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Previously on Energy Saga
In an unexpected move, Aang sets aside his past attitude toward Azula and goes to Ember Island to seek out her help in rescuing his daughter. Azula still is still her old self after years of captivity, but fails at first to see what's in it for her. Aang is likewise unsure if he really wants to have Azula as an ally, but knows he needs her to bend blue fire. After a long conversation, the pair leave Ember Island for the Southern Air Fortress on Appa.
Chapter Thirty-Two: Infiltration
Fire Nation Royal Palace, 121 AG
The sun had only just crossed the horizon and begun illuminating the landscape outside. Fire Lord Zuko had woken up and could not go back to sleep, and so he waltzed through the barren corridors and entered his ornate throne room. Donning his traditional royal garments, he had dressed himself today, for the royal servants and footmen were not yet awake. Fortunately, Mai slept like a platypus bear in the dead of winter. As Zuko lowered himself onto his chair, he found that he was not the only one up and about. With the distinct sound of echoing footsteps, his dutiful War Minister entered the chamber in a hurry.
"Chan?" asked Zuko, quizzically. "What's going on?"
"Sorry to disturb you, Sir," Chan answered, breathing heavily. "There is someone here to see you. They requested an audience. It's an airbender envoy."
Zuko looked confused. "I'm not expecting to meet with anyone from the New Air Nomads. What on earth are they doing dropping in at this time?"
"He claims to have urgent news regarding the Avatar...and the civil war."
Zuko took a moment to consider this. "I don't know what this urgent news could be, but send him in."
Chan gave his ruler a half-bow, then hastily stepped out of the room, returning seconds later accompanied by a tall man in his thirties with a bald scalp tattooed with the usual arrow sign. His torso was covered by vermillion-plated armor over a golden-yellow tunic. He stood tall and erect and wore a hardened expression, as though he were about to go into battle. "Greetings, Your Majesty," said the new arrival with a short bow. "My name is Paro. I come bearing news."
"Welcome, Paro," said Zuko in acknowledgment. "What information do the Air Nomads have for me?"
"It's Air Nation now," Paro corrected him. "I must warn you – what I have to say might be quite unsettling for you."
Zuko waved this statement away. "Out with it." He was interested in hearing what this unannounced arrival had to say, so he did not question what he meant by "Air Nation" rather than "Air Nomads."
"It's the Avatar, Sir. He recently traveled to Ember Island and freed your sister."
"What?" asked Zuko, astonished. "That's absurd!"
"I'm afraid it's true," Chan chimed in. "We received word of it this morning. Princess Azula escaped from Ember Island and the one who helped her was Avatar Aang."
Speechless, Zuko began looking up and down at the two of them as though he were dreaming. "Why would he do such a thing?"
"We don't know," said Chan simply. "But its also been confirmed by our own sources."
"I can answer that," Paro stated decisively. "When the 'accident' happened with his wife, it took a major toll on the Avatar's mental health. Naturally, he blamed himself for the mistake, but he didn't stop there. He has come to blame himself for the start of the Fire Nation Civil War. He's gone completely insane."
"Why would he blame himself for starting the Fire Nation Civil War?" Zuko asked.
"He claims that, since it started under your rule, the Fire Nation will no longer follow you and he helped allow for you to take the throne in the first place. He said they required someone else to bring them peace and that person was Azula."
Zuko gawked at Paro. "Do you realize how stupid that sounds?"
"I know its irrational," said Paro receptively. "You must understand that the Avatar felt torn between his human emotions and his duty to the world. He overwhelmed himself and now he can't distinguish between good and bad. He said his personal friendship with you was clouding his judgment and he needs to find...a better alternative for Fire Lord. Avatar Aang is behaving carelessly, and with the power at his disposal, he's become dangerous. He needs to be stopped"
Zuko pointed towards the entryway. "Get out - I've heard enough from you."
Paro stayed calm. "I'm sure you're a capable ruler. It's the Avatar who said this, not I. I understand this may be hard for you to hear. Believe me – it's hard for us airbenders as well. After all, the Avatar was responsible for training us and giving us our airbending capabilities in the first place. But now we must accept the reality of what he's become and act upon it. That is why we are requesting to begin a joint effort with you to locate the Avatar and bring him down!"
Outraged, Zuko rose to his feet. "I find it insulting that you tell me this story and ask me this, expecting me to say 'yes.' Leave now, or I will call the guards!"
Paro trembled as he saw Zuko extend his arms and a begin emitting traces of heat from his palms. "O-okay. Th-thank you for your time, Sir." The shaken airbender ran from the room as quickly as his long legs would allow.
"Sire, perhaps you should give his words a little more consideration," said Chan cautiously.
Sitting back down, Zuko shook his head. "Whatever that airbender told us, it wasn't the whole truth. He's hiding something – I could tell."
"Even if I could believe Aang freed Azula, I could never believe the story that man gave me. I've known Aang most of my life and that just isn't him."
"I know it isn't what you'd expect of him," stated Chan. "That's why Paro must've been right. There's no logical explanation for his rescuing of Azula other than going insane."
"As crazy as it must sound, I believe Aang had his reasons for what he did," said Zuko dismissively. "I would like to talk to him about it so that he can explain what they are. That's what friends do, they talk. If he really has had a full mental breakdown, I'm concerned for his well-being."
