As the end of Winter approached, Zuko found himself getting a bit antsy. He'd been in hot pursuit of the Avatar for nearly three months, but he was still no closer to capturing him than their first encounter. The careful balance he was struggling to maintain between aggressive and diplomatic wasn't showing the progress he'd been hoping for. Not only that, after what had happened with Cadence' fortune teller reading, he'd been forced to lend at least some credence to what Aunt Wu had said about him, and the approach of Spring felt significant. He couldn't shake the feeling that something big was going to happen.
As a result, he'd passed on participating in the 'music night' Iroh had organized on deck, and was instead struggling to meditate in his own quarters. The ship was in position to sail to the North on a moment's notice, in pursuit of the Avatar. However, there was the minor problem of the Northern Water Tribe. It wouldn't exactly be easy to charge in to confront Aang in the middle of that many skilled Water Benders.
Cadence had come up with a plan, however. She had a Water Tribe boat that she could control with her Waterbending, to guide herself, Iroh, and Zuko to the North Pole. The plan was to anchor the ship a good distance away from the Arctic Circle where the Northern Tribe defended its borders, and then have the three of them go in on their own. Then, Cadence would contact her Waterbending teacher within the settlement to arrange a diplomatic meeting between Zuko and Aang. With luck, talk in a place of peace - especially where Aang had so many allies, a clear advantage - would pave the way for peacefully escorting him back to the Fire Nation. If Zuko could deliver a willing Avatar to Ozai for a civil discussion of the war, perhaps a new solution could be found...and if nothing else, it would certainly block any and all plans Zhao and Azula had come up with.
Zuko's thoughts were disturbed as Iroh opened the door to his quarters. "My answer's still no, Uncle," Zuko replied gently. "I don't feel like music tonight."
"It's not about that," Iroh replied warily. "It's about our plans. There's a bit of a problem..."
As Zuko turned to see what Iroh was talking about, Zhao stepped into the room. "Prince Zuko," he stated calmly, though his eyes made it plain he was all but spitting the name, "you and your crew are...invited to assist me in an expedition of vital importance to the Fire Nation, and the War Effort."
Zuko's fist clenched as he ground his teeth. Zhao had phrased his statement well. If he'd tried to commandeer ship or crew, Zuko would have grounds to refuse, contesting his Royal Mandate mission against the Military one. Out here, that meant who could get a message to and from Ozai the fastest, and Mai still lived in the capitol. If the need was urgent, she could get in to see Ozai with a message from Zuko by noon the next day, while the fastest messenger bird at Zhao's disposal wouldn't get there for a week. But by phrasing it as an invitation, Zuko's refusal would be grounds to investigate his dedication to the Fire