He really shouldn't have been out after dark. The city hadn't been safe for weeks, not since … all that mess. He couldn't bend, and he'd never been particularly good at fighting. He was just a blacksmith's apprentice, promised extra work in light of the damage to the city. He had to take the shifts; his family's house had been nearly destroyed by the chaos that had erupted when Amon had taken the city.
He darted down an alley that would get him home quicker, dismissing the apprehension in his chest. He'd be fine. There was no way that anyone could know he was a non-bender by looking at him, right?
He could've sworn he heard movement behind him. He stopped and looked. Nothing. He breathed a little easier and advanced down the alley.
A burst of fire exploded at his feet.
"Ah!" He leapt back, slipped on ice that hadn't been there a moment before, and fell hard. The air burst out of his lungs in an explosion of pain. He grimaced and gingerly felt for his side. One of his ribs felt cracked. "What—what the?"
"Does this look like the guy, Zhang?"
A young man in Fire Nation clothing walked forward and picked the boy up ruthlessly, jostling the strained ribs. He glared at the unfortunate kid with wild hatred beneath dark brows.
"Could be. Sure feels like I saw him at an Equalist rally." He grunted and threw the boy to the ground, making a fire dagger in one hand. "Filthy Equalist scum!"
"I—I'm not an Equalist!" the blacksmith's apprentice cried out, shielding his face with his hands. The heat coming from the fire dagger was making him sweat. "I promise!"
"Yeah, real trustworthy coming from the likes of you," Zhang spat, raising the fire dagger.
The blacksmith's apprentice realized with a terrifying certainty that he was going to die.
There was a loud swooshing noise and a crash, as a black figure descended from the rooftop and landed hard in the middle of the street. She was between the two benders, clad entirely in black, with a smooth, featureless black mask over the face. In his surprise, the firebender's dagger had gone out.
"What the hell?"
Zhang's friend got to his senses before Zhang did, bending a whip of water at the intruder. She moved with unnatural speed, rolling beneath the bending weapon and closing the distance to the water bender in one movement. He barely had time to register his surprise before the dark warrior kicked him hard in the stomach, and then grabbed his shoulder with her left hand. A sudden burst of electricity travelled down the bender's body, and he fell limp.
In all this time Zhang had simply stared, the non-bender forgotten. He quickly swung his arms and threw a bolt of fire at the black figure, who again dodged it with supernatural speed. His mouth went open as she somehowclosed the distance between them in the space of a breath. In a movement as supple and deadly as a tiger's lunge, she jabbed him in his windpipe, sending him choking to his knees.
"Who are you?" He croaked. She didn't answer. She did stun him with her electroglove, though. Her impassive black mask turned from the fallen firebender to look at the non-bender, backed up against the wall. He was absolutely terrified.
"Spirits guide me," he whispered, clutching his ribs. The black-clad figure turned to walk away. "Are you—are you one of them?"
The figure stopped. After a moment, the boy realized she was waiting for him to explain.
"Are you an Equalist?" he asked hoarsely, almost afraid of the answer. She recoiled as if she'd been slapped. The blacksmith's apprentice stared as she angrily tore off the electroglove and threw it on the ground. She ran off into the night, black fading into blackness.
Then she was gone.
The prison stank of stale sweat, and the scent of human decay. It lay just beneath the turbulent streets of Republic City, buried and hidden from all but the most inquisitive eyes. It wasn't accustomed to visits from people with the status or wealth of Asami Sato. But here they were, marching down a narrow tunnel made of cobbled bricks, two guards flanking the esteemed heiress—well, Chief Executive Officer, now—of Future Industries. Both guards were only on a temporary rotation, spending a month or so patrolling down in the 'Hole before they'd go back to the City aboveground and forget all about this terrible place. They both agreed that the stink would never leave them.
One of the guards, named Korrlac, made an honest effort at dissuading the young woman before she'd gone down into the tunnels.
"You won't find anything worthwhile down there, ma'am," he'd said respectfully, using a tone similar to the one reserved for Chief Lin. The young woman commanded an easy air of respect. It made him uncomfortable.
"That's for me to decide," Asami had replied curtly, and that had been that. It was above Korrlac's pay grade to disagree further; he was just the rotation chief. If she'd managed to work her way down here, she'd find out herself why the upper crust were usually kept ignorant as to what dwelled beneath them.
She had, at least, thought to bring a scarf and bandanna into the sewers to keep all that dirt and filth out of her flawless hair. When she moved she slightly favoured her right side, as though there were a bruise there; but she didn't once complain or even try to draw attention to it. That earned her a smidgen of begrudging respect.
