Disclaimer: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender and do not intend to profit from any of the following. It's just fun playing with other people's toys, that's all.
WARNING: Visceral Images Ahead
Chapter 1: Azula's Found
Turtledoves came to nest in the verdant canopies and sang to the lone Waterbender on his errand to tend to the forest. He dragged his rickety wooden cart into a sunlit clearing and let it creak to a halt behind him, dropping the handle to the ground with a hollow thud. He stretched out his arms and breathed in the late morning sunshine. The ocean blue sky was framed by the wide leaves of the towering parasol trees that encircled him.
It had been a long walk, longer than usual. The forest was so thick now that there were hardly any spaces left to plant new trees. This was the last tree he'd need to plant in this forest. It both thrilled and depressed him. He and his compatriots, all former soldiers, had grown this forest from nothing, but soon it wouldn't need them anymore. Nature would take its course and new trees would grow without their help. It was wonderful to make something grow. It was his one joy in life and it helped put the horrors of war out of his mind. He shuddered to think what he would do when his work was done.
"Ha," he laughed to himself. "My work is never done. There's always something to grow." After taking off his new blue robes and tossing them at the base of a nearby tree, he pulled a shovel from the cart and scratched at the caked-on dirt with his fingernail. The engraving on the soiled, metal spade was partially obscured. It read "Nuan-(dirt in the way)-mithy." He smiled at his friend's handiwork and wondered how city life was treating her as he dug a hole half deep and three wide.
When he finished, he wheeled the cart around and tipped it towards the hole. The sapling remained defiantly rooted to the wooden wagon. "Oh, stubborn, are we?" he said to the baby tree. He snatched up his shovel again and prodded at the root bundle until it came loose and the tree slide down the sloped cart bed into the hole.
He then went about the delicate task of planting, burying the roots and adjusting the angle of the trunk, while the baby birds cooed against the soft hum of the wind through the trees. After he had finished patting down the dirt, he slipped his robes back on and looked up into the canopy. He made a smooth pushing motion that shifted the water in the greenery, which angled each individual surface towards the still rising sun. There was a crack from one of the branches and leaves rained from the canopy. "Damn, too much," he cursed at his overexertion, as delicate as it may have been.
There was another crack of branches. This time, it wasn't him. He turned and a young woman in a torn green tunic exploded out of the bushes and fell at the edge of the clearing. She slowly rose, growling it seemed, though when their eye's met, the forest keeper could see intense rage on her face. Pale blue tears streamed from her golden eyes. Heat radiated from the enraged young woman, wilting and igniting nearby vegetation. He was at a loss for words and then she screamed a tongues of red-orange fire at him.
Though he was at a loss for words, the forest tender was not at a loss for action. He leapt out of the way of the girls flaming breath and rolled to the jutting roots of a nearby parasol tree. The cart burst into an orange ball of fire and the newly planted baby tree wilted in heat of the inferno.
The Waterbender willed the trees bleed and in two seconds he had drained every bush and flower around the clearing to a black husk. He then swept every droplet of water together into a levitating wave and doused the flames and the Firebender. What water he had left, he quickly set on the girl and froze it around her tight. The ice steamed and started to melt off the hot young woman, but he was already bringing water down from the wide emerald leaves above.
For an instant, thousands of tiny beads of water shimmered like floating diamonds in the canopy. The myriad prisms split the sunlight into tiny lances of color that spread against the blackened leaves. Then they coalesced into a spiraling torrent of water that came hurtling down onto the now mortified young woman.
Rather than press her to the ground, the falling wave flopped over her entire body like a wet sheet. The Waterbender stiffened his poised form and the fluid froze sympathetically, crystallizing into what looked like a pillar of foggy diamonds.
Every leaf clenched, every groggy morning glory awoke stunned. The trees went stiff with anticipation. The dead leaves fell away from the branches. Every tree around the clearing was left bare, their skeletal branches casting a jagged mesh of shadows down on their keeper and his ice encrusted foe.
He could kill her. He could cool the ice until the air around it began to shiver.
The ice grew colder.
Or, he could do nothing and let her suffocate.
The ice grew colder.
But a flash of recognition blinked over his mind's eye.
A crack snapped across the surface of the icy tomb.
Who was this young woman?
Besides, he was a Tree Keeper now.
The swarthy man took in a long breath and as he let it out, the ice around his prisoner shattered and she slumped to the ground in a dazed fit of shivering, her alabaster skin flushed blue. She gathered her legs to her chest and tried to warm herself. The Tree Keeper relaxed and waved into a neutral stance only to reassume a defensive posture at the sound of a disturbance in the bushes.
