Six hours in the saddle brought us to sunrise, and many miles north. I do not know this country well, and in my hurry I'm imagining roadblocks at every turn and ambushes behind every shrub.
This is what happens when I don't have time to prepare. I get nervous, and I get twitchy, and I make the wrong decision. For example, the smart thing to do here would have been to send out messages to the Order, mobilise our forces, and make a plan. Zhao won't do anything to the Avatar- he needs him alive- so our only advantage was breathing room. But I blew it, charging off into the night, with only Jeong-Jeong and a vague idea of where I was going to back me up.
Damnit. I truly am an idiot some times.
We were moving through the wooded side of a mountain when we heard it. A crashing through the undergrowth, some huge shape headed our way. Without hesitation, Jeong-Jeong leapt from the saddle and rolled into the brush, anticipating some sudden attack.
I rolled my eyes. I knew what it would be.
Sure enough, in moments, we were greeted by the enormous form of Nyla, June's shirshu. What I hadn't expected, however, was that the beast was alone.
In the morning light, I glanced over the huge beast as she enthusiastically greeted Jeong-Jeong. I didn't see any obvious injuries on her, and she didn't seem more agitated than usual, so I don't think that she was attacked, and it would be very out of character for June to get into a fight without her beast on hand, so that at least rules that out. Probably.
Nyla's attempt to better get to know Jeong-Jeong was thwarted when he huffed, and snorted a small plume of flame in her direction, making her shrink back.
It seems nothing is going my way today. I didn't even get to see Jeong-Jeong get paralysed.
I could have done with a laugh.
Nyla had left an easy trail to follow, and follow it we did, ever upwards, through thick woodlands, skirting a wide stream, and upwards towards a mountain covered in trees.
I had to suppress a grin for at least some of the way. I had persuaded Jeong-Jeong, in the interests of speed and prudence, to ride Nyla. From the way he was riding, you would almost swear that he had been tied into the saddle, and was furiously attempting to undo the knots with nothing more than the full fury of his scowl.
Soon, the trees began to thin, and we arrived at what looked at first like a cave, and then looked more like a ruin, carved into the rock, and almost concealed. It's an old Air Nomad way station. I've seen a couple before, in the Fire Nation. Both had been gutted- even after a hundred years, I had still been able to see the scorch marks on the walls. At least there hadn't been any bodies.
It was quiet as we pulled to a halt, but as I dismounted, I became aware of the sounds of a soft rush of air from inside the station. Then a pause. Then another huff of air. Breathing. Something big, from the sounds of it.
I drew my sword, and motioned Jeong-Jeong to go first. Standard small unit tactics- the firebender goes first. No one can take point like a man who can shoot fire from his hands, and you do not want him on the flanks, unless you find something appealing about spurts of flame crisping your side.
He nodded, and stepped forward, his arm at the ready as he made his way up the rough steps to the entrance. I followed, sword out, but held low.
Jeong-Jeong cleared the top step, and snapped into a stance, causing me to rush up behind him before he lowered it, almost reluctantly. I peered over his shoulder. What met my eyes was hardly encouraging.
June was sitting in the middle of the floor, propped up against a rock, morosely prodding what she must have hoped were the embers of a long-dead fire with a stick. The huge white mass that was the Avatar's sky bison dominated one side of the room, clearly sleeping, judging by the regularity of it's breathing. Lying on the beast were two dark shapes that appeared to be people in sleeping bags. Piled up roughly between the beast and June was an enormous pile of ...stuff. Miscellany.
June herself had clearly seen better days. There was a long gash on her right biceps- jagged and torn, unlikely to be a sword or similar, possibly grazed by an arrow, which raises possibilities I don't want to go into right now- what looked to be a bruise on her neck- attempted strangulation" It looked like it, and if someone had gotten that close to June, then the fight must have gone spectacularly badly- and I didn't like the look of how she was avoiding putting any weight on her left leg. On top of all that, it seemed like she hadn't slept in hours, which she probably hadn't.
She glanced up, acknowledging us with a curt nod.
“So, you managed to get here in person. And quick, too.” Her tone was, as ever, completely collected. Only once have I ever really heard June panic, and it was something I would rather not hear again.
