Sorry I was gone for long. I hope you didn't forget about me!

xXx Chapter 23 xXx

xXx The Ancient Island xXx

The sun kissed beach was far behind her, as was Ozai. A torrid mass of plant life surrounded her on all sides as she made her way through the island. As the sun inched higher and higher into the cloudless sky, the temperature rose. Due to the immense heat, she could guess that she was near the equator. It was very possible that she was near the Fire Nation, which didn't bode too well for her. It was a little nerve racking to have Ozai so close to his former home; so close to his ultimate goal. She suddenly stopped, looked up to the sky, and then back in the direction of the beach. It wouldn't take long for the sun to wake Ozai, and that was only if he wasn't already awake. She knew that he would search for her; however, she felt as if she had put a fair amount distance between them. It would take him a long time to find her, and she had no intention of making that task easy for him.

Determined to put even more distance between them, she started moving again. With the clattering, chirping, and stretching of the island's animals, she was able to move through the undergrowth without fear of being heard. The crunching of leaves and branches beneath her feet seemed to be a natural part of the forest, so it would not draw any attention. The forest was so thick that it was capable of easily concealing her. It was the perfect terrain to hid in and make an escape. Still, she moved with calculated caution and scanning eyes. She definitely didn't need to run through the forest and announce her presence to everyone. Not that she had seen any other people. While she had no desire for Ozai to find her, she wondered if she would come across anyone else.

From what she had seen so far, this island seemed uninhabited. There weren't any docks on the beach, and there weren't any pathways winding through the forest. The area around her also seemed to be undisturbed by human life. The forest ground was packed with trees, and it didn't look like any of them were cut down for lumber. There were no signs of hunting or gathering. No sounds of industrialization or human life. However, such an undisturbed world did not mean the absence of civilization. Her journeys through the world had proven that. Furthermore, the natural world did not tend to go hand in hand with the Fire Nation. While Zuko stopped the strip-mining of the land, many areas still held scars. If this place had ever been abused by the Fire Nation, it would still bare the marks. Since she thought that she was in the area of the Fire Nation, it now seemed unlikely that this place was inhabited by people. That thought notwithstanding, she knew that anything was possible. She wouldn't be surprised if she found an entire town nestled deep within this forest. If this place was untouched by the old Fire Nation, it could be a simple manner of it being uncharted.

It would make her journey easier if she was able to find other people; however, it would also make it easier for Ozai to locate her. If she could find some kind of town, she wouldn't stay there long. The most important thing was figuring out where she was and if she could easily leave. However, she doubted that she would be leaving any time soon. The mysterious island she and Ozai were on may have brought them here for a reason. If that was the case, she wasn't sure if this part of her journey would end well. The island, voice, and dagger all filled her with a sense of trepidation. She simply didn't trust anything that resulted from those three things. Despite her desire to find other people and to avoid Ozai, she stopped again and pulled out the intriguing dagger. The sun's beams trickled through the leaves of the trees and made the glass-like substance glitter.

The warmth of the sun, the sound of life, and smell of the forest almost seemed to fade as the lifeless weapon reverberated in her hand. It was light, and it moved easily in her hands. As she twirled it, the image of the blade seemed to morph into nothing more than a silver blur. When she stopped twirling it, the blurriness remained longer than it should have. The crystalline dagger shifted in and out of focus. She blinked in order to drive off the disconcerting allusion. The blurriness had vanished, but a new property suddenly came to the surface. While it was light only moments ago, the weight of the blade felt as if it was increasing with each passing second, and it forced her grip it with both hands. The same haunting and eerie feeling as before washed over her. Her hold tightened as the blade continued to glisten ominously.

Those dark feelings continued to build until it started to bring up dangerous thoughts. Her mind traveled back to Ozai. She pushed the thought away, but it only came back with more vigor. She was now thinking about the consequences of leaving Ozai behind, which she had not thought of before. What would happen when he finally caught up with her? He had made it clear that she was not to run away from him… It was almost as if the dagger could locate her darkest, most irrational fears and drag them to the surface. She narrowed her eyes at the dagger. How could it affect her in such a way? As her thoughts continued to churn, panic set in and she placed the dagger back at her side. She could not look away from the dagger, and she didn't want to see it. Quickly, she moved the cursed knife to her back. She desperately wished that the saying "out of sight, out of mind" was true, but she knew it was not.

