flee, she conjured a swirling pool of darkness beneath him, and gravity's pull on him increased tenfold in an instant. He faceplanted in the dirt with a groan.
Shouts and the roar of magic and flames echoed from the other end of the campsite. Aang couldn't stand under his own weight and instead tried desperately to pull himself forward, inching over the dirt on his belly. He had to get to his new allies, whoever they were. He couldn't let the cult take control of his Avatar powers!
Pieces of the devices surrounding him detached and flew through the air at him. They snapped onto his wrists and throat like manacles and a collar, and wrapped around his torso like a second rib cage. The runes etched into them flared with pale, smoky light, and he felt their magic sear into his very soul.
“No! You can't --” he gasped.
His mind was overwhelmed, flooded with thoughts and voices not his own, hissing whispers, booming roars, and a crushing obligation to OBEY. He felt the spirits of Avatars Roku, Kyoshi and the rest, fighting against this, trying to push the Priestess' commands away as they drove into his soul like rail spikes.
“Witness the power bestowed upon us by the Masters!” the High Priestess shouted. “Do not resist! Your end is already nigh, and there is nothing left but to sacrifice your will to the void!”
“Have – to – fight it!” he said through gritted teeth. “I won't – serve you!”
He heard a distant scream and saw a cultist's body pitched over the edge of the cliff. Seconds later, a group ran past the barricades and – could it be?
“Aang!” Katara shouted.
“Get those things off him!” Sokka said. “Toph! Bend the bindings!”
“You are fools to have come to this place!” the High Priestess shouted.
“Not as much a fool as you!” Zuko said, blasting a jet of flame at her. “Trust me, the Avatar doesn't get captured so easily!”
She jumped out of the way of the fire and called a quick chant, summoning a translucent shield of energy around herself. His blasted fire at her again, and she laughed as it barely touched her, sloughing through the barrier like pushing a hand through molasses. She lifted into the air, hovering ten feet up.
“Another 'firebender', are you?” she said mockingly.
“How -- Who are you?!” Zuko demanded.
“High Priestess Azil of the Twilight Council! And what are the names of you fledgling aliens, that I may know who I'm about to add to my devotees?”
“Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation!”
Toph valiantly tried to bend the bindings off of Aang. Every time she managed to uncurl one of the ribs or loosen a cuff, it warped back to place as if alive.
Aang could do nothing, pinned to the ground by Azil's magic and using every ounce of willpower just to fight off her control. The Avatar spirit in him seemed to scream with pain and alarm. Panic filled him.
“Hah! I met your family, Prince Zuko,” the Priestess said. “Your sister made a worthy addition to our ranks!”
Zuko growled and shot a searing blast of flame so wide she disappeared inside it. Katara and Sokka added their attacks of ice shards and an elven throwing glaive. Azil's energy shield burst under their assault with a static crackle. She fell from the air and was forced back further away from Aang to avoid their attacks.
Toph strained to bend the runed metal off him, grasping it with her hands and digging her fingers against it. The pressure subsided bit by bit.
“Your resistance ends here!” Azil shouted.
With a heave of her arms, the Priestess tore a boulder from the cliff's edge like an Earthbender, suspending it on air with energy before she pitched it full-tilt. Toph stood from Aang and reacted with supernatural dexterity, responding to the boulder with one of her own and knocking it aside with a deafening boom.
“You call upon the earth to fight me?!” Azil said. “Deathwing has bestowed upon me the power of his domain!”
“Deathwing tried to kill me once already!” Toph spat. “You're a joke next to him, and you're nothing next to the greatest earthbender alive!”
“Toph, the bindings!” Sokka said, but Toph had already directed her focus onto Azil.
The two began furiously tearing the ground asunder, flinging a steady avalanche of stone and metal at each other from opposite sides of the clearing. Boulders, waves of dirt, the barricades, pillars, pylons, flew at high-speed through the air and broke on impact with thunderous cacophony.
Azil's distraction let the well of gravity fade, but Toph's distraction let the binding spell sink deeper into Aang's willpower. He thought he couldn't enter the Avatar state ever since Azula had electrocuted him but now he felt it pulling closer as the Avatar spirit raged senselessly within him. The unflagging fury of a storm, the cascading force of a waterfall, the strength of the earth, the hunger of a flame, boiled up within him, seeming to turn him inside-out.
His eyes and tattoos began to glow.
Chapter 31: Toph
Exploding rock and metal rained down around them. The battlefield rumbled precariously as Azil and Toph weaponized it in massive chunks. Katara and Zuko ran to grab Aang and pull him away as Sokka covered their backs and deflected projectiles with his blade.
Toph felt fantastic!
She had fractions of a second to react to Azil's attacks. The High Priestess didn't use bending. Toph had to reply on the vibrations of the stone itself the moment it broke away from the ground, and strike it head-on with a thrown boulder or piece of architecture. It was frantic, booming, destructive, forceful, everything a good earthbender should be and the challenge she wished she'd seen in the fighting ring.
Once again, the Blind Bandit would whup another upstart's butt! Azil had another thing coming for having the audacity to think she could win a battle of earthbending – not to mention a name irritatingly similar to Azula's.
“Toph!” Sokka shouted. “You gotta get these things off of Aang!”
“I was! But you chumps couldn't hold her off for me, and I can't do everything at once!”
“Then throw her off the cliff already!”
“Something's happening to Aang!” Katara said. “He's – he's changing!”
Toph dug her toes in the dirt and wrung her hands on the air, gripping the land under Azil at a distance and throwing it to the side like she was shaking dust off a rug. Azil screamed as she went flying.
“Hah!” Toph laughed.
“Watch out!” Sokka said.
Toph launched herself forward with a jut of rock without hesitation. Oily cold magic exploded behind her. She grit her teeth. Did every enemy here have to fly? She rolled, gathering a suit of armor made of the wrecked metal. More magic struck the place she'd just been standing. She ran, boosting her speed with the ground pushing her feet up and forward, back and forth across the clearing, as Azil bombarded the ledge with shadow magic.
Toph grinned to herself as she mentally triangulated the pesky enemy's position. “Got you.”
With a twisting of both hands one over the other, she launched a nearby spiked hammer previously serving as a decorative pylon. It sailed end over end through the air like it'd been thrown by a warrior ten times her own size.
A satisfying crunch and Azil's scream a second later rewarded Toph, and she wasted no time in throwing a set of four tent poles with the tent hide still stretched between them. The Priestess made a muffled cry as the makeshift net caught her in the air, and then there was silence.
Toph stood there panting, sweating, and alert. She pounded one foot to sense if Azil had landed anywhere on the ledge.
Instead she felt that Aang was... not himself anymore. His body was strange, elongated, with ribbon-like flagella extending from his wrists and elbows, waving like pennants – or tentacles. Toph discarded her armor and ran over to him. Katara and Zuko held him up by the arms.
“What's going on?” Toph said.
“We don't know,” Katara said. “He's glowing. Not just his tattoos, but his whole body.”
“And he's covered in markings,” Zuko said.
“I have no idea what that any of that means,” Toph said.
“It means he's not normal and these Twilight shackles are making him a monster!” Sokka said. “Hurry up and get them off him before it's too late!”
She stepped up to Aang and put her hands on the rib-like spikes wrapped around his torso, trying to wedge them apart with all her might. They resisted her, pulling back into shape like they were alive, or as if another earthbender competed against her.
“I need some help!” she said. “Grab them and pull, do whatever you can!”
Katara and Zuko grabbed onto metal ribs on one side, and Sokka the other, and heaved backwards like they were playing tug-o-war with two feet of rope. Aang breathed heavily, his heart beating hard. He kept elongating, thinning, flattening like someone was playing tug-o-war with him and stretching him out. His shape felt less human by the second.
“I can bend metal!” Toph said through clenched teeth. “I can bend this!”
The metal seemed to respond, whispering into her where her hands touched it, in old words like soil at the bottom of a well, dirty, stale, and yearning to surface. It sounded like gravel grinding together in her head, it felt like oil-filmed water sloshing over her wrists, it smelled like burning charcoal under her nose.
The false rib cage finally split open, the collar attached by the spine opening with it. Toph quickly tossed it away and went to work on the manacles.
“Nobody's going to hurt our Twinkle Toes, you disgusting excuse for earth!” With this last hoarse cry she jerked both manacles off and threw them into the rubble behind her.
Aang let out a gasp of relief as he was freed. His body shrank back to normal and he lay on the ground, catching his breath.
“He's not glowing,” Katara said. “He's back to normal now. He's not in the Avatar state anymore either.”
Toph plopped down on her butt with a heavy sigh. “That shouldn't have been so hard to bend. What is that stuff?”
“El...Elementium,” Aang said.
“Was I the only one, uh...” Zuko said.
“Hearing weird things?” Toph said. “No, not just you.”
“Do you think it reacts like that to all benders?” Katara said, hugging her arms.
“I heard – felt – whatever, too,” Sokka said.
Aang sat up slowly. “Azil said I wasn't the first. She's bound others before, others from our world.”
“Yeah. We just fought the future ghost of my sister,” Zuko said. “She turned into something like what you were just turning into.”
“But with less tentacles and more lava,” Sokka said. “What was even going on with those?”
“I-I think...” Aang lifted his hands up in front of his face. “I think it's what the Avatar spirit really looks like. I think those bindings were turning me into that. Like it was merging my human self and my spirit self into one body in a permanent Avatar state.”
“I'll second that whoa,” Toph said. “I couldn't even see it but I could tell it was weird. Do all spirits look like that?”
“They come in all shapes and sizes,” Aang said. “Wait a second, how'd you guys know I was here?”
Katara said, “We just came from – well, the future, but before that we were in Stormwind.”
“That place with the cool name! I've always wanted to see it! I mean, ever since I heard about it a month ago.”
“It's much less stormy or windy than you'd think,” Sokka said.
“Can we cut the chit-chat and get out of here before any more cultists show up?” Zuko said. “We can all catch up once we're someplace safer than this.”
“But I came up here to rescue slaves,” Aang said. He stood shakily. “See? I'm alright!”
“Of course you did,” Sokka sighed. “Of course we've all got to run off and be a hero and try to save the day every time we find somebody that needs saving! Let me guess, you stopped to try to rescue every hurt little forest animal too?”
Aang rubbed the back of his neck. “Actually...”
“Are you forgetting he also saved Suki?” Katara said.
Chapter 32: Katara
“Aang, I know you want to help them,” Katara said, “but we've all been through a lot today and we need to rest.”
“And reconnoiter,” Sokka added.
Aang frowned. “But...”
“They've got troops of their own, right? They'll do fine without you.”
“Probably better without him,” Toph said. “Imagine what would've happened if we hadn't saved him from becoming Priestess Crazy's personal pet Avatar. You're welcome, by the way.”
Katara glared at her. “Toph!”
“No, she's right,” Aang sighed. “I got tricked into a trap. They knew I would try to save someone if I thought I could. They must have known I was in earshot.” He lowered his head. “I've been so scared of dealing with our own war and Fire Lord Ozai that I got obsessed with trying to save everyone here instead.”
“We're not exactly innocent of that either,” Zuko said.
Katara frowned in concern for both of them.
“Before we go back to camp, there's something I want to show you,” Aang said. “Come on!”
He retrieved a druidic staff from the debris and set off down the mountain path with a buoyancy as if nothing had happened. Everyone shared a look and followed after at a jog.
Aang led them away from the main path and over the ridge beside it, to a small, furtive landing hidden from view. Nestled on it was a purple-glowing ovoid object covered in small spikes.
“What... is that?” Katara said.
She stepped closer and reached out to touch it. It was almost as big as Aang himself. Its shell was faintly translucent and she could see a scaly form curled within.
“What is it an egg of?” she asked.
“...A twilight dragon,” he said sheepishly.
“As in, dragons in the Twilight's Hammer?” Sokka said.
“Yes, but it's not their fault! They were bred on purpose to be used by the cultists. But I thought if we could get the eggs away before they were raised by the bad guys, they'd be on our side!”
Zuko's eyes widened. “You stole an egg from a dragon?”
“No, that's the thing! The cultists take the eggs and hatch them in the camps and laboratories. And then they raise them almost like slaves, forcing them to be mounts.” Aang looked at the egg sadly. “This is the only one I could save so far. And I didn't know what to do with it, so I just hid it here.”
“What are you going to do with it once it hatches?”
“I don't know yet. But Avatar Roku had a dragon, so he probably has some good input.”
“What about the others? The druids?”
“Well...” Aang scuffed his foot in the dirt. “I didn't tell them. I heard about someone else finding an egg, and the Guardians destroyed it and tried to find its mother and kill her too. They say these dragons are all evil, but I don't believe that!”
“They're hunting down and killing dragons?” Zuko frowned. “Why haven't the other dragons stopped them?”
“Because they're not all friends,” Toph said. “Chromie told me how they have five different types of dragons. It's like our four different elements. Two of the five dragonflight's leaders went bad, and most of their dragons went bad right with 'em.”
“But this one's just a baby!” Aang protested. “Not even that yet, it hasn't hatched!”
“I'm not saying I want to crush the egg,” she said. “I'm just saying that's why nobody's stopping them from doing it.”
Katara kept one hand on the shell, fascinated by its semi-soft, pulsing surface as the fetal whelp within slowly breathed and gave the occasional twitch or squirm.
“If the Guardians will kill it, and the other dragons will too, we'll have to find someone else we can trust to take care of it,” she said. “Jaina? She seems nice.”
“Or Baine!” Aang said. “The tauren didn't even kill me when they found me, even though humans are the Horde's sworn enemies. Baine even let me go so I could come here!”
“Or Anduin,” Zuko said.
“Or the night elves,” Sokka said.
“If nothing else, maybe we can take it to our world once our war is over,” Katara said. She added in a teasing tone, “I know you're just dying to adopt as many exotic creatures as possible, Aang.”
“How are we getting home?” Zuko said. “We're all together again, but did we plan any further ahead than that?”
“If Chromie and the world leaders put their heads together, I'm sure they can think of something,” Sokka said. “If there's one thing I've learned on Azeroth, it's that magic can do anything if you put your faith in it, even if you don't understand it. Look, we came through the Dark Portal, right? And we've been getting portaled and teleported around by everyone since. Someone's got to be able to put us back on our world.”
“But what about this world?” Aang said.
“What about our world?”
“Who says our problems are over once we get home even if we defeat Fire Lord Ozai?” Toph said. “We got sucked into this world by people we'd never even heard of, so who's to say they won't summon us again?”
“And if the Fire Lord is working with them,” Katara said, “then their cultists are our problem too.”
“Then maybe if we help Azeroth, Azeroth will help us!” Aang said.
“I hope so. Let's get back to the camp.”
Toph hid the egg in the mountain side so it wouldn't be visible from the air. As soon as they could, they would ask someone to take care of it. Aang sighed about wishing he could go out and rescue more of them.
The gang recuperated at the encampment and caught each other up on everything they had experienced so far: Katara and Zuko's capture and escape from the Horde, the subsequent attack launched on Theramore by Garrosh Hellscream, ended brutally by Deathwing, resulting in King Varian's death and Prince Anduin's ascension. Sokka's induction into the worshippers of Elune, Aang's communion with the tauren ancestor spirits, and Toph's meeting Chromie and the dwarves of Ironforge.
Aang told them how he'd come to Hyjal and met Ysera of the green dragonflight shortly before she had to depart to help Thrall with the Dragon Soul. It was the ultimate weapon and last chance to destroy Deathwing. Thrall and the dragon Aspects would power the device and use it to slay Deathwing, and hopefully the cultists rallied under his banner would disband without him.
Suki had little to add to all this. She'd only just appeared on Azeroth when the cultists had captured and enslaved her. She fought at first, using all her skills and guile to try to escape, but the ogres, mages, and their elemental minions overwhelmed her. The rest was a blur of pain, toil, and insanity.
Sokka couldn't peel himself away from her for a moment. He sat next to her at the campfire with an arm around her shoulders the entire evening. She fell asleep leaning against him, at which point he carried her back to her tent and went to sleep himself.
Toph kept asserting she wasn't tired right up until she slumped forward and fell asleep on the dirt. Nobody moved her. She probably liked it better that way.
Aang departed to meditate on the edge of the camp, leaving Katara and Zuko at the campfire alone, listening to its pops and crackles and the sounds of nighttime wilderness.
“How are you doing?” Katara asked.
Zuko stared at the fire. “I'm fine.”
“I mean, after what happened with Azula --”
“I know what you meant.”
She pulled her legs up to her chest. “I don't know what I'd do with myself if that happened to Sokka.”
“Yeah, well, your sibling's never tried to kill you. I've never been on good terms with Azula. And now that I'm a traitor to my nation, she's my enemy. We were going to have to fight her eventually.”
“We don't know for sure that future's really going to happen. Chromie said it was an alternate timeline.”
“And Azil said she already got a hold of Azula.”
“But that doesn't mean we can't still save her.”
“And then what? Have to fight her anyway when she still turns against us? She's going to try to kill Aang, and you, and everyone else if she has to. This doesn't change anything. Just because she isn't a monster yet on the outside doesn't mean she isn't already one on the inside.”
Katara sighed. “I know. It's... hard for me to understand sometimes. Your family is so... broken. In the Southern Water Tribe, family is everything, because it's all we have left. You couldn't turn on them, or you were turning on the tribe itself. Killing even one capable hunter or fisherman could mean starving the rest.”
Zuko didn't respond at first, poking idly at the fire with a stick. “Sometimes I'm jealous of that. Of you.”
“You said it yourself. Family is everything there. Maybe if my father didn't think of me as disposable, things would be different. We're just tools to him, everyone is, and if we can't be useful then he'll find a reason to get rid of us. I... I realized that when I was trying all along to regain my honor, all I was really doing was trying to be useful to him. And it never would have happened, because I never agreed with his values in the first place.”
“If it's any consolation...” She patted him on the shoulder. “I think you're pretty useful.”
He huffed a half laugh. “Thanks.”
“And if you hadn't been exiled, you wouldn't have ended up here with us.”
“Heh. There's one up side. All it took was losing my entire family.”
“Zuko!” She pushed him a bit. “That's not what I mean.”
He gave her a little wry smile. “I know what you meant.”
She smiled in return. “Good. Then let's get to sleep so we can plan in the morning. We don't know what tomorrow's going to bring.”
Chapter 33: Zuko
The gang woke to a crisp, cool morning, the mountain blanketed in fog, the evergreens wet with dew, and songbirds singing as if doomsday cultists weren't plotting just across the valley. The group shared breakfast together, Azerothians and off-worlders around the same campfire.
Zuko addressed the Guardians of Hyjal as they ate. “How do we get to Stormwind from here?”
“That's easy,” Rio Duran said. “Follow Wolf's Run all the way back up to Nordrassil and take the portal there.”
“I know the way,” Aang said brightly.
“Hopefully Jaina's still there,” Katara said.
Sokka nodded. “And Tyrande.”
“You had a way back to Stormwind all this time and never took it?” Zuko said to Aang.
“Why would I?” Aang said. “I had no idea you guys were there!”
“Hey, Toph,” Sokka said, “how'd you get to Stormwind anyway?”
“Took an underground train,” she said. “It was pretty sweet.”
After breakfast, they thanked the Guardians and headed off. They stopped off the path to retrieve the egg from the rock first, and wrapped it up in tent fabric from the Twilight's ruined camp. Toph created a crude wagon to haul it in as it was too large (and spiky) to be carried by hand conveniently.
The journey, though uphill, was not a difficult one. The path of dirt was stamped flat by traffic or covered with smooth stones. The Twilight incursion had been snuffed this far up, and no one attacked the group. Even the once-burnt areas of the forest were beginning to regrow thanks to the druids' magic.
“It's too bad Ysera isn't still here. I wish you could've met her,” Aang said.
They arrived at the lodge, on the lake under Nordrassil, which housed a contingent of Guardians of races from around the globe. Night elves, worgen, trolls, and tauren worked and trained together here. Zuko gave the trolls suspicious looks but none paid him any mind.
The group found the portal back to Stormwind and stepped through. They gasped at the change from mountain altitude air to sea level and blinked in the midday light shining unfettered over the sea.
“Wow! Is this Stormwind?! I've got to see this from the air!” Aang didn't wait for a reply. He hopped onto a sign post, into a tree, and from there onto a roof top.
Katara laughed. “Nothing gets him down, does it?”
“Or he's just in denial,” Toph snorted, picking her ear. “I can't say I like this place much. Too much wood and water, not enough rock.”
“I'm just happy to be around humans again,” Zuko said.
Aang rejoined them and they made their way through the white city to the castle. Offerings of fruit and flowers lay at the feet of Varian's statue out front. Within the castle black tapestries draped the walls. The guards' expressions were subdued.
King Anduin looked small in the throne, his thin frame bent in weary posture. When the group entered, he stood and straightened up.
“Hello again,” he greeted pleasantly. “What brings you back to Stormwind?”
“Hi! I'm Aang!”
“Oh, hello. I see you found him. I'm glad. Welcome, Aang. I am Pr-- King Anduin Wrynn.”
“We were hoping the other leaders were still here,” Katara said. “We need to figure out a way to get back home.”
“The Twilight's Hammer kidnapped and enslaved more people from our world,” Zuko said grimly. “I think they're working with my father.”
Anduin's face fell. “I see. Lady Jaina is still here, but the other heads of government have already departed. We should speak in private.”
Anduin led them away from the main hall into a parlor deeper in the castle, where they seated themselves around the room in various wooden chairs and plush sofas around a massive fireplace. He left them and returned with Jaina, shutting the door behind himself.
The gang told him and Jaina everything that happened since yesterday, and filled them in on relevant details about Fire Lord Ozai and the war with the Fire Nation.
“This is most troubling. I'm very sorry that our conflicts have now affected your world,” Anduin said.
