I am sorry to say this chapter isn't very long, but that couldn't really be helped. I just had to update today of all days, y'know? (sniff) To think at this time last year I was so very psyched and excited and hopeful... (sob)
Well, a folder with a bunch of my work got deleted recently -- fortunately the bulk of this thing wasn't in there or this would have taken for-absolute-ever -- but some stuff is gone so this did take longer than I wanted it to. I have never written an action scene in my entire life -- hence the utter lack in this chappy. Suggestions? Comments? Concerns? All are very much welcomed.
"How far away are they?" Sokka's slightly annoyed cry was nearly drowned out by the sound of crushed sticks and leaves underfoot as they ran for safety.
"Just a little more!" Toph replied, equally irked. She could feel exactly where they were but their friends were going nearly as fast as themselves. Can't he just trust me?
"That's what you said five minutes ago," Sokka pointed out, but said nothing after realizing she had no intention of responding. Irritating Toph at this moment was most likely not the best idea. In fact, talking just served to further void his lungs of air, so he held his tongue for the remainder of the sprint.
They've stopped running, Toph noticed suddenly. They appeared to be alone, however, so they hadn't been caught... she only noticed that past them, the earth seemed to dip drastically and was packed down by the massive weight... Toph groaned... of water. Thankfully, the stretch from where Sokka and Toph were to the riverbank was only dotted with soldiers, obstacles easily overcome with a flick of Toph's wrist before they even knew what hit them. Soon, the trees thinned out and gave way to the dark expanse of the river. The two friends halted once they reached the edge. Toph frowned.
"Where'd they go?"
Sokka watched a figure swathed in blue and holding a somewhat smaller person to her chest, race across the river on a platform of ice.
"They're in the water." Sokka looked down at Toph and grimaced, knowing how much she hated these situations and realizing he'd have to swim with her in his arms to reach the other side. At least we have a head start, he conceded. Sokka made to pick up his companion but she, to his surprise, shook her head.
"Not this time." Toph's foot slammed onto the earth and thrust her arms upward to bring up a small wave of earth from under their feet. "Hang on, Snoozles," she warned ineffectively then shot forward in a running motion, the earth racing above the water and sending spray onto her clothes.
Sokka teetered backward before reaching around Toph's waist and desperately clutching at her, nervously eyeing the expanse of water below and behind them. Toph bit back a smile and rolled her eyes at his fear.
Payback is sweet.
Katara panicked as she heard voices carry to her from the bank behind her. Her arms instinctively tightened around Aang and she managed to spur the ice she rode to move even faster. They had reached land not more than an instant later. She jumped onto it and turned, spotting a grotesque, dark figure riding a mound of earth. Eyes widening for a moment, she almost fainted with relief when she realized the silhouette was of none other than Toph, and Sokka hanging onto her for dear life.
"Finally!" Toph remarked as she stepped off of the wave, Sokka sent sprawling face first on the ground as he hadn't anticipated her movement. He glared up at her darkly.
No one seemed to know what to do for a moment, the extent of their efforts managing to catch up to them and leave them out of breath. Sokka rose to his feet, glancing behind to be sure that the soldiers hadn't followed this far. Aang heaved labored breaths and tried to ignore the piercing pains that shot through his chest, instead turning his attention to Katara's fingers digging into his left shoulder as if to assure herself of his safety. Looking up, he noted that she seemed oblivious to the fact she was still holding onto him, her solemn eyes deliberately scanning the water.
"Look," Toph spoke up, "we really should get going. I don't think it's going to take them that long to figure out the water isn't that deep -- and that there's a bridge not too far from here." Sokka and Katara both looked at the opposite bank again, faces falling when their gazes landed on the mass of soldiers on it.
"We've definitely gotta go," Sokka conceded. Aang remained oddly silent, features still drawn into a frown. Katara's earnest words floated into his ears.
"Do you think you can make it?" His gray pupils flicked up to meet hers for a moment before moving away, head bobbing in affirmation. She squeezed his arm then pushed him to run after Toph and Sokka.
Her hands glided through the air, fingers tensing and arms flowing to bend the moving water to her will. It wasn't long until those wading in the water found themselves flung back into the forest beyond by a bended tendril – with a fling of her arms out then up, a thick shield of ice rose to block the path through the liquid expanse.