"Please Sir, put your personal feelings about Avatar Aang aside," Chan countered. "The country is in a fragile state: large regions of the countryside are in shambles, top Phoenix Army leaders are at large and anti-benders are on the rise. We don't need to add a rogue Avatar to the mix. We need to take decisive action – and that is why I have a suggestion of my own to give, regarding the Avatar."
"We must bring him in, contain him and use his potential for our purposes."
Zuko opened his mouth, bewildered. "How so?"
"Think of the possibilities if we arrested the Avatar and forcefully coerced him into doing our bidding. We could get him to make us more firebenders and use Shuten Shogai in battle. Our enemies would crumble before us!"
"Are you serious?" asked Zuko furiously.
"Maybe if it's possible, we wouldn't have to control him every step of the way. We can simply get him to make someone else into an energybender and they could handle some of it. I am willing to volunteer for this myself."
Zuko was disgusted. "Alright, that's it! I'm going to do something now that I should've done a long time ago. War Minister Chan, I am dismissing you from your position as my advisor."
"What?!" said Chan, shocked. "Sir, are you firing me?"
"Why? If this is about what happened between us when we first met-"
"This has nothing to do with when we were teenagers, Chan. It's about what you've done lately. Your advice has never been the least bit helpful. If I actually did what you said I should do, things would undoubtedly get worse, not better. Allowing your appointement was a mistake – and now I'm correcting it."
"But-" Chan began
"Enough! My decision is final. Go now, and don't let the ceremonial torches burn you on the way out."
An expression formed on Chan's face that looked out of place for him. It bore no trace of his usual smugness and he did not seem the least like the shallow teenage boy Zuko had met at the beach. This was a look of pure malice and utter hatred. "You will regret this, Fire Lord Zuko!"
Southern Air Fortress
"The both of you would do well to remember all of what we talked about just now," Chao Feng said to Zhao Jr. and Icarus. The three of them were standing in the Air Lord's private quarters. Chao Feng's ruthless, beedy eyes pierced the ego-spirits of the two powerful benders, causing discomfort with his very presence. It was a talent he had nurtured and perfected over a long while.
"We will capture the Avatar," said Zhao Jr. delicately and reassuringly. "The opportunity will come."
"You'd better hope so, for your own sake," Chao Feng told him coolly. "With that, I take my leave from this place. I have been re-summoned." And so Chao Feng promptly turned and left the room. Zhao and Icarus could briefly hear the fading sound of his footsteps.
"Who does he think he is to speak to someone of my stature in such a manner?" Icarus said in outrage once Chao Feng was safely beyond earshot. "Who do these people think they are?"
"They are unpleasant to deal with," said Zhao Jr. "But things have been quite beneficial. Without them, my insurgency would have been crushed in its early stages. They helped make your takeover possible as well. They also set up our arrangement with us working together. What they want now is the Avatar, in their hands, alive."
The Air Lord let out a sigh. "What do you suppose they intend to do once they have the Avatar? Why do they want him so badly?"
"That's not really our concern," said Zhao Jr. curtly. "Let's just give these people what they want and we wash our hands of them. It was very foolish of you not to take the Avatar when you had the chance!"
"I know, I know," said Icarus impatiently. "How are we supposed to capture him now? He won't return here – not after the terms of his banishment from last time."
Zhao Jr. took a deep breath. "Like I said before, an opportunity will come. Azula has left Ember Island – and rumor has it that the Avatar had something to do with it."
As the Air Lord beat himself up over his past mistake, the possible answer to Zhao and Icarus's prayers was close at hand. Night had fallen, and the Avatar was seated on his sky bison along with his questionable companion. Appa flew quietly across the sky on top of the Southern Air Fortress like a subtle, insignificant floating object. The bison would seem like a cloud, besides that it was slightly misshapen and moving too fast.
As they soared stealthily above the temple, Aang pointed out their target destination to Azula. "It's that one over there – the outer tower on this side." The Avatar indicated a tall structure within the heavily-fortified perimeter. It was slightly fatter than the structures adjacent to it and its only window was blocked by metal bars.
"So that's where Vameira's being held," Azula commented casually. "I'll bet she has plenty of space in there."
"First of all, we need to get our plan of action straight," said Aang, determined. "She's not just their prisoner, she's a hostage. We must employ the utmost stealth, and remain unseen until we find her."
Azula rolled her eyes. "Relax, Avatar. Your plan is guaranteed to succeed simply because I'm here. Whatever side I'm on always wins – it's a known fact!"
Aang ignored her and continued his explanation. "This side of the temple is heavily-guarded. Whether or not that's because Vameira is being held there, I do not know, but it wouldn't surprise me. So we'll fly around to the opposite end. We'll knock out the sentries on the fortified wall and climb down to the temple-proper. Then we can sneak through the grounds without being seen. At this point, we should avoid fighting as much as possible – and be quick and silent about it if we have some to do. In order to get to my daughter's cell in the outer tower we have to go through the main hall. I expect there will be many guards there and Icarus will likely be made aware of us at that point, but by then we'll be close to the blue and red door by then."