I shrugged. “We were in the neighbourhood.” Jeong-Jeong just glared. Not at me, and not particularly at June. Just... glared.
“So,” I asked, “what happened"”
June turned slightly towards the two sleeping figures on the sky bison, and pointed at them. “As far as I can tell, these two got fevers, and the Avatar headed off to find medicine for them. I followed him, keeping my distance, so I of course ran right smack into a Fire Nation ambush. I managed to get away from them- they weren't actually after me, as far as they knew I had just stumbled across them- long enough to get to the Avatar. Wasn't pretty. Long story short, he got netted, I had to run. The only reason I got away was because they weren't that interested in me.”
There is one sure-fire way to tell that June is worried, or off-balance. She stops making jokes at your expense, cuts out any attempts at banter, focuses solely on the facts, and, in extreme cases, starts talking in sentence fragments. Only after all that does her inflection change in the slightest.
“And these two"” I asked, gesturing towards the sleepers, ignoring the fact that Jeong-Jeong seemed to have lost all interest in the conversation, and was busy inspecting the pile of rubbish.
“They weren't hard to treat. I was able to get them fixed up easy. The girl woke up about an hour ago, for maybe thirty seconds, but that's about it.”
I sat down near the remains of the fire, and Jeong-Jeong, having apparently concluded that the pile of junk did not pose a significant threat, ambled over.
“In which direction was the Avatar taken"” he asked, abruptly.
“West,” June replied, curtly.
“I see.” He paused, staring at a crack in the flagstones about two feet in front of him. “I shall return presently.”
I pulled myself together quickly enough to grab his shoulder before he had made it out of the station.
“Excuse me" What, exactly, were you planning to do"”
“Reconnaissance has to be conducted before any further plans can be made. I should be only a few hours.”
I did not let him pass.
He merely gazed back, serene as ever.
“I do not require your assistance, Piandao.”
I gritted my teeth, beginning to get annoyed.
“No,” I said, as calmly as I could, “but you do require my permission, Jeong-Jeong.”
He inclined his head, slightly.
“...You are correct, Master Piandao. I formally request permission to scout the land west of here, so that we may locate the position to which the Avatar has been taken.”
In the end, we persuaded him to take my eelhound. I have no idea why he thought going on foot would be a good idea.
I stood near the wall, standing straight. If I relaxed too much, there was every chance that I would just fall asleep then and there. I'll be fine as soon as we get moving, when the adrenaline starts rushing again, but for now I have to concentrate on keeping my concentration.
“So, enjoy your little cock-fight"” June asked, jolting me upwards.
“You know, you and Jeong-Jeong's little superiority dance. You have fun"”
She shook her head despairingly, and stretched out. She couldn't suppress the wince. I supposed it was as good a point as any to bring up that point.
“You look like hell.”
My response was delivered with a glare.
“Well, don't you have a way with words. I've had worse.”
“I know. I was there, remember"”
“Only one of the times.”
“Your leg was broken in three places, you had an arrow in your shoulder, there was a gash a foot long along your back, and you had lost enough blood to fill a bathtub. I have a hard time believing that you somehow managed to do worse any other time.”
She paused. “That was very nearly a compliment, actually. Thank you. And besides, I don't remember you being any better off.”
I had to give her that one. My knee still aches when the weather changes, if anyone were to remove my shirt, they would swear that I had decided to tattoo a cobweb onto my chest (either that, or I had decided to fight a moose-lion with both my hands tied behind my back), and there is a patch on my right arm where hair may well never grow again. No matter- I prefer long sleeves anyway.
“Good times,” she said, and I tried to agree. At least some of it had been fun, anyway. Well, exhilarating, anyway.
Silence reigned for close to an hour. June and I have never been quite on the same level socially- my idea of a good time involves a cold drink and a spot in the shade on a hot day with a book, while her idea of a good time... well, I'm almost certain men have died trying to find out.
One trait we do share, though, is a limited well of small talk. Once we were through reminiscing about the old days- something that we seemed to do every time we met, even though 'the old days' had been only one mission, lasting a full month- and we had talked about whatever we was at hand, we tended to just dry up.
So it just happened that we were sitting in total silence when the boy began to stir.
