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|Friends and Traitors|
Previously on Energy Saga
When Zuko finds out that Aang got Azula off of Ember Island, he and his War Minister end up in a heated argument, in which he ends up firing Chan. Meanwhile, Migo makes plans to pop the question to Toph while Aang goes to the Southern Air Fortress to save Vameira with the help of Azula, of all people. He requires her blue fire to rescue his daughter. But when push comes to shove, Azula agrees to an alliance with General Zhao and Aang is taken prisoner after Azula shoots him full of lightning.
Chapter Thirty-Three: Friends and Traitors
Fire Nation Royal Palace, 121 AG
The Fire Lord entered his dining room around twilight, ready for the evening. Except for the pair of guards at the front of the room, he was alone. The guards weren't much for company, as they stood still as statues at their respective posts. Zuko was so distracted he did not even notice that the guards did not greet him with a customary salute when he entered. Tough times were upon him with the civil war, even though it appeared to be winding down. Tonight of all nights, however, he would not worry.
With the soft sound of footsteps, he found himself joined by Mai. "Happy Anniversary," said Zuko, beaming.
"I almost thought you forgot," said Mai slyly, caressing the face of her loving and still-attractive husband.
"Never," replied Zuko with a tender smile spreading across his fit mouth. "The dining room has sure changed. It seems only yesterday we had that memorable dinner party in here." A decorating crew had been in earlier in the day and had styled the dining room – as well as much of the rest of the palace – with streamers and opaque cardinal bulbs.
"I remember that," recalled Mai. "That was before we were married. It seems so long ago. Tom-Tom's engaged now."
"Really?" asked Zuko in surprise. "He's so young."
"Actually he's in his early twenties," stated Mai. "He's older than we were."
"But he's so much younger than you. Time sure has passed quickly..."
"I know how you feel," agreed Mai. "Look at Neinei – I remember only yesterday she was a baby."
"Yeah," said Zuko thoughtfully. "What is she now – a big kid or a young woman?"
"Neither," said Mai nonchalantly. "She's thirteen – in that awkward in-between phase. By the way, I heard you fired Chan."
"Yes," stated Zuko. "It was for the best."
"About time," said Mai with a smirk. "He was always such a buffoon and a womanizer. He didn't deserve to be War Minister."
"He also said he wanted to be made into an energybender."
Zuko nodded. "It did sound strange coming from him."
Mai shrugged. "We can worry about that later. Are we going to eat or are we going to talk about Chan all night?"
A smile drained away Zuko's prior uneasiness. "The food won't be ready to be served for another twenty minutes."
Mai nodded in acknowledgement. "Then I guess we have some private time to ourselves before dinner." She stroked her husband's dark hair just above his scar. After gazing fondly into each other's eyes for a few seconds, the Fire Lord and Fire Lady put their lips together in a passionate kiss. Zuko wrapped his arms around Mai's center and gently moved his arms down her waist.
"Hang on," said Zuko, pulling his lips away and rotating his head toward the door. "Guards, leave us." The two guards standing at the front of the room did not move. They continued to stand stiffly, hands at their sides and staring straight ahead with their skull-faced masks. "I said leave us," Zuko repeated impatiently. Still they did not move. Zuko released himself from Mai and marched toward the entranceway. "Hello – can you hear me? Get out of the room now." The Fire Lord waved his hands in front of their faces, but they remained as unresponsive statues.
Fed up with his subordinates' aloofness, Zuko pushed his arm forward and shoved one of them just above the chest. The Fire Lord soon realized that the armor was wet – and when he drew his hand back in he found a red liquid on his fingertips, which blended well on the fiery-red uniform. It was blood. Carefully, Zuko removed his helmet and found a slash-mark across the man's neck where his throat had been slit. He felt around the figure to find that the dead body had a metal rod which supported it, so it would stand as though it were alive. Someone had been here not long ago.
Zuko turned to face Mai. "This is not good."
Southern Air Fortress
"I can't believe that Avatar Aang has been taken prisoner," said Shao, half to himself, half to Nola.
"I saw it coming," responded his abrasive co-worker. The two of them had been assigned to inventory duty, and were drudging in one of a handful of storage rooms atop one of the lower towers. By order of the Air Lord, they were to dispose of anything they found that reflected the "undesirable" Old Air Nomad heritage of the place.
"We have to do something," said Shao, downtrodden.
"Don't talk like that!" snapped Nola. "Remember, we were both on the former Council of Elders. They've got their eye on us."
"Hopefully it won't be like that for long," said Shao matter-of-factly. "I think I know where Trinley is. I already planned to go to him tonight. You can come along, too."
"Yeah, great idea," replied Nola with definite sarcasm. "Join Trinley's 'rebellion' and end up like Feng Qu, Rensa and the others who took stands like them. Face it, the Air Nomads are over; there is only the Air Nation."
"The Avatar wouldn't want us to give up," Shao shot back.
"The Avatar's not doing so great himself, is he?" countered Nola. "I'm not giving up, I'm just being practical. If you know what's good for you, you'll keep quiet and try to settle yourself into a comfortable spot under Icarus's new order."
"Fine, be a collaborator! I plan to do something worthwhile."
"I don't call it collaborating, I call it survival," explained Nola. "That's my 'plan' for now."
Shao's eyes narrowed. "We also wouldn't have been in this mess if you hadn't let Vameira slip through your fingers when you took her to Ba Sing Se."
"Don't bring that up," said Nola, irritated. "I'm not in the mood..."
"Oh, I'm sorry if you're not in the mood, Nola, but I think that's something worth discussing. Also, why do you go on these spontaneous trips to Ba Sing Se and elsewhere? What do you do all the time?"
Nola batted her eyes; she had become clearly peeved. "Mind your own business, Shao. I've had to tell you that twice, now. I don't want to have to tell you a third time."
Shao had dreaded coming here when he had been assigned to do so, but at least he took comfort in having Nola's company. It was better than being forced to do the job alone, Shao had thought to himself. He was not thinking that anymore.
Aang's eyes blinked several times before opening fully. The Avatar felt his arms suspended in the air, and his legs spread out in a similar manner below. With blurred vision, he stared at his surroundings. Aang had never been to this part of the temple before – even when he was growing up before the Hundred Year War. The elegant and smooth look of the walls and structure outside was not present here. The room was harsh and dusty, with rocky textures that should have been in some deep cave – or at the bottom of a river. Aang felt a powerful urge to leave this place and get as far away from it as he could. He tried to move himself, but his arms and legs were tied up, with a strong, rough, unkindly set of rope rendering him in place. It would be extremely difficult to bend like this.
As his eyesight became clearer, Aang found that he was in a prison cell. He also found that he was not alone. He had a visitor – an unwelcome one. "Avatar...you're finally awake!" said Azula with mocking pleasantry. "Good."
Now wide awake, Aang shook his ropes back-and-forth in a rage, his eyes bulging. "You, YOU! I'll end you – here and now!"
"Calm down, Avatar," Azula told him with disregard. "You're quite jittery."
