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Gaoling is the sixteenth chapter of's .
Previously in A Tale of Rebels
Senqok and Zoruka arrive at Misty Palm Oasis, and, after a brief interrogation of an Earth Empire Secretariat agent, find the prison Shizon and Kabura are imprisoned at, infiltrate it and kill all the guards.
Kabura and Shizon are tortured together, which leads to the latter denouncing his comrade. Later, the warden once again attempts to pleasure himself at Kabura's costs, taking corresponding precautions, but is killed by Senqok before he can begin nonetheless.
After being freed, Kabura and Shizon, alongside their liberators, decide to get rid of the prison. They then set course for Gaoling, where Ranju is imprisoned. Senqok promises to teach Kabura proper waterbending.
Chapter 16: Gaoling
Zoruka stepped away from the three companions of hers, examining the result of her work.
"See? We should've killed these guides back then. That would've given us all three camelephants and the wagon. But noooo.... " complained Senqok, looking down on his unusually greenish outfit.
"T'was an official's wagon, they would've noticed if two from the Water Tribes and two from the Fire Nation were in the wagon of an official!" shot the Crown Princess back, hurrying back to the waterbender and fixing something about his turban.
"Are turbans worn around here at all?" Senqok's doubts still persisted as he attempted to escape the - also disguised - firebender's hands, but ran right into a tree as he turned around. "Fucking forests!"
Shizon, right next to him, helped him up, but snickered nonetheless. Kabura too laughed mildly, and soon the other two joined in amusement, before Zoruka answered Senqok's rather rhetoric question. "They are. Actually, they're common in the whole south, common enough for having some past rebellions named after them." She turned to Shizon, who wore a hat with flaps on either of its sides, which he twiddled with, too looking doubting. "And before you ask, Shizon, this hat is one of the most common ones throughout the entire Earth Empire!"
"Won't we appear suspicious, I mean... Look at us! None of us are from the Earth Empire! You've got amber eyes, we've got blue ones, and a darker skin on top of that! They'll have us compromised within no time!" Kabura's doubts were, as opposed to Senqok's, legitimate.
"Just act natural, and nothing will happen. We just go there, find the Imperial Prison, and break Ranju out as unnoticed as possible." Zoruka adjusted her own dress and turned from the others to walk away to the street, out of the forest, but yet another doubt was voiced.
"And the weapons? Won't they be noticed, especially the crossbow?" Shizon held out Kabura's only weapon to show its full size, which was answered by the Crown Princess grabbing the crossbow and disassembling it into the bow, the barrel and the stock with the mechanism. She then took the three pieces and put them into some kind of knapsack-like basket, which she then handed Kabura.
"Questions?" asked the firebender, her gaze wandering back and forth, before she realised her mistake. "Oh, right, the swords... Well, you two are dressed like some kind of... officials, or low nobility. You have every right to carry weapons."
"Are you sure no one will notice my warrior wolf tail?" Senqok twiddled with the hair that had grown on the - else shaven - sides of his head in the past months.
"Oh, for spirits' sake! Then wear a fucking Earth Empire topknot!" Zoruka took off the waterbender's turban and started fitting his hair into a simple topknot most common all over the Earth Empire, before she simply sat the turban on his head again, then turning to Shizon, who managed to arrange such a hairdo by himself. Once again, she then inspected the three, all dressed in relatively elaborate robes of the bourgeoisie. "Nice. Would I not know you, I'd think 'Just what in Koh's realm are these doing out here in the woods?'. No, seriously, your disguises are excellent."
"AT LAST! This was pure torture- " Senqok exclaimed euphoric, then realising his massive mistake upon receiving angry stares from Kabura and Shizon. "Oh wait, no, sorry, no, I- "
"Anyway, to Gaoling!" commanded Zoruka, commenting "I've never been here, I haven't got a slightest clue what expects us!"