"Let's go!" Sokka called to Katara, motioning with his hands. She turned to run toward him breathlessly, catching up to her other companions and skirting the base of a hill with them.
The stunned faces of a Fire Nation troop stopped them dead in their tracks.
For one palpably tense moment, neither side seemed to know how to react – what were the odds of the small group encountering two sets of enemies in a single night? But it didn't matter; it had happened and they had to deal with it. Fast.
Toph was first to charge on the offensive, raising a slab of rock from the ground to thrust at the soldiers. They, in turn, shot out a barrage of flames from their fists while gradually encircling the foursome. A split second allowed Katara to send Aang a warning cast – Don't give yourself away! her eyes cried – which he just as quickly shrugged off. Frowning, he appeared to heed at least some of her unspoken wishes by settling for a solid horse stance and a brusque punch in the air, raising earth from underneath a soldier but merely sending him stumbling a few feet away. The technique had lost its power under Aang's frail command – likely hurting him more than his adversary as he suddenly crumpled to the ground.
You're too far away from him anyway. It took more willpower than Katara had ever thought she possessed to leave him defenseless on the other side of the field and keep on fighting.
A spinning blur of metal easily downed two men, smacking against their armored helmets before returning to its owner. Sokka caught the boomerang in his race to Aang's body, Toph laying down a defense of rock pillars, Katara knocking over people left and right with a water whip. The warrior muttered indecipherable syllables under his breath belied by the utter panic in his eyes when he reached Aang. He hefted the younger boy over his shoulder, gaze flying over the field of mostly downed soldiers for escape. He spotted Katara's hands guiding her water back to its skin before she turned toward him.
"Come on!" she yelled desperately, letting Toph fall back to guard her brother and Aang while she ran ahead of them. The soldiers behind were coming to and the ones on the other side of the river had nearly finished crossing it. She made a sharp left into a thicket, pausing to listen for any more danger, but the only other signs of life were her companions as they caught up to her. They were off again.
Toph instantly recognized the voice of the troop leader from earlier, stunned that he'd been liberated from his dirt prison so quickly. She could feel the pounding of dozens of feet behind them and the drastic downward slope of the hillside they would find when emerging from the mass of trees. Toph lifted ground from under her feet as she ran, allowing them a little more time since the soldiers tripped on the uneven ground. Three pairs of legs quivered with effort as they flew up another incline that eventually plateaued. The earthbender, however, suddenly stopped short on the moist dirt.
Her exclamation caused the siblings to also halt and hasten back toward her in case she needed help. Their wide blue pupils could barely make out her grayish form in the moonlit darkness.
"What's wrong?" Katara asked worriedly. Toph simply knelt to press her hand to the soil then straightened and drove her arms forward, palms facing her, revealing an ominous gape in the earth.
"It's a tunnel." The implications of Toph's matter of fact statement sunk in before the rest of her words were even spoken. "We can hide out in it!"
Hesitating only for an instant, Sokka made his way into it, the ground steep enough to make him lose his footing and slide the rest of the way into the black void. He yelped, Aang slipping off of his sore shoulder, both landing in a heap at the bottom with the – thankfully horizontal – machete that had flown out of its sheath. Katara's descent was much the same, her fall cushioned by her brother who let out a small "oof". Toph ran into the hole and jumped over her friends, lifting her arms to cover the entrance with their makeshift ramp as she went. Their pursuers shouldn't have been far enough up the hill to see where they had gone... The four of them waited with bated breath, hearing people stomp over the cavern until, finally, the noises faded away. Toph leaned heavily against a wall, Sokka and Katara letting out relieved sighs.
"We made it," Sokka panted. He let his head drop back against the floor. "We made it."
He almost had them.
They'd raced up the hill and he and his men followed, each bound minimizing the distance between them. The ground evened out before they knew it but his prey was nowhere in sight; they must have descended. So, he pumped his muscles even harder, reaching the summit and preparing to step onto the hill's decline.
The decline was nonexistent.
All of his weight had manifested itself on his forward leg which plummeted into thin air, giving way to a hefty drop. A fearful cry bubbled up into his throat as he took in the fact that he would soon flail into oblivion, the cliff side dissolving into a moonless nothing. The scream was cut short at the sense of sturdy fingers closing around his arms and pulling him back up.