“I'm sorry ours is affecting yours,” Zuko replied.
“You were a great aide to us in Theramore,” Jaina said. “Chromie told me that if you hadn't triggered Garrosh to attack when he did, it would have happened much later and taken us by surprise. Because of you, it...”
She trailed off with an awkward glance at Anduin. He pretended not to notice.
“What I mean to say,” she continued, “is that you have Theramore's support. We must work together to end the menace of the cultists.”
“And Stormwind's support, as well.”
“It sounds like you need to get rid of Garrosh too,” Zuko said.
Jaina frowned. “We all had misgivings when Thrall left him in charge of the Horde. It's clear now that we were right. The only way to move towards peace is to remove people like that from power.”
“Chief Baine is already on our side with this,” Anduin said. “And Prophet Velen made a great overture of peace in forgiving the blood elves for their past crimes. The others will hopefully come around in time, if we can all reach a compromise on territory divisions that avoids further bloodshed.”
“It sounds like you're already making a lot of progress as a diplomat,” Katara said.
“Yeah,” Aang agreed. “I wish we had more leaders like you on our world.”
Anduin gave an embarrassed smile. “Thank you for your kind words.”
There was a knock on the door. “Your Majesty, Chromie of the bronze dragonflight is here to see you,” someone said beyond. “Er, all of you.”
“Thank you. Send her in.”
Zuko got a sinking feeling in his gut. So far nothing good ever happened when Chromie showed up.
Chromie entered shortly, looking distressed and carrying a filthy satchel. “Good, you're already here. Have you all caught each other up?”
“Yes,” said Anduin. “What's wrong?”
“It's – it's Thrall and the Aspects. They were trying to imbue the Dragon Soul, but something went wrong.”
Jaina stood. “What happened? What were they trying to imbue it with?”
“Their own essences, to duplicate and mirror the Dragon Soul's creation so that it could be used against Deathwing. A team of heroes was supposed to protect them from Deathwing's forces, but – they fell,” Chromie choked out the last two words. “It was chaos. The twilight dragons overwhelmed them and the ritual backfired. The energies converging through the focusing iris reversed and killed Kalecgos with the backlash. The other Aspects were badly weakened already, they were routed; I don't know which ones are still alive.”
“What about Thrall? What happened to Thrall?!”
“He – he tried. He tried to use the Soul anyway. Its power overwhelmed him. He's dead. I'm so sorry.”
Everyone stared in horror. Jaina made a strangled noise.
“Where is the Dragon Soul?” she finally said, as tears fell down her cheeks.
“Here.” Chromie set the satchel on the floor and opened it to reveal a gleaming, featureless golden disk as big as her head. “It was all I could do. I knew I had to save the Soul no matter what.”
“What can we do now?” Anduin said quietly.
“The ritual can still be completed. But not by the Aspects. You all must do this.”
“What?” they all said in unison.
“This weapon can still be used against Deathwing. Between us all, we have the magic necessary to empower it again. Jaina, Katara, your arcane magic and waterbending can supply the aspects of magic and frost that Kalecgos had. Anduin, Zuko, your light and fire can substitute for Alextrasza's gift of life. Toph, you can provide the power of earth. And Aang, your ability to enter the spirit world, much like a druid's connection to the Emerald Dream, should be able to stand in for Ysera's ability. And I will supply the power of time in Nozdormu's place.”
“What about us?” Sokka said, gesturing to himself and Suki.
“Your own light magic is still weak. But you're still a warrior, yes?”
He nodded. Suki did as well.
“Then you'll still be needed to fight Deathwing, should the Soul not kill him.”
“Wait,” Zuko said. “If that thing slayed dragons, how do we know it won't kill us? We can't have it backfiring on us, too.”
“Because you're not dragons. The Aspects who put their essences into its creation are weakest to it.”
“But you're a dragon,” Toph said. “What if it kills you?”
“That... is a risk I must take. My duty is to this world. All dragons must serve the greater good of Azeroth; it is that duty that Deathwing forgot.” Chromie's pale, bloodshot eyes crossed the room and focused on the bundle of tent cloth. “Is that --?”
“It's not what you think!” Aang said, jumping in front of it. “Or... maybe it is, actually. But please don't kill it!”
“What is it?” Anduin said.
“It... it's a twilight dragon egg. I know everyone says they're bad, but I thought if we could save it – I was going to ask you if you or someone else could take it and keep it safe --”
“It's the final piece,” Chromie said.
They looked at her again in confusion.
“I worried that earth alone would not be enough, although it was the black dragonflight's charge. He was once known as the Earthwarder. But now he is Deathwing. Warped by the Old Gods' influence. And so is the twilight dragonflight. They were one black dragons themselves, twisted and experimented on by Deathwing and his consorts.”
“What do you mean?” Aang said, still standing protectively in front of the covered egg.
“A twilight dragon has the ability to draw the energy from any living thing. Vampiric, tainted beings. We may be able to transfer that ability to the Dragon Soul, imbuing it in a way with the essence of death."
Anduin stared at the Dragon Soul in shock. “If this works... what next?”
“Then one of you will wield the imbued Soul.”
“Who among us can wield it safely?” He tore his gaze away from it to look around at the others.
“I don't know,” Chromie admitted. “Maybe none of you can. But we must try, or all is lost.”
“We'll do it,” Aang said.
Jaina wiped her face on her sleeve, pushing back her tears. “If we don't, then Thrall's death will be in vain.”
The others nodded and murmured one by one.
“Then it's agreed,” Anduin said. “Where will we take the fight?”
“Deathwing would come to us in time,” Chromie said. “He's seen the Dragon Soul. The element of surprise is lost.” She chewed her lip in thought. “We'll go to Wyrmrest Temple, where I just came from. But we can perform the ritual in safety here.”
“Tell us how, and we'll do it.”
Chrome lifted the Soul in both hands and held it over her head, then let go and stepped back, leaving it hovering in the air, then uncovered the dragon egg and pushed it across the floor directly underneath it. “Direct your energies at the Dragon Soul. Imagine yourself pouring all your magic into it. Channel without restraint.”
“But my magic is earthbending. You want me to throw rocks at it?” Toph said.
“No, but imagine yourself doing so. Imagine the energy and will it takes to move the rock, and focus that feeling on the Soul.” Chromie gazed up gravely at the others. “Are we ready?”
“Ready,” they each said.
Sokka and Suki left the parlor to find an armory, as the rest of the group stood to surround the Dragon Soul. There was no question on their minds whether or not to go through with this – if they failed, Deathwing would destroy both worlds.
Chromie began, directing both hands at the disk and sending forth a beam of golden light that shimmered as if made of fine metallic sand. Jaina and Anduin followed suit, pulsing beams of ice blue and radiant white light into the Soul.
Zuko, Katara, and Toph mimicked the motions of bending. Katara weaved her arms in fluid motions as she rocked her weight from one foot to the other. Toph slammed her bare feet on the floor and thrust out both palms with a determined look. Zuko took a deep breath, remembering his uncle's teachings and the life-giving flame of the dragons back home, then struck the air with a fist while focusing all thoughts on the movement of his chi.
Aang clasped both hands together and bowed to the disk, then slowly separated them and held one out as if to shake the hand of an invisible greeter.
At first nothing seemed to happen for them, until gradually beams of magic lit between their hands and the Soul. Zuko's was fiery, flickering red, Katara's a glassy blue, Toph's a grainy brown, and Aang's a flat, ribbon-like line of white appearing as an extension of his tattoo. Finally, a beam of violet-limned blackness pulsed up from the dragon egg like a solid shadow.
Zuko could feel the magic leaving him as they continued. The glowing beams grew brighter and sang with a ringing tone. The ritual sapped him, draining him as if he breathed fire nonstop for hours, yet only minutes passed.
“That's enough,” Chromie said breathlessly. They all dropped their hands with a simultaneous gasp of relief.
Sokka and Suki returned with a sword each and handed two scimitars to Zuko. Aang took the discarded tent fabric and tied it to his druid's staff like a kite. Everyone else merely straightened out their clothes and set their jaws, looking determined, nervous, and mournful.
“I'll transport us directly to the top of Wyrmrest Temple,” Chromie said. “There may still be enemies present, so be ready to fight immediately.”
“Good luck... and thank you.”
She raised her hands and engulfed the group in light.
Chapter 34: Aang
A cold wind ripped the air. Aang stood on a stone precipice, the peak of a mighty tower in the center of a war-torn tundra. Dragons fought in midair, Twilights against the rest, battling with tooth, claw, and magic. Every few moments, another body fell screeching out of sight, and the victor would help converge on the next victim. The defenders of Azeroth were failing.
Further out, Deathwing flew in a widening spiral, hunting down those who'd fled and roaring out gouts of flame on the land, making quick work of destroying it.
None of them had noticed the group appear on the roof top. Not yet.
Blood, scales, and scorch marks covered the stone. A robed orc's body lay face down nearby. Jaina made a choked noise at the sight of him before steeling herself and staring resolutely out at Deathwing.
“How are we supposed to get to him?” Sokka said, looking around. “Wave our arms, start yelling, and hope he comes back?”
“There's supposed to be...” Chromie trailed off, running to the edge. “Damn! The airships have been destroyed.”
“I can fly,” Aang said. “But I can't carry anyone with me.”
“Oh, if only Appa had come with us!” Katara said. She ran a hand through her hair. “Now what?”
“I can fly, and I can carry others,” Chromie said. “But – there are a lot of you.”
“I can ease your burden with the Light,” Anduin said. He didn't wait for confirmation but quickly cast something on each of them that made them feel buoyant and lightweight.
Chromie nodded. “Good. Our plan will go as before. We will aim the Dragon Soul at Deathwing. The wielder must focus their will and direct the magic contained in the Soul to strike him. If we're lucky, it will kill him – but I'm not counting on that. I expect he'll either flee, or retaliate, but in either case we'll take to the air and attack him to finish the job.”
“Can the Soul be fired more than once?” Anduin asked.
“Yes, it's been fired many times already. I just don't know if we'll have enough time to get off another shot before he's out of range or upon us.”
“Understood. Who will wield it?”
They went silent in thought. Aang stared fixedly at the massive dragon's fading silhouette through the blowing snow.
Sokka took a deep breath. “I hate to say it, but maybe Aang should. He's not a dragon, he's not from this world, but he's got the most powerful magic of our whole group.”
“But it could kill him!” Katara said.
“It could kill any of us! So could Deathwing, or those other dragons once they realize what we're doing. We could all die, and then so will everyone on our own world, if they aren't already!”
“Then – let Aang decide for himself!” she said. “Aang? Do you – you don't really want to risk yourself, right? We need you.”
Aang closed his eyes, letting out a long, quiet breath. “Everyone needs me, Katara. Even before I was born. I know our world needs me. Trust me, I know. But so does this one. I think we were brought here for a purpose.”
Her face fell, but she nodded. “Whatever it takes, whatever the risk. I wish you didn't have to, but I understand.”
He swallowed hard. “I... hope I can do this.”
“Alright, Aang,” Chromie said. “Just take the Soul in your hands and -”
“I'm sorry, but I know what I have to do,” he said, and took a running leap from the roof top.
“Aang!” they shouted. “What are you doing?!”
His makeshift glider had already caught the wind and hot updrafts from the fires below, and with his airbending he sped swiftly over the boreal lands toward Deathwing. He glanced back in time to see Chromie transform into a bronze dragon and the others pile onto her back.
He didn't want to kill. Not now, not ever. They never really understand that.
Deathwing was a dragon. An ancient protector of the world. The gods had blessed him, the spirits had imbued him, and he'd only gone mad because of the Old Gods – not his own will. To destroy something that had once been pure seemed like sacrilege, but it was the first and only solution anyone ever considered. Aang had to try to redeem him first.
Aang cut easily through the sky, unnoticed by the dwindling number of dragons embroiled in their own battles. The body-littered ice gave way to dense forests below, where Deathwing had set them aflame. The melting snow and ice poured into the sea with clouds of steam.
Deathwing's voice boomed out, “YOU CANNOT HIDE FOREVER, ALEXSTRASZA!”
That meant the red dragon Aspect, the Lifebinder Alexstrasza, had survived! Aang felt hopeful that her legendary healing powers could reverse the damages done today.
Chromie and the others were catching up, her large wings stronger and faster than Aang's airbending. But he was already catching up to Deathwing. He'd get there first, and they wouldn't risk firing the Dragon Soul once he did.
The metal-plated black dragon's tail came within reach, swinging mightily back and forth in Deathwing's wake, stirring flurries of snow with each beat of his behemoth wings. Aang gripped his kite-staff with one hand and held out the other in front, bending a path through the air, pushing the near-supersonic eddies around him as easily as pushing open a door.
He landed near the tip of Deathwing's tail. The dragon's scales were unnaturally hot. Aang lowered the staff to keep from getting caught like a parasol and blown off. Posture held low, he began to run up the length of Deathwing's spine, speeding himself along with bending. Deathwing didn't even notice.
As he bolted over superheated scales and massive iron plates, Aang tried to think of what he was going to say, how he could convert this evil dragon back to the side of good. The run seemed to last forever, tense with the threat of being noticed and destroyed at any moment, yet the words didn't come to Aang's mind. He hoped that in the moment of truth, he would know what to say. If all else failed, he'd just jump off and sail back to Chromie following behind.
And then they'd kill Deathwing. He hoped it wouldn't come to that.
Earthmother, Ysera if you're alive, ancestor spirits, past lives, please! he prayed in his mind. Give me your wisdom and help me do what's right! Let me stop this war without more bloodshed!
He didn't hear any response. He didn't expect to. This wasn't exactly a meditative moment, but hopefully they could lend him their aide nonetheless.
He reached the back of Deathwing's head much sooner than anticipated. Deathwing still didn't notice. Aang took a deep breath, gripped a spiky scale and flipped himself up and over onto the dragon's crown.
“What is this?” Deathwing rumbled at the sensation and gave a shake of his head.
Aang gripped the same scale with all his might as his feet went into the air, legs and torso flapping like a pennant, before he airbent himself back down. Deathwing gave another vigorous shake. Aang's grip was lost. He flattened himself down in a panic, and slid halfway down the dragon's snout before managing to grab onto two spiky protrusions and plant his toes into the crevice between two large scales like a foothold on a mountain side.
Deathwing's baleful, burning eyes fixed on him at last, full of hate. The dragon's voice bellowed out in disbelief, “And what insignificant pest has made the mistake of clinging to Death's face?”
Aang lifted his head to look into one of those eyes. The force of Deathwing's rapid flight seemed to press them together, as if the wind itself blessed the occurrence of this conversation.
“You're not Death,” Aang said.
The dragon laughed like cracking thunder. “I am Deathwing! Aspect of Death! You gaze upon the bringer of the Endtimes, human!”
“No! You weren't always like this, Neltharion!”
The dragon's eyes narrowed. “And who are you, to dare call me by that name now?”
“I'm Avatar Aang, the bridge between the mortal and spirit worlds! It's my duty to bring peace and harmony to all realms!”
“I have never heard of you, and your plight is irrelevant. Go find a shaman to sing around a campfire with, while you still have time to enjoy living.”
“I know that your servant Azil summoned me! She thought I was supposed to be one of your weapons. She tried to make me a slave, and I almost was. The Elementium was driving me insane even for a few minutes. I know you've been down there in the earth, driven insane by the Old Gods too, but it's not too late, Neltharion!”
“Pah! You know nothing, and you're no longer amusing. I give you one last chance, insect. Fly away or I will gladly destroy you.”
“They're going to kill you if you don't change, Neltharion!” Aang pleaded. “But I know you deserve a second chance! It's not too late to go back on what you've done and help rebuild this world! You can still do what you were destined to do, you can still help save this world and keep the Old Gods locked up! Remember who you used to be, what it was like back then!”
“You do not know who I used to be. You have a name and the same tired story and overused lines that everyone else has. But you do not know. You have not seen.”
“Please! I don't want you to die. I don't want anyone to die. This isn't you! It's not the real you!”
“I am the Aspect of Death! It is my destiny, as is it yours to die. Be grateful I grant you the mercy of a swift death.”
Aang sprang away with a gale-force burst of wind just as Deathwing's head gave a sudden sharp twist.
There was a blinding flash of pain.
And then, only darkness.
Chapter 35: Katara
From Chromie's back, Katara and the others saw Aang run from Deathwing's tail to face. They lost sight of him as they tried hopelessly to catch up.
And then they saw Deathwing's head jerk one last time, and a small form falling away.
“No,” Katara said. “No! No!”
“Chromie, hurry!” Sokka shouted. “Catch him!”
“What happened?!” Toph said.
“Aang – he just – he just fell -” Katara choked out. “He's not flying – Come on Aang, fly already, come on...”
Chromie dipped down, folding her wings in to speed like a bolt at the falling boy. Deathwing flew on, unaware of their existence.
As they came within range they saw Aang was badly hurt, bleeding profusely, unconscious and without his glider – and about to hit the treeline at terminal velocity. Jaina and Anduin both shouted spells at once. Aang's descent slowed to that of a feather, drifting lazily as his own blood dripped past him.
Chromie banked as she reached him, gingerly taking him in her forepaws before spiraling down to land in a snowy clearing below. As she set him on the snow, the others leapt off her back to surround him.
Deathwing's terrible steel teeth had crushed his torso and arms. She knew if the dragon had applied any more pressure, Aang would be in two halves. As it was, he was barely still in one. He'd lost a lot of blood, and just kept on losing it, melting the snow in a rapidly growing crimson pool. Katara gave a sob.
“What's happening? I can't tell what's going on!” Toph said, her voice high with panic, undoubtedly recognizing the others' sounds of distress.
“Heal him already!” Jaina barked.
Katara dropped to her knees, bending clean snow onto his wounds to use as healing water, as tears fell freely down her face. Anduin knelt with forced calm to lend his Light magic. Sokka stared in a daze, tan face ashen with shock, before he jogged over to help them. All six of their hands laid on Aang, suffusing the Avatar with mixed blue, gold, and silver light.
His rent body stitched together, broken spine and ripped sinew going back into place, blood returning to his veins, flushing his whole flesh again.
But he didn't wake. He didn't breathe. The new blood in him didn't move, only sat still with a quiet, unbeating heart.
“No, no, no...” Katara's hands shook as she wept. “No, Aang, no, you can't – y-you can't -”
Anduin stopped casting and sat back with his hands on his face, shoulders hunched at their failure. Sokka gave up on his own Light, hands curling into fists as he stood. He kicked fiercely at the snow, letting out obscenities. Toph gave a stifled whimper and turned away with folded arms. Zuko stood there and stared as if he couldn't believe what he saw.
Katara kept bending the snow, the water, even trying to bend the blood to pump his heart, bending anything she could to try to bring Aang back. But his body was whole, healed as if nothing had happened. There was simply nothing left to inhabit it. He had gone, and the Avatar spirit with it, to some other host, somewhere else in the cosmos. It was too late.
Sokka rounded on the Azerothians. “This is your fault!” he shouted. “You should have just left us alone, but you had to get us dragged into this mess! YOUR mess!” He pointed a finger at Chromie without regard to the fact she was a dragon.
“It's not her fault,” Toph said. “He's the one who had to go be a hero.”
“Of course he did! He always is, and we always warned him. Just like with the Fire Lord, he couldn't even cut a melon in half pretending to kill someone. We should've known he'd do something like this!”
“I – I am so sorry for this,” Anduin said.
“Yeah, well, you should be!” Sokka shouted. “You almost got my sister killed letting her go fight in Theramore, and now you got Aang killed letting him come along on this harebrained scheme! If the dragons couldn't win at this, what made you think we could, huh?!”
“Then why'd you agree to come along too?!” Toph said. “If you didn't think we could win -”
“I only agreed because the rest of you agreed! But I never wanted to do any of this! It's not our war, it's not our business!”
“You sure are happy making things your business when you get a new set of magic powers!”
“All of you, stop!” Jaina said. “We knew the risks! We understood that we might die going in. And we will still die if we don't continue the fight!”
“Well maybe I just want to have a little longer to live, far away from death dragons and all of this,” Sokka said. “Maybe I want to keep my sister and my girlfriend and my friends alive for as long as possible instead of rushing everyone into their deaths over and over again!”
Katara hadn't moved. Zuko knelt next to her and set a hand on her arm. She turned to weep on his shoulder.
“Jaina's right,” Zuko said. “We have to take out Deathwing, or Aang's – his sacrifice will mean nothing.”
She didn't say anything. She knew he was right, and she knew she had to get up and keep fighting, but she just couldn't do it yet. She couldn't think of anything except her grief.
“Chromie,” Toph said, “can't you go back and save him? Can't we fix this?”
“No,” the dragon sighed. “My power is nearly spent as it is. By the time I might regain the energy necessary, Deathwing will have already brought about the End.”
Katara let go of Zuko and stood. She didn't bother wiping away her tears; they were still coming.
“And if everyone's dead, hope is lost forever.” She took a deep breath. “We keep fighting, right now.”
Sokka looked plaintively at her. “Are you sure about this? Maybe we still have time to regain our strength. We got thrown into the middle of this without any real time to plan. This might be the time to beat a tactical retreat. I... don't want to lose anyone else today.”
“No, Sokka. It's... it's now or never,” Katara said.
“And we still have the Dragon Soul,” Chromie added, then looked around. “Oh, no. Where is it?!”
They followed Chromie's gaze down to the empty satchel that had held the Soul.
“Right here,” Suki said.
Suki held the Soul tucked under one arm, and deftly hopped up to climb a leaf-bare tree before anyone could speak. She braced her feet in one of its icy boughs and held the Soul aloft with both hands, her eyes focused on Deathwing in the distance.
“The mission will continue,” she said through her teeth. “The plan will not fail.”
