|By Mark Ebson||Genre||Rating||Reviews||Updates|
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|Descent, Part 2|
While the five heroes were out to save Katara, the Palace was left nearly deserted, save for Mai, Ursa, and Iroh. The three were in separate rooms currently on opposite corners of the Palace. Ursa was preparing herself some food, at it was lunch time. Iroh was taking a bath, trying to relax - it was what he did best. Mai was in her own room, practicing her fighting.
To tell the truth, Mai missed the old Zuko with whom she had fallen in love with. Normally she masked this and pretended she didn't care what was going on with him, but it was all a lie. Mai didn't want people to think she cared. Caring to her, was weakness, and she did not want people to think she was weak. She couldn't help, though, but care about how Zuko was acting lately. He was no longer himself, and part of that meant that he wasn't paying as much attention to her. Talking to him was a nightmare, like talking to a whiny three-year-old. Mai couldn't even remember the last time he kissed her.
She heard a loud crash, that of glass shattering. Mai was practicing with stilettos onto a board hung on her wall. Apparently while thinking she missed and one hit a mirror. Well, it wasn't like she would be missing anything. She did look the same every day, and Mai wasn't planning on dropping her look anytime soon.
Suddenly, Mai heard another crash. This time, however, it didn't have a thing to do with those stilettos. It came from behind her, at the window. Mai turned around to find that it had been smashed into pieces, and saw a stone on the floor. She immediately walked up to the broken window, making sure to avoid the shards of glass scattered across a small section of the floor. Could it have been some stupid kid trying to see what he could get away with? Or was it someone with a grudge against the Fire Lord? Mai knew there were a lot of the latter, so it wouldn't have been a surprise to her. Either way, whoever it was had no idea what was coming for them.
Mai stuck her head out the window, looking around to see if anybody was there. Whoever it was, they were quick. There wasn't a single figure out in the courtyard. Lucky kid; if he was back next time then she'd be ready to beat the stupid out of him - if that was possible, of course.
Just as Mai was about to give up her search and turn around, somebody grabbed her. No, not somebody. A few people. One for each arm and another for the head. They didn't make a sound, and they didn't let her make a sound. If only she had that mirror now. Mai tried to move her arm and jab whoever was grabbing her with the knife she had in her hand, but these people were stronger than she was. They dragged her away with ease as she tried to kick around, not being able to move any other body part. But then another man grabbed her legs; she saw that his face was hidden under a veil.
"The Avatar's girlfriend was taken away," he said. The man had a very distinctive, deep voice, and Mai knew that if she got out of this situation she'd be able to identify him again in a heartbeat. "Figured that we should get the Fire Lord's."
Meanwhile, Zuko was mulling over the past couple days. He hadn't seen anybody who he didn't absolutely need to see; even then, when it was something important, he was reluctant to let anyone near him. If he hadn't been like this, Katara wouldn't have been kidnapped, and they wouldn't be in this situation. It was all his fault. Well, not really - this was all because of Di Ren, who still hadn't been found. The dirty little scoundrel managed to get away before anyone could search for him. Wherever he was, Zuko hoped that he lived the miserable life he deserved. He had his second chance when he said he regretted what he had done in the war and moved to the Fire Nation Capital. Zuko should have known he was lying.
"Look!" Zuko's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Aang's voice. He was pointing toward an area about a half-mile ahead, downhill from their current position. There were numerous small wooden buildings arranged in a triangle, with a large, empty space in the center where a mass of people was gathered. A large building was at the tip of the triangle, the farthest one from where Aang was now standing; he assumed that the leader of whatever this was lived there. The area itself was surrounded by a thick forest on the furthest two or the three sides; at that point visibility was gone. Everyone knew that this place was where Katara was taken. But they also knew that it was indeed a trap. These people were waiting for them.