She shook her head and forced Ozai out of her mind. It didn't matter if he caught up with her. In regards to the infuriating man she had left to bake in the sun, she had already made up mind. He was no longer going to be a controlling aspect of her life. There was no reason that he should even be in it. She gave a sad sigh and rubbed the temples of her head. Without any kind of warning, unwanted memories came rushing to the front of her mind. The times he had saved her, held her, and kissed her. She held her face in her hands, even though no one was around to see her emotional and personal dilemma. Then there was everything else; fighting with her, Sokka, and Suki; keeping her in dark… Why did he have to play such horrid games with her? As if traveling with someone like him wasn't enough of a challenge. She shook her head again. None of that mattered since she wasn't going to give him control over her live again.

A shaky breath rattled past her lips.

The rustling of leaves reached her ears.

She spun on the spot, toward the source of the noise. A collage of tree trunks, twisted vines, and branches greeted her straining eyes. Nothing moved, and she did not hear the sound again. Was it just an animal? Was the dagger still making her feel paranoid? With a shake of her head, she closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. She just had to keep moving. No one was fallowing her. Ozai wasn't following her. If he had found her, he wouldn't waste time stalking her. While repeating those mantras in her head, she continued on her way.

xXx Jin xXx

"I'm sorry, sir, but I don't understand." Jin stood like the perfect soldier; stiff and tall.

The captain of the submarine took the helm and did not look back at Jin, "My order is to leave for the Fire Nation." His voice was crisp and clear.

Jin's hand twitched slightly, "But the Fire Lord…"

He was cut off by the captain, "My orders come directly from Fire Lord Ozai."

He tried to keep the sound of respect in his voice, "He ordered you to leave him and waterbending girl behind?"

There was a frustrated sigh, and then the captain turned to face Jin, with his hands held firmly behind his back, "Before he departed with the girl, he ordered me to carry on without him if they had not returned by sundown. Tell me, soldier, has the sun not set?"

He had not seen the surface all day, but he knew that it was late in the evening, "I apologize, Captain. I was out of line." While hiding his scowl, he bowed at the hip.

When he rose, the captain had turned back around, "I do not like the idea of leaving the Fire Lord behind, but I have my orders."

Off to the side, another soldier spoke up, "Sir, what is our mission in the Fire Nation?"

The captain was silent for a moment, "To gather more supporters and wait."

The soldier continued, "Where in the Fire Nation, Captain?"

His words were strong, but tinged with concern, "The Capital City. The Capital City Prison."

Silence stretch across the cabin.

After a few anxious glances, Jin finally asked, "To the Capital, sir?"

"That is correct." His voice turned stony.

"May I ask how, sir?"

The captain tapped an index finger against the panel in front of him, "The Fire Lord's son has a weak security system within this time of peace. We should be able to slip in undetected."

Jin knew Fire Lord Zuko's defenses weren't as strenuous as his father's had been, but he couldn't imagine it being that simple; however, he knew better than to question the captain. It would get him killed. Then again, trying to sneak into Capital City could also get him killed. Most of the men on this ship were wanted in the Fire Nation for escaping imprisonment. Himself included. He knew this journey of his life would be dangerous, but this was suicidal.

Without questioning the captain, he did the next best thing, "What is the plan of action, sir?"

Without looking at any of his crew, he explained the event, "We will go to one of the smaller islands and switch out this submarine for a small boat. From there, we will travel under the protection of night to the Capital. We won't go in through the entrance. We will dock a few miles away and make our way to the city from there. Someone will stay behind and take the boat back to the first island."

No one responded as silence draped over the room again. It was a shady plan, and everyone seemed to know it. Even the captain. Still, no one spoke their concerns. Not when the plan came directly from Ozai. All they could do was bare through it. Jin felt that it was even more complicated for him. He didn't have any real loyalty to the former Fire Lord. And he was supposed to do something so reckless? He shook that thought away. His loyalty to his family and the current state of the world was stronger than the devotion of the others. He could make it through this seemingly impossible situation.

The captain's voice brought him out of his thoughts, "Everyone back to your stations, we are setting out now."

Silence settled in again as the soldiers left the cabin.

xXx Eiji xXx

Eiji bowed low, on his hands and knees, with his nose touching the cold floor. He rose slowly, while remaining in a kneeling position, and gazed lovingly upon a stone representation of the Lion Turtle. Numerous candles were placed around the statue, and their glow was the only light in the room. It cast odd rays of light across the effigy, which made the lighted portions glow in the darkness of the chamber. Around the edges of the room, smoke swirled away from burning incenses; however, the room full smoke did not bother the devout monk. He focused all of his energy and attention on the omnipotent spirit of the Lion Turtle. His belief, faith and guider. The one that had sent him to the Avatar. The one that was going to lead his people to salvation. The one that did not abandon him.