"Ah, so you want to take the long way," said Azula in reaction to the description. "And so much sneaking around...not that I underestimate the value of stealth, but with you being the Avatar and me being, well – me, I think we can easily fight our way through to the finish."
Aang shook his head stiffly. "From what happened last time I was here, I think Icarus would anticipate such a direct approach. I also wish to minimize damages wherever possible. A lot of Icarus's newer followers are good people who have been corrupted. I know most of them well, having trained them personally. Perhaps once this is over I can show them the error of their ways."
"Hah! You clearly don't have as good an estimation of your prodigies as you claim. Otherwise, you wouldn't be in this situation. But fine, I'll follow your plan of attack. It may not be what I would choose to do myself, but I'll play along."
"Good," said Aang, now relieved. He was most certainly not in the mood for a drawn-out debate over logistics. "There's where we'll land." He pointed ahead to a more deserted corner of the wall.
Azula nodded. "Looks like there's two guards. You take one and I'll take one?"
"Okay," Aang confirmed. "Appa, fly down to the Lower Garden, hide behind the tall hedges and wait there until we come for you. I'll see you later, buddy."
When Appa flew just over the wall, the two sentries looked up in sudden surprise at the giant, furry creature gliding over their heads. Azula and Aang jumped off and landed at the same point between the two guards. The Avatar and the once-almost-Fire Lord stood back-to-back and each faced one of the guards, who had now assumed fighting stances of their own.
Azula leaned back and kicked her right leg upward and to the left, sending a rounding arc of aquatic blue flames in the direction of the sentry, who, being an airbender, was able to dodge by springing himself into the air. Aang preferred to steer clear of firebending for now, since it was the brightest of the elements and most likely to let those far away know of their presence. Instead, he used a combination of earthbending and airbending, sending blasts of air at his opponent whenever he jumped and tearing rocks out of the ground when the sentry was on his feet.
After about three or four jumps, the airbender sentry slipped. Aang took the chance to aim a small boulder at his chest. The Air Nation guard panicked and tried to dodge. As a result, the rock hit him at an angle and he slipped again, toppling over the edge of the wall to a most unfortunate fate. Aang felt himself taken aback by this turn of events and looked down the mountain with remorse.
Aang turned himself around to find Azula too had knocked out her opponent, who was lying unconscious. Aang opened his mouth to say that they should go down to the courtyard, but Azula was not through yet. She walked over to the guard, bent over and grabbed his head. She then twisted it off to the side, snapping his neck!
"Azula!" said Aang, dumbfounded. "That was completely unnecessary!"
"I don't want to leave any loose ends behind," Azula explained.
"He was knocked out!" stated Aang in alarm. "He was an already-defeated adversary. He was no longer a threat..."
"He could've been faking it." Azula shrugged briskly. "Okay, so he probably wasn't," she continued after seeing the look on Aang's face. "But if he's knocked out, it means he'll get up again eventually, at which point he could come after us again or worse – raise the alarm. I say that it's better safe than sorry."
"This is not how I do things," said Aang darkly. "I never allow lives to be lost when it can be avoided. If you're going to fight by my side, you have to be on board with that!"
Azula gawked at him. "Excuse me? Excuse me!? Avatar, I've come to this dreaded place to help you rescue your daughter who got kidnapped by your own student. I'd rather be someplace else right now, but you did liberate me from my confinement. I'm here now because you need me to get through and open the door with you, but don't complain about my methods, Avatar! If you can't handle them, then I'm out of here – and your little girl can rot for all I care!"
Aang took a deep breath. He was willing to do anything necessary to rescue Vameira from Icarus's clutches. That included working with his new "ally," as much as he found her actions disturbing. "Let's just go get this overwith..."
"Good," said Azula, curling her lip. "I see you're being practical, Avatar. And more willing to compromise yourself. My, people really change over time, don't they?"
Aang cringed at her words. He wanted to get a move on, so he wasted no time in heading down the stairwell and striding into the temple area towards the courtyard. Azula was a few paces behind him. Normally, he would run faster – with enhanced airbending speed – but he had to allow Azula keep up with him.
Everything was calm and tranquil as they approached the passageway toward where the main hall was located. It soon became apparent that this was not the case. Five airbenders in armored uniforms emerged from two doorways on either side of them, so that Aang and Azula were soon facing ten new opponents.
"So much for a surprise entrance," Azula told him without skipping a heartbeat. She proceeded to move punch several quick fire blasts at the new arrivals with her fists.
Aang, likewise, sent some green fireballs of his own at two of the guards. Then he brought both arms in and submerged a third one in earth, so he was buried up to his arm level in stone and could barely move. He swiped his glider across, sending a few of them back against the wall.
As he continued, Aang took in where he was and what he was doing. He was at the place he grew up – the Southern Air Temple – with Azula, fighting airbenders. Aang could not help but think there was something awfully wrong with that picture.
The door to the Air Lord's private quarters swung open and the Dai Li agent Gitsu rushed in frantically. "Zhao, Icarus – the Avatar is here!"
"What?" asked Icarus.
"An intruder has entered the premises. It has to be him," stated Gitsu.
"Are you sure?" Zhao Jr. questioned.