Aang immediately began running downhill toward the gathering of people, much to the dismay of Sokka, who wanted to plan something out first. But Aang wasn't intent on taking time to plan; he wanted to get in there, save Katara, and get out. The other four tried to follow him as quickly as possible, but they lagged behind the Airbender, who used his skills to increase his speed dramatically.
Sokka wasn't happy with the situation as it was. Yes, he wanted to rescue his sister. Yes, he wanted to get in there as quickly as possible before something happened to her. But this wasn't how Sokka went about things, going in without any clue as to what you were doing. It wasn't how he worked, and it made him worried to dive in head-first into any situation. This was obviously a trap. What if everyone there was trained to kill them? Of course, he did have the Avatar, the Fire Lord, the most powerful Earthbender, and the best female warrior in the world on his side, but what if something happened to one of them because they didn't prepare at all for this?
Aang, of course, was the first to arrive to the camp. He whizzed by two guards, who had no idea what to do. Even seeing him coming, they had no chance at hitting him. The rest of Team Avatar ran even faster, trying to catch up with Aang as best they could. Toph Earthbended the guards into the ground, making sure they could get in without being attacked first thing.
Upon entering, they were greeted by a monumental stone statue of Ozai. His gaze, even in its stone version, was frightening to look at. Suddenly, they realized what this all was. These people were in support of Ozai, and were planning to take down Zuko. The dismayed boy couldn't take his eyes off the statue, the idea taking hold inside of him that people wanted to kill him. Forget that he was indeed well-loved, and that the majority of people in the world at that moment thought him to be the best ruler the Fire Nation had in centuries. People also wanted to kill him, and they weren't going to give up easily.
"Stop staring; let's go!" Suki gave Zuko a nudge, breaking him out of his pessimistic trance. Upon looking into the camp itself, he saw dozens of people running around, with Aang scattering them. He was destroying all the buildings, making sure to look inside first to see if Katara was there. There were a few people attacking him, but they proved to be no match for the love-driven Avatar.
The other four entered the battle as well, covering different areas than Aang. Surprisingly, they were doing well - apparently some of the camp's members weren't as brave as they thought they were. Still, nobody could find Katara. Zuko was beginning to have doubts that she was actually here.
Aang came up to a building which looked a little larger than the others. He could tell that whoever led this group was here; maybe something here would have a clue as to where Katara was. However, Aang didn't need a clue: she was right there. She was chained up on the wall, obviously to prevent her from Waterbending. There was a little bit of blood dried on her face. Someone hit her, Aang realized in dismay.
Her face immediately brightened when she saw the young Avatar walk inside. "Aang!" she cried out in joy, with tears streaming down her face. She had been there for mere minutes before Aang came to her rescue, but in that time they managed to chain her up, and hit her a couple times after she insulted the leader of the camp.
Aang managed to break the chains through a few moments of focusing on Metalbending, which he had been learning from Toph recently. The skill most certainly didn't come as naturally to him as it did her, and truth be told, this chain-breaking was the limit of what he could do. But Katara fell down to the floor, feet-first, and kissed him as soon as she could. After wiping the tears away from her face, Aang said, "Go find everyone else and tell them you're safe. I'll be right there."
She left and Aang followed her out, but stopped at the doorway of the building. It was the last one left now, and then there were just about twenty people left to deal with that were still running frantically around. Aang decided to burn this one, previously residing to Airbending for the others; this, however, was a building he very much wanted to get rid of. He shot a flame forward, holding it out for a few seconds.
Then he fell forward, unconscious, blood dripping from a small wound on the back of his head.
Katara, unaware of what had happened, was hugging her friends, who were overjoyed to see that she was safe. "And Aang said he'd be right here," she said. "I'm sure he'll be over in a few seconds." Seconds, however, turned into a minute, which was worrisome. What was he doing that was taking so long?
Sokka began to walk to the other side of the camp, where he imagined Aang was, and the others followed. Still, he didn't hear or see a thing. They were completely alone, and Aang wasn't there.
