Chapter 22: Welcome to War
Zuko didn't blame the sunrise for waking him up this time. He felt Katara jolt awake at the same time he did.
A horn blasted in the distance and he immediately felt awake, recognizing the sound. Helping Katara to her feet, the two ran towards the end of the cliff and scanned the sea. His eyes fell upon the horizon, three black ships rapidly approaching the island.
"No way…" he muttered. "That can't be—"
"—Azula." Katara growled.
"But that means she's here two days early." Zuko could hear the panic in his voice. "The villagers—"
Katara's eyes grew wide as she turned to face him. "We have to warn everyone."
The two bolted back down to the village. Zuko was inwardly amazed they had walked so far out yesterday night. Everything seemed unreal. This was it. Azula was coming and they were finally stepping into the war. He glanced over at Katara, seeing knew found determination in her eyes.
"I'll go to my uncle," Zuko blurted. "You alert the warriors, and Aang and Toph if you can!"
With a nod, the two separated ways, sprinting against the ground. Zuko headed towards his room, wondering if his uncle was awake already. The sun was barely peaking over the horizon, but there was no way his uncle hadn't heard that blare. It was unmistakable. As soon as he burst through the door, he almost crashed into his uncle. Iroh skillfully sidestepped the last minute, sending Zuko toppling into the room. He crashed into the foot of his bed, before turning around and glaring at his uncle.
"Uncle! You could have tried to stop me!" Zuko cursed in pain, and rubbed his head. "Did you hear it?"
Iroh stopped his chuckling and tensed. "Yes. She's here, isn't she?" Zuko pressed his lips into a thin line and nodded once. Iroh shook his head and stared at him with hard eyes. "Let's go then, we have no time to waste."
Pushing off his hands, Zuko followed his uncle out the door. As they walked towards the east wing, Suki came running, followed by a few of her warriors.
"Iroh!" Once again, Zuko had a hard time deciphering if it was truly Suki. Her face was clean of makeup, and she was wearing normal nightwear. Her eyes held nothing but shock. "Is it true? Isn't it too early for her to be here?" He shook his head again. Another horn blasted in the distance.
All eyes turned to the sea, momentarily watching three black ships approach the island. Aang and Toph came running to the group.
"How long do you think we have until she fully docks?" Suki muttered.
Iroh sighed. "10 minutes."
Without another question, Suki turned to her warriors. "I'll give you 1 minute… All warriors gear up, now! Wake the rest of the girls and start to escort the remaining families to the west village, one warrior per family. Take nothing but the essentials. The rest of you will support me here. Go!"
The girls scattered. Aang pulled a whistle from his shirt, and blew. "Suki, use Appa, it'll be much faster than trying to walk the distance. Besides, I don't want him involved with the fighting."
Suki nodded gratefully. "Thanks Aang, I'll make sure he stays out of danger. Also, we need coverage while the remaining villagers leave. Can you do it?"
Toph raised an eyebrow. "Of course we can. Who do you think we are?"
Suki nodded once, ignoring Toph's last remark, and turned to Iroh. "Please alert the villagers. Have them ready for my warriors to take."
"Of course." With Iroh's final word, Suki turned and ran after her warriors.
After her leave, Aang gave a small frown to the blind girl. "Toph… we've only done that once, we don't know if it'll work again without practice."
The girl waved a hand dismissively. "Just sync your bending with mine. It'll work, trust me." She began to trot down the village towards the sea. Aang simply sighed and slowly followed after her.
"You say that as if it's easy…"
Zuko watched the two leave. Iroh bumped his arm. "What are you doing Zuko? There's no time. Go find Katara and inform her the details."
He hadn't even noticed her absence until now. Where was she? Nodding at his uncle, he ran up to the west wing, thinking that she had to be with Sokka. After hurriedly walking into his room, he noticed Katara hanging over her brother.
"Katara!" he called. "What are you doing?" She looked up with an expression of devastation.
"What do I do? I can't move him yet, but I can't leave him here!"
"There's no time!" he walked towards them. "Azula's coming. We have 10 minutes at the most! Just trust that Suki and the rest will protect him."
"Katara, it's okay," Sokka muttered, slightly opening his left eye to meet her. "Even if they come in here, I won't let them win. You just take care of yourself." He grabbed Katara's hand, and she nodded once. Releasing her brother's hand, she glanced at Zuko.