"Positive," replied Gitsu. "He's an airbender who's also been bending the other elements: water, earth and fire. Interestingly enough, the fire he's been using to fight the guards...has been green. Something else to note: Princess Azula is with him."
"Our opportunity has come," Zhao Jr. declared triumphantly.
"What are you doing here, then? Go back out there and trap him!" Icarus ordered.
Gitsu raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"
"You heard him!" barked the firebender general.
"I must remind you two that I only take orders from Long Feng," said Gitsu flatly.
"Long Feng's not here right now," said Zhao Jr. "You listen to us!"
"It doesn't matter if he's not here!" Gitsu snapped back. "No firebender or airbender scum tell me what to do."
"How dare you..." Icarus cried out indignantly. "I am the Air Lord of the Air Nation!"
"That's right – show some respect," agreed General Zhao. "He is the Air Lord and I am the future Fire Lord – rulers of two of the four nations under a new order. We are both heads of state and you're only Captain of the Dai Li. You're nothing but a common soldier!"
"Spare me," said Gitsu. "Right now you're nothing but a common soldier, either. You're not a Fire Lord yet. And you two don't know what you're doing. The Avatar would have pounded you two into the ground when he was here last if we hadn't captured the girl for you to barter with him!"
"So what you're saying," Icarus interjected, "is that you captured the girl and now we have her. You're reluctant to do anything else for us, so you've served your purpose, then? I'm in a bad mood now, so that better not be your point."
Gitsu scowled. "No, that's not it," he told the Air Lord begrudgingly. "Of course I can go pursue the Avatar for you." The frustrated Dai Li agent stormed out of the room.
"Of course, the gimmick with the captured daughter didn't work to keep the Avatar away," Zhao noted. "But it's a good thing that it didn't. Now you ought to do what you did earlier on: hold the little girl at knifepoint and force him to surrender. This time, have him give himself up!"
Icarus shook his head hesitantly. "If he went to enlist Azula on his side, he must be really desperate. There's no guarantee it would work if Avatar Aang has gone insane. He's too dangerous now."
"It sounds like you don't want to stand up to him yourself," said Zhao Jr. with a frown.
"Do you?" asked Icarus plainly.
Zhao paused. "No, but I should mention that we do have a way to control him once we have him and before we hand him over."
"Well, as you know, our silent partners have many talents: their extensive acrobatics, combat antics, masterful stealth and somehow knowing everything that's going on at once. They also have great apothecary skill, and possess a large array of drugs, concoctions and venoms at their disposal. I managed to obtain an ancient and valuable syrum from them." He proceeded to hold up a vial with the symbol of the unknown organization emblazoned on it, which held almost-black liquid with a purplish tint.
"Why did they give it to you?" the Air Lord questioned. "They never told me about this..."
Icarus's objection went unanswered. "The point is, if we can administer it to the Avatar, we needn't worry about him anymore."
"What good will it do?"
"Too high a dose is, of course, lethal. But a smaller dose will render the receiver almost completely complacent. It ensures that even the strongest of spirits can be steered on a whim. You can even command them to torture themselves if you really wanted to. Once its administered to someone, they will no longer be themselves."
"I see..." said Air Lord Icarus.
"After the Avatar gets a dose, we'll have no trouble at all holding him until the unnamed group comes to collect him."
"The way you describe it makes it sound easy," said Icarus. "What is it has the wrong effect? The Avatar may become more dangerous than he is now."
"That's not a possibility," General Zhao stated firmly. "These people know what they're doing."
Air Lord Icarus was still concerned. "Applying it to him would be risky. It would be better if we had a way to hold him in place. We'd have to trap him somehow."
"How?" asked Zhao Jr. "I doubt Gitsu will be able to do that – and you can't trap the Avatar with fire or air."
Icarus thought for a moment. "I know, you do it – with lightning!"
Zhao scoffed. "Don't be stupid. It would kill him."
"Only a small amount," clarified Icarus. "It would be to stun, not kill."
"No, it isn't," countered Icarus. "Then-Prince Zuko took some lightning damage during Sozin's Comet twenty-one years ago. He was heavily injured, but he was very much alive."
"That's only because he directed most of it out! It was a rare fluke! There's no way to engineer the situation perfectly so that the Avatar would do it the same way!"
"Just give it a small dose then," suggested Icarus.
Zhao shook his head. "Like I said, it can't be done. Lightning is chaotic and that is the way it feels when one creates it with bending. Generating such a precise amount is just not possible. Even if it was, one would have to be careful not to fire it directly into the heart or any other vital organs. When one generates lightning, one has their mind dead-set on killing!"
Icarus scoffed. "Aren't you a firebending master? Just control yourself when you do it!"
"You fool!" Zhao Jr. shot back. "You expose your own ignorance with every word you speak. You know nothing of firebending. Only about one in a hundred firebenders possesses the skill to generate lightning. I am one of the few outside the royal family who can. If it is possible, I'll bet less than one in a hundred lightning generators can do what you ask. Such a person would be a prodigy among prodigies. We're talking really gifted."
"I don't get it," Azula stated boredly. "Why are we hiding?" She and Aang were now crouching quietly behind the staircase leading up to the main hall.
"It's better that we don't show ourselves for now," Aang told her briskly. "They've raised the alarm now and they all know we're here."