The Dragon Soul flared to life like a miniature sun, turning her into a silhouette. The colors of the elements swelled out and combined into pure white and shot a brilliant beam at Deathwing with a roar as it split the air.
The group shielded their eyes against the light and then stared in awe. The tops of trees had been obliterated in the beam's path.
Moments later another roar answered – Deathwing's roar, in pain and fury. He shouted something in anger as he wheeled in the sky and then turned toward the source of the attack.
“Oh. Oh boy,” Sokka said.
Suki glared fearlessly. “Right where I want you,” she said, and fired the Soul again.
Deathwing reeled back and banked as part of his iron plating was blasted loose and fell from his body.
“Everyone, hurry! Onto my back again!” Chromie said. “We can't let him have the advantage of flight! We will land on his back and attack him where he can't reach us!”
Everyone ran and climbed onto Chromie's back, everyone except Suki.
“Suki, come on!” Sokka shouted. “You'll get -”
The Soul fired again, with a kick strong enough to knock her back from the tree. She nodded to herself in satisfaction as Deathwing reeled in the air again with a roar. She ran to join them on Chromie, grabbing the satchel on the way and stuffing the Soul inside it. Chromie sprang into the air and made her way toward Deathwing.
“I had to soften him up,” Suki said. “We have to use any advantage we can. I know what will happen if we fail. I've seen it.”
Katara turned to look at Suki and shuddered at the warrior's grim, intense expression.
“He's taken enough already,” Katara agreed, turning forward. “We'll make sure he'll never kill anyone again.”
Deathwing recovered from the blinding light of the Dragon Soul and zeroed in on Chromie and her passengers. His eyes narrowed and his maw opened wide as he lurched forward in the air to snap them up.
Katara made an uppercut motion with both hands, bending snow off the trees and ground below and condensing them into a single massive shard of ice in one fluid motion. It smashed against the bottom of Deathwing's metal jaw, snapping his mouth shut and diverting his head a hair's breadth from striking Chromie. Katara's pulse pounded with adrenaline.
Deathwing shook off the ice and lunged again. This time Jaina raised her staff and shouted a word. In the blink of an eye and flash of violet light, Chromie and everyone had shunted forward a dozen yards, and Deathwing's teeth closed on air behind them.
“Everyone jump! I'll try to keep him distracted!” Chromie said.
Chromie swept low over Deathwing's back. The black dragon was already trying to turn to get at her again.
“Jump where?!” Toph said.
The entire sky to the side of them turned brick-red as Deathwing's wing raised up and the membrane swatted Chromie like a bug-swatter. She pitched in the air, knocking her passengers off with a chorus of panicked shouts.
Jaina and Anduin shouted spells to slow their descents, but they had only seconds before everyone would collide with Deathwing's plated back – or fall right past him entirely. Katara grabbed Sokka and Zuko and the landed gently on the dragon's back.
Toph kept falling, rushing out of sight with Suki right after her.
“Suki! Toph!” Sokka shouted.
They had no time to react. Deathwing was wheeling in the air in pursuit of Chromie already. Everyone lurched and stumbled. Frigid air whipped by them. They had no choice but to hunch over and grab hold of his scales and plating.
“We have to pry these plates off!” Jaina said.
“But none of us are earthbenders!” Sokka said. “We have to see if Toph -”
“Sokka, look!” Katara interrupted, pointing.
Suki came springing up over Deathwing's haunch with Toph in one arm and clinging to her neck. She ran forward to join the others and set Toph down.
“Oh thank goodness,” Sokka said.
“We don't have time to give thanks,” Katara said. “Toph, over here, he's covered in these armor plates and we have to get them off. Can you bend them?”
Toph scrambled up on all fours until she reached one of the plates, already partially dislodged thanks to the Dragon Soul. She ran a hand over it.
“It's that elementium metal,” she said. “And that means I can absolutely bend it!”
Toph wasted no time. She planted her feet firmly, wedged in a crevice between Deathwing's scales, dug her fingers into the elementium, and started to lift the Appa-sized slab of metal as if it were only a wooden board. Lava boiled up from the exposed flesh underneath.
Katara gazed out toward the ground again, and swallowed when she saw it wasn't there anymore. Deathwing had left land behind and was flying over the ocean. Chromie was nowhere in sight. Did that mean he killed her, or that he'd just outflown her?
“Got it!” Toph gasped as the plate came loose completely. “Watch out!”
She let it go and everyone dropped low as it sailed over their heads and clanked off the tip of Deathwing's tail.
“What's next?” she said. She started to step forward, and Suki yanked her back.
“He's bleeding lava,” Suki said.
The lava continued welling up. There was no way to pass by, unless they took a dangerous detour along the very edges.
“We're over the ocean now,” Katara said. “If we can get him to crash into the water, I can help. And maybe it'll douse all this lava too.”
“How are we going to get him to crash?” Toph said.
“We attack his wings!” Sokka said. “It's just like Aa- like an Airbender's glider, or those Fire Nation airships. Tear up the wings enough and he won't be able to stay aloft. Give everything you've got to the wings!”
“What about me?” Toph said.
“See if you can find any more metal. If you can, chuck it at his wings this time.”
“I'll go with you,” Katara said. “I can't do anything from here with just my water whip anyway.”
She took Toph's hand and led her down to the nearest plate as the others started splitting their attacks between the wings. Sokka expertly threw an elven crescent at the left wing's membrane as Suki agilely sprang up onto Deathwing's left shoulder and clung with one hand while slicing at the connected membrane with her sword in the other.
Jaina, Anduin, and Zuko turned to attack the right wing, shooting bolts of arcane and holy magic, and jets of fire, at the flesh. From a distance, the membranes looked paper-thin, but the flesh was easily as thick as a human arm at its thinnest places.
Katara kept an eye on them and on the ocean below for any sign of land, while Toph pried away the metal plate. More lava and liquefied flesh sloughed off like an infection under a bandage.
“Which direction and how far?” Toph asked.
Katara turned Toph toward the right wing. “Throw it as hard as you can.”
“Just the way I like it.”
Toph gave the last heave to pull the plate loose and lobbed it right-ward. The hooks at the corners, used moments ago to secure it in the dragon's flesh, now tore through the wing like shrapnel. Thick, glowing blood jettisoned from the tattered skin.
Deathwing roared again and began to list to the right side. Jaina's arcane missiles effectively peppered his skin with holes, that joined and widened more and more rapidly. He started to tip his body toward starboard with intent.
“He's going to roll!” Katara shouted. “Hang on to something!”
They couldn't hear her over the wind but they seemed to come to the same conclusion. Everyone flattened against the dragon and gripped his scales, with the exception of Suki who clung to the arm of his wing.
Deathwing's wings folded in and he rolled in midair, causing Katara's heart and stomach to lurch. The sky took the place of the ocean. The waters above rushed by at breakneck speed while Deathwing's feet grazed the clouds. His magmic blood stretched out like worms from the punctures along his back.
He finally rolled back up. Katara lifted her head to make sure everyone was still hanging on, then rolled away as the levitating lava whips collapsed around her.
As everyone stood to get their bearings and resume attacking, Deathwing rolled again.
Katara yelped as her feet lost contact. She grasped out, hands scrabbling over his scales and finally taking hold of Toph's ankle. The earthbender tipped upside-down, hanging by her hands.
“Will this dumb dragon just hold still?!” Toph yelled. “I'm getting queasy here!”
“I don't think – NO!” Katara gasped. Sokka was falling.
But he fell slowly, thanks to the earlier spells on him – but Deathwing was flying at ludicrous speed and every second apart put more distance between them.
Jaina jumped with purpose from Deathwing's spine and shot forward through the air like a streak of light, grabbed Sokka with one arm, and shot back with him in tow. The instant they reappeared, he drove his sword into Deathwing as an anchor. He and Jaina fluttered in the air like feathers as they hung off of it.
Deathwing started to roll up again, then suddenly gave a familiar anguished roar and shuddered. He managed to lift halfway up, then steadily descend, thundering curses and obscenities.
“What happened?” Toph said.
Katara looked around, as blood rushed to her head, making her dizzy. Everyone still was hanging on – and Deathwing's left wing was hanging limply. Suki was clutching the shoulder joint, her sword driven into the armpit up to her own shoulder. Smoke curled out of the wound.
Deathwing lost altitude unabated. His shredded right wing tried vainly to give him lift, but the air whistled through his wing like it was a ship's torn sail. The ocean was rising to meet them, its cobalt waters frothing ominously. The air was electric, the sky growing dark. A storm was coming – no, Katara realized. They were coming to the storm.
The Maelstrom loomed above and below, and Deathwing flew right into it. A wall of rain washed over them as he passed the storm's edge. Spikes of land jutted up like a ring of teeth around the whirlpool in the center, an impossibly huge vortex emitting fiery light from its center. It grew larger, and larger, and soon all Katara could see of the ocean below was that whirlpool, large enough to swallow Deathwing whole. And, too, swallow all of them with it. Her waterbending would never be able to fight a force like that.
“Toph, we're about to hit the water! Hold your breath in five, four -”
Deathwing struck the water with a clap louder than the lightning forking above, the force of impact sending everyone rolling across his back and side. Katara lost her hold of Toph, who lost her hold on the metal plating. Deathwing's claws grasped at the pieces of shore and broke them, pulling boulders into the sea.
Rain poured and lashed in all directions with a howling wind drowning out the words of the others as they shouted. Unending thunder punctuated the water's roar. Deathwing's molten body hissed out clouds of steam as he was pulled deeper and deeper. Water closed over him – Katara could barely see the others running over his neck and back to escape it. His bladed tail lashed out, drawing lightning strikes one after another. The wet air smelled of sulphur, salt and ozone.
“Katara, help!” Toph screamed as a wave caught her. Katara waterbent Toph back to her and grabbed her arm firmly.
“Where's -” Toph started to say, before another wave hit them both.
Once again Katara's feet left Deathwing's scales, but this time she couldn't find him again, or anything solid to stand on. The vortex was pushing her and Toph around, past stones and thickening globs of blood. It was all Katara could do to keep herself and Toph at the surface, even as they drew closer to the center of the whirlpool. She could no longer see or hear the others at all, and most of Deathwing had already gone under.
Toph clung fully to Katara. “What's happening?!”
“We fell in a whirlpool!” Katara shouted. She could barely hear herself.
“Did we win? Is he dead?!”
But he couldn't fly and didn't look like a good swimmer either. Deathwing wouldn't die in battle. He'd drown like vermin, just like he deserved.
And so would the rest of them unless a miracle happened.
We could really use the Avatar right now. Aang, why did you have to -?
The center of the vortex grew closer, quicker, each orbit shorter than the last. Katara kept using her free arm to bend the water, just enough to keep them from going under. She was already weak from powering the Dragon Soul and couldn't do any more to resist the vortex. Death by drowning, an ironic fate for a waterbender, and one she'd already narrowly survived once.
The walls of the whirlpool grew steep, glowing orange from some unseen magic, the strange beams of light pulsing from the center. Katara's arm was weak. Any second now and she and Toph would go under.
She dropped her arm to cling to Toph. The ocean closed over them, heavy, rushing, cutting, tumbling. Light and darkness was all around them, heat and cold, stone and lightning.
See you in the next life, Aang. Everyone.
And then the water was nothing. Not water, not air, but a vast void, a tumultuous waterfall of starlight and embers, swirling eddies of nebulae, full of deafening silence. Katara looked up and saw a silvered mirror of the whirlpool, inverted and slow like snowfall. She looked down and saw the night sky awash with auroras and dotted with moons.
Then the vision cleared and she was looking down at the bottom of a cave instead – very far down, and coming closer by the second as gravity returned to their bodies.
“Toph, earthbend!” she gasped. “Hurry!”
Chapter 36: Zuko
Firstly, Zuko was underwater when last he'd been standing on the spine of Deathwing. Secondly, Zuko tumbled through a vivid hallucination of outer space into open air. And thirdly as he tried to cough for air and find his footing, he found nothing solid beneath his body at all.
He fell. Stone approached him. He tried to yell, and only water came out.
Then he slowed, feather-light once more. He looked around and saw Anduin and Jaina near him, sopping wet and slowly falling.
Zuko coughed out water again. “What happened?”
“Fell in the Maelstrom,” Jaina said wearily. “Through the rift between worlds, into Deepholm, the Realm of Earth.” She sounded as tired as Zuko felt.
Zuko assessed his surroundings as they descended. Stone, stone everywhere. The world was a cavern chamber stretching beyond the horizons. Pillars of cobalt and obsidian stood around like a forest, clusters of glowing gemstones floated and spun on the air, shimmering quicksilver falls cascaded over cliff faces and down into unlit ravines far below.
In the near distance lumbered the damaged shape of Deathwing, dripping water and lava in gallons. His left wing dragged over the ground. His right wing was furled and twitching in pain.
“Where are the others?” Zuko hissed. “Where's -”
He didn't need to finish the sentence. He heard an echoing shout: “Toph, earthbend! Hurry!”
Deathwing raised his head.
“Damn,” Jaina whispered.
She canceled the slow-fall spell, and she, Anduin, and Zuko dropped the short way down to the ground. They ducked behind a stone pillar, out of sight of the dragon.
“What do we do?” Zuko said. He kept his voice low, for the cold stone resounded all.
“We can't let him recover,” Jaina said. “He fled to Deepholm once before when injured. It's where he forged his armor plating. We can't allow him the chance a second time.”
“Are we strong enough ourselves?” Anduin said. “As much as this conflict's taken out of him, it's taken a greater toll on all of us.”
“We must finish him, here and now,” Jaina said. “He destroyed Theramore, he nearly destroyed Stormwind, and if we give him an opportunity he will destroy the entire world. We're the only ones now who know where he is. We have no time to find reinforcements.”
“We were the reinforcements,” Zuko muttered.
“Perhaps the earth elementals will hear the battle, and come to our aide,” Anduin said hopefully.
“I know one person who can help us out a lot now,” Zuko said. “Toph's literally in her element here, and she's somewhere nearby with Katara.”
“Indeed,” Anduin agreed. “Suki and Sokka are likely nearby as well. And she may still have the Dragon Soul.”
“Let's hurry up and find Katara and Toph first,” Zuko said. “This way.”
He sped off, weaving through the stone forest in the direction he heard Katara's voice.
“Katara!” he said when he saw her.
“Zuko!” She looked relieved. “Where are we?”
Toph spoke first, her hands passing over the dirt. “Someplace made of nothing but earth.”
“Deathwing's here too,” Zuko said. “We have to finish him off while he's weak.”
“I know. I can feel him,” Toph said, standing. “He's this way. Come on!”
She took off running. It was the first time Zuko had seen her move over open ground with complete confidence – it was the first time absolutely nothing was out of her sight. He ran after her, the others following.
Deathwing's voice boomed out in the caverns: “Twilight's Hammer, heed my call! I require your aide!”
“He's calling for help?” Toph said. “We've really got him now.”
“Don't get too cocky,” Zuko said. “And keep an eye and an ear out for anyone who answers him.”
Deathwing's head swung about at their approaching voices. “You insects! You dare face me again, after -”
Toph chucked one of the pillars directly into his open mouth. He made a sound like gagging mixed with a bear's snarl and spat out chunks of rock.
“You wield earth against the Earthwarder?!” the dragon bellowed, eyes flaring.
“The dwarves said you'd put up a better fight than that, Deathwing!” Toph shouted. “Or should I call you No-Wing now?”
He roared and swiped his tremendous paw at the group. Toph deflected his claws with a wall of stone, but only barely. Lava and water flecked across the ground around them.
“Hah! You'll have to try a little harder than that!” she laughed.
“What are you doing?!” Zuko hissed.
“Letting you guys get in close for the kill,” she hissed back. “Katara, there's water everywhere, I can feel it! He feels like he's drenched, too!”
“Right,” Katara said, and ran through the shadows of the pillars. Zuko and the others whisked after her stealthily.
Toph raised her voice again. “I'll be nice enough to let you fight me one on one, ya big lizard! Mano a mano! Give me your best shot!”
Deathwing roared, reared, and pounded his claws down. Toph launched herself out of the way with a block of earth, landing atop one of the pillars. She laughed again. Deathwing made an utterly feral noise as he clawed once more at her, and once more she sprang away to an even higher pillar. He snapped his jaws at her, and she threw herself onto the edge of a nearby cliff, quicksilver pouring down on either side of her.
“He's lost himself,” Anduin whispered as the group circled around back. “He's going mad and losing focus.”
“Let's hope she doesn't get herself killed too,” Zuko said, and regretted it at the looks on their faces. Especially Katara's.
Toph continued to fling herself about, flying like a trapeze artist with taunting cackles and japes, higher on higher on cliffs, outcroppings, and columns. Deathwing roared wordlessly in rage as he knocked over one pillar after another and clawed out gouges in cliff faces, even as she jumped beyond his reach entirely. All the while lava poured out of the wounds on his wings and back.
Katara made smooth beckoning motions with her arms and gathered all the water off of Deathwing, herself, the others, and the ground around them. Deathwing didn't even notice, focused on Toph alone.
“That is it! YOU WILL BURN FOR YOUR INSOLENCE!” Deathwing shouted, and took a deep breath.
“Do your worst, O Jawless Wonder!” Toph said.
Deathwing's flame breath lit the caverns for miles. Zuko could see a tiny figure in the brunt of the blast. His heart dropped -
until he saw the other tiny figure, the real Toph, sliding down the side of another pillar well away from the flames. She'd left a stone decoy and used the echoes for ventriloquism.
And then she knocked the entire pillow over by removing a small, critical chunk of stone at the base. It clattered over Deathwing's head with booming cracks and added its dust to the clouds of smoke. He shook his head furiously to knock away the dirt and stone.
“Now,” Jaina said. “Strike!”
Katara solidified the water into an ice spike the size of a fishing boat and launched it through the air where it drove with precision into the exposed flesh on Deathwing's back. Lava-blood spurted out and turned the ice to steam; she rolled her hands and pulled the steam clouds back to condense to ice again.
Deathwing's head turned to look back toward them, and Jaina responded with a barrage of arcane missiles at his face. The violet bolts of magic sought his eyes like homing missiles.
Zuko didn't try to bend fire at the dragon – instead he bent the heat away, drawing the fiery energy out of the lava blood so that it hardened to stone while still coating Deathwing's body, all the way down his legs to the floor. A moment later, Toph laughed from somewhere above again, as the chunks of stone splintered into javelin shapes and stabbed themselves into Deathwing everywhere they touched him.
Deathwing flailed, bleeding and blinded, his horns knocking down stalactites where the ceiling was low enough. Whichever ones Toph didn't bend into Deathwing himself, Anduin deflected away from the group with quick, well-timed shields of light.
The group kept on the move as Deathwing kept turning to try to find them. The dragon smashed and raked his claws over the ground and breathed flame every few seconds. Zuko deflected the fire breath away, mentally noting how much weaker it was than at Theramore. There, it had taken all of Zuko's concentration just to save himself. Here, he could run and bend through it with ease.
Katara kept reforming and restabbing with the ice, then as the ground became unsteady she spread it out as ice sheets under Deathwing's feet. The sightless dragon stumbled worse, bellowing smoke as he cursed them and all their kind. The landscape quickly became utter wreckage around them, acres of rent earth, shattered pillars, and scattered gemstones.
“You – foolish – whelps,” Deathwing growled. His back leg fell under him in a pool of his own molten blood. More of his metal plating peeled away and fell to the ground like unmanned tanks. Seams split open between his scales of their own accord, spilling out even more lava. “The End Times – are still... still inevitable.”
Zuko and the others didn't relent, didn't respond. It wasn't the time to talk. Even Toph had stopped taunting, focusing on laying on wound after wound, crushing and piercing the dragon's body as it lost more of its shape. Deathwing seemed to be having trouble keeping himself in one piece anymore, as the last of his armor dropped away. The only metal left was his jaw, but even that bled.
“You'll... see,” Deathwing rasped. He didn't try to turn or fight anymore. He breathed raggedly. “This world... your world...”
His other hind leg collapsed, barely solid anymore. His forelegs shook, his head dropped until his face nearly touched the floor.
He fell with a ground-shuddering whump. He wasn't dead yet. His torso still heaved with labored breaths.
“Toph, get us over there,” Katara said.
Toph conveyed them quickly with earthbending, near Deathwing's head. Katara carried the water along with her in the form of a large sphere floating behind her. She moved forward with a severe, focused expression.
“I don't know what Aang said to you,” she addressed Deathwing, “but I can guess. He tried to talk you down. He tried to offer you a peaceful way out. He showed you mercy. Didn't he?”
Deathwing growled bitterly and tried to rise.
“And you killed him,” she said. Her voice cracked, tears falling down her face again. “He showed you mercy!”
“Well, I won't.”
The water sphere formed an ice spike again. With one sharp motion, Katara sent it into Deathwing's throat.
He gurgled as steam issued from his neck, he still he wasn't dead. Katara gave a frustrated sob.
“Allow me,” Toph said. Without flair, she added a javelin of stone to the wound. It pushed deeper and deeper until finally Deathwing let out his last breath and lay still.
“C'mon, Anduin,” she said, “I'll show you where Sokka and Suki are so you can heal them. I'm pretty sure I felt them nearby.”
Anduin silently followed her away.
Katara flopped down to sit where she stood amongst the rubble. She took a few hitched breaths but looked too tired to cry anymore. Zuko sat next to her.
“What now?” Zuko said wearily.
“I don't know,” Katara said.
“Nor do I,” Jaina said. “Even with Deathwing's defeat, the Twilight's Hammer won't rest. Not while there are still Old Gods left to serve and worlds to end. At least now, their job will be much harder without Deathwing to help them.”
“How are you so... collected?” Zuko said.
