"They have Korra!" Senna screamed, jerking with her head toward the doorway. "Go! I'll be fine, just go!" Tonraq hesitated only a moment longer, a quick motion to liquify the ice that held his wife to the wall, and jumped back outside, using his momentum to carry him even faster. With an upward motion of his arms a sled of ice appeared beneath and attached to his feet, further propelled by his continued bending.
As he shot through the South Pole streets he screamed out to anyone within earshot "They have my daughter! They have Avatar Korra!"
Soon, he was joined by an entire force of White Lotus guards, Southern soldiers, and sympathetic benders, combing the streets for the monsters who kidnapped the five-year-old reincarnation of the World Spirit.
"Tenzin, they have Korra!" Tonraq growled, spotting the airbender among the many benders scouring the city.
"I heard Tonraq." He replied gruffly. "Don't worry, we'll find them."
"Just how long exactly are we expected to wait?" Ghazan asked, drawing his coat tighter.
"Until they call off the search." Zaheer replied smoothly, from where he sat in the lotus position on the other side of their cave. The four sat at each corner of the small circular ice cavern, the only light in the closed space the small fires held in P'li's hands. The Earthbender sighed in response, but leaned back into his position in silence, merely tugging his coat on even tighter.
"Can we at least build a fire in the center?" Ming Hua asked. "I'm not exactly built for the cold."
"No. We can't do anything that would allow them to sense us." Zaheer cautioned. "No large fire, no detectable heat, no reshaping the cave. And, just for the sake of further protection, we should try to move as little as possible. They'll most likely bring in people with seismic sense, and we don't want to give off excess vibrations."
Ghazan nodded. Ming Hua giving her assent with a grunt. The four sat once more in silence, waiting and listening for any sign from above that they might have been discovered. It lasted more than an hour, before the lump bundled in cloths and furs in P'li's lap began moving. The small girl began wriggling out, before she was stopped by the pressure of P'li's elbow. "Quiet girl." P'li cautioned.
"Who are you guys? Where am I?" She began asking, trying to pull herself from the bundle. "Where am I?"
"I thought I said to be quiet." P'li grumbled, rolling her eyes.
"Where am I! Tell me!" Korra shouted, rolling out of the bundles entirely to stand in the center of the cave, squinting into the darkness. P'li extinguished her flame, leaving the cave in darkness. "Where's mama?!" Korra demanded, frowning into the darkness and crossing her arms over herself as she realized how cold it was in the ice cavern. "Where am I!?"
"Far away from your home." Zaheer answered, gently.
"Bring me back!"
"No. You aren't going back."
"Bring me back!" She punctuated the command with a stamp of her foot, attempting to raise some earth through the ice, but failing. Not strong enough yet.
"Zaheer, is there any way to put her back asleep?" Ming asked, making Korra face in her direction through the darkness, before the young girl summoned a fire to her fingertips, trying to better see her captors.
"No!" the five year old protested. "I'm not going back to sleep! Bring me back!"
Zaheer got up from where he was meditating and walked up to the small girl. "I'm sorry, but you don't really have any choice in the matter." He whipped behind her, crouching down and squinting in concentration. Before the girl could whirl around, he jabbed her several times in the back. Her eyes fluttering closed, the small girl collapsed once more. P'li tossed over the blankets, and Zaheer quickly had her wrapped up once more, this time lying in his lap.
P'li frowned. "You don't think she'll need the fire?"
"No. The light is too distracting. And it might catch unwanted attentions. She'll be warm enough with just the blankets."
Sokka frowned, staring at the amps strewn across the table. His best trackers were on it, as well as almost everyone else. The initial panic that was started by the news of the kidnapping had spread like wildfire, which, unfortunately, was hampering his professionals. Everyone and their mother who heard was out in the streets, or in the tundra, searching and scraping and messing up whatever trails might have been left by the kidnappers. It was a nightmare, but now that it happened, he couldn't exactly order the volunteers to return back home. The damage was done, but now they just needed as many eyes as possible. He had already sent a message out to Zuko, Lin, as well as his numerous contacts within the Republic's government from his stint as Chairman.