For years, he and the remainder of his people had waited in the darkness. Unable to leave the darkness. It had not been a figurative darkness, but a physical realm of complete emptiness. He did not know exactly how they had gotten there. He didn't remember any of the finite details of their stay there. The loneness, bitterness, and fear were all that he could remember. The same was true for everyone else. That place was horrid, and it made his skin crawl to think of it; however, they all remember the day that it ended. There was no bright light, but there was a voice. It was a mystical voice that had identified itself as the Lion Turtle. As their savior.

They awoke in their temple to find that the war had ended. Joy filled them as they learned of the peace that had washed over the world. With reserved excitement, they prepared to find the Avatar. They wanted to embrace him and share their culture with the rest of the world. Something the Air Nomads had never really been able to do; however, the voice of the Lion Turtle had stopped them. It told them that there was a danger and they needed to prepare. It hurt them deeply to remain hidden from the rest of the world, but they could not deny to benevolent entity that had saved them from he darkness. As the Lion Turtle wished, they stayed at the temple and prepared for three years. The majority of their time was spent building the chamber that now held the Avatar.

Once that was finished, they were sent to collect the Avatar. That was when the lying began. He did not want to deceive the Avatar, nor did his companions; however, they had absolute faith in the Lion Turtle. But not everything had been a lie. They were decedents of Air Nomads that fled their temples, and the Earth Kingdom did have a small role to play in their parent's protection and survival. Not wanting to draw attention to the people of the Earth Kingdom, the monks did not rely heavily on their assistance. In disguise, they traveled through the mainland and tried to endure their travails. They had traveled in such a manner for nearly ten years. He knew of some of their travels because he lived through it, while he was still just a child. Then one day, when he barely six years old, everything had changed.

xXx Flashback xXx

A very young Eiji, with solemn eyes, looked up a tall man who had a shaved head and long beard. The man, his father, gave him an equally solemn gaze; however, he did manage a feeble and wary smile. It was the kind of smile that promised hope when there was none in sight. It was the only smile he knew, and he was happy to see it. He was even happier that they didn't have to hide as much as they normally would. The Air Nomads stood in an empty plain that was illuminated by the evening sun. They were deep in the uninhibited wilderness of the Earth Kingdom. A place where the Fire Nation soldiers did not venture; there were no villages to seize out here. For now, they were safe from the cruel hand of the Fire Nation.

"Father, how long do we have to travel like this?"

While still just a child, Eiji understood why they had to constantly run and hide, but he didn't think that it would be that way forever. His father told him that it wouldn't last forever. It would all be a matter of time before the Avatar made his appearance. A matter of time before peace was restored. Without question, he believed his father and the other elders, as did the rest of the children. It was either that, or be forced to believe in nothing.

They continued to endure while hoping for something better.

Hope, however, was ripped from them that day. A sudden and violent change consumed the area around them. The sky overhead started to churn with black and foreboding clouds, and the temperature instantly dropped. A thick, dense fog rolled around their feet until it obstructed their vision. Panic did not set in then; everyone simply looked around in curiosity. If anyone thought anything evil was present, they did not let it show. Then it echoed through the air, like a spectral sound of a gong. It was a low and vibrating groan that sent shivers up Eiji's spine. With the panic finally setting in, Eiji gave a frantic look to his father, who he could barely see through the fog.

His father's face, naturally wrinkled and worn from a hard life, had a new level of wariness sketched upon it. Through the fog, his boney hand reached out and was then placed on Eiji's shoulder. Eiji's small hands clasped over his father's as shuffling sounds bounced all around them. No one spoke, and on one moved. Some unknown force compelled everyone to wait. Eiji couldn't explain it, but that was what it had felt like. He had no idea why they were waiting, or what they were waiting for.

Then, the answer finally came in the form of a distraught scream. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. One of the elder monks had his feet swept out from under him, which caused the distraught scream. That sudden burst of movement and sound acted as a wakeup call for the other monks. A monk to his right performed an airbending move that cleared the area of some the fog. His father, along with the rest of the older monks, prepared for another attack. Eiji hid behind the leg of his father, with one hand raised and ready to deliver an airbending attack.

Eiji had been unable to do anything when the attack finally came.

Black wisps, which moved as quickly and unpredictably as a serpent, darted out of the fog and claimed another elder monk. Without hesitation, the monks sent torrents of air after their usurped brother. Another path was cleared in the fog, but it yielded nothing. The monk and the black wisp had simply vanished. That monk's son stood in a silent horror. He looked blankly at the spot where his father had stood. Eiji felt pity for him, and clung tighter to the fabric of his father's pants. A few tedious moment of silence passed and then another wisp shot out of the fog. They did not wait for it to claim another; blades of wind rushed toward the black enigma. As if sensing the attack, the opaque tendril jolted out of the way and snatched another. As that monk was swallowed by the inhuman fog, a scream bounced back to their ears.