I watched him out of the corner of my eye as he began to move. It was promising- he noticed June and I within seconds, and instead of crying out, he reached for his weapon and slid out of his sleeping bag. Good reaction times.
I have to wonder what he was planning to do next, though. He was less than five feet from June, who had decided to relight the fire, and about seven from me. His companion is asleep, he himself has just woken from illness. Whatever plan he's going to come up with, it's going to have to be spectacular.
His plan, it turned out, was to try to creep away from the entire situation, towards the exit. Well, it's probably a better move than wildly attacking, anyway.
He got three steps before he stepped on a twig.
“You should have been paying more attention to your surroundings.” I shook my head, and the boy jumped a clear three feet in the air.
June sighed in despair. Let me have my theatrics.
The next three seconds were surprising.
The boy's right arm flicked, and as I turned my attentions back to him, a whirling flash of blue hurtled towards me. The movement of the thing was erratic- I had been expecting a knife, but instead the projectile curved through the air, deceptively quick, and the blade almost hit me.
Getting slow, old man.
A crack behind my head knocked the projectile out of the air, and I quickly moved to intercept any attempt to run off into the woods. Right now, I am hardly in the mood to chase anyone through the woods.
He hadn't moved. Really, I am having a little trouble fathoming his plan.
“...Who" What" Why" What's going on"”
All good questions, if a little inarticulate.
“And where's Aang"”
Aang" Air Nomad naming convention. Must mean the Avatar.
“That,” I said, “is a very good question. As of now, he is in the company of Admiral Zhao.”
The boy's eyes widened.
“I am afraid so.”
“What- but- when- …Katara!”
The girl (Katara, sister of the boy (Sokka). I should really be taking notes) shook her head, slowly. She had taken the news of the situation a lot more quietly than her brother, but hardly better.
“What do we do"” There was a lot of quiet determination in her voice.
“Now" Not a lot we can do, honey.” That was June. “Not until our ...friend gets back.”
The boy glanced at June. “Significant pause friend" Who's this significant pause friend" In fact, who are any of-”
“He is being held twenty miles to the north-west of here.”
The boy screeched, and swung around, toward where Jeong-Jeong had walked in.
“Where did you- wait, you know where Aang is"” he asked, winding down as he went.
Jeong-Jeong ignored him.
“Developments are troubling. The Avatar is being held in a stronghold at the foot of a great cliff.”
I frowned. I did not remember any Fire Nation strongholds in this area. Surely my knowledge of the land can't be this bad"
“So,” repeated the girl, “what do we do now"”
Jeong-Jeong glared, as if noticing her for the first time. Perhaps he was.
“What I think we should do now,” I said, attempting to take some charge of the situation “is plan. What was your opinion of the security"”
“It was enough to render any direct assault...inadvisable.”
“Any way to sneak in, then"” June asked. Jeong-Jeong just shrugged.
“Would it be best,” I voiced “if we waited for them to move the Avatar"”
“No.” The girl snapped.
“It might be best,” I reasoned. “No matter how many guards they have, it will be fewer than in the castle.”
“No. We're not leaving him in there any longer than we have to.” Her tone brooked no argument, so I did not offer one.
I suppose she might be right, on reflection. After all, the Fire Nation needs the Avatar alive, not in any kind of fighting condition. They might take his eyes, or his hands.
Yes, I think we shall have to move quickly.
Jeong-Jeong led the way, riding my eel-hound. June was following close behind, on Nyla. That left me riding the flying bison with the Avatar's companions.
I believe that I have mentioned that I do not like heights. Well, it turns out that I like flying even less.
I glanced around, trying to keep the wind from my hair, looking for something, anything to keep my mind off the fact that I was hurtling through the air.
The boy was looking at me with a thoughtful expression.
“say something, would you"” he abruptly demanded.
“Just say something.”
“Anything in particular"” I think I see where this is going...
“Yeah. Could you say something about, perhaps, the importance of proper footing" Or maybe tell us a little about the intentions of the Fire Nation"”
I didn't say anything.
“Hah! I knew it! I knew you were the guy from Kyoshi Island!” he crowed, seemingly very pleased with himself. I sat quietly while he gloated, but his sister was not so understanding, turning around from where she was piloting the beast.