"All right, let's go."
Azula was never the type to waste a few hundred men on a tiny island. If things went her way, she would have taken the soldiers and finally captured the heart of Ba Sing Se. A feat even her uncle couldn't complete. She clicked her tongue and felt a smile about to creep across her face. It felt odd, speaking of an uncle she only found out about a few days ago. Not to mention a brother. An older brother it seemed, he could only be two or three years older than her by the look of him. Now she was on orders to take them down. How ironic.
The island was in view, and Azula could feel her inner fire burn wildly. She couldn't fail this time. Although fate has made it so that both her uncle and brother guard the girl, their lives were nothing compared to Ursa's. The horn blared loudly behind her. It was only a matter of minutes before they reached the island. As the ship began to slow down, she spotted two small figures by the shore. Azula released a low growl, recognizing the two. The airbending brat and the tiny earthbender, just with those two, they had single handedly forced her to turn around last time. She wouldn't forget it.
The wind began to pick up in speed, and Azula knew something was coming. Before she knew it, the air around her began to thicken and appear brown. Bits of sand flew around her face. She quickly turned on her heel and walked towards the double doors to her room, confusing a few men who were still outside. She raised an arm and looked to her new lieutenant.
"Keep the ship steady and prepare for high wind levels. And get back inside immediately."
"But princess," the man argued. "We would have to dock first, otherwise we risk the possibility of being tossed or pushed back."
Azula could feel her hand twitch in impatience. She really needed to relieve herself of all the stress. She leaned forward slightly, giving a cold stare to the man, her voice nothing but a low whisper. "Then you better pray the men dock quickly, or you just might find yourself locked out in a storm."
The man shivered, giving a curt bow before leaving. "Release the anchors!" His voice boomed over the wind.
Azula simply turned around and continued to walk into her chambers. There was no way she was attempting to stay outside any longer. A sandstorm was approaching.
Aang could feel the air responding to him. He glanced over at Toph, who was effortlessly grating the earth into sand. With a wave of his arms, the sand lifted, and spun in the air. He focused on keeping calm, releasing his dominance over his element. The dust began to condense, rolling high above the ground, quickly gaining speed towards the ships. Aang clenched his teeth, feeling his energy drain rapidly; keeping the sand spinning was no easy task.
The alarmed voices of soldiers echoed through the storm, as mass chaos erupted. He could barely see through the dust and sand, but Aang was beginning to think time was up, he couldn't hold the storm forever. Glancing back at the village, he saw the Appa take off from the ground, holding a the remaining elderly on his back. Another warrior, who he assumed to be Suki, waved a hand at him. It was the signal. Gathering his strength, he looked towards Toph.
"It's time to pull back!"
The small earthbender nodded, before pressing her hands onto the ground, a look of concentration plastered on her face. Aang increased the momentum of his wind, and pushed the storm forward at a frightening pace. The sandstorm tore through the ships, blowing out everything in its path. Aang and Toph began running back up the village, spotting Suki, commanding her warriors.
"Suki!" he yelled. The young airbender could feel his lungs wheeze in complaint. Creating a storm like that was definitely harder than said. She turned to him.
"Aang! To you position! They're coming any minute!"
He nodded throwing himself to the side of the village. Toph stood at the center, a smirk on her face.
A few days earlier…
"Azula is after that girl, right?" Suki proclaimed, pointing to Katara. No one in the room responded fully, only Iroh nodded his head. "Listen, for Kyoshi Island, there is only one entrance: the large opening of our village from the shore. Of course, you could always get to the other villages by boat, but there's nothing but trees to go through for miles. It's pretty much set Azula will come through the main gate, meaning she can only leave through the same way."
A few eyes gazed up at her. Zuko sat in silence, watching Katara from the corner of his good eye.
"Then what of the villagers?" Aang inquired. "We obviously can't make this place a battlefield with them here."
"I know, I know," Suki replied coolly, lifting a hand. "The villagers will be evacuated and sent to the East and West villages respectively. If we can all work together, it'll only take a few days. Each main village has their own band of warriors, so they will be well protected if anything happens."
"What about Azula?" Iroh slightly frowned, remembering their biggest obstacle. Suki made a similar face.
"We have to detain her here. So as long as her objective remains in this village, I'm sure she will stay as well. However, the number of soldiers she has at her disposal is also a big factor." Suki rubbed her forehead.