"Then it doesn't make a difference if we hide!" snapped Azula. "If they know we're here, they know we're here. It's as simple as that. Hiding won't do us any good. Let's just press on..."
"There's too many of them in the area for the time being," said Aang informatively. As he spoke, the rumble of footsteps could be heard around the square and up-and-down on the stairs above.
"You're the Avatar," said Azula. "Don't wait until they're all gone. Do something about them!"
"I don't want to cause any unnecessary damage," Aang voiced with remorse. "What happened to the sentry was deplorable. I don't want anyone else to die while we're here."
Aang sighed heavily. "In my days as an energybender, I could render them all immobile in an instant with an energy tremor. That would not cause them any permanent damage."
"But you don't energybend anymore, do you?"
"Because of your wife?" asked Azula inquisitively.
"Not only that," Aang answered impatiently. "It's just...wrong." He did not feel like getting into it in detail with Azula. Ever since they joined forces on Ember Island, all their conversations had been uncomfortable.
To Aang's relief, Azula accepted this answer about energybending. "Fine, then. Do something else. Use another kind of bending."
"I already told you that I don't want to harm anyone needlessly," Aang told her impatiently. The thought of the sentry he fought falling over the edge of the wall was still fresh in his mind. "We'll have to wait it out."
Aang was surprised to find Azula laughed at this. "Hahaha! You're a very strange person, Avatar! It cracks me up."
Aang twitched. He had to remain focused on getting Vameira, and this was not the time to be having this talk with Azula. But curiosity got the better of him. "What do you mean?"
"You're so eager to move on from energybending," she explained. "And yet you still cling to what brought you to energybending in the first place."
"It's this preoccupation about ending human life. You sought the knowledge when you needed a way to avoid ending my father's life."
"I didn't seek out the knowledge in the beginning," Aang corrected her. "The Lion Turtle came to me."
"Like it makes a difference!" she snapped back. "You were looking for a way out...and you found one."
Aang was now extremely annoyed at Azula. "I respect and revere all life, and I do what I must for this. It includes humans, animals and insects. I'm even a vegetarian. Of course, I wouldn't expect you to understand any of that..."
"Hah! Please – you may preach this value and pretend to live by it, but you are yourself, a killer."
"I am not a killer! If you're talking about the sentry – that was unfortunate, but it was as much because of his dodging as it was my bending."
"I'm not talking about the sentry just now," Azula clarified. "You became a killer long before then."
"I've never taken anyone's life," Aang told her irritably. "I have seen to that."
Azula shook her head. "You have blood on your hands, Avatar."
"No I don't! And how would you know?"
"I know enough."
"You told me about what happened at the Fire Nation Capital," said Azula. "I know you remember what happened to your wife when you used Shuten Shogai, but she was not the only one. Do you ever give a thought to what happened to those on the receiving end? There were two airships and one battleship full of soldiers. Zhao Jr. may have escaped, but I bet most didn't. Come on, Avatar. You must've known that..."
"I suppose I did get distracted about what happened to Katara," Aang said to her. "Of course a lot of men died on both sides of that battle. I saw that it was avoided as much as I could, but I also didn't know what kind of an effect Shuten Shogai would have. Like I said, energybending is wrong...and dangerous."
"Oh, I see how it is," said Azula in an exasperated tone. "You're blaming energybending for that. Well, what about when you fought my father? You made a point about not killing him, but when his airship reached the coastline, you sent a gust of fire and made it crash into the ground. What about all those on board?"
"I didn't see any bodies result from that," said Aang quickly. "The airship didn't seem to be descending that fast before it collided with the ground."
"You're so naive. Admit it: you're a killer! I know you've been a killer since at least as far back as the Siege of the North. You wiped out a good part of the invading fleet. What do you suppose happened to all the seamen on those ships?"
"I didn't kill any of them," said Aang firmly.
"They went overboard!" said Azula in a raised voice. "Do you just assume they were all lucky? Or really good at swimming?"
"Who are you to lecture me on killing?!" Aang would have shouted if they were not hiding. "You have no place doing this! You don't care one bit about the crewmen on board!"
"You're right," said Azula. "I don't care, but I don't pretend to care. I am what I am – I'm consistent. You're a hypocrite."
Her words carried a stinging pain as though she were revealing a terrible secret about Aang's past. But this was no secret. It was plain truth. Aang should have reflected on this himself long ago, but things had seemed so innocent when he was that age that he had never bothered to think about it. He had been thrust into a position as the savior of the world and he had always been focused on the lives he had to save. The lives that Azula mentioned were lives he had never seen with his own eyes, so they were easy to overlook, as though they weren't real. But they were as real as anything else. Life was life, wherever it was. Aang soaked it in for a few moments, and then calmed himself down. "Okay...in the past I have done things that led to people dying. This is not the same as killing, though. You have a point in that I've done things that led to the death of others as a consequence. It's regrettable, but not the same as murder. I've never killed anyone intentionally, and I never will."
"The way those people died, you might as well have murdered them. Do you really think it matters to those who were killed?"
"It matters to me," replied Aang. "No matter what happens to us, we can never forget who we are. In facing challenges to ourselves – and not being tainted by them – makes our spirits stronger over time."