It was an exhaustive effort, but one that he felt was somewhat hopeless at this point. The kidnappers could be anywhere. The team that took the Avatar was deadly efficient and proficient. From what Senna had said, the four had burst into the hut as one, their waterbender blasted her faster than she could react, and froze her to the wall, both capturing her, preventing her from bending, and stopping her from stopping them. Another woman, a firebender, extinguished every flame in the hut upon entering, blinding Senna, and was the one to grab Korra.
Outside the hut the ground had been torn up in every way possible, including melted, some witnesses even claiming that the ground was covered in cooling lava when they arrived. Unfortunately, from there the stories became confused. Some claimed the benders slipped away into the streets, bending the snow and earth behind them to make a smokescreen, others say that they dug into the ground and then sealed themselves in. Either way, it meant that there was one of each type of bender on the team, minus air of course.
This was a situation that no one had been prepared for. Of course, there were attempts on the Avatar before, warlords, spirits, assassins. But they were all things that the White Lotus could handle. These four though, appeared and disappeared like ghosts. And they had actually done it. Actually taken Korra. It wasn't something he could stand for, and he wouldn't stop looking. But at the same time he was terrified.
Normally, he understood, the Avatar was identified as a child, and then was dully introduced into their identity at the age of sixteen, when they would then learn their duties and study the other elements. But Korra was special. She had managed use of three of the four elements as a four year old, the three elements awakening when normally, a child would only begin to show signs of bending talents in one element. Her normal life was over right then and there. It also meant she was a target, unable to defend herself as an Avatar normally would.
Controlling the Avatar was a temptation Sokka was sure was held by every would-be conqueror on Earth. It was one of the main reasons the Avatar is kept secret until they turn sixteen. Raising and training a bender soley for war from birth resulted in people like Azula. And now someone, who knew who, had Korra.
"Chief Sokka, the White Lotus have confirmed that no vehicles have left the nearest port city since the kidnapping."
"Thank you." Sokka said absently. "Keep as many vehicles as possible grounded, beyond those directly under the control of the Lotus or the military. They are not bringing Korra out of the South.
"How long has it been?" Ghazan asked the firebender sitting across from him.
"Only nine hours." She replied. "Nothing, compared to the time we'll get in prison if we fail in this."
"...What if Unalaq doesn't come?" He asked, somewhat nervously.
"Then we'll have to find some other way out. But that'll be another few days." Zaheer answered, serious. "Enough time for him to have 'found out' about the kidnapping of the Avatar, and sending his fleet out in response, to aid in the efforts of finding us. Then, he'll send us a signal through the spirit world when and where he can pick us up and smuggle us out of the South." he opened one eye, smiling slightly. "We've been over this."
"I know. But I don't trust him." Ghazan grumbled. "It's all gone smoothly so far, and I'm fine sitting here in the dark for as long as it takes, but this plan is relying on him pulling through on his end."
Ming frowned. "Unalaq is one of the senior members of the Red Lotus. He designed the plan. We all want this to come to fruition. Him, more than any of us, is invested in bringing the spirits back."
P'li huffed. "I'm not so sure about the rest though. The man is the Chief of the Water Tribes. And they've only gotten more and more government-controlled during his rule. He loves power."
Zaheer let out a sigh. "...You're both right. We can rely on Unalaq to help us to train the Avatar Spiritually and open the portals, definitely. After that point though, he'll become dangerous to our new world order. He will have to be removed, eventually, for the sake of balance in the world." He stopped his speech as the bundle of clothes in his lap started moving once more.
Korra blinked the sleep out of her eyes, groaning. Her muscles felt sore. "Where am I?" She asked, peering into the darkness.