Jaina hesitated. “I am a leader. There's a time and place for mourning. I... I can put Thrall and the others from my thoughts for now.” She looked around. “And I'm still alert for cultists. Deathwing called out to them; who knows if they might still show up?”
A voice answered: “They won't.”
Zuko and Katara jumped to their feet and looked around, prepared for another fight.
A figure strode from the shadows, eyes gleaming with a golden glow. When the figure hopped down over the steppes and broken pillars, Zuko gasped as, once again, he'd come face-to-face with his sister on Azeroth.
“Oh Zu-Zu, don't look so surprised. All of you ended up here, why shouldn't I?” Azula said. She looked human – mostly. Her eyes flickered with their own light and her skin looked strangely ashen, as if coated with literal ash. Her hands appeared blackened as if dipped in ink and left to dry.
“But you – We fought you! You were enslaved -” Zuko said.
“Yes, I was. I don't recall ever fighting you, though,” Azula said. “And I'm not here to do that now, either, so you can go ahead and lower your fists.”
“I'm not putting my guard down around you.”
“Me neither,” Katara said, forming a water whip.
Jaina looked between the three of them. “What's going on? Who is she?”
“My sister Azula,” Zuko said. “As for what's going on, that's what I'd like to know.”
“My, you really have been out of the loop, haven't you?” Azula said. “While you and your girlfriend and all your little friends were running around doing whatever it is you do in the wilderness, dear old dad got a visit from some very interesting people.”
“The Twilight's Hammer? They got to our world?”
“You're catching on! Good for you.” She clapped sarcastically. “Oh, can you imagine? All these strange people with their amazing magic, bowing before the Fire Lord and telling him they've heard of his legendary prowess from across the galaxy. How they've come to aide his designs on the world.”
“And he went along with them?” Zuko said dubiously.
“Not at first, until they started lending him their magic... their servants... their slaves and monsters,” Azula said. “In return, they wanted some of his best firebenders for their special training program to unlock their greatest potential. At least, that's what they told him. And after so long having the entire world against him, everyone hating him, resisting him, even his own son turning against him, you can imagine how glad he was to finally have someone on his side.”
“And then what?”
“I was naturally much more suspicious of their honeyed words. It takes one to know one, you know? So I started spying on them,” Azula said. “And through my network of spies, I learned they'd made the same promises to all the world leaders. They were playing him for a fool! The Fire Lord!”
“Why? What did they want?”
“Us, brother! Benders!” Azula said, her eyes flaring. “I tried to warn him, but he wouldn't listen. He told me I was blinded by short-sighted ambitions, that I just couldn't understand the affairs of state like he could. He said I was trying to usurp him, that I was the liar!”
“You don't have the best track record,” Zuko said.
Azula scoffed. “That's beside the point. Why would I lie about that? If they really were our allies, I would have welcomed their help in crushing our enemies. But they were playing everyone. When Sozin's Comet came, what should have been a decisive victory over the Earth Kingdom turned into chaos, a rout. I knew where they were getting their help from, but Father wouldn't see it. He was too far gone. Trickery, hypnotism, whatever it was they did, they had him. I couldn't get through to him.”
“Had' him? Not 'have'?”
“Well, you can't have someone who's dead, now can you?”
Zuko and Katara gasped.
Azula continued, “Not that the destruction under Sozin's Comet wasn't immense, of course, but the Fire Nation took heavy losses too. Not Father, though. Not that day. I was foolish to keep pressing the issue. I should have played by their rules, I see that now – I should have gone back to my old ways of trickery in return, but I was starting to panic. Everything was slipping out of our control. Mine, Father's, the Fire Nation's.
“The war intensified. The Earth Kingdom started leading offensives against us. Even the Northern Water Tribe attacked us. Then, they must have been tricked too – they started fighting each other. The Earth Kingdom fell apart, divided by in-fighting. The Fire colonies were attacked and scattered. The Fire Nation wasn't spreading its culture anywhere anymore. No one was winning anything, we were destroying everything we had left.”
Azula laughed bitterly. “Can you imagine I actually went looking for you? Not to hunt you down, I mean. I tried to find you and the Avatar. I realized this senseless war wasn't doing us any good, and I hoped your merry band might put an end to it and cut our losses.
“Well, Father found out. He called me a traitor, made some unkind comparisons to you, and decided to banish me. But he didn't send me off with a ship like you. He handed me over to the Twilight's Hammer. He said, 'Maybe you'll learn your place under their tutelage'.”
Zuko's mouth hung open in shock as he tried to absorb the information. The Twilight's Hammer inciting chaos and all-out war on his world, his father treating Azula like Zuko – what state would the world be in once they got back? Would there be anything left to salvage?
“So, there you have it,” Azula said. “I was sent here to this... 'Azeroth' and its connected elemental realms.”
“But you said the Fire Lord is dead?” Katara said.
Azula sneered. “Yes, not like that isn't exactly what you wanted anyway. The High Priestess happily informed me of his fate.”
“Then you'll be happy to know she's dead too,” Zuko said.
“Oh, I know. News travels fast with cultists. For all their talk of keeping secrets beyond mortal understanding, they love to gossip,” Azula said. “She wasn't the only one to die. Plucky heroes from Azeroth came through in droves and took out most of the cultist camps in Deepholm and elsewhere. And once the Hammer's control over us was weakened enough, we turned on them. I led that little rebellion, of course. The 'normal' elementals were glad for our assistance. Turns out even monsters made of pure magic don't like being enslaved, either.”
“How selfless of you,” Zuko said flatly. “So now what? Are you going back to claim your place on the throne?”
“You're the heir, aren't you, Zu-Zu?” Azula said. “And I'm not really feeling up to a duel right now. Maybe later, after I make sure there's anything left worth ruling over. Now, where's the Avatar?”
Zuko, Katara, and Jaina shared an uncomfortable glance.
“Oh come now,” Azula said, “You can't honestly think I'm going to try to capture him after all this. Times have changed, brother.”
“He's...” Zuko swallowed. “He's dead.”
Azula's eyes widened. “What?”
“He's dead. Deathwing killed him. Just before we fell down here.”
“But...” Azula looked bewildered. “But the Avatar's supposed to bring peace and balance and all that to our world. How is he supposed to do that if he's dead?”
“It's not like it's our fault!” Zuko snapped. “You think we wanted it to happen?!”
“No, of course not. But this is incredibly inconvenient.”
Katara glared. “I'm glad you think my friend dying is inconvenient for you!”
“For me? Well, yes. But also for everyone. If anyone stood a chance against the cultist's forces, it was him. Now we'll have to wait for the next one – which nation will that be, again? Water?” Azula tapped her chin thoughtfully.
“How dare you! He's not just some weapon you can replace!”
“Oh, I know! Maybe those undead people can raise him as one of them. Do you think that will work? Or maybe he'll come back without the Avatar spirit, just an empty shell -”
“Shut up!” Katara slapped her with the water whip.
“Don't bother, Katara,” Zuko said. “She's just trying to get under your skin.”
Azula laughed. “It's good to know I haven't lost my touch.”
Toph and Anduin returned with Suki and Sokka, who were bruised and limping. All of them except Anduin assumed combat stances the moment they saw and heard Azula.
“What's she doing here?!” Sokka said.
“It's a long story,” Zuko said, “but I don't think she's here to fight.”
“Sure, that's what she'd want to to think! And more importantly, how is she still alive?”
Toph huffed. “I told you, Sokka. That was future stuff. Alternate future stuff. Deathwing obviously didn't die on top of Wyrmrest Temple either, did he?”
Sokka blinked. “I... Okay, granted. But what's she doing here anyway? Come to ambush us with the rest of the cultists while we're weak from fighting Deathwing?!”
“Oh, you silly peasant boy, do your legs ever get tired jumping to so many conclusions?” Azula said. “The Twilight's Hammer is as good as gone here, thanks to me.”
“A likely story!”
“I know. Because it's true. And I'm only here talking to all of you because I was looking for the Avatar. Yes, yes, I know he's dead.” She waved dismissively before anyone could interrupt. “Those cultists did a number on our world. Sowing discord everywhere, enslaving benders left and right, reaping all our natural resources. Quite clever on their part, really. It's just a shame they had to cross me to do it.”
“Wait, what?” Sokka looked around at the others. “Really?”
“I don't know,” Zuko said. “I wouldn't doubt it, though. We won't know for sure until we get there ourselves.”
“How are we getting home?” Sokka said. “How do we even get out of this Deepholm place?”
Jaina spoke up. “That I can answer. There is a temple here with portals back to Azeroth. It resembles Wyrmrest Temple, though I'm not sure which direction -”
Toph stomped her foot. “Found it.” She pointed.
“So what do we do about her?” Sokka said, gesturing at Azula.
“I am not having her come with us,” Katara said.
“Oh, I wasn't aware that you were in charge of my movements,” Azula said.
“Just try and follow us, you'll see how well that goes,” Katara growled. Suki and Sokka nodded agreement.
Zuko didn't know what to do. If Azula was telling the truth – and it was a pretty far-fetched thing to lie about – then having her around would be useful. The enemy of his enemy, after all. Unless she wasn't his enemy's enemy. If she was still under Twilight thrall, she could be trying to rile them up, or mislead them somehow. And in that case, did he really want to leave her to her own devices?
He sighed. “We need to take her with us. As dangerous as she is to keep around, how much more dangerous is she when no one's watching her?”
“I'm flattered,” Azula said.
Anduin said, “She may stay in Stormwind under supervision. We will return through the temple portal. We all need rest, and I need to inform the other leaders of Deathwing's demise.”
“What about Chromie?” Toph said. “Did anyone see what happened to her?”
They all shook their heads.
“If she lived – if any of the Dragon Aspects lived – they'll find us in Stormwind,” Anduin said.
“What about... Aang's body?” Katara said. “We shouldn't just leave it out there.”
“I can retrieve it,” Jaina said. “It's near Dalaran City. I need to inform the Kirin Tor of all this, anyway.”
“Let's not tarry here,” Anduin said. “The earth elementals will do what they wish with Deathwing's body.”
Toph cleared a path through the wreckage and rubble toward the temple. The group followed after, quiet and exhausted. Zuko cast a glance back at the dragon's cooling body, watching as the last embry glow under its scales faded.
Zuko found himself wandering the cool, spacious halls of Stormwind Castle that night, unable to sleep, as he had another night that seemed years ago. That night, he had dreamed of Deathwing murdering his father. This night, both had died. Zuko hadn't even gone to sleep yet; he was afraid of what he'd dream this time.
Azula had been given her own quarters, under guard, but Zuko doubted any guards would be effective against her if she wanted to escape. As long as her goals aligned with the others', she'd play nice. He worried how quickly that would change once they saved their own world and defeated the Twilight's Hammer there.
Zuko's wandering brought him to the dining hall. Anduin and Jaina spoke quietly by the light of a candle. No one else was present.
Anduin looked up and smiled wanly. “Prince Zuko, hello. I can't say I'm surprised to see you wandering again.”
“Am I interrupting?” Zuko said.
“Not at all. We were discussing how to proceed from here. You ought to join us, it's your world and nation involved now.”
Zuko shrugged and took a seat across from them at the table. “Seems like a pretty odd time and place to have that kind of discussion.”
“It's an informal meeting, brought about by sleeplessness,” Anduin said in a joking tone. “For as exhausted I am after today, well... you know how it is.”
Jaina spoke up. “We've already sent missives to the other world leaders. I informed the Kirin Tor and Wyrmrest Accord – the mages and dragons. Alexstrasza and Nozdormu survived the attack on Wyrmrest Temple and will arrive to meet us with the other leaders. Ysera is still unaccounted for. She may have fled into the Emerald Dream.”
“The Emerald Dream?” Zuko asked.
“The realm of druids and natural spirits,” she said. “If she's there, she'll no doubt hear from us soon, from the druids. Tyrande's husband is an archdruid, and she's been contacted as well.”
“As have Prophet Velen, King Gelbin, King Greymane, the Dwarven Council...” Anduin said. “Ah, and others. I won't bore you with all these names, you'll be meeting them shortly regardless.”
“I... I will?” Zuko said.
“You are also a world leader. And you were partially responsible for killing Deathwing. You and your friends will likely be showered with congratulations.”
“Oh.” Zuko sighed. “It doesn't feel like much of a victory.”
Anduin frowned sympathetically. “Because of your father? I'm sorry, I understand how -”
“No, you don't. Your father was loved and respected. He treated you well and tried to protect you.” Zuko touched the burn scar on his face. “My father did this.”
Anduin and Jaina's expressions changed the way everyone's did – horror, pity, shock, embarrassment. Everyone always either stared awkwardly at the scar, or awkwardly tried not to. Everyone always wanted to know how it happened yet never wanted to be the one to ask.
“Remember when I told you my father was the one trying to take over our world?” Zuko went on, lowering his hand. “My friends and I were on a mission to kill him. Before we got summoned here, we were hiding out in the Fire Nation, in my family's old vacation house, training and planning to... to put him down before he could destroy everything. His plan involved harnessing the power of a comet to do pretty much what Deathwing did to Theramore.”
“I'm... so sorry,” Anduin said. “I can't imagine...”
“Even though it's what we were planning to do, I can't -” Zuko put his hands on his head, elbows on the table. “I know I should feel happy we 'won', but I don't. Aang thought he could come up with a way to defeat my father without killing him, and even though I shot him down, a part of me wanted to believe he would. What if he could have? Now it's too late to ever find out.
“And on the other hand, I know I should feel sad to lose my father, but I don't feel that either! I don't feel like I lost him, because he never – I never really had him in the first place. I don't know if I wanted him gone. I wanted him to be a different person all along. I wanted...” Zuko ran his hands through his hair in frustration before dropping them again. “I don't know what I wanted. I don't know how I feel.”
“I – I see now that I can never understand the position you were put in,” Anduin said after a moment. “I am sorry for your loss. The loss of what should have been a much happier family, if nothing else.”
Jaina let out a long breath. “I do understand.”
Zuko looked at her. “You do?”
“While my father was not an evil man, he was short-sighted, stuck in the past, and unwilling to accept offers of peace from his enemies. He was relentless in his hatred for the Horde. In the end, I was forced to side against him,” she said, “and my decision cost him his life.”
Zuko couldn't think of anything to say. The three of them sat in silence for several moments, digesting what they'd shared together.
“Garrosh is heading down a dark path,” Anduin finally said. “Even the threat of Deathwing's cataclysm couldn't give him pause in his relentless hate.”
“I wish we could do something to help you,” Zuko said, “but I don't know if we'll have any help to spare, if what my sister said about our world is true.”
“I meant what I said this morning,” Anduin said. “Stormwind will help you.”
“This morning feels like forever ago... Didn't you say all the heads of government had already left?”
“They won't have gone far. Our couriers will reach them quickly,” Anduin said. “Besides, I... I believe it is a good time to abdicate as 'High King of the Alliance'.”
Anduin shrugged self-deprecatingly. “While I am prepared to lead Stormwind, I have to admit I'm not nearly ready to lead the entire Alliance. I'll discuss it with the other leaders. I believe Tyrande would be a better High Queen. She is the most long-lived of us all, and has the most experience with leadership. Of course, we may all decide to simply form a council, not led by a single person but voting in unanimity, similar to when the Alliance first formed.”
“Actually, I believe Velen is older,” Jaina said. “But we don't know if he'd want to lead us all.”
“A High King who sees the future would be a powerful asset,” Anduin joked. “Very reassuring to the people.”
“I hope you all work something out,” Zuko said, standing. “I'm going to bed.”
Anduin and Jaina bid him goodnight, and he returned to his quarters. Exhaustion pulled him down like a rock into the depths of his pillow and a sleep where he didn't dream at all.
Chapter 37: Sokka
A week after Deathwing's fall, the Alliance heads of government reconvened in Stormwind Castle's great hall, guarded heavily at all entrance points. Sokka, Katara, Zuko, Toph, Suki, and even Azula were allowed (encouraged) to attend, to give their accounts of the battle with Deathwing, what they learned of the Twilight's Hammer, and the state of their homeworld. In turn, each leader gave their own accounts of events transpiring lately, updating maps, informing one another of troop placement and other strategic information, and drafting plans and treaties together.
Sokka was pleased to see High Priestess Tyrande Whisperwind again, and this time got to meet her husband Malfurion, a strange night elf sporting antlers, feathers, and claws.
"Ysera is still missing," Malfurion had said, "but I've dispatched one of the Hyjal druids, Jattook, to seek her in the Emerald Dream on my behalf."
Then came the Dwarven Council of Three Hammers, made up of Muradin Bronzebeard, Moira Thaurissan, and Falstad Wildhammer. Each at one point muttered how they only came because they couldn't trust the other two to go to an important meeting without them. With them from Ironforge came King Gelbin Mekkatorque of the gnomes, unconcerned and uninvolved with the dwarves' interpersonal trifles.
King Genn Greymane of the worgen made an appearance, remaining in his human form, dressed in black finery, and looking surly at everyone else. He grumbled something akin to, "Finally," at news of Deathwing's demise, which Anduin later said was the closest the old man would get to thanking anyone for it.
Prophet Velen of the draenei nodded sagely at the news, stroked his sagely white beard, and gave a sagely little speech about the goodness in everyone and their strength to overcome adversity when united. Everyone clapped politely; only Anduin's applause seemed genuine. Tyrande looked sour when Velen's speech mentioned the Light and the Naaru. Sokka recalled hearing about some differences of religious opinion between the two, but he knew better than to open that can of worms.
Sokka and the others learned that the Twilight's Hammer had spread much further than anyone had suspected, even on Azeroth alone. They had sizable footholds on all three major continents, although their numbers had dwindled considerably in the past few months. They would continue to pose a threat as long as they maintained their operations unhindered on Sokka's home world, however.
Then came an unexpected proposition from Jaina: to take a portal to Dalaran City and meet with others there. "The Kirin Tor and Dragon Aspects, mostly."
Gelbin seemed overjoyed at the thought, and Velen and the elves shrugged and agreed. Moira and Muradin looked offput and loudly wondered why the magical folk couldn't make it to Stormwind rather than asking everyone else to visit the flying city. Greymane said he didn't much care what the dragons had to say anyway. "The less we have to deal with them, the better," he said.
The dwarf Falstad was pleased, saying he'd be glad to see the clouds from above. Moira and Muradin changed their tune and both said they'd be glad to move the meeting. Greymane huffed and begrudgingly agreed once he was the last one left to do so.
Jaina opened a portal, and everyone filed through to an unfamiliar room. Pillars carved with swirling shapes lined the walls of the circular chamber, interspersed with windows of golden stained glass. The outer ring of the floor was earth-toned stone, and the sunken middle ring bore a plush carpet of deep purple decorated with stars and suns. Bookshelves, potted ferns, and small wooden tables decorated the room. Standing present already were several elves and a human – and a tauren, a troll, and an orc.
The Alliance leaders shouted indignantly when they noticed the Horde members.
"What are those bloody things doing here?" King Greymane snarled.
"What's the meaning of this?" Moira demanded.
"Silence!" Jaina said. "If you want me to answer, then be silent so that I can."
Everyone quieted to listen.
"Deathwing's fall is pertinent to all races," Jaina said. "But just because he died doesn't mean the Twilight's Hammer is gone. They've built a new base of operations on the home world of these humans." She gestured at Sokka and the others. "I believe it's imperative to strike them there, before they have a chance to rebuild and strike at us first."
"And we need the Horde to do this?" Tyrande said. "We are certainly more than capable without them."
"With all due respect," the troll man rumbled, "I be feeling better taking a part in protecting my own planet, with or without your approval."
Before Tyrande and the others could explode into shouting again, Sokka raised his hand. "Excuse me, but who exactly are they?"
"I be Vol'jin, Chieftain of the Darkspear," the troll said.
"I am Baine, Chief of the Bloodhoof," the tauren said.
The brown-skinned orc woman didn't look as decorated as the others, and her posture was taut and unhappy. "I am Aggra. I am – I was the mate of Thrall, or Go'el."
"Can the great Garrosh not make this meeting himself?" Moira sneered. "Or has he only two leaders and one nobody to spare?"
Aggra glowered, and Vol'jin raised a hand preemptively. "Garrosh not been informed of this meeting," he said. "And he not be one for peace, as we be."
"Had Deathwing not destroyed Theramore, Garrosh would have himself," Jaina said. "It's clear to me now that we can't stay in the dark on his movements. It is the best for everyone for peace and communication to be held between those willing to -"
"Foolish nonsense," Genn snorted. "Just like the nonsense in the first war. Humans meeting orcs behind closed doors, bah! If you think any peace can be had after what the Horde has done to Gilneas, you're all fools."
"You realize I held a truce with the Horde for years?" Jaina said. "Garrosh is the problem. Without Thrall to take up the mantle of Warchief again..." She sighed. "We've discussed plans on deposing him and putting someone else in his place."
"He been treating my kind badly since he took over," Vol'jin said. "The goblins, too."
"And he killed my father," Baine said.
"Oh yes," Genn said, "I heard the same excuses the first time. 'Not all the orcs wanted this war, not all of us drank the demon's blood'. Well now one of those orcs who never drank the blood is the one leading you all."
"No one is forcing you to stay," Gelbin said. "I, for one, am quite curious to hear what they have to say. And the less threats to gnomekind, the better."
"If I'm free to take my leave, I'll do just that. I'll not be party to this," Genn said, marching back to the portal. "If Varian were still king, he would never have done this." And with that, the Gilnean king was gone.
Azula smiled to herself at their squabbling. Sokka gave her a wary look at how analytically she hung on to every word exchanged.
One of the elves, with platinum hair and glowing blue eyes – a high elf, not a night elf – sighed. "To continue with introductions, I am Vereesa Windrunner, Ranger-General of the Silver Covenant. This is my husband Rhonin, Leader of the Kirin Tor." She gestured at a redheaded human standing beside her.