The four walked off to the road they had originally travelled on, and then walked southwards on it, until they reached a kind of pass, where the road cut through between two massive boulders and their elevated position revealed a sight none of the four had ever seen before. The valley beneath was filled with various rock formations and forest, fields lining the river that ran through the valley like pearls on a string. Right in the middle of the rock formations and on the river's banks, a city stretched, with simple houses and shops providing most of its buildings, but also lavish estates and other rather spacious establishments coming into sight, but, and that all four found odd, lacking any artificial defensive structure, save for the estates with their rather symbolic walls.
"Well, here we go. Just go there, find the Imperial Prison, break out Ranju and get back. Nothing easier, eh?" Chuckling sarcastically, Senqok decided to go first and descended on the paved road into the relatively small but lively city, the others still marvelling at the sight, then breaking from it and following.
A drop fell on her head. Not that it was a surprise, in fact, it was all that Ranju had sensed for the past hours. Repeatedly. And that was the worst part. Drop after drop, only seconds apart, fell from the barrel above her head. Thoughts of resistance, evasion or even breaking her shackles and finally getting away from this murderous seat had all been left behind hours ago. Firmly strapped to the chair, the Air Nomad let the drops come, staring into nothingness. There was no light in the cell, it was neither warm nor cold and almost completely silent, safe for the drops of water landing, such as to force the tortured one to direct their attention to the drops. And there came they again. Drops of water, descending from the pits of Koh's realm, or so they began to feel. The silence was unbroken, except for the fact Ranju had a tinnitus, and had it not been for the Air Nomad's stomach, others in the room too would've experienced utter silence, but the alimentary organ of hers seemed just to have to imitate a sky bison, and to make her feel that if she would stay just an hour longer, she could slip out of the straps, given she still would have the strength to do so. Another drop fell. This time, the water running from her hair took a different path and rolled over her forehead, right between her eyes and down her nose's side, passing the lips before dropping again from the chin. Unfortunately for the airbender, the drop had set the path for those of its kind to follow. She began gritting her teeth in angry annoyance. Yet, this torture was for nought, she told herself. She would not talk, not ever. She would scream it to them and then impale her torturers with their own shins once she would get the chance. Somehow, she found the thought of killing pleasing, the prospect of seeing and smelling blood appealing, more and more with each drop that dared land on her. Yet another drop, and slowly, Ranju's mouth crooked to form a smile. Not a kind one, but, in combination with her eyes' and overall expression, an evil one, a smirk, one that, if looks could kill, was a weapon capable of omnicide. Again, a drop of water descended upon her crest. The drops did the same they would've done to mountains of limestone - they eroded the more recent layers, uncovering what was believed to be long lost, buried or suppressed. All of sudden, the smirk disappeared and a shocked expression took its place. Thoughts, pictures she hadn't seen in years raced through her mind, all of them ten years old. The Eastern Air Temple, the arrival of refugees from the Southern Air Temple, Anyang amongst them, and then- Ranju couldn't bear it any longer. Tears joined the drops on their way down her face. Head Elder Dalit's attack on her home, when she had been a mere seven years old - a siege, it had been, a horrible battle. Many defenders had simply fled, and those who dared to stand longer had been fighting not only with Dalit's troops, but also with plagues and hunger, the then seven year-old Ranju amongst these damned defenders. For two weeks they had been able to hold out against the constant attacks from nearby mountains, from the air and the whole surroundings. Then, the last of them had gathered and decided to flee as well. Ranju remembered every day well, far better than she had thought, much to her dismay. Her whole haggard body began trembling as she thought of the escape attempt. She remembered it too well for her to brush it aside again. Anyang had organised it all, as well as prepared it, the other had focussed on holding out till then. When the day had come, Dalit personally had prepared his forces to storm the Air Temple. Out of the approximately one hundred of defenders who had survived thus far, only two made it out of the siege alive. Ranju remembered these days too well, but mostly did she remember the sight of blood and corpses when Anyang had found her amongst the dead bodies, when he had rescued her. It all came flooding back like a river's waters after its dam had breached. The drops ceased to erode any further - the sight of blood and dead bodies everywhere was what remained. She failed to feel any anger, nor did she feel fear or pain. She had ceased crying and begun feeling indifferent to it, somehow silencing the voice in her head telling her to find it gruesome. With each drop that rolled down her face, her tears' traces were washed away further, at once also revealing a new Ranju. The old one was dead, she found, she had died in the Battle of the Five Armies' aftermath. She had just been reborn, not made for the world of an Air Nomad who was forced to fight like her old self, nay, she was made for this world. The drops, the blood, the violence, the love - she somehow managed to forget what she was supposed to feel about it, she let it happen, caused it herself or prevented it, whatever she decided to do. The question between right and wrong was irrelevant. But there was one principle she would not abandon - loyalty.
