Sorry it took so long to get this up. I can't guarantee that the next one will be faster either. Anyway, enjoy!
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. The voices tell me otherwise... but my therapist says we don't listen to the voices.
Snow soaked through Aang's pant legs as he stood on the hill overlooking the Southern Water Tribe's city. The sun stood in a cloudless sky overhead, its heat not reaching Aang's skin. He pulled his coat tight against the strong wind that blew across the valley, picking up tufts of snow and swirling them around. It would have almost been beautiful, had he not been too preoccupied to notice.
People bustled through the streets, small blobs passing by one another like water rushing down a river. They seemed agitated, hurrying to their destinations with more urgency than if they were simply going about their daily chores. Aang suspected he knew why. The Earth King had been assassinated, and Iroh had suggested that other leaders around the world had met the same fate. If the Southern Water Tribe's chief had been killed... Zuko...
Aang had been standing atop that hill for nearly an hour, watching the people, worrying. He knew that he should get Katara and move on to the Fire Nation as quickly as possible - there was still a chance Zuko hadn't been attacked yet. But he knew that chance was slim. In terms of reaping chaos, Zuko was on the same level as the Earth King, if not higher. Killing Zuko would snap the tenuous stability of the Nation that he and Aang had been able to achieve so far. The Fire Nation had already lost one emperor in the past few years, a loss that shattered a century-long empire. Losing another would shake the country to the core. Aang wasn't sure he wanted to reach the Fire Nation. Not if it was to find Zuko dead...
That wasn't what kept him atop the hill, however. The people in the city below him, they didn't know. Katara didn't know. Know that two of the greatest warriors of their time had fallen. Aang felt numb inside, the cold slipping off him, his emotions spent. Sokka was dead. Suki was dead. Aang was not looking forward to having to pass that news on to Katara.
True, Aang hadn't actually seen the bodies. Even had he passed over every dead body in that village, he doubted he would have found Sokka, or Suki. Most of the bodies had been charred or mutilated beyond recognition. The state of the island had held little hope of survivors, though. And Aang had spent the better part of an hour calling out for any.
It still didn't make sense. Aang had spent a portion of the ride south trying to figure out why Kyoshi Island had been attacked. Not to ambush him, he presumed. Was Sokka's life important to them? Perhaps they were striking out at anyone instrumental in the Fire Nation's defeat. But that didn't make sense. The Fire Nation's downfall had appeared to be in their best interests. Then why?
Aang unclenched his fists, taking deep breaths to attempt to soothe his sudden frustration. This wasn't the time for that. He had to get Katara, and he needed all his calm about him for that. Not that Aang could do anything to comfort Katara. Not in this.
Sighing, Aang patted Appa on the leg and began to trudge his way through the snow toward the city's frozen gates. A well-worn road led from it through the snow, and Aang soon broke through the snow drifts onto the road. The gates loomed before him, sparkling in the weak sun.
People jostled by him as he entered the city, running this way and that, shouting anxiously across the streets to friends or family. People carried children in their arms, baskets of items on their shoulders. A large stream left the city through the gates, fleeing to smaller, more stable villages, while others darted around looking for safety within the walls. It was all the chaos that Aang had glimpsed in Ba Sing Se and more.
Nearly as discouraging as the hectic crowds was the lack of city noises. Aang couldn't hear the sound of hawkers crying their wares on the street corners, nor the dull clink of a blacksmith's hammer or the rattling of a weaver's loom. Perhaps they were drowned out by the crowds, but Aang doubted it. People wouldn't be going about their daily business today. Not if the same thing happened here as in Ba Sing Se.
A number of people stood tall on boxes, shouting to the crowds. As Aang passed, he caught snippets of what they were saying, and frowned. "-war rises on our door, preparing to sweep away not only our soldiers but our families-" and "-doomed and dieing world! Flee now while-" and "-Avatar has abandoned us to our misery once more!" were among the things he caught. It made Aang sick. All talk like that would do is serve to sew even more chaos. It was worse than annoying. It was dangerous.
