Wearily, Aang peeked out of the doorway to see if the coast was clear. The thumping of hastened steps could be heard in the distance.
"Which way takes us downward?" Aang inquired.
"This way." Kujo pointed the way Aang had come. The Avatar groaned mentally; that was the direction of A LOT of enemy footsteps. Still, if that was the way they needed to go, then so be it.
"Can you run if we need to?"
"I think so."
Aang dashed ahead, hoping to encounter the firebenders and surprise them first. A trio of soldiers were caught unaware and knocked out by sharp gust of wind into the wall. There were more guards ahead; fighting his way through them was going to be tiresome.
Up at the cave entrance, the conflict came to a sudden stop. A Fire Nation general from below emerged to call the reinforcements inside. Katara could not make out everything they were saying, but as soon as the word "infiltrated" touched her ears, she knew what had happened and acted.
Her arms moved in a wide, pulling arc, drawing another great wave to pummel the enemy. The earthbenders launched a volley that rained down on the sodden firebenders, effectively clearing the way for the attacking force to move forward. As the earthbenders rushed for the entrance, several of the guards forced themselves to their feet in a vain attempt to block their passage. But with the obscuring mist clouding their sight, they never saw the flash of fans that rendered them unconscious.
Katara rushed in, a globule of water at the ready. The deeper into the cave she went, the warmer the temperature became. For an average waterbender, fear of their only weapon evaporating in the growing heat would have set them on edge. But Katara was no amateur, and if she needed more water, she could pull the very vapor from the air.
The path ahead forked in twine. Pipes of varying sizes were lined all along the outer walls in both directions. Thinking quickly, Katara took the path to the left. It dipped downward, growing hotter with every step. She spotted Fire Nation soldiers ahead of her, but they were retreating into the facility, not out of it.
A water whip lashed out, catching a soldier and sending him sprawling into the others. Those not felled by the strike turned quickly, releasing bursts of flame. Out in the misty open, they had been at a loss. Here in the dry heat of the facility, the fire benders were the ones with the upper hand.
Elsewhere, Aang dropped to his knees to regain his breath. He had taken out a small, but well trained army, and the fight had left him exhausted. Sweat trickled down his neck, soaking his garments. Weakly, he could sense footsteps approaching from both directions. Aang forced himself to his feet.
From the front, seven soldiers rushed at him, three armed with kwan dao and the rest bending fire. Aang moved to block the blow, only to have it suddenly blocked for him. Kujo had caught up with him and, seeing the Avatar out of breath, moved in to help.
"Thanks!" breathed Aang.
"Don't thank me yet." Kujo stood poised to firebend. "I'll handle these guys. Worry about the ones coming up behind us!"
Aang couldn't see the soldiers following them, but he could feel their footfalls. If he didn't act quickly, they would be overwhelmed before they could take care of the ones at hand. Immediately, he earthbent a wall behind them, sealing off the reinforcements. He had to duck quickly to avoid a fireball aimed directly at his head.
Kujo had been mostly blocking the barrage of blows coming at him. Aang could see that while he was holding his own, he wouldn't be able to keep it up for too long. A wide sweeping gust of his staff slammed five soldiers into the wall, stunning them. The other two, knocked off balance dodging Kujo's strikes, found themselves shackled to the floor by earthen manacles.
Aang and Kujo took a moment to catch their breath. Behind them, confused soldiers pounded at the makeshift wall.
"How much further ahead do we need to go?" Aang asked.
"Not much more." Kujo replied. "Once we reach the steel doors, you'll know."
Katara had successfully knocked aside the group of retreating soldiers, but the encounter had left her a bit winded. Still, she pressed on, anxious to find Aang in the ruckus. She heard running behind her, but was relieved to see that they were Kyoshi Warriors, hurrying unhindered despite their long-skirted uniforms.
She nearly tripped and fell over an unconscious firebender, pinned to the floor by earthbending. Other defeated soldiers lay scattered about the immediate area. There was no blood, and a cough confirmed that they were alive.
"Aang did this. He can't be too far ahead." She reasoned.
The Kyoshi Warriors caught up to her and began tying up the soldiers. Katara continued down the hallway, only to encounter a confused group of firebenders backed up against a wall of solid rock. She wasted no time in putting them down, snatching weapons and whipping them into one another.
One gutsy soldier tried to catch her with a large fireball. She deflected it with a water shield, but the flames had evaporated a good portion of it before being extinguished. Only a small globule remained, but Katara whipped him twice across the chest and torso before retreating back.
Following the other pathway from the fork in the cavern was Fire Lord Zuko. He was accompanied by several earthbenders and loyal firebenders. His pace was quick, but purposeful. He visually took in the structure of the facility, occasionally glancing at a yellowed map he held.
One of his firebenders paused suddenly in a doorway, checking for trouble.
"Fire Lord Zuko!" he started. "I think you may want to have a look at this!"
The room was large with a high rocky ceiling. Various boiler and heating equipment seemed scattered about the space, complimented with piles of pipes and support beams. In the very center of the dimly lit room was a table with manacles for a captive's hands and feet.
Judging by the state of its contents, the room seemed incomplete, like a work in progress. One boiler-like device stood ready to be assembled. Beside it was a long, jointed pole meant to be attached to a strange flat metal slab on one end, and to the main device on the other end. Zuko felt his stomach lurch, but refused to let the others see his tension.
"My Lord?" one of the firebenders piped up.
Having learned what the facility was designed to do, Zuko was tempted to order everything in the room demolished to nothing. He even considered destroying it all himself, but reason reined that idea in. Those involved in this operation were to be apprehended and put on trial for their crimes. It would do no good to destroy the mountains of evidence before then.