Three men in battle-worn Fire Nation armor crunched through the dry bushes and out into the clearing. They looked at the shivering girl curled up in a pile of ice shards and looked back to the Tree Keeper.
They stared at each other poised, but then the armed men lowered their weapons and everyone relaxed. "Impressive," said the man brandishing a Dao blade. "We've been chasing her for quite some time, but now…" He crouched down and moved the hair from the young woman's shock-glazed eyes. The man's next words dripped from his lips like spit from a starving wolf's maw. "We've got you."
The throne room of the Fire Nation Royal Palace was far better lit, now. Ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling and the once menacing wall of flames maintained by and surrounding the Fire Lord was replaced by several large ceramic fire pots. Smaller pots were placed about the room to light up the dark corners and give the chamber a much more welcoming atmosphere.
One of the enormous red doors at the front of the room groaned open, allowing a boney little man to squeeze through. The door shut behind him and he wondered why the guards on the other side didn't bother to help him open the door. It was a minor inconvenience, not enough to dampen his spirits, for today he was in the direct service of his lord.
"Thank you for granting me this audience with you, Fire Lord Zuko," whined the thin man in a nasally voice. "I am most humbled that you have come to value my input relating to the matter of the homeland rebellions."
"You should be thanking my advisors," echoed the Fire Lord. "They are the ones who value your input enough to place you before me." Zuko's voice filled the room and actually startled the supplicant kneeling on the floor. "Please, rise and speak freely." The man did as commanded. "I'm told that you and your staff have devised a plan to quell the rebellions."
"Yes, Fire Lord. We, that is, I and my staff of highly qualified social theorists, have come up with an ingenious and non-violent way to cut off all the supplies being fed into the Loyalist Rebellion."
"How can you call them 'loyalists,'" spat Zuko under his breath. "How will you manage this? What are the details of your plan?"
"We propose that, since their supply lines cannot be pinned down directly, we simply cut off all the supplies all together." The boney man's enthusiasm was audible.
"What?" Zuko intoned through a gathering cloud of adgitated bewilderment.
"You see, if we strictly regulate all of our imports in tandem with a government seizure and guarding of all local farmlands, we can keep goods from falling into the hands of the rebellion."
"What about the people who aren't part of the rebellion? What are they going to do for food?" The fires around Zuko flared with every emphasis made. The little man was too self-absorbed in his genius to notice.
"It is a simple matter of strictly rationing mercantile commerce. We have calculated the minimum subsistence level for all the age groups and family sizes and come up with numbers that will guarantee that nobody in the Fire Nation will have any extraneous food or supplies to give to the rebel forces."
Fire Lord Zuko had learned to control his anger since befriending the Avatar, the embodiment of this tolerant age, but the constant grind of bad ideas and political squabbles had been wearing on him over the past few months. Since Aang left, the situation in the Fire Nation seemed to be deteriorating. "Did it ever occur to you that those people we would be feeding are likely part of the resistance, anyway," said Zuko slowly while he massaged the bridge of his nose.
"I believe Auditor Sang brought up that point, but we concluded that the likelihood of…"
"I will not subject my people to such disrespectful treatment!" screamed the Fire Lord, causing all the flames in the room to billow up and scorch the crimson ceiling black.
"B…But, my lord," quavered the man, his eyes wide with the mortal fear of one who can't bend the elements to their will. "I… We only mean to do what is best for the nation. If that means making some sacrifices, we could… chalk it up to the costs of war."
Zuko rose to scream "The war is over" and have the man thrown from his sight, but before he could spit words or fire (or both) the double doors swung open allowing a single robed man to enter. "Master Bai Tan. Have you finally received word?"
"Yes, Fire Lord," responded the man now towering over the cowering auditor. "They have found her."
"Whataya think guys?" said the man as he stood up. He sheathed his broadsword. "We got her, thanks to this water boy here."
"We take her back with us," boomed the burly man behind the first. "Simple as that."
"Well, you know what we could do before we bring her back?"
"Kill her!" cackled the twitchy archer as he swatted at the falling dry leaves. "She's the Phoenix's Harlot, the Failed Fire Lord."
"Azula of Ozai?" queried the Tree Keeper just above a mutter.
"Hey, water boy knows some Fire Nation facts. Who taught 'cha out here in the sticks? The trees?" The archer broke into a fit of laughter. It caused the other two to laugh a little as well, though it was directed more at their friend than at the joke.