"Like I said, you're a strange person, Avatar."
Aang opened his mouth to say something else, but she promptly closed it again. He looked around and listened. There was no one else in the main vicinity. "Alright, I think we're clear. We can move on."
"Finally," said Azula, sprouting to her feet. Together, they rounded to the front of the stairs, and ascended towards the large doorway.
"We'll probably find some more guards once we're inside," Aang forewarned. "Whatever we run into, let's deal with it quickly and move forward."
Azula rolled her eyes. "We'll face more airbenders then. Hardly a challenge." However, it was not airbenders who they found just behind the door.
It was Dai Li agents. Gitsu was facing the entrance of the grand room as though he had been waiting for them to arrive. He was flanked on either side by two younger-looking agents. In unison, the three of them threw punches and six rocky hand shapes flew toward Azula and the Avatar.
With a single kick, Aang shattered two of the rock gloves when they were a few feet away. Meanwhile, Azula ducked as two gloves went over her head and collided with the wall.
"You guys are out of practice," Azula said with a smirk. "You're not fighting up to your usual standard. As your leader, I never would have tolerated such slacking."
Gitsu glared at her, still in his fighting stance. "You're not our leader anymore. You banished us, remember?"
"Ah, so you're still bitter about that," stated Azula. She proceeded to punch a fire blast toward Gitsu, which caught the front part of his robe on fire.
The two other agents stood in astonishment as Gitsu got down and rolled on the ground, hoping for the flame to go out. But it couldn't go out fast enough. Desperately, one of the agents rushed to his leader's aid. He bent fresh rock onto his hands and began patting Gitsu's clothes, trying to quell the fearsome blue fire. However, as he finished putting it out, Azula kicked yet another fire blast forward and both Gitsu and his faithful underling were rendered unconscious. Aang bent a jet of water from a pouch he carried in his tunic and streamed it towards the last one of the agents, freezing it as it made contact with his opponent and shoved him against the wall. He was now frozen in place.
Triumphantly, Azula strutted over to where Gitsu was lying, lifted her foot, and placed it on his crown. She proceeded to rub his face ruthlessly on the floor. "That's what you get for trying to take me, you stupid man! I am not only the greatest firebender in the world; I am the greatest firebender ever! Second to none – not even my father! I am pure perfection! There is nothing with fire or lightning that I cannot do!"
"Stop gloating over him," Aang told her irritably and with a roll of his eyes. "He can't even hear you! Let's not forget what we came here to do."
"Ugh," Azula grunted, annoyed. "Why do you have to be such a killjoy, Avatar?"
All of a sudden, the doors behind the Avatar and the Fire Nation princess slammed shut. In the seconds that followed, metal barriers fell within all the window sills. Likewise, in the passageway on the far side of the wall, another metallic sheet started to come down. Before it reached the bottom, about fifteen Air Nation soldiers ducked under the metal barrier, rushed into the chamber and got into their fighting stances.
The man in front who appeared to be the leader spoke across the room to Aang and Azula. "Your quest ends here! You have nowhere to go. If you surrender now, we will not have to harm you."
Azula chuckled, as though acknowledging a mildly-amusing joke. "All the exits are closed off. You've set a trap."
"That is correct," said the airbender leader, as though stating the obvious.
"How stupid of you."
"You've set a trap. You've trapped yourselves in here with me!"
The man was bewildered. "What?! No, you're trapped in here with us!"
"We'll see about that," said Azula with a smirk. "Avatar – duck!" In a hasty, twirling motion, she leapt to the center of the chamber and sent a circular arc of fire to all corners of the room, which hit almost every one of the surrounding troops. Icarus's airbender followers screamed and wailed as she sent a second arc of fire at them before charging forward and punching blue fireballs at individual soldiers. The leader was the most unfortunate, for Azula stopped right in front of him to throw a fireball straight at his face before exploding it! Once he had fallen, Azula generated a long line of fire from both her hands and slashed these fire whips at the survivors.
Aang had merely stood there in awe as Azula brought down the whole unit of soldiers single-handedly. His eyes began to water as he felt pity for the hapless victims, who had suffered far more than he would have liked. "Azula..."
"A good old Air Nomad roasting at the air temple..like olden days!" Azula announced triumphantly. Then she noticed Aang's facial expression. "Oh come on. Has the whole world lost its sense of humor in the last couple decades?"
"Why don't you get us out of here Avatar? I took care of the rest of the obstacles." The way she said "obstacles" was dehumanizing, as though she were talking of objects, not beings.
Aang was speechless, but he did as she said. Unable to metalbend, he lifted a large boulder out of the floor and pushed it as hard as he could toward the metal barrier, knocking it down. "We'd better get a move on," said Aang decisively. "If there were this many of them here, it can't be good up ahead." He immediately ran through the opening.
"Hey, wait up!" yelled Azula, trying to keep up.
The two of them ran and ran down several sets of halls that led to Vameira's tower. They had a distance to go, but they were fortunate enough not to meet anyone else on the way. At long last, they reached the giant circular room that Aang had pursued Icarus to last time. This was right before the hallway to his daughter's cell. Aang was breathing a sigh of relief to himself. They had made it...all there was to do now was open the door with fire blasts, enter the cell, and save Vameira.