"We're coming up near the cells now, ma'am," Korrlac said simply, raising his torch to gesture at steel slabs in the stone walls. The smooth steel was only marked by narrow slits, so that the guards could view the prisoners.
"I presume the cells are vented on the interior," Ms. Sato said, breaking her silence for the first time since they'd started their descent. Korrlac nodded.
"The stone in the cell is separated just enough to allow air to pass in through vents above the cells. Not wide enough to allow an escape, but wide enough to keep them breathing."
"Hence the smell." Korrlac could almost hear her nose wrinkling from behind her tightly wrapped scarf. It was a plain, brown, no-nonsense affair. Again the girl displayed some sense. If he didn't have a deep personal distrust of anyone who made more money than he did, Korrlac probably would've liked her.
"That's one theory," Korrlac muttered ruefully. The set of armour he'd been wearing down in the 'Hole would have to be scrapped once he rotated out; he'd known as much before he'd ever come down. Now he knew why.
"How is there such extensive tunnelling beneath the city without anyone noticing?" Ms. Sato's tone was strange; urgent, yet contemplative. He didn't know how to place it, except within the band of seriousness that bespoke the expensive troubles of people who ran things.
"No idea, ma'am. You'd have to take that up with the Council," Korrlac said, not unkindly. He had a daughter about her age; not half so pretty or well-kept, but a father couldn't help see his own daughter in the face of every young girl he saw. "Here we are," he said, trying not to sound pleased. Their tunnel opened up into a large, cavernous station with a series of large mine carts on tracks, leading into five different tunnels. It was lit up brightly by a large light in the ceiling of indeterminate source, but each of the tunnels was as pitch black as the one they'd come from.
"How many stations like this are there?" Sato asked, walking up to one of the mine carts and examining it closely. Each was large enough to accommodate at least five people, a large, flat bed of steel with slightly raised sides and two benches along its middle.
"Fourteen, ma'am," Korrlac said simply. Ms. Sato relapsed into her earlier silence, prompting Korrlac to clear his throat and direct her to another cart. The other guard didn't come with them.
"What, is he afraid of the dark?" Asami asked wryly.
"No. He's here to make sure we're the only ones that come out of this tunnel," Korrlac said, strapping himself in and instructing the girl to do the same. She didn't seem any less amused. That was frustrating. He waited for her to ask how they were going to push the cart. She didn't, so he got to his feet, secured the strap keeping him attached to the platform, stuck his torch in a receptacle at the head of the cart, and went through the brusque, direct movements of metal bending.
The cart lurched forward, and then evened out to whiz down the tunnel at a steady pace. If Asami was unnerved by the speed, she did a good job of appearing distinctly unconcerned. Again Korrlac felt respect creep in, from the most unlikely of places. Somehow she didn't seem like the other noble types he'd brushed shoulders with; she didn't treat him or the officers with contempt. She just had a job to do, Korrlac surmised, and she was damned if anyone or anything was going to slow her down while she was at it.
He decided he liked her. She reminded him of his Ky Lee. Though his Ky wouldn't have been able to keep her mouth shut, not for so long; she'd always been quite the chatterbox, always something to say—
Damn it, Korrlac cursed mentally, realizing he'd stopped paying attention to the discreet overhead markers at the head of the tunnel. He distinguished the pattern the fast-blurring red dots made as they travelled, then breathed easy. They hadn't passed the cell they were visiting. That was good. He didn't want to have to backtrack with the owner of Future Industries in tow. She didn't seem like a gossip, but he wasn't about to risk his career—and the money for Ky Lee's education—on Asami Sato's presumed good character.
He tracked the markings—specially designed so that they were nonsense to anyone walking beneath them, but made unique patterns when you were travelling beneath them at a cart's speed—and slowed the cart as they approached their destination. They were deep in the tunnel now, in one of the older cells. The cells were larger here, made before the eager founders of Republic City had realized just how many brutal criminals a thriving metropolis could accrue.
And the 'Hole's only for the worst criminals, Korrlac thought with awe, not for the first time. His father had been water tribe, though his mother had been born in the Earth Kingdom; he'd spent most of his life shuffling between the two wildly different cultures, and he'd never seen anything like the 'Hole in Republic City. Most of the prisoners here were non-benders, though there were special cells for particularly nasty criminals of each different bending persuasion. There was even rumour of a unique cell made to hold the Avatar, should she—or he, or whomever—wind up using his or her considerable power to terrorize the City. Whoever had designed these tunnels had been unmistakeably thorough.
