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Katara thought that it was representative of all the friction in their friendship that as soon as they stepped off the boat, Katara looked remarkably less at home, but Toph was on all fours in the dirt kissing the ground.
Well, perhaps not kissing. Not yet, anyway. She had been incredibly insistent that she was not doing any such thing, but instead listening in a way only she could. The small band of Fire Nation soldiers had met up with a larger force, and now all of them were looking uncomfortably desperate. One among them had fortunately decided that it was his job to lead them on a basic sweep of the surrounding area. Already somewhat queasy-looking ostrich horses were being unloaded from some of the ships, and a small flurry of messenger hawks could be seen with dispatches to local officials and the Earth King himself. Toph herself had dictated the letter to the Earth King that the human messenger would bring. After all, to an observer, it would look suspiciously like a small invading force had just landed on the Earth King's shores, and they were definitely in Earth Kingdom territory instead of the loose group of former colonies on their way to becoming a united and neutral republic.
It was nervewracking enough that Katara tapped her foot out of unconscious nervous habit. Some distance away, crouching in the solid dirt away from the shoreline, Toph grit her teeth. The chatter of the organizing army was bad enough, but Katara didn't know how bad it truly was until the first messenger on ostrich horse trotted by Toph.
The rider was fortunately able to dodge as Toph gave a strangled, frustrated scream and slammed her fists down, creating a sharp column of earth that sunk down into the ground as quickly as it had risen up. "WILL EVERYONE! JUST! SHUT! UP!"
The ensuing silence was so complete that one could have heard a pin drop. All of the navymen stood at perfect attention, eyes wide, and Katara blinked. Toph, however, gave a sigh of relief before sticking her palms into the dirt again. It was an odd pose, both palms and feet on the ground and her hair on her face, but she was obviously concentrating hard. "...And stop breathing, it's really distracting," she snapped, and the guard next to Katara clapped his hands over his mouth. Toph's sightless eyes glared at the ground for a few more long heartbeats before she grinned. "That's... almost clever. Almost."
In one smooth motion, she stood, dusting off her hands and pointing at the group of soldiers. "General! Get search parties heading to the south and southeast. Look for cracks that seem to go a decent way down into the bedrock, smokestacks that don't seem to go to anywhere, dry wells... whatever you can find, and make sure to compile information between yourselves. And go into every town with weapons peace-tied, or spirits help you, I'll come punch out your jaws myself." The entire group tossed her a fearful salute before one of the higher-ranking officers began to bark out orders.
Katara blinked rapidly a few moments. "So, are we splitting up, one going with each group, or -"
"No, you're coming with me." Toph rubbed her hands in glee. "They're sealing up the tunnels directly after they make them, traveling along in a sort of... rolling avalanche, I guess. Any other earthbender would completely miss it."
"But not you?" Katara grinned a little.
"Exactly. Now come on, Sifu Fussybritches." Toph grinned as she grabbed onto Katara's upper arm with what could charitably called a vice-like grip. "Let's go save your boyfriend!"
It took a long moment for Toph's words to sink in, and Katara was already well on her way to turning a deep red. "Wh-WHAT? He – Zuko is not – absolutely NOT – my boyfrie-aaaaaaaaaahh!"
She was cut off as the earth dropped out from underneath her. Luckily her first instinct was to grab onto Toph. Soon everything was lost in a dark blur of dirt and rock flying past her face, Toph's feet and hands whipping out in smooth motions to keep the small hurricane of dirt moving. There was definitely the sensation of moving, perhaps faster than Katara could realize, and she constantly felt as if she was about to slip and fall as the rock literally cycled under their feet to propel them along.
"...Th-This is to get back at me f-for the boat, isn't it!" Katara shrieked over the rumbling din of stone moving around them. Toph didn't answer. She just grinned.
It seemed like an eternity later when the stone finally gave way to more manicured walls as they burst forth into a proper tunnel. Katara reeled, trying to hold back a wave of nausea. Yes, Toph had definitely done that as some sort of retribution for all the times the earthbender had gagged over the side of a ship. It took her a few minutes to be able to walk straight while meanwhile Toph was marching ahead with merely a roll of her shoulders.
"Shh. Keep your voice down." Toph's voice was a little hoarse, and she paused to find a small canteen of water on her belt and take a gulp. "We're close – I can feel it. Took hours to get here, but this?" She gestured vaguely to the manicured tunnel walls. "Close to the inner sanctum. We'll have Zuko and be out of here in time for dinner. ...well, maybe not dinner, but in time to have some proper steamed buns for breakfast, anyway." She grinned widely – Katara could tell by tone alone - and for a moment, Katara couldn't help but believe her confidence.
Of course, in the pitch blackness only Toph could see. Katara kept close, fingertips running alongside the pristine stone wall, her other hand on Toph's shoulder. They marched in silence before eventually small glowing gemstones could be seen, giving them some light, and making Katara sigh in relief. The ornate geometric patterns were all regular, rigid, and even, and the glowing mineral cast off a sickly greenish glow. Something about it was distinctly familiar, and it immediately clicked in Katara's mind.