The door opened, and light flooded the room. Without blinking, Ranju adapted her eyes to it, and noticed two soldiers entering. The two, naturally wearing Earth Empire army uniforms, loosened her straps and forced her to stand. Her knees shook, and she stood very insecure, not to speak of walking. However, that didn't mean she indeed was weak, other than the soldiers believed. "Don't believe..." she spoke, "...that you'll get any information out of me."
"We'll see about that." came the answer, before one of them decided to attempt to rip off the remnants of Ranju's uniform just for his amusement and pleasure. What he didn't expect was the sudden lack of oxygen he faced - Ranju employed the technique of asphyxiation. Both soldiers shot each other and her fearful and questioning looks.
"Sometimes..." spoke Ranju determined, "violence is a necessity, even for an Air Nomad. And we're living in very violent times." With that, she let go of the soldier she just had been close to killing. "Consider this a warning."
The group stood right before a building that was determined to be a kind of inn, all of them but Senqok and Zoruka approaching the entrance.
"The Flying Boar? Rings a bell, but... I can't point my finger on it... hm..." the former wondered aloud, scratching his head's unshaven sides. The latter had stopped to finally cover her left eye again, which she hadn't done since the Battle of the Five Armies. Once the eye patch rested in its place again, the elaborately disguised firebender took her also disguised waterbender comrade by his hand and dragged him inside. While the outside had looked just like an ordinary house, safe for the signboard displaying a flying boar, the inside presented itself as a lavishly furnished inn that could as well have been a restaurant in Ba Sing Se's Upper Ring. The four comrades had chosen one of the round tables in the corner right next to the entrance. Despite the many other customers, amongst them also a group of three Earth Empire soldiers, a waiter found time to immediately bring the newly arrived guests the menus. Quickly reading through the paper, all four decided to have a drink and meal before inquiring anyone about Gaoling Imperial Prison.
"What would the ladies and gentlemen like to drink?" was the waiters ever so kind-sounding question as he waited at the table.
Looking at one another, the four non-verbally agreed. "I guess..." sounded Shizon's voice, " ...we'd go with some black tea."
Only nodding, the waiter rushed away to what seemed to be the kitchen. Having little to discuss in public, the four listened their surroundings.
"...you know how it is, we're sent right into the areas with the most rebel activity and are given complete freedom how to deal with potential rebels. Pacification of the South, they're calling it at Ba Sing Se." It was one of the three soldiers speaking, leaning in to the other two afterwards, continuing in a whisper upon noticing the group of four eavesdropping. The waiter then arrived with a tray, carrying the tea, which he then put on the table. As he was about to walk away, Senqok couldn't hold his curiosity back.
"Excuse me, sir, I know it might be a stupid question, sir, but why is the inn named Flying Boar?" Senqok had turned to the emerald-garbed waiter, making him turn around as well.
"Because the flying boar was the symbol of Gaoling in the Earth Kingdom of old and the during its independence." answered the busy, emerald-clad man, turning to hurry away again.
"But wouldn't that be a somewhat rebellious act? Naming an inn after a symbol of an " Kabura's question made him stay a little longer than he had wished for.
"Now listen you little- You little cunt, I work hard around here so these folks don't find out I was a member of the Liberation Alliance. Don't ruin it." hissed the waiter as silently as possible.
"Oh, you were in the Alliance? We're too!" exclaimed Shizon in a similar volume. "Then you could do us a favour, right?"
