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After being captured, Kensei awakes in a cell in the crystal catacombs, the Dai Li's new base of operations where he meets a fellow prisoner who may offer his only chance of escape.
Ken stared in disbelief at the smiling old man on the opposite end of the corridor.
"I'll admit," said the old man after several moments, "I wasn't expecting them to send someone so young as yourself, but then who am I to judge?."
Kensei began backing away slowly. "What's that supposed to mean, old man?" Hopefully he could keep the man talking long enough for Yao to come back him up. He didn't know what kind of tricks the old man might have up his sleeve.
"You know," began the man at the end of the hall, "you remind me of my nephew when he was your age-"
He got no further because all of the sudden, the ground between the two erupted into razor-sharp shards of stone. Dust and debris flew everywhere. Kensei saw his chance and bolted down the hallway towards the entrance Yao had created where the big man was waiting for him.
"What took you?" Ken said angrily as they took off running towards the wall where their fellow thieves waited.
Yao shrugged. "Sorry." He said, "You got the box, right?"
Ken flashed the grooved metal box hidden in his tunic.
Without warning, a pair of black chains across their path.
"Dai Li!" Yao cried.
Sure enough, Ken spied the black-robed figures in their characteristic sloped hats darting overhead across canopies and rooftops.
Another black chain shot out at Kensei, but he managed to deflect it with one of his swords. Meanwhile, Yao sent shards of earth from the city streets hurtling towards their pursuers above. Unfortunately, the Dai Li were not so easily dispatched and dodged the attack. However, the maneuver gave the two thieves time enough to duck into a side street.
"Split up?" said Ken as he leaned against a wall, panting.
Yao nodded and held out his hand. "Give me the box."
"What?" the other said.
"Just let me have it-with any luck they won't notice the switch."
Ken was about to reply when suddenly a set of great white spines shot out of the ground in front of them like skeletal fingers, narrowly missing the thieves' heads.
"What the-" Ken jumped away.
The bony spikes retracted into the ground as the street beneath them burst open with a shower of black earth and stone, revealing a skeletal figure in tattered clothing who seemed to belong more among the dead than the living.
"Who invited him?" said Ken, bringing up his swords.
"Surrender," the skeletal figure rasped. Aside strips of cloth and a tunic and breeches, he appeared to be clad in some sort of bone-white armor from head to toe. "Surrender the box or die."
"I don't think so," said Ken, "Right Yao? Yao?" he turned just in time to see the other thief taking off down the street.
Not to be ignored, Ken's opponent struck out with his long, bony spines that extended from his gauntlets, nearly impaling the young thief against the wall. Seeing an opening, Kensei propelled himself into his new attack, using the man's body as a springboard to gain the tile-topped dividing wall overlooking an elegant rock garden. Not far ahead he could see the wall to the Inner Ring where Knife and the boss had begun to make their way down.
A black chain struck Ken's ankle and he lost his balance, catching sight of the Dai Li agents as he tumbled into the rock garden below. After recovering from his daze, Ken got to his feet just in time to deflect a blow from one of the agents' stone fists that came hurdling towards his face from above.
Without wasting another second, Kensei barreled into a nearby doorframe with a sharp crack and ran up a nearby flight of stairs. He had to get out of the compound of the estate or he would be trapped. Luckily, the upstairs windows provided the perfect access to the streets beyond the compound, but then he spotted more Dai Li agents taking up positions beyond the walls. There was no way that they were going to let him get out without the box.
In a flash of inspiration, Ken spied a massive fountain bubbling in the central atrium of the house. Taking a giant leap, Kensei managed to catch hold of the head of a giant Badgermole statue in the fountain's center that spouted water from its mouth and slipped the box in the space beneath its stone tongue before dropping into the pool below.
When he exited the water, he could see the shapes of multiple Dai Li agents closing in on the central compound, boxing him in.
"Where is it, kid?"
Ken looked up in time to see Boss Ibaru and the other thieves emerge on the second floor platform that surrounded the compound. "Give me a hand and I'll tell you," Ken called up, eying the Dai Li agents surrounding him.
"The box first," Ibaru said quickly, "Tell me where it is!"
It was then that Ken knew that the thief had no intention of helping him. It was all over.
"It's been fun, kid," said Ibaru, "but we gotta go!" with that, he and the other two clamored out of sight without so much as a glance back in his direction as the agents seized him-and then someone smacked him hard on the back of the head.
