This is Chapter 8: Follow Your Wings
Title: Virtually a Princess
Summary: AU Katara is discovering a new virtual reality game that Sokka himself invented. Her relationships with her gaming group is complicated enough already, but with the in-game romance and relationships, reality and the game world is starting to mix. When a rogue hacker invades the system and Sokka disappears, Katara must find a way to seperate the reality from the fiction and find a way rescue her brother with the help of her allies from the game world.
++Level 8: Follow Your Wings++
The rest of the journey to the capital was surprisingly distraction free. Other than the random encounters with monsters on the way, very few things interrupted the party’s progress. They had stopped at a couple of pitiable, dilapidated villages, but they only bought supplies, saved, and continued.
The road was somewhat long, and the many fights were steadily becoming tedious. Katara was growing bored with the fighting; she had leveled up far too much for the monsters to be fun anymore. The group finally began to see the tops of large buildings through the trees, and the road began to curve around an immense stone wall. When the gate into the capital finally came into sight, she felt like rushing to it and hugging it. She buried that silly urge but was a little annoyed when the armored gate keeper called out to them in a cold electronic voice.
“Halt!” He was a muscular man, tattoos on the exposed skin of his arms and scars marring his face.
A buzz echoed in Katara’s ear. “Cut scene initiating.”
“So,” the man said, leering at Katara. “I need to see your gate passes if you plan on getting through these gates into Edo.”
Jet stepped in front of Katara, and she felt Axel’s hand on her back.
‘Not the damsel in distress bit again,’ Katara thought dolefully. ‘One water whip and I could have this macho man bowing to me just like Quetzalcoatl.’
“We lost our travel papers, sir,” Aang said respectfully. “But we have family in the city.”
“Well then,” the man laughed. “Maybe you can make me risking my neck for you worth my while.” He leaned sideways to peer around Jet at Katara.
Jet leaned with him in an effort to keep her out of view. When he spoke, his voice was thick with annoyed confidence. “We have plenty of money. Name your price.”
The man seemed to pause in thought. “Seventy gold pieces and I’ll let you pass.”
Katara would have smiled if she’d had control of her lips. That wasn’t an unfair price, just ten gold pieces from every member of the party.
Jet nodded and tossed a coin purse that he fished out of a hidden pocket in his armor. He threw it to the gate keeper with more force than was necessary, but the man caught it easily with a chuckle. He counted the gold before he opened the gate. He welcomed them to pass with a deep sarcastic bow.
Katara was surprised when the cut scene didn’t end. Her character shuffled forward timidly, Jet and Axel leading her with the remaining four Knights following cautiously behind her. The gate keeper’s eyes followed her with the look of a hunter pursuing its prey. She felt her body tense defensively, and her eyes looked past the frightening man.
Katara heard a loud startled gasp, and as fingers tightened on her arm, she realized the sound had come from her own lips. She heard angry cries from her party members, but the sound was drowned out by the sound of malicious electronic laughter.
Suddenly, the gate keeper’s scarred face was inches from hers, and she could smell his foul breath coming through the gaps between his dirty teeth. It was only there for a moment, and she was pulled roughly against the man’s chest. She felt tears in her eyes.
Something touched her neck, and she recognized the chill that accompanies cool steel when it brushes skin.
“I’ll be taking this pretty thing as payment too, strangers,” said a callous voice near her ear. “Now, move along, unless you want to see the little missy’s neck carved up real nice.”
Katara could feel all her joints locking up in fear, the same sort of all-consuming fear that she had felt from the dream about the Empress.
The only movement her character seemed able to make was to cringe away from the blade at her throat.
‘One elbow to the stomach and I could end this,’ she thought, exasperated. She willed her body to move, but she still had no control over her limbs.
A stand-off between Katara’s party and the dirty gate keeper ensued that was ended with a rush of air and a cracking of the earth beneath the man’s feet. She stumbled away from him feeling almost helpless, but her eyes found Axel’s almost immediately. She felt her body rush joyfully towards him and into his waiting arms. She heard a sad noise from behind her, and she twisted in Axel’s arms just enough to see Jet standing in the road, looking dejected. His arms fell loosely to his side, and she realized that he had been waiting to embrace her also. Her character had been so focused on the emperor that Jet had never even come into her line of vision.
A sigh escaped her lips.
The angry electronic voice buzzed in the air around her, and Katara fixed malevolent eyes on him.
“You defy me!” he shouted. “I’ll have you all thrown in prison, and I get to keep the girl anyway. GUARDS!”
Five more armored men rushed to the gate keeper’s aid.
“If we don’t finish this quick, the police will arrive!” Aang shouted.