"You were my one chance!" shouted Aang, a murderous glare lining his eyeballs. "I freed you...because I needed you to free my daughter! And then..."
"Haha!" laughed Azula. "You're hilarious, Avatar!"
"You betrayed me!" At that moment, Aang felt the impulse to leap forward, rip Azula's head off her shoulders and burn it to a crisp so it would never wear such an ugly grin again.
Azula rolled her eyes, not daunted by his anger in the slightest. "Pipe down, okay? I didn't betray you."
"Relax, I can explain," said Azula, staring straight into his eyes. "We were trapped and there were too many of them for even us to fight off by ourselves. Zhao offered me a way out, and I had no choice but to take it." As he listened to her, Aang's eyes blazed and his nostrils flared, as though preparing to launch some gargantuan assault. "Will you just listen? Ugh – you're impossible sometimes, Avatar. I had to pretend to take Zhao Jr.'s offer or else we both would've been defeated back there. There would've been no chance of saving your daughter then."
Aang steadied himself, though his face still shone with anger. "Why should I believe you?"
"Hah! What a stupid question, Avatar! What choice do you have? Anyway, you may be trapped in here for now, but I can walk out in the open – and no one's trying to stop me. They see me as an ally. I'll come for you when I find out what happened to your girl, then we can all escape together."
Aang took a few seconds to ponder her words. "Does this mean you don't intend to overthrow your brother and take over the Fire Nation?"
Azula hesitated before answering his question. "Well...not in order to share power with Zhao Jr., no."
"Hmph!" Aang wondered if she made a habit of double-crossing everyone who joined with her.
"They said that I should give you this." Azula reached down into her pants and yanked out a vial holding a deathly-dark purple liquid within. On the front of the vial was the unmistakable symbol of the group that had pursued Aang, attempted to kill him in the Avatar State and later tried to capture him!
"Who-who gave you that?" asked Aang, barely holding back a whimper.
Azula appeared puzzled by the question. "Zhao Jr. gave it to me, but that's not really the point, is it? Don't worry, Avatar. It's not going to kill you. It'll simply put you in a trance and have you hallucinate a bit. That's actually good for you, given what's about to come..."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, when Icarus and Zhao questioned why I wanted to go to your cell, I told them I wanted the pleasure of torturing you myself. In order not to arouse suspicion, I am going to have to do what I said I came here to do. Sorry Avatar, but it must look realistic, so I won't be holding back."
Fire Nation Royal Palace
"Something is definitely not right," declared Zuko.
"I could've told you that," said Mai briskly. "How could this have happened?" she asked, trying to keep her voice steady.
"I don't know," answered Zuko, still examining the corpse of the guard. "Let's get you to safety – then I'll look into it."
"Really, Zuko?" said Mai, irritated. "You never learn your lessons, do you? Remember what happened when Zhao Jr. attempted his first coup and you tried to send me off to Ember Island. I came back and saved your neck!"
"This is not the time for this," said Zuko furiously.
That instant, four men entered the room – two through the main door and the others from the back door that led to the kitchens. Two of the men appeared in their mid-twenties, one looked like he was in his late-twenties or early-thirties and the last was a heavy-set man with long, unkempt, scraggly hair hanging from his head and unshaven stubble all across his scarred face. He seemed to be the oldest – perhaps in his late-thirties or early-forties. He drew two broadswords from his sides and brandished them maliciously in front of Zuko and Mai. One of his companions carried a wooden club lined with spikes and the other two assumed their fighting stances. Presumably they were firebenders.
"Who are you? How did you get into the palace? Leave at once!" Zuko already recognized the futility of these words, but said them anyway.
The bulky man with the dual dao swords swung them at Zuko's head. The Fire Lord ducked beneath the swing and kicked the man in the stomach, so that he dropped one of the swords, which Zuko caught and sliced a cut in the man's right leg, giving him a new scar to add to his already-wide collection. One of Mai's darts hit the man in the right arm, forcing him to drop the other blade. Mai had succeeded in pinning one of the pair of benders down with darts as the other one shot a fire blast at her, which she easily dodged.
Zuko, now wielding both of the dual dao swords the would-be killer brought with him, swung them in a circular motion and firebent a wave of flames which caught the spiked club on fire as the holder was starting to swing forward. Zuko then sent another fire blast at the remaining firebender. Less than a minute later, the four opponents were either dead or wounded, and Zuko and Mai were standing over them. The Fire Lord and Fire Lady needed to catch their breath, but they were both unscathed.
"I recognize them," stated Mai, astonished. "They're all from the decorating crew that came in here earlier. I must say, that wasn't a very impressive assassination attempt. Those guys were pushovers!"
"That can't be it," said Zuko, shaking his head. "There must be more. These guys could've just been pawns – or decoys." The towering Fire Lord advanced toward the heavyset one in the group, who was bleeding profoundly, but nevertheless lingering and cognizant, and grabbed him by the collar of his clothing. "Who put you up to this?"
The man looked Zuko in the eye and stuttered. "Zh-Zhang..."
"Zhang Sang," the man responded, essentially out-of-breath. "His name is Zhang Sang. The-the decorations..." Zuko released the assailant at once, uninterested in what his enemy had to say about his decorations.
Without warning, the ceiling tiles at every corner of the room crumbled down to the floor. Five brand-new men swung down, supported by thin strings. They were dressed in all-black, so that only their eyes were uncovered. Zuko had seen this sort of outfit once before – right after he and Aang went to the mental facility to meet his sister. Aang had chased one of the comrades of these new arrivals down. That had been Zuko's only direct encounter with them until now, although Aang had told his friend the Fire Lord about them many times. One of the men carried a mace, and a couple of the others could be seen wielding small knives.
Of the five of the men, the one in the center was the tallest. He looked down upon the fat man Zuko had just interrogated. "The fool...I told him not to mention me." The unknown figure's voice was muffled by his face-covering, so that he was difficult to hear well.
"Are you Zhang Sang?" asked Zuko aggressively.
The man lifted his eyes to meet those of the Fire Lord. "Your time is at an end, Zuko."
"Big words, pal!" Mai retorted, readying her weaponry.
"We'll see about that," declared Zuko, assuming his firebending position. "I hear you've also been following the Avatar."
"Nevermind that," said Zhang Sang, harshly, but calmly. "Today, our business is with you. What happens next...is not of your concern. Kill them."
The man with the mace swung it at high speed while another sent a tiny dagger toward Zuko's heart, which the Fire Lord deflected with a fiery punch. A handful of scattered pebble-switch-knives were thrown at Zuko and his wife simultaneously. Mai wasted no time in reaching for her own stilettos and threw them at each of her opponents. One suffered a chest wound that ought to have spelled the end of him, but it turned out he was wearing a chain-mail underneath his dark over-shirt. Zuko shot a line of fire at the man closest to him, who managed to dodge most of it. However, the stream of fire mildly scorched below his shoulder.
A stiletto flew toward Mai from the hand of one of the men who wielded them, but missed. "Oh yeah?" she yelled back at him. "Like hell if I'm going to allow you to beat me at my own area!" She threw one of her own stilettos, hitting him in the neck. The enemy fell, reducing the odds from five-on-two to four-on-two. Mai tossed another sai at the one to her right.