"How about we take them all at once?" Toph suggested. Every eye turned to the small girl who was sitting with a small smirk. "Only one entrance and one exit right? Why not have all the soldiers file in, and we can take care of them all together?"
Suki's eyes lit up. "You're right! If we can get all the soldiers together in the center of the village, it'll be much easier to take them out." She drew an invisible map of the village on the blanket with her finger. "If we can have each of you guys situated in a circle, around the village, then launch a attack to push them to the center—"
"—I can take them out with one big attack." Toph finished.
"Sounds good," Katara remarked. "But how are you planning to defeat all of them in one attack?"
Toph's smirk only widened. "Just leave that to me."
Toph stood at the center of the village, gazing at the storm she had just created with Aang. Everyone else had shifted into their positions, blended in between the houses. The dust slowly began to clear. A stream of blue fire shot out from the center, quickly dissipating the dust. Toph scowled. She reminded herself to take extra precaution around the pompous one. She wasn't an ordinary firebender. Streams of fire continued to shoot out from the ships, blasting through the dust and sand. The three black ships were now visible through the mess. Toph felt the earth rumble against her feet, she braced herself, knowing the soldiers were making their move.
Zuko watched from the side, meeting Katara's eyes from the other side of the village, the two sank into the shadows, watching the fire nation soldiers run up the village hill. They slowly began to regroup, realizing the village was empty. After a minute, the masked soldiers appeared. Zuko felt a tinge of familiarity watching them, as he had once been apart of that group as well, its leader of all positions. Now that Zuko looked at them, they were an intimidating bunch. Dozens upon dozens of soldiers continued to pour out from the ship, leaving him wondering how many they had to face that day. It obviously didn't look good for them. Suddenly the ground shook, almost throwing Zuko off balance if he wasn't expecting it. Taking a quick breath, he darted out from his hiding and bended a long wall of fire towards the enemy, pushing them to the middle. Startled screams echoed through the hill. He could only presume everyone else was doing the same.
The whole island seemed to shake as Toph planted her heel into the ground. Thick walls of dirt began climbing higher and higher, encircling the soldiers that had walked into the village. The ground beneath the soldiers began to sink, and mass panic spread through them. Some bended streams of fire against the earth slabs, but to no avail, Toph's attack started to increase its magnitude. The walls continued to grow until it finally halted for a brief second. Zuko slightly leaned back in anticipation. The earth crumbled forward dropping above the soldiers, causing them to scream in fear, while trying their best to run through the quicksand.
It all happened quickly, after Toph trapped soldiers from under and over, they had no chance of escape. Zuko released a breath, swiping away the dust that had formed from the colossal attack. He gazed at the aftermath, spotting a few hands and legs stick out from the ground, but nothing stirred. The battle horn blared, forcing Zuko out of his gaze, he turned towards the ship. Another rally of soldiers marched down the ramp, stepping over the covered bodies of their allies. There was no way around it now; they had to fight on their own. Toph's plan had only worked to a degree, unable to count the vast number of men Azula brought. The Kyoshi warriors ran down the village, engaging the soldiers. Aang and Toph followed after. Zuko too, turned to face the men.
He roughly collided with a few of the soldiers, sending a knee flying to an unfortunate man's face. Concentrating the fire in his fists, he swung forward, letting all his previous worry and anger spill out. From wearing the armor before, Zuko was able to easily mark the weakest link, effectively knocking the soldiers back with just one hit. It had looked like they were overpowering them, until another horn blared. Zuko cursed as he saw more soldiers run out from the ship. Before turning away, he saw a larger man walk out, his different attire seemed strangely familiar to Zuko. The man smiled wickedly, sending shivers up his spine. Once he placed a foot on the island, he tore through the line, easily bringing down the female warriors with ease. His own soldiers stepped out of his way immediately. Watching his dominating strength, Zuko darted towards him, throwing a surprise punch to his left cheek. To his astonishment, the man raised a hand and caught his fist. They locked eyes, gold meeting brown, until the man's eyes widened, he released Zuko's hand and jumped a good distance away.
"You… " He pointed with a finger, as the battle raged around them. Zuko tensed, he knew that this man was no foot soldier from the way he effortlessly caught his strike; it was going to be a rough battle. The man lowered his arm and smiled wickedly. "I can see the resemblance already. I am Commander Youshi, It's a pleasure to meet you, Zuko."