The cart moved to a stop as the motions of Korrlac's arms slowed. He shook the weight out of one of his shoulders. Though he was long accustomed to it, he'd essentially just paddled a metal plank down a long tunnel with an oar made of his insistence that metal should move. It was tiring. He unbuckled himself, and then turned to see Ms. Sato had already managed to figure out her own harness. He permitted himself a smile.
"This way, Ms. Sato," he said, pointing to a wide slab of steel in the cobblestone wall. She followed him as he walked to it, and he said, "I'll need to accompany you. This prisoner shouldn't give you any trouble, but—"
"I can handle myself," she said, almost casually. Korrlac frowned.
"Be that as it may, I'll still have to accompany you. That's my job," he said, sounding less firm than he'd intended. His daughter would've said she could handle herself, as well.
Actually, she probably wouldn't have been nearly so polite, Korrlac thought with a grin. How many times had he come home to hear Maiko lecturing their daughter for some offense or another … ah, but he could never be angry at either of them.
And that, he thought with amusement, was the one unifying force strong enough to make his wife and daughter set their sights on him instead of each other when they were having one of their "arguments."
"Officer Korrlac?" Asami asked. Korrlac realized he'd been daydreaming. He blushed behind his scarf, then planted his feet in a wide stance and abruptly raised an arm, commanding the metal door to flow as his arm flowed, to move as his arm moved. The metal slab shot up into a hidden recess, obedient to his bending. If he were knocked unconscious, or left the area, or even broke his focus, the slab would fall back into place. Only the police were metal benders; no one had escaped from this prison in the admittedly brief history of its existence. He followed Ms. Sato into the cell, noting with a mix of exasperation and amusement that he was supposed to be the one leading the way.
Well, he wasn't about to stop her. If she could extract a favour like this out of Commissioner Lin—whose new title had arisen from the uncomfortable circumstance of having two excellently qualified Chiefs of Police—she could probably handle an old cripple.
The interior of the cell was stone on the three sides that weren't dominated by the gaping hole left by the metal slab. An old, wizened man was lying on a wooden cot, though he'd started to rise as the door opened. No doubt he was wondering what unique circumstances had brought someone into his cell. He slowly got to his feet, scrabbling at the wall with one hand. His skin was a deep, dark brown, with the weathered, leathery look of someone who had been born to hardship. His face was pointed and hawklike, and his pained grimace suggested a hidden, long-abused intelligence.
"Don't trouble yourself, please," Asami said, without thinking. The man seemed surprised, then grunted in response and lowered himself back to his cot. He gestured to his left knee, which Asami saw had enough twists and knots to make the oldest oak feel self-conscious.
"My first year," he explained, in a voice as sudden and tired as old wind. "Down here, I mean. In the 'Hole." He spoke as though unaccustomed to the sound of his own voice. For all Asami knew, he might be. She felt Korrlac stiffen behind her, adjusting his gauntlets. She imagined the prisoners didn't often speak. His eyes flickered to Korrlac, like two pieces of flint shifting in the sun. "Oh, not in your time, son. You've got to be, what, thirty-five, maybe? You would've just been a pup when they locked me up in here." He didn't say it with contempt; he seemed almost amused.
"Thirty-six," Korrlac said begrudgingly. The prisoner seemed slightly mollified. Asami started to unwind her scarf and removed her bandana, letting out her hair in a single flawless motion that was as out-of-place in the prison as a butterfly at sea. The man's eyes widened with sudden, startled recognition.
"You're not supposed to be here," he said, his words turning from confusion to amusement in the same breath. Asami Sato shrugged her shoulders.
"Neither are you."
Asami had been twelve years old when she'd first gone chasing after bats.
All of the household servants had told her it was impossible, that no such creature could possibly exist; surely a wolfbat, or a batfly, or maybe one of those particularly nasty lizardbats that you heard about from the Fire Nation. But she insisted, swore that she'd seen a bat, and she was determined to prove it to all of them. Her father didn't exactly tell her she was wrong; but he humoured her, and that was nearly as bad. Maybe even worse.
Well, when I show them the bat they'll just have to apologize, Asami thought with youthful pride, having packed a reasonable supply of provisions she'd sneaked from the cupboards. She'd left a note explaining what she'd done; she didn't want anyone to take the heat for her own little adventure.
And besides, she expected to be back home soon, anyway.