To Mai's surprise, he did not dodge, but reached his hand down, picking up the weapon in mid-air. With a single swinging motion, he threw it back at the Fire Lady, who evaded by mere inches.
Mai was baffled. "Wow, that's something I've never seen before."
Zuko turned to her. "Did he just catch your sai after you had thrown it and throw it back at you?"
Suddenly, the distracted Mai was hit in the leg with the mace, whose holder quickly pulled his weapon out of her body, preparing himself to strike again. Zuko saw what was happening and warded the assailant off with a mighty fireball. In the spur of the moment, a new stiletto pierced Mai in the shoulder.
Another unexpected individual entered the dining room. "Mom, Dad – what's going on?" asked Neinei. "I heard the noise from all the way down the hall."
"Neinei, run!" yelled Mai, shocked to see her daughter's arrival.
"You guys have a weird way of celebrating your anniversary," remarked Neinei.
"This is no time for wise-cracks!" Zuko snapped at her, erecting a wall of flame around the three of them. "That should give us some temporary protection. Mai, how are you?"
"I'm fine," she said reassuringly. "I can fight on."
Zuko shook his head. "No, not like this."
"I have better accuracy then all of them put together," asserted Mai. "Although I can't do the 'catch-and-throw' thing. I don't think I should try it."
Zuko looked tearfully into Mai's eyes. "Mai, you're bleeding. I want you to take Neinei, Viola, Lu Tenia and Prim-Prim, and flee! I'll hold them off while you all make a break for it."
"Okay," said Mai in a resigned tone.
"I'll stay and help you, father," said Neinei.
"Mom may be wounded, but I'm not. With my firebending alongside yours, we can take these chumps!"
"Neinei, don't argue!" said Zuko impatiently.
"Listen to your father."
Southern Air Fortress
Aang felt at peace as he flew under the peaceful glow of the autumn sky at dusk. As he clutched Appa's reins, Katara sat by his side and leaned her head against his shoulder, sharing the moment with him. Behind them, their three children rested on Appa's saddle, all having finished training for the day. Tenzin performed the trick of the spinning air marbles, while Kaddo and Vameira were laughing together. Soaring through the sky alongside Appa were Trinley, Nola, Shao, Feng Qu and Rensa, racing each other playfully on their glider staffs. All-in-all, Aang held onto a strong sense of contentment.
But then, out of nowhere, a blinding ray of light emerged from the clouds in front of the tranquil scene. At first the brilliant, radiant line shooting toward them seemed to fit right in, but once it reached the Avatar's sky bison and made contact, it became a glowing, expanded orb. It was Shuten Shogai! Avatar Aang opened his mouth in horror as the orb grew larger and enveloped each of them. One-by-one, the Air Nomads on their gliders fell from the sky. He heard petrified screams all around him as everything around him was incinerated. When the light subsided, Aang was no longer flying. He was standing in the center of a great plain – in what appeared to be the Earth Kingdom. Neither Appa, nor his family, nor any of the New Air Nomads were anywhere to be seen! The sky was now red, like it had been the day Sozin's Comet arrived. The tall trees and the grassy landscape were set ablaze. Hundreds of nameless, faceless skeletons lay on the burning ground. Aang was shocked by the onslaught of carnage before him. This carnage was all Aang's doing – and now he was helpless to stop it!
All of a sudden, his wife came to be in front of him. Katara did not walk to him like any normal living being; rather, she formed out of the transparent air, like a ghost. She first appeared as her full self, but then she started cringing uncontrollably, her bodily energy gradually seeping out. Although her energy was clearly leaving her, she was still able to speak to him. "Aang, how could you?"
"Katara!" Aang called out to her, stunned.
"How could you, Aang? How could you?" It was the voice of a person who had been betrayed and heartbroken, only ten times worse.
"Katara...I'm sorry. I-I..." Aang yelled to her in vain. Then he reached forward in order to touch her, but as his hands touched her spirit, she disappeared – and a black, gaping hole formed from her shadow, where her feet had stood. Like a blast of Shuten Shogai, it gradually grew larger and larger. Aang was sucked into the pit, along with the corpses and the charred wasteland. The Avatar was plunged into darkness, still lunging after the love of his life.
The love of his life...the Avatar had to go to her now. He had to find Ta Min. Avatar Roku darted through the palace garden hedge maze, enhanced by airbending, now that he was the master of all four elements. Finally, he found her. He approached her from behind, seeing her long, beautiful hair stretching down her back. However, when she turned to face him, Roku found that it was not Ta Min, but someone else.
Roku did not recognize this strange woman, though his next incarnation would know her as the dreaded Azula. "Hello, Avatar," this woman said to him with a malicious grin spreading across her thin face. "Expecting someone else?" She proceeded to point toward him with two fingers outstretched and generated a bolt of lightning. With his body fully-electrified, the Avatar left this past life memory behind and returned to his current incarnation.
The next part of Aang's dream was more lifelike than any of his preceding visions had been. He was back in his cell, although he did not have his ropes and could thus walk about freely. Nevertheless, Aang was content to stand where he was, not being in any rush to head off somewhere. Nola stood in front of him, at about the same height as he, and still sporting her traditional Air Nomad garments with the vermillion shawl over her yellow shirt and covering her shoulder blades. Even though she was older now, Aang still saw her as the young teenage girl who had come to him seeking airbending training years ago.
Nola frankly approached him with a couple loose strides. She spoke to him with an intimate timbre. Aang could not consciously decipher what she was telling him, but it seemed like she was guiding or directing him to do something. Aang was perfectly calm and trusting, so he had no reason or point to resist her now. Steadily, Nola held her arms up at an angle between their two heads. Then she knelt before him on a single leg. Nola went on muttering to him continuously and grabbed his forearms, placing one of his hands on her forehead and one just above her elbow. Aang still did not know what she was saying, but suddenly he was reminded of Sozin's Comet, when he used energybending to take away Ozai's firebending. After that, his mind wandered to when he had met Trinley for the first time.
The Air High Command congregated at the top floor of the central tower, around a table similar to that which the New Air Nomad Council of Elders had used during their prime. The Air Lord sat in the center, surrounded by his most-trusted advisors. Unlike the Head of the Council of Elders, the Air Lord was above the others in all respects, rather than the first among equals. Next to Icarus sat Paro, who had been tirelessly seeking his leader's approval for some time and now secured his position as the Air Lord's unofficial right-hand man.
"Now that the Avatar is in our clutches, all the obstacles are out of our way. We are ready to move on to other business," announced Icarus.
"I take it you sent word to the unknown organization immediately about him," added General Zhao. Zhao Jr. was standing in front of the table, as he was not part of the Air Nation.
"Not exactly," informed Paro. "They like to do things on their own terms and never left us with a method of contacting them. We assumed they would know we have him, since they usually know things."
"I suppose you're right," acknowledged Zhao. "Thanks to Azula, we have what we need."
