Mako knew something was wrong. Korra wasn’t just making chitchat with the Firelord during all those meetings, for one. And besides that, he didn’t trust that weird combustionbender one bit. Not to mention that thing with Korra learning how to fly all of a sudden. She’d never brought it up or demonstrated it again after that one incident. Korra not bragging about a newfound skill was a whole level of strangeness on its own. Mako had a few theories on what exactly everything meant, but he needed more information. Theories were useless. Facts were vital. And if he could get to the Fire Palace’s library, he’d have all the facts he needed.
Surprisingly, Mako found it more difficult to locate Firelord Izumi inside her own palace than he originally thought. Although the palace guards let him wander most hallways freely, they didn’t let him peek in random rooms, and they were pretty vague as to their leader’s location. Mako finally made some progress when he overheard a few of palace staff saying that the Firelord’s training with the Avatar would begin in the Agni Kai chambers momentarily and that no one was to disturb them. Using his well-honed detective skills to deduce that the Agni Kai chamber was behind the doors with the giant pictures of firebenders on them, he waited in the closest hallway the guards would allow until Firelord Izumi came walking into view.
“Your majesty,” he said, running up and making a quick bow to her. “Sorry for disturbing you, but I needed to ask a question about–”
“Wait, who are you again?” she asked, adjusting her glasses. “Are you new to the palace staff?”
Mako felt like he’d been punched in the gut. Why did everyone remember Korra and Bolin and never him? “No, your majesty,” he said. “I’m friends with the Avatar.”
“Ah, that’s it. I knew you looked familiar.” She looked him up and down, and a bit of recognition seemed to spread across her face. “You’re the brother that’s the big mover star, right?”
“No, no. I’m the other one.” Another mental punch to the gut. And that one he’d thrown himself. Still, Mako tried to stay in good spirits. “I was wondering if I might have permission to enter your library. I love… books, you see. Um, and scrolls. All kinds of things with writing on them. That are found in libraries.”
“Yes, my library does have…” Izumi raised an eyebrow, “scrolls. You have my permission to peruse the collection if you would like.” She nodded to the guards. “If he breaks anything valuable, you may decapitate him.”
“Of course, your majesty.” The guard snickered. Which made Mako almost 100% certain that the Firelord had been joking. Only she hadn’t smiled.
“Wait, is she serious?” he asked. The guards didn’t answer. Mako rubbed his arm. Well, it seemed like in the best interests of everyone, he had better at least search the library carefully.
Slow-reflexes and short-temper aside, Korra was a worthy foe. Indeed, fighting her was like fighting six different benders simultaneously. It could be done but the fight pushed all of Fuse’s martial training and agility further then she had ever been allowed. Or ever dared.
It was thrilling.
In fact, Korra herself seemed impressed with her maneuvers, which was a thrill in itself. Fuse wasn’t even sure why. Weapons didn’t need praise. She certainly never got any from her master no matter how quick or cunning she had become.
Fuse dodged aside, barely avoiding a fireball and a jagged rock hurled in quick succession.
No time to dwell on that now.
Fuse was dancing around Korra’s water whip–no easy task as the Avatar was born to the Water Tribe and was especially proficient with Southern waterbending styles–when Fuse felt a slight cramping in her legs. No. More like a tugging. Korra was trying to use bloodbending to slow her so she could close the gap between them.
A smart move if she had the courage to execute it. But she was hesitating. Why?
One look at Korra’s face and Fuse knew why. It was one thing to bloodbend healing energy into damaged tissue, and quite another to use the technique to attack someone. Had she ever even used bloodbending in a duel before?
Fuse shot another combustion blast, this one at knee level. It wasn’t even close to a direct hit, but the explosion still forced Korra to dodge and lose what little grip she had.
“It will take more than that to hold me still,” Fuse told her. She didn’t give Korra time to regain her invisible hold. True, Fuse might have not been able to counter bloodbending, but she knew the technique required concentration. The more she moved, the harder it would be for Korra to focus on a single muscle group.
What Korra lacked in patience, however, she made up for in determination. The instant Fuse gave her an opening, she tried bloodbending again. Her grip was harder this time, and only on one very specific point. Fuse felt the tug in her right ankle just as she finished hand-springing over the ice shard Korra had tried to fling at her. Then there was a jolt of pain as the muscles in her ankle seized unnaturally. Fuse yelped, landed badly, tripped, and rolled.