She slipped away from her father's mansion—somehow, she'd never thought of it as her mansion—and made her way out of Republic City with little difficulty. Everyone always thought they were being so clever; her father, her father's guards, the police, everyone. It really wasn't that hard to just slip by. All you had to do was show them what they wanted to see. If a downtrodden kid in simple clothing walked out the City Gates, no one would pay any mind. Sure, she liked wearing nice clothes and keeping her hair clean; but she also liked getting dirty and exploring. She didn't know why so many people were convinced the two were mutually exclusive.
She made the short trip from the City and travelled alone, along the coastline, kicking up sand on the shore as she tried to remember the way back to her destination. She'd been there once before, years ago, on a trip to the beach with her mother and father, back when—
She winced, and forced the memory away, focusing on her goal with all the intense ferocity and shameless belief of a twelve-year-old on a mission. The cave should be near, if she could just find it, then she knew she'd find the bat. And then ….
Well, she hadn't really thought what would happen, then. She was twelve.
She searched along the coastline for what felt like hours, dimly aware that someone would definitely notice that she was missing by now. She'd expected to find the cave immediately. Hadn't it just been around this next turn in the beach? But no matter how far she walked, munching her way through the fresh fruit she'd brought, she didn't find it. She tried to think back, tried to cast her mind back to that day … what had she been doing?
She remembered a rocky cliffside, remembered scraping her hands as she climbed over rocks not meant to be climbed … she remembered squeezing into a slit in a wall. It had seemed like a large opening, then, but she'd only been five years old. She raced down the beach, sure of herself now, then looked at a tall cliffside, looking out over the bay. She shielded her eyes from the high midday sun and looked up. There. An opening that had once seemed cavernous. She hoisted her travelsack over one shoulder and started to climb, determined beyond the point of reason. Her eager fingers, slender but strong, found purchase on sharp, jagged rocks as she pushed herself upwards. One rock dug into her skin and drew blood, but she pushed on, aware of the pain in her hands but too proud to admit to it, even to herself.
She climbed, ignoring the pain, ignoring the sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach that told her how many people were worried for her. She was fine; she could take care of herself. She'd always been able to take care of herself. She'd had to. Her father was always so busy, while the servants around the house were only kind because they had to be. She had to make her own way.
Her hand slapped onto the cold, flat surface of the cave opening. Not really a cave, she realized, more like a crack in the cliff's face. It had just seemed like a cave when she was barely taller than three feet. She pulled herself up onto the rock surface and wrenched her way inside, realizing there was barely enough room for her to kneel. The opening only narrowed as it went deeper, but she knew what was on the other side. She took off her travelsack and laid it near the cave's entrance, then flattened onto her stomach and inched forward, deeper into the dark crevice. The stone floor was cold and hard on her hands. She wasn't claustrophobic, but the tightness of the place was triggering some deep, primal fear of dark places.
Come on, you can do this. Don't be afraid, she thought, chastising herself.
It only took her half an hour to get stuck.
Bolin kicked a piece of rubble and sighed, wondering when the arena would be back to its old self. Everything was changing around him. He supposed he couldn't blame everything. It was hardly everything's fault that Amon had decided to blow up half the city, and Bolin's home with it. Wasn't everything's fault that Mako was busy training with the new firebending division, either. Of course, Bolin was happy for his brother—how couldn't he be? He was going to be one of the first firebenders to ever serve in Republic City's police force! It was incredible!
It also left Bolin with a whole lot of free time and not a lot to fill it with. Pabu mewled sympathetically on his shoulder.
"It's rough, buddy," Bolin opined philosophically, sitting down on a larger block of rubble and staring out at the devastated arena. There were already repair projects underway, of course, but it'd still take a long time to get the arena back on its feet. In the meantime, Pro Bending was at a standstill. He'd offered to help with the reconstruction, but he'd been informed that the contractors repairing the place "Knew what they're doing, kid."
He didn't doubt that. He just hated to see his home in ruins, and wanted to help! Why didn't anyone understand that? He just wanted his home back.
And Korra … well, Korra didn't really have much time for Bolin anymore. He didn't blame her, either; her airbending training had accelerated, and she only had so much time to spend with Mako. Apparently Tenzin was taking special care to teach her the spiritual side of bending. Bolin thought that was great, especially since Korra had been through so much to do with her … spiritual … Avatar … thing, but the fact remained that it left Bolin bored out of his mind.
People didn't even seem that interested in watching Pabu's performances in the main square. The whole world had gone crazy.