"I wish she could have been turned over more smoothly," Gitsu uttered, slouching against a pillar with an arm and a leg fully-bandaged. "After my encounter with her, I need to go back to Ba Sing Se to recuperate..."
"Consider yourself lucky to be breathing," Zhao Jr. told him. "Most of those who faced Azula in combat when she arrived are not. Anyway – I'm going to need my latest technological shipment from the Northern Air Fortress."
"You shall have it," said Icarus reassuringly. "Down in the main hall there is a guard I have given instructions to show you where it has arrived."
"Excellent. You've build your country; it's time for me to retake mine."
"We are making real progress in our nation," stated Icarus. "We have disposed of the kooky spirituality, ignorant notions of pacifism and outdated traditions that defined the Old Air Nomads. It hasn't been easy, though. Many still cling to the nonsense idea that air is the element of freedom. This is what made the Air Nomads so weak. People cannot simply be free – they need to be ruled!"
"Of course," agreed Zhao Jr. "Congratulations, Air Lord. If you'll excuse me now, I take my leave." The Fire Nation general displayed an honorable bow before leaving the miniature chamber, accompanied by the stumbling Gitsu.
For several long moments, the room fell silent. "So, what are we going to do about him?" Paro asked aloud, now assured that Zhao was safely out of earshot.
"We'll get to that later," answered Icarus.
"Is it wise to wait?" questioned Paro. "He's stronger now that he has the technology from the Mechanist, which we allow him to possess. He's obviously planning to betray us at some point. It's a matter of who does it first."
"Hah – we only ever offered him the scrap pile that came from our factory up north," stated Icarus. "The best inventions we have saved for ourselves. Zhao has been of use, but when he tries to take us on, he'll lose!"
"Ah, I see," said Paro smugly.
"It's going to be a brave new world," announced Icarus. "And it must be ruled the right way: from above!" The Air Lord's last words were received with an eruption of cheers from his faithful airbending followers. Soon, everyone in the room who was sitting was now standing. Well, almost everyone.
There was one who did not share in the enthusiasm of the rest. They continued to hunker in their chair with their arms crossed, lost in their own thought. "The Air Lord is a fool - he's always been," they thought. "Drowned in his own ego, he has no idea of his part in the greater game he's playing. Now that he's captured the Avatar, he feels as if he's on top of the world. Little does he know that he's begun sowing the seeds of his own eventual destruction. I'll have to play along with him a little longer – make him think like he's actually in control, and that he's in charge of the situation. But before too long, it will all be over for him."
The syrum had finally worn off and Aang remained by himself in the gloomy cell, his arms and legs suspended once more. His body ached with various scars and bruises on all limbs from the session that Azula had with him. She had used various methods one would employ for aggressive interrogation. Azula had not desired to gain any information, but suggested as taking sheer pleasure in the antic. "Could she really be sincere about still wanting to help?" Aang asked himself. "Or is this a mental torture to supplement the physical – offering a beacon of hope just to snatch it away again?" That made sense, as it would satisfy her sick desire to watch people suffer.
With nothing else to be done, Aang took to meditating. Looking inside himself, he found his "locked door" at the center of his chi flow as wide open as ever. This was clearly a result of his indulgence into the powers of bending energies. Meanwhile, Vameira was helpless, Katara was energyless, the Fire Nation was in trouble from General Zhao, the rising anti-benders and possibly Azula, the Air Nomad civilization had become hopelessly corrupted and the Dai Li were plotting something of their own. Aang gathered that none of this would have happened had he not pursued energybending relentlessly. As the Avatar, he carried a great burden – expected to play the part of a powerful spirit, yet in the end he was only a human. Aang really had been toying with the world, like Roku said; not saving it; not rebuilding it. One after another, the voices of reason had come to him: Jeong Jeong, Roku, Pathik, Yangchen, Sokka and Yue. Sokka had supported and encouraged him in the beginning, but thought better of it later. Yue had taught him energybending, but she also changed her mind – after a powerful spirit reprimanded her for her actions. "Who is this spirit Yue spoke of?" Aang wondered. "Does it know something I should know? Perhaps...how to fix Katara."
Aang's train of thought was interrupted when the door to the room was destroyed by a small explosion, too loud for Aang to hear his own mind. The source of the blast did not remain a mystery for long. Out of the smoke emerged Azula, tall and confident. She had not come to torture him this time.
"It's time for us to leave, Avatar!" She pressed the index and middle fingers of her right hand together and fired four small flames to break the shackles that held Aang in his place.
Already badly hurt, Aang collapsed to the ground and could barely move. The shock had not been enough to smack the willful stamina back into him. "Ugh!"
"Quit your moaning!" snapped Azula. "We must hurry – I know where they're keeping her. Let's go!"
With the news that the prospect of rescuing Vameira was not so far away, Aang redoubled his strength. "I have to heal myself first..."
"No time! Do it as we go. You have two hands."
Aang stared at her disbelievingly. "Are you saying you want me to run like this, while healing myself with one hand and fighting with the other?"
"I thought you were the Avatar!" Azula rolled her eyes and darted through the broken door, not giving Aang a chance to respond.
Aang hung his head for a brief moment before rushing after his adversary-turned ally-turned adversary-turned ally as fast as he could muster. As he caught up to her in the darkened string of corridors around them, he healed his left arm with his right hand – with water he garnered from his own sweat, continuing to look from side-to-side in case anyone else was about. "So where is Vameira?"
"Your daughter's being held in the old changing room in the former nun's visiting quarters," Azula told him briskly. They had reached the main part of the temple again and found a pair of Air Nation soldiers in their way. They hastily extinguished this obstacle – Azula shooting a blue fire blast and Aang a purple one, hitting them in the chests before they could even assume their fighting stances.
Luckily, they already happened to be near to where Azula said they had to go. Aang had just finished healing himself when they arrived. Azula made a motion to turn the door knob, but Aang – not wasting a millisecond – tore through the fragile wooden door with a burst of purple-colored fire.
But when they got inside, there was no Vameira. The room was just as it had been over a hundred years ago – with modest wardrobes and dressers. Aang peered about the place as Azula stepped in behind him. "Well, where is she?"
"I don't get it," said Azula, herself confused for once. "They said she was down this way, but I could tell they weren't lying. I assumed that she would be here."
Aang paused for a few moments. "I wonder..." The battered Avatar spread his feet apart and felt the stony floor with his feet, reaching about with his seismic sense. "The floor is thin at this point...too thin." Aang jerked his leg and opened a hole in the floor with earthbending. "Come on!" he called to Azula.
Azula heard several pairs of feet behind her. It was clear they were being followed. She gracefully leapt through the hole after Aang. Then he closed the hole to its former position with earthbending once more.
"Ugh – it's dark down here!" complained Azula. "Where are we – and what's that smell?"
"The smell I can't say what it is," said Aang calmly. "As for where we are – we're in a cavern – the mountainous catacombs beneath the Southern Air Temple. I've never been down here myself, but I heard about them when I was growing up. Icarus must've discovered them somehow..."
"Uh-huh," said Azula, not showing the least bit of interest. "So they hid your little girl down here?"
