|The Chong Sheng Trilogy: War
Author: Dorkness Rising PM
AU from 2x15, and first of a trilogy. As Aang and his friends continue their search for Appa, the Fire Nation escalates its goal to topple Ba Sing Se. Zutara, Sokki. COMPLETE.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Romance - Zuko & Katara - Chapters: 20 - Words: 74,559 - Reviews: 129 - Favs: 187 - Follows: 57 - Updated: 04-23-08 - Published: 08-31-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3759272
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: I own not, you sue not.
The Chong Sheng Trilogy
PART I: War
Chapter 20: The Fall of Ba Sing Se
It repeated in his mind like those mantras Iroh made him chant during training to help him focus.
They're crazy. They're crazy. They're crazy. They're crazy.
It was a surreal vision, watching the first four lines of the entire fleet impale themselves on near invisible spikes and drop to the earth like dandelion seeds. Almost like he was watching it happen outside his body. Watching the flank begin to break off and head toward him. Feeling his arms move on reflex to engage them, fire whips blazing across the night sky and tearing into them with a vengeance he didn't recognize.
They didn't even seem to care that he was there. Drifted right past him if his whip didn't catch him. Didn't waste time trying to shoot at him, because he was too insignificant to slow them down and they knew it. He was nothing. They could overwhelm him with nothing but their own volume, and he'd be powerless to stop it.
He knew this. And it made no difference as he dove and cracked his whips in a heavy rhythm of sizzling flame and roaring wind. It was hopeless, and yet he didn't care. Not when all he could see was the look on Sokka's face when he'd tried to dissuade him. That grim determination to do everything in his power to save as many people as he could.
Never give up without a fight...
No. He wasn't going to.
The very thought made a surge of strength race up his spine like a rising serpent, and he swirled the whips in his hands as Iroh had done to the door at the temple, creating a strong thermal gust that surged him through the ranks of balloons. He slashed at the cables of each craft rather than the canopies, tearing through more and smaller targets and not letting himself look back as the basket with its three crewmen plumeted to the ground below.
The air itself began to shudder with a thunderous rumble, and he looked up to see the portion of the fleet still behind the wall moving, gathering back into plalanx formation near the center of the barrier. The lead crew took a stance he knew all too well, staring down the ice before loosing a wave of fireblasts. Large ones that exploded from their hands with the roar and force of a heavy cannon.
The wall shuddered under the impact, ice shards flying into the wind as Katara and Aang swooped and dove in a desperate attempt to repair it before the next blast. He refused to let his heart sink no matter how much it wanted to. It would only be a matter of time before the wall came down, and he knew it.
But there was still time. And as long as that was so, they were going to fight.
Nothing got more people to listen, Lao concluded, faster than hands-on experience. And so it was that when the ground began to shake and sound exploded in the distance and giant pillars of smoke rose within the walls of the city like the fingers of a buried demon, people who had previously blown off his warnings as the ramblings of one who'd spent too long in the sun were now buying supplies with whatever they had on them and flocking toward the nearest entrance.
The other troops funneled them away into the recesses of the tunnels in a line such that nobody could lose their way because it backed up all the way to the entrance. He didn't want to think of how large the camp had grown in the last ten minutes as he and Shen herded them in to cover.
"We can't keep this open too much longer," he said. "The minute a bomb falls within fifty feet of here, we have to close down."
"I know," Shen replied. "But we're going to get in as many as possible. We have to." He recited the line as though from memory, eyes glazed and distracted, staring through people and buildings rather than at them. In the way people did when their bodies were in front of you, but their minds were somewhere far away and unreachable.
He jumped, startled, staring at him for a moment and sheepishly getting back to work. But there was no hiding the tremor in his hands from one who had watched over him on nights the rest of the battallion dared not approach. He sighed, resting a hand on Shen's arm.
"What is it?"
His captain visibly fought the urge to falter at the sound of another bomb in the distance. "After all this time, I never thought he would be...here."
Lao swallowed thickly, knowing the tightness in that voice and feeling his own throat grow taught in sympathy. "It's unexpected for all of us. But at the moment we don't have time to stop and dwell on it."
"I know," Shen said. But the look in his eyes betrayed just how much of his attention was lost to it. Lao frowned, reaching down to squeeze his hand in comfort.