"Avatar Korra." Zaheer began. "Please stay calm."
"Who are you? Where am I? Where was... Where's Mom?"
Ming Hua got up from her place in the cave, and sat down in front of her. "P'li, can we get a little light over here, please?" The firebender obliged, summoning a small flame and guiding it to where they were, holding the small fireball relatively stable, floating nearby. "Korra, you're a waterbender, right?"
"Good. So am I." She raised her arm for Korra to see, "We're both waterbenders. The same tribe. Family." Ming Hua said is slowly, so that Korra would understand, locking eyes with the five-year-old and holding her gaze. "So you can trust me. Will you listen to what we have to say?"
The girl nodded slowly, after considering it a moment.
"Zaheer." Ming Hua said, verbally and physically passing the torch, as P'li moved her floating lamp-fire in front of Zaheer instead.
"Korra, you're the Avatar." Zaheer began simply, waiting until Korra nodded a confirmation. "Do you know what that means?"
"I can bend all four elements!"
"Yes. But more than that, the Avatar is a connection to the Spirit world. The bridge between humans and spirits. You, Korra, will bring back balance to a precarious world."
She nodded, her face becoming serious. She had heard this talk before. It was Serious Avatar Stuff. "I know. I will!"
"It will be very hard. And it will take a long time. But it will make the world a better place." Zaheer said, absolutely sure of every word. "And this, right now, is the first step." She seemed excited now, leaning forward, bright blue eyes wide with anticipation. "You know of the White Lotus, correct?"
"They help the Avatar."
"Indeed. However, they weren't doing a very good job, were they? They wanted you to stop training until you were older, and kept you in the compound rather than walk the villages as any other child."
She looked downward, slightly saddened. "Yeah. But, I'm supposed to wait until I'm older, until I'm sixteen-"
"Traditionally, the Avatar is told that they are the Avatar at sixteen, when they have become grounded in the training of their birth element. You already know. There is no reason to wait, beside the incompetence of the White Lotus. The White Lotus weren't doing their job right, Korra. So we, the Red Lotus, are here to make sure you stay on the right path. To follow what's best for you, to try and help you become the best Avatar you can be."
"Why are we in a cave?" Korra asked, looking up.
"Oh, that's just because we're waiting for a friend of ours to pick us up." Ghazan supplied. "We were supposed to meet here." He sighed. "But it'll be a long time, sorry kid."
A Water Tribe aide entered the room with a bow. "Chief Unalaq, sir, an urgent message from the South Pole just arrived-" he had been dreading this moment, truly. The Red Lotus were useful to some aspects of his plans, but he knew they wouldn't be successful in the long run. He wanted nothing more than for the plan to succeed, but if it became known he aided in capturing the Avatar, it would all be undone. Every fragment of his work over his lifetime would be undone. His Tribe, his potential status as a God of Chaos, it was all possible, even without the Red Lotus. It would just take longer, and Unalaq was a patient man. If they had said that they had captured the Red Lotus then- "-it states that the Avatar was kidnapped. They haven't been able to find the ones responsible, and are making it a worldwide effort to find them. Chief Sokka believes that the kidnappers might have already brought her out of the country."
succeeded. He had not thought they would. He had underestimated Zaheer. But now... if Sokka and his allies believed the Avatar was already out of the South Pole, then that meant the plan could succeed. It would only be a few years, until he realized his goal. "Make preparations, mobilize the fleet, I will be taking my personal flagship myself. The protection of the Avatar is the duty of every spiritual leader." He announced. It seems the plan was on, then.
"Meditation is a core aspect of both firebending and airbending, however, that doesn't mean that it's benefits cannot be applied to the other elements, or to living as a whole." Zaheer coached, his legs crossed below him, hands resting on his knees, but palms turned upward, and forefinger and thumb pinched together.
To his right, P'li sat, cross legged as well, with her elbows resting by her knees, holding her hands together cupped, like a bowl, over her stomach.