The older monks shared a glance of understanding and then everything was put into motion. Eiji's father scooped him up and kept him securely held under his arm as him and the other monks ran toward the fog. A continuous stream of air parted the mist as more black wisps came into view. His father was taking the lead, and from Eiji's current position, he could not see if others were being stolen by the wisps. Despite that, he heard thumps and more screams. As he wondered about those noises, he suddenly found himself being hurled forward. His body skidded across the dirt covered ground. After coming to a stop, he pushed himself up and spat out the dirt that had been forced into his mouth. Once he looked around him, he realized that he was alone.

With shaky legs, he rose and called for his father. There was no response. As tears spilled out of his eyes, he forced himself to move through the fog. His weak airbending barely made a dent in the vapor, but he pressed on; however, his solitary journey did not last long. Slowly, the fog began to clear. The minutes passed as he wandered around the vacant clearing. Then something finally caught his attention. He rushed over to a dark clump on the ground and knelled before it. His friend rose and gave a raspy cough. The young monk looked around in a complete daze.

"Eiji, what happened?"

He had no answer for his friend. Soon, other monks found their way to them. They all had one thing in common; they were all young. None of the master Airbenders were left. Just like his friend, everyone had questions, but no one could offer any answers. There were whispers of the Fire Nation, but the manner of the attack didn't fit. Before they could come up with any other possible answers, sleepiness overtook them all. For some reason, they all found themselves drifting off into an unwanted sleep.

xXx End of Flashback xXx

When they awoke, they were in that godforsaken land of darkness. There, time passed slowly, and they barely aged. To this day, he knew little about that place. Even the Lion Turtle knew little; however, it did tell them that it was part of the evil that was coming. With that knowledge, they swore to help the Lion Turtle in any way they could. And that included they imprisonment of the Avatar. The Lion Turtle had told him that while the Avatar was strong, he needed to be stronger. To do that, he needed to connect with his own culture. By force if necessary.

Once more, he bowed to the effigy of the Lion Turtle.

xXx Ozai xXx

He stirred from his sleep and breathed in deeply; the musky smell of stone and iron filled the air. As he opened his eyes, he frowned at seeing the iron bars that were in front of him. He moved his arms only to find that they were extremely heavy. With an excusatory glare, he saw that both of his wrists were shackled. Thick chains were coiled on the ground beside him and were attached to the wall above his head. As he gave an irritated groan, he rose from the floor and stretched his arms. The shackles would not be a problem. Without any effort at all, he summoned fire to both of his hands and brought the flames down onto the chains. He jerked the chains forward in an attempt to separate the melted links, but his actions were met with failure. As the smoke cleared from the chains, he realized that the fire had not affected it in any way. He scowled down his restraints and prepared to repeat the process with even more power.

"That won't work," came a strong voice from the other side of the bars, "the chains and cuffs are fireproof."

Ozai pulled himself to full height as he narrowed his eyes at the barely visible stranger, "Is that so? That is quite an impressive feat. How did you manage it?" While he was a bit curious about it, he let his voice portray an air indifference and ill contempt.

The man lit a torch to the side, which revealed his physical characteristics. An elaborate headdress sat on his head, and half of his face was painted in red and white warrior paint. He also had a short bead, which was held by a gold ringlet at his chin. Considering the time, he was attire was very archaic and tribal. The man's face, while wrinkled, was strong.

He steeped closer, "Do you know where you are, Firebender? How you came to be here?"

Ozai remained silent as he continued to glare at the man.

"What of your partner? There were foot prints that went away from you. Where is your friend?"

Katara. Of course she wandered off by herself. He shook his head at the man, "Obviously, the person isn't much of friend if I was left alone."

That did not phase the man, "Friend or not, someone was with you. We will find this other person." The man tried to make it sound like a threat.

He did not break eye contact with the man before him, "It is of no concern to me."

The man was silent for a moment, "No, I suppose it is not. Not for the former and tyrannical Fire Lord." He spoke as if he had solved a great mystery.

"Am I supposed to be surprised that you know of me? Any child, regardless of nationality, could recognize me."

"That may be, but I have a clear advantage. I know who you are, but you do not know who I am, where you are, or the whereabouts of your companion." With that, the man turned and disappeared around a corner.

Ozai gave another glare to his bindings… how he loathed being imprisoned.

Bwahaha, the plot thickens!

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