"Captain? Are you alright?" the owner of one of the sets of hands spoke up cautiously as said captain collapsed from shock. Several other soldiers reached them and stopped, frowning at the heavily breathing man. Within moments, however, he arose, coming face to face with another officer covered in dirt.
"Where are they?" the officer boomed. He was more than furious for having been trapped by the earthbender and subsequently losing the two – plus that waterbender. Sobriety had mostly returned along with his rage, alerting everyone that he was a force to be reckoned with. The captain straightened once he recognized the person before him.
"Admiral Chou!" The captain bowed slightly – out of respect and out of need to avoid the vicious glare directed toward him.
"Where are they, Yin?" Chou growled through gritted teeth. "Why aren't you after them?"
"Uh," the other officer began, "you see--" But he was vehemently pushed aside by the admiral.
"How could you possibly--" He broke off as he reached the edge of the cliff. Pebbles disturbed by his boot rolled off of the ledge and into the seemingly endless drop below. Chou pulled back in surprise. "Oh."
After taking a minute to survey the landscape and ease the slight spinning in his vision, he spoke again. "Are you sure they... that they went this way?" Yin nodded.
"Yes." Chou, however, didn't look quite satisfied.
"There's a river at the bottom isn't there? One of them was a waterbender."
"The drought dried up the ravine, Sir," Yin informed him.
"Then there's the earthbender... but she couldn't save them all." Scenarios were flashing through his mind, trying to assure him that they weren't to be worried about anymore. Not long into his thought, though, a pounding in his head reminded him just what he'd been doing before stumbling upon the duo in that forest clearing. He pressed his hands to his head and wordlessly walked away. Yin watched helplessly.
"Just... make sure they're gone... I'll be back... in a few days." He squinted his eyes against the pain. The ringing in his ears easily drowned out Yin's "Yes, sir."
After catching her breath again and regaining some logic, it was the first thing that came to mind, like it had been for the past two weeks. The adrenaline that had rapidly left Toph and Sokka now found its way coursing back through her veins as she frantically whispered his name.
"Aang? Aang, are you okay?" She felt around, finding a warm mass not far from her.
"If you're looking for Aang," Sokka mumbled, "my leg isn't him." She didn't respond, only moved her hands from her brother to another limb lying still against a wall.
Knowing Katara was calling him wasn't quite enough to rouse him out of his weakened haze. The abnormal sensation of a touch traveling up his thigh, however, did a better job of waking him up.
"I'm up here, Katara," he croaked out. Thankfully, the darkness hid both of their blushes as her hand recoiled.
"Are you okay?" she repeated her earlier question. Aang winced, knowing that trying to earthbend of all things had not been the brightest idea and that the tumble into this cave hadn't improved his situation. Katara, realizing that a lack of response wasn't a good sign, altered her query. "Do you think you can walk?" Aang tested out his legs and arms before raising himself into a sitting position and using the wall to aid him up. He only lasted several seconds before grimacing as his knees buckled under his weight.
"Not right now," he responded breathily, slumping back down. Katara's heart sank.
"Maybe we should just rest for a while," she decided, pulling herself over to Aang's side and leaning against the wall.
"Great," Sokka cracked, "now we're stuck in another random cave. At least there are no singing nomads – where was Toph when you needed her?" He shrugged. "What is this place anyway?" Sokka had been trying to find any small source of light around them but had finally given up, resorting to blindly reattaching his weapon around his waist.
"It's a maze of tunnels... they all spread out," Toph informed them. She answered Sokka's question but still mulled over his first statement in her mind. It wasn't often that she asked about what had happened before joining the group... but Aang's odd reaction to that had piqued her interest. It wasn't as if they had anything better to do at the moment. "So, what was the first 'random cave' you guys got stuck in?" Yep, there it was, the telltale quickening of the Avatar's pulse.
"Some pass through the mountains to get into Omashu." Sokka just waved it off, though it was obsolete in the darkness.
"The Cave of Two Lovers," Toph spoke up. She felt the surprise of her companions pulsing as a wave. "Hello? Story of the first earthbenders? Everyone in the Earth Kingdom has heard of it at least once. So that's what you went through, huh?"
"Yes." Katara had decided to chime in, but with an unusual fluctuation in her voice. So it's bothering her too?
This was just too good.