In the other two corners of the room, Ming and Ghazan sat cross legged as well. Ming dropped her water arms, allowing them to join the ice, while Ghazan's hands rested on his thighs.
Korra sat in the center of the room, bundled up with too many blankets, and looked at each of them in turn, holding her own candle-flame in her hand, before sitting cross legged herself.
They were all silent for a time, before Korra sighed, getting up. "I'm bored!"
"Good. Hold onto that. Empty your mind completely. Allow yourself perfect stillness."
"But if you don't move around you'll freeze!" Korra said, frowning.
"We have two firebenders here. We are sheltered, we don't have to worry about being at the mercy of the south arctic." Zaheer assured, resuming his stance. "Focus on the energies within yourself, and master them. If you cannot quiet your thoughts, begin with controlling them. Focusing them."
The child sighed once more and sat back down, closing her eyes and trying to focus in on herself.
After a minute, she sighed. Zaheer opened one eye to look at her. "Have you found something within yourself?"
"...I'm hungry." She said.
"Ah. That would make sense. Ghazan, you have the food."
"Yep, come over here. I got rice, jerky, dried food, more jerky." He said smiling. He picked out a few strips himself as Korra grabbed some. "Water Tribe likes their dried food it seems."
"When will the other guy come?" Korra asked, between chewing.
"Hopefully within three days." P'li answered, and Korra nearly spit out her food.
"Three days? In the dark? In this cave?" The young Avatar asked angrily. "Where will we pee?!" She demanded.
"In the corner like the rest of us." Ming Hua answered, a bit of a hidden laugh in her voice. "Don't worry, we've had to do stuff like this before.
"You have?!" Korra asked, shocked. "How did you survive?"
"More easily than you would think." the other waterbender smirked. "It's always hard, the first time, but eventually, you'll find that you can survive just about anywhere. Living on the road, in other cultures, in the wilderness." She gave a shrug that had to be exaggerated to display without arms and leaned backwards, against the wall of ice. "Don't worry about it Korra. Persevere, for now, and it'll help you for the rest of your life."
The hours went by quickly sometimes, and slowly at others. P'li, as a firebender, and Ming Hua, as a waterbender, could tell where the moon and sun were in the sky, as an instinctual sense. Every few hours, someone would ask the time, and depending whether it was day or night, one of the women would answer.
Korra switched between sleeping, meditating, eating, and making conversation. So far, most of the child's questions could be deflected easily enough. Until they got to the hardest one.
"After we leave, when will we come back?"
Ming Hua and Zaheer had been leading the conversation, up to this point. P'li wasn't the most comfortable with children, and Ghazan didn't pride himself on quick-thinking and half-truths. The man could bluff a mountain, definitely, but nothing consistent, nothing tangible. Ghazan could lie to get out of trouble, but he couldn't lie to reach a goal. And so Ming and Zaheer had been handling most of the details for Korra. But this one, was something they would have to tread around carefully.
"We don't know for sure." Ming Hua said solemnly. "I'm sorry, but we don't know how long the training will take, and even after your Avatar training is done, we'll have to get to work on your real duties. Going from nation to nation, solving conflicts, bring balance. It's a lifetime commitment."
Korra's eyes watered. "Then-"
"No, no, don't worry. You'll be able to see your family again. But it won't be for a... long time, Korra. But when you do, they'll be so proud of you. You'll have done great things, things that would make anyone proud."
"But... my Mom and Dad... I didn't get to say goodbye." the girl sniffled slightly, looking up at the other woman.
"That too is part of your training, Avatar Korra." Zaheer said sagely.
"What, why would that help me? Missing my parents?"
"Are important to Water Tribe." Ming said, rougher than she almost ever used, when speaking to Zaheer. "And to children. Very important. Even more important than most friendships, most of the time."