The line of refugees disappeared into the tunnel for the first moment in half an hour, and Lao suspected most of the surrounding district had been evacuated by nothing but word of mouth. Yet they stood at the yawning entrance, scanning the empty streets for anyone else. The sound of artillery drew ever closer. They could smell the after-stench of exploded blasting jelly and the metallic tang of shrapnel, so strong Lao found he could just about taste it on the wind. It turned his stomach.
But not nearly as much as the look in his superior's eyes.
He frowned. "I think he might understand, you know."
Shen shook his head. "I would never expect that of him. If I thought myself forgivable, I wouldn't have spent almost a decade living like a badgermole."
"You don't have to tell him, you know. None of us will, you can trust that. Take it to your grave if you wish."
Shen finally looked up, meeting his eyes with a gaze worn beyond that of any man his age. "I was hoping to be in it before I ever faced him again."
Something told her this wasn't such a great idea anymore. It could've been the way her arms and fingers ached as she fought to repair the cracks in the wall from each new volley of fire. Or that a glance to either flank made her heart sink like a derelict ship seeing Zuko and her brother each fighting a hopelessly lost battle. But more likely, it was the sound of bombs already dropping over the city's outer wall.
They had already failed. The most she could hope for was to lessen the destruction somewhat. But even that possibility was looking pretty remote as the wall buckled dangerously, and it took a combined effort between her and Aang to refreeze it. Ice shards hung everywhere around them, glistening under the moon and and clinging to her clothes and hair. She had to do something to slow their rate of fire and give her more time between strikes to exact repairs. That, of course, meant taking out some of the front lines without compromising the wall's already slim integrity any further.
Fortunately, she thought, ice was as bendable as water. She turned to Aang as they crossed flight paths again. "You hold the wall. I'm going to try and get rid of more of them."
He opened his mouth to protest, likely to ask her which part of her mind she'd lost. But he thought better of it, just nodding instead before banking off.
She turned back to the wall, flexing her hands and starting to circle in front of the barrier as Aang handled the repair. Higher above it, shoving her arms out to her sides like wings, fingers spread wide. The flying ice needles stopped where they hung in mid-air, held in place for a moment that made the hair on her neck stand up.
She stared down the front line behind the wall, moonlight glinting off the million tiny weapons like a field of deadly stars. A few crooks of her fingers, and they lengthened. And sharpened.
The corner of her mouth lifted in a grin. They would never see it coming.
She swept her arms down. The shards followed, racing and tearing into the unsuspecting army in a savage rain, the moonlight glittering on the sharp ends the only clue to what was happening. Not that it mattered. A craft the size of a two-story house had absolutely no hope of outmaneuvering a weapon the size of her index finger. And especially not an entire cloud layer full of them.
She never thought the sound of grown men screaming could be so pleasant.
The fireblasts immediately ceased, as there were more important things to do right now than smash a four-foot-thick wall of ice. Like get parachutes ready. Not that it would do them much good when they were jumping headlong into a cloud of sharp, barely visible danger. But humans were creatures of habit, she reasoned. They would obey their training to the letter, for in a panic, fuzzy logic would be the last thing to cross their minds.
You're out of your element.
Indeed. An air attack at nighttime. Obviously, whoever planned this disaster had not expected to face a Waterbender. For the moment, the sound of bombs dropping faded into the background. It didn't matter.
Not when she she was holding back a full standing fleet with a literal wave of her arms.
"This is the one we're keeping open for them," Suki said as she followed Toph up the tunnel, tucking the flare launcher into her armor. "If they come flying back this way, we shoot this off to tell them where to go."
"And what if they don't?"
"They will," Suki said. "They have to. This is the closest entrance to the wall."
"That's not what I mean," Toph replied, folding her arms as she leaned her back against the stone. "If Sokka's crazy enough put himself on a glider and send four against a thousand? He may not want to come back." She swallowed hard, and Suki knew by her posture how much she was fighting to keep her voice even.
She sighed, setting a hand on Toph's shoulder. "Sokka's a lot of things. Stupid isn't one of them. If he knows it's a lost cause, he'll pull out, because getting killed for no good reason isn't logical and he knows it. He's needed here."