"Were, not are. The Alliance ain't exist anymore," stated he, before continuing hissing. "And no, I won't do you any favour, I don't want to have anything to do with the Alliance anymore. Stop asking into that direction or else I'll have to throw you out."
"It's just a small favour, please, sir." pled Zoruka, looking at him with her one eye. "It's nothing really personal."
"No!" was the unsurprising decision of the waiter, who then continued by leading the topic back to what he had had in mind doing after delivering the tea. "Now, what do you want to eat?"
"Yes, of course, you will answer it." decided Shizon. "Where's Gaoling Imperial Prison?"
"I'll take noodle soup," stated Kabura, handing her menu back to the waiter, then joining Shizon in staring the waiter down.
"Roast duck for me please." answered Senqok, his eyes already boring into the waiter's.
"Some jook should be sufficient... " thought Shizon aloud, intensifying his stare.
"Do you have komodo sausage? Because I'd be delighted if I could get served it." Zoruka's answer was the most elaborate of all, and when she followed the others' example, the waiter gave up resisting.
"Got it... " was all he said, walking off to the kitchen. What this one couldn't answer, another one surely could - one of the soldiers from another table had taken his chair and seated himself to the same table the group of four sat.
"Rather unusual to refer to the Garrison by this name... " stated the soldier, testing the disguise of each of the four. Not suspicious, but rather curious, he then asked, "What is it you want there, anyway?"
"We, uh..." spoke Shizon, then starting to scratch the back of his head.
"...want to, er..." continued Kabura, then slightly raising her eyebrows in lack for an ending, shooting Senqok a look.
Senqok shook his head ever so slightly, and so it was Zoruka who ended it. " ...visit a prisoner, kind of interrogate... them, so to say. We have a suspicion and are unsure whether of not it is justified."
"That sounds pretty neat, although you should simply report it to them then, they can handle it," replied the soldier, stroking his beard. He smiled and wiped his hands into the uniform, the one he, other than his helmet, wore completely, as he put back his chair to the table his two comrades were sitting at. After doing so, he once more returned to the table of the group of four. "Good to know the Earth Kingdom's- er, Earth Empire's youth is that thoughtful, though."
All of the four simply rose their eyebrows at the slip of the tongue, when noticing he hadn't given them any information. Senqok was the one to rise from his seat and went over to the soldier, who sat with his comrades, laughing. "Excuse me sir..." began the waterbender in disguise, interrupting the soldiers' enjoyment. "May I ask you some questions?"
"Oh, of course! What's on your mind?" The soldier seemed genuinely friendly, matching neither, his job nor his employer's ideology.
"Well... first, if it doesn't bother you, er... Why did you say 'Earth Kingdom' at first?" Senqok surely had his priorities set right, with curiosity for trivial matter coming first.
"Oh, that? Well... excellent question." The soldier's voice sounded thoughtful, but without pondering even for a single second, he continued. "Next question."
"Alright then, uh, may I have directions to the Gaoling Imperial- to the Garrison?" Accepting his question not to be answered, he jumped on to the actual one.
Almost suspiciously eying the disguised Water Tribal, the soldier narrowed his eyes, stating, "You're not from here, are you?"
"Well... we don't come into town all too often... " provided Senqok as his improvised explanation.
"Naturally... it's just by the marketplace, the biggest of the buildings there - impossible to miss. You just walk southwards from the Flying Boar and sooner or later you'll stand right in front of it." other than his counterpart's explanation, the soldier's was not improvised, not in any way.
"Thank you, sir." Senqok was sure to maintain a certain kind of politeness - he wasn't going to stir up trouble in the middle of the Earth Empire's stronghold. Yet, at least.
"So we have our directions... " stated Shizon as-a-matter-of-factly as Senqok returned to the table, just as their meals arrived as well. Their last meals, these were, before freeing the one who formerly had been one of only two airbenders in the Liberation Alliance.
Ranju had got her hands bound with her assault, and her feet as well, leaving barely enough freedom for her to walk. She was being led through some corridor, more she couldn't tell, simply because of the relative darkness. Her joints hurt, and she was overall weary from the weeks, months even, of imprisonment. One of the two guards nodded, and both of them stopped, a door to their left soon being flung open. The light in the room beyond the door revealed a scenery not unlike a forge, with a kind of wooden cross in the centre. Leading her inside, she realised what they were about to do - branding, or worse.