Zaheer raised a legitimately surprised eyebrow. "But it is important for the Avatar to let go of their attachments to any one person or nation. The Avatar must protect the world, not the Water Tribes, or the Earth Kingdom, or the Fire Nation. All of it, at once, impartially. By leaving without saying goodbye, Korra, your attachment to the Southern Water Tribe cannot be solidified when you leave. Your attachment to them is weaker than it would have been. Korra is not Water Tribe. She is the Avatar."
"I want to see my Mom." Korra said, close to tears. "I wanna be Water Tribe!"
"Don't you want to be the Avatar, just as much? To protect everyone, not just those at home?" Zaheer asked, maybe a little too forcefully.
"I want to be the Avatar and Water Tribe!" She shouted, and the tears finally began flowing.
Ming Hua glared at Zaheer. "We're going too fast. We haven't even left the South yet." The second part of the sentence hissed so quietly only Zaheer could hear it. "Korra, don't worry. We'll come back again. And you'll see your parents again."
"Bu-but..." Korra babbled. Zaheer looked away, slightly embarrassed.
"Shh. Don't worry." Ming Hua couldn't really pick up Korra or anything similar, "Water Tribe sticks together." She said, reaffirming the attachments that Korra felt she would be losing.
"Even if I'm the Avatar?"
"It just means you'll have to stick together with everyone else too." Ming said, smirking. The little girl managed to quiet herself after a little while, embarrassed to be seen crying, and was down to hiccups with wet cheeks a few minutes later.
Soon enough, Korra fell back asleep. They were all silent for a good time, to make sure the girl wasn't faking it, and that it would be safe to speak freely. "Ming Hua, are you sure that was really the right decision?"
"Zaheer, she's a little girl. With a family, and a tribe." She sighed slightly. "We've all had rough childhoods." She sunk down slightly. "Ghazan, your parents were killed, and you grew up on the streets. P'li, you were stolen from your family, and when you found them again, they were already dead. Zaheer, your parents were bastards who sold you to the underground fighting rings. And you know what I've had to go through when I was Korra's age." She shivered. "But Korra... she has her family. And they care about her. And she knows that. Her country is fighting for her, and she knew that too. She has no reason to look at her family or her Tribe as anything but good. Water Tribe is about community, and family. Loyalty to the Water Tribe isn't like loyalty to the local Earth Governor, or fear of a local Warlord, or intimidation from the local corrupt police force. It's loyalty to your family, and your family's family... It's more like the Red Lotus, actually. A personal relationship between teachers, all after a single goal, all invested in each other. The smaller Water Tribes follow something close to what's acceptable under our ideals."
Ghazan blinked in surprise. "Ming, are you okay?" The earthbender inched closer, and frowned. "If you're having second thoughts-"
"No." Ming Hua assured. "I'm absolutely loyal to the Red Lotus. I'm loyal to all of you... what we're doing, it's more important than the life of one girl. But we can't treat her as if she's gone through the same things we have. No one has broken her, like we were broken. She's still a child... and the Water Tribe in me tells me to protect that."
P'li scoffed. "That's not the water tribe in you, that's the human in you." She sighed. "We're... going to mess that girl up, aren't we?"
Zaheer actually looked confused now. "P'li?" He asked, concerned. The two shared a glance, before Zaheer's eyes widened in understanding. "P'li, we are not doing the same thing that Warlord did to you. We are not using her as a weapon-"
"We're not?" P'li threw back. "We're using her for a noble cause, definitely. But we just stole a little girl away from her family because she has unique abilities, that we want to use to... no, we're not conquerors. We're the exact opposite of a 'conqueror'. But we're definitely going to use her for war. To force change in the world, to fit our ideals."
"You're... doubting our ideals?" Zaheer asked, hurt.
P'li rose from her spot, ducking in the small cave, and sat down next to the nonbender, wrapping her arms around him and bringing him close. "No. Zaheer, I am not. And even if I were, I would still stay by you, no matter what. You've earned that. The Red Lotus are in the right. But... I'm looking at it from the outside in, too." She grinned down at him, lovingly. "Staying... unattached."
