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Book One: Choices
Ti-nou, Aang, and the Refugees
Toph led the group through the dusty plains. A large dust cloud had been kicked up from under their feet as they walked to Ti-nou, and the dirt swirled all around them like a sandstorm. Their clothes got smudged, food carried was soon soiled, and eyes stung from the sun and sand. But soon, the outline of TI-nou was in sight, and they could see pigs and a large farm in the distance.
"I know this place." Zuko said suddenly, as memories flooded in his head. The group stopped with Zuko.
"You do?" Toph asked.
Zuko nodded, and stepped forward. With a shaky breath, he called "Lee?"
Toph was surprised to feel, far away, someone run out of the large farm house and straight at them. Soon, the boy was in sight. He stopped at the sight of them all, and paled.
"Who...oh god, all of you are dirty. I'll get the captain of the guard. He'll help...." The boy stopped when he noticed Zuko.
"Z-Zuko?" Lee stuttered.
Zuko smiled "Yes?"
Lee tried to stutter something, but he shook his head "Good to see you again."
Zuko nodded, "Does the town have room for these people?"
Lee shrugged, "I have no idea. A lot of people have been leaving Ti-nou because of the Fire Nation armies milling around the plains, so I would think we do. Bring them to the town square. The guards will take care of them."
"The guards will?" Zuko asked.
Lee laughed, "Don't worry. These new ones are nicer, and they kicked the old ones out!"
Zuko nodded, and Lee led Toph and the others to the center of time. Many of the houses had burnt walls or roofs, and some were collapsed. The rest were dusty, as if they hadn't been cared for a long time. People stared curiously from the cruddy windows at the crowd of Gaoling refugees as they walked into the town square. There were guards there, but unlike the last guards, Zuko saw that these men had kind faces, and upon seeing the crowd, went immediately to Zuko and the rest of the gang.
"Lee told me you were coming, so I thought I round up the guard to help with the crowd." the man said, giving them a warm smile.
"And who are you?" Zuko asked, as his eyes rose in suspicion.
"The name's Sensu." He answered, and shook Zuko's hand.
Aang walked through the burnt ruins of Gaoling. He was furious that Zuko and the others had somehow escaped. How could those cowards flee? Where could they flee? There was no other place to go besides the main gates. The pass had been surrounded. He was still very angry when a nervous soldier approached him.
"What is it?!" Aang snapped.
The soldier jumped back, "W-we found a witness! We found a witness!" the soldier stammered quickly, holding up his hands in defense.
A smile leapt on Aang's face, "Oh really? Well bring them here already!"
The nervous soldier motioned to two soldiers behind him, and they dragged a weakly struggling man in front of him. His clothes and much of his skin had been either burned off or blackened thoroughly. The man looked up, but even with half of his face burned, Aang could recognize him.
"Ah, Mr. Bei Fong, how good to see you again." Aang sneered, but the man did not answer him.
"I would think a civilized man like you would know the common courtesy of returning a greeting." Aang said, and mockingly laughed. "That would be something Ozai would say. But I'm no king. I don't need to talk rich-speak like you. All I need from you is one tiny little sentence." Aang put his face close to Lian Bei Fong's.
"Where did they go?"
Sensu, along with the help of his fellow guards, was able to put every Gaoling refugee under a roof, and even the gang was able to have an empty house for their own use. Finally, Zuko and Sensu had retreated to Lee's house, where the gang wouldn't disturb him. He had to ask Sensu a few questions. First off, where had he been?
"I was captured by Fire Nation troops, as you already know," Sensu said, "But when my battalion was being moved to a prison, a group of warriors freed us."
"What group of warriors freed you?" Zuko asked.
"We still don't know. When we asked who they were, they only called themselves 'The Brotherhood'. They work against the Fire Nation, we know that much."
"That's good...I hope." Zuko murmured.
"I would try to find them if I was you." Sensu said, "If they know anything, they'll help you."
"But where would we look?" Zuko asked.
"Try Omashu," Sensu suggested, "It's the nearest free city from Pohuai Stronghold, where I was being moved to."
"Omashu...I've heard from Katara about it." Zuko replied, and he chuckled. "Well this is turning out to be quite the adventure now."
Lian landed on the ground, exhausted and full with anguish. His whipping scars burned, and they kept opening wherever the leather hit. Finally, he groaned in defeat. He could faintly sense the soldiers calling Aang in earnest, and soon he could see Aang's shadow towering over him, even though Aang wasn't tall.
"Has our...reasoning convinced you yet?" Aang asked.
"I...will...never tell you." Lian moaned.
"Then I guess we must...reason some more." Aang said.
"No! Kill me in the most horrible way possible! I rather die than tell!" Lian cried.