After everyone became more worried, Sokka inspected the ground. Was there some kind of clue as to where he was? He had to have gone somewhere. Sokka searched the ground for something, anything, until finally he came across a small collection of blood on the ground in front of a burning building. There was a large wooden board next to this spot, also with some blood on it.
"I think I know what happened to Aang," Sokka said. "Someone attacked him. The trap worked."
There was a moment of silence that Zuko eventually broke. "Then we need to find out where he's headed." And with that, Zuko ran off toward the entrance of the camp. He was going to find out where they were taking Aang, and the best way to get the information would be from someone who was part of the plan.
Zuko could still see five people running. Picking the one who seemed to be the slowest, he went as quickly as his feet could carry him to the escapee, easily outrunning him, but still going faster than he needed. When he finally did reach the man, he pushed him to the ground from behind, pinning him down as he tried to catch his breath. The man panicked and tried to squirm his way out from Zuko's grasp, but to no avail.
"I want to know where you're taking the Avatar!" Zuko shouted, and the man began to breathe even more heavily.
"I have no idea what you're talking about!"
"You're lying to me. Tell me NOW!"
"I don't know what they're doing with him!"
Zuko leaned in closer. "Don't lie to me." He lifted a hand threateningly.
"You can hit me all you want, but I won't be able to tell you anything!"
"I'm not planning on hitting you." Zuko created a small fireball. He was bluffing immensely, but it seemed to be working. The man gulped, weighing the options of dying or betraying what he believed in. The latter definitely seemed to be the better option to him.
"They're taking him to a larger camp, about twenty miles north in the middle of the forest. And if you think there were a lot of people here, try a thousand there! You're not going to be able to just walk in and get him like you did the girl." The man couldn't believe he had just said that. He had singlehandedly destroyed the plan which had been working so perfectly until now.
Zuko extinguished his fire, taking his hand off the man. "Go," he said. "I'd better not see your face again." Now he wasn't bluffing. He didn't need any more information, so he could do with the man what he wanted. But he heeded Zuko's word, scrambling to his feet and taking off as if he were being chased by a bear. He might as well have been, though - he'd probably have a better chance of escaping than if he were being chased by Zuko in a rage. "We're going to need Appa," Sokka said.
"Why do we need Appa?" Katara asked. "We can beat them to that larger camp. How fast could they be going?"
Sokka shook his head. "They beat us here, remember? They must be using something to go faster than we are. And besides, they probably know their way around that forest better than we do. We'd end up getting lost, but not with Appa."
Suki nodded her head in agreement. "You're right." He's pretty smart for a dumb guy, she thought.
They began running back where they came from, out of breath now from all the movement but ignoring that. Just ten more miles and then it'd be Appa's turn to move.
As his friends were setting out to rescue him, Aang was coming back into reality. The bleeding had stopped by now; one of his attackers had taken care of that quickly. And miraculously, he didn't feel like he was badly injured. In fact, he felt fine.
Except for one thing. He was chained down a box, and was looking up at the sky above. He knew he was moving; either that, or all the trees in the world were traveling backwards as he laid there. Whoever was behind this was a genius. He had successfully lured the Avatar into a trap and captured him like he were a rabbit-mouse. Aang couldn't believe that he had let himself be caught this easily. Hadn't he learned, after months of being chased, how to avoid being taken by the Fire Nation?
He was chained down to this box pretty well. The metal chains around his body were so tight that they impeded his breathing slightly; the ones on his arms and legs were making his limbs sore. The only part of his body that wasn't strapped down was his neck, and Aang was grateful for that. Not only did this mean that he was saved from being choked to death, but it also meant that he could have a look around.
He picked his head up, looking straight forward in an effort to see where he was going. There was only one problem: he didn't pick his head up. Aang tried again, panicking, wondering what was going on. His head wasn't moving, and there was nothing holding it down. He tried to remember the last thing that happened to him before he lost consciousness, thinking that it might have something to do with the situation now. He remembered being hit by something, something solid. And then that was it. He was out in one hit.