"Lock down this room and see that no one tampers with it until I give the order to do so." Zuko replied.
The firebenders soldered the door shut, and the earthbenders finished it off with a stone slab in front. Satisfied, the group continued on.
The dungeon was dark with stale air. Though Aang needed no light to see, Kujo bent a small tongue of flame to see by. Deeper in, the stale air took on a pungent odor likened to platypus-bear dung and old vomit. Aang was forced to cover his nose, but the stench seemed to hardly bother Kujo.
"After living in this for years, one sort of gets used to it." He explained bitterly.
The sound of movement caught their attention. Through the barred windows of thick, metal doors peered scared, sunken eyes. Hands and arms sometimes darted out, grasping at air and denied freedom. The horrible smell was at its worst here. Aang dared a look inside one of the cells.
An older man, sometime in his fifties, crouched down on a pile of moldy hay beside two younger men. In the opposite corner were two women, shivering despite the otherwise warm temperature about them. All looked thin, hungry, and scared as they returned the stare Aang was giving them.
"Kujo, I need you to stand guard while I open the doors." Aang gripped the lock wheel on the first cell door and began turning it.
"Right." The other man replied.
Aang opened the first door and peered in. The occupants looked confused, but stood up, shaking.
"Come on out!" Aang urged. "You're free now."
One by one, the prisoners stepped out, still shaking, but with a flicker of returning hope in their eyes.
"Can you help me free everyone else?" Aang added as he reached for the next lock wheel.
Sense and strength seemed to return to the prisoners as they raced to the other doors and began opening them. However long their imprisonment had been had weakened them, but in two groups, they were able to turn the heavy lock wheels and free their fellow captives.
There must have been well over a hundred prisoners kept here, and there were only a few more doors to open when Kujo hurried in, looking nervous.
"Lord Avatar! Someone is coming!" he stuttered.
"Can you tell who it is?" Aang asked.
"No." Kujo shook his head.
Aang turned to the freed captives. Some were clinging to one another while others stared at him, waiting.
"I'm getting you all out of here." He announced. "But I'm going to need your help. You are all firebenders, right?"
The crowd nodded.
"Alright then. Let's move out! Follow me!"
Aang hurried to the forefront to meet the enemy first. A powerful burst of air sent the four incoming soldiers head over heals, giving the four behind them clearance to firebend. Aang blocked it, but the force of the fireballs had knocked him back somewhat. Another barrage of fire came at him, but by this time, Kujo had caught up with him and dissipated part of the attack.
The soldiers seemed confident only until the multitude of former prisoners gathered behind the Avatar. Fueled by their freedom, the ex-captives raised a mighty war cry and charged the overwhelmed soldiers. While the stronger individuals rushed in, Aang doubled back to make sure the weaker ones were keeping up.
Drawing water from the dry air, Katara reasoned, was about as difficult as convincing Sokka to eat a salad. What little she had gathered had been mostly her own perspiration, but it would have to do. When she regrouped with the Kyoshi Warriors, she drew what water she could off of them and added it to her relatively small blob. If only she could find some source of water here!
The Kyoshi Warriors apprehended the soldier Katara had encountered before and decided to question him rather than knock him out. When asked what was ahead, Katara explained that the hallway was earthbent shut. Without any earthbenders currently in the group, they would have to find another way around it. The soldier sputtered that there might be a by-pass through one of the rooms, but that he was not sure which one.
Through with their interrogations, they tied the soldier up and proceeded do the same to the unconscious firebenders by the blockage ahead of them.
Things were not going so smoothly for Aang and the freed firebenders. Reinforcements had been called in to stop the uprising, and the waves of soldiers were rapidly wearing the Avatar out. Even with assistance, Aang was unable to do much beyond knocking the soldiers this way and that.
A hard stomp of his foot put a thick wall between Aang and the soldiers. The vicious pounding on the opposite side thundered through, but at least for now, Aang and the others were safe.
Wading through the crowd, the Avatar moved toward the nearest doorway on the left side. It was locked, but Aang could sense that someone was on the other side of it. Carefully, he pressed his ear to the door and listened. The general's voice and several others could be heard from within:
"Are all documents secured and accounted for?"
"Yes, General. Everything of importance has been confiscated from this room."
"Good. Get to the other two offices and collect everything there as well. I want NOTHING left to be found here. Hurry!"
"Oh no you don't!" Aang gritted his teeth and laced into the metal door with his fists. It didn't break through, but the door was definitely dented. Collective gasps escaped the onlookers. From the other side of the door, all action paused briefly before resuming hastily to the barking of orders.
Even with all of the pounding, if there was another way out of that room, then Aang still might not break through in time to catch up with the General and his party.
"Lord Avatar?" came one of the voices behind him. "If we heat the door, it might break easier."
Aang wondered why he hadn't thought of it before. With a nod, he and those closest about him commenced blazing the door to a fiery red.
Dear GAWD this chapter was a pain in the ass to do!!!! Honestly, watching battles is one thing, but writing them descriptively without reusing the same words over and over again is hard as hell! Also, I am aware that I changed scenes alot here; adding too much to any of them would have just dragged it down, and I really want to avoid that.
I don't know the proper term for those doors that open with the big wheels. I don't call them wheel locks because those are a type of firearm.
I apologize sincerely for taking so damn long with this. No, I was not killed by a rabid Zutaran. (LOL!) Again, battle/action scenes are VERY difficult for me. Still, i appreciate any input my readers have for this. Once I get past all this action stuff, maybe we can return to romance, smexings, and weddings.
And maybe the Katara pregnancy question, which i have yet again managed to avoid revealing. LOL