"By who?" Toph spat. "The rest of us? Yeah, we're needed, 'cause the Avatar isn't gonna learn crap if there's no one around to teach him. Sokka's not a bender, he can't teach Aang anything important, and he knows it. He'd rather go down fighting than come back to face us with his tail between his legs."
"Just because he's not a bender doesn't mean he's useless." She frowned up at the sky, which was starting to darken ominously with smoke. "He may not be able to bend an element, but the boy has brains. The Drill would've destroyed this city long before now had he not figured out how to stop it." She smiled, though she knew the girl couldn't see it. "And don't think for a minute that he would want to leave us behind to go on without him. Especially not his sister. You know better than that."
She seemed to untense at that, but her expression didn't change. "I just hope he does."
The wall shuddered yet again with another volley of fireblasts, and Sokka could only watch helplessly as Aang doubled his efforst to maintain it while his sister tried to hold off the actual fleet. All he could do was try his best to keep back the flanks, and even that was getting to be a lost cause. They'd already reached the city. Bombs were already dropping. People were already dead.
No. Not now. Don't think about it now.
He fought to keep his focus through the haze of panic and noise. If it wasn't bombs behind him, it was fireblasts in front of him and shattering ice and screaming crewman and god he wanted them all to shut up. To give him a moment's peace. But such a thing was not going to happen tonight.
Another balloon went down at a lash of his whip as he looked up in time to see the second line loose a full blast into the one in front of it. Incinerating their own comrades as well as the rain of ice shards bombarding them, using the shrapnel from their remains to further hurl at the wall.
He'd seen plenty of Fire Nation cruelty. Villages razed, civillians killed. And what he hadn't seen firsthand, he'd heard plenty about. Torture, imprisonment, banishment of their own royalty. None of it really fazed or surprised him. It was war, and in war people tended to commit all sorts of savagery in the name of victory.
But the sheer ruthlessness of gunning down one's own people just to reach a target was a level of cruel he couldn't fathom until he'd seen it for himself. And even then it was hard not to think his eyes were tricking him. But the gigantic spiderweb cracks on the wall's outer face didn't lie.
He lashed his whip against another balloon, tearing into it even as he turned to see Aang racing to repair the damage, which was no small feat from what he could tell. Even as the cracks began to disappear back into solid ice, the new front line was already preparing another wave of fire.
But it was only when he watched Katara circle the top of the wall again that he saw it.
A lone balloon, broken off from the fleet and closing steadily toward the front line. Had there not been so much ice and fire being hurled back and forth in that direction, he wouldn't have found it strange. But there was, to the point that he could hardly see through the wall itself for the glittering shards and steam, and it begged the question in his mind of who would be stupid enough to think they could take it all on themselves when the front line of a standing air force was barely making a dent. All the while trying not to remind himself that he was one of only four against said standing fleet and the whole thing was his idea in the first place. Whoever manned that craft had a purpose, and he didn't like it one bit.
And there was nothing like a fireblast shooting right past his glider's left wing to make him turn around and pay better attention to his own predicament. Namely, being overtaken by the flanks in droves of five now, and who knew how many had passed him while he was watching his friends' desperate attempt to curb disaster.
His brow narrowed in concentration, and he readied the whip as he dove in for a sweep under the leading balloon of the formation. His hand tensed for only a moment as he flung the whip, the weight of the metal blades making it wrap around two of the basket's support cables. He brought both feet down to leverage his glider up onto the next thermal, dragging his capture with him even as they readied a fireblast to cut him loose.
He waited. Until he felt the telltale discharge of superhot air. With all the strength he could muster, he turned the glider about face and heaved the whip with both hands.
The fireblast sliced it free. That, he'd been expecting. But the crewman himself had not counted on the momentum to send his balloon crashing headlong into a line of his comrades like an unfortunate drunk in a mid-air bar brawl. The sound of splintering wood and snapping cables and tearing canvas rewarded him.
But he barely had time to savor the victory before the faintest flicker of blue light caught his eye, in the very corner of his vision. He turned to get a better look at it, and his heart and stomach both crashed somewhere around his ankles.
The lone balloon was bearing down on the wall, a good twenty feet above and behind the front line, but even from this distance he could see one of the crew circling their arms in a way he knew well enough, the blue crackle following the hands unmistakable.
A moment later proved him right when a monstrous bolt of lightning tore through the sky.