Could he be paralyzed? Did he have some head injury? It would have been great to know if he could move anything else, but unfortunately every other part of his body was restricted by chains and unable to move. Still, the idea of being paralyzed was a terrifying one. If it was true, it meant that he had failed. Not only had someone captured him, but they managed to keep him alive and useless.
An unfamiliar face leaned over the open wooden box, smirking. "He's awake," the man said. "And judging by the fact that he's not doing anything, we're in good shape." Another face bearing the same twisted smile appeared opposite the first. The second man laughed at the pathetic shape the Avatar was in right now.
"Look at you," he said with a grin stretching from ear to ear. "The protector of the universe, reduced to a motionless body. You're lucky I didn't hit hard enough to kill you, but we don't quite like the idea of another one of you popping up anytime soon." Then he spat on Aang's face, the boy unable to do anything. He couldn't talk back, retaliate, even do so much as wipe the disgusting fluid off of himself. Instead, he could do nothing but lay there as the two men sneered at him and the saliva made its way down his cheek.
The first man made sure to go out of his way and whack the Avatar with the back of his hand. Then the other did the same, and soon they took turns going back and forth, slapping Aang's face around the little space he had in that box. Then one brought his fist down onto Aang's nose, which blood began to flow out of. He knew it was broken, and he would have been screaming in pain, but he couldn't move his mouth. Instead, a few tears mixed in with the blood, and the guards found another reason to laugh. He was humiliated by them, a joke.
"Most powerful bender in the universe, crying like a baby!" one shouted. If Aang could move, he would have shown them what "most powerful bender in the universe" meant. But for whatever reason, he was stuck in this box, subject to whatever method of torture these two men decided to apply to a thirteen-year-old boy.
"You know what? I think I'm feeling a little crazy today!" said the same man who broke his nose. "I'm going to challenge the most powerful bender in the universe to an Agni Kai! What's that? You accept?" He put his hand to his ear, leaning in as if expecting a response from Aang. He grinned, shouting "Fantastic!" Then he flicked a small bit of fire at Aang, which hit his chin. Thankfully, it was covered in wet blood, so he didn't receive a scar, but the boy still felt the heat. He would have twinged if he could. But he couldn't.
As Katara reached the Palace, she was ready to collapse. It wasn't that she cared about having to run, but this was miles upon miles in not too long a period of time. And not only was the running putting stress on her, but through this entire time she was worried sick about Aang. She knew she was worried more than anyone else; it wasn't that nobody was worried but her, but she loved him. She had no idea what they would do to him, maybe if they had killed him. Would she ever see him again? Katara couldn't bear the thought of the answer to that being no.
It was this that kept her going past what she thought would be possible for her. She didn't care that her legs were unbelievably sore, or that she could barely breathe. She just cared that someone she loved was in danger, and that she needed to do something about it.
Luckily, nothing had happened to Appa while they were gone. It seemed like their attackers had completely forgotten about him. Well, they left one very important member of Team Avatar out of their plan. Katara climbed on him, as relieved as anyone else was. Finally, they had a break from being on their feet. But now they had thirty miles to travel; even if Appa could go fast, whoever had Aang could go fast as well. They were probably already at the larger camp by now.
Sokka was intrigued as to how the Firebenders moved so quickly. There was no way they could have run so fast; he knew that he and his friends were pretty fast runners. There must have been some sort of device involved, one that could carry someone across the forest floor. Perhaps when they reached the camp, he would try and find out how they got around. Although he hated some of the Firebenders, he certainly admired their technological prowess...
Katara was looking frantically around the trees. Nothing but a wall of dark green was visible under her, though, and she was quickly beginning to lose hope. Every time she started to feel like that, however, she immediately thought to herself, "Keep looking. He's out there." She thought it over and over, and it boosted her confidence a little until just moments later, when she would again feel hopeless. Her emotions were fluctuating wildly, from hopeless and dejected to confident and persistent, and back again. It was an exhausting process.