No pain. She breathed. It was already gone. Korra hadn’t even tried to hang on. Why?
Fuse was on her feet, ready to move again. Then she saw exactly why. Stone walls leapt up around her, closing in.
She sprang clawing for the top and the gap that was growing ever smaller. No good. She fell and toppled ungracefully backwards. No one saw.
Darkness closed in. She was trapped.
Her breathing quickened. Outside the stone wall she could barely make out Korra’s voice.
“You’re good. But you said part of this technique is knowing your opponent. I saw how you tensed up yesterday when I mentioned prison. You don’t like being caged.”
“Release me!” Fuse yelled, her voice just on the edge of control.
“Not until you concede the match,” said Korra, all too proud of herself.
“I said let me out! Do it now!” Her voice was shrill now. Not hers at all. The voice she heard belonged to a much younger girl. A child’s. “Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!”
A voice echoed back, soft as a whisper in the night.
“Only when you learn to obey.”
Fuse clamped her eyes closed, heedless of the tears that squeezed out.
“No fear. No pain. No mercy,” the words came, reassuring and familiar–as familiar as her training. There was protocol for this. Escape by any means necessary, no matter the personal risk.
She pressed back against the furthest wall and slammed her palms over her ears.
No fear. She drew a deep breath as if readying a scream and fired. The force of the explosion rattled through her bones. Fire surged around her, just for a second, singing her exposed skin.
The rock wall exploded outward filling the air with dust and noise. Fuse opened her eyes. There was the gap. Her escape. She leapt out, ignoring the throb of burns and her ringing ears.
Her vision refocused. There before her stood a young woman, the source of her incarceration. Panic shone vivid on her face—a fear Fuse knew. This was the look that prey got when faced with a weapon. Was this girl her prey?
Fuse couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. Protocol demanded she escape, and this girl was standing in her way.
Her body moved. Instinct and adrenalin drove her forward. The prey was still in shock. She didn’t even try to run. Not until Fuse gripped her throat and slammed her around into the rock wall. Then her eyes got huge.
“Fuse–what–” she managed to squeak. Fuse tightened her grip, choking off her breath. The girl she pinned fought back, digging her nails into Fuse’s wrists with one hand while trying to gesture with the other. A ripple of pain spread down Fuse’s fingers, trying to work them open against her will. Bloodbending.
Fuse drove her knee into the girl’s gut, knocking out the last of her breath. She lost consciousness. Strange though, the bloodbending didn’t stop. If anything, it was getting worse. How could that be? Fuse struggled to understand as her fingers were forced open before her eyes. The pain radiated down her arms next and the same invisible force yanked them back hard.
Fuse let out an involuntary howl. She couldn’t help it. Every fiber of her being was screaming at her to fight back. But if her arms were pulled any harder, they would be dislocated from her shoulders. She whipped her head around. The Firelord was less than fifteen paces away and coming closer. Fuse watched her hands move with careful precision.
The Firelord was a bloodbender?
Fuse felt her legs starting to burn. Soon there would be no chance of escape. She drew a breath, aimed… started to fire. The Firelord jerked–probably out of reflex, jarring Fuse off balance in the process. Lucky for her. Fuse’s shot missed. The Firelord scrambled aside, dodging the explosion that would have taken her out. Her grip on Fuse tightened yet again. Fuse collapsed to the marble. Pain coursed down her spine and through every muscle. She couldn’t move. Her body, her life, was in this woman’s hands now.
“Please… please don’t kill me,” she heard a voice rasp. The Firelord paused, startled. Fuse was startled, too. Who said that? She strained to see around the dark spots in the corners of her eyes. The prey-girl was still out cold.
Her eyes glazed. Then closed. And in the final seconds before darkness took her, Fuse realized the plea was hers.
It hurt to move. And it was dark. So dark. She had been in this darkness before. When was that? She was young, seven or so. Fuse flinched. She wasn’t supposed to remember. But the memory came anyway creeping, like whispers in the night. She saw the woman who pulled her from her burning home. Who gave her food that made her sleep. Who put her in the metal crate.