"They must've. But the tunnels go down for miles. The area is enormous. There's no shortage of places she can be down here. Did they say anything else?"
"Not about where she might be," said Azula, downtrodden. "Icarus rambled on about some industrial projects he was initiating...and he mentioned a leak of some kind 'down below,' but nothing else on where Vameira might be. Well, if we're going to be searching down here for a while, I'd better give us some light."
Aang gasped as he put the pieces together in his head, then grabbed her hand mid-motion. "No – don't!"
"Let go, Avatar!" yelled Azula indignantly. "What is wrong with you?!"
"Azula, there's some kind of gas down here. We can't firebend."
Trinley had recently been practicing a new technique on his own. It had taken him a great deal of discipline and meditation in order to master and perform continuously. He controlled his own breath with stable precision so that he could last longer without the comfort of fresh air. After his failed attempt to battle Icarus and restore the Air Nomad Council of Elders, he had gone into hiding in the deep-down below of the Southern Air Temple. He did not know the next time he could safely go to the surface, so he had to breathe without taking in toxic fumes and prevent the gas from sickening him.
Trinley had perched himself in a rocky corner when he found Shao coming to see him. "Shao, it's great to see you. How is everything?"
"Not so good, Trinley," answered Shao, seemingly preoccupied.
"Just give me a quick run-down," instructed Trinley. "You shouldn't stay down here too long, like I have. It's not healthy."
"Well, most on our side have been hunted down through Icarus's purges. At this moment, I don't know anyone else besides the two of us who we can trust."
Trinley hung his head. "I see – it's come to the worst. I'd probably be better off if I tried to escape this mountain and make a life elsewhere. Another attempt at an uprising may be futile, but even if it's a lost cause, someone has to have hope."
"There is a small hope," said Shao distractedly. "The Avatar is free now."
"That's wonderful," said Trinley. "How did you find this?"
"Where is he?"
"I don't know, but...I need to find him."
Trinley shook his head. "Let him rescue his girl first, then he'll come to us. As a matter of fact, we should help him save Vameira. We'll find where Icarus is holding her and bring her to him!"
Shao shook his head. "No, I have to find Aang and speak to him immediately. I've found something out. It's awful – I'd rather not think about it – but it's something that he has to know."
"Is it really that urgent?" inquired Trinley. "With everything else that Aang has to deal with, I think it can wait."
"No it can't," said Shao as he turned to leave. "He has to know now. It could be most important thing he ever heard."
"This is a strange place, Avatar," Azula voiced aloud as they worked their way through the tunnels below the Southern Air Fortress. Although it was nearly pitch-black, they had both built up enough night vision to see slightly ahead of themselves. Even so, they continued to rely on Aang's seismic sense for most of the way. "What is it, exactly?"
"It's the old underground territory below the temple," explained Aang. "The Ancient Air Nomad civilization long before my time used to come down here to practice airbending in an enclosed area, as a challenge. Monk Gyatso told me about them."
"I see," voiced Azula thoughtfully. She could barely see cave-marked drawings on the rocks that showed men and women in yellow and orange clothing. Unlike contemporary Air Nomads, their garments were shorter and some of the men sported full heads of hair.
"Common knowledge of this place vanished ages ago," stated Aang. "There are other entrances to here without having to use earthbending, but I have no idea where they are."
Soon afterwards, Aang and Azula crossed paths with another wandering individual. "Trinley!" greeted Aang. "It's good to see you."
"And you, Aang," reciprocated Trinley, giving his old teacher a hug. "I was so worried when I heard you were captured, but when I heard you escaped, the news was music to my ears."
"I'm glad you're okay, too, Trinley."
"It's convenient that I found you now. You must be searching for Vameira. She's being held just down this passageway, from what I've heard." Trinley pointed down a skinny route off to the side of the tributary they were on.
"Excellent," said Aang. "Lead the way."
Trinley obliged for him. "By the way, Shao had something he wanted to tell you."
"It can wait," said Aang, focused on finding Vameira.
"That's what I tried to tell him," concurred Trinley.
"He was down here? When did you speak to him?" asked Aang.
"Not long ago," answered Trinley. "I've found all the major exits and entrances from this place. I believe he came in through near the Lower Garden."
Aang turned to Azula. "Azula, why don't you go check on Appa? He's in the Lower Garden. Appa's been on his own for quite some time now and you aren't able to bend here."
Azula was annoyed by the suggestion. "I'm not completely useless without my firebending, you know."
"I'm worried about Appa," mentioned Aang. "However, Vameira needs me right now. You'll do better out there where you can bend."
"Ugh – fine! Have it your way, Avatar. Just try not to keep me waiting long. I'm not the patient type."
Aang quietly followed Trinley through the damp, rocky cavern down a steep, declining pathway. Aang was slightly agitated when Trinley cautiously slowed his pace. Although it was nearly vertical in front of them and to rush down would be dangerous, immediate safety was not on Aang's mind. He wanted to reach Vameira as soon as possible, whatever had to be done.
At long last, a dimly-lit clearing was visible around the corner. "They must be some kind of non-flammable light source," thought Aang. Trinley did not have to tell Aang that this was where he would finally find his daughter once more. The Avatar readied himself for whatever lay up ahead. However well-guarded it might be, he had resolved not to let any force from the Physical World nor the Spirit World stand between him and his goal. Aang and Trinley exchanged a glance, looked into each other's eyes, and nodded. Between the old friends, it was a non-verbal gesture to acknowledge what they were facing as well as the fact that they would be facing it together. When they entered the vicinity, what Aang froze in shock at what lay before him.
Rusted, metallic shackles hung from the brow-tips of two parallel stalactites. The other ends of these chains were fastened loosely around the wrists of a frail, feebly skinny body. Horribly enough, this was Vameira. The combination of gas exposure and being poorly-fed took a great toll on her. Indeed, she seemed a corpse.
Standing right beside her was Icarus, the self-appointed Air Lord, beaming proudly as the pair of visitors came upon the scene. "Aang...I thought you would find your way here after your escape. It's an honor to have you as my guests today. Although – I can't help but think you came here for her and not for me." Icarus gestured toward the hanging form of Vameira. "Don't worry," he added, noticing Aang's expression. "She's still alive...for now, but you'd best cooperate."
"Not this time, Icarus," said Aang defiantly.
"Oh? In what position are you to make threats? In her condition, she probably wouldn't last another day down here. I could have suffocate Vameira to death in less than a second. Either you do as I say, or she dies. And Trinley...what a pleasant surprise that you're here too. Let me explain how this is going to work – you will allow yourselves to be taken prisoner, and I will move the three of you into a safe cell above the surface. You'll all be kept in...relatively good health there."
Aang and Trinley paused for a moment, not knowing what to do. After all he had been through, Aang couldn't bare the thought of Vameira dying now, right in front of him. Slowly, his daughter rose her hanging head and stared at her father, blinking her eyes repeatedly. Inches away from her, Icarus was in position to use his asphyxiation technique. In an all-or-nothing action, Vameira inhaled deeply, then turned to Icarus and blew a gust of air at his head, knocking him off-balance!