But what he found on the opposite end of the hall made him pause. It was no longer the way he remembered it from last time.
Panting, Azula managed to catch up to him. "What's going on?" she asked him. She raised her eyes to stare at the set of doors, just as Aang was doing. "I see. The door – it doesn't have blue and red heads. Well, one of them is blue, but the other isn't red, it's..."
"Purple! They're blue and purple!" Aang was dumbstruck. What could he possibly do now?
Western Earth Kingdom
The serene, starry sky reigned above the Omashu mountain range. The city itself was still fairly lit up, through window-lights in the houses and torches in the streets, but the rest of the landscape was darkened. For the most part, everything was silent, save for the howls and hooting of wolfbats and cat owls. The area was sparsely settled except for Omashu, and the sizable settlement of refugees, who had little to keep warm in the cold weather other than the company of one another. With tough times upon them, the refugees refused to give up hope. The world can always change for the better, and the Avatar, among others, had their best interests at heart.
Other than Omashu and the refugee settlement, there was also the tiny village at the base of the mountain that harbored the ever-elusive and ever-mysterious Cave of the Ancients. However, it was a spot on the map that nearly always went overlooked, especially when sitting beside the great Earth Kingdom city of Omashu. But that place was on the mind of at least one person right now. This was Migo, a resident of this area: lifelong earthbender and more recently a metalbender. He had just left the refugee settlement, where he had been volunteering. It had been an eye-opening experience for him, as he saw from many very real people with very real problems.
Migo was now a close friend of the Avatar himself and most of his older companions. It had been a while since he had talked to the Avatar or kept him up with him, although Migo had heard a rather strange-sounding rumor that Aang had gone to Ember Island to rescue Princess Azula. It was not the Avatar himself that was on Migo's mind at the present, though. After thinking for a while, Migo had come to a decision. It was an important and sudden decision. Before he went through with his plan, he was going to travel back to his childhood home, where he would let Brawki in on the news early.
He was going to propose to Queen Toph.
Southern Air Fortress
"There's nothing we can do," Azula said regretfully. "I can get the blue head, but neither of us can do anything about the purple one..."
"This can't be," remarked Aang. "I distinctly remember the heads being blue and red last time I was here!"
"Then they changed them."
"There has to be some way to make purple fire now."
"No one has more than one color, Avatar," said Azula indignantly. "Yours is green, not purple!"
"But I'm the Avatar," said Aang thoughtfully. "There has to be something I can do..."
"There isn't," informed Azula. "Your color is a reflection of who you are. It's controlled by your inner power and energy..."
"What did you say?!"
"It's controlled by your inner power and energy. You can't change it."
Aang thought for a moment. "Maybe I can, actually. I may be a green firebender, but I'm also an energybender. I'll just have to do some energybending on myself and I can change my color from green to purple..."
"That can't be right," said Azula, taken aback. "That sounds like...cheating...and I thought you weren't going to energybend anymore."
"I can't turn around after coming this far," said Aang stubbornly. "I have to save Vameira, even if it means changing who I am."
Azula's eyes narrowed. "I see."
"I'm going to need focus and meditation while I do this. You watch the other end of the hall and cover me," Aang instructed. Although Azula was not happy about the arrangement, she did as he asked.
Aang sat cross-legged on the hardened stone floor meditated, while placing two of his fingers on his tantien and felt his Chi in its natural cycle through his body. At the center of this flow was the center of his bodily energy's gravity. Years ago, it had felt like a locked door to him. Now, the door was wide open and instead of guiding the energies, it was making them increasingly unstable. Aang's chi paths had ripples running through them that did not look like they were supposed to be there. This had to be the result of so much energybending coming from him. After taking Ozai's firebending and granting airbending many times following that, Aang was already familiar with which parts of the body to go to in order to affect bending capabilities. The instability of his energy made it easier. Once the natural order has already been disturbed, it is not as difficult to disturb further. Maybe there would be consequences later, but for now Aang needed to get to Vameira by any means necessary. He seized one of the ripple-streams emitting from the formerly-locked door and pierced his own chi paths, bending his own energy for the first time.
Aang stopped meditating, stood up and punched the air in front of him. He conjured a fire ball, which was as violet as Trinley's eyes! "I did it!" Aang announced happily.
"I can see that," said Azula coolly.
"I guess with energybending I can change my color anytime I want!" declared Aang. "Enough dawdling - let's open the door!"
Azula stared at him loathingly. It was as if she greatly resented that Aang could do something with firebending that she could not. Nevertheless, she turned with him to face the doors. Together they fired simultaneous fire blasts into the correctly-colored heads. The mechanisms turned within and the heads moved to either side.
"Vameira!" Aang called out once the door was wide open. "Daddy's here! I'm going to take you home!" There was no answer. The Avatar walked into the room behind the doors, which was pitch-black compared to the illuminated corridor. His footsteps echoed in the night air. "Hello?" Aang was growing more and more worried.
"The cell is empty," stated Azula. "She isn't in here. Maybe they moved her after they changed the door."
"No...it can't be..."