A counter appeared in the air: 10:00. It hovered over the gate keeper’s head.
So this was going to be a timed battle. Katara smiled gratefully as she regained control of her limbs and pulled herself into a fighting position.
“Let’s get ‘em, guys, and hurry, we don’t have much time!” Sokka shouted. He started to say something about a formation, but Toph jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow.
“We understand what the counter means, oh fearless leader,” Toph proclaimed sarcastically.
Katara made sure to repay her kidnapping friend and refused to attack the other soldiers. Someone else could take care of them for all she cared. In her mind, the gate keeper was the real bad guy.
The crew was defeated with three full minutes to spare, and a cut scene took control directly afterwards.
Shouts rang from somewhere beyond the gate, but the words were drowned out by the pounding footsteps of—presumably—a group of police coming to arrest them.
“Hurry!” Tennin’s voice shouted. “Let’s get inside before they get here.”
“No!” Sokka’s voice. “They’re too close. If we go in now, we’ll only get caught. We can find another way in.”
“We could fight our way through. They wouldn’t stand a chance.” Toph’s voice sounded excited at the prospect and ready for battle.
Axel and Jet both had their eyes locked on Katara, and almost simultaneously, they said, “No, we run.”
The two froze and glared at each other. Axel took hold of Katara’s hand, and Jet tensed in anger. Her shoulders drooped despondently, and though she was staring at Jet, she never met his eyes. Her eye were focused on his hands, and his fingernails were digging into his skin. She knew that the two were still glaring at each other, and for several short eternities, the air between them almost crackled with anger. The shouts were getting louder, but neither seemed to notice.
Toph broke the spell. She leapt between them, her arrows bouncing about madly in her quiver. She glared with ferocity, her green eyes practically glowing. She jerked Katara’s hand out of Axel’s and began to pull her away.
The two watched her, startled, but Tennin, Aang, and Sokka were close at the two girls’ heels.
‘Great,’ Katara thought, ‘now I’m even being dragged around by the other girls!’
She stumbled along next to Toph and stared at the outspoken girl wondrously. She watched Toph as the elf girl cast a disgusted look over her shoulder and brushed a loose strand of hair back into her bun.
“I’m just doing to do my job and protecting the princess. If you two lovebirds want to fight, go ahead. I’m sure the police will love to listen to your argument,” she said, and then she was running into the woods. Katara almost fell in surprise, but her body seemed to catch up with the other girl.
She felt a rush of panic, and the name ‘Kirin,’ was torn from her lips. She looked back and saw Axel and Jet running just behind the other Knights. She felt a staggering wave of relief, and her breath caught in her throat.
Breathless, she dashed through the forest, her sleeves and skirt whirling around her. The branches tugged at her clothes and hair painlessly, but even despite the difficulties running through thick forest, she felt extremely light on her feet.
The world went black for one terrifying, dizzying moment, but the world reappeared quickly. Now, almost inexplicably, it was night, and Katara was sitting on the ground in a circular clearing beside a large but weathered brown tent. A fire burned in the center of the ring and cast strange shadows on the familiar faces sitting nearby. The faces were serious, contemplative, and they looked even more somber with the flickering light accentuating their furrowed brows and tight lips.
“We’ll have to scale the wall,” Aang said softly. “It’s the only option. If we go back to the entrance, we risk being recognized.”
“That’s simple enough,” Toph responded. “All we have to do is find a place where the guard isn’t as heavy. Tomorrow we can scout out a place, and tomorrow night, I can just bend us a nice little stairs to climb over it.”
Her expression was calm, but there was a slight arrogant tilt to her lips.
“That would probably work during the day, but it might not at night,” Sokka was giving his two cents. “During the day, there would be a lot of noise from the citizens of the city to drown out any loud booms your earthbending may produce, but at night… the sound of earth shifting without reason might attract unwanted attention.”
The other members of the group murmured in quiet agreement, but Toph scoffed.
“Well, we can rest now. In the morning, we can figure out how to proceed.” Jet rose to his feet, careful not to look at Axel or Katara.
Katara could feel the hold of the patching chip dwindling, and for a moment she was thankful. Just as she regained control enough to smile, however, she saw movement out of the corner of her eyes and turned to watch a pink and yellow butterfly flying lazily through the darkness. The insect had a soft glow about it, and as it flew further away, she felt her feet move to follow.
Katara rushed quickly and quietly through the darkness, but she didn’t seem to have any power over her limbs. It wasn’t like losing control in the cut scenes. During the cut scenes, it felt like someone else was manipulating her body, but following this adorable butterfly felt more like being hypnotized. She just couldn’t stop following it. She lifted her hand and spread out her fingers as if she were trying to capture the delicate creature.