Aang seized the opportunity to lift an extensive chunk of rock from the cave floor and punched it forward, hitting Icarus square in the jaw. Getting up, Icarus attempted to pull some air from Vameira's lungs, but Trinley sent an air blast of his own to deflect Icarus's airbending.
"Let's settle this between us, Icarus!" shouted Aang, lunging forward and throwing another air blast. "You won't threaten or hide behind anyone else anymore."
"You're finished, Avatar Aang!" yelled Icarus angrily. The enraged Air Lord thrust his arms outward, sending high-speed air currents in all directions, knocking both Aang and Trinley off balance.
Aang regained himself with ease. He proceeded to suck hundreds of tiny droplets of water from the damp cave wall, then promptly froze them all with cooler temperature. As a rain of ice fell upon him, Icarus whipped his arms around to create a whirlwind assist him in evading the pieces of frozen water. Then he struck back with a kick around his front, sending a wave of air toward the Avatar, which Aang blocked with ease. Icarus threw another air blast his way as Aang earthbent a portion of the cave ceiling and dropped it on top of Icarus's head. Aang was blown back a few feet by the air blast, nearly having his head skewered by a spiky side of the cave wall, but Trinley caught him.
Trinley approached the fallen Icarus. "Is he...dead?"
"I don't think so," said Aang. "Just knocked out. Let's get Vameira!" Aang gathered up the water he had frozen before and liquefied it into an water whip. In a single sharp movement, he swept the whip above his daughter's wrist, breaking one of her shackles. Trinley picked a rock up off the ground and used it to smash the other shackle, which was already severely damaged.
"Daddy, you came for me!" exclaimed Vameira, jumping into her father's outstretched arms.
Aang bent over so he could give his daughter a proper hug and kiss on the forehead. "Of course I did, sweetheart."
When released, Vameira broke eye contact with him. "Dad...I'm sorry."
"Don't say that, Vameira," Aang told his daughter sternly. "You have nothing to be sorry about. I have a lot to be sorry about."
"We should go," Trinley interrupted. "Staying here is not safe."
Aang nodded. "You're right."
"Shouldn't you do something about him first?" asked Trinley, pointing toward Icarus's unconscious form. "Will you take his airbending?"
Aang shook his head. "Like you said, our priority is getting ourselves out of this place." The three of them climbed back up the way Aang ang Trinley came down to begin with. Luckily, Vameira had enough strength to walk on her own, despite the harsh conditions she had been made to endure. Trinley guided Aang and Vameira toward the Lower Garden.
Shortly after they made the detour, Aang glimpsed the form of someone lying on the cave floor up ahead. Despite the darkness, Aang could tell that this was Shao when they got closer – and he was not breathing. "Not Shao..."
"The former Council of Elders are dropping like spider-flies," Trinley remarked in a grim tone. "First Feng Qu, then Rensa, now Shao." Vameira gasped as she put her hand to her mouth.
"How did this happen?" Aang wondered aloud. "His eyes and mouth are wide open. It's as if someone froze his body while he was yelling something. That and...there's something else. It's...strange." Aang decided to read Shao's energy like Pathik always did. He placed both his hands on Shao's torso, right above where his elusive chi nucleus would lie. "This is strange," Aang told Trinley and Vameira. "It's not clear in the least. It's a blur – with all his energy paths scrambled. It's like all of a sudden the energy in his own body began working against him for whatever reason."
"You think that's how he died?" asked Trinley.
"I know it sounds vague, but that's the best I can explain it," Aang continued. "He wasn't killed by an airbender and the cause of death had nothing to do with gas exposure. Trinley – did you say earlier that Shao had something to tell me? What was it?"
Trinley shrugged. "I guess we'll never know."
Aang rose to his feet. "Let's keep moving." He placed one of his arms around Vameira's shoulder as Trinley went ahead of them.
A glimmer of light became visible. They were nearly there. "This will take us to a secret passage via the stall in the hedge maze," Trinley told them.
"I think I heard of this passage," Aang stated solemnly. "It must be the one that some of the Old Air Nomad monks and boys tried to hide in during the Genocide. Obviously it didn't do them much good."
"Hopefully we'll fair better," said Trinley with a hint of forced optimism.
In the newly-illuminated path, Aang saw someone up ahead. "Nola – is that you?"
Nola nearly jumped at Aang's greeting. "Av-Avatar Aang – and Trinley – and...Vameira! Oh, thank goodness you're all here. How did you come to be here?" There was a strange aura of discomfort in the way she spoke.
"Well, Azula busted me out, then I met Trinley on the way down into the underground, where I saved Vameira from Icarus, who was guarding her himself. Now we're going to find Azula and Appa so we can escape this accursed place," Aang explained to her. "Oh – and Shao's dead."
"Apparently he wanted to tell Aang something," mentioned Trinley. "Do you have any idea what that might've been?"
Nola shook her head. "So...where's Azula now?"
"I guess we'll find out soon," said Aang. "She was supposed to go up here to check on Appa."
Azula had reached the hedge area of the Lower Garden. Getting to where she needed to be had been all-too-easy, given the skinny trail of white fur that led to the bison's hiding spot. "Not very discrete." After turning a corner, she saw the pointed ends of two long, brown horns sticking up behind one of the many green, leafy hedges.
"Finally – there you are," Azula said aloud. "Found you – just like old times ..."
Soon, however, Azula found out that she was not the only one searching after Appa. A familiar voice came from the opposite side of the hedge she stood in front of. "Haha, we got him!" declared Zhao Jr. "We'll have roasted bison meat for dinner tomorrow, boys! Let's see the Avatar try and escape now."
Zhao Jr.'s celebration was soon interrupted by Azula running to stand between him and Appa. "I'm sorry Zhao, but bison meat's off the menu!"
"Azula," said General Zhao, shaking his head. "How disappointing. You would've done great by my side, I'm sure. Instead, you rejoin the Avatar."
Azula smirked. "Don't flatter yourself. You're not worthy to polish my armor, let alone conquer the Fire Nation with me!"
Zhao was fuming with anger. "Get her, men!"
Azula crossed her arms as she blocked five fire blasts at once, then sent a wall of blue fire toward them, charring several plants as Zhao Jr.'s men tried to defend themselves. Then she winked at them with a mischievous grin. "Come and get me!" Azula darted back the way she came, as Zhao and his underlings followed her, throwing fireballs her way, none of which hit her. She led them to garden shack with a trap-door which she leapt into.
Zhao Jr. had now fallen behind. "Wait, don't go there!" he called after them. He was too late, as the soldiers had followed her into the passageway. Realizing that they had already gone, he ran after them.
"Where'd she go?" asked one of the Phoenix Army soldiers. "I can't see in here."
"Careful," another cautioned. "There's gas down here. One fire blast could kill us all."
Zhao Jr. panted as he rejoined his warriors. "We can't firebend down here. Let's just...wait her out."
"Oh come on General Zhao," said Azula, about twenty feet from them. "It's so unlike you to hesitate on the brink of causing such great destruction."