She could hear the woman now, drumming her fingers on the lid of that crate. Waiting.
Then a door opened.
“Can I help you?” asked a soft voice.
“I have a ‘shipment'”
“Oh, I see. Welcome back, sister. Come in and let’s have a look”
The woman moved the crate inside and there was the sound of a heavy door closing. A man in yellow robes came over and leaned down, sticking his face in front of the tiny barred window. She heard prying sounds and then a sharp crack as the lid of her cage came away.
“Chained? And gagged too?” The yellow robed man almost chuckled.
“Had to. She wouldn’t stop screaming for her parents. Nearly blew my cover.” The woman held out a bandaged hand. “And almost bit off my finger!”
“A feisty one, excellent. My father will be pleased. Bring her.”
They moved further inside, yellow robe leading, the other wheeling her crate on a squeaky pushcart. The little girl couldn’t see where they were going through her barred glimpsing window. All the walls looked the same. It smelled musty, though, like somewhere deep underground. The man and woman chatted as they walked. Their footsteps were surprisingly light, barely echoing.
“Got word from down south. One of our brothers plans to ‘encourage’ another uprising.”
“These Fire Nationers, always so eager to fight, even against their own people.” The yellow robed man tsk-ed. “Entire villages wiped out… even the children… all for the sake of the very family who promised to bring peace.”
“Or at least that’s what the reports say. Right, Eli?”
“No survivors, no one to search for. No questions asked.”
They stopped in a small room and the two lifted her metal cage off the pushcart to the floor. It echoed with a dull ta-dunk. Afterwards Eli handed the woman a heavy coin pouch.
“For the glory of our ancestors,” said Eli.
“Go in peace, my brother.” She hefted the bag. “You let me know if there’s any more ‘incidents’ that need starting or ‘shipments’ that need picked up.”
She departed, nodding a greeting to a second robed man who was just coming in. He was older than Eli by many years but the two looked strikingly similar–narrow faces, hazel eyes and shaved heads. A tall woman with a tattooed forehead towered behind the older man, stiff and silent.
“I hear we have a new shipment,” said the older man.
Eli nodded. “Yes, Father. Though I’m afraid she’s a bit… willful.”
Eli’s father smiled. “Willful is good.” He gestured to the woman behind him. “You remember how feisty Pike was when she arrived? And look at her now. The willful ones may not break as quickly as the rest, but when they do… oh, what weapons they become.”
He leaned over her crate and gestured with one hand. Air swirled around the little girl, lifting her from her side to her knees. She shot a pleading glance to the tall tattooed woman, Pike. When she didn’t move, the child glared daggers at the two men.
The older one cackled. “Such defiance.” He glanced over his shoulder at Pike. “Remove the gag and chains then put her in the cells. Three days without food and water should change her attitude.”
The tattooed woman approached and hefted the little girl over her shoulder. The little girl squirmed in her grip but, oddly, the woman didn’t scold her. They went down stairs and through corridors, finally stopping in a stone-walled chamber. A single sputtering torch lit the room, casting dim firelight on a row of metallic grates in the floor. The cells.
She didn’t want to go in there. She was filthy and stiff and her wrists hurt from where the chains had cut into them. Most of all, she was scared. Why had these people brought her here? Where were her mom and dad?
“Be still,” the woman told her as she removed the gag and the chains. The girl obeyed this time, if only to get free from the bindings. She thought about running, but Pike had closed a heavy door behind them. She was trapped.
“Please,” she looked up at Pike with huge, frightened, eyes. “I want my mommy and daddy.” She tried to sob, but her mouth was too dry.
The woman didn’t answer. She lifted open one of the grates, paused, reconsidered. She grabbed a waterskin from a guard station nearby. She held it to the little girl’s mouth, letting her take a long drink before refilling it with more water from a barrel.
“There is a loose brick in the far wall. Make sure to keep this hidden or Master will punish both of us.” She told the child, handing her the skin. Then, gently, she lowered the child down into the tiny cell and closed the grate.
The little girl started to cry. “I don’t–wanna be in here–I wanna go home!”
Pike’s expression didn’t change, but her eyes were sad.
“This is your home now.”