A few hours before…
"Uh… princess…" he questioned, holding up a small tube. "This is for…?"
Azula gave him a small glance before distributing out the boxes to the captains.
"It's a signal flare, Commander."
He wanted to raise an eyebrow sarcastically. Well duh. "Yes, but what we will use it for? We're not attacking on any formation. It'll be a dead weight for most normal soldiers."
"You're right," she replied. "We won't need a formation, however, there are three enemies you need to specifically watch out for. Our target, the water tribe girl, and two others, both of whom are firebenders."
A collective murmur spread through the soldiers, as they received the new tool.
"All benders who can use this, you will shoot this off only when either of these three are on an attempt to escape. At the flare, all soldiers within the area will go and block their path." Azula watched her men quietly observe the small tube. "Also, use this for target detection. Once the girl is detained, use two flares to signal."
The captains bowed quickly, walking off to relay the information down to the rest of the troops. Azula silently watched her commander from the corner of her eye, noting his smirk.
"Princess," he began. "Did I hear you say two firebenders?"
She gave him a nod.
"How odd. Two firebenders are helping our target?" He leaned back against the railing of the ship, lightly closing his eyes. His next line came in a whisper, "Any special orders?"
Azula almost raised an eyebrow. He was sharp. It was strange her father had appointed someone to co-lead with her, now she began to understand why. She had heard of the numerous victories he had brought in, although she hadn't tested his strength herself. He was confident with his words, close to being brash, yet she could tell he had the skills to back that up. Whether or not she wanted to admit it, it was actually refreshing to be near someone who didn't tremble in her presence. She turned her back to him, replying in the same volume.
"Don't kill them." She ordered. "One is an old man seemingly in his sixties, do not underestimate him. And the other is a younger man, with a prominent scar over his left eye." The commander simply listened, waiting for her to continue. "Do you wish to fight?"
He opened his eyes, and turned his gaze to her, although her back was facing him. "Of course. Who doesn't like a good fight?"
"The latter is a good choice, then," she concluded.
"Is he strong?" he eagerly inquired.
Azula thought for a moment, trying to decide what to say. "Above average in skill, yet he does not have the heart of a soldier."
Again she hesitated. But then again, word was going to spread whether she made a move or not. "Zuko."
She could hear the man slightly choke on his words. "Apologies, princess, can you say that name again?"
Azula slightly turned to him, keeping her famous expressionless face set. "You heard me."
At this, the commander laughed. He bent forward, clutching his stomach, practically shaking the entire deck with his laugh. He breathed hard, wiping a non-existent tear from his eye. "Princess, I may not be much older than you, but even I know of his forbidden name." He cleared his throat, and looked back at his leader. She looked no different. He quieted himself from a small cough and glanced back at her. "Well, I cannot help myself but ask… didn't he leave this world long ago?"
Azula only turned her head and began walking away. Of course he didn't believe her. It would be maddening to believe a long dead man was alive and well. Before closing her doors, she slid in one last remark. "You can decide for yourself then."
Zuko made a face. How did he know his name? Although in the midst of battle, it seemed insignificant, curiosity still tugged at his heart. The commander still stood a good distance from him, still watching with wide eyes.
"I'm amazed," he breathed. "So she wasn't kidding after all."
Zuko wanted to shake his shoulders and ask him what he was talking about. But this was war; he needed to be focused. Without another word, Zuko darted closer, kicking a wave of fire. Landing nimbly, he turned to watch the commander easily neutralize the flame. Concentrating on his breathing, Zuko charged fire in his fist. Youshi ran forward with the same technique, causing the two men to collide in a large explosion of heat and smoke.
After the blast had settled down, Zuko's mind began to go on autopilot mode. He couldn't remember how long he was fighting the commander for, but it didn't seem to matter. He slashed, dodged, bend huge waves of fire, created fire whips from his fingertips, and blasted consecutive attacks without warning. Yet every attack he managed to preform, were pared by the man in front of him. He jumped back, breathing heavily. The fight beginning to feel much harder than he originally thought it would be.
Youshi straightened his back, carefully observing Zuko. His skill was indeed noteworthy, but his attacks held no intent to kill. The princess had been right; he did not have the heart of a soldier. If he was correct, Youshi guessed the young man lacked drive for war. How amusing.