"Princess..." said Zhao, open-mouthed. "You wouldn't."
"It only takes one little spark to get the party started," Azula said with a mad smile, gazing at the terrified faces of the Phoenix Army men before her. She curled her hand into a fist and jerked it backward, conjuring a tiny fireball behind her. In a split-second, that tiny fireball grew exponentially and sent an aquatic blue wildfire through the damp cavern faster than a hundred forest fires.
At that moment, Aang, Trinley, Nola and Vameira emerged through another entrance to the down-below from the Lower Garden. All of a sudden, the towering air temple in front of them was consumed by a light-blue explosion, like a firebent Shuten Shogai. The archaic towers of the temple fell to the ground and collapsed into ruin, along with all the unfortunate souls that had been inside at the time. The four of them stood together, bewildered, as they witnessed the destruction of the Southern Air Temple.
"Blue fire – that was Azula!" shouted Aang in horror.
"She must be dead now," said Nola. "Along with the airbenders in the temple."
"It's like the genocide all over again," said Vameira.
"This time, though," Trinley interjected solemnly. "The temple went with them."
"I think I see Appa," stated Aang decisively. Appa was crouching behind a burnt hedge.
"We should get on him and leave," said Trinley. "As quickly as we can!" Trinley rushed toward the flying mammal with Aang, Vameira and Nola right behind him.
All of a sudden, an air blast struck Trinley in the side when he was a few feet away from Appa's legs. Some of Icarus's men had been in the garden at the time of the explosion and were lucky enough to be alive. Even though their nation was in ruin, these Air Nation soldiers were ready to fight Aang, Trinley and anyone who followed them to the death!
Aang lifted a chunk of soil with his arm and punched it toward them with earthbending. Trinley regained himself and sent a couple gusts of air from his fists. Vameira used her leg strength to kick an air blast at the opposing forces. Nola retreated behind a hedge and did not participate in the struggle. The Avatar took notice of this and called out to her. "Nola, there's too many of them! We could use your airbending right about now!"
"I-d" Nola began. She seemed as if she was carrying something burdensome.
Just then, sparks of blue fire flew through the air and held off the hostile airbenders. It was Azula. She had returned from below and proceeded to hold the attacking Air Nation soldiers back.
"Azula!" yelled Aang, never expecting that he would be this grateful to see her.
Nola held her arm stiffly in front of her and looked uncomfortably from side-to-side. She seemed to think she did not belong where she was and wanted to leave as soon as possible.
"Nola, what is it?" asked Aang as he helped Vameira board Appa after Trinley. "You're acting odd."
Azula set up a wall of flame and bolted after them, leaping onto Appa's back. Aang was in back with his daughter, while Trinley was in the steering position, for now.
"Nola, come with us," said Aang urgently. "Get onto Appa – let's go!"
"No!" yelled Nola. "I can't go with you! I have to go now!" And so she turned back around and ran into the blazing inferno that they had just left.
"Nola!" Aang called out after her in disbelief. "What was wrong with her!?" Aang thought to himself. "Was she suicidal?"
Trinley grabbed Aang by the arm. "Aang, we need to leave! Appa, yip-yip!"
Aang stared back at the scene of blitz they were leaving. The Southern Air Fortress – the place where he had grown up – the most pure home he had ever known – was destroyed. Many of the airbenders he had trained met a similar fate to their predecessors. Everything he had spent so long building – a decade and a half of his life – was in ruin.
"Well, I have an announcement to make," Azula told Aang, Trinley and Vameira. "The once-proud House of Zhao, home to generations of men wearing ugly sideburns, has been confined to the dust-pile of history!"
"In other words, you killed Zhao Jr.?" asked Trinley from the front of the saddle.
"Yes," she confirmed. "I saw his body consumed by the blast myself."
"How you escape?" inquired Aang, still looking at the temple.
"Don't act so surprised, Avatar," she said, giving a friendly, but not welcome, punch in the arm. "This is me we're talking about."
Aang hung his head. "Our home, it's..."
"I know," Trinley reciprocated.
"Who was that other airbender woman who was with us before?" Azula questioned Aang.
"That was Nola," Aang replied without meeting her eye. "She was on the Council of Elders, too."
"I don't like her," Azula said, narrowing her eyes.
"I'm just good with people."
Having regained himself, the Air Lord stormed into the airship hangar, which, despite the destruction of most of the temple around it, was still intact. Icarus had escaped the underground and come here just in time. Had he hesitated even for a little bit, he would have been consumed by the carnage and been vaporized with the temple – or as he called it, the "fortress."
Icarus was not alone here. His faithful advisor Paro was waiting for him. Paro had been lucky by being in the right place at the right time. As Icarus graced him with his presence, Paro gave him a half-bow. "Glad to see you survived, Air Lord."
With his beloved nation burning all around him, Icarus was furiously hungry for revenge. "The Avatar will pay! We shall pursue his sky bison by airship and bring him down!"
"Yes, Sir," Paro acknowledged, offering a salute. "A small battalion of our troops is present in the airship bay and await your orders. Which airship shall we take?"
Icarus pondered this. "The new one at the end," he declared. "Let's show them our latest weapons!"
Aang and his companions did not have much time to catch their breath as they soared away before they noticed what was pursuing them. It was an enormous cross between a Fire Nation airship and an empire-class battleship, sailing its way through the sky, emblazoned with Icarus's seal symbolizing the south wind that could be found on all emblems of his "Air Nation." As a flying bison, Appa could always outrun the airships Aang faced in the Hundred Year War. Unlike one would expect from those airships, Icarus's sky vessel was catching up to them.
"I don't understand," said Aang, bewildered. "How is it gaining on us?"
"It's a new model that Icarus had the Mechanist make for him at the Northern Air Fortress," explained Trinley. "It's designed so the airship can be amplified by airbending to propel it forward faster. Airbenders send air blasts into the vents. The air currents, with this new technology, allow it to achieve incredible speed."
"I see," said Aang, scratching his chin. "Well, if they're powering it with airbending, we'll counter by making ourselves go faster with airbending, too! Trinley, do like you did when we first met. Stand at the rear of Appa's saddle and start throwing air backward to push us forward!"
"That won't be enough, Aang," said Trinley pessimistically. However, he went and did as the Avatar instructed him.
"Clear your mind," Aang added. "Do it like you're going over your first training exercise. Like I'm going to my wedding with Katara again..."
Aang turned to the only one among them who could not airbend. "Azula, you take Appa's reins. I'm going to help Trinley in sending air back. Vameira – you too!" And so Azula came to the front to steer Appa, while Aang, Vameira and Trinley sent as many air currents back as they could muster. For a time, they appeared to be pulling away from the airship following them.
But this early success did not last. The modified airship was too strong for them to equal in raw power. Rain had started to pour, soaking their clothes, so their Air Nomad tunics became weights pressing down upon their tiresome bodies. It was a long haul, even for masters like Aang and Trinley. Vameira looked like she was about to collapse from exhaustion. Despite all their efforts, the airship was still gaining on them, though not as swiftly as in the beginning.