Even with Katara's vigilant watching, however, it was Suki that spotted a sign to the camp's location. Katara wasn't facing the right direction to see it; even so, it would have been difficult to see. A small bit of smoke was rising from the trees - not much, though; if there was fire there, it wasn't much. Whoever was there obviously wasn't trying to be noticed.
"I found something," Suki whispered. She was speaking so quietly because she was afraid that they would be heard, and signaled the others to do so as well. "There's a tiny bit of smoke rising from those trees over there. I think that might be it."
"We should land a little farther off," Zuko replied. "Who knows how big that place is? We can't afford to land right in the middle of it."
The others nodded in agreement. Katara directed Appa so that they could land just about two miles away from where they saw the smoke. There wasn't a single person in sight where they had landed, but Toph wasn't too happy. Being blind while on Appa, she wasn't sure how far they landed, or how high they were flying. If they flew too close to the trees, she was afraid that somebody could have spotted Appa, the enormous bison in the sky. If that happened, it was all over for them.
They did stay where they had landed for a full twenty minutes, totally silent. Everyone was sharing the same fears as Toph, and they weren't going to blow what could be their only opportunity to save Aang. Nobody came, however. Either someone was plotting how to attack them, or they were safe. Sokka assumed the latter after this extended period of silence had gone on long enough. He wanted to plan how to get Aang back safely, and waiting around just in case somebody was going to attack them was not going to help.
He summoned the rest of his friends to gather up and start planning. "We need to get in there," he said. "Blend in. Pretend like we belong, and then at the right moment, find Aang and free him."
"I can't go in there," Zuko said. "They'll recognize me right off." He pointed to his scar, which confirmed his identity as the Zuko the Fire Lord to any person in the Fire Nation.
"I won't be able to go in there, either," Katara said. "They captured me first to get Aang. They know who I am."
"What if they know who all of us are?" Toph wondered.
Everyone fell silent for a few seconds.
"We'll need some sort of disguise," Sokka answered. "At least just change our looks slightly so that even if we look familiar, we don't look exactly like us."
"I can sneak into the place," Suki said. "I'm sure they don't know me as well as you four."
"Wait!" Zuko said. "All of you aren't even wearing Fire Nation clothes. You can't walk in there with some Earth Kingdom or Water Tribe outfit and expect to 'blend in'."
"Well, if anything," Sokka replied, "you can give me your Fire Nation stuff. We're not that different as far as size goes, so they'll fit me." Zuko agreed, and the two exchanged shirts, then pants. Katara looked away when her brother took his off, although she couldn't help but noticing that Suki didn't seem to make any effort not to look.
"I can go in tonight and steal some clothes for you," Sokka said to Suki as he let his hair down from its traditional Water Tribe style. "Hopefully I can get in when there aren't too many people around." Everyone else nodded in agreement, hoping that he knew what he was doing. Not only for him, but for Aang and all of them, he had better have known what he was doing.
Sokka wished he didn't have to be so quiet as he made his way across two miles of forest. However, he couldn't do anything, make any noise that would allow him to be found as he tried to infiltrate the camp. He didn't even walk as he went across; the fallen branches and leaves would crackle loudly and give him away, and somebody could have easily heard. Instead, he only moved by climbing the branches, trying his best not to rustle leaves that were still on the trees. It was mid-October, and there weren't quite as many as normal, but there was still the possibility of making a substantial noise that could be heard by others.
By the time Sokka reached the camp, it was nearly midnight. The sky was pitch black; clouds covered the sky so that the world was truly dark. The light of the stars and moon did not reach the ground, and the only light came from fires burning at the camp. Sokka let himself fall from a lower branch, arms numb and exhausted from the climbing. He wished he could have some time to rest, but there was none to waste. After just seconds of relief he began running toward the source of the light.