"Oh, great, I'm finally getting branded." remarked the chained airbender sarcastically, knowing she was not in the position to alter anything about it. "Now that you're treating me like cattle, I guess I can expect my life to take a turn for the better."
"Unless you answer our questions, well- oh, fuck it! You know the drill!" explained one of the two soldiers, at first speaking calmly, then shouting. As they reached the cross, a saltire to be exact, he ordered, obviously angered by the airbender's past behaviour, "Now silence yourself!"
Ranju rolled her eyes, but her sarcastic attitude towards the torture soon came to an end, when the soldier that had spoken took out a knife and cut the remainders of her uniform, later ripping them off, only leaving her in her underwear while being bound to the saltire. She started panicking, and kicked the soldier who bound her in the face while also blowing the other one against the wall, or rather, attempted to. The soldier, however, dug his feet into the ground, and spun around to shoot two boulders at the bound airbender with a quick thrust of both his arms, forming rock shackles in the last second before their impact to more effectively bind the Air Nomad. He then took a branding iron from the fire right next to him, and went up to Ranju, threatening to press the eerily glowing iron into her face, the red glow's source only centimetres away from her skin.
"You're our last lead to the last General of the Rebel Alliance, don't think you can escape this, be it by dying or by an actual escape. If you don't satisfyingly answer our questions, you will enter a world of pain, pain you have never experienced before! This is the last warning!" The soldier's voice's tone was threatening and warning, and annoyed as well as he waved the glowing iron around right before her face. "Do you understand?"
All that Ranju could do was nod. Had she answered verbally, there would've been the risk of her making an unwanted remark that would've provoked the soldier to thrust the branding iron into her face, and she wasn't eager to take that risk. Now, the two soldiers both stood right in front of her, both wielding branding irons, and both seemingly pondering where to strike first, as she would never answer the questions.
"So?" The soldier at the counter seemed not to be amused. "That doesn't change the rules. You can't see the prisoner, not now, not ever. It's too risky, sorry."
"But sir," began Zoruka to explain. "a brief interrogation would be enough to prove or disprove out suspicions. Should the former be the case, it could bring us closer to finding the General than- "
"Listen, I'd let you, but the commanders are quite strict about NOT breaking the rules." Looking up from whatever he had been doing, the soldier briefly inspected the four people who had come to the Garrison. He shook his head and emptied the cup of tea, or thought he would. The tea stopped mid-air, floating right between his mouth and the cup. "What the- "
With a quick slash of Senqok's hand, the tea, both from the cup and the teapot behind the soldier, entered the latter's lungs, and started filling them. Only seconds after having started it, the waterbender went behind the counter, and examined the few books and scrolls laying around there, ignoring the soldier who vainly struggled to breathe. "The only prisoner is Ranju, apparently," stated the warrior rather surprised. "She's currently in- oh damn. She's being tortured right now. Come on, hurry up!"
He unsheathed his sword and charged forward, down the stairs down the hallway. Shizon too unsheathed his dual sword before running off to follow the Water Tribal, while Zoruka simply sprinted down the corridor without preparing in any way, leaving Kabura behind to reassemble her crossbow and load it, which took her only a few seconds, enough time for her to keep up with the others. Senqok had memorised the cell number their airbender comrade was kept in as for now, and stopped right before it to catch his breath after having descended three storeys, deep into the cellars of the Gaoling Garrison, waiting for the others to arrive.
Kabura was the last one to do so, and came speeding down the hallway towards the three of her friends who already had arrived, before crashing right into Senqok, which made both of them blush a bit, ashamed as they were. As she got up again, she remarked, "Good thing the Empire has to record each and every single of their moves, eh?"
The first strike had been painful, but this one, the second, easily overbid the first one. Had they struck the right lower leg of hers first, the lower section of her belly was second. She hung her head to prevent them from seeing her cry in pain, but also could she read what she got branded onto herself - the two characters she received read traitor.