A red-haired and red-skinned elven woman with horns growing out of her head spoke next. "I am Alexstrasza, Queen of the Red Dragonflight."
"Alexstrasza?" Toph said. "We heard Deathwing shouting for you. Do you know if Chromie lived?"
"Yes, she's alive and well," Alexstrasza said. "She couldn't catch up to Deathwing when he flew towards the Maelstrom. Nozdormu has already dispatched her to return the Dragon Soul to its rightful place in the past."
They sighed in relief at the news.
"I have something to ask, too," Katara said. She hesitated, taking a slow, calming breath before continuing. "You're the Aspect of Life, right? You have the most powerful healing magic in the world."
"That may be true," Alexstrasza said with a nod. "Though some say the Naaru or the Light is stronger."
"Well, what I mean is... Could you bring Aang back? I – I know he's supposed to reincarnate. But we don't have the kind of magic your world has. You can do so much here that we can't."
Alexstrasza's eyes softened sympathetically. "I am sorry. While it's true that my powers, and those of others, have brought people back from the threshold of death, it's a very rare and special occurrence."
"But you don't know it won't work, right? You have to at least try!" Katara pleaded.
"I'm sorry, I truly am. It's been too long, his soul has surely gone too far by now. And if he's supposed to reincarnate, it would go against my ethics to interfere with the natural cycle of his life. Where one life ends, another begins."
"Hey, that gives me another idea," Sokka said. "With all the magic here that can detect and find people, you can find out who's the next Avatar right? We don't have to wait sixteen years for the next one to be announced! You all can just do a searchy-findy spell on his soul right now!"
Alexstrasza looked uncomfortable. "Is that allowed in your culture?"
"It's... I don't know. I don't think any Avatar has died so young that it..." Sokka gulped. "I don't think it's ever been an issue before."
Katara put a hand on his arm. "I want to see him again too, but it won't be him. Not for a long time, at least, when the new Avatar can call upon their old memories. It's better to let them live their life for now."
A shadow moved across a door leading to a balcony outside, and in stepped another lithe elven woman clad in dark leathers and a hooded cloak. "What a sweet lie you tell these children, that their friend is gone for good," she said, her voice strangely cold and echoing.
Everyone turned toward her, most of the Alliance frowning, and even the Horde looked unhappy. The woman pushed back her hood, revealing gray, dry skin, washed-out white hair, and eyes glowing the color of blood.
"What the – Who is that?" Toph said. "I can't feel a heartbeat!"
"Because I have none," the woman said. "I am Sylvanas, Queen of the Forsaken."
Vereesa looked exceedingly uncomfortable and held Rhonin's hand tightly. Velen regarded Sylvanas with curiosity and a touch of sadness. Tyrande and Malfurion looked affronted by her very presence.
"How did you know of this meeting?" Jaina said.
"I have eyes and ears everywhere, Lady Jaina," Sylvanas said, using the title of respect wryly. "I would find a more important question is why I wasn't invited. Is this not my world, too? Or are the Forsaken to be left out of choosing our own fates yet again?"
"Och, stop with the self-pitying dramatics," Moira snorted. "Everyone knows you've been working on your own agenda since day one. And surely you have so few friends here it was wiser to leave you out." Moira's gaze went pointedly to Vereesa.
Sylvanas just as pointedly ignored the look. "You mean Greymane? That dog's already turned tail and run off. And a funny thing to hear of 'agenda' and 'friends' coming from you, Thaurissan. Didn't you hold your own people and the fair Prince here hostage the moment your cousins let you on the triumvirate?"
"Please, Lady Sylvanas," Anduin said when mentioned, "That business has already been smoothed over, and she is just as equally -"
"I'll not be smart-mouthed by a thrice-dead monster who should've stayed down when you took a bullet in the brain!" Moira snapped.
"Thrice... dead?" Sokka said.
Sylvanas turned to scrutinize him and his friends. "They haven't told you? Very well. I am a Forsaken. We were killed once. Some more than once. Magic outside the bounds of what these people have told you brought us back."
Vol'jin side-eyed her. "What she not be telling you is that even after the Lich King that made her was defeated, she turned his magicks around and started raising her own undead. Making more Forsaken with the help of dark spirits."
"And what would you all have me do? Allow the Forsaken to waste away and disappear forever?" she said.
"If it means not tampering with what belongs to the realm of shadows, yes. You be bringing bad juju upon yourself, Banshee Queen, and that price to pay be coming up sooner than you think."
"Not to mention, necromancy is strictly forbidden by the Kirin Tor," Rhonin said.
Azula piped up. "Pardon me, but before you all fall into petty squabbling again, I would like to at least hear what she's going to say. I am, after all, an alien to this world and I'm eager to at least know what kinds of people are in it."
Sylvanas looked pleased. "At last, one with open ears. What Alexstrasza, Anduin, Tyrande and the rest don't want you to know is that this magic lacks the limitations of the Light. The Light, the Emerald Dream, all their manifestations – priests, paladins, druids – they can only serve the living. They can cure sicknesses, remove wounds, and even then, their magic is weak. And it can abandon you in a moment of need."
"Why are we listening to this?" Tyrande said with a sneer.
Sokka looked warily at his hands, where once Elune's blessings had shone. "Abandon you?"
"No, that's not true," Anduin said. "The Light never abandons its charges!" He looked to Velen for confirmation, but Sylvanas continued first.
"My once-capital Silvermoon City held the Sunwell, a great fountain of intense light and arcane magic. It sustained us, when I was a high elf. Then the Lich King marched on us. He irrevocably tainted the land, he tainted the Sunwell, and took its light from us. Our priests were useless, the light would not answer. So too does it turn its back on the Forsaken, though many were innocents slain by the paladin Arthas for the crime of infection by contagious illness."
"You tell a very twisted version of these events," Jaina said.
"You would know, wouldn't you? When he turned against his own people, you simply disappeared to let him go on. Imagine how much suffering could have been prevented if you hadn't been love-sick over him when he was putting children to the sword."
Jaina flushed darkly and looked too shocked by the words to retort in time, and again Sylvanas went on.
"The human's precious Light couldn't save their own sick people. It couldn't heal the ravaged land in the Scourge's wake. It couldn't restore our priests nor save the high elves from their addiction to magic. It even turned its back on the draenei, its stoutest worshippers." Her red eyes stared at Velen, who remained implacable.
"Sylvanas, please," Anduin said. "Now you're just taking shots at everyone. There's no need for this."
"Oh, but there is. They should all know the dangers inherent in relying on inferior magic. You see, the Light is picky. It doesn't come to those who need it most, it comes to those who scream at it the loudest. Great evils have been committed with the Light's searing touch," Sylvanas said. "But once it considers you unworthy – once you've been graced by any magic it disagrees with – that's it. You are forever in the shadows. What would you do, Anduin, if the plague had gotten to you and you stood here now without breath in your lungs or Light in your veins? What of you, Velen, if the blighting of Karabor had taken you with it and turned you into another Broken?"
"We would have persevered," Velen said softly, "And held on to our faith, not cast it aside."
"Your faith, perhaps. But not the Light," Sylvanas said. "The Light can take life and heal the living, but only the Shadow can bring the dead back."
"As monsters!" Tyrande said.
"As people," Sylvanas said.
"Necromancy is forbidden for a reason," Rhonin said.
"And what reason is that? To deny us all a second chance because you disagree with the how?" Sylvanas said.
"Because it's unnatural," Malfurion said.
"In your opinion, perhaps."
"Not just our opinion," Baine said. "But in the eyes of the Earthmother."
"And Bwonsamdi," Vol'jin added.
"And Elune," Tyrande said.
"Ah, yes, how could I forget Elune, the one who gave us the cursed worgen?" Sylvanas said. "She brought such wretched mongrels into the world only to abandon them."
"You know, she's making a very compelling argument," Azula said. "You all follow such different beliefs and practice so many different kinds of magic, but this one in particular is forbidden? Why? Why is it unnatural, if it can happen in the first place?"
"Because eventually, all life must end," Alexstrasza said firmly. "The Titans that shaped this world decreed it so. It pains me as the Life-Binder to say it, but it's true – life's purpose is not to continue on forever, nor to be removed from the natural order and set apart as undead. Their bodies will never rejoin the earth. They will never bear life of their own."
"Not all the living can do so either," Sylvanas said. "And the Titans tried to kill us all once. I do not take their opinion on life to heart."
"This is truly nonsense!" Muradin said. "Spouting off Shadow propaganda, hating on the Light and all our gods and spirits, now cursing the very Titans that made Azeroth what it is. Were it not for all those things you hate so much, rotter, you wouldn't be standing there blathering in the first place."
"And she not be telling you how much the curse of the Forsaken torments them," Vol'jin said. "Can't have no chats with one of the undead without hearing about how painful it is. I never once met any Forsaken who didn't want to go back to living again."
"Then you haven't been meeting very many Forsaken," Sylvanas said.
"You made your point," Jaina said firmly. "You're already crashing this meeting uninvited. Either you will quietly listen to the next items on our agenda, or you'll leave, but we are not continuing this argument. You're not turning an unwilling child into a Forsaken. We've been more than gracious to even let you suggest it."
Sylvanas did not seem upset by the dismissal at all. Instead she bowed to them all and retreated to the balcony door again. "Very well. Remember that the Shadow is waiting." She stepped out of sight once more.
Vol'jin peered out the door. "She be gone."
"A pity Greymane already left," Tyrande muttered. "I wouldn't have minded seeing him bite her head off."
Vereesa flashed her a look, and let go of Rhonin's hand to hug her own arms as if chilled.
Katara made a similar gesture. "Why did she look and sound so... strange?"
"Because she's undead," Tyrande said. "Neither dead nor alive, but a cursed, in-between state."
"Her soul is no longer even part of her body," Rhonin said. "It's been detached, lingering on the fringes of existence and glued to her animated flesh with dark magic. This magic, and the plague that created her kind, were invented by demons, and that should tell you all you need to know."
"Sylvanas spent most of her entire un-life trying to exact revenge on... on the Lich King for what he did to her, for the suffering she endured by being brought back this way," Jaina said. She sighed sadly. "It seems that now that he's gone, she's directed her energies to darker purposes."
"The one thing we can agree with Garrosh on is that she be following in the Lich King's foot steps now," Vol'jin said.
"Let's move on already," Vereesa said icily. "We've wasted enough time."
"I agree," Jaina said. "We're here to discuss a possible new High King or Queen of the Alliance, Garrosh's actions as Warchief and whether or not any side wishes to take action against him, and battle plans for defeating the Twilight's Hammer on the other planet. Let's begin this discussion in earnest."
As the conversations moved forward, Sokka's mind drifted to thoughts of Aang and the Avatar spirit. Could it even have made it back home from Azeroth? What it was stuck here just like they were? Would it – would Aang – be drifting in the Shadow Realms right now, unable to find the next host in the reincarnation cycle? Or had it chosen an Azerothian?
What if the Avatar was lost, not by a broken cycle through death, but through a disrupted cycle – by being born on the wrong world entirely?
Chapter 38: Dalaran
Jaina regretted the topic of leadership immediately. The discussion fell into chaos as both sides, though willing to cooperate and communicate, distrusted the other too much to make decisions of that magnitude in front of them. The dwarven council were most contentious, mostly with each other; the sting of Magni Bronzebeard's non-responsive state and his daughter Moira's hard-nosed martial law in response was still fresh, even if the open hostilities had ended.
Each member of each race worried that the others wouldn't take the other races' needs to heart if put in charge. Malfurion expressed concern over the dwarves and gnomes, as their steel-and-stone technology conflicted with his druidism. They in turn felt that his status as Archdruid in the Cenarion Circle conflicted with Alliance leadership, as the Circle was neutral to the war.
Velen expressed no desire to lead the others, and received no nominations. Neither did he nominate anyone else, merely folding his weathered hands in his robe sleeves and watching them argue with his infinite patience.
Anduin's concerns about his own inexperience were respectfully agreed with by all. He suggested Jaina as High Queen, and she was too surprised by the nomination to even respond.
As for the Horde, both Baine and Vol'jin agreed that the other would be a fit leader, and even concurred that the blood elves' regent Lor'themar might be an intelligent leader. He just wouldn't be an intelligent choice. The orcs had been worked into patriotic fervor yearning for Garrosh's promised glory. They might not accept an elf leading them. Sylvanas, of course, was right out of the question. Her own city had been occupied by orcish soldiers ever since an indiscriminate bioweapon bombing had cleared a battlefield down to the last warrior – of all sides.
And then that nasty business of her attacking the Gilneans and using captured Alliance members as fodder to raise as her own loyal undead soldiers. As for the goblins, Trade Prince Gallywix had robbed his own people and tried selling them into slavery. Why Thrall had permitted the slimy little man to keep his crown (or top hat, in his case) was anyone's guess.
By the end, the Alliance decided that they needed no High King or Queen. Vol'jin and Baine agreed not to act against Garrosh yet either. It would be wiser to let him lead the battles he desired, and direct his energies at the Twilight's Hammer forces on Azeroth. The Horde would handle the troubles at home, and the Alliance would take the fight to the elemental benders' world. Aggra tried to volunteer her services until Alexstrasza informed the orc she was pregnant. Jaina congratulated her, though it was bittersweet. The child would not know its father.
"I will take my mate's body to Outland to rest with his ancestors," Aggra said in her quiet, severe voice, and left.
Once Baine and Vol'jin departed, the tension of the others eased. Jaina knew now was the time to discuss battle tactics, while they had no fear of the Horde overhearing.
Sokka and Suki gladly contributed tactics and strategies. Sokka requested rolls of blank parchment to make charts and graphs, while the rest of his friends pooled their collective knowledge to draw as complete a map as possible. Azula pointed out which areas she'd last known to be Twilight strongholds.
"Didn't Chromie say she could put us back at the same time we left? I don't see why we don't -" Sokka started to say, when a knock came from the door leading into the rest of the Violet Citadel.
Jaina waved the door open. A high elf floating off the floor drifted in and handed Sokka a letter without a word, then departed just as mysteriously.
"Oh," Sokka said as he read it. "It's from Chromie. She said she can't make it here personally, and regrets to inform us that Nozdormu and the rest of the Bronze Dragonflight decreed we can't go back to our own point in time. We have to go whenever and wherever the Dark Portal takes us."
"Does it say why?" Katara asked.
He flipped the letter over and shook his head. "No."
"Our plan remains the same," Jaina said. "We'll secure the Dark Portal, and free your world."
Once the plans were drafted and magical copies made for the various leaders, most of them left Dalaran to assemble their troops. They were not planning on being in the battle themselves.
Malfurion went back to Mt. Hyjal to rejoin the druids in their fight. Gelbin and the dwarven triumvirate returned to Ironforge. Velen went home to the Exodar. Rhonin and Vereesa pledged support, but stayed in Dalaran to keep an eye on the nearby Wyrmrest Temple in case of further Twilight incursions. In the end, only Jaina, Anduin, Tyrande, Alexstrasza, and the off-worlders would be joining the armies.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Jaina asked Anduin later, once the Purple Parlor had half-emptied.
"They did their best to help us," he replied. "At Theramore, on Hyjal, and against Deathwing. I owe it to them."
"But you don't owe them enough to go so far into dangerous territory," she pressed.
"I know you're worried about me, Aunt Jaina. So would my father, if he were here," Anduin said. "But I can't worry about myself so much I shy away from danger. I'm King now, I can't hide in my castle forever."
"I know, you're just... so young," she sighed. "This happened much too soon. But it's your decision."
"Thank you." He smiled to her before heading towards the others.
"I'll be glad when we get out of here," Toph was saying. "I can feel all the way down through the sewers, and then it just stops. There's nothing holding this place up!"
"I'll just be glad once we're home," Katara said. "I can't believe it's been less than two months since we came to Azeroth."
"And even longer since we saw the South Pole," Sokka agreed. "With our luck, we're gonna get there and find out it's been melted, or they summoned a giant monster right in the middle of it, or something."
"Let's hope that isn't the case," Anduin said as he reached them.
"You know, with all the support everyone's sending us," Sokka said, "it actually makes me wish we'd landed here ages ago. Without all the Cultist trouble, I mean. Just getting some back-up on the Day of Black Sun would've been great."
Azula strode over to them. "That was a fun day, wasn't it?"
"Right," he said with a glower, "I really enjoyed you taunting me about my girlfriend being in prison."
"Really now, you're still mad about that? It was a stalling tactic, you already figured that out. And here she is, safe and sound." Azula gestured at Suki. "What I really came over here to ask is what are you planning on doing with the Avatar?"
"Like that's any of your business?" Katara said.
"I suppose not, but I am curious. I do hope dying on Azeroth didn't disrupt the Avatar cycle or anything."
"You tried to kill him in the Avatar state!"
Anduin once again had the discomfort of standing there when a personal conversation he didn't understand started up. He wished for a banquet table he could excuse himself to for snacks, but there were none.
"We don't know yet," Zuko said. "None of us know about Air Nomad funeral customs."
"It could be cremation, burial, burial at sea," Sokka said, "or it could be waiting on a cliff for a tornado or something. We have no idea."
"But it's been a week," Azula said. "How did you - ?"
"Jaina offered to use her magic to... preserve him," Katara said, "until we knew for sure we couldn't get him back." She hugged her arms.
"And now we do know," Sokka said. "I say we try to give him last rites before we go back."
"You know, I do remember hearing about an old practice..." Azula said, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. "Something called a 'sky burial'. You just climb the tallest mountain you can find, and leave the dead under the open sky to be retaken by nature. Of course, it sounds like something people come up with when they were too lazy to cremate."
Katara blinked at her. "That... actually sounds like something an Air Nomad might do. Think about it, they're always traveling, they wouldn't worry about having cemeteries or tombs if they didn't even have permanent cities, would they?"
"You're right, it does," Sokka said. "But what about prayers or rituals?"
"I... I know. Holding on to his culture was so important to him. But now there's no way it... it'll ever come back." She paused a moment and rubbed her eyes. "He'd want to honor his people, but I think he'd be happy just knowing we tried our best."
Azula rolled her eyes. "I'm sure it will be a riveting ceremony. Have fun with that." And she left them as if repulsed by the show of emotion.
Zuko stared after her a moment before continuing the conversation. "Not to mention he's the Avatar. He's been part of every culture at one point or another. If we mess up, I don't think he'd really mind. As long as nobody starts a eulogy with 'flameo, hotman'..."
"I, ah, might know a place," Anduin said. They turned to him. "It's near here, actually. It's called the Storm Peaks. It's one of the tallest mountain ranges in the world."
"That sounds great." Katara smiled sadly. "How will we get there?"
"I'll ask Alexstrasza if she'd be willing to take you."
"You can come too, if you want. I think Aang would be happy to have people from all different nations, there, to..." She cleared her throat. "And you tried to save him. It means a lot to us that you tried."
"Oh. Of... of course," Anduin said. He bowed a bit to them, and crossed the room to find the Life-Binder.
Alexstrasza stood on the balcony outside the Purple Parlor, gazing down on the city of Dalaran spread below, the last rays of daylight sparkling on its domed minarets haloed by floating crystals. Down below the markets and restaurants bustled, and one by one the magical street lamps glinted to life under stained glass lamp-shades. Krasus' Landing – named for her late beloved consort – saw a steady stream of travelers coming to and fro by air on their myriad mounts. Beyond the city's borders the land fell away into air, revealing a vista of snow-capped Northrend.
The air was pure and clean up here, kept magically warm, tingling with traces of the arcane, and tickled by chill breezes off the mountains below. The Life-Binder longed to take to the air in her true form and soar...
Her wish was granted shortly by King Anduin's request. The off-worlders desired a ride to the Storm Peaks for the last rites of their friend. Her heart ached at the thought of one so young struck down in his attempt to show compassion. He would have made a good friend to the red dragonflight.
Alexstrasza led Anduin and the five other youths to Krasus' Landing, the only place in the city with space permitting her full form. She transformed into a massive red dragon to the awe of onlookers, waited until the group was secure on her back, and launched into the air.
The unnatural warmth of Dalaran faded swiftly, overtaken by the year-round cold. By the time she reached one of the mighty columns of black stone, the sun had fully set. Above, the sky shone with a shimmering emerald aurora. Below, fog banks and whirling snowfall obscured the ground. They seemed to exist in a world away from the world, over islands peeking out of a sea of clouds. She alighted in the snow and waited for them to disembark.
"It's beautiful here," Katara said. "It reminds me so much of home..."
"I'm sure it's great," Toph said, shivering. "Who has him?"
Katara drew out a small crystal cube that Alexstrasza recognized as an arcane containment device. To an onlooker it looked like nothing but a simple box that fit in the palm of one's hand, but it contained a dimensional pocket that could be used to store anything... or anyone.
The girl fumbled a bit trying to activate it. There was a brief flash of light, and the human child's body appeared lying on the snow, looking completely unharmed, as if he only slept.
"I... I guess we should all take turns saying something about him," Katara said heavily.
Alexstrasza padded away to the edge of the precipice to give them privacy. Although she mourned any loss of life, it was not her place to intrude. She watched the flurries of snow and distant flashes of lightning in the darkening sky.
A while later, they approached her again. Their faces and eyes were red from both the cold and from tears. They hurt, but this had given them closure, to share the pain together in a solemn moment, away from a harrowed battlefield. She regarded them with soft sympathy and needed no words to know they were ready to leave.
They were complete fools.
"She be gone," he'd said. I thought you were smarter than that, shadow hunter.
Of course Sylvanas hadn't left. Why miss out on such critical information? But it was better that none knew she'd heard it. Yes, she could have avoided playing her hand in the first place. But a little distracting theatrics and genuine proselytizing were never amiss. She'd planted doubts. She'd planted ideas. She'd assessed them directly by the looks on their faces at her words.