Aang ignored it for the moment, however. He wore the thick hood of his coat up over his head to cover his tattoos, his hands buried deep in their sleeves. He didn't want people to recognize him, to pick him out of the crowd and attempt to blame him for everything, or demand that he protect them. It struck him deeply that he couldn't do just that, that he had to hide from his duties. Blasted collar! Aang screamed in his head, tugging at the hunk of metal wrapped around his neck. So simple in design, so innocent looking, and yet it prevented him from helping the world in its time of need. People were dieing, chaos was wrapping around the people's, his people's, necks, and he was hiding, abandoning them because of his own problems. Again.
It took all his restraint not to rip his hood off and confront one of the doomsayers shouting on the street corners. Not because it would do any good, but simply to relieve his own guilt, to give the people some comfort in knowing he hadn't completely deserted them. If they discovered his predicament, however - if they discovered him completely useless in terms of power, it would do more harm than good. The Avatar hadn't abandoned them, he'd been subdued by the enemy. Crushed with ease. It would strike the people with fear.
Rounding the corner that led to Katara's home, he nearly ran into the very person he was looking for. Katara stood at the corner, her arms crossed as she stared down a woman standing tall on her box. The doomsayer wore more beads and ornaments than Aang thought possible; her long, flowing black hair was entangled with strands of beads and small trinkets, her neck and arms covered in necklaces and bracelets. Her blue dress and tunic were fancily cut and embroidered, marking her more than just a commoner. She smiled down at Katara, arrogance plastered across her face.
"-done so once before. How is it so hard for you to believe he has not done so again?" the woman was saying. She held her hands against her stomach, calm, confident.
"Because I know him! He wouldn't do that!" Katara said, her voice laced with frustration and anger. Her hair was in more disarray that Aang had ever seen it before, and her eyes appeared as though she hadn't slept in a week. "Talking like that won't help anyone."
"The truth will not help?" the woman replied. Her voice was the embodiment of serenity. She seemed a strong contrast to the men Aang passed shouting near the gates. "In such times of chaos, why has the Avatar not appeared to help? Where is he?"
"It takes time to react, you idiot!" Katara took a step toward the woman. Her jaw was clenched. Aang took an involuntary step backwards, not wanting to get between the two. "The Avatar is extremely busy. He could have been anywhere when the Chief died!"
"Your trust in the Avatar is misplaced," the doomsayer replied. She turned her body away from Katara, dismissing her without a word. Taking a deep breath, she began to shout again at the crowds, voice suddenly loud and shrill, losing all hint of serenity.
Katara raised an arm as though to hit the woman. Aang quickly stepped forward, grabbing Katara's shoulder and placing himself between his friend and the woman. Katara's angry glare turned to him, and a moment later surprise dawned on her face.
"Aang!" she said. Aang winced at how loud she said it. "You are here! I was... wait... Why aren't you helping?"
"Shh! We need to go somewhere quiet to talk," Aang replied. Katara nodded, and a moment later they were in Katara's ice-made home. The place looked the same as it had a week ago. It was almost soothing after the loud bustle of the streets, the noise fading to a low rumble. Katara's two children were nowhere to be seen, but he'd be surprised if they were elsewhere in the chaos of the city.
As soon as they entered the house, Katara turned on her heel to face him. Her face was stern, and her arms were crossed again. Great, Aang thought. Now she's turned all that anger on me.
"What are you doing!" she began. She kept her voice down, something Aang was grateful for. "I shouldn't have to tell you that you should be out there, settling the chaos."
"Katara," Aang started, but she leaned forward, cutting him off.
"Do you understand what's happened here? The Chief was assassinated, and by Fire Nation goons no less. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if Azula had done it herself, seeing as she's escaped."
"Katara!" Aang repeated, raising his voice a little.
"Our city isn't stable enough to handle an assassination like that. It's only been around for a few years. We need someone to take control, put in place a new leader. That's the Avatar's job, and you're just wandering around in hiding? I was defending you out there, and-"
"Katara!" Aang snapped. Katara's mouth snapped shut, and she seemed a little surprised at the heat that had entered Aang's voice. He sighed, scolding himself. Now was not the time to be yelling at Katara, especially not because she was telling him the truth. He should be out there, helping the city.
"Katara..." Aang said for the fourth time. Now that he had her attention, he had no idea where to start. "The Earth King is dead."
"Oh..." Katara frowned. "That's... Aang, what's going on?"
Aang shook his head. "A lot. I'll have to fill you in later. You should know something first." Anxiety gripped at his heart. He was about to devastate one of his best friends. He'd rather be back fighting Ozai...