Aang himself dove out of the way in barely enough time as the fork went right through the wall, refracted in a blinding flash. Sokka winced his eyes shut in pain from the intensity, opening them again even though he knew he had no desire to.
The entire midsection of the wall was gone.
Not even a shard remained, the ice vaporized by the heat of the attack. The fleet wasted no time, ordering themselves to pour through the opening in the most efficient lines they could. He looked back toward the city wall, flames and smoke already peeking up from behind it.
He knew in his mind that it was officially a lost cause. There was no way in hell he, Aang, Katara, and Zuko were going to be able to hold them off again before they reached their target. But his heart, already sick with the dread he'd been carrying since they'd first headed for the temple, refused to accept such a thing. Refused to accept a complete, catastrophic failure such as this.
He whirled his glider around toward the incoming front line, screaming and not even hearing or feeling himself as he tore into them with what was left of his whip, not caring whether he hit man or craft, only concerned with disabling as many of them as he could in as short a time as possible. He didn't even see the fireblasts being flung at him. All he could feel at that moment was the roaring pain in his clenched chest and the sick feeling in his gut and the pounding in his head from how loud he was screaming.
He barely heard the snap of his harness as a well-aimed blast hit the side of his glider from underneath. Or the splintering of burning wood. But he felt the whip of the wind as he fell, looking up to see the remains of his hard work go scattering to the air in burning pieces.
Of all the ways he could've possibly died in a war campaign, this was not the way he wanted.
The voice was Aang's. So were the hands as they caught his shirt, and his entire body shuddered with the force of impact, momentarily winded.
"The mission's off," he said. "We have to get to safety."
Sokka turned to protest, but the look in his friend's eyes said everything he didn't want to.
The signal flare was only one explosion among many, but as it was going into the sky rather than raining down from it, it was also fairly easy to find. The crushing weight of knowing they're efforts were largely in vain only made the faces of those waiting for them on the ground that much worse to see.
He scrambled into the tunnel after Katara, Suki having to forcibly pull Sokka in before Toph sealed the entrance behind them with a stomp and a shove of her arms. Zuko blazed a small fire in his palm to light their way as their comrades lead them on toward Central Camp, swallowing thickly at the look on Sokka's face.
The silence was nearly as crushing as the oppressive, musty air, punctuated by the roar of the carnage far above them. And it only got worse with every step, even the sound of war itself fading away the deeper the tunnel went. It wasn't too long before the familiar smell of pagoda wood fires met his nose, and the inviting glow of the camp welcomed them all with an eerie sense of safety.
Iroh's arms were around him in a tight hug before he really knew what was happening, and he returned the gesture with his own shaky embrace, too dazed to think about anything but how good it felt to not have to stand up anymore. Someone there to catch him, and they always had been, even when he was too stubborn to realize it.
But the relief of being welcomed and loved and even just plain alive was brief, as he pulled away once he noticed Sokka push Suki and Toph and Katara all away from him, staggering toward the tunnel wall.
Katara followed him, reaching out a hand to his shoulder. "Sokka..."
"Just go," he ordered shakily. "Leave me alone, I'm fine."
"No you're not," she retorted. "I know you were counting on this and I know we lost, but don't--"
"Don't what?" he shouted, whirling on her, tears already glistening in his eyes and his voice rough and cracked. "Don't beat myself up over it? Are you kidding me? That was my invention, a weapon I helped create! A weapon I let fall into their hands! And now, it's been used to take out the only Earth Kingdom stronghold left!"
All eyes were on him now, and Zuko could tell by the look in each of them they felt the same reality slam them in the gut as he did.
"Ba Sing Se is gone! And it's all my fault! All those deaths? They're on my hands!" Indeed, he looked down at them, scratched and bruised and trembling, a look of horror on his face that Zuko hadn't ever thought the boy was capable of making. "Millions of people... Dead because of me..."
The realization seemed to hit him the moment he said it, as his legs buckled and he grabbed the wall for support, shaking like a poison victim and gasping for breath though his cries were barely audible. Suki and Toph were the only two brave enough to venture close, pulling him away from the rock and carrying him toward a lone, sheltered corner.
The sound of a bomb hitting directly above them shook the very walls of the tunnel, a wordless affirmation of all the fears none of them dared to voice.
END OF BOOK I