And then, she'd listened. After making a show of leaving, she cloaked herself with shadows and hid on the Parlor's roof. Even if she'd been visible, no one inside would have seen her, not even Vol'jin when he looked out the door. But this way left nothing to chance. Dalaran saw too much air traffic.
She got more than she hoped for when the children suddenly decided to leave the Avatar's body out in the open that very night. How easily they were led, and just as easily followed.
She didn't go immediately. She stayed put over the balcony's open door. There wasn't much to listen to by then. Azula struck up a conversation with Tyrande, acting coquettishly curious about night elf society. She asked Jaina a lot of questions about how magic worked. She put on the perfect play of eager student.
Every so often, Azula would say off-hand something like, "Those dwarves really don't get along, do they? I wonder why, if they're cousins. Family should get along, right?" or, "What did Sylvanas mean about the worgen being 'cursed'?"
The two proud women within would happily educate her, albeit with their own emotional biases. No matter. Sylvanas found any information useful. Good gossip could be hard to come by.
Once she spotted Alexstrasza coming in to land, Sylvanas hurried away. She shed the invisibility spell once she jumped over Dalaran's outer wall, coming to the liminal edge where no one went, and where a loyal val'kyr waited.
"We must go to the Storm Peaks, and swiftly before the snow buries him," Sylvanas said.
The val'kyr materialized in response. She was a translucent humanoid woman, floating aloft with feathered wings, her tall, muscle-bound body clad in iron armor. Her body and wings seemed made of dusk light, fading from white to dark blue-gray.
"Yes, my Queen," the val'kyr rasped, and took Sylvanas into her arms before flying away.
Sylvanas smiled to herself as they flew. If not for these new allies liberated from the Lich King's forces, her people would never have a chance to replenish once the last of the Scourge were wiped out. And now she had all of Azeroth and beyond available to her dominion.
The val'kyr flew about the mountains of the Storm Peaks, hovering close to each peak to peer through the snowfall. Sylvanas' own red eyes were unblinkingly alert for any sign of a body.
"There!" She pointed.
The Val'kyr bore her down to the freshly-disturbed snow, next to the fresh-looking corpse.
Normally she would not bother with children. They lacked training, experience, obedience. And like the gnomes, they also often lacked in armspan. They weren't useful to the Forsaken's forces – not that she'd turn them down if they wanted to join. It wasn't as if she had to feed them, after all.
This one was different. She'd heard he held the power to command all the elements, like a shaman. Could Thrall have stood up to him? That would have been an interesting duel to witness.
Humans, and most other mortal races, lacked any innate magic. The off-worlders were special. And this one was most special of all.
"Begin," she commanded.
The val'kyr raised a hand. Crackling webs of electric blue energy leaped through the air from her fingertips to the Avatar's body. The flesh began to glow, and the corpse began to rise from the snow, levitating as if pulled up by a hook through the heart.
Sylvanas grinned to herself again. The Warchief might disagree with her methods, but he couldn't disagree with the results. The Twilight's Hammer may be insane, but some of their ideas had merit – why not take advantage of a race of humans who could move the elements with their mind? That kind of unfettered magic, not beholden to silencing spells or asking the spirits for permission, had great military potential. And they would swear fealty to their new queen.
The lightning-like energy brightened, forking into the air around them. Clouds of frost billowed around the body. There was a brilliant flash as the ritual completed.
And the Avatar's corpse fell with a muffled thud back into the snow, motionless.
Sylvanas stared. "Arise," she commanded.
The body didn't move.
She turned to the valkyr. "What is the meaning of this?"
The valkyr's expression was hidden behind her helm, but her voice sounded dismayed. "I cannot grasp its soul, My Lady."
Sylvanas frowned. When first raised as Scourge, she'd had no body of her own either. She had been only an incorporeal spirit until she found and reunited with her cadaver. But she knew this wasn't the case here; no one could have turned the Avatar into a ghost.
"Then they were telling the truth. He did reincarnate," she said.
"Shall we search for his new body?"
Sylvanas nearly said 'no'. But didn't the Avatar's magic carry over lifetimes? Somewhere, on this planet or another, that magic potential lived on – and didn't even know itself yet.
She knew. And she would make it her mission to find and harness it.
"Yes," the Banshee Queen said at last. "Be discreet. Be patient. Find the new Avatar before its friends do."
Chapter 39: Aang
Clear waters threaded around the roots of an ancient tree, under the tunnel made by its emerald canopy. The mosses along the brook's bank grew thick as quilts and teemed with chirping insects. Lichen tendrils and flowering vines draped down to touch the water. The air was thick and damp, and smelled of fruits and sweet decay.
Aang waded through the stream, brushing aside curtains of foliage, ducking under branches and stepping over arching roots. He couldn't remember what he was supposed to be doing, but he knew it was important.
"Katara? Sokka?" he tried calling. A flock of birds, startled by the shout, took flight above. "Toph, Zuko, Suki? Anyone?"
Birds, wings, dragons... that's right! He had to make sure that it was safe. Everyone else wanted to kill it, but it was just an innocent. His friends would understand, if only he could find them. Weren't they just there with him? They were right behind him a second ago, he was sure of it.
The brook fell away suddenly and his foot slipped over the muddy edge, sending him down with it, deeper into the crowded jungle. There were layers upon layers of canopies, branches big enough to build roads on, nests in boughs that a hundred hawks could sleep in. On distant branches he could see cats with glowing crescent markings slumbering in shafts of moonlight, but they couldn't hear him call out to them. They looked like something he barely remembered. They wouldn't wake, and he wandered on.
A cool wind rustled the trees, sending a shower of luminescent flower petals down on him. He smiled gently to himself as he caught a pile in his palms, and blew them out in a cloud. They formed constellations on the brook and swirled away, ever-changing as the water split itself again and again, around mossy boulders and trunks of trees, into deep holes and over steep cliffs.
The air smelled so sweet, and he thought he might be hungry. No, he had something important to do first! He couldn't get lost again. He had to make it back... where? The glowing pool under the roots, the long house under the flowers, a den in the earth. Someone was there and he was supposed to meet her.
He passed through a hall of trees in all shades of violet, crowded by pink flowers that clustered in spiraling patterns on the ground. He tried looking for animal tracks or foot prints to follow, and found himself following instead the spirals themselves, twirling left and then right, on and on until he was halfway across a meadow. The trees thinned and the stream flattened out into a quiet river through the field, and the ground itself rose up in towering spirals of stone, each concentric layer bearing a forest of its own. A blue-green mist wreathed them like dusk after rainfall.
"Katara? Sokka? Toph?" Aang called. "Anyone?" No one.
Where was he? This place was too big to be Ember Island. He thought they were talking about him. What were they going to do? He couldn't kill the Fire Lord. He had to tell them his idea! He knew how to stop it all!
"Why is this so hard to remember?" he groaned, putting his hands on his head. "Think, think! All I have to do is... is..."
He sat down in the swaying grasses and closed his eyes in concentration. He was sleep-walking, and then he got lost. He had drifted far away, and the island opened its eyes and told him what to do. Didn't it? Or was that just a story he read somewhere?
He opened his eyes again, and the trees were orange with autumn and the forest floor was patterned like a turtle shell. That's right! He just had to get to the head again, and learn what to do. He jumped to his feet and started running. The forest moved in a blinding blur, and once again he stood in the green-misted meadow, watching moths leave trails of glitterdust on the air.
He had something important to do!
As he started walking, a beating of wings larger than any moth or bird caught his ear. He turned and saw a huge green reptile coming down to land by him. Her scales looked translucent as the starry sky, and on her brow she bore a crescent crown. He knew her, but he did not know how. He put his hands together and bowed reverently.
"Do you know who I am?" she said in a soft, lilting voice.
"I do," he said, then faltered. "I mean, I thought... I don't know anymore. Where am I? I have to find my friends."
"I am Ysera," she said. "I have been looking for you."
"Where am I?"
"The Emerald Dream."
He thought he knew that name – emerald dream... emeralds... crystals... the crystal catacombs of Ba Sing Se! "Oh no! We have to warn the king! The Fire Nation is coming!"
She tilted her head with an air of both amusement and sadness. "You are lost in more ways than one, young Avatar."
He scrunched his brow at her puzzling words, and the vague thought of crystals blew away like candle smoke, leaving only a vague urgency, the restless knowledge he had to go somewhere, to do something.
"Where... am I?" he said. "I keep getting turned around. This is the Spirit World, isn't it? Come on, I have to find my friends." He gestured to beckon her.
"You will, in time. I have seen it here, dreamed it here, as your realm blends with mine. Our worlds were not meant to interact, and yet..." she trailed off. "I've seen things of both our worlds, past and present, things that will, have, or could have happened. Do you remember what I told you when we first met?"
He ran a hand over his head. The Emerald Dream, that's right. It was like the Spirit World, and now they were connected. He tried to hold on to that fact as it coalesced in a moment of clarity, but he could feel it falling through his fingers like sand. All his thoughts were like the landscape, shrouded in fog and beyond his reach.
"Something's wrong, I can't..." he said. "Ysera, please help me! I'm so... confused..."
The strange dragon he didn't recognize reached out a paw. "Come, little one. I'll take you along."
Aang knew he could trust her, somehow. He nodded, and she scooped him up and put him on her back. She spread her wings and glided swiftly through the Dream. Rivers and hills, forests and streams, passed by as she glided on air as easily as walking. Stars and moons twinkled on the waters through the haze.
"Have you seen my friends? I'm supposed to help them," he asked.
"Don't worry," she said. "You already have."
"I have to save the world," he said. "I have to defeat the Fire Lord..."
He yawned, his limbs weary, his mind shrouded. How long had he been wandering? He hadn't slept in years, it felt like. He was so tired.
"You've been very brave, and very kind. You made a difference to many people."
He wasn't sure why she said that, but he nodded and smiled anyway, comforted by the sentiment. He glanced up from watching the passing ground to gazing at the sky. It shifted and glinted with emerald light like an aurora, dotted with stars like snow.
"Have you met my friend Katara?" he mumbled. "She's really pretty... We're going to the North Pole to find a waterbending teacher..." He yawned again.
He wasn't sure if the dragon responded. He relaxed against the cool scales of her neck, letting the landscape speed by in a blur.
"You're almost there, little one," she whispered.
He could barely keep his eyes open now. He blearily watched the approaching horizon, rippling and multi-colored, like a pool of water stretching up into the sky. It tugged at him like wind in a glider. Birds flew right past it as if they couldn't see it at all. He got the odd feeling he was the only one who could, that it was a doorway made just for him.
The thought dispersed like mist as he closed his heavy eyelids again, enjoying the feeling of the wind against his cheek. "This reminds me of flying on a sky bison..." he said. "I named mine Appa... I can't wait until he's big enough to ride..."
The sounds of the Dream started to blur, to grow muffled and distant, like the waterfalls that cascaded down into dark holes, or the forests on the other side of the fog.
"I always... had this weird feeling..." he murmured, "that I wasn't just an airbender... like I was someone else, too... like I was supposed to do something important..."
"You are," his bearer said quietly, "and you will."
He tried to ask what she meant, but he was so tired, so heavy, like he could fall right through her. He couldn't lift his head or open his eyes. He let himself relax, let his spirit drift like a feather toward that welcoming door.
Chapter 40: Zuko
Zuko brushed his bangs aside and gazed at the dark, flashing sky above. Hot desert wind cut across his scarred face, beckoned on by thunder, drawn past the broken red crest of earth before him. Their goal, the Dark Portal, stood out of sight on the other side.
He was ready.
Alliance and neutral forces had gathered at Nethergarde Keep of the Blasted Lands and marched south over the arid land. The scent of ocean winds mixed with the smells of ozone and burnt earth from constant lightning strikes.
There were regiments of humans, dwarves, night elves, and draenei, with supplements of gnomes and high elves. A handful of tauren, trolls, and worgen were among the druids sent by Malfurion. Alexstrasza led a small flight of red dragons. There were soldiers with all manner of weapons for range and melee, casters of arcane, holy, and natural magic, and cavalry mounted on horses, rams, tigers, and gryphons.
Over that ridge waited the cultists to defend their claimed door to Zuko's world.
For several tense moments, commanders looked over the lines to ensure the troops were in position, who tightened their grips on swords, spears, maces, rifles, and staves. Nods went between them, and Alexstrasza let out the signaling bellow. The army moved forward over blackened earth and crested the rim of a crater.
Battle broke out instantly. A flight of twilight drakes collided with the reds. Dark-robed cultists exchanged volleys of spells, lighting up the air with bolts of shadow, light, fire, ice, and more. Enslaved elementals bound in twisted metal glided without legs over the sand to meet with the summoned elementals of shamans and mages of the Alliance and Kirin Tor.
Zuko rushed ahead, twin swords already drawn. He met the enemies in the crater's bowl, slicing rapidly with steel and fire. Sokka and Suki were near him with their own blades, fighting side by side with perfectly practiced synchronity, not even needing to speak to know their partner's next movement. A rumble and avalanche on the far side of the crater, crushing the cultist's flank, told Zuko that Toph was taking her own initiative already.
Tyrande's tiger-mounted kaldorei poured over the enemy, swinging blades and piercing foes with the light of Elune, and the claws and fangs of their cats. Gryphons swooped from above, plucking up hapless soldiers in their foreclaws and dropping them from deadly heights. Druids of all races took the forms of animals and fell on the cultists in packs.
Jaina teleported back and forth across the battlefield, letting out sudden explosions of ice to freeze Twilights in place or impale them on frigid spears. Katara then seized the ice with her bending and turned it into slicing sheets.
Zuko felt the lightning before he saw it. The air buzzed and his hair stood on end. He jumped back from the foe he was fighting and raised a blade at the sky.
The storm released a bolt and the bolt went right for his sword. He let the energy flow through him and searched for a new target with cold calm. Not even a full second later he redirected the lightning at one of the twilight drakes above, who screeched in pain and surprise. The red drake it fought used the opportunity to tear into its throat.
Azula saw this, and gladly fired her own bolts of lightning into the dragons and cultists. Her expression was fierce and gleeful, taking joy in destroying those who'd taken her autonomy.
The cultists were easily pushed back, unprepared for a force of this size. Robed and armored humanoids fell to the ground, twilight drakes fell atop them, and bound elementals dispersed into mist from within their shackles. A shout to retreat went up. As the cultists tried to withdraw, the attacking forces pressed harder, driving them into the dirt. Zuko couldn't see if any of them had survived to flee through the portal. As the dust settled and the spilled blood cooled, the gryphon riders went scouting for any stragglers, and anyone with healing ability healed the surviving allies.
Zuko stared at the Dark Portal. It was a huge stone doorway with no door, with cowled, glaring statues on either side. The door appeared to lead into space, full of sparkling stars and swirling clouds of energy.
"Home is so close," he said to himself. "Why is coming home never easy?"
The troops once again prepared to march. Once they had a brief respite, the attacking force moved in columns to the Dark Portal. Zuko and his friends – and sister – were near the front. They'd be most familiar with the world beyond.
They ascended the stone steps and crossed the platform. The Portal loomed hugely before them. Zuko stared into the approaching span of deep space before him, almost dizzy with vertigo. He was only feet away from it. He wondered for a fearful second if it would really toss them into space, falling into the sun or moon.
He passed through. He kept his eyes open the whole time, expecting a spectacular visual effect. There was none. One second he was on Azeroth. The next he was on his own world.
The humid heat of the Fire Nation enveloped him. He stood in the broad, pale Royal Plaza, with the harbor to the east, Caldera City to the west, and high walls stretching along the north and south. It was oddly quiet but for the sea winds, and he saw no movement beside the large, flickering braziers lining the battlements.
The Azerothian forces appeared row by row. This was where the attacking force had landed on the Day of Black Sun. And this time, I'm on their side to help them. I can lead them to the secret passageways and hidden bunkers.
Jaina approached Zuko and the others. "Where are we?"
"The Fire Nation Capital," he replied. "The palace is up beyond there, in Caldera City."
Her eyes followed the narrow, zig-zagging road up the mountain, with guard towers at every turn. "We can send the gryphon-riders first to avoid those switch-backs."
"No," he said. "Not the gryphons. Send the dragons. They'll be less hurt by any fire."
Jaina nodded and went to confer with Alexstrasza, who had come through on all four paws with the other dragons.
"Look at that, brother," Azula said, pointing. "Doesn't that just make your stomach turn?"
Zuko looked. In every place where the banners of the Fire Nation had flown, the Twilight's Hammer banners stood instead - a warhammer encircled by a black iron spikes resembling the fiery corona of an eclipse, with fans of dark leather stretched out to look like dragon wings behind it. It did annoy him, but he didn't want to give Azula the satisfaction of his agreement.
"Maybe it serves us right for burning the flags of the Earth Kingdom," he said.
She looked put off and wandered away, to pester someone else no doubt.
"I don't like this," Sokka said. "The portal led us here, to the most defended place in the Fire Nation, and it looks abandoned. This has to be a trap, it's the Day of Black Sun all over again!"
"Toph, can you feel anything?" Katara said.
"I can feel us," Toph said. "There's no one underground. No tanks either."
Alexstrasza and her red drakes and dragons took flight to scout. Almost at once the flames in the braziers expanded and leaped after them, growing wings and heads of their own. Several of the ground forces shouted, "fire hawks!"
They weren't flames. They were massive, dragon-like birds made of flames. The sky erupted in gouts of firebreathing, as twin waves of fire hawk flocks rose over the battlements and descended on the army from both sides. The ranged fighters got first hits, to little effect. Arrows turned to ash on impact and bullets whisked through the mostly-insubstantial bodies of the fire hawks. Only the volley of spells seemed to slow them down at all.
Zuko narrowly rolled out of the way of a swooping fire hawk, avoiding its talons which could have wrapped around his waist without effort. Its flaming body emanated from a core resembling a burnt skeleton. He sprang back up to his feet and watched for the next one. As it came within range he sidestepped just enough to avoid being struck, and slashed out with his swords at its legs. By the time his blades made contact with something solid, its own radiating heat nearly burned his arms.
Toph started bending, digging trenches into the plaza and using the dug earth as raised barriers, giving the army a place to duck and wait for the fire hawks to get close. Katara ran to the water's edge and bent volleys of water spears out of the harbor.
A fire hawk swooped at Zuko again. As he dodged, a lightning bolt shot through the space where he'd just stood, striking the hawk instead. His eyes followed its trajectory to see Azula, who shrugged and laughed, "Oopsie!"
He couldn't lightningbend, and getting sword strikes was too dangerous without armor. He sheathed the swords to free up his hands for firebending motions. He waited for the fire hawk to make another pass. This time it led itself with breathed flames, and he countered by bending them away from himself and his allies. He tried to reach out with his chi and his sense of fire, to bend the fire off the bird's body itself.
The fire hawk balked in the air as if it had hit a wall. It worked! He could feel its control fighting his, like two benders dueling over one bonfire. He couldn't overcome the magical beast enough to push it back, nor could it overcome him enough to move forward. It flapped in midair angrily.
Azula noticed and finished it off with a concentrated lightning strike. Its bones fell to the ground and the fires continued to lick off them even without fuel to burn.
Zuko moved over to the infantry without ranged weapons, Sokka and Suki among them. These fighters had the most trouble in this fight, especially those with light or no armor as well. He waited again for a fire hawk to swoop down.
The next one that came shrieking into the fray he seized with firebending and pushed to the right with all his might. It gave a furious, confused squawk and tried to compensate by veering to the left, and he switched to bend it leftward, slamming it into the rock wall with its own inertia. The closest soldiers fell on it quickly with their weapons.
The air was choking hot under the flurrying wings of the fire hawks and their exchanged firebreath with the dragons. Zuko's hair was damp with sweat as he moved on to the next one, stalling it in the air to give Katara a chance to blast it with water. Clouds of hissing steam went up as she aggressively doused it down to the bone. They shared a quick smile of triumph, before his eyes drew to the stirring harbor behind her.
"Something's in the water!" he shouted.
The water's surface broke in a froth as scaled beasts burst forth. They looked like sea serpents merged with humans, their turquoise bodies ray-finned and ending in long, slithering tails. In the same moment Zuko's mind registered their harpoon-like weapons, the weapons were launched.
Katara deflected a spear with water in the same instant another flew by her head and plunged into Zuko's leg, stopping once it struck bone. He gave a yell of pain that others echoed as the barbed weapons hooked themselves into the unwary army. The next moment, the chains tethering those spears retracted toward the water with an agonizing jerk.
Zuko's leg yanked out from under him. He fell on his back, dragged painfully across the stone toward the grinning serpent-men. He tried to draw his swords but couldn't get to them soon enough in the rapid jostling. "Help!"
Katara dunked a tub's worth of seawater over him and froze him to the ground, keeping him from the clutches of the monsters – and causing the spear to rip out without him. Or rather, without most of him; the barbs took a ragged chunk of his leg with them. As he saw it, the pain reached him, blindingly. He opened his mouth but couldn't scream but only gulp in a long, whistling gasp. She gasped in horror and melted the ice, freeing him, and his hands flew to the wound.
Screams went up as the less fortunate soldiers were pulled into the water, either hacked to pieces by the enemy or held under to drown. The army hadn't yet realized they'd been attacked by another foe yet, so distracted they were by the firehawks.
Katara ran to kneel by Zuko and started to heal the wound. It didn't just bleed, the blood poured out like an upended punch bowl. He reluctantly moved his hands and clenched them into fists, forcing himself to stay still while she worked. The pain lessened little by little, the wound closing ever so slowly. The battle raged on. Above, he saw a red drake swarmed by firehawks and thrown dead into the bay.