“What are you talking about, Sokka" You know this guy"”
Sokka scratched his chin.
“Well, he showed up on Kyoshi Island just as the Fire Nation did, and stabbed a guy, said some annoyingly vague things and that's about it. Then you show up here,” he said, pointing at me like I had done something wrong “with your friends, and you somehow know Aang's been captured and now we're rushing off to besiege some fortress or other and what exactly is going on" Who are you people"”
I chose my words carefully.
“Call us... concerned citizens. We just want to help.”
Neither of them looked convinced.
“Is it really so implausible" The Avatar is trying to save the world. People are going to want to help him. After all, isn't that what you're doing"”
Both of them looked oddly introspective at that. Perhaps they hadn't thought about what they were doing like that before.
I left them to it. It wasn't my place to say anything, and at least this way they aren't asking awkward questions.
“So,” Katara whispered, as we all crouched in the undergrowth. “How are we getting in"”
I'll admit, it doesn't look easy. The stronghold sits squatting in the shadow of a cliff face, overlooking a river. A quick examination with the spyglass told me that the outer wall at least was new stonework. Cut, too. I didn't like the looks of that. I had hoped, when Jeong-Jeong mentioned a fortress here, that it might have been built using slave earthbenders (there are a few, but far fewer than you might think. Earthbending takes a certain stubbornness of will to even learn, and to break that to the extent where they can be trusted to use their abilities to build for you is not easy). That way I might be forgiven for not knowing about it- earthbenders could have built it in a matter of weeks. But no, it seems to have been constructed traditionally, without my hearing about it.
If I haven't heard of this, how much else have I not heard about" The thought is troubling.
There's time enough to worry about that later.
What I do have to worry about now, though, is the uniform of the men on the walls.
I tapped Katara on the shoulder, getting her attention while her brother looked up.
“We should head back to the others. Come on.”
We slipped back into the woods, where our various mounts and June and Jeong-Jeong were waiting. These siblings seemed perfectly at home in the woods, despite growing up at the South Pole. Light-footed, they made almost no sound, and barely even left a trail. I'm impressed.
“So,” June asked, as we entered the small clearing that served as our base camp, “how's it look"”
“Difficult,” I replied. “How is your leg"”
She shrugged. “Fine. It's just bruised.”
I nodded, moving past Jeong-Jeong, seated cross-legged on a flat rock, to sit under a tree. I closed my eyes as I shifted, the bark at my back scratching at me.
Now, let's think. The Avatar will be somewhere within the main tower. There isn't a standard dungeon location, so our best bet will be to find someone who looks knowledgeable and beat the information out of them. That might take time, so the sensible entry point would be-
“What's he doing"” someone whispered.
“Planning,” June replied.
“Yes. I am.”
Now, where was I"
It took a few minutes, but I felt that I had hammered out a workable plan at the end of it. Explaining the details took a little longer, but everyone understood what they had to do. There was only one sticking point.
“Someone is going to have to stay with the sky bison.”
No one seemed eager to step forward. I know who should stay behind, but I don't want to impose my will any further- I just want people to do what I want of their own accord.
There was an uneasy pause, as everyone glanced at each other. Then the girl sighed.
“I'll do it.”
I nodded to her, as Jeong-Jeong stood.
“Thank you. Remember, once we are inside, we need you to stay by the cliff, out of reach. If any soldiers come after you, do not fight them, do you understand me" We cannot afford for you to be busy fighting when we need to get out.”
“I understand,” she said, her voice resolved.
“Excellent. Let's get moving.”
The sun was high in the sky, so we did the logical thing. We charged the castle with it at our backs.
Thank you, Jeong-Jeong. Thank you very very, very much.
I was aware of nothing but speed as we plummeted down, hurtling down at what seemed like an impossible angle from far, far too high up in the sky. In a matter of seconds, the castle changed from nothing but a grey circle on the land to a huge pillar of stone.
Step one: we break into the castle. Preferably via the twentieth floor.
As we hurtled down, I closed my eyes, and focused on the feel of my hilt as I tried to ignore the sucking hole in my body where my stomach used to be. Arrows whistled, but I don't think any hit, and suddenly there was a slam, and I was knocked on my back as my stomach abruptly caught up with me.