"Yes," said the Tree Keeper. "The trees are very informative, very knowledgeable about political matters."
"Hey, you back talkin' me, water boy?"
"Cool it, Fu Li," said the first man, putting his hand on the archers shoulder.
"'Cool it.' Hee heh, maybe I should ask for tips from the water boy here about cooling it." Again, the archer coughed up a fit of laughter.
After the archer regained his unique brand of composure the burly man spoke while he shackled Azula's hands behind her back. "In any case, we can't kill her. The Fire Lord wants her brought back alive."
"Yes," smiled the first man, "but he didn't stipulate the condition that she need be in."
"Cut on her, a bit?" asked Fu Li, pulling an arrow from his quiver.
"I wouldn't sully my knife with the blood of this monster," the muscular man boomed in disgust.
The first man scratched at his cheek and adjusted himself. "I was thinking something a little less messy… or not."
"Oh, hey," said Fu Li as the significance of his partners words dawned on him. "I could stand to get my knife a little messy, hee heh! Oh, she's got great lips, too."
"You know when she gets you in her mouth she'll just bite you off."
"Well, I'll stay away from her mouth then. We got her cuffed and, wow, she is really cold," said Fu Li as he ran his fingertips across Azula's cheek, wiping away a tear. "What did you do to her, water boy?"
"I made her 'cool it,'" responded the dark-skinned man. Fu Li rose and took a challenging step towards him.
"Aren't you smart," said the man with the Dao. "Smart enough to be on your way, I hope." He placed his hand on his sword handle obviously to show the Waterbender the color of his intent.
"I assume there's a reward for her capture."
"We are on official business from Fire Lord Zuko himself," yelled the hulking man over the still shivering Azula. His deep voice was absorbed by the leafless trees that surrounded them.
"We are his 'instruments of justice,' as he so regally put it," the first man clarified.
"This is none of your concern, boy!"
"You have got to stop calling me 'boy,'" sighed the Tree Keeper.
"Or what?" snapped Fu Li.
"Or I'll do to you what I did to her."
"Is that a threat?"
"Sounded like a threat to me," said the first man as he slowly drew his sword. "A challenge for our prize."
"Thick… why bother?" mumbled the Tree Keeper, putting up his hands.
"Oh, it's on now, water boy!" and with that Fu Li took the arrow in his hand and shot it. In the instant it reached him, the Tree Keeper managed to deflect the bolt with his forearm. It left a long cut, but it was better than an arrow in the face. Doubt flooded his mind and began curdling into fear. He knew he couldn't dodge another bolt, and that, even if he did bend more water from the greenery, he would be a pincushion before he could strike back at his opponents.
The archer threaded two more arrows onto his bowstring. "Where's your precious water, huh, water boy? We're inland, really far inland. There ain't nothin' for you to bend out-" The archer's cackling tirade was shut up by a cone of dense earth, shooting up and encasing him.
The Waterbender, swordsman, and hulking man jumped back and turned in unison toward the source of the attack. At the edge of the clearing stood a tattered black robe, the green and gold coin of the Earth Kingdom adorning its chest. Hands plated with crumbling stone were raised before a chiseled face pained by exhaustion.
"So, you're bones aren't completely splintered," chuckled the muscular bounty hunter. "You're made of sterner stuff than your comRAAAHGH!" He was suddenly shackled with bar chains springing with sentient intent from the depths of the new agents wide sleeves. His wrists suddenly bound, the hunter couldn't block the brick of dense stone swiftly kicked at his face. The block of hardened soil shattered on his forehead, rattling his brain like a pickle in a jar, and the huge figure tipped forward, crashing into an unconscious heap.
A half second later, the man with the Dao blade slashed up at his new, well armed foe. The cut would have spilled the man's innards from his dark cloak like a school of fish let from an engorged net, but the stone fisted man had somehow willed his shackles to decouple from within his robes and he had caught the blade just as it kissed the thread of his cloak. Satisfaction found its way onto his face, and, with both stone-gloved hands, he crumpled the blade like a leaf of gold foil. But it proved a premature and fatal display of dominance. The man with the now crinkled sword produced a dagger and, in one fluid motion, stuck it in his foe's neck.
The next instant, the swordsman was cold. Frozen. Completely encased in a thick crust of ice. The world was prismatic through the hoary sheet: a broken mirror of cracked and clashing half-images. He saw repeated segments of the robed opponent fall to the ground, but there was no satisfaction, only ten dark faces glowering at him through the ice.