Taking a deep breath, he continued. "Kyoshi Island was attacked a day or two ago. I couldn't find any survivors."
Katara stared blankly at him for a moment before realization settled in. Her eyes grew wide. "You... you mean..."
"I don't think Sokka lived through it..."
Katara's body slumped, and she collapsed to the floor. Sobs shook her body, the tears flowing freely down her face. Aang knelt down beside her and drew her into a hug, doing his best to comfort her. His own eyes watered, the pain of loss returning to mix with the pain of seeing a friend hurt. Katara pressed her face against his shoulder, tears soaking his coat.
"Are... are you... sure?" Katara asked between sobs.
"I didn't see a body, but I stayed and looked for anyone still alive for as long as possible."
Katara sniffed, pulling back to look at him. Her already worn eyes were now red from crying. "Then there's still hope."
Aang opened his mouth, but he didn't know what to say. He wanted to express his doubts, but...
"My brother's smart," she said, wiping her eyes. Her voice was shaky but confident. Aang could see the strength return to her face, as well as Katara's usual stubborn determination "He'd find a way out."
"No," Katara said, and she rose to her feet. "I won't believe Sokka's dead. Not until we know for certain." She glanced at the flap of animal skin that acted as a door as though she could see the people beyond. "I can't believe it. Not now." She gave a sigh. "Not when I have to be strong."
Hesitantly, Aang nodded. He knew what she was doing. She was denying her brother's death to avoid the pain, if temporarily. He had seen it often. And he agreed with her. With the Bloodsworn on the rampage, and war looming over the world once more, it was probably best that she remained strong - for the moment, anyway.
"I want you to come with me," Aang finally broke the silence that had settled over the room. "We need to go to Zuko. He may be in trouble."
Katara turned toward him, her eyes still puffy. She frowned, shaking her head. "I can't leave my people. And Niabi and Katcha..."
"Can you find someone to look after them?" Aang asked. "I'm afraid that what's about to come could be bad. Really bad. I could use your help."
Confusion showed on Katara's face, but she nodded. "I'll leave the kids with Gran," she said.
Aang smiled humourlessly. "I'll explain things on the way."
Why am I surrounded by blustering, babbling, incompetent idiots!
Azula was absolutely enraged. Her fingernails dug into the palm of her hands as she glared at the man kneeling before her. She clenched and unclenched her jaw, trying to think of the best way to berate the moron. Or maybe she could just kill him. Her father hadn't hesitated to have someone executed for a blunder this immense.
No, Azula decided. Her father was as big an idiot as the rest of them. She would have this man - this failure - punished, make sure the others knew the consequences of messing up, but she wouldn't kill him. He could still be useful for menial tasks, and there were worse things than death.
"My Lady..." the man - Haay - stared up at her. His eyes were hesitant, frightened. As well the should be. If he had any inkling of what she was going to do with him...
Azula lashed out with her hand, blue fire engulfing it. The back of her hand snapped against Haay's cheeks, and he screamed, his own hand coming up to cover the burnt flesh.
"You'll not fail me again," Azula said, forcing her voice to be cold and emotionless. She was anything but emotionless. She was livid! "I will send word of your punishment to the Slavemaster. Attend him now. Go!"
Haay scrambled to his feet and left the small cave room at a near run. Azula watched him go with a frown.
So, Zuko had avoided death once more. Her loathsome little brother had a habit of getting in her way. The fact that she had a personal hatred of him, however, was beside the point. Her plan had been to take out the heads of the world's governments all at once, while they felt safe, and eliminate possible resistance when she made her move. Even Aang had been incapacitated, although her peoples' failure to deliver him to her still grated her teeth. Without his Avatar powers, there was less of a chance that people would be willing to rally behind him. Maybe. But if Zuko were still alive, then the Fire Nation would hold strong against her forces. Mentally Azula weighed her chances against the entire might of the Fire Nation's military. Zuko had crippled its military in the naive presumption of peace, but they still held a sizable force. The odds didn't favour her as much as she would like, but it was still doable. And after the failed attempt on Zuko's life, security around the palace and the Fire Lord would be severely heightened. A second attempt would be foolish.