Zaheer felt a good shiver down his spine, and leaned closer, before Ghazan sighed. "There's literally a five year old in the room, please hold off until we can get you two some... privacy?"
Ming Hua chuckled, "Like teenage monkey-rabbits." She scolded sarcastically.
The two rolled their eyes, but stayed in each other's embrace. "P'li, do you really think that?"
"How can you not?" She said gently. "We're doing it for a noble purpose. We can't be compared to that Warlord... we are not doing to her what he wanted to do with me. She'll have friends in us, she'll have her... her soul. We'll be her teachers, not her handlers." She took in a deep breath, to calm the fire inside. "...But we're still kidnapping her. And she's a person. Not some... spirit creature." She shook her head. "Zaheer, we've never done anything like this before. We're all Red Lotus. We were found by the White Lotus, and they took us in. Recruited us. We were all... well, we were teenagers, but not like ordinary teenagers. We were all warriors. We had experienced life." She turned to Korra. "She hasn't, yet. It's just... not what I thought she would be like."
"I thought she would be creepy, like, a possessed child." Ghazan said. "Glowing eyes, surrounded by the elements, whispering to the Spirit World." The others looked at him. "What? We were told she started bending everything by the time she was four! I thought we were going to fight to capture a tiny World Spirit in human form!"
Zaheer chuckled slightly. "So... you're all surprised by her, then." His three friends all nodded, hesitantly. "None of us... have really been around kids before. At least not since we were kids." Zaheer admitted. "It would be an insult too all of the Red Lotus, to say that this wasn't thought out." The entire group cracked a grin at that, at the months and and hours spent huddled in secret, debating every inch of the White Lotus compound and possible occurrences and strategies. "But perhaps we never thought about what it would be like... to take a child, and train her. Not from... a practical point of view."
Ghazan smiled, looking at the girl in her small bundle of furs. "We're all going to be pulling out grey hairs by the time we get to Harmonic Convergence because of this pipsqueak, aren't we?"
"...I've never trained anyone before." P'li stated. "And I'm not sure I should teach her everything. What could the Avatar State do to the Light Chakra? To combustion bending?"
"...How would she even begin to learn my style?" Ming Hua whispered, her eyes widening.
Ghazan whistled. "I know for a fact that the Avatars have a long history of doing my trick before I figured it out. She's going to lavabend like a pro, even if all of you never get her to do the other elements right." He showed a playful grin, dodging a half-hearted water whip.
They turned to Zaheer, for him to complete the circle of being not-quite-sure. "...We planned for all of this." Zaheer said, reaffirming his belief. "The Red Lotus has our path set out for us. We're the best benders in the world." The three shared an subtle eye roll, as Zaheer closed his eyes and made an amused grunt. "You all know what I mean. And she's the Avatar. I don't think we have to worry about her abilities being subpar." He looked determined, now. "In fact, we probably don't have to worry about her being anything shortest of the strongest Avatar in history."
Unalaq stood at the fore of his ship, and glared at the ocean ahead of him. It would take days to reach the South Pole at this speed. "Attention!" He called. "This is an emergency of global scale." He announced, to his crew. "And so, we are going to make haste." He assumed the first form of the motions he was about to go through, and with a quick glance, he saw all the Elite waterbenders on board doing the same. As one, they went through the motions, grabbing the water beneath their ship, and pulling themselves along it, dragging the ship forward through the sea with their bending. With the next motion, they pulled the water itself, moving more and more alongside the ship, and then they pushed as one, making the water surge forward, carrying the ship with it, with the forward motion of the ship aiding them further, they as one resumed the first form, and started the cycle again. Within minutes the wind was buffeting Unalaq's face, as they went faster than thought possible, for a ship so large.
So close. If this part of the plan succeeds, I will get everything I ever wanted.