"Zuko," he addressed. The name escaped his mouth harshly. If he had to be honest, he had no idea how to properly address the prince. He was supposed to be dead, after all. He shook his head, pushing those thoughts aside. "Your skills are remarkable, but you lack a major component when dealing your fire. Where is your hate? Your anger? Where is your instinct to kill? Without it, you cannot hope to defeat me, yet take this battle."
Zuko continued to stare at the commander, as his breathing slowly started to even out again. "What are you talking about?" he muttered back. "I have plenty of hate." Zuko growled silently, thinking about his father. Of course he hated him, of course he was angry. There was nothing more he wanted in this world than to see the man on his knees, defeated.
Youshi smirked widely, knowing he didn't grasp the meaning yet. As if on cue, a female warrior jumped in front of him, her sword swinging down towards his neck for the kill. Zuko watched as the large man dodged effortlessly, bringing a fist straight into the warrior's gut. She gasped in pain, as her sword flew out of grip with a loud clang. Horror settled in Zuko's stomach when he realized the man was not done. He grabbed the back of her head, and Zuko could see absolute fear in her eyes as he slammed her against the ground face first. Blood seeped through the earth as the commander set fire to his hand, sending the flames down her broken body. Zuko trembled, he could only hope that the warrior wasn't Suki. His heart shook madly against his chest as the man brought his gaze back.
"This…" he said. "Is how you fight in war."
Zuko screamed as he charged the man once again. That wasn't a fight. It was slaughter. He could feel his energy rise as he charged his attack. Once close, he exploded the flames from his palms, sending an enormous attack. The fire condensed to his will, forming a large missile and shot down at the man. It burst upon impact, blowing up the nearby houses. Soldiers and warriors alike screamed in surprise, as waves of intense heat ricocheted from the attack. Zuko felt himself get pushed back. He leaned over, keeping himself steady and tried to regain his breath. It was the first time he had produced that level of bending. The dust began to settle, and everyone in the area looked towards the point of impact.
Commander Youshi slowly stood from a destroyed house, his armor half-melted and gone. He raised a burned arm, wiping blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. He slowly grinned.
"Now that… was true firebending." He chuckled. "I guess blood doesn't lie."
Zuko glared at the man. How was he still able to stand? He could feel his energy drain with every second. Before deciding if he needed to attack again, two high pitched pops echoed to his left. He turned to see two red flares fly towards the sky. He frowned. What did that mean?
The commander suddenly began laughing. "Looks like it's too late for you. This battle is ours." He slowly adjusted himself, and looked towards the middle ship. From the distance, Zuko could see another figure walk out. His heart constricted, recognizing the person.
The red flares must have signaled to her. It felt like he was suffocating. The soldiers around him shivered and didn't look any different. Her presence seemed to weigh heavily on everyone as if her killing instincts came to life. She walked down the ship calmly, apathetically stepping over bodies and keeping her face towards her destination. Her raven hair whipped around her body, looking like a weapon itself. For a split second, her gaze fell on Zuko's, forcing him to meet eyes with her. A low growl formed in the back of his throat. She turned, watching soldiers approach her. Zuko's eyes grew wide.
At least a dozen firebending soldiers walked forward, a few holding Iroh, and the rest, dragging Katara's body down the dirt hill.
"Katara!" Zuko tried to dash forward, when a heavy weight pulled him back. His arms were forcibly pulled behind his back, and a large hand pushed his head down. He had let his guard down. Zuko hadn't even noticed the man approach him. He couldn't see the face of the man who held him, but he could tell it wasn't an ordinary soldier. He growled, struggling against the man's hold, but his grip was like iron.
Azula approached Katara and held her hand to her neck. Her fingers pulsated with ominous blue energy, suggesting that if she wanted, to, she could injure Katara anytime. She glanced around, silencing anything and anyone with a glare. The entire island seemed to watch her.
"All right," she finally spoke. "Nobody move."
A/N:Whoops sorry to cut it off so soon... but it's actually been a while since I've left you guys with a bad cliff hanger... no? *shifty eyes*
Not much to say about this chapter except for the fight scenes... which I know aren't that great. They're always difficult to write, and I just don't know how to approach them. -_- But I hope you enjoyed reading! Any advice for writing fighting scenes (especially between benders), I will gladly accept with open arms. See you in two weeks!