Katara was panicking in her mind. This wasn’t a part of the cut scene, and it wasn’t the similar to anything she had felt so far. She was mesmerized by the pretty creature, but a part of her was still impervious to the siren call of the butterfly. She had played Fatal Frame 2; she knew what happened when one followed butterflies in games.
Suddenly the sinister voice of the Kyoshi warrior was ringing in her head, malicious and sweet. Cold terror sliced through her, and she wondered, ‘What if this is the work of a hacker? What if that voice was the voice of the hacker, and now she’s trying to get to me alone?’
Katara was still following, enthralled, but her mind was racing with possibilities.
‘Well,’ she thought thankfully. ‘It’s not like a hacker could torture me in the game anyway. I won’t feel anything.’
This thought soothed her as she stole through the night like a gypsy or nymph relishing in the moonlight. She broke through the trees and was standing next to the towering wall that encased the capital city of Edo. She watched almost sadly as the butterfly flew over the barrier with ease and was very soon out of sight.
If she hadn’t been watching the butterfly so closely, however, she may not have seen the black shadows that were currently climbing cautiously down the wall. Katara finally felt free of her unusual fascination for the winged creature, but she stood at the edge of the forest observing the shadows with the similar rapt interest.
A harsh angry whisper startled her. “Who are you? What are you doing out here?”
Katara gasped and spun on her heels. She almost screamed, but before the sound came, she heard a low buzz in her ears.
‘Not another cut scene,’ she moaned in her head.
Rough hands encircled her wrists, and dark eyes appraised her. For a moment, hostility shone in her captor’s face, but it faded into confusion. Panic raced through her veins like fire, but the alarm at his sudden appearance was abating a little.
“What’s wrong?” Another hushed whisper.
The man dropped her wrists. “Some young girl,” he said quietly over his shoulder before looking at her again. “What were you doing alone in the woods? It can be dangerous at night.”
“I—I…um… need to get into the city,” she closed her eyes as she spoke. Katara felt nervousness and fear choking her vocal chords. “You could…could help me sneak in…right? That’s what you’re doing, right?”
The man scratched at his beard and shook his head. “No, little lady, we’re getting people out of the city. The walls meant to protect us have become a prison, and we’re some of the few good soldiers left. We’re helping the citizens escape from the city and find places far away from that bloody emperor.”
“Oh… I-I see.” Katara was ringing her hands now. ‘Really,’ she thought, ‘this is getting ridiculous.’
Another shadow materialized out of the darkness to stand next to the man.
“What did you—,” the shadow said in a decidedly feminine voice. “Oh dear, how did you get here? Goodness, she looks terrified. What the devil did you do to her?”
The man shrugged helplessly. “I just found her. I didn’t do anything to the poor girl.”
The woman flashed him a critical expression and shook her head. Katara smiled mentally; she knew that expression. She often shot that same look at Sokka when she was exasperated with him. Katara decided that she liked this NPC very much. She would have laughed at the woman’s sarcasm, but she just felt a foreign twinge of relief and happiness that was slowly replacing the fright. The relief was foreign to Katara, because quite frankly, she knew she could have taken her nice captor out if it had come to that. Obviously, cute little Kaguya was easily intimidated.
The woman arched a brow at the man. “Anyone would be frightened by your mug appearing out of the darkness. Go find the girl something to drink, please. I’m sure she’d appreciate it.” The man went away looking slightly harassed and put upon. The woman merely smiled kindly at Katara. “Why are you out here so late?”
“Well, miss, I really must get into the city,” she said in a confident voice.
‘Wow,’ Katara thought. ‘My voice didn’t even quaver.’ She looked at the woman’s kind eyes and knew why she felt more comfortable.
“Why would you want into the city? Most people just want out.”
“Well, my friends and I have business to take care of in the city. We tried to get through the gate this afternoon, but…”
The woman gave a sputter of laughter. “That was you?” she said incredulously. “You’ve got some pluck, I’ll give you that. I heard what your little group did. Really happy to hear someone put old Dog Face in his place.” She appraised Katara with a grin. “I can certainly see why he tried to kidnap you though. You certainly are a pretty little doll.”
When Katara responded, her voice was unexpectedly desperately angry. “I am not a doll!” An echo of the Empress and the temple cave swirled in her head.
The woman looked taken aback.
“Sorry,” she heard herself murmur. “That just reminded me of someone else.”
The woman nodded in quiet understanding. “Tomorrow night we can sneak you and your friends into the city. After that, you’re on your own. We don’t stay at the same place along the wall very long, but if you can find us when you’re done with your business, we’ll help you get back out.”