Suddenly, a loud noise was heard from the terrifying technological behemoth. A long dark shape emerged from within and shot toward them fast. Missing Appa by about three feet, Aang stole a sideways glance at it and found that the object was made of metal.
"What was that, Trinley?!" Aang asked urgently.
"That must be one of Icarus projectiles," stated Trinley in a solemn voice. "They use airbending to shoot them out of their ports at high speeds." As he spoke, a second projectile was fired, this time hitting Appa in the foot.
"Appa!" yelled Aang in shock
Azula struggled at the front. "Well, that must've hurt, but he can still fly alright."
With another loud noise, yet another projectile came their way, this time aimed elsewhere. It was heading straight towards Vameira!
"Vameira, duck!" yelled Aang. "Azula, steer Appa down!" The projectile soared just above Vameira's head. If Aang's daughter was one inch taller, she would have been decapitated.
"This is no use," announced Azula. "If they're firing at us, we can't just fly around idly. We have to fight back!"
"How do you suggest we do that?" asked Aang.
"You come up and resume steering, while I stand at the rear and shoot lightning at them," said Azula informatively.
"But we'll lose speed that way," objected Aang.
"That's a risk we'll have to take!"
"Maybe she's right," agreed Trinley.
"Ugh – okay," Aang conceded. He stepped to the front of the saddle and grabbed Appa's reins while Azula rose to her feet and prepared herself to generate lightning.
"Appa, how are you, buddy?" asked Aang, now very worried. Appa's orbs were bulging from their sockets, his body was haggard and worn out and his wounds were deteriorating him. Aang had never seen his animal companion in this poor shape before.
Azula shot a bolt of lightning at airship as Trinley and Vameira flanked her on either side. The generated lightning hit the approaching airship, though not much damage was caused.
"So much for that," said Trinley in a defeatist fashion.
Azula, however, formulated a new plan. "Hmmm...I wonder. It's worth a try." The former Princess of the Fire Nation put her fingers together and used her firebending skill to separate the yin and yang – the positive and negative – apart to create a current of lighting surging in conjunction with her chi. However, she did not release it immediately.
Seconds later, a deafening noise signaled the arrival of another projectile. As hard as possible, Azula fired the lightning at the projectile, electrifying it in mid-air and sending it back to the airship from which it came. The projectile collided with the top of the airship and exploded. Smoke emerged from the opening – and the giant aerial leviathan slowed itself down.
"Hah –victory!" declared Azula. "They can't chase us anymore. They'll have to land. Looks like we've won the day!"
"They're falling back...we made it," an astonished Trinley said in relief.
"Yay!" yelled Vameira, who had ceased her airbending and let her eyes grow sleepy.
"It's about time," said Aang. "It was quite an ordeal, but at last we got out of the peril and Vameira is-"
None of them saw the next projectile coming as it flew in the direction of Vameira, Trinley and Azula, soared right past them and landed in Appa's saddle, ripping straight through it and piercing the beloved furry creature in the back. Appa let out a deafening grunt and plunged through the sky.
"Appa!!!" yelled Aang in distress.
They were falling. Falling to where, they could not yet tell – Aang had completely lost track of where they were. They had left the destroyed Southern Air Temple so long ago and they were traveling so fast the entire time since them. They could've been pursued across the world for all the Avatar knew. Then he saw that they were above a small island, not too far from a coastline. Aang, Trinley and Vameira slowed their descents with airbending while Azula shot herself forward with jet propulsion to reduce impact the impact of the fall. And what a fall it was – ending up quite the hard hit for Aang, Vameira, Trinley and Azula. All four of them, despite their skills, were badly injured and it would take a while before they were in good shape once again. Vameira was worst of all. Nevertheless, all four would recover and see another day. They would live on from their plight.
Appa, however, was not so lucky.
Fire Nation Royal Palace
For a long while, Zuko held his own against the four members of the unknown organization. Despite being outnumbered, the Fire Lord tirelessly deflected all their attacks and landed some of his own. But he could only maintain that precision for so long. Now he was wounded in his forearm, hip and thigh, and found it much harder to keep up with the fit-and-agile opposition. All of a sudden, a fire blast hit one of the men in the chest as he was readying one of his sais, but that blast of fire did not come from the Fire Lord.
"I'm back, Father!" Neinei announced proudly. "I'm ready to fight!"
"No!" shouted Zuko irritably. "I told you to go with your mother, now – go back and find her. That's an order!"
"I can help."
"As Fire Lord, I command you to leave and find safety!" shouted Zuko, angrily, as he dodged a swipe of the mace.
"No Dad, I'm not leaving." A smug expression formed on Neinei's face. "What're you going to do, banish me?"
Zuko winced. "Maybe I should when this is all over. It might make you more sensible." Zuko and his daughter sent fire blasts left-and-right throughout the dining room, which was still made-up for an anniversary dinner.
The heavyset man from the first group of people that Zuko had fought that day lifted his head up off the floor, apparently with some life still left in him. "Careful...the bulbs. Don't hit the bulbs."
"No one cares about the stupid decorations!" yelled Neinei, sending a wave of fire forward as her for tried to skewer her with a stiletto.
"Explosives..." the man muttered.
"Looks like it's our lucky day," stated the leader of the opposing group with smugness. "We get to finish off the entire family in one go! I think we've done all we can here. Let's let the bulbs do the rest."
As Zuko heard this man's words, his eyes widened. "I should've known."
The fat man on the floor cringed in fear. "Explosives...in the bulbs."
The four standing men in dark uniforms grabbed their strings and latched the hooks on the opposite end onto the ceiling. One of them lit a stick on fire, attached it to his sai and hurled it at a decorative bulb, which was itself surrounded by other bulbs.
The mysterios man in the center gave his parting words. "As you die, look at the ruin around you, Fire Lord Zuko. Soon it shall be the same fate for your nation. Then, the whole world as you know it – shall crumble!"
Zuko made an impulse motion to stop the bulb-bomb from being lit, but it was in vain. The area inside the ornament combusted, setting off the rest of the bulbs in a chain reaction. "We have to get out of here!" said Zuko, as he and the princess made a panicking rush to escape the vicinity.
The explosion, however, spread all around them, engulfing the nearby rooms. Zuko and Neinei ran as fast as their legs would carry them as their magnificent home collapsed and burnt before them. It was within these walls that Fire Lord Ozai had plotted to set foreign nations ablaze for refusing to submit to him. Now, a generation later, it was his palace which burned to the ground.
TO BE CONTINUED...
- Mai's mention of Zhao Jr. "attempting his first coup" refers to the events of Enemies of the Fire Lord.
- When Aang has the dream about flying on Appa with Katara, Tenzin, Kaddo, Vameira and the airbenders, that is similar to the dream he was having in The Search for a Candidate that was interrupted by Roku.
- The past life dream with Roku going to meet Ta Min in a hedge maze is the same past life memory of Roku Aang saw in The Energybending Teacher.
- The immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Southern Air Temple has been revealed on most counts. The outcome of the disaster at the Fire Nation Royal Palace will be made known in the next chapter.
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