"I'm afraid you're too useful to be killed. Your information and your usage as a hostage is too valuable."
"Then goodbye Avatar!" Lian yelled, and before they could react Lian tried to run away. He failed miserably, as he was shot in the head by two archers, and died within the minute.
Aang became furious, screaming for the archers that killed Lian, but they had wisely slipped out of sight. Aang was so furious he slammed his feet against the ground, and immediately raised his eyes in surprise. Looking near Lian's dead body, he stomped his foot near the boar set into the ground. Curiously, Aang looked at the seal, and with a quick motion of his hand the rock cracked and the pieces fell into the great cavern below.
"Ahh, that's how..." Aang murmured, and he rose himself on air to see beyond the mountains. He could see the faint traces of a plain on the outskirts of the mountains. Then a dark speck caught his eye. He looked closely, but it was still a speck of black to him. But Aang could guess what that black speck was: the smoke from a town, a town where Katara and Zuko and the rest of them had fleed with the villagers.
"Commander Dae-nom!" Aang called, and soon the powerful general was at Aang's side.
"Yes Avatar?" Dae-nom asked casually.
"Go to Pohuai Stronghold and tell Ouranos to send Ozai this message." He handed Dae-nom a sealed scroll. "Ozai should be glad that things are going as planned."
The next two days passed by with little excitement for the group, besides helping an old woman who had gotten lost in Ti-nou's narrow streets. However, on the third day dire news came to the plains village.
"The Fire Nation army marches this way!" Sensu said nervously, as the gang listened intently. "He wants you to surrender yourselves....or else."
"Or else what?" Sokka asked.
"I don't know. It doesn't say." Sensu answered slowly, as if he couldn't quite believe it. In truth none of them could.
"Well then, there's only one path of action." Zuko said, "We must leave the village and go to Omashu, now."
"And you're willing to let all of the people here die?" Toph asked angrily.
"No." Zuko retorted, "I have a plan. Now come close."
Zuko huddled the group into a tight knot, and once they were together he whispered to them for a few seconds.
Aang lead the army through the plains. The flock of ostrich horses they had looted from Gaoling was excellent at crossing the plains, and soon the town was in sight. But as they ran closer to the town, a veil of dust rose from the ground and wrapped around the town. Aang looked at the cloud of dust in momentary confusion, and then noticed five independent clouds running off to the north.
"Ah, now I understand." Aang murmured with a laugh, and commanded a legion of Fire Nation soldiers to catch the people hidden in the clouds as the rest of the army marched into Ti-nou. An hour or two later, the guards had surrendered to the might of the army, and Aang was waiting for the legion he sent. The people had worried looks, but strangely nothing like sadness or anger crossed their dirty faces. Finally the legion came, but instead of Zuko, Katara, Toph, Sokka, and Suki, they brought back five earthbending guards.
"What, where are the rebels?!" Aang asked angrily. He grabbed the nearest boy, who happened to be Lee.
"Hey!" Lee protested, but then a dagger of fire appeared under his chin.
"Tell me where they are, or the boy is dead!" Aang threatened.
"No, don't!" Lee protested, seeing his father starting to speak up.
"I am truly sorry." Lee's father murmured, and said "They went west, towards some swamp they knew of. The guards were meant to be a distraction." The whole town stared at Aang in surprise as a smile grew on his face, and laughs echoed from within him. He dropped Lee and pushed him to his parents.
"You can have your kid back. You have given me the best news I have heard in three years!" Aang laughed.
"W-what?" Lee's father stammered.
"They will meet their deaths there, the fools!" Aang laughed and, and yelled the command for the army to leave.
"You have made my day, so I will forgive your...insurgence, and spare your little village." As Aang was leaving, Sensu called out "What happened to the Avatar that was supposed to help us all?"
Aang looked over and replied "What has happened to me you ask? I've learned truths that would tear your mind at the very thought of them. I've seen things that could destroy you before you even knew you were dead. Though darkness now holds me, it has enlightened me as well."
Zuko and the rest of the gang looked amazingly at the swamp. The dense foliage towered over them like great towers, waiting for them to enter.
"This is...one massive swamp." Suki whispered.
"Maybe," Sokka replied, "But we have friends who live here. They can help us get through the swamp to Omashu."
"Okay then," Toph said, impatiently, "Let's go!"
Unknown to them, as the friends entered the swamp; bright, reptilian eyes watched them in earnest, even hunger one might say. A crocodile smile appeared from the darkness of the beast's hiding hole, and the creature murmured a favorite saying of his:
"The bait has been laid, and the webs spun. Now all there is to do is to let the flies blunder into them...and then the feast shall begin!"
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