“Hopefully,” Katara muttered to herself. “After we’re done, no one will have to run anymore.”
“What—,” the woman started to say, but the sounds of crunching footsteps stopped her. “Get down!” she whispered anxiously. She disappeared into the shadows, and Katara followed her.
Someone tripped and spat a curse into the darkness. Katara immediately recognized that voice.
“Mamoru!” she whispered excitedly to her unseen companions. “He’s my friend. You can trust him.”
She began to come out of her hiding place when she heard another voice and approaching footsteps. A fire flickered into existence over an open palm.
“Is she nearby?” Katara felt a bit of happiness that Axel was there, but she knew that was just her character reacting to the emperor.
“I think so,” Jet replied grudgingly. “But it’s a little more difficult to track someone at night.”
Axel cleared his throat. “I want to apologize for today. It was selfish and impertinent of me to have an asinine stand-off at such a vital moment.”
Jet acknowledged him gruffly. “I forgive you; I expect that sort of thing from you. I just can’t belief that I put the princess in so much danger.”
Axel’s noble face crinkled into an expression of anger and distaste, and Jet shuffled along dejectedly through the forest examining the bent plants that Katara had previously trampled as she ran. Silence fell between them. A familiar dry aching assaulted her heart as she watched them pointedly ignoring each other.
Her body finally couldn’t stand watching them any longer, and she freed herself from her shadow and dashed towards them.
“Kaguya!” Axel said and rushed to meet her halfway. The flame that had hovered above his hand went out as he ran. Jet followed close behind him.
Axel reached her first and embraced her. He pulled away quickly, though, and peered down at her sternly. “What were you thinking? I was worried sick about you.”
Jet scoffed at him. “Actually, we were all worried about her, Prince Charming.”
Axel ignored him completely and just gazed at her, waiting.
“Well,” she replied hesitantly. “I saw a very pretty butterfly, and I just…”
‘So that was a part of the game?!’ Katara thought angrily. Her internal voice took on a menacing tone. ‘Sokka…’
Oddly enough, Jet laughed. “I should have known. That certainly is like you, silly Princess Kaguya.” He chuckled again and shook his head in a relief and bemusement.
Axel appeared confused, and Jet laughed again, charmingly this time. “So she hasn’t told you about that, then.” Axel furrowed his brows, and Jet looked sufficiently delighted, worry completely forgotten.
“What is he talking about?”
“Well,” Katara said, and she could feel a story coming. She was spared the trouble when a group of about twenty or so shadows finally revealed themselves. This was a considerably larger number than she had expected.
The kind woman to whom Katara had spoken fell to her knees at Axel’s feet. “Oh great Emperor Kirin,” she said reverently. It sounded as if she might be crying. “We welcome you back to your home. I must profusely apologize that we have allowed such tragedy to befall the capital in the two short years that you have been gone.”
Katara was bemused; the woman’s language was now extremely flowery and stiff, a contrast to her earlier, friendly speech.
Axel smiled, recognition flashing in his eyes. “Ah, Yun. It is good to see you again. Won’t you follow us back to our camp?”
Yun ducked her head. “Of course, Great Emperor.”
Axel smiled at Katara. “Meet the elite Royal Guard of my palace,” he said, pride in his voice. “Loyal only to our land, they are the protectors of those who live therein.” His smile widened. "Though they are likely no match for your Knights of Heaven, but they are the best human guards in the whole country."
He spread out his arms and gestured at the group. The cut scene was ending as they turned towards the camp.
--End Level 8--
This chapter was mostly cut scene. Er, the next two or three might be. I apologize. Hope you enjoyed this.
Video Game References:
-Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly is a survival horror game. A set of twins are reminiscing in the forest of their childhood when one of them follows a crimson butterfly deep into the woods. Her sister follows her, and suddenly they’re in a village of eternal night. The butterflies are in some way connected to this forgotten cursed village. In the past, some sort of dark ritual involving twins went wrong, and everyone in the village was killed. The twins must battle these evil ghosts with a special camera and uncover the secrets of the village in order to escape the nightmare. Sufficiently horrifying, I think this is one of the most frightening games that I’ve ever played.
-Crossing the gate: The gate bit here savors strongly of Final Fantasy 9 when two of the characters have to sneak through the South Gate. Although the scene in the story is very different from what happens in FF 9, the whole concept of ‘gate passes’ was taken from this game.
-Not a whole lot of new references in this chapter, although perhaps I could say that timed battles in RPGs are nerve-wracking. lol Final Fantasy 7 and 8 both had several timed battles. Katara seems excited about the timed battle, but I cringed a little. I don’t like them at all.