"Can't you heal faster?!" he snapped.
"I'm going as fast as I - ah!" She dropped the healing waters as a bolt of yellow electric magic zapped through her sleeves, grazing her arms with faint, webbing-like burns.
Zuko lifted his head enough to see past her. Some of the serpent-men were serpent-women, using four arms apiece to cast spells rather than lob spears.
Katara looked between him and the enemies before setting her jaw decisively. She abandoned trying to heal his wound and froze a chunk of water on it, then stood and raised both arms as if flipping a table. The inner edge of the water shot up like a wall and froze solid.
"Away from the water!" commanders shouted. "Take the fight inland!"
The ice wall shuddered as the serpent-folk battered it from the other side. Katara pulled Zuko to his feet and they ran to join the others. "Find someone who can heal quicker," she said. "I need to focus on keeping those snake-people at bay."
As Zuko hobbled in search of another healer, Toph traded the trenches for sections of tunnel, sheltering the troops as they moved across the Plaza. The army took shots on the move with ranged weapons and quick spells at the firehawks, which still dived to attack at every opportunity and clashed with the dragons above. The occasional flaming body of one or the other still fell to the ground.
Zuko spotted the human king. "Anduin! I need healing. One of those things got my leg."
Anduin was in the protected central area of the group with many of the other healers, using their vantage of the other troops to heal in all directions. As Zuko hurriedly approached, Toph's stone tunnel closed overhead, seconds before a fire hawk bashed against it. Dust shook onto them.
"They're naga," Anduin said. He looked too breathless to say more, and focused on calling on the holy Light. Zuko sighed in relief as his wound healed almost completely.
A deep shattering noise told him that the naga had broken through the ice wall. This time they were forced to slither over dry land to reach the army.
Zuko got an idea, and ran to find Toph. She was still bending shelter and cover for the advancing army, and surrounded by shamans who kept her safe from the fire hawks invisible to her.
"Toph, the naga are slithering on their bare skin over -" Zuko started.
"Say no more," she said with a grin. "I think these guys can handle things from here. Show me the way." She cracked her knuckles.
They ran through the emptying tunnels back to the harbor. Katara and numerous mages, Jaina among them, were fending off the naga. The naga would volley spears and hook whichever wizards didn't teleport out of the way or throw a shield of ice quickly enough; the mages would bounce the spell bolts back like rubber balls, then throw their own in the form of ice and fire.
Toph concentrated to get her bearings on the scene. As she did so, a fire hawk swooped down with talons extended for her, completely unseen. Zuko snatched it in midair with firebending. Instead of pushing it back or to the sides, he pushed it forward and lobbed it into the water. A huge cloud of steam billowed out of the bay with the fire hawk's last screech.
Toph took a breath and stomped her feet with an upward twist of her hands, fingers pointed like claws. With a million tiny crunching sounds, all the ground between the wizards and the water became an array of sharp stone teeth. The earth was endless caltrops, and the naga hissed and stumbled on their bare tails, finding themselves standing on upturned daggers.
The naga closest to the water's edge attempted to retreat, and Katara ensared them with a tidal wave and slammed them with deadly force onto the spikes. The mages followed suit, lobbing orbs of magic that pulled naga over the ground like a gravity well, and flung them about with forceful bolts of violet energy. The surviving naga threw one last spear and magic volley before slipping into the harbor and disappearing.
The defenders wasted no time in rushing to rejoin the advancing army, running through Toph's tunnels. Many had been lost to the naga already, but the army wouldn't be getting flanked by them again.
By the time Zuko and the others made it to the front lines, the Plaza was littered with the bodies of fire hawks, dragons, and humanoids. Anduin and the other healers moved among the fallen, searching for survivors to rescue. Sokka sheathed his blade and joined them with his meagre magic of Elune.
"We took a hit, but we were victorious," Tyrande announced.
"They were expecting us," Jaina said. "The Portal must be set to redirect intruders here to be ambushed."
Zuko nodded. "The Fire Nation has repelled attacks here before. But the cultists weren't expecting a force of this size."
The next leg of the invasion involving traversing the steep climb into Caldera City. If they secured that, it would make a good base from which to launch further attacks on the cultists. There was just no way to know what waited for them there.
The dragons and gryphon riders flew out to scout again. This time nothing ambushed them. The army took a chance to catch its breath and recuperate while waiting for the scouts. As the troops reassembled themselves in formation, Jaina and Tyrande called over Zuko and friends again. And Azula.
"That road up the mountain is too risky," Jaina said. "Are you certain there are no other ways into Caldera?"
"There are," Zuko said, "but it's a long way around, and we'd have to go back through the harbor before we could find a useable road. Even if we scaled the ramparts, we'd have the mountains to contend with."
Jaina frowned, but turned to Azula. "And the Twilight's Hammer didn't add any other entrances?"
"If they did, they weren't inclined to tell me," she said.
"I can turn those switchbacks into a ramp," Toph said. "With enough time."
Jaina and Tyrande looked at each other and nodded. Jaina said again, "Don't go alone. Take others for cover. If earthbenders like you already attacked here before, they'll no doubt be expecting this tactic."
Toph didn't argue, but gestured at her friends. "They're coming with me."
Toph and the others headed across the Plaza. Zuko and the others looked around warily as they crossed the vast, empty space, but nothing appeared to stir. The warehouses and harbor city storefronts they passed by were all ransacked or abandoned, and the last preamble courtyard before the mountain path was likewise empty.
But the exits on the far side, once open to permit transport, were closed, sealed with walls of deep purple energy.
"Everything's sealed off with magic," Zuko said. He drew his swords, feeling uneasy.
"Really? I can't even feel that," Toph said. She frowned a bit, then shrugged. "Not the walls, right? I can just knock them down."
She didn't wait for confirmation before thrusting her palms out and knocking a hole through the stone wall surrounding the courtyard. She continued through, and the others followed.
Beyond was not how Zuko remembered it. There had once been a simple stretch of road, with a few scattered buildings out to either side – inns and farmhouses, mostly – and then the foot of the mountain itself was bare. Or had been. Now the road was gouged out with jagged trenches and high walls of rubble, and the buildings and pasturage nearby had been reduced to smoking rubble. Boulders, logs, and building debris were piled haphazardly everywhere.
Toph sighed, but started clearing away what she could, leveling the ground of the road out area by area. The going was slow to make it workable for armies to march over, and even slower with the wood debris added in.
"This is going to take all day!" Sokka lamented. "At this rate we'd get up there faster if the dragons dropped the army off one by one."
Suki spoke up. "We should go back and come up with a better plan." Everyone glanced at her in surprise, as she'd been unusually quiet and withdrawn since they reunited with her.
Toph looked frustrated, but wiped sweat off her forehead and nodded. "Yeah. I'll be too exhausted to build a road up a whole mountain after clearing this mess anyway."
They turned back to head for the Plaza, then balked when they saw the wall they'd just passed through was repaired. Sokka and Suki drew their weapons immediately, and everyone drew closer together and assumed a defensive stance.
"Either that wall fixed itself, or we've got an earthbender following us," Zuko said.
"Wait, I feel something!" Toph warned. "It's coming from -"
She was cut off with a surprised yelp as the ground gave way beneath all of them. As they tried to reorient themselves in the pit, the earth pitched like conveyor belts in every direction, splitting them up down separate tunnels.
Toph yelled indignantly and halted her momentum. Zuko saw her reach out a hand to try to pull everyone towards herself, just before the earth collapsed behind him and sealed off his tunnel. It continued rushing forward, and he realized it wasn't a tunnel but a bubble, an open sphere and nothing more. As the ground rolled forward beneath him, it opened up before him and closed behind him. He had no recourse but to be pulled along in absolute blackness with no idea of where he'd end up.
Zuko decided he'd be ready for whatever it was. He squared off with his knees bent, swords still drawn. He wasn't in here to get killed; whoever did this could've crushed him to death already. He was being ferried somewhere alive, and he'd come out swinging as soon as he arrived.
The time stretched on with only the sounds of rumbling earth and his own breathing for company. The darkness started to get to him, and he shut his eyes, concentrating. He tried to feel what direction he was going. The earth-bubble didn't keep on straight out but turned sharply at one point, and then gradually ascended. Was he being taken up the mountain? Did someone want him in Caldera City?
The answer revealed itself as the ceiling popped open and the ground jettisoned him up. His solid stance was for naught as he tumbled in surprise through the air, momentarily blinded by sunlight. He landed, somersaulted and rolled up to his feet again, but before he could get his bearings, his swords were yanked out of his hands. He turned in the direction one had been taken and shot a blast of fire, but heard nothing burn.
His vision cleared enough for him to recognize the intimately familiar area: the Royal Palace front steps. The wide stone platform, lined with more burning braziers and hammer pennants, led directly to the front door of the many-tiered red-and-gold pagoda.
And Zuko was surrounded by men made of stone.
He jumped and spun in place, whorling out fire in a ring at them. They implacably withstood the flames. One of them made a distinctly earthbending-style motion, launching a pair of hand-shaped stone cuffs, which clamped onto Zuko's wrists and yanked his hands behind his back. He growled in frustration and eyed the circle of stone men for an opening to escape through.
"Now, now," came the raspy, high voice of an older man. A cloaked figure in black-and-white Azerothian-style robes stepped forth from the shadows of the palace eaves. "I didn't bring you here to take on the Dai Li."
Zuko's brow shot up in surprise. The Dai Li agents, secret police of Ba Sing Se? He eyed the stone men again. They looked like nothing from his world, their flesh entirely made of (or replaced by) brown and black stone. But with a second inspection he saw they wore the dark green robes and wide conical hats of the Dai Li.
He recalled Azula gaining the loyalty of the Dai Li nearly a year ago and using them to stage the coup of Ba Sing Se. Apparently she'd brought them home afterward, unwittingly leaving them as prey for the Twilight's Hammer.
"Who are you and why did you bring me here?" Zuko demanded of the old man.
"Don't you recognize your own palace? I brought you here to welcome you home."
"Forgive me if I have trouble believing that."
The old man laughed. "If you promise not to set the place on fire, I'll have them release your hands and we'll go on in."
This was absolutely a trap, Zuko knew it. And if he refused, what then? They could snap his neck with their rock gloves in a second. He nodded slowly, relaxing his posture to a casual one instead of a fighting one.
The old man waved, and one of the Dai Li summoned the cuffs away. Zuko rubbed his wrists and tried to casually glance around to see which agent had taken his swords. The old man came up to him and unexpectedly put a hand on his shoulder to steer him toward the palace entrance.
Zuko jerked his shoulder away but continued walking. "You still haven't told me who you are."
"You may call me the Twilight Father."
"That's a terrible name."
"Oh, yes, you've had a rocky history with fathers, haven't you?" the old man said, earning a glare. "'Twilight Prophet' or simply 'Benedictus' will do."
The Dai Li surrounded them, and opened the grand red doors for them.
"Alright, Benedictus," Zuko said poisonously. "Why am I really here, and what did you do with my friends?"
The entrance hall with its ornately carved pillars was unchanged but for a tapestry of Deathwing replacing the tapestry of the Fire Lord. The throne room beyond that was just the same as always, with its polished, black marble floor and golden pillars, the high-vaulted black ceiling and the wall of flames that separated the audience chamber from the raised throne. The only difference was now the throne was empty, making the entire room a pointless show.
"You deserve to sit there, don't you?" Benedictus said.
Whatever Zuko thought the man would say, it wasn't that. "What?"
"I've heard your tale. The brutal father, the missing mother, the wicked sister. You only wanted to make your nation great, but they never saw it that way, did they?"
"What do you care about my family?" Zuko said guardedly.
Benedictus gestured grandly as he orated. "This isn't my nation, Prince Zuko. These aren't my people. They need one of their own to lead them. The rightful heir. It would bring them hope again in these dark times."
"Hope that you stole from them?"
"Stole? I didn't take anything from them except those who were proven unfit to rule. Don't you see? You could stir them, rally them again against our foes -"
"Your foes are my friends," Zuko said. "I already know what you've been doing here. Your cult infiltrated every nation and turned them all against each other. You somehow managed to make a hundred year long war even worse."
Benedictus frowned. "It is a shame that you see it that way. Our Masters have great things planned for us all. There are always those that... resist." He started walking again.
Zuko walked beside him before the Dai Li got impatient. He inwardly cursed himself for going off like that. If he wanted to stay alive, he had to play along until he could strike or escape. He had to pretend to be on this crazy old man's side.
"Tell me about... these great things," Zuko said. "Maybe I just haven't been hearing about you from the right people."
Benedictus smiled. "Ah, as you may know, the Titans traversed the cosmos, reshaping planets to their whims, their flawed view of 'perfection'," he began. "Azeroth was one such world. But you see, it had existed long before that. The Titans were usurpers to the original Masters. The Old Gods. The true gods."
They passed through several grand, red-carpeted halls before exiting to a dissonantly serene garden in one of the courtyards. Turtle-ducks floated carefree in tiny ponds, and pink blossoms fell gently from the trees. And a coup-staging cultist was walking Zuko through it, prattling about ancient evils as calmly as tea.
"- and though the Titans bestowed Deathwing with power over earth, it was our Masters who gave him the visions of the world as it truly was. As it ought to be," Benedictus was saying.
Zuko glanced up at the man's bearded, cowled face curiously. Did they even know Deathwing was dead yet, on this world? He looked away again, afraid to reveal anything with his own expressions.
"This world is untouched by the Titans," Benedictus said. He stopped in the middle of the garden, gesturing around again. "An unsullied world waiting to be blessed. Azeroth, meddled with by the usurpers, holds our Masters hostage in its very crust. But this world may host the Masters freely, outside the watch of the Titans. A place to grow an army and harvest power beyond your imagining!"
Zuko didn't look up yet, trying to appear contemplative over the words. His eyes fell on a patch of white-and-red flowers in the garden, ones he would never have recognized in his youth, but knew now.
"You're right," he said, nodding slowly. "I... hadn't seen such incredible power before I went to Azeroth. It made me realize how, um, held back we all were."
"Yes, yes! And look, our beasts of burden are greater still." Benedictus said, and whistled.
Moments later, one of the fire hawks came flapping out of the sky. Zuko braced himself, but the beast only landed in the garden with a whump and stared expectantly at the old man.
"We've tamed many natives of the elemental Firelands. These are fire hawks, not true birds but more akin to our dragons. Normally they only live a few days at most, burning out like candles. Their short lives and tractability make them excellent war fodder. This lady however is of a higher-bred line, and my personal mount."
Zuko eyed the ground around the fire hawk, fearing it would burn up the garden. But the beast's flames burnt nothing. Benedictus even reached out and stroked its skull-like face without harm. "These would be yours, if you joined us. Power, beasts, armies, servants... whatever you wish is yours.
"Actually," Zuko said, "the first thing I'd like is some tea. I've, uh... I haven't had a chance to enjoy the tastes of home lately."
Benedictus chuckled. "Simple creature comforts. You are too humble."
"We could keep talking over tea," Zuko went on. "Have you ever heard of the white jade bush?"
"No, I haven't. A native plant, I assume?"
"Yes, we grow them in all our royal gardens." Zuko cautiously stepped away from Benedictus and toward the flowers. When not stopped, he crossed the space to the plants. Each stalk bore a delicate lily-looking blossom. They were native to the Earth Kingdom. He wondered if Uncle Iroh had brought them here.
"Ah!" Benedictus said. "So much time spent on political affairs here, I never had time to learn about the local flora."
"They make a delicious tea. My uncle taught me all about them." Zuko plucked a handful of stems, ignoring the itching that started in his fingers and palms as he did so. "We used to run a tea shop together."
Benedictus smiled. "To the dining room, then."
They returned indoors with the Dai Li, heading for the family dining room. Zuko kept his hand tight around the flowers, resisting the urge to scratch at his increasingly itchy fingers.
Once there, Benedictus whistled again, this time summoning a servant. Zuko, surprised at actually seeing a native, recognized her as one of the royal maids. She looked terrified of Benedictus, then gave an equally surprised look of recognition to Zuko.
"Y-Your Highness!" she gasped, then turned to preemptively cower at Benedictus as if expecting a blow for the outburst. Zuko frowned.
"Why yes, your Prince Zuko is back, my dear," Benedictus said. "And we're going to discuss a political union over tea. Now take those flowers and go brew us some."
"Y-yes, Twilight F-Father," she said with a bow. She turned again to Zuko.
Zuko held out the flowers for her. She reached for them, then paused, giving him a questioning look as she recognized the deadly white jade. Benedictus arched a brow at her.
"Uh," Zuko said, then put on a fierce scowl. "Hurry it up already, peasant!"
She flinched and nodded hastily, taking the flowers and rushing to the kitchen. Zuko lowered his hand before Benedictus could see the rash. Whether the maid understood what Zuko planned or genuinely thought he was poisoning himself on accident, he didn't know.
Benedictus gestured at the Dai Li, and the agents pulled out two chairs. Benedictus sat at the head of the table. Zuko was seated opposite him. It was strange to see all the other chairs empty.
"I understand that you came back home for a time after your banishment."
Zuko's brow furrowed. He'd rather listen to cultist propaganda than talk about his messed-up family life. "Yes..."
"Yet you left again, taking your uncle with you," Benedictus said.
Zuko almost expressed confusion, then remembered Uncle Iroh had broken out of prison the same day Zuko had left. Maybe everyone assumed they left together, just like when he'd been banished in the first place. He felt a small glimmer of hope for Iroh, knowing his uncle hadn't been in the city when the cultists took it over.
"Yeah," Zuko lied. "But we split up. We had different goals in mind."
"You left to go join the 'Avatar' in the war against your father, did you not?"
"I don't see how that's important. My father is dead now."
"Everything is important, Prince Zuko. And yes, he is."
"How did he die? Who killed him?" Zuko asked.
"You assume he was killed?" Benedictus said.
"I'm not going to fool myself thinking he died of natural causes. He'd never leave this world except by someone's hand."
Benedictus laughed. "You're right. Those Southern Water Tribesfolk took him out."
"The... Southern Water Tribe?" Zuko repeated in confusion. "They don't even – Why would he even be there?"
"At our behest, of course. The South Pole holds a font of incredible energy. On Azeroth, we might call it a 'leyline'. It isn't quite the same, but it warranted interest. His sacrifice was not in vain. They might have landed a lucky strike with a spear, but then we ran the rest of them out and took what we wanted."
The maid returned with a tea tray and set it down on the table. She poured them both a cup with her head bowed.
"Thank you, my dear," Benedictus said. "Why don't you get us something to eat, as well?"
She left quickly at the request.
"What about the Northern Water Tribe?" Zuko asked. He picked up his tea.
Benedictus picked up his as well. "They've proven more difficult to conquer than we anticipated. It's hard to take a city of ice when the residents can control every inch of it."
"But have you?" Zuko said. He blew on the tea. "If so, you've done what we couldn't."
"No." The old man scowled into his cup. For a second, Zuko feared he had caught wise to the poison, but then Benedictus only shook his head and blew on it as well. "Deathwing wasn't pleased by that failure, but taking the South Pole made up for that."
"Deathwing is... the biggest dragon I've ever seen," Zuko said, trying to find topics to stall with. "And the most powerful. Did you hear about Theramore? I was there when it happened."
"Were you?" Benedictus' expression shifted to something between awe and fear. "I was there in Stormwind, when he attacked. I looked into his eyes and..." The old man shook his head again, and took a sip of tea.
Zuko brought his own cup to his mouth and tipped it up with his lips tightly shut, pretending to sip. He was careful not to inhale the fumes. "And?" he pressed.
Benedictus was thoughtful, sipping more before he spoke. "To gaze into the eyes of something so great," he said, quieter. "To know it could end your life in an instant, without effort. To be filled with such... helplessness. Such despair... How did you feel when you first saw Deathwing?"
"Afraid," Zuko said honestly, "and amazed."
"What have you thought of him since?" Benedictus said. "Have you ever dreamed of him? Of the Masters?" He chewed his lip.
"Well, um... Sure, I dreamed about him after I saw him."
"You know, then," the old man said softly. "You've seen what I've seen. You know there's nothing in this world for us. Not against them. Only if we stand beside them may we share in their glory when comes the day they rule." He set down his tea cup to rub at his throat.
The maid returned with another tray, this one laden with fruit slices and baked sweet rolls. She set it down, surreptitiously glancing at Benedictus' mostly-empty cup and Zuko's still-full one.
"Thank you, my..." Benedictus coughed, scratching at his throat now. "Oh dear."
The maid tensed, drawing back.
Zuko pretended to be oblivious. "Is something wrong?"
"Yes, I..." The old man stood. "I've been -" He wheezed. "I've been poisoned!"
Zuko slowly stood. "Have you."
Benedictus clutched his throat, his voice hoarse and strangled. "No! How could it be!" he rasped.
Then his hands glowed with white light. His wheezing stopped, and he glared coldly at Zuko.
"What a pity you follow your sister's traitorous foot steps. I suppose it has to be this way, then."
"Indeed." Zuko flung his tea in Benedictus' face, then grabbed the teapot and threw the scalding water on him too.
Benedictus stumbled back with a yell, reaching up to heal the burns. The Dai Li agents, standing like statues until then, came to life and lunged at Zuko. He grabbed the maid's wrist and ran for the kitchen. She screamed as chunks of stone shot by their heads.
Zuko slammed the kitchen door shut and shoved a crate in front of it with his spare hand. It wouldn't hold for long. Heavy thunks started to splinter the door in seconds.
He dashed out the back door, outside the palace but still within the walls. He looked side to side, wondering which way to go. He wasn't as familiar with this place, as usually only servants and guards came here.
"The gardens! Which way?" he said.
"Th-that way!" the maid said, pointing.