"I will never get near closed spaces with them again," Sokka vowed. Toph smirked.
"It couldn't have been that bad, Snoozles. You're the only one complaining."
"Hey, they were enjoying it right along with 'em! Anyway, they weren't the ones trapped with those people and their singing," he snapped. "Some cave-in just had to separate us. And then we were attacked by badgermoles -- who surprisingly, liked music--" Sokka warmed up to his story "--so we ended up riding them to the exit of the cave."
"Cool." But that still left... "So how'd you two get out?" Katara and Aang tensed, uncomfortable and probably confused at the appeal Toph had suddenly developed for their adventure. Sokka seemed to give a substantial amount of attention to what they would respond, leading her to believe he hadn't gotten much of the story either. Then again, at the time, he probably hadn't cared.
"There were crystals on the ceiling that lit up once the lights were completely out," Katara explained.
"That simple?" Toph pushed.
"Of course not." Now Katara was clearly aggravated. "We just wandered about for hours, thinking we were going to die in there."
"Okaay, I get it, touchy subject." Not that she hadn't detected it before. Katara seemed to be aware of that; she let out an exasperated expire before settling even more into the rock. The ease had broken with an audible snap, unexpected and abnormal. Sokka was clueless as to what had just happened, all of them feeling the strain of their anxiety... and undeniably some other imperceptible thing.
"Shouldn't we be going? I'm sure you feel right at home, Toph, but seriously, we should get a move on." Sokka rose to his feet after his comment.
"The soldiers are still up there. We can't leave now."
"Our best bet is probably the tunnels," Katara spoke up, a bit more controlled this time. Aang straightened himself a bit, uneasy with the idea.
"We don't even know where they lead," he countered weakly. He wasn't sure he liked the feel of this place and much less wanted to go explore it.
"That's what Toph's--"
"Wait!" the younger girl exclaimed, cutting into Sokka's retort. "Someone's coming," she said more lowly. Sokka's hand shot to his hilt but he rolled his eyes.
"Here we go again." He quelled his thumping heartbeat and took a defensive position in the direction he assumed said person to be coming from -- Toph turned and moved him to a spot on the other side of the enclose not a second after -- and Katara uncorked her waterskin, remaining by the side of her hurt friend. Five fingers clutched onto his arm.
A faint glow brightened with each passing moment from the tunnel quite near them. Soon, a dark figure came into view holding out a torch in front of him, appearing to be twenty or so paces away. Light couldn't have possibly been shed onto them from that far yet he paused and bowed for everyone to see.
"I know you are here and you need help."
The four were instantly rendered speechless.
"I mean you no harm and will be of assistance however I can." The man approached slowly, revealing him to be sparsely whiskered and middle-aged. All tensed save Toph who dropped her fighting stance.
"He's telling us the truth." Still, the unusual situation called for at least some suspicion.
"You have nowhere to go." The reverberation throughout the air was intoned as more of something to reflect upon than a statement of unbendable truth. "Follow me."
"We don't have much of a choice you know," Toph whisperingly informed her friends. Sokka sighed, ambivalent but not liking their present situation. Katara tended to agree with Toph and honestly couldn't sense any ill will coming from the mysterious man. She glanced at Aang. His face was lit just enough to make out the slight, unhappy turn of the corners of his lips. Even with her gut feeling, his dark eyes were enough to awaken the skeptic within her. Her voice tried to reach him, but Toph broke into the silence first.
"We should go." She was sure about this. Plus, her interest simply had to be quenched; what did all of these tunnels lead to anyway? Toph walked off toward the light.
Sokka and Katara exchanged wary glances but largely trusted her instincts. Backing away, Sokka wrapped one of Aang's arms around his neck, careful to support the younger boy's shoulders and not his back. It was meant to ease his effort but also to be a failsafe as the injured boy couldn't walk, much less run if need be, on his own.
Aang resisted only slightly, not having the strength or the audacity to voice the niggling twinge of concern rising in his chest. Perhaps, he figured, he was overreacting after all. He could barely place one foot in front of the other and that problem soon engulfed his tired mind
In any event, their other options had disappeared and as of now, they couldn't gain much by fighting. Six pairs of feet silently padded down the dirt path, mouths quiet, eyes curious, bodies weary. It seemed the best thing to obey.