Leaving the small, purposeless room, Azula entered the vast cave network beyond. It stretched for miles into the mountain, carved out manually by the early members of the Bloodsworn. It was an awe inspiring feat, but Azula intended to do more. She would take the Bloodsworn farther than they had ever been. The whole world would know of her power.
She slipped down a nearby narrow hall leading off the main cavern, following it to the cluster of rooms at the end. If Haay's account was to be believed - and Azula doubted highly that the coward would have the guts to try lying to her - then Zuko would be laid up with a serious chest wound. She still had a window of opportunity to strike. Even a failed assassination would have made an impact on the people. She would cut out the heart of the beast with an airbourne raid. The capital would fall before the army could fall back to the city - her reports had the majority of them patrolling the seas and protecting the villages from the small bandit raids that had sprung up with the fall of her father's empire. Taking control of the capital would do three things - give her the high ground, from where she could defend herself from the army's retaliation and begin to wrestle control of the entire Nation; show the strength of her own force, hopefully scaring any opposers into submission; and rid herself of Zuko, the last remaining world leader except the Avatar himself. The people would have no other choice but to follow her. Perhaps Zuko would even lead her to the Avatar, and she could continue the second phase of her plan.
The cluster of caves held three highly important rooms. She entered the one on her left, and was greeted by a tall man in a black robe. He bowed low, his long, silvery hair nearly sweeping the floor.
"What do you have for me today, Ying?" Azula demanded of the elderly man. He looked frail now, but she knew the mind behind that wrinkled face was still as sharp as ever. "It had better be good news."
"My Lady," the man said as he straightened himself. "I heard of the misfortune that befell your plans in the Fire Nation. My condolences on your brother's endurance."
Azula waved a dismissive hand. "It won't do to dwell on the past, Ying," she said, approaching the large table at the center of the room. It held both detailed and broad maps of the entire known world, many of them marked up with tacks indicating field agents, small assault units, and a dozen other things. Normally the room was crowded with the Bloodsworn's generals, but today only Ying surveyed the maps, realigning tacks as new information came in.
"Perhaps," Ying replied. He loomed over the table, inspecting the markers thoughtfully. "Though I have often found that learning from past mistakes can be helpful."
"I don't make mistakes," Azula snapped. "Everyone else does."
"Of course, My Lady," Ying nodded. He stood in thought for a moment before pointing at a red chip on the table. "New information from Ba Sing Se has arrived. It appears that someone is attempting to restore order in the city."
"Who?" Azula asked, but she felt she knew the answer. Blast her family! She should have killed them when she had the chance.
Ying glanced at her, torchlight twinkling in his eye. "Your Uncle, it seems."
Azula gave a resigned sigh. She would have to decide how best to deal with him. In the mean time, all she could hope for was that the people of Ba Sing Se would be hesitant to put their trust in the General that had once led an army on their walls.
Continuing his reports, Ying motioned toward one of the yellow markers. It covered the small blip that represented Kyoshi Island. "The strike force sent to gather the third jewel was successful," he said, his scratchy voice dry and calculating. "They annihilated the entire village to get it."
"Only another display of our power," Azula replied. Three jewels. Only two more to go. They were growing more difficult to obtain, but they were sorely needed. Still, Azula suspected the "annihilation" of the village hadn't been necessary. The members of the Bloodsworn were becoming anxious for action. No wonder, after having been locked in hiding for the better part of a millenia.
"Three more recruitments have been made in Summer City," Ying said, sweeping his hand over to a green marker attached on one of the Fire Nation's islands. "Suspicions are growing higher from the city's residents. I suggest we pull our men there out for the moment."
"Yes," Azula sighed. That was the problem with recruiting for the Bloodsworn. Each new recruit caused a group of loved ones to run to the city's leader with a missing person's report. Too many recruits in one area meant they had to retract their feelers there for awhile. Azula could only imagine the sizable force they would have if they could remain in one place for more than a few weeks.
"Omashu," Ying continued, pointing at the large Earthen city, "has reportedly fallen into utter chaos with the loss of their King. Our correspondents there predict Omashu's inevitable downfall within the week."
Azula nodded, a small smile tugging at her mouth. She had met the King of Omashu once, an insufferable fool that had gone completely mad. How he had managed to become King was something she had never puzzled out.
"Is that all?" Azula asked, noticing that the general had fallen silent.