In the Catacombs
Kensei awoke to the familiar green glare of the characteristic glowing crystals that grew in the caves beneath the Royal Palace. It seemed that no matter which way he turned-on his side, his back or his stomach-he couldn't get comfortable-he had barely slept in the last three days and when he did sleep, he dreamed he was running in some endless maze of darkness, pursued by the skeleton-man with his bony spines that shot out and blocked his path at every turn.
The Dai Li had only fed him twice during his stay and what he had eaten barely passed as a meal, even by a thief's standards. He guessed that they must have been trying to wear him down so that he would tell them where the metal box was hidden. All he had to do was wait until someone came to interrogate him, but so far nobody had come.
When he wasn't eating or trying to sleep, he found himself thinking of Kage and wondering if she was worried about him. He hoped not. He knew that she was probably better off without him at this point-the only problem would be if she was too high-minded to use all of the money he had left behind for her.
Kensei chuckled to no-one in particular. "I guess you were right, Kage, you always said that they'd catch me one day."
"Let go of me, I can walk myself!" a voice echoed from beyond the iron cell door as footsteps approached.
Ken looked up in time to see the cell door swing open on rusty hinges as a man in dark robes was tossed onto the floor of the cell by two silent Dai Li.
Ken watched as the man picked himself up after several moments of lying on the stone floor. "You could have helped me up, you know," said the robed man, "A little kindness never hurt anybody."
Ken spat. "I don't know what your story is, but I've got my own problems."
The man chuckled, inspecting the cell. "As far as I can tell, our only problem is how to get out of this place."
It was Ken's turn to chuckle. "Unless you're an Earthbending Master, I don't see how-unless they let us off on good behavior."
The stranger extended a leather-wrapped hand. "Name's Lu," he said, "But most people call me Face." He indicated the leather mask that covered the left side of his bald head, the other side was the face of a man of about twenty-five. "I got picked up because the Dai Li thought my father was sending information to the Fire Nation during the war."
Ken turned away. "I'm Kensei." He said, "My father was killed eight years ago when the Firebenders took the city and my Mom ran out about a year after."
Face nodded. "Sorry to hear that." He said, taking a seat next to the boy, "Looks like you and the Dai Li have something in common."
"You're not the only person who thinks the war is still going on out there," said Face. "The only way anything's going to change is if people start trying moving past all of their old problems. "
"A friend of mine said that the Dai Li have been pretty wound up lately," said Ken.
Face grimaced. "They're the Dai Li," he said, "They're always wound up about something. Even after their so-called 'reform' after the war when King Kuei came back to power they've gone back to their usual tricks."
Ken nodded but said nothing further.
"So what'd they get you for, anyway?" said Face at length.
"It doesn't matter," said Ken, "It's not like we're ever getting out of here."
"Never say never," the older man said, leaning back with his head on his palms.
Ken sighed. "I mean-it's not like I've got anywhere to go if I did get out of here."
"You got any family?" said Face.
"Just my kid sister, but she's an Earthbender-she doesn't need me."
Face gripped Ken's shoulder suddenly and looked him square in the eye. "How can say something like that!" he said, "If you cared about your sister at all you'd have never gotten yourself in trouble with the Dai Li in the first place!"
Ken shoved the man's hand away. "Shut up," he cried, "You don't anything about me or my sister! The whole reason I did what I did was so that my sister and I didn't have to scrape out the gutters for food every night or freeze out in streets. My sister's an Earthbender and one day I was going to get enough money so that she could take Earthbending classes at Ba Sing Se University and get out of this dump!"
Face crossed his arms. "And what about you?" he said, "What are you going to do when your sister goes off to live her life? Are you gonna keep living in the streets for the rest of your life? Look where that got you!"
Ken glared over at the man and turned to face the wall. "Just leave me alone, okay," he said, "I haven't slept in days."
Face said nothing in reply. Ken lay as still as he could, shutting his eyes and trying to at least pretend to sleep. Maybe then the half-faced man would stop bothering him.
A Not-so-Great Escape
Kensei awoke to what sounded like a mountain coming down around him.
"He's waking up," Kensei opened his eyes and saw that Face and a strange, squat man with a ridiculously bushy mustache and dark goggles. It was difficult to make out much more than that as he was bundled up in multiple layers of earth-shaded clothing and wrappings.
Face helped Kensei to his feet. "Come on," he said, "We haven't got much time before they start sending reinforcements."
The metal door had been smashed off of its hinges and outside in the green-lit halls Kensei could see the unconscious forms of several Dai Li sprawled out along the passageway.
"What's going on?" said Kensei.