"I think these people might be the Dai Li, and -"
"No, really, shh. There's a patrol coming," Toph hissed, reaching out to guide Katara to stand flat back against the wall. With a wave of a hand like someone closing a closet door, the stone wrapped up around them. Katara gritted her teeth, once again enveloped in complete blackness. But Toph could see, flexing her toes against the ground, and soon Katara could just barely make out voices in the distance.
"...She's so lucky. They tell me it'll be at least two weeks before we're eligible, maybe more," one of them sighed wistfully.
"I know. But two more weeks, brother, and then a lifetime of peace and power," the other said, tone full of a blissful awe that seemed too perfect. "We all just have to be patient."
"But couldn't you see it in her eyes? I can't help envying her! Just so... calm."
"We'll be that perfect soon. Until then, we'll just -"
He was abruptly cut off as Toph slammed her hands together in front of her and the rock that had been enveloping them jutted out to catch both of the guards. Both were caught so thoroughly off-guard that neither had time to scream as Toph brought rocks down hard over their heads, knocking them out. Katara blinked as her eyes readjusted to the dim light, and Toph motioned to keep her voice down. "Come on. We'll use their uniforms." She was already nimbly untying one man's mask, putting it and his green armor on. Katara swiftly followed suit, making sure that her hip flask of water was still with her.
She noticed the blood inside the helm she took off of the guard, felt a brief duty to do some sort of healing, and then quietly dismissed it. Likely no good could be done, anyway...
Within a few minutes they had settled into the sickly olive uniforms, pulling the hoods up and the masks over their faces. Toph motioned for them to move forward, and as they did, the green glow became stronger. One line of designs became two, then four, then eight, until finally half of the wall was taken up with glowing inlay. Odd shadows danced around them in the pallid light, reflecting off of every person's white mask in a way that made them all look like dead puppets being pulled along for some other person's amusement. One of the guards in the long corridor nodded to them, and they nodded back, careful to keep silent.
It splayed out all around them, hallway leading into hallway. But there definitely was a center point. For one thing, the glow was stronger, almost smothering in its ubiquity. And for another, there was the scream.
Both of them gave a start as soon as they heard it – a raw sound that echoed through the corridors. Nobody else seemed to mind. But both walked a little faster, Katara firmly willing herself to try and stay calm. It had been a low, masculine roar of pain... it had to be -
And it was.
The large, circular room was darker than the rest. One brightly glowing gemstone was set into a track in the wall, lazily going in circles, making the shadows shift and dance. Breathing hard, eyebrows lidded and heavy, Zuko was suspended in the middle, thoroughly bound by shackles at both his ankles and his wrists. From the cuts they had inflicted, he had been fighting hard to free himself. On top of that, a long gash, very fresh, sat on his shoulder... and Katara could see where thin needles of stone had been worked underneath the flesh just to cause him more pain.
In front of him stood someone in a slightly different uniform, more elaborate and ornate. While most other masks had been plain white, or white with dark circles around the eyes, this figure – this Prophet – had a startling jot of red on the lips of his mask, a solid line in the middle. As they shuffled in, the guards at the door shuffled out, and Katara barely contained a sigh of relief. Apparently it was shift change, and they were right on time.
The Prophet twitched his fingers and the needles of stone embedded themselves more deeply in Zuko's shoulder, making him give another grunting cry. A slim hand went to the Prophet's red lips, and he tilted his head in apparent thought. "And I was so hoping we were getting somewhere, Firelord. Why do you make this so hard on yourself?"
Zuko said nothing, letting his head fall forward, his loose hair falling like a curtain around him. It was more than obvious that he was in a lot of pain: his shoulders were shaking, his lip trembled around every breath he took. Pointedly, he didn't look up at the Prophet.
"We only wish to do what needs to be done, Firelord. Entropy is the natural order of the world. Fighting against it will only bring you pain and turn the tide of destruction inwards. I have tried to be..." The Prophet took in a deep breath, letting it out as a dramatic sigh. "Generous. So generous. Please let nobody say that I didn't give you the chance." He motioned lazily at one of the assistants in the back, who reached out to grab Zuko by the hair, pulling it hard and making Zuko give a grunt of pain as he was forced to look the Prophet in the eye. "Perhaps we just haven't given you proper motivation."
"If this is going to be..." He paused to wince. "Another lecture on how I should... accept things the way Azula does..."
"Oh, no. Nothing so crass," the Prophet said smoothly, stepping back. "Merely a reminder that this is not entirely about you." His gloved hands reached out to both Katara's and Toph's shoulders, grip becoming vice-like. "And we are so very glad that you dear ladies could finally join us."
Katara's mind took a few seconds to catch up, and by then all of the other guards had silently closed ranks around them. Toph's fists clenched. Zuko's eyes went suddenly wide, and for the first time in a very long while, Katara saw his expression change to genuine and desperate terror. There was nothing left to lose so she let a small whisper escape her lips.
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