They took off. He heard the muffled sound of toppling pots and pans, and then the sound of the back door getting blown off the hinges. Zuko looked back in time to see the Dai Li shooting a barrage of fist-sized rocks. He stopped and twisted, giving a kick to the air that sent out a billowing blast of fire that filled the space and with enough concussive force to knock the rocks back. Before the flames cleared, he spun back around and ran again.
They rounded a corner of the palace, and he spotted another door. Not caring where it led, he ran through and pulled it shut behind them.
They'd entered a laundry room, where a handful of servants looked up in shock from their cleaning basins. "Is that Prince Zuko?" "Your Highness?"
"Elementals coming through!" he warned. He released the maid's wrist. "Quick, pretend to be one of them."
Too shaken to disagree, she rushed over to the others. Zuko hoped the Dai Li wouldn't recognize her. He didn't have any time to stop and worry.
"Watch out!" was all he had time to say as he ran from the room.
He found himself in a hall he knew, and he bolted down it. Thundering sounds of boulders, stomping feet, and frightened servant shouts were audible behind, and an angry bellowing down another hall. The calm 'Twilight Father' sounded like he was on a rampage. Zuko pelted through the echoing halls of his home as the sounds of his enemies grew closer with every second.
He burst into the courtyard and saw with relief the fire hawk was still there. It lifted its head to stare at him. He slowed to a walk, trying not to startle it as he approached.
"Hey, there, nice fire hawk," he said, raising a hand (which was a very itchy red now). "Nice girl..."
The tamed beast had no idea he was an enemy, and let him approach and jump into the saddle. The fire making up its body didn't burn him, but felt like a strange hot wind or, paradoxically, sun-heated seafoam against his legs. He picked up the reins and hoped riding one of these was similar enough to the other beasts he'd ridden before.
As he kicked the fire hawk's flanks, the door blasted open and the Dai Li agents rushed through. He urged the fire hawk to go faster as it spread its wings and lifted into the air. The earth below slammed up in pillars, pummeling the fire hawk. It screeched and jetted firebreath at the agents before swooping away, dodging a volley of launched boulders.
The palace grounds fell away, shrinking into a golden coin in the center of Caldera City, exclusive home for the Fire Nation elite. It was a long-expired volcano that had blown itself into a crater, which over time overgrew with the tropical greenery of the equator, and then slowly transformed into a hive of royals and nobles. Crimson roof tops of pagodas and luxurious villas sprawled out in all directions.
Zuko debated what to do next. He could fly back down to Jaina and the armies and tell them what happened, but his friends were surely still captive. They hadn't been brought to the palace. He thought of only one other place they could be: the Capital City Prison.
He directed the fire hawk towards the far edge of the rocky crater. The prison had been carved directly into the black stone wall, and historically held the Fire Nation's highest priority prisoners.
He mused that Toph wouldn't be held there, since she could take it apart with her bare hands, but he had no idea where else they'd put her. He just hoped any of the others were there, and maybe other enemies of the cultists who could be sprung to join the fight.
The presence of Twilights stationed outside the prison gave him hope. He swept low enough to identify them as humans, clad in typical black and purple robes. There were four of them, standing just outside the prison entrance. They watched him fly by and didn't react, apparently not realizing just who was riding the fire hawk.
Zuko had the advantage of surprise, then.
He circled around and dive bombed them. "Attack! Kill!" he ordered the fire hawk, hoping it understood.
It gave a fierce shriek and blasted the unwary cultists with fire. They screamed. One fell, and one stumbled away to pat out the flames. The other two, spotting Zuko, started casting shadowbolts. A bolt caught him in the back as the fire hawk passed by. The dark energy burned like arctic ice and throbbed like an infection.
The fire hawk turned and dived again. Zuko hunched over to shield himself from the shadowbolts, then raised at the last second to add his firebending to the hawk's firebreath, engulfing the last two cultists. He landed the fire hawk and it needed no urging to tear into the closest living cultist with its giant beak.
"Good fire hawk," Zuko said, jumping to the ground. "Stay right here."
He searched one of the bodies until he found a set of keys, and ran inside the prison. He held still once inside, listening in the dark stone halls for any foot steps. He heard no sign of anyone moving about. All the regular guards had been removed apparently – they were firebenders, and probably ended up transformed into the enslaved elemental hybrids.
Zuko dashed through the building. He didn't have to run for long before he found Sokka and Suki disarmed and disheveled in a cell. They jumped to their feet.
"Zuko!" Sokka said. "How'd you get out? Where are the others?"
"I was hoping you'd know," Zuko said. "I was brought to the palace so their leader could try to convert me."
"Nobody's talked to us," Suki said.
"We didn't even see who took us," Sokka said. "And I have no idea where Katara or Toph ended up."
"I can answer the first one. It was the Dai Li. It's a long story, but they've been transformed into those human-elementals," Zuko explained. He unlocked their cell. "We should search the prison and free anyone else here."
"The rest of my warriors might be here," Suki said. "Azula imprisoned us all here before transferring me to Boiling Rock." Her fists clenched briefly.
"Any enemy of the Fire Nation or Twilight's Hammer is a potential ally now." Zuko separated the keys out by floor number and handed a third each to her and Sokka.
They split up to search the prison, covering ground quickly in the tall, cylindrical building. Many traitors to the Fire Nation – that is, ex-nobles who didn't support the war – and high priority war criminals were held there. Suki's Kyoshi Warriors were among them. Katara and Toph unfortunately were not, nor any other benders.
Zuko, Suki, Sokka, and the freed prisoners met on the bottom floor once the building was cleared. No one had encountered guards. The cult's membership might've been hurting more than Zuko assumed.
"I get not keeping Toph in here," Sokka said, "but why wouldn't my sister be here? She's not an earthbender."
"No, but she's a bender, period," Zuko said. "Everyone still here is a non-bender. You're not as much use to them when they can't enslave you with mind-control."
"Then we have to find her. We can't let them..."
"Zuko, where would they be held?" Suki said.
"There are hidden bunkers under the palace. It's where the Fire Lord hid when everyone invaded. That's the best place I can think of," Zuko said. "And now that we have numbers and know what we're up against with the Dai Li, we stand a chance of getting in there."
Sokka nodded. "Let's just hope we're not too late."
Chapter 41: Katara
The churning earth spat out Katara and she lashed her water whip out at the first figure she saw. Stone cuffs snared her wrists with a gesture. She twitched her fingers and arced her arms without loss of momentum, and the water spiraled back around and whipped the figure again, who stood unfazed and unimpressed. They made another gesture that stretched the stone over her hands like a giant mitten.
As she started to conjure some strategy of bending with her elbows, another pair of stone hands grabbed and pinned her arms to her sides. The spline of water splattered on the hard floor. Katara shouted in frustration and kicked back at her captor's shin, then shouted in pained surprise as her foot connected with a solid, leg-shaped column of stone.
Her eyes adjusting to the dim lighting of the darkened room, Katara saw these people weren't just earthbenders, but the hybridized humanoid elementals the Twilights liked to turn benders into. The one she'd whipped wasn't even scratched, just a bit damp on their stony skin.
That one turned and walked away with hands folded behind their back, while the second one, still holding Katara by the arms, lifted her just off the floor and marched in lockstep after. She glowered and growled, trying to keep up the air of frustration, because if that left her all she'd have to replace it was fear. But fear had no place here.
As she was carried at arm's length down the stone passageway, she quickly reviewed the situation. Her friends all got separated by earthbenders, and Toph was probably already kicking their butts, especially if they tried the old 'use metal handcuffs' trick on her.
Katara didn't have time to keep thinking or planning. The rough tunnel opened up into a large cubic chamber filled to the brim with cultist paraphernalia. The air was stale and oily, reminding her of raw fish. And smoky, too. There were scorch marks everywhere, along with those elementium bindings shaped like spines and ribs. This was where all the benders like Azula had 'ascended'.
A section of wall slid open on the other side of the room, and another of the green-robed stone men came in carrying Toph like Katara was being carried. Katara called out, and then sucked in a breath as she saw Toph's head loll, the girl limp in the captor's hold. She couldn't be -
Toph's chest moved slowly, and Katara let out her own held breath. Good, Toph was alive, just knocked out. Probably the only way to manage her.
Another stone man marched in, and then a last figure limped in after, this one not made of stone. A woman in a hooded black robe. She tossed her hood back with a grin.
"You!" Katara said.
High Priestess Azil gave a low, sandy-sounding chuckle. "Yes, me, still alive. This is what happens when you fail to check your foe has truly fallen."
"But how?! Toph knocked you off a cliff!"
"I certainly did not come away unscathed. But why would you assume that a priestess capable of increasing gravity could not also reverse it? Don't feel too ashamed. You are far from the first to underestimate the Twilight Hammer's power."
Katara said nothing, instead scanning the room for anything bendable. Surrounded on all sides by earth and metal, and of course Toph had to be unconscious. There wasn't even a plant or a soup cauldron like so long ago when the orcs first captured her. It was all dry down here, except for the three mortal humans, but whatever sweat worked up in combat wasn't enough to fight off four earth-men and Azil.
Where were the others? They'd burst through the door any moment now, right? Someone on Katara's side had to be winning somewhere, hatching a plan, a rescue operation. They better hurry it up, because she was seriously out of options.
Azil ordered the stone men to drop their captives. Toph groaned as she hit the floor, but her chance to move was short-lived, as the next moment Azil conjured a whorl of violet shadows that picked up Toph and enclosed her in a bubble. She woke after a few seconds, groaning about her head, and then panicked.
"Hey – what's going on? Where am I, who's there?!" Toph shouted, grasping around at the interior of the bubble.
"Do you remember me, little earthbender?" Azil said.
"That's what your friend said, too."
"Which friend?!" Toph said.
"It's me, Toph!" Katara said. "Hurry, we're surrounded by earth! Everything's stone here!"
Toph made several palm thrusts and kicks. Not even a pebble stirred. Azil laughed.
"You think I'd let you wake up without defenses in place?" the priestess said. "Do not worry. Soon you shall both have full command of your powers again, that and more. You shall be the first metalbender and waterbender to serve us."
"You thought Aang and Azula would be great pets too, and you couldn't keep a leash on either of them!" Toph said. "You're an idiot if you think you can control me. Just ask anybody."
"I'm not serving you either," Katara said. "I don't care what kind of magic you use. The only people really on your side are the ones who want to be already, and you know there's no way we'd ever obey you."
"I knew you would say that. And again, you have underestimated the Twilight's Hammer," Azil said. "Many try to resist. You will serve or face the consequences."
"You mean death?" Katara said grimly, pulling herself up to stand straight, chin raised. "We've put our lives on the line again and again. You're no different than everyone else who threatened to kill us."
"Perhaps not. But putting your own lives on the line is one thing. If either of you fail to obey, I will punish the other instead." Azil grinned like a rictus grimace. "And death will be the last mercy you find from me."
"Don't do it, Katara," Toph said, but her voice quavered. "I've been through worse!"
"Have you really?" Azil said. "I could crush each bone in turn. I could take your feet and hands you rely on so much."
"I'd be a pretty useless minion without any feet or hands." Toph couldn't hide the increased fear in her voice.
And she was right – losing her senses or bending like that wouldn't help anyone, would it? They could try to resist and get tortured, broken, end up useless for the battles ahead.
"I am not giving you a grace period to mull things over," Azil said. "You will decide now, Katara, whether or not to submit. And if you do not, you will decide how long to listen to your friend scream."
They didn't have time to wait for rescue. They didn't have any guarantee a rescue would come.
"I'll do it," Katara said. "I'll become one of... them."
"What?!" Toph gasped. "No! Are you crazy?!"
Azil smiled like an animal and levitated over a set of elementium bindings. Katara stood stoically, staring down the high priestess without fear. The stone mitten flew away to rejoin the earthbender it came from. The metal bindings replaced them, a runed bracer clasping to each wrist. She shivered at the intense cold of the metal, unnaturally chilled like ice cut fresh from a glacier.
Another curled around her neck; she refused to let herself flinch. The metal vertebrae set itself against her spine like a serpent, metal ribs clenching in to hug her own, like a skeletal fist squeezing her torso.
She took a long, shuddering breath, hands curling at her sides. She'd resist obeisance. She'd let this ritual warp her, but she'd never submit to the High Priestess. Katara would use the new power to fight back, just like Azula had.
At least Katara hoped she could. She didn't know what it'd do to her mind. She'd resist. She had to.
Azil chanted and Toph shouted. A wind grew around Katara, or she thought there was a wind, but saw none. She only heard it, a breathing breeze, a whispering that grazed the edges of her perception. The chill spread deeper into her skin, her bones, her blood. She could feel every vessel acutely like rivers and tributaries, her organs like lakes and icebergs. She shivered and fought the urge to hug herself for warmth.
Just like the prison ship, just like the gambling racket, just victory masquerading as temporary defeat.
Toph stopped shouting, and Azil kept chanting, but the sound drowned under the whispering, the roaring. The cold reached the core of every part and limb of Katara and then seemed to invert, double-back, the blood and fluids stretching out to touch the underside of her skin, boiling and roiling, like a storm brewed in her heart and bubbled out to her fingertips. Waves of hot and cold rushed through her, freezing and boiling in turn, like tides coming and going, like moons were blooming and sinking in seconds. She felt each jolt pass through her more clearly, as if she could see the inside of her own body, white-hot threads of ice outlining her jaw and face, forked tongues of lightning into the backs of her eyeballs.
Katara shut her eyes and ground her jaw tightly, fighting to stand up straight as the pain shot through her, each pulse a stronger wave. She could hear her blood pumping, and it seemed to multiply until she realized she could hear all their blood, like the hearts of Toph and Azil were right there in Katara's palms, squeezing and squelching on her skin.
Her senses expanded through the room, feeling the moisture of the air, each drop of blood and sweat and saliva, all their organs, their bones and marrow, the softly pulsing tides of life that cycled through them like each person was a planet and sea all their own.
Behind her shut eyes she saw squirming lights, something foreign and slimy, undulating outside of space and sense. The elementium pulled it closer like a ship pulling in to moor, anchored Katara's being to a deep and oil-slicked ocean just on the other side of her eyes, something vaster and darker than the night sky which she only just now could see.
It whispered. Bilious thoughts spilled through her mind like the wet coiled innards of a disemboweled animal. She flinched and found she couldn't move at all, not even to open her eyes again. She stood frozen, as the dark space of her eyelids expanded out to close around her, snaring and holding her rigid.
One eye and then several shone out at her like lanterns, lighthouses on an endless coastline, stars in a midnight sky. The sky threatened to fall if the pillars kept breaking. If they couldn't hold up the sky the stars could crush and consume them, a dozen, hundred, million hungry lights, white needles clawing for traction on the fabric of the veil, worms rising through soft loam after rainfall, they came through one at a time and needed a million, needed the door open, the earth split, the sky torn in half, the glaciers melted, the poles conjoined, let them in, submit and let them see, let them know –
Katara wrenched away. The vision sucked at her brain like swamp mud, hating to relinquish a new prize. Her eyes fought to finally open.
Azil gazed over her appraisingly. Katara gazed over herself. Her fallow skin faded to frosty blue-white at the hands, a pale glow that extended up to the elbows in her veins. She no longer felt cold, nor hot, but buoyant and fluid, at one with the flow of energy in the room, the chi of water and life. In a way she didn't feel real, or maybe just un-solid, like she floated in a lake, like she could swim through the air itself. Was this how Yue felt becoming the moon?
"See the gifts the Masters can bestow?" Azil said.
"Yes." Katara seized the High Priestess with a wave and flung her across the room.
Did she just bloodbend? During the day?
Azil stumbled up from the base of the wall where she'd landed, unsteady as she favored one leg. "Stop! You will not raise your hand to me again!"
Katara's hands were already poised, but the bracers stabbed her with cold pain, shook her skull with it. Azil's will resounded through the runes. Katara struggled to attack her, swinging and striking at air, until relenting at last. She could win that battle later. Azil's attention would wane eventually. She couldn't hold back the river forever.
But as the moment of fury itself passed, fresh guilt hit Katara. She'd promised herself never to bloodbend again, for neither rage nor revenge. Nothing was worth that, was it? Controlling someone against their will – but that's exactly what Azil did to her, and had done to so many others.
Azil floated over another set of bindings, moving in on Toph, whose head turned quickly toward every sound. Katara snarled impotently. She tried to move, but some unspoken order held her in place entirely.
The walls rumbled. The four earth ascendants turned at once toward the door. Azil turned a moment later, letting the elementium bindings clang on the floor. Katara twitched, still fighting for any weakness in Azil's control. The High Priestess glared at her, and the rumbling grew closer. Katara twitched again. The energy bubble holding Toph flickered.
Katara grinned now. "You can't keep this up. You're holding the wolf-bat by the ears."
"Your triumph will be taken before your eyes, when I command you to destroy your own friends," Azil said.
"You're having trouble just keeping from destroying you. You might have survived the last fight, but you didn't really regain your strength, did you?"
"You – insolent girl," Azil sneered. "You know nothing of my strength! Your petulance only ensures your future despair!"
Toph spoke up. "Ugh, can't you Twilight crazies talk like a normal person for one minute? You're so dramatic, it's like I'm fighting those characters in the fight club again!"
"Or more like they're putting on a bad play," Katara said.
"Yeah, who needs The Ember Island Players when we can listen to these guys?" Toph laughed.
Azil's glare snapped from one to the other. It was hard to tell if she was snarling or smiling. They looked about the same on her.
"I will visit upon you such pain you will eat your words! You were unwise to test the limits of my mercy, and now that I have bound your waterbender, I have no reason left not to harm you! I've been waiting for the day to exact my revenge on you for the bones of mine you broke!"
Azil raised her hands. The energy bubble darkened until going opaque, and then shrank. Toph yelled in alarm, her voice muffled behind the swirling shadows.
Then the door slammed open and chaos erupted.
Zuko, Sokka, Suki, and the Kyoshi Warriors burst into the room. The earth ascendants leaped to attack. The floor and walls broke and swung wildly as bursts of flame shot past each opening. The warriors split to surround and converge on Azil on Sokka's shouted orders. Azil shouted her own orders.
"Kill them! KILL THEM!"
Katara fought – she fought her friends, she fought the order, this way and that, she struck against both sides, hardly knowing her own movements. She didn't just bend water, she became water, she shot and slid across the room like a tidal wave, to and fro. She lashed out at Sokka and pulled her strikes at the last minute, bruising and cutting but not killing. Then she'd turn and lash at Azil just the same, before the priestess' will took over again. Back and forth, back and forth, she felt split in half, the room was a blur, the fight turned to indistinct shapes and noises.
Something heavy knocked the breath out of her and pinned her against a floor. The bracers burned. Her spine was on fire. She screamed and struggled.
"Katara! Stop, it's me! Calm down!"
The voice was Suki's. Katara squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again. Her brain was shivering, burning, Azil's orders compelling her to strike, driving her mad and dizzy.
The room was quiet. The rumbling had stopped. Suki had Katara pinned to the floor. The others stood around her, looking down in worry. The runes ringing down into her bones wanted her to kill them. She wanted to kill them. She closed her eyes again, hoping that if she couldn't see them, it wouldn't be so hard to resist. She could still sense them, crimson and pulsing.
"Toph, hurry!" Sokka shouted.
Katara jerked on reflex to try to strike at his voice. She gave a cry of guilt and stopped, then a cry of pain as the bindings punished her resistance.
Several hands held her down as Toph's recognizably tiny hands pried away the elementium. The pain slipped away. There was a pressure she hadn't noticed, a squeezing on her heart, that relented the moment she became unbound. She let out a long, ragged sigh of relief.
"She's not turning back," Sokka said. "Why isn't she turning back?"
Katara opened her eyes again. The pain and dizziness were gone, but nothing else changed. She hadn't just put on a costume, hadn't dipped her hands in blue make-up to wash it off again. She'd reached a new paradigm. She could feel the permanence of her new self.
"I'm like this now," Katara said. "I'm... whatever this is. Whatever I am."
"Is it safe to let you go?" Suki asked.
"Yes. I'm not going to hurt any of you now."
Suki moved off her, and Katara stood with surprising ease. Still buoyant. She looked around the room. The earth ascendants were shattered to pieces. Azil was dead, lying in her own blood. Katara stared and tentatively reached out with her newfound senses, confirming that the priestess' heart was motionless.
Katara looked over the others, seeing their injuries. "I'm so sorry – I couldn't stop it, her magic was too strong -"
"Katara, it's okay," Sokka said. "We're just glad you're safe."
Alive, but not human. She'd have to deal with this later.
"So what's the plan now?" she asked.
Zuko spoke up. "Benedictus, the 'Twilight Father', is still at large somewhere in the city. I just escaped from him and found the others in the city prison. Those stone men were the Dai Li, and there are more of them."
"A lot more," Sokka agreed. "At least one or two for each of us, plus all the ones that were with Benedictus. That's just the ones we know about. But they won't get the advantage of surprise again, now that we know they're here, and we know about this bunker. We need to move ahead with the original plan, which is to get the rest of our forces up here to retake the city. That'll give us a defensible position to operate from. After that, we need to find out where the rest of the Twilight bases are, and rally all our possible allies on this world. There's probably a lot of intel in the palace that'll give us leads on that."
Katara smiled faintly. "Have I mentioned how great it is to have such a good planner for a brother?"
"Yes, but I won't complain if you mention it again," Sokka said with a returning grin.
Zuko interjected with his usual grimness, "They conquered the South Pole. They're tapping into a source of energy there."
Katara's brow creased. "I... saw something when Azil changed me. A vision. Something... dark, and powerful. It wants something at the poles. A way in."
Suki's expression hardened with recognition. Her jaw tightened but she said nothing.
"Then we can retake the South Pole next," Sokka said. "For now, we have to take Caldera City."