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Katara had never heard Zuko's voice so quiet, so vulnerable. It became especially unnerving when his voice began to tremble.
Something in his tone bothered her deeply. It stuck in her mind like a fishbone in some nobleman's throat, but now was not the time to cough and gag around it. Now was not time for anything but fighting.
She dodged back – the space in front of her exploded into rock and dirt. Maybe Toph's line of jagged stone managed to lash out and at least partially free Zuko from his bonds, but there wasn't any time to find out. The masked leader was brutally pushed aside, flung across the room by Toph's earthbending, and Katara had to admit she was more than a little disappointed that he managed to stop before he became a smear on the opposite wall. There was barely enough water in their canteens to make a proper water whip, but it was at least something – the air down here was so damnably dry it was almost like they knew she was coming.
That also bothered her deeply, but there was no time for that thought, either.
Mask to her left – she whipped around the water by her fingertips, delivering a solid stunning blow. Toph led the charge, bending even as she ran. "Exit's this way!" Toph called out. Katara didn't object. They would figure out how to get all of them out soon enough, but for right now -
She barely dodged, the stone spike rushing past her head to bury itself in the glowing panel on the wall. It fractured the light, casting it at odd angles, and in frustration Katara ripped off her mask while smoothly fending off another rush of guards. The narrow hallways bought them a little time, but only just. It was a maze they didn't have a map to, and they had to keep running, blindly rounding corners.
It would have been much easier if one of the guards had shouted, but they remained completely silent. No words yelled between them, no strategy called out between two groups. It was almost as if they moved of one accord without need for words. "I think -" Toph was panting. "I know the layout – it goes in a circle – maybe." More heavy footsteps down a corridor to the left. One patrol may be down but another was well on its way. With a solid kick, Toph managed to dislodge a door, and they ducked into the closet, trying to catch their breaths.
"What... what now?"
"Don't know." Toph gasped. The closet didn't have anything much to offer them – a few long and rusted halberds, but that would at least be something. "If it's a circle..." Toph drew in the air with her finger. "We can double back. Grab Zuko. Get out of her and never have to come back."
"Yeah. Absolutely." It was a risky plan, but it was hard to figure out a plan that wasn't risky at this point. With all the guards bearing down on them, footsteps heavy in the hall, there were few seconds to consider, but they both grabbed the rusted halberds. "If it's sort of like spokes on a wheel, we can split up. Divert them. Meet back up at Zuko then go fight our way out together."
"Toph, I'm not sure -"
"C'mon, Fussybritches, we'll be fine. On my count -" She grabbed the rusty halberds, grinning in a way that was perhaps a little too excited, though it was a relief to see her face instead of the masks they had been using moments before. "One, two... THREE!" She yelled, and both of them spun out of the closet, tossing the halberds out. Toph brought her hand out in a wide arc, metalbending sending the blades of the halberds out with deadly accuracy. Even as the weapons slipped through the guts of the patrolmen, pinning one down on the floor, they didn't cry out.
That bothered Katara in the extreme, though there was no time to do anything about it. Instead they sprinted, leaping over the bodies like gazelles, carefully finding their footing but keeping up an unrelenting pace. The wide arc of the hallway opened up into a large room that gave Katara pause in some inexplicable way, but stairs coiled around the walls, leading up to a catwalk connected it to another room. "Go!" Toph shouted, and Katara had to admit that she had the voice of a natural leader: her feet were obeying Toph before her head knew what she was doing. She kept moving, leaping up the stairs. "We'll meet up through there, keep going! I'll -" Another group of guards rushed into the room, and Toph spun on her feet, reading in a square stance, setting her jaw in a grim smile.
It fell off her face as hidden pistons in the floor squirted something slick onto the tiles. Toph tried to dodge, ended up slipping – she cursed with a ferocity Katara hadn't heard before. Katara knew she was supposed to be running but she had to pause a moment to look. This patrol was headed by someone in a slightly different mask... someone with a crimson mark on the edge of their eye. She didn't understand the significance until the world went up in flames.
They leapt as high as the row of stairs she was on, terrifyingly close, and Toph screamed in shrill agony. The oil on her feet was the perfect conduit for the flames, and she stumbled forward, trying to catch herself with her hands. Katara whipped the water around her wrist and instinctively sent it crashing down. It quenched the flames, but Toph was still screaming, blinded in earnest now. There was nothing to do but run. Adrenaline was making her head pound. There had to be some way to make this work – with Zuko's help they could double back, or...
As she ducked into the next large room, rushing across the catwalk, she slid to a stop. It was a mirror of the previous, but very much occupied. Another squad of guards stared up at her, white faces blank, all dressed alike in their drab uniforms. Their red-lipped leader was there, hands quietly clasped in front of him.
On his knees, in the center, was Zuko. He was still bound in chains, still bleeding from the shoulder, and two of the guards were holding his hair back. Others were holding him down. More importantly, at least three swords were at his throat.
"Ah, Master Katara. Please think about your next step carefully."
She was already halfway down a stair, and paused, balance shaky. There was no more water to be had – it had gone to extinguish that threatening Toph. Perhaps she would be able to resort to Bloodbending, but such a group all at once...
One of the swords pressed a little closer at Zuko's neck. He grunted as a thin line of blood was drawn from the tender skin.
Their leader stepped forward. "First, we must introduce ourselves properly, yes? Only hospitable. You may call me the Prophet, Master Katara, for that is what I am. Now you can properly understand..." He gestured lazily to Zuko as he was forced to kneel on the stone floor, trapped in-between all of the steel. "If you take a step further, I will have them slit the Firelord's throat. All of them, in fact. A great many cuts, even for a master healer, wouldn't you say?" There was a smile underneath that mask that she couldn't see. "But if you come quietly, both of you will live. A very generous offer."
Zuko gulped, adam's apple bobbing underneath one of the swords. "Katara -" His voice was hoarse, but earnest. "Please – go -" He nearly gagged with one of the swords digging in close. "Run!" He was desperately pleading. It was the begging tone that made her look deeply in his amber eyes.
Katara thought they hadn't broken him, not yet, but the look in his eyes was that of someone who had given up. A stranger instead of the stubborn youth Katara had known. There was only one thing to do – only one possible course of action.
Very carefully, she lifted her hands over her head, sliding down to kneel. Even as Zuko continued to call out for her to run, she let the guards grab her upper arms, and let the iron shackles be bound on her wrists. In the other room, she could hear the guards binding Toph even as she screamed and shouted profanities. The Prophet's smooth voice was full of a triumphant glow.
"Thank you for your cooperation, Master Katara. We do so look forward to working with you."
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