As Aang and Azula stood side-by-side in the empty, dark chamber, deafening scraping sounds descended from above. All around the walls, huge moving objects were sliding down toward the floor. Soon the walls at the bottom were lined by twenty Dai Li agents, who had taken their fighting stances. At the same time, the rumbling sound of a horde of footsteps came from down the hallway leading to the cell. Two marching lines – one of Air Nation troops and one of Phoenix Army troops – were coming into the cell. Aang and Azula stood back-to-back, heavily outnumbered, and faced the small army of adversaries before them.
In front of the approaching crowd of airbenders and Phoenix soldiers stood General Zhao Jr., easily identifiable by his thick, black sideburns.
"Welcome, Avatar and Azula. What's wrong? You seem disappointed."
"Where's my daughter?!" yelled Aang in a rage. He had had enough.
"Ah, that's right," said Zhao mockingly. "Your little girl was here before, but we took her...elsewhere."
"Tell me where she is!" shouted Aang. "Now!"
Zhao Jr. ignored him and faced Azula. "My princess...I didn't expect to see you here tonight."
"What's wrong – surprised to see the actual me in action?" Azula asked him calmly and humorously. "I heard about that impostor you had with you at the Battle of the Fire Nation Capital."
Zhao nodded. "Indeed, but she pails in comparison to the real thing. I see now that I was wrong to try and replace you so easily. You must forgive us, but we thought your years in exile would have softened you, but you have proved us wrong. You've still got it!"
Azula almost blushed. "Yes, I know that I'm amazing, but it's still good to hear someone acknowledge what my firebending has become."
"I was wrong to think that my 'actress' could replace you, but I think we can get past that. Now that we're on the same page, why don't we make things right," suggested Zhao Jr. "Forget this foolish mission with the Avatar and join us. We can make things the way they are truly meant to be. We'll oust that traitor brother of yours. Then you can rule the Fire Nation – and someday the world – by my side!"
Azula stood upright and relinquished her fighting stance. "Yeah, okay – sounds good."
"What?!" Aang asked in alarm.
Azula rounded on him with a wicked grin. "Don't take it personally, Avatar. You offered me a deal and this guy here offered me a better one. Did you really think I had the slightest interest in recovering your kidnapped daughter?"
"But-but, I thought you'd..."
"You thought I'd what, Avatar – 'turned good?' You are pathetic," she said nastily. "I told you before that people change, but they really don't. The circumstances may change, but I'm still the same person I've always been."
"Well said, Azula," Zhao Jr. chimed in. "Before we make this alliance official, there's one more thing you need to do."
Azula stiffened up and narrowed her eyes. "What is it?"
Zhao Jr. approached her and put his hand around his mouth. He whispered something into her ear and she nodded in recognition. "That's it," she responded. "Piece of cake." With that, she stepped away from him and faced Aang, standing just under ten feet away from the surprised and confused Avatar.
"Not too much," Zhao called out cautiously.
"Relax, I got this!" Azula dipped her toe into the floor and rose both her arms up in the air in a circular motion. She extended one arm and pressed her middle and index fingers together. As she brought this arm around and pointed directly at Aang, a thundering noise emitted from her body and electrical streams began to generate.
All too late, Aang realized that she was gearing up to fire a bolt of lightning at him! With such a close-range, he had no time to properly redirect it. The Avatar frantically threw up his arms in a vain blocking attempt. As the voltage permeated straight through him, his innards were electrocuted and the sensation of internal burning began. Since he could not block it, this had to be the end for him.
Or not. Unlike the last time Azula had struck him with lightning, it did not reach his heart. Through some miracle was not dead, although Aang knew he probably would be soon...unless she had planned it like this. Zhao had told her "not too much." The Avatar's body collapsed and fell to the ground. Still alive, Aang was left cringing and twitching helplessly, the electricity still hindering him from within. In his sudden trauma, everything seemed to go quiet. Aang could still see everything around him, but his hearing became hear less and less.
Zhao Jr. smirked. "We shall make a great team, my princess. Together we'll work wonders."
Azula smirked back. "You're right, I will work wonders. After all, it's a known fact – whatever side I'm on always wins. You're a very lucky man to have me, son of Zhao."
Two of Icarus's airbenders came forward. They lifted the Avatar's immobile form and hoisted him over their shoulders. Then they began carrying their prized new prisoner away. Aang was in agonizing pain. As his mind drifted off and he lost his senses for the time being, he thought of how wrong he had been to trust in the "vision" he received. He had listened to the Lion Turtle about Azula, just as he had listened to the Lion Turtle about energybending to begin with. How desperate and stupid he had been. After coming to the air temple to save Vameira, he was now himself a prisoner. Now there was no one to help Vameira. No one to help Katara. No one to save the world. He had failed. He had failed everyone.
It was over.
TO BE CONTINUED...
- When Aang and Azula first see the tower where Vameira was taken from the air, the window had bars in it. Those bars were put there shortly following the events of Three Children, Three Journeys, when Vameira initiated an escape attempt by leaving her cell through the window.
- There will be multiple major deaths in the next chapter.
- Whatever you've heard about the names of Katara and Aang's children in the latest developments won't be applied to Energy Saga. Kaddo and Vameira's names will stay as they are.
- There was originally a reference to The Promise in this chapter, but it was removed for practical reasons.
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