He felt vibrations in the earth beneath him, the distinct clanging of metal soles on the ground. He wasn't terribly surprised; police officers were out in droves patrolling the city now, particularly in the places most touched by Amon's rebellion. A rash of angry, violent crime was spreading through the city, benders against non-benders, non-benders against benders, non-benders against other non-benders … and, as ever, the benders themselves fought each other to prove how powerful they were. Somehow people seemed to think that where buildings had been reduced to rubble, the law didn't apply; and it might as well not have. The metalbenders had all had their bending restored by Korra, but the restoration of the bending police's ruined infrastructure and transports would take considerably longer. The United Forces ships had stayed near the city, but that only seemed to make things worse. The Forces tried not to interfere, since if they did, things would inevitably escalate; but the presence of the ships in the harbour had everyone's teeth set on edge. The whole thing was a mess. Bolin just wanted to Pro Bend and entertain people; how could all this violence have only made people want more of it? Korra had flat-out refused to restore the bending of known criminals, but a dozen other gangs had sprouted up in the power vacuum, even worse than the old ones. The new gangs were desperate, violent, and hungry to prove themselves.
Pabu squirmed on Bolin's shoulders, beating a reassuring rhythm with his tiny feat. Bolin smiled and reached up to pet his little buddy. At least Pabu hadn't gone nuts. He could hear the metal bending cop approaching, now, so he got to his feet. He figured it was a good idea to not just slouch and ignore a cop.
"Commissioner Bei Fong!" Bolin blurted in surprise. She was the last person he'd expected to see here. Didn't she have big important police stuff to do?
"Calm down, kid, I'm not here to arrest you," The Police Commissioner replied, sounding almost amused beneath her general veneer of stern competence. Bolin blushed and rubbed his neck nervously, grinning at his own foolishness.
"Well, that's good," he joked lamely. "Uh, nice to see you! Out and about. Fighting the good fight."
"Indeed," she said, her face completely unreadable. Bolin felt a little nervous, and had to remind himself not to roll around on the balls of his feet. He always did that when he was nervous. Bad habit. Mako had been telling him about it for years. He realized that Commissioner Bei Fong had said something to him. Daydreaming was another bad habit of his.
"Um, sorry?" He asked, trying not to sound as mortified as he felt. His face had gone so red he might've passed for a tomato.
"I said, what are you doing here, Bolin?" The question wasn't unkind, though the Commissioner's expression was still a mask of professionalism. Bolin scrambled to think of an answer that wasn't incriminating.
"Um, well, I just like to come here and, um, watch the Arena restoration, sometimes. You know, check up on it," He stammered, standing at attention for some reason. Lin Bei Fong had a way of implicitly commanding respect.
"I see." She looked at him long and hard, then asked, just as suddenly as before: "What are your plans?"
"My plans?" He was mostly thinking about getting some Fire Nation noodles for dinner.
"For your future," Lin elaborated wryly. Again Bolin had the impression that she found him deeply amusing, though was too professional to admit it.
"Um, well, when the Arena's back, I guess I'm gonna go back to competing—"
"Really? After all that's happened?" Lin asked curtly. Bolin again tried to come up with an answer, but she saved him the trouble. "General Iroh speaks quite highly of your bending abilities. I was convinced he'd recruited you. Turns out," she said, her tone growing slightly more insistent, "He thought I'd done the same thing." She arched an eyebrow. "So. You just want to be a Pro Bender?"
"Well, yeah, I guess," Bolin muttered. Somehow she was making the prospect seem … dishonest. He realized he was looking at his feet.
"Avatar Korra has personally assured me you're a good kid. Your brother speaks highly of you, and he's the best firebender we have in training." She seemed like she wasn't quite out of things to say with respect to his brother, but she'd been a cop too long to just blurt out her opinions of recruits to civilians. Even if the two were related. "You look around this city, young man, and tell me what you see."
"Um, well, things are pretty beat up—"
"An apt description," she said dryly. She clapped a hand on his shoulder suddenly and looked into his eyes, her intense gaze meeting his frankly baffled one. "Things are pretty beat up, Bolin. There are a lot of people out there looking to take advantage of that. This city needs good people who can do something about the mess they see. If you decide you want to put those skills of yours to good use, come see me. Unless you'd rather wait for months to play games."
Bolin blinked, and she left, marching off with the sure footing of someone who'd known exactly what to do all their life.
Pabu mewled in confusion.
"You said it," Bolin sighed, before he started walking towards the market. Maybe he'd go ahead and get those noodles after all.
Asami spent an hour of her young life trapped in between two slabs of stone, terrified out of her mind. No matter how she contorted her body or pushed against the unyielding cave floor, she couldn't work her way back towards the entrance. Nothing worked, and the coldness of the cave was making her shiver.