Ying nodded. "We should have more information for you soon," he replied. That was always how he answered the question.
"Good, because I have news for you," Azula said. She felt her heart beating faster, adrenaline being released into her veins. That was silly - this was simply an order, not the battle itself. "Gather your generals. We assault Fire Nation Capital in three days."
Ying blinked, and opened his mouth as though to protest, but apparently thought better of it. "Of course, My Lady," he said, bowing his head. "We will have the strategies ready for your review by nightfall."
"Good," Azula repeated, and spun on her heels, exiting the room. Behind her she could hear Ying scrambling to prepare for an emergency meeting. She let a smile spread across her face. It was done. In three days they would be assaulting Zuko and his pathetic ruse he called a reign.
Crossing the cavern hallway, Azula entered an antechamber-like-cave, stripped bare of furnishings. It led through to three smaller rooms. The torchlight from the antechamber flickered into the dark caves, casting dim shadows of their contents. One, she knew, was empty, prepared and saved for a very important prisoner - if they could ever catch him. The second held a scrawny man in drab, blue clothes. He hung limply from his chains, his eyes closed. She would have presumed him dead, had she not known better.
Azula entered the third chamber, her body blocking out the light from the antechamber. In the depths of the darkness something stirred, no doubt hearing Azula enter. The girl's tenacity was almost to be admired. Taking another step forward, she let the light flicker in the room again, illuminating the silhouette of a small girl in dirty, torn green clothes. She hung from her wrists, wooden shackles suspending her over a large wooden plank. Azula knew the dangers this small girl imposed. She had had to take a great deal of care with her.
"You... bastard..." Toph muttered. She didn't lift her head up to look at Azula. The girl was blind, though you wouldn't know it if you let her walk freely on the ground.
"Shush," Azula patted the girl on the head. She made a weak attempt to jerk her head out of the way.
Toph was by far Azula's most prized capture. She was, after all, the most powerful earthbender known. She would work perfectly for her plans. The waterbender was lackluster compared to her - Azula would have liked to capture that waterbender brat the Avatar had traveled with, but her spies reported that she spent her time in the heart of the Southern Water Tribe's new city, a fairly crowded city despite it's relatively new birth. Even if kidnapping her was possible, and Azula doubted a well-trained Bloodsworn would have had much problem extracting even a powerful waterbender from the city, she didn't trust herself not to torture and kill the girl. It was her fault, after all, that Azula had been imprisoned. Hum, Azula thought to herself. Maybe I should have her kidnapped, just for the joy of it. It would mean one less member of the Avatar's ragtag team to come against her when she succeeded in capturing the Avatar.
"Come to kiss me again?" Toph's voice was croaky from disuse. Azula touched her own lips, remembering her visit a couple days before. She couldn't say why she had kissed the girl. Certainly there was no attraction between them. She chuckled to herself. Perhaps she was going insane like everyone said.
"No," Azula sighed. "I've come to put you into hibernation."
"I need you to stay alive until I need you," Azula clarified. "Now that your body is beginning to shut down on it's own, I can send it into a deep sleep. You won't awake until the ritual."
"What ritual?" Toph raised her head slightly.
Azula ignored the question. She pulled a knife from her black Bloodsworn jerkin, the steel catching the faint torchlight from outside. She ran her thumb along the blade, the sharp metal slicing into her flesh easily. A slight jolt of pain shot through her hand, and she smiled. Over the years she had come to enjoy that pain, to revel in it. It was something magnificent, a portal to beautiful power. Blood seeped from the cut. Not much, but enough to allow her to paint her palm red.
After doing so she ignited her firebending, directing it through the blood. It flashed, then burned at a dull roar, it's flames a sickly green colour. She moved her hand to Toph's forehead, watching the flame slip inside the girl's skull.
"Wha-!" Toph exclaimed. She let out a strangled yelp, struggling to pull away from Azula's hand. A second later her body fell limp, swaying gently in the wooden cuffs.
"Sleep well," Azula smiled. She kept the flame burning - she'd use it to put the waterbender asleep as well. As she turned to leave the room she let a deep chuckle rumble through her body. Three days and they would assault the Fire Nation openly. Not long after that, and Azula would know the true meaning of power.
Thanks for reading! I'll be back with more as soon as I can! Don't get struck by lightning!