I tried not to throw up, instead clambering to my feet. Jeong-Jeong stood tall, breathing deep, before assuming a stance and slamming a fireball into the wall of the tower with the force a thousand hammers.
“Go!” I shouted, and we did, leaping into the darkness of the fortress, Jeong-Jeong, June, the boy, and myself last of all. As I sprang across the short gap (don't look down don't look down) I felt the saddle begin to move, as the girl turned the bison away, toward the cliff.
Step two: find an officer. Persuade them to tell us where the Avatar is.
We were in a mess hall. Only a few men were there, and they were woefully unprepared for us. I let June take care of them- she looked like she needed to work out some aggression.
“Come on,” I said, and we moved out of the room, into a dimly-lit corridor.
Where do we go from here" Does it matter"
At random, I ducked into a room.
Another mess hall, this one much fuller.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” I announced. “Could I possibly have a word"”
The others piled in behind me, forming up. Two dozen versus four. Let's see how long this lasts.
The first man to charge went down from a boomerang to the head. The second was brought down by a whip-crack to the chest that knocked him flat on his back, but by now the battle was joined.
Duck, twisting to avoid a spear thrust
Twist away, leaving June to take care of the disarmed man, leap into a crowd of five firebenders
Lash outward with a kick to the fourth man's knee, he crumples
I turned to see the boy- Sokka, with a bloodstained machete and a stunned look on his face. The fifth man was dead at his feet.
He doesn't take it.
“Keep your mind on what you're doing,” I chide him. After a moment, he nods.
Only the officer remains, a captain of maybe thirty, with a thin moustache. He's cradling a broken arm, courtesy of June, but glares defiantly at us, backed into a corner.
I don't really like doing this. But there isn't time for niceties.
I step forward, towards the man, but feel a hand on my shoulder. Jeong-Jeong stares at me, and shakes his head. After a moment, he moves towards the captain.
“Do you know who I am, captain"”
I see the man's eyes scan Jeong-Jeong's face, and widen in terror.
I can hear Jeong-Jeong's grin, all bared canines, in his voice.
“Yes. Me. And you know then that you will tell me everything I want to know.”
The two hold eye contact. In a matter of seconds, the captain is literally sweating with fear.
“Yes! Yes! Anything you want!”
“Good. Where is the Avatar"”
Leaving Jeong-Jeong to his interrogation, I turned my attention to Sokka. He was standing against the wall, trying not to look at all the bodies.
There's not much I can say here. Not much but the truth.
“It gets easier.”
He looked up at me, glaring.
“That's not comforting.”
Any further conversation was cut short by a sudden crack, and I turned to see Jeong-Jeong nursing his knuckles and walking away from the prone form of the captain. Behind his back, June stared at him, blinking.
“The Avatar is being held two floors above us, in a specially-prepared cell. He is guarded by four men at all times, and has been denied food and water. We head right from here, through another hallway, then take the stairs, then the first left, third right, then straight to the end of the corridor. I apologise, but that is all I could find out.”
“I think that should do,” I managed, weakly. “Let's go, then.”
Step three: get to the Avatar.
We charged down the corridor towards the stairs, but before we got more than three steps there was a whistle, and I ducked just in time to see an arrow fly overhead.
Special consideration (1): the Yu Yan are guarding the fortress. If we stick to corridors and enclosed spaces we should be able to minimise their effectiveness.
We accelerated, more arrows following, but there was the door to the hallway Jeong-Jeong had mentioned, and we dived into it and June slammed the door as four arrows hammered into the wood.
Sokka was gasping for breath, but there was no time to rest.
Damn damn damn. I knew this was coming, but there's nothing we can do about it, nothing but-
“They shall have to be held,” Jeong-Jeong announced, calmly. “I would suggest you start running.”
Sokka gaped. “But-”
“Now. There is no time to argue. Start running.”
Jeong-Jeong, you... melodramatic idiot. But you're right.
I glanced at him, and nodded.
“We'll be back. Remember, we need you to send the signal.” No time for anything else.
“I shall hold them. Start running,” he repeated.
So we did, up the stairs. June and I didn't look back, but Sokka did.
Elementary lesson of tactics- no one is indispensable.