She didn't bother hoping that someone would rescue her. She'd done an excellent job of escaping unnoticed, and she hadn't told anyone where she was going. She wanted to scream at herself for her stupidity. Instead she grit her teeth and tried to come up with a way out of this. She had to. She couldn't die in this cave.
She renewed her efforts at squirming backwards, grunting in pain as her leg caught on a sharp rock. She couldn't see her leg—she couldn't see anything—but she felt the warm trickle of blood along her calf. With a gasp, she realized she couldn't go back. If she did, she'd only dig the rock in tighter and make her wound worse. She suddenly felt the reality of her situation. The cold, unfeeling darkness of the stone floor and ceiling weighed down on her soul as it trapped her body. She started to panic, her blood racing, a cold sheen of sweat breaking out on her skin—
A faint, chittering noise echoed through the cave. By the time it reached her ears, it had been mimicked and doubled by the cave so many times that it sounded like a chorus. The sound stopped after a moment, then came again. It sounded insistent, like a beckoning.
It was then that she knew what to do.
She inched forward, freeing herself from the stone behind her. At first, she was afraid the darkness would close in on her, constricting her … but it widened. She moved further in, inch by inch, until there was enough room for her to kneel. The sound echoed around her again, closer this time. She crept forward in the darkness, following the sound. As she moved deeper, there were fewer echoing mimics of the original noise. It was astonishingly clear. She longed to find its source. To hear it at its clearest….
After a long while of slowly pushing through the cave, she suddenly came upon a wide, open cavern, impossibly huge, rimmed with stalactites that made it appear to have fangs. For a moment, she stared up at the toothed ceiling, sucking in the fresh air and laughing with giddy relief. She stopped when she saw something stirring on the ceiling. She narrowed her eyes and tried to make it out, wishing for the thousandth time that she could firebend. Then making a light would have been easy.
The shape moved again. Shapes. Thousands of them twitched to life and unleashed a thousand screeching bursts of sound. Asami fell to her knees and covered her hair as they launched from the ceiling, swirling about like leathery clouds buffeted by the wind. She slowly looked up in amazement, marvelling at the sheer alien beauty of them. They descended towards her, swirling slowly like a tornado touching down on the earth. Something told her not to run or fight. She got to her feet and held her hands steady at her sides, welcoming them. A thousand bats swirled around her and cheered, welcoming her into their home.
Wind whispered through the cave and beams of light slashed down through the dark as a girl born in the land of the blind opened her eyes.
If the prison guards had been uncomfortable when Asami had demanded to see a prisoner, they had hid it well; when she'd declared that she had an order to release him, they had been openly irate.
"This is Commissioner Bei Fong's signature, along with all the council members'," Asami reminded the guard at the entrance of the prison. Korrlac had been surprisingly amenable to her request; the word of Lin Bei Fong went far with him. Not so true for the gate guard.
"And I am telling you, woman, I haven't seen a prisoner walk out of this prison in twenty-seven years!" The guard was an old, withered specimen, made tough and bitter by either his work or something inside him that took pleasure at watching the suffering of others. Asami didn't care to find out which. Her side was still aching after she'd taken a bad fall during her last … adventure in the streets of Republic City. She wasn't in the mood to humour this old reptile.
"It'd be a boring life if you never saw anything new, now wouldn't it?" Asami said irritably, rubbing her forehead. She'd thought it would be best not to reveal her mission when she'd went into the prison; she couldn't risk some corrupt officer spilling the word that a young woman had walked into the 'Hole with a pardon.
"It is legitimate, sir," Korrlac said behind her, his voice even and firm. Asami felt a sudden rush of gratitude to this man who barely knew her. He seemed honest, and his hardness was only there for when it had to be. Unlike the gate guard, he didn't relish the thought of all those prisoners languishing down there. "I would hardly have let him out of his cell otherwise."
"Look," Asami snapped, "You can either let us through, or I can go and bring the Commissioner down here. And you can tell her how you've never seen anyone walk out of here." That seemed to give him pause. Finally, he slapped his seal on the pardon Asami had given him, and turned to open the large, steel door that separated the 'Hole from the world above. Asami felt a sudden distaste for the quiet complacency of those who lived in ignorance of what was beneath their own feet.
Those like me, she realized. She'd only discovered the prison's existence after she'd exhaustively searched for the source of inventions whose origins were suspiciously absent from the Future Industries archives. Well, now she knew. And she was doing something about it.
The man she'd come for hadn't said a word as they'd left the prison. He was leaning on a metal cane that Korrlac had crafted from the metal cable in his uniform. Asami couldn't help but envy the ease with which he'd created a solution. It was that old feeling, too well known to so many people in the world: the jealousy of a non-bender. Most people tried to hide it, or pretend it wasn't there. Some—like her father—grew twisted by it. Asami mostly tried to focus on her own strengths, rather than someone else's. She tried to remember the lesson she'd learned in the cave, so many years ago.
Always move forward.
She left the guards behind as she escorted the old man—who was still rigidly silent—to the Satomobile she'd parked outside the discreet entrance to the sprawling underground prison. It was so innocuously hidden; it might as well have been a sewer main near one of the city walls. She found herself wondering just what they had so desperately needed to hide down there. Who had they needed to lock away so tightly?
Certainly not the old man she was escorting. His name was Ibushi Makarai, and he'd once been a friend of her father's. As far as she could tell, the only thing he'd done to earn himself a place in that prison was anger her father. A year ago, she would never have believed her father would have done such a thing. A month ago she might not have. But now she knew different.
"You can take the passenger seat," she informed him, as she took the driver's.
"I'm afraid you'll either have to burn the car or shampoo it into oblivion," the old man quipped, gingerly easing himself into the car. His knee obviously plagued him, but he was too stubborn to complain about it. "Well, I must say, it was quite the surprise to see you down there in my cell. You must've been a toddler the last time I laid eyes on you."
Asami blinked. She supposed she shouldn't have been surprised.
"My father is—"
"In jail. I know. Though a nicer jail than mine, I imagine." Makarai chuckled. "I'm a well-informed prisoner, don't worry. My, my. The impressive Asami Sato, personally breaking me out of jail. I'm flattered." He grinned like a hawk. "So what is it you need me for?"
"My father's secrets," Asami said brusquely. "Buckle your seatbelt. This thing's faster than a minecart."
The cave was vast, with a dozen different entrances and exits large enough for Asami to fit through. She tried most of them and turned back when the air grew stale, or if the chattering of the bats faded. Their noises were like a chorus of support. Asami wasn't about to leave them behind. She was back in the main chamber, biting her lip and counting off the exits she'd marked with rocks. There were still seven left. She'd had to have been down here for hours. What if there was no exit she could use, what if—
That's stupid. She picked a new exit, one that she had to get down on her knees to explore. The air coming through it was fresh. That was a good sign. She crept forward, ignoring the possibility that she might get trapped. She couldn't survive down here; there was nothing to eat. She'd have to find an exit or die trying. She could hear bats, somewhere ahead. Their chattering cries had become a second sight for her. She pushed on.
A gentle whispering reached her through the cracks. She turned her head, trying to find the source of the noise, but she couldn't see anything, anyway. She could only feel the fresh air and listen for the bats to find her way. She moved on.
The whispering again. She stopped, and for a moment felt fear. She shoved it aside as brutally as she did everything else.
She jumped, hitting her head on the hard, stony roof. A single line of blood started running down through her beautiful—though by now severely filthy—hair. It wasn't a bad wound, but it startled her. That had been a voice inside her head.
Her jaw dropped open in astonishment. Somehow, in her head, the image of a giant bat came to her, one wearing a beautiful, ornate crystal mask on its chest. There were strange markings along its wings.
A spirit, she realized. She coughed as she inhaled dust in her surprise.
She went left. Whenever she started to get lost, or afraid, the spirit implored her again, showing her the way. The tiny cave tunnel widened and narrowed at points, but never to the point of trapping her. Soon, the air grew more fresh and cheerful, and the musty smell of the cave was leaving her behind. The bat spirit's voice faded in her head, and she realized she was nearly out of the cave.
Do not look away. Asami blinked, wondering what that meant, but the spirit was gone.
She emerged from the cave onto grounds owned by one of her father's factories. As her father's workers and vassals ushered her back home, Asami stayed silent, running over the words in her head, trying to make sense of them.
I won't look away, she promised. She wondered if the spirit could hear her. She wondered if she really knew what she was promising.
"Hey, Korrlac. Just one thing before you go," the gate guard sneered. Korrlac squared his shoulders. This man was—technically—his superior officer, however much he mightn't like it. He'd no doubt earned himself a good solid week of the worst jobs in the 'Hole. Well, that was his burden to suffer. So help him, he'd liked the Sato kid. Spirits knew she'd been through enough. Her own father … Korrlac thought of his daughter again. No kid should ever have to go through that.
"You're the lucky trooper who gets to bring slop to this cell," the gate guard said, pointing to a cell on a map of the prison. Korrlac blanched. It was in the deepest part of the complex. If he did this he'd definitely be home late, and he would definitely not hear the end of it. The gate guard grinned. Korrlac couldn't remember his name. Something fire nation. "There isn't a problem, is there, officer?"
"Not at all, sir." Korrlac took the slop bucket—whose contents actually weren't that bad, all things considered—and made his way to the nearest cart junction. He hummed a senseless tune to himself as he walked, something he'd heard his daughter singing. He laid the bucket in one of the carts and turned the cart down to an old tunnel that seemed to stretch for days.
Well, maybe if I make it fast I can get home before dark, he thought grimly, guiding the cart down the tracks at the regular speed, anyway. He'd get more than a minor tongue-lashing if he drove one of the carts off the rails.
It took him nearly an hour to finally reach the last cell. All the cells in this wing were made of pure, vented platinum. The cost to build them must have been exorbitant, and Korrlac realized with eerie certainty that they'd been made to hold metalbenders. As he guided the cart to a stop, he felt the cold, impossible-to-bend nature of the metal. It was too pure, too free of earth. He wondered how he was supposed to open the prisoner's door, when he saw a lever. It, too, was platinum—it met his bending senses with that same eerie deadness—but it had a small metal catch that could be used to keep it raised. He'd have to open the door the old fashioned way, though.
There was a slit in the door, so he could view the prisoner before coming in. Korrlac slid it open, for good measure. If they had kept this person this far into the prison, there was probably a damn good reason. He cracked the slit open.
Slumped against one corner of the cell was a thin, though sharply muscular man, with long, unruly black hair. There were three vicious scars along his left cheek that started at his jaw and narrowly missed his eye, just stopping short of his nose. He had handsome, Earth Kingdom features, with the look of someone who had aged well. His eyes were shut, and he wasn't moving. His hands were bound in platinum manacles, which were secured in turn to the platinum cell wall.
"Hey! Prisoner!" No answer. Korrlac beat the cell door and cursed, before he hurriedly worked the lever to open it. The ponderous metal slab slowly creaked up, groaning as it rose. Korrlac secured the lever in the metal catch and entered the cell carefully. The usual tell-tale scent of death was absent from the room.
The prisoner's shackles fell from his hands with a clack and he opened his eyes, the most terribly bright green Korrlac had seen.
"Took you long enough."
He sounded insulted.
Korrlac immediately raised his fists to attack, but the prisoner moved with unreal speed, jabbing a brutal thrust into the joints of Korrlac's armour. Korrlac's eyes went wide as he slumped over, his arms unusable. The prisoner rather calmly shook off the chains on his leg, then grabbed Korrlac by the throat and pinned him to the wall with almost casual indifference.
"You'll never get out—"
"That so?" the prisoner asked, as though Korrlac had just mentioned that there might be rain coming. Those astonishing eyes flickered to him for a moment. Korrlac was suddenly struck by the thought of his wife and daughter, happily preparing supper at home, probably wondering what foolishness was keeping Korrlac at work.
"I always wondered why Lin never had you all learn chi-blocking," the prisoner murmured.
"How?" Korrlac gasped, trying to keep him talking. There had to be a way out of this … but without his arms, what could he do? He had to think of something.
"Oh, I learned to bend platinum ten months ago," the man said conversationally. "But I wanted to wait and see what happened with the revolution." He made a face. "You people are always disappointing me." Korrlac ignored him, running the names of his wife and daughter over in his head a thousand times. Lee. Maiko. Ky Lee. Maiko. Ky Lee.
"Daughter? Wife? Sister? Both? All three?" the man asked, sounding genuinely curious. Korrlac cursed. He'd whispered Ky Lee's name. The man waited for a moment, then shrugged. "It's amazing, isn't it?" He reached up with his other hand and braced it against the side of Korrlac's head. "One simple act of violence and all those little details that make up someone's life … gone. Just like that. And no one but the few you had touched will notice. Or care."
He snapped Korrlac's neck with the quick efficiency of a practiced killer. He seemed satisfied.
"Still using the same marking system, then?" He asked, glancing at the overhead dots. He seemed to have forgotten that Korrlac was a corpse. He looked down the tunnel, in the direction Korrlac had come from, then turned smartly around and started walking through the smooth stone at the end of the tunnel. It fell away in front of him like sand. He started to whistle a jaunty tune.
Somewhere in Republic City, a Fire Nation woman named Maiko dully suspected that something was wrong as she ordered take-out from her husband's favourite restaurant. He deserved it, she thought; he'd been working so hard lately. He was such a good man. Such a good husband. Such a good father.