"Ready to talk, perhaps?" asked the soldier she had attacked with her breath of wind. "Where is your last stinking General?"
"On the isle of..." revealed Ranju, looking into the soldier's eyes, before smirking and continuing, " ...you'll never find out."
"Well, your decision," stated the soldier with a sigh, "Orders are orders."
Just outside the room, someone could be heard speaking, but the soldiers ignored it. Ranju, however, recognised the voice, even if it sounded a bit muffled. Her eyes widened at the realisation of the speaker's identity, and she started smiling, oblivious to what the soldiers were discussing in a whisper. One of them was quick to fetch a third branding iron, which he gave the other soldier. Before she could fully comprehend what was going to happen, the door was burst open, shaking the entire room. The two soldiers, who had been about to brand the last clothed areas of her body, had missed these, and instead merely burned through the cloth nearby, before dropping everything to defend themselves against the attackers who came in, but the dual swords of Shizon's and Kabura's crossbow bolt were too fast for them to react in time. The soldiers were both hit, but they still attempted to fight. Senqok was quick to deal with them like he had done with the soldier at the counter, by filling their lungs with water he had drawn from a bucket of the forge-like section of the room, while the others cut Ranju free.
"Upon time, lads, upon damn time!" was all the airbender could mutter as she was carefully carried from the saltire. That was when they noticed that the soldiers' branding irons' last strikes had been enough for the cloth to be burned through - as Ranju was put down again, the last two pieces she wore began to drop, so she decided to rather cover these certain areas. Rather embarrassed, the other four all decided to look at the floor not to cause Ranju any further inconvenience. Senqok, however, decided to hand her both his turban's cloth and the sash he had used as a belt. The others took quick looks at him for this, rather surprised, and so Zoruka too decided to give Ranju a substitute, namely the topmost layer of her elaborate dress, for the Air Nomad's previous clothing. Ranju merely smiled slightly and clothed herself in the robe to cover her patching up the damaged underwear with what Senqok had given her, before Kabura too handed her a piece of her clothing, namely a belt. After putting on the belt as well, Ranju spoke, "Come on, let's get out of here."
Just after the other four had nodded, Ranju took off to the hallway, speeding her sprint up with airbending. Looking at one another in surprise, the remaining four decided to follow their new old companion. Up the stairway again, and down the hallway, they ran as fast as their feet carried them, only to end up more exhausted than before when reaching the closed entrance. There stood Ranju, answering the unasked question for the reason of her hurry, "Well, I wanted to get my staff back. Here we go."
The four had gathered with Ranju in the front, flanked by the Water Tribals, and the firebenders last, as they approached the entrance.
"I'm not sure..." voiced Kabura her concerns. "Should we really go out here? I mean- "
"It's way past curfew, don't worry." assured Ranju the others, pushing open the massive doors.
"You know, it's the Gaoling- " started Zoruka, only to drop her jaw upon seeing what stood before the building - about a battalion of earthbenders ready to strike. " -Garrison... "
Reacting quickly, Ranju opened her glider, urging the others to grab on, and instantly took off, with Zoruka and Shizon aiding her with streams of fire shot behind the glider. The numerous earthbender below were more surprised to encounter such a reaction than the five companions had been to encounter an entire earthbender battalion, missing the glider and the four people clinging onto it with each boulder they threw.
"I know where we need to go to be safe for now." shouted Ranju determined through the air-stream, correcting her course to fly southwest. "I know where to find Noki."
Notes and Trivia
- Spirits, why did I have to plan this fanon to be THAT violent and sick? Can't I have a break from this for once!? And why did I not complain about that in the previous chapter!?
- Zoruka's comment on rebellions being named after turbans is a clear reference to the Yellow and the two Red Turban Rebellions.
- Omnicide is human extinction as a result of human action, or, in short, murder of all.
- The torture Ranju suffers is known as Chinese water torture.
- For some reason, every time I read/hear/use the expression "upon time", I think of Newcastle Upon Tyne. I don't know why either.
For the collective works of the author, go here.