We ran in silence, through the corridors. We encountered more men, but didn't break stride, hacking and barging our way through as we ran.
Then there was the door, with considerably more than four men guarding it.
I shrugged my sword free, and went to work.
The tight corridor worked overwhelmingly in my favour- half the time they hit each other with their attacks, and in a few minutes there was no one left.
My arm was sore, and I rolled my shoulder as June picked the lock. Sokka looked nauseous, but said nothing.
He's going to have to get used to this. His sister isn't trained, and never will be trained in combat, not in the north. So he is the Avatar's only protection, his only guard. He's going to have to get used to violence.
With a click and a creak, the door opened.
Step four: rescue the Avatar.
And there he was, this young boy, arms spread wide, chained to two pillars. And there was Zhao, holding a flame to the Avatar's throat.
“Stop right there,” he drawled.
Special consideration (2): Zhao. He's a thug, and can be hard to predict. We'll have to deal with him as he comes.
We don't have time for this. How long can Jeong-Jeong hold the Yu-Yan" Not much longer, I'm afraid.
June rolled her eyes.
“Sure, Zhao, kill the Avatar. After all, that's worked so well before.”
“Oh, I think the circumstances are different now. No airbenders, remember"”
“And what of your orders, Zhao"” I asked.
“The Fire Lord will understand,” he replied, confidently.
“Will he" Iroh likes you little enough already, Zhao. Disobeying orders might be all the excuse he needs to get rid of you.”
“Oh, when I-” he turned to face me “-you!” His arm snapped out, aiming his fingers directly for me.
Am I really that intimidating"
“Well, this is a surprise,” he said. “Yes, I think the Fire Lord will be understanding, especially when I present-”
The Avatar's eyes flicked open, aware that no one was holding a flame to his neck any more. A foot lashed out, knocking Zhao's calf, sending him off balance. Then the boy closed his eyes, and leapt, flipping forwards and yanking Zhao with him.
I couldn't follow what happened- the boy was too fast- but it ended with Zhao flat on the floor, stunned, with the Avatar standing on his back, chains twisted.
“June, deal with the chains, could you"” I asked, as Sokka moved to support the Avatar.
Now, what do we do with Zhao" He's out cold, the sensible thing to to would be to kill him. But that rankles, and besides, I doubt the world's last Air Nomad would approve.
Besides, there are other factors.
Some years ago, our informant in the Palace told us that a young Captain Zhao had come to the Fire Lord, bearing information that he …should not have had. Secrets that no man should know. No one seemed to know where he had learned the things he had, and he leveraged his sudden importance to his full abilities, making powerful friends, becoming the darling of the court. Naturally, we were curious, so we investigated.
It turned out that Zhao had, along with twenty other officers in the Fire Navy, taken a leave of absence and gone on an expedition deep into the eastern desert. No one seemed to know what had happened there- the sandbenders refused to speak of the men, and the few settlements out that way had little information. Accounts, scant as they were, differed wildly. Some said that they had gone in search of treasure, others that they were hunting the Avatar. On only one point did the accounts agree. Twenty men left in the company of the Moon-Shine-Bone sandbender clan. Only Zhao returned, riding an elephant scarab. The Moon-Shine-Bone clan did not come out to trade again.
We dug deeper. Finally, one of our agents located something. Once Zhao had gotten a good distance from the desert, he had located a whorehouse and gotten drunk. For an immodest fee, the young woman in question had revealed that, in a fit of drunken bravado, Zhao had mentioned a library, and boasted that he would kill the moon.
The library of Won-Shi-Tong. An unparalleled opportunity. An agent recommended to us a young scholar by the name of Zei, a professor of the now defunct Ba Sing Se university. I met with him, after losing my tails for a few days, and, after ascertaining that he was trustworthy, and a decent Pai-Sho player, inducted him into the Order and funded an expedition to find the Library.
Apparently, the Spirit Won-Shi-Tong was hard to placate, but Zei was able to convince him of the worthiness of our mission, and he was allowed access to the archives. And what secrets he told us, and one above all...
Without Zhao, there would be no Plan. So he has earned at least one chance, I suppose.
“Come on,” I said. “Let's go.”
Step five: get to the entrance we made.