As he came closer to the edges of the camp, Sokka began to realize that it was not guarded. He began to have a suspicion that the guards were hidden somewhere, ready to attack. He slowed down, looking frantically first behind trees, then on the ground, then up in the highest branches, trying to find the hidden men ready to attack him. But none were there, and slowly, skeptically, he continued to move in. Perhaps the disguise was working.
After entering a few empty one-room "houses", Sokka found one with clothes belonging to a woman. He took some that were lying on the bed; they seemed like they would fit Suki perfectly-
"He's moving!" a voice shouted. Sokka's eyes widened. He had been caught; someone had realized that he was not supposed to be there. Well, he wasn't going down with a fight. Whoever had drawn attention to him was about to feel a world of pain as Sokka turned around to face...
Nobody. There wasn't a single person to be seen. Was he going crazy, hearing things? How could he have imagined someone? Or, were they waiting for him to walk out of the room so they could surprise him? Sokka left the room, anticipating an attack, but none came.
"This is so weird," he mumbled to himself.
Suddenly, a collective cheer from what sounded like a large crowd erupted. It came from the source of the bright fire, at the very center of the camp. Sokka ran toward this enormous gathering, shocked that he hadn't noticed it before. He was so paranoid about being captured that he didn't pay attention to anything that far away.
The cheering and hollering and shouting, once it started, continued without falter. The cheers only grew louder when shouts of "Me next!" and "It's my turn!" surfaced among the otherwise unintelligible noise. Sokka was bewildered as to what could have been happening. He reached the border of the crowd, unable to see as people were standing on their toes and climbing on top of each other to get a good view of the event.
Sokka dropped the clothes and started to push through the crowd without making it obvious. He would slip in between what small spaces there were near people, eventually making his way to the front without incident. And what he saw was an image he would never forget.
Aang was there. He thought it would be good to find Aang, but this was a different situation. Aang had bruises all over his body; his nose was obviously broken, and there was dried-up blood from the nose all over his lower face. He was not wearing anything but underwear, and he was chained to a board of wood that stood vertically. He didn't seem to be fully coherent, as if he were drugged or something; people were throwing things at him and all he did was slowly stir, trying to look at the culprit.
The young boy was being treated as if he were inhuman, a monster. People were throwing things at him, mostly sticks that were on the ground, but Sokka saw a stone graze Aang's foot. Some people came up and slapped him, and all were taunting him with "You're the Avatar, you saved the world, why can't you save yourself!", "All hail the almighty Avatar!", and other wicked things. Sokka stared in disbelief, shock, and horror, frozen to the ground and not knowing what to do.
Then a hand tapped him forcibly, giving him a little push. "You!" a man shouted, trying to make his voice heard above the wild yelling of the crowd. "It's your lucky day!" Then the man shoved a bottle in Sokka's hands, pointing at Aang. Sokka stared at the bottle for a moment, wondering what was inside. "What exactly is this?" he asked the man, hoping that the answer was something harmless.
"It'll keep him paralyzed, kid," he replied. "We don't want him breaking free now that we have him for good." Once again the man pointed to the Avatar, and Sokka walked over to him. He uncapped the bottle, looking into Aang's face. Aang recognized Sokka even through his disguise, and tried his best to give a look that would beg for him not to do this. Sokka knew him well enough to understand it, even though the Avatar had a limited range of motion. He wondered if he could just not give him the drug, break him free and escape with his friends. But there were too many enemies around him; it would never work. And although it killed him to do it, Sokka held Aang's face up and tipped the bottle so that the contents poured into Aang's mouth.
And as Aang quickly lost consciousness, both of them knew that every day it took to save the Avatar was a day that he would suffer more. But for now, it all faded to black.
|New Beginnings • What Happened to Ursa • Reunion • Omashu Attacked • Ozai's Followers • Descent, Part 1 • Descent, Part 2|
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