"Thanks to Ron over here, we're getting out of this place." Face replied, gesturing towards the stranger. "Look are you coming or not?"
The street thief glanced from one to the other. "Fine," he agreed, "But after we get out of here, "we're splitting up."
Face grinned. "Wouldn't have it any other way. Let's go."
Ron nodded silently and led the way through the crystal catacombs where they met with relatively little resistance.
"So how did your friend know where to find us?" said Kensei as they rounded a corner, coming out into a larger chamber.
"Ron just happens to be one of the best Earthbending Masters this side of the continent," said Face, "We've known each other since the war. This little jail-break is just a favor Ron owes me."
"You could sure teach my sis a thing or two," said Ken as they passed a few more sprawled out Dai Li. "Your friend doesn't happen to know where they confiscate people's weapons."
In answer, the mustached man tossed Ken a familiar pair of dual sheaths which the swordsman quickly fastened back onto his waist. Behind them they could hear the sounds of the Dai Li agents approaching.
"Get ready," Face warned, as they came into a wide, circular tunnel "When I count to three, I want you to jump." Ken nodded.
"Okay, one, two, three!"
The three escapees jumped just as Ron brought his cloth-covered fist to bear on the ground, sending a ripple of stone outward to meet their pursuers, knocking them off of their feet.
"We need a plan," said Kensei.
Ron tapped Face on the shoulder and whispered something in his ear.
Face grabbed a hold of Ken and Ron as the Earthbending Master generated a slab of rock beneath their feet that sent the three rushing through the cavern tunnel at breakneck speed.
"Don't look now!" Ken shouted, indicating a band of no less than ten Dai Li agents rocketing after them and slowly gaining on Ron's rock sled.
Ron responded to the threat by firing a volley of glowing crystals in their direction, taking two of the agents out of commission while the others held their course, firing back volleys of their own that narrowly missed the fugitives.
"If we keep going we should come up somewhere inside the Outer Wall. It'll be easier to lose them outside of the city," Face cried out.
All of a sudden, a quartet of Dai Li agents dropped out of the ceiling of the tunnel ahead of them, erecting a massive sheet of rock in front of them to trap the pursuers.
"Hang on!" shouted Face as Ron began to bend the earth around them into a protective shield. When the impact came it felt as though every bone in Kensei's body had been shattered to bits. Dust and debris were everywhere when The three got to their feet.
"What's that noise?" said Ken as crystal shards landed at his feet.
"Ron says that the tunnel's caving in," said Face, "Run!"
Ken was about to obey, when black chains came rocketing out of the settling dust. Ken managed to dodge, but the chain caught Face around the arm.
"What are you doing!" Ken shouted at the agents, "If you stay here you're going to be killed too!"
"Get out of here, Ken," Face repeated, "Me and Ron have gotten through worse!"
More chains shot out, catching Ron around the middle.
"No!" Ken cried, "Let them go!"
But just as he was about to aid his new friends, Ron stamped his foot, creating a wall between the collapsing chamber and Kensei, who struck at the barrier futilely with his swords before dodging a shower of boulders and crystal from above.
Kensei had no choice. He ran. He ran as the tunnel collapsed behind him into darkness. He didn't know how long he ran for after that. He wasn't aware that the tunnel had been gradually sloping upwards since his escape.
The only things he could see before him were the faces of the Lu and Ron, fighting for their lives. Though he had known them both for less than a day, he felt a bond nearly as close to them as he did with his own sister.
When he finally did reach the surface, he found that he was crying. His body and mind were wracked with such pain and misery that he didn't notice the stars in the night sky nor the gentle lapping of the waters at the peaceful shores of Laogai where he finally collapsed and let the tears and the pain flow freely out of him.
Later on, Ken imagined that he must have slept for at least part of the night-when he was not tormented by phantom spirits of his dead father and runaway mother or with images of his sister-frightened and alone in the streets of the Lower Ring. Finally, the bleak sadness and loss in his heart was replaced with hatred at the Dai Li and at his former gang who had left him for dead. But more than anything, the hatred was for himself-for what he had allowed himself to become-slipping down the path of darkness every day since his birth. That night, with the moon and stars and all the earth as his witness, he swore he would never tread down that path again.
As he rose slowly to a sitting position, his hand slipped on what he first supposed must have been a large stone. After digging the object out of the sand, he realized that it was not a stone-but some sort of lacquered and painted wooden mask. Although when he held it up for a better look, he realized that it was no ordinary mask that he had found.
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