Sokka supporting the Avatar, who was sporting grazes on his wrists from his little stunt, we made our way through the corridors. Surprisingly, no one attacked us. No Yu-Yan, no firebenders. Nothing.
We made it all the way to the stairs without a fight, and I was stating to get paranoid. Were they amassing their forces, waiting to ambush us on the way out"
As it turned out, they were not.
We stumbled down the stairs- the Avatar nearly fell more than once- and into the hall where Jeong-Jeong had made his stand.
There he was, unmoving on the floor, all around him bodies of the Yu Yan. Amazingly, the room had hardly been disturbed- the floor was scuffed, but that was all. If it had not been for the bodies, you would have thought the worst that had happened here was a particularly enthusiastic dance.
And, of course, Jeong-Jeong was sitting in the middle of the floor, cross-legged, apparently deep in meditation.
“They were... held,” he declared, dryly, as he stood, brushing the dirt from his knees. “But I do not believe that I faced all of them, and I do not think it wise to stay and make sure.”
Well, hard to argue with that.
There were two guards peering out of our hole when we got back. June wasted no time in dealing with them, kicking one hard enough to dent the wall he slammed into, and slamming the other to the ground.
“I think it's time we left, don't you"” I asked, and Jeong-Jeong moved to give the signal.
Lightning split the air, and the temperature in the room rocketed briefly.
A few tense moments passed. I listened at the door. Nothing. I think we may have confused things here somewhat.
A few seconds more, and a rush of air announced the air bison's entrance seconds before a rush of white hair suddenly filled the hole.
Then it dropped down a few feet, revealing the back of the sky bison.
“Can we get on with this"”
Well, the Avatar seems to have recovered a bit, but we're wasting time.
Step six: escape.
We stepped back, allowing Sokka to help the Avatar onto the beast. Far below, behind the roar of the wind, I fancied I could hear shouting.
Once the Avatar was on board, we followed. I was the last to get on.
As I stepped forward, Katara suddenly lunged towards me.
I turned, and as I did so I was aware of a lash of blue darting past me, slamming into the shoulder of the man who had been sneaking up on me, catapulting him twisting through the air. June must not have hit him hard enough.
I processed what had happened. She had seen him, and entirely on reflex, incapacitated him with a single strike.
Her reaction times are impressive, to say the least. And her aim too, which I'm lucky for.
I reflected on this as we flew away, exhausted all. If I put pressure on Pakku, perhaps he would...
No. Pakku has never reacted too well to being ordered around, and there are some things he will not do. Disrespecting the traditions of his tribe is one of them. She will have to become a healer, and I will have to hope that Pakku's respect for tradition doesn't jeopardise the Plan.
It was time for all of us to part ways. The Avatar had been introduced, excuses had been given, and now it was time for us to leave.
There had been a sticking point with June, though. The Avatar had recognised her as the one who had tried to help him, and insisted on thanking her.
Sokka, of course, had noticed, and sidled over to me.
But they were gone now, flown off into the setting sun, and now we three were preparing to go our separate ways again.
“Are you sure you want to walk"” I asked Jeong-Jeong.
“I enjoy walking. I do not have far to go,” was the reply. I let it go at that.
June was going to follow the Avatar still, discreetly, although she didn't really understand why.
“I mean, all this subterfuge is kind of pointless now, isn't it"”
“Perhaps,” I replied. But the reason the Avatar isn't in our confidence is simple. If he knows about the Plan, he might react in several different ways. He could leave everything to us, which is bad, because the Plan might fail. He might oppose the Plan, due to the ...morally complicated nature of some of it, which would be bad, because then there are suddenly three sides to this conflict, or he could actively try and promote the plan, which is bad, because he is twelve, and when was the last time a twelve-year-old was any good at subtlety.
So we shall have to manipulate him. A bit. Well, manipulate is possibly the wrong word. Just... make things easier for him. Converge on occasion. Perhaps we could organise a chance meeting between him and Ozai.
Maybe. But that's in the future. For now, I have other things to sort out.
A day's ride brought me to a small town, where I sent out runners to the nearest cell of rebels in the mountains. I authorised a team of earthbender sappers to make a raid.
Within a week, that Fire Nation stronghold was nothing but rubble.