The clearing was much bigger now. A ring of dry bark and mulch was all that was left of the few trees the Tree Keeper had to sacrifice to win his battles. Before him stood the swordsman, frozen with his dagger raised, his face ecstatic with the thrill of victory. At his feet, the robed man bled fluently from his neck. He was trying to speak as he drown in his own blood.
When his bright green eyes met the Tree Keeper's, he gurgled twice more, "P-P…Pri…"
The next moment was quiet. All was reverently still.
Then the Tree Keeper walked over to the sapling that still stood in the center of the clearing and put his hands on its base. He inhaled and exhaled three times, slowly drawing up ground water. Then, he ran his hands up its trunk and through its branches. The tree's wilted leaves uncurled slightly, but the damage was done. He hoped the damage wasn't terminal.
That done, he walked over to the manacled young woman. She was shivering far less, apparently having gone unconscious. "Come on," he said as he slung her over his back. "I'm not going let you freeze to death in the middle of summer," and with that he walked off into the woods, leaving his other three adversaries frozen in the sunshine.
"What do you mean they haven't caught her yet?" bellowed the Fire Lord. "You just said that our agents found her."
"They found her, my lord, but…" Bai Tan looked down at the small man standing beneath him, who wore a look of fear and confusion. "Auditor Jiro, you may be on your way now."
The auditor's face morphed to outrage. "I have been waiting six months to present this plan to the Fire Lord. This is my time, sir."
"Why didn't they capture her?" Zuko asked Bai Tan, ignoring the lowly auditor's presence.
Bai Tan did the same, answering his lord. "The group that caught up with her and her rescuers tracked them to the western coast of the Earth Kingdom and, under cover of darkness, they killed the renegade Dai Li that helped her escape. Unfortunately, when the three men finally caught up with the princess, herself, she was already caught, or at least subdued."
"What? By who?"
"Apparently some Waterbender in the forest had subdued her."
"Then I'll ask again. Why didn't they capture her!" asked Zuko, emphasizing each word.
"They were beaten by this man and another, one of her saviors. One of our agents didn't survive. Frozen in a block of ice. The Waterbender took her."
Zuko was visibly crestfallen. He slumped into his thoroughly cushioned throne and cradled his head in his hands. "How could this happen?"
"Would you like to hear my theory, lord?" said Bai Tan stepping forward.
"Of course I want to hear the theories of my top advisor. What good are you otherwise!"
Bai Tan took no visable offense at the scathing tone. "As you say, my lord. I am one of many, very capable men," said the stately counselor, feigning sincere humility, masterfully. Zuko had no wherewithal or time to identify any subliminal spite before his advisor reported: "I believe that this man was their contact in the Earth Kingdom. That is to say, the Dai Li meant to get your sister as far as they did and hand her off to this man in order to break the trail. Lucky for us, our agents survived to see this."
"Lucky? You said he killed one of them."
"Yes, but our men were left alive. Well, two of them, anyway, but you are right to be concerned. This man is very dangerous. One of the agents involved was a former member of the Yu Yan Archers, the elite military group you had expunged three years ago. He fired on the bender at nearly point blank range and the Waterbender was quick enough to deflect it, even without the use of his bending."
"Are you sure your agent isn't just exaggerating this Waterbender's prowess for the sake of his pride."
"No, Fire Lord. The Yu Yan are… were very disciplined and not inclined to invent facts to save face. My lord, we must send out more resources to capture your sister. I fear we may be dealing with a professional here."
"A professional what?"
"Until I have more information, my lord, I can't give you accurate counsel."
Zuko slammed his fist against the thrones armrest. "Well then do what needs to be done!" he roared , but he paused before exiting. The Fire Lord spoke without turning. "I apologize for that insult earlier, Master Bai Tan. Your service is never in question."
"As you say, my lord," the elder man said humbly before his lord disappeared beyond a heavy rouge curtain.
Bai Tan smiled to himself, exhaled strongly, and then looked down at the awestruck Jiro. "You will not repeat anything you just heard to anyone, ever." Jiro nodded. "If you do, I'll hear about it." Jiro nodded again more vigorously. "Leave. We will consider your plan and get back to you in about a month." The auditor's face lit up. Not only would his plan be received for consideration, but it was being processed in an extremely expedient manner. He clamored out of the room, leaving Bai Tan alone in the flickering firelight.