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June 25, 2013
Previously in Air
Prepare for battle.
Chapter 71: Purpose
The words of her mentors echoed around Min just as they had all through her childhood years, huddling on the hearth, soaking in every ounce of warmth her haggard body could.
"There once live a gracious Prince–" Lo would begin.
"Wise and farsighted beyond his years," Li would add.
"His country was embroiled in a bitter war, but he sought new ways to end it."
"He had a plan, but he needed someone to implement it. Someone special–"
"And true." Their voices would join together then, gazing down at her with determination burning in their eyes.
"The Prince, after years of searching, discovered a small waif."
"She lived in desolation and poverty, in death and misfortune."
"But she was perfect," the old women would say in unison and the young Min's chest would burst with pride and joy.
"The Prince chose her," they continued. "The Prince took the Waif from despair."
"He gave her comforts of life, a home–"
"But most of all–"
"A purpose." Min's lips curled up as she spoke those words now, her eyes lit with determination.
This was something she could do for him, this was a task she could complete. This was a way she could grant him the victory he sought.
Her gaze wandered to her bare wrist, and the jagged scar wrapped round like a bracelet, a constant reminder that even her powers were not omnipotent. So long had she struggled to master these unnamed forgotten arts, and yet even she could not grant her master's true desire. Even she could not return his firebending to him.
She was not a bender. That was not the process of her skill. She could not merely flick her wrist and command a person's internal system to twist. It took time, effort and life force. Only through the lost language shared between mortals and spirits at the beginning of time could Min bind a person's energy to an object. And with that object, she controlled them.
She was not an energybender, only a manipulator. Certainly more powerful than a bender, unlimited by such boundaries, but not a bender. Ozai had not understood. Fury overtook him and he'd ordered her to try. She failed.
Tugging her sleeve, she pulled it down to cover the scar and erase the memory.
Uncertainty. Fear. Panic. The oppressive atmosphere that tainted the bunker choked the hope from those sealed within.
Ursa sat curled in a corner, arms wrapped tight around Roh-Roh –pale and frightened in the torch light– while their grandmother held them close.
Grandmother Ursa spoke in a soothing voice, telling them stories to ease them, her calm never seeming forced. But Ursa couldn't concentrate on the tales. She saw only shaking hands, tearful eyes. Heard only weeping.
Someone attempted to stifle a strangled sob, but the sound echoed through the small space. A shiver raced up Ursa's spine as her stomach flopped. The despair here was palpable. As much as she tried to ignore it, tried instead to think about her parents and how they would never give up, the panic crept back. This room was poison.
Firming her jaw, Ursa squeezed her brother's shoulder one last time and stood. Her grandmother's story faltered.
Ursa swept her gaze over the crowded bunker. Soldiers stood at the entrance, along with her bodyguard Yuki –always calm and controlled– while Toph and Katara sat close beside them. But the Faceless shifted, unnerved. They were all so afraid. She wanted to help them, to give them confidence. Her father could do it, if he were here. He wouldn't even hesitate. He would know exactly what to say. Why didn't she?
Glancing down, Ursa saw her own hands shaking. She shut her eyes against it. How can I help them? she wondered bitterly. I'm as scared as they are.
"It's alright to be afraid," she whispered to herself.
Her brown eyes opened. That was it, wasn't it?
"It's alright to be afraid," she said again, louder this time. Her voice echoed off the earthen walls. Murmurs ceased. Dozens of eyes turned to her.
A blush crept up Ursa's neck to her face. She swallowed hard. "I know you're scared. I'm scared too." She took a step forward, breaking the habitual boundary between the Fire Nation Royals and the commoners.
"I think we should be scared," Ursa confided, "Because this is...well, it's..."
"Scary?" Someone suggested.
A sheepish smile broke through the Princess' embarrassment. "Right."
The Faceless exchanged uncertain glances. If the child was trying to cheer them up, she wasn't doing a very good job of it.
"Being scared doesn't make us weak," Ursa said. "It makes us human. A wise man holds fear for his mortality, but a fool knows none. I bet even the soldiers are scared. And Yuki, she's one of the bravest and strongest people I know. I bet even she's a little scared."
Heads swiveled toward the indicated bodyguard. If she was scared, the tough-muscled woman certainly didn't show it.
Toph leaned her head close to Katara. "Where exactly is she going with this? I don't think it's great for morale."
"Let's just let her talk. This is Ursa, after all."
Toph couldn't resist a smile.
Ursa looked out over the faces, all turned to her. "It's alright to be scared," she repeated. Her small voice carried to every captivated ear. "But you have to remember it isn't everything. You have to believe that victory is possible. Fear can't keep us back. It shouldn't stop us.
"I'm scared for my parents, but I also know what they can do. I believe they can do what needs to be done, because I know they will do whatever it takes to protect their family, and the Fire Nation. My father will never let it fall.
"Avatar Aang and his friends saved the world once before. Everyone was scared then, too. But I believe they can do it again."
Ursa paused, her little heart pounding as every ear and eye focused on her.
Lieutenant Ling watched as the hopeless mood of the bunker shifted, lightened, all at the words of one child. She would have a very promising career as Firelord if she were to survive this. Which didn't seem likely.
The lieutenant faked a smile as the crowd looked to one another in hope. The faux cheer turned real as he envisioned the glory Ozai would bestow on him when he delivered so many vital enemies into his hand, not the least of which were the children of the Firelord and the long-thought dead wife of the Phoenix King himself.
And so he smiled this smile of mockery and triumph and no one could tell the difference.
Who would have thought that having his face stolen by a spirit would be the best thing that could happen to him?
Another dark frown clouded Toph's face.
Concerned, Katara finally asked, "What's wrong?"
Toph started at the sound of her voice, toes lifting from the furrows they had dug in the earth. "I'm not sure."
This did little to ease Katara's worry.
"It might just be because my earthbending is on the fritz," Toph explained, scowling harder.
"What does your gut say?"
This earthbender-like wisdom from Katara surprised her. Toph considered it. Toes digging into the earth once more, she listened for the vibrations. They were faint. Scattered. Even bending all her attention on this one task sent rivulets of sweat trickling down her neck. There was no way to be sure.
"My gut thinks it's a problem," Toph decided.
"Then tell me."
"Someone here..." Toph hesitated. "Someone here isn't afraid."
"Whoa," Haru breathed. "That is a lot of soldiers."
Sokka snorted, joining him on the ledge of the beach, looking down on the enemy camp. "We did mention we were outnumbered."
"Yeah, but..." Haru's eyes drifted to the number of weapon-bearing Navy ships. "Whoa. How did you plan to take them out?"
Sokka winced. "Spotted the airship, did you?"
The blood leached from Haru's face. "The what?"
He followed Sokka's sheepish finger to the hulking metal hull hundreds of feet above their heads, positioned far down the beach so it did not loom directly over the camp. To avoid their detection, it had been tethered low to the ground.
"We were hoping you might be able to take that one down," Sokka explained. "We can't get to it, and I don't want to be a sitting turtle duck when it fires up."
"With what? Earth can't penetrate that."
Sokka didn't reply, instead leading him to the stockpile of weapons awaiting their owners. Off to the side, untouched by the others, lay a harpoon, far too large to wield by hand, probably designed for a firing mechanism.
Haru stared at it. "Where did you even get that?"
"Turns out Kaori has some interesting stuff in his attic."
"Yeah, and that head could bring down an elephant whale, so that should have a nice effect on the airship." He grinned, quite pleased with himself.
"Sokka, it's metal. I still haven't mastered metalbending."
"No worries," Sokka said. "You did it to the serpent, I'm sure you can do it again."
Haru opened his mouth, but he became suddenly aware of the eyes of the soldiers watching them, the ears listening.
Grabbing Sokka by the arm, Haru pulled him aside and lowered his voice. "I haven't been able to metalbend since, Sokka, no matter how hard I try!"
Sokka's confident grin slipped a fraction. "You'll have to try harder, Haru. As soon as we attack, that airship will move into striking distance. No matter how hard we fight, that thing can gun us down."
"If that airship doesn't go down, we do."
Haru scowled. What did Sokka expect? That knowing the desperation of the situation would unlock whatever block barred his chi from metalbending? From the panicked pounding of his heart and the blood raging in his head, Haru didn't think it had helped much. But he remembered what had happened on the ship, with the sea serpent. He had been able to metalbend. He just needed to figure out how.
He took a deep breath. "I'll do my best, Sokka."
The warrior hesitated. It wasn't the answer he wanted. He was used to getting a hundred and ten percent from the Kyoshis, calm confidence. But Haru wasn't a warrior, not really.
Sokka relented. "All right, Haru. Just know that, airship or not, we have to storm that beach at sunset."
The sun already hung low in the evening sky. Not a lot of time to practice. Haru nodded.
"And before we attack, I need you to buy us a little time."
Haru flinched, imagining different scenarios in which he was used as bait. But Sokka led him back to the best vantage point for overlooking the beach and pointed toward the water.
"Notice how far out the ships are?" Sokka asked.
They didn't seem that far out to Haru. They were close enough to reach them with their trebuchets. He squinted at the water. Along the shore the waves tinged a bright blue and deeper out, beyond the anchored ships, the sea took on a deep, rich turquoise. But somewhere in between the ships and the shore, the water turned a dark, almost sludgy, color.
"It's a reef," Haru realized.
Sokka shrugged. "We're actually hoping it's a rock shoal. See the cliffs and the rocks on the beach?"
Rivulet of thick rock formed the shape of the shore close to the sea.
"Any way you can know for sure?" Haru asked.
Sokka blinked. "Well, um...you."
Color flooded Haru's face. "Oh. Right." He cleared his throat. "I can do that."
Eyes closed, Haru shut out the world around him. Digging in with his toes, he felt deep into the earth. The effect deafened him at first, all those vibrations –small or large, singular or resounding– from every movement in their camp. He took a deep breath and reached farther.
Sokka watched his face scrunch up in concentration. He tried his best not to move, recalling Toph's swift punishments for interfering with her sixth sense. It seemed an age had passed, and still Haru's face twisted with effort.
Finally, he couldn't take the suspense any more. "Well?"
Min lowered herself in a deep bow. "Your Majesty. You're early."
She dared express her surprise? Without even acknowledging her Princess? Azula ground her teeth.
"I must speak with the Spirit," Ozai said.
Min kept a straight face, but Azula knew the waif burned for an explanation.
"It will take some effort," Min replied. "I assume it is a matter of importance that cannot wait?"
Azula narrowed her eyes. "Of course it is! Otherwise the Phoenix King would not ask."
The dark, sunken eyes turned to her, cold and impassive. Azula forced herself to meet that gaze.
"I must speak with him before its completion," Ozai said, ignoring the battle of wills.
Min bowed again. "As you wish, Your Majesty."
Zuko and Aang crouched low on the rock. There were two guards at the cave, but they seemed reluctant to stray far from the entrance, and that was their second stroke of luck.
The first had been spotting Azula and Ozai climbing the cliff. They had been concealed within the forest, scrutinizing the cliffs for the most likely place for the cave. Several gaped obvious in the cliff wall, along with a few tucked almost out of sight. They had just made up their mind when Azula and Ozai appeared. Without the guidance of the enemy, they never would have found the right place in time.
Zuko and Aang considered attacking them on sight. But they knew it went deeper than their old rivals. They felt certain Min could execute the plan, with or without Ozai, and neither wanted to alert their enemy. After watching them disappear behind a sheen of rock, they carefully picked their way after them.
They crouched now just beyond sight of the cave. If the waves quieted, they could sometimes hear the murmur of voices.
The sun sank toward the turquoise horizon.
Zuko and Aang exchanged a glance, each knowing that this day would end, and the next would begin either in a world torn apart or a world saved.
The soldier saluted. "There's a message for you, sir."
Qin nodded as a sign to continue.
"Admiral Liang has extended an invitation to dine and take tea aboard his warship."
War Minister Qin smiled. "How kind. Tell him I accept."
The soldier bowed. "Of course, sir."
Haru knelt beside the harpoon, as he had for the last hour. Despite the pounding of his heart and the anxiety of the coming battle, he tried to block the rest of the world from his senses, and concentrate only on listening.
Soldiers moved stealthily close by, some sitting and sharpening their weapons, other pacing in silence. From there, he felt the vibrations swoop down with the curve of the hill and fade as they traveled through the sand. Though lighter, he could still feel the raucous movement of the Loyal's camp. Creatures stirred, both in the forest and buried in the beach. He felt it all.
But not the harpoon. Its heavy weight pressed into the soft dirt, but he could not feel the metal itself. He pushed harder; he moved closer; he even clutched it in his hands.
A hand touched his shoulder and he started. Glancing up, he realized dusk had fallen.
"Any luck?" Sokka asked.
He only grunted in frustration.
Sokka sighed. "It's time."
Haru's heart sank.
The beach bustled with life and music. Hun had not lied about the festive nature and talented musicians that descended with the night.
The three mechanics laughed and danced with the soldiers, clapping along with the beat. No one had thought to ask for their names in the chaos of frivolity. Instead, Hun and others had taken to calling them Blue Eyes, Eye Patch and Rat's Nest. They didn't mind; it seemed to amuse them.
Spotting something out of the corner of his vision, Eye Patch nudged his two companions. He pointed out the figure descending from the airship's pulley lift. "Looks like he took the bait," he murmured.
Blue Eyes nodded.
"Amazing what people will do for a little acknowledgement in the right places," Rat's Nest said with a snort.
Hun asked her to dance just then and, with a cheeky wink at her comrades, she allowed him to lead her away.
As darkness encroached upon them, Zuko's mind turned once more to what would happen after. If they won –and they had to win- what then? He knew Aang would never kill Ozai; just as twelve years before, it went against the Air Nomad's nature. But Zuko couldn't very well imprison him again, could he? Not only would his people not stand for such an inadequate punishment, who was to say Ozai would not be able to rise again. The Phoenix King may be growing old, but he had always been determined.
Likely, Zuko would dispense proper justice once he returned to the Capital, after setting his father on trial. Aang wouldn't be pleased, but Zuko saw little alternative. When he originally descended the throne, such justice had not been dispensed. In part, it was a public display of agreement with the Avatar that united them. But Zuko also had in his own concerns that it might look too much like a family usurpation, instead of a redemption, to have his father executed. And deep down, Zuko admitted he had thought imprisonment of Ozai in his own dungeon while his son ruled was a more just fate.
And what about Azula? whispered a voice in his head.
Zuko closed his eyes as rage boiled in his chest. Once he would have saved his sister. Her mind in such disarray, he had hoped he might salvage some of the child his little sister once was. He had wondered if he might, somehow, guide her into the person she might have been. But he realized now it was a foolish hope. Azula would always be Azula.
And she had killed Jeong Jeong. For that, his sister must pay.
The sun, with a last brilliant goodbye to the day, sank into the sea.
"Now," Sokka whispered.
Haru grasped the far-off shadow of the shoal and heaved. Veins pulsed in his neck. Sweat poured over his face.
The earth trembled. Shook. Quaked. Soldiers cried out in fear. Haru felt the vibrations of their fleeing feet along with the tremors the shoal exuded as it erupted from the earth.
"Looking good," Sokka cried. His sword sang as it leapt from its sheath. "Charge!"
They did not advance pell-mell, screaming battle cries. Though that tended to generate confusion among the enemy, it often tended to disorient the advancing troops even more.
A line of firebenders advanced first, bursting through the foliage, firing off shots. Balls of flame exploded in the camp. Enemy soldiers scattered, crying out warnings and mustering positions.
Above the beach, still concealed in the forest, a second line stood their ground, volleying long-ranged weapons into the Loyal army. Rocks, arrows, fuel-soaked missiles set aflame, and crude spears cobbled from tree limbs and rock shards.
The missiles fell among the enemy, serving both as distraction and attack. While the Loyal scrambled about for cover, the first line of firebenders marched closer, loosing fire at any who raised their heads. The rest of Sokka's troop charged the beach. In a matter of moments the Loyal would realize only half of the covering fire was lethal and their advantage would be gone. If the loyal retained their long-distance position once the wall came down they could pick off the enemy without much of a fight.
"Well, the music was nice while it lasted," Eye Patch said to Hun, as they caught their breath behind cover.
Blue Eyes had taken shelter behind a boulder several hundred feet away with a few other soldiers and the talented Pian, while Eye Patch, Rat's Nest and Hun had scurried behind one of the thick tents on the beach. At least, they had. There seemed to be one missing now.
Rat's Nest pointed toward the waterline. Hun raced for the stone wall erupting form the beach.
"Aw, man," Eye Patch groaned, watching the rock struggle higher. "We'll be sitting turtle ducks here."
Rat's Nest gathered her feet beneath her. "The Admiral's back there," she reminded him.
"Aw, man," he muttered again.
They both raced across the sand.
We're going to make that? Eye Patch intended it as a motivational thought to boost his confidence, but his skepticism leached into it.
Sand flew beneath their feet as they skidded to a stop at the wall. No words passed between them. Without being asked, Eye Patch dropped to his knee, lacing his fingers together in a stirrup. Rat's Nest placed her foot in and he heaved. She sailed upward, her weight surprisingly light in spite of her muscles. She grabbed the ledge of the wall and swung herself over, turning just in time to see Eye Patch take a running leap at the wall. He raced up the side, gaining several feet before losing momentum. She caught his hand, pulling him up alongside her.
Without pausing for breath, they jumped off, hand in hand.
A spear clattered against the boulder Private Wun crouched behind. The shaft rested just beyond his reach, out in the open. He licked his lips, shifting into a better position.
The mechanic everyone called Blue Eyes noticed the look of determination in his eye. "What are you doing?"
"Giving them a taste of their own medicine." Wun lunged for the spear before the mechanic could talk him down.
As he left the cover of the boulder, fire sprang at him. He watched the flames inch closer as his fingers wrapped around the shaft. He heard the flames hiss as it touched the sand, heard it pop right next to his ear. The fire reached for him with greedy tendrils and he shrank back. Heat seared his face as he scurried over the sand, back to cover. His head smarted, from his hairline to the tips of his ears. But he was alive.
"Whoo! That was close."
"I'll say," the mechanic grunted. "Are you happy now?"
"What? I had nothing to lob at them." Wun grinned, slapping the shaft into his open palm. His smile turned downward. Looking at it, he realized why the spear felt wrong and uneven. His eyes sparked with excitement. "Hey! This is–"
"Look out!" Blue Eyes yanked him hard as a flaming rock chipped at the top of the boulder where the Private's widow's peak had been visible.
Wun staggered back, slamming into the boulder. The last thing he saw before his head cracked against the rock was the crude, nearly harmless spear sailing out of his hand and back onto the open beach.
Blue Eyes cursed as he watched Wun's lights go out. He checked for a pulse and found it still throbbing.
He turned to Yao, the soldier next to him. "Any idea what he was about to say?"
Another missile sailed overhead and they both ducked.
Despite the thick hull and the distance between the warship and the beach, Jee heard the commotion, felt the tremors bat the vessel in a fit of pitching waves.
He grunted in satisfaction, the corners of his mouth smirking upward.
It must be time. Reaching into his waistband, he tugged out the small, unsheathed knife. The bare blade had taken a few bites out of his abdomen, but it was worth it.
He sawed at the rope keeping him bound to the bars of his cell.
"Courtesy of Commander Arn," the familiar soldier had whispered, passing it to him on the beach.
As he gripped the hilt, something pressed into his palm. Something that shouldn't be there. The tattered rope fell away and Jee examined the hilt. A leather band had been bound round it, securing several thin metal tools in place.
"Sneaky devils," Jee chuckled, tugging the lock picks free.
Hun pulled the little rowboat alongside his ship as the wall rose higher than even the trebuchets could aim.
"Lieutenant!" Captain Lao barked as Hun pulled himself on board. "What's happening?"
"Attack," Hun panted. "They've cut all the ships off from the beach."
The Captain's grim face hardened. "They're trying to slash our numbers. How many on the beach?"
Hun flushed, remembering just how many soldiers and sailors he had told about the festivity. "Almost any without orders I think, sir."
Captain Lao cursed. "Arm the trebuchets," he ordered.
"Sir? The wall's too high to clear."
The Captain's eyes lit with the rage and glory of battle. "Then bring that wall down, Lieutenant."
Hun saluted. "Yes, sir!" He turned about and raced for the massive weapons. "You heard the Captain," he barked. "Bring down that wall!"
The operators scurried to comply. Gears grinding, wheels spinning, the trebuchet shifted as its sights aligned with the wall. Two operators shoved a missile into place and, with furious cry, Hun lit it aflame. "Fire!"
The lever was released. The arm of the trebuchet snapped back, yanking the missile with it. As one they swung upward, the power of momentum sending a tremor through the air. But as the arm reached its arc, something snapped. Bolts sprung from their holes and clattered to the deck. The base of the trebuchet collapsed, gears flying out. Hun ducked as the debris sliced the air above him. The arm, instead of flinging its missile beachward, slammed back to the deck. The arm rent in half. Jagged metal spokes punctured the deck.
Soldiers and operators scurried out of reach, like elephant rats set upon by an owlkeet. The flaming missiles fell back to the ship, fuel spewing and sparking across the deck, catching fire.
Hun stared at the wreckage, uncomprehending. How could this happen? The trebuchets had just been upgraded! The mechanics—
Swallowing hard, he remembered how surprised he had been at the extent of the upgrades. More like overhauls, he'd thought at the time.
Cries of dismay and fear, the screech of metal, the whoosh of flames –all these sounds swept down the beach as half a dozen ships suffered the same fate.
Hun winced. One look at the fury of his Captain confirmed his fears.
A soldier scurried into Admiral Liang's cabin the moment after the explosions.
"What's going on out there?" Liang barked.
"They're attacking, sir."
"Then fire on them!"
The soldier's gaze darted to War Minister Qin, frozen with a cup of tea halfway to his lips. "The weapons have been sabotaged, sir."
Fire lit the night, its reflection off the water doubling the illumination in the darkness.
"Whoo! Look at 'em go!"
"What, you didn't think my plan would work, Ryuk?"
The eye-patched mechanic –who was not a mechanic at all– swallowed hard. "No, no, that's not what I meant—"
She shot him a wink. "No time to make it up to me." She pointed at the warship.
"To work it is, my lady," Ryuk cried, throwing a salute.
They charged down the bridge of rock. Four soldiers guarded the entrance, but they wouldn't be too much trouble.
Waving his arms, he called out, "Attack! To the trebuchets; we're under attack!"
The guards never saw the attack coming.
Most of the others charged at the Loyal, hoping to gain the beach before the ships managed to break the wall. Sokka was actually surprised they hadn't done it yet.
Something sailed at his head. Sokka dodged, glimpsing the stick that had been passing for a spear as it whooshed by his eye. It was the fist he didn't see before it smashed him in the face.
He staggered back, pain exploding in his jaw.
The soldier sneered as Sokka faced him. "Nice try."
All along the beach, Sokka watched the Loyal rise. So the jig was up. "Stand your ground!" he called to the soldiers.
The soldier swung again. Sokka twisted away from it, catching the soldier's leg with his foot. As the soldier swayed, Sokka slammed the sword's hilt into his face.
"One down," he muttered. "A couple hundred more to go."
Mai was glad for the satchel at her side. It held more weapons than she could ever hope to conceal on her person –while maintaining mobility– even if they were crude weapons.
From this distance, her skills were ideal. Positioned beside the first line of firebenders, she covered for the earthbender as he took aim at the airship. Either it was a particularly difficult target, which was doubtful considering it dwarfed the entire sea armada just beyond their reach, or Haru still hadn't found the trick to metalbending.
Beside her, Sokka skidded to a stop. "We're about to get overrun," he panted. "The Loyal just figured out we've been keeping them down with sticks and stones."
"Bet that made them happy," she muttered.
"Tea," Ryuk muttered. "Where do you suppose they serve tea in a place like this, Rat?"
She snorted. He was the only person left who still insisted calling her by that childhood nickname. It didn't even have to do with her hair, back then. "Somewhere closer to civilization."
Their first mistake had been taking the stairs down, not up. She'd tried to tell him the bridge wouldn't be in the bowels of the ship, but in the heat of battle he sometimes lost his ability to hear properly.
Footsteps echoed through the metal corridor. Ever since the stairs, they hadn't encountered a single person, though they heard the distant bustle from above.
"Aha!" Ryuk cried in triumph. "Civilization!"
They both raced forward.
"Corner," Rat warned, trying to slow, but Ryuk had already plowed past it.
Bodies collided, thudding to the floor.
Rat leapt around the corner, drawing the wrench from her belt. Unlike her companions, the wrench was a familiar tool to her. She clutched it expertly, but as she raised it, Ryuk held up his hand. She paused.
"Captain," Ryuk said, nodding to Jee as the former prisoner struggled to his knees.
Jee smirked. "Colonel. Was this your brilliant plan?"
Ryuk grinned. As the colonel and commander of the 114th Division, he was known and jaded for harebrained schemes. But there was someone even better at it than he. "Nah. But it was too much fun to pass up."
"You shouldn't have come to get me," Jee said, standing. "That knife was all I needed."
Ryuk's grin broadened when he noticed Jee had managed to acquire new attire, the uniform of a masked infantryman. Quite resourceful, this one.
"No disrespect," Rat said, "But we didn't come for you. The Admiral's on board, and they're about to realize he isn't who they think."
"Idiot. All right." Jee stepped past them. "I know my way around this warship. They'll probably be on the bridge, above decks."
"Told you so," Rat said with a grin as she and Ryuk followed the navy captain.
She watched him across the cave. Her father basked in their near-victory, his face aglow with triumph. Why did he never look on her with such unbridled joy?
"Do you love me?"
The words were spoken into the utter stillness of the cave. They startled Min and Ozai. Her father's eyes turned on her, cold.
"Focus on our mission, Azula," he said, his voice level. He had no time for her madness.
Azula snorted. "It's a simple question, Father." She flicked a thick strand of hair from her face.
Min turned away, pretending not to hear the highly personal and embarrassing conversation.
With a sigh, Ozai replied, "We have no time for this, Azula. If there are doubts generated by your brother, lay them to rest. I will tell you what I told him –You are the only person I have left."
"Then it shouldn't be too hard to answer," Azula retorted. "Do you love me?"
Flashing a glance to ensure they had no eavesdroppers, Ozai stepped toward her. He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye. "Of course I love you, my angel." He kissed her forehead before turning back to await their visitor.
The words lingered in Azula's ears. My angel.
Corporal Pian darted a quick peek over the boulder.
"How's it look?" The mechanic asked.
The corporal grinned. "Good for us. The airship's coming."
Blue Eyes returned the victorious smile. With the Navy ships cut off, they were helpless under fire. But the airship... "Very good."
Another solider darted a look. "Maybe not," he said. "They've got a big weapon over there. I think they're going to take it down."
Pian's smile hardened in determination. "We can't let that happen." He glanced at the others. "We have to take out that earthbender."
The soldier nodded. "At all costs."
"Hold on a minute, guys," Blue Eyes protested, "I'm just a mechanic."
Pian turned on him. "Is that any excuse to let your cause fail? You're willing to use that wrench in the name of the Phoenix King, aren't you?"
"Well, yes, but–"
"Then bash it over their heads! Let's move."
It was by flaw, not design, that Mai alone remained guarding Haru's back. The others, even Sokka, had been drawn away by the emboldened enemy. As of yet, she didn't have any trouble keeping their foes at bay, but she knew it was only a matter of time before they realized what the earthbender was up to and she was overwhelmed.
In fact, it looked like that moment was now.
"Better hurry, Haru," she said, keeping her eyes locked on the Loyal trio headed her way. As the soldiers raced forward, dodging attacks, they called out to others who joined them. Gritting her teeth, Mai wrapped her tapered fingers around several shuriken. "We've got company."
A grunt was his only response.
The enemies moved closer and Mai loosed the shurikens. Four soldiers went down by the weapons, though one wielding a wrench attempted to dodge and stumbled into the beach, taking down two more of his own. Mai smirked, already releasing another set of throwing stars with dangerous accuracy.
The soldiers anticipated this and only one found a target. A sword swung out at her and a spear targeted Haru. She twisted out of range, firing off several darts at the spear. The sturdy missiles thudded into the shaft and knocked it off course.
Overhead, the airship now loomed, an ominous shadow on the darkening beach.
The Loyal let out a cheer. Mai dodged another attack. The hair on the back of her neck prickled and she knew the airship was preparing to fire.
"Any time now, Haru."
The earth resounded with the movement of battle, but Haru blocked it from his senses as best he could.
"Forget about the fight," Sokka had told him. "We'll watch your back. Just concentrate on taking that airship down."
So he concentrated. Yet mere focus didn't seem to help. Toph always said metalbending was in his gut, that it was all about listening. Well, he was listening. But he didn't hear anything.
He rubbed his face in frustration. If only he could force himself to do it through sheer power of will.
He hesitated. Will. Toph had said something about that, something that the metalbender's will had to be. Unbendable. Assertive. A metalbender doesn't back down and doesn't give in!
Maybe that was it. Maybe he was too soft. Gritting his teeth, Haru glared down at the harpoon.
"I'm not going to take no for an answer," he growled.
He pushed harder, feeling out for the vibrations with his gut. The harpoon remained stubbornly unreadable. A vein pulsed in his neck. He pushed again, this time closing his eyes. Vibrations led him to the indentation where the weapon lay, but they vanished when they reached the harpoon instead of traveling through it.
The earth is buried deep inside, Toph had said. You have to listen hard.
Cries of the battle still reached his ears. He silenced them. Sound wouldn't serve him here, or sight. What he needed was his earthbending.
He rapped the harpoon with his knuckles. And again.
Frustration roiled in Haru's chest, but it swept away on a sudden wave of unbridled determination. "I will not take no for an answer." He pounded his fist on the metal, pushing his gut harder. "MOVE!"
The vibrations all around him and the sounds of battle exploded back into focus. He started, disoriented, his hand still resting on the metal. Too late did his sense adjust. He didn't notice the soldier coming at him until his weapon swung out. Eyes still closed, Haru through himself to the sand. But he knew it was too late.
A flurry of movement confused the beach. Where there had been one person now stood two. The sand churned. Haru opened his eyes just as the attacking soldier collapsed, unconscious.
He looked up, expecting to see Sokka or Mai. But no. It was a stranger, not even a soldier, wielding a very large wrench.
"If I were you," he said, gesturing up at the airship, "I wouldn't bring that down just yet."
Employing a trick Ming had taught her, Mai caught her assailant by the wrist and flipped him over her shoulder, followed by a swift kick in the face to ensure he did not rise again.
A sixth sense warned her of another attack. She whirled round to find only two opponents left. Had she defeated so many? She reached for a blade, but there would be no time to draw it. She ducked to the side, hoping to buy a few precious seconds, but they anticipated it.
One soldier thrust his spear while the other raised a wrench.
The rest of the world faded from her vision as the spearhead lunged toward her. She flung herself back, but its reach was far. Her foot stumbled just as she grabbed two throwing knives.
She didn't see the wrench come down, she didn't see the first soldier crumple as it caught him in the back, she only dealt the weapons blindly. The first buried itself in the chest of the soldier already beaten while the second aimed for the other, a mechanic.
He had amazing reflexes for a mechanic. As the knife plunged toward him, he twisted, losing his balance. It did not miss him, but grazed his arm. Blood spurted and he fell to one knee.
Mai already held another knife, poised to throw, but the man did not rise.
Instead, he gave a wry laugh. "Nice shot, milady."
Mai hesitated as he raised his head and the familiar blue eyes sent an uncertain jolt through her. "Captain," she acknowledged, wary, keeping her weapon aimed.
"Sorry I'm late."
A yell of triumph nearby distracted them as an enemy soldier lunged toward them, followed by an anticlimactic thud as Sokka knocked him away with one slap of his sword.
"Haru, why aren't you bringing that thing down?"
Mai turned and realized the earthbender had stopped his meditating. He stood, awkward, beside the metal harpoon.
"I told him not to," the mechanic said.
Sokka's eyes narrowed. He raised his sword in case the enemy decided to attack.
"I figured he might know something we didn't," Haru explained, "Considering he rushed off to help the Firelady right after he saved my life."
Narrowing his eyes, Sokka leaned forward to study his face. The blue-eyed man grinned helpfully.
"Kio! What are you doing here?" He frowned suddenly. "And why can't we take down the airship?"
The Captain of the Palace Guard opened his mouth to reply, but a roar of flames cut him off as the airship opened fire on the beach. But not on them. The attack aimed beyond the wall, at the Navy ships.
Mai, Haru and Sokka turned back to Kio, stunned.
"Safe to say I'm not a mechanic for the Loyal," he told them, tossing the wrench aside.
Sokka grinned. "You sly polar bear dog!" He seized Kio's hand and pulled him to his feet. "How many have you got with you?"
"And how did you know to bring reinforcements?" Mai added. She had lowered her knife, but her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"After we learned about the stolen Navy ships, we were keeping a close eye on everything," Kio explained. "We caught Qin, the former War Minister, trying to steal an airship right out from under our noses." His cheerful smile turned smug. "It didn't take much to convince him to reveal the rendezvous location."
Sokka snorted. "Yeah, I remember that about him."
"Incoming," Mai warned them.
With the toe of his boot, Kio kicked up a sword that had fallen with its owner and swung it to test the weight. They spread out for easier mobility to face the coming enemies.
"I decided to pursue the lead and learn what I could," Kio continued, as the last assailant fell. "Thanks to the help of Qin's brother, we managed to get ourselves into the party."
"Qin has a brother?" Sokka asked.
A thin smile graced Mai's lips. "Admiral Arn," she confirmed. "His twin brother."
Kio grinned. "Yes, Your Majesty. I had no idea we would be encountering a full-fledged battle," he told Sokka. "Only half of the 114th accompanied me, while the others remained under General Tzen to protect the Palace."
"More coming," Haru said. "Both sides."
This time they paired off, Sokka with Haru while Kio stepped back to back with the Firelady.
"So wait a minute," Sokka said, ramming the pommel of his sword into an opponent's gut. "I've been trying to figure out why those ships haven't taken out Haru's wall yet. They're not even firing at it." He ducked a fire-engulfed fist as it swung at his head. "Was that you?"
"It was Arn's idea," Kio replied, deftly blocking the thrust of a spear. "As soon as Ozai told him the Firelord was here, the Admiral suggested making some adjustments to the trebuchets. Luckily, we've got an actual mechanic with us. She helped us sabotage them."
Sokka sent a Loyal flying with a clonk from his trusty boomerang. "This is going easier than we thought!"
"Maybe not," Kio cautioned. "Several of the ships probably realized what had happened. If they manage to repair the damage before they use their weapons, they can still do some damage."
"Still," Sokka insisted, not quite ready to give up the feeling of victory.
Kio glanced at the Firelady over his shoulder. He wondered if she still questioned his loyalty, as she had at their last encounter.
"I realize I may have overstepped my command, Firelady," Kio admitted, "But I believed it to be in the Fire Nation's best interest."
Mai pondered only a moment before nodding. Between Captain Kio and General Tzen, she would have much preferred the General remained while the Captain undertook the cloak of stealth. Tzen was known for his brash battle gung-ho, not his unobtrusiveness. "You've done well, Captain," she said, flicking out several throwing knives into their oncoming assailants. She thought of Zuko and Aang, and the looming threat that she did not quite understand. "More than you know."
The air before the wall of the cave shimmered. Azula watched as it rippled and sparked, a chill racing up her spine. A fog rolled in, but only in that one space. Opaque clouds roiled and hissed until they obscured any view from behind it.
She heard Min take a shuddering breath. "It is done, Your Majesty."
Her words were unnecessary. As soon as the window opened, the creature's face appeared. Azula felt the movement as her father caught himself from taking a step back, and the revelation that the Spirit had such an obvious effect on him made her smile.
"The Phoenix King, I presume," Koh said. The Spirit glanced about the cave in an attempt at nonchalance, but Azula knew his darting eyes were scoping it out.
The Face Stealer's gaze returned to Ozai's. "And why have you called on me thus? Is there some problem with the passage? I have felt no disturbance on my end."
"All is well," Ozai assured with a voice of measured calm. Most would realize this was a tone of displeasure, but Koh had not yet learned this. "I merely wished to seal our arrangement before the passage is opened, to avoid any misunderstanding."
Koh's impassive face twitched. His teeth bared, but to Azula's surprise he did not switch his features as he had done so often during their past encounter.
"Have we not already an arrangement?" the Spirit demanded, his voice low and threatening.
"We have an understanding," Ozai corrected. He gestured at Azula. "My emissary has related my plans to you and you seem to be in agreement, even supportive."
Koh's face twitched again. "Then what is the problem?"
"She has not secured your word of oath."
The Spirit pressed closer to the screen, and the memory of the lieutenant's body yanked through to the other side flashed through Azula's mind. She took an involuntary step back, knowing that the radius of Koh's reach was small.
"What is in an oath?" the Spirit laughed. "Surely your doubts have clouded your judgment if that is the reason you delay our victory!"
Now it was Ozai's voice that turned dark. "Do not forget, Face Stealer. I am the one with access to Quera's writings. He was the only mortal to open such a passage until now. I know that there is power in oaths, especially those that bind the Spirits."
Koh eased back from the window between their worlds, hissing.
"You will not play me for a fool," Ozai told the Face Stealer, "Nor will I become a pawn in your game."
"So you expect me to become the pawn in yours?" Koh sneered. "Your army is weak; your emissary has already told me as much. Without my power, you will never achieve your victory."
Ozai's face betrayed nothing and Azula clenched her fist. Her father maintained perfect control of his emotions even in the midst of negotiation with this...creature.
"I am willing to rely on my strengths to win my battle, Spirit," Ozai said. "Are you willing to remain in your world, without the freedom to pillage for your prize?"
Koh snarled, and Azula knew her father had hit upon the Face Stealer's weak spot.
"I offer you an immortal life in this world with access to your precious faces," Ozai said, "And I ask only for your allegiance in return."
Koh hissed again, but already he had deliberated too long. If he was not willing to make such a bargain, Azula knew he would already be gone. Or already lured her father closer to the screen.
The emptiness in Koh's head –the void where his collection had been– sent pangs through his body and soul. His mind raced in the open spaces. He could not think, he could not concentrate, not without their presence. This was a fool's deal! Never would he shackle himself to a mere mortal, not he, the great Face Stealer, Ancient Spirit from the beginning of time.
But the faces. How he missed the sweet, soothing presence of those faces...
"Do I have your word?" Ozai pressed.
How low have I stooped? Koh wondered, closing his eyes. Another spurt of pain flashed through his essence and the Spirit writhed. Curse you, Avatar. Curse you!
The eyes of the Face Stealer opened, glaring down at the Phoenix King with a raging fire. Between clenched teeth, the Spirit hissed, "You have my word, mortal."
Ozai smiled. "Excellent." He turned. "Open the passage, Min."
Untangling herself from the shadows, she bowed. "As you wish, Your Majesty."
Fire lit the twilight. Darting silhouettes raced up and down the beach and the massive shadows of ships reared up from the sea.
Zuko and Aang exchanged a glance. It was time.
Wei cut down an enemy soldier and paused to catch his breath. Another soldier charged, but Hoo knocked him back with one punch.
A quick glance took in the battlefield. The Loyal's numbers were dwindling, the wall still mostly stood, and the airship had opened fire, not on them, but apparently on the Navy vessels. When had that happened?
Hope surged in Wei's chest. "Is it just me," he said, rising to block another attack and dispatching the soldier with ease, "Or does it look like we might actually win this?"
Punching another opponent to the ground, Hoo hushed him. "You might jinx it."
The mechanic tightened one last bolt before slapping the side of the trebuchet. "Ready to go!"
A grim smile stretched Liang's stony features. "I want that airship blown from the sky. Fire at will!"
He watched a moment as the operators scurried to obey before turning to his prisoner.
The former War Minister looked on, stone faced, as the operators doused a massive rock in fuel and maneuvered it on to the trebuchet's arm.
"You will regret your betrayal, Qin," Liang said. "Watch, traitor. Watch as the Loyal restores balance to the Fire Nation."
Unintelligible words –dark and harsh– filled the cavern. No matter how hard Azula tried to distinguish each syllable, the sounds morphed in her hearing. Soon she gave up.
Koh did not retreat from the screen as Min entered the ceremony. Instead he watched, though whether with interest or boredom none could tell. Azula could not bring herself to look at the Spirit. His mere presence sent a chill through her soul.
Eyes shut tight, Min knelt before the two unconscious men –the Anchors, she called them– her body rocking and jerking as she continued to chant. Azula's skin crawled as she watched Min handle the items before her, breaking the small animal bones, painting them with blood, and tying them with strange incense before tossing them at the Anchors, like garnish on a roast komodo chicken.
The words ceased. They had grown so steadily in volume that their sudden absence felt like a void, and the silence was deafening.
Min's head shot back as her eyes opened, her sharp gasp the only sound as she sucked down a raspy breath. She exhaled and her body fell still. After another deep breath, a cough, her composure returned.
She rose, staggering before she gained her feet. Shuffling toward Ozai, she stood between him and the shimmering window where Koh watched.
"It is ready for the final step, my lord," she whispered.
Ozai nodded. "Finish it."
Despite the fatigue weighing down her bones, Min felt a jolt of energy shoot through her. It was time. Now I fulfill my purpose. She knelt before her King, the Prince who saved her waif-ish self. Her hero. Raising one hand, she pressed it against the shimmering window.
Gentle fingers cupped Min's chin, lifting her face. For the first time in her life, Min raised her eyes to meet his. She had so often wondered about those eyes, whether they would ever look on her with that approval, and now the golden orbs gazed at her, warming her to the core. In that moment she knew that the connection shared between them was pure. Tears stung at Min's eyes. She smiled at him. A brilliant, beautiful smile that lit her face, hinting at a woman that might have been.
"You have done well, Min."
The warmth in her father's voice at once angered and repelled Azula. Her shoulders hunched as she fought between jealousy and disgust. She contemplated fleeing, but instead she snuck a glimpse over her shoulder.
Min's smile widened, but at the same time softened, tears streaming down her cheeks. She opened her mouth to speak, but her body convulsed. Pain ravaged her face, cutting off her breath.
Shoulders slumping, Min's body drooped as energy drained from her, held upright only by the Phoenix King's hands caressing her face.
Tears drying from her eyes, Min looked up at him once more through nearly closed lids. Her smile had faded, only a dim memory. "Thank you, my lord," she breathed, her voice soft and haggard. "It was an honor to serve you."
The words escaped as the last breath rattled from her. Ozai felt the life drain from her and his eyes shone.
"What comes next," he told her, closing her lids, "Our eternal victory –it is all thanks to you."
He let her body fall away. Min's corpse slumped to the earth at his feet.
"She seemed rather devoted," Koh observed.
"Indeed." Ozai stepped around her body, his robes trailing over the lifeless limbs.
"How much longer until the passage is complete?" Ozai asked the Spirit.
Koh shrugged, his legs incessantly clicking in excitement and anticipation. "An hour, a moment, who knows? This has only been done once, mortal, and who can say whether the results differ? These Anchors are now sealed. They are unbreakable, but their energies and their guiding life force of your devoted pet must traverse the passage's foundation to my own Anchor before the path solidifies." A pang of yearning echoed through his empty soul. "Then, we shall have our victory."
Ozai nodded. He had waited years for his chance at victory; he could wait another hour.
Far down the beach, a fiery missile collided with the rock wall. The crash reverberated off the cliffs, bouncing around Aang and Zuko's heads.
"We don't have much time," Zuko said softly, vaulting over the rise to join Aang on the path.
The Avatar nodded. "There are two guards at the entrance. One of them is a Dai Li." His eyes flashed white as the Avatar Spirit rushed through him. "I'll take them. We'll rush the cave before Ozai has time to act."
Zuko had not even agreed, but Aang turned away, leaping upon the unsuspecting sentinels with all the power of the Avatar. Between the gale force winds, the crashing of the sea, and the elements Aang unleashed, the cries of their enemies could hardly be heard. Both were incapacitated in a mere moment, and Zuko scrambled up.
Together, the Firelord and the Avatar stormed the cave.
"I order you to stop, Ozai!"
The Phoenix King whirled. Surprise sparked in his eyes, but there was no trace of anger or urgency. Zuko's heart sank.
"You are too late, Avatar."
She was watching him again. Lieutenant Ling clenched his teeth. He stood, stretching out in nonchalance, pacing slowly along the bunker's wall.
Her eyes followed him. He cursed. She knew. Somehow, the earthbender woman had figured it out. But how was not important. The question that burned in his mind was what to do next?
Capture was not an option. His brief stint as a Faceless had ruined his taste for any kind of confinement. Fighting his way out didn't seem any better an alternative. He was far outnumbered, the space was cramped. He would be taken, or killed.
Then there was the prize to be considered. He had mulled long over what lavishness the Phoenix King might award him for the famous faces in this bunker, and he really wanted to find out for himself.
He followed the wall as it curved round the corner. His pace quickened, but not enough to draw attention. At least, he hoped. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. Glancing back, he saw the earthbender had leapt to her feet.
Ling lunged forward.
"Stop!" the earthbender shouted. She thrust her arms forward and the floor of the bunker jerked.
A pillar of earth shot toward him, but he danced out of its path. The missile rammed into the wall, a curtain of dust falling from above. Panic attacked the atmosphere once more. People surged in the small space, not knowing what was wrong, only that something was.
Lieutenant Ling seized the little Princess, wrapping his calloused hand around her neck.
- See, I told you so! XD
- Hopefully this chapter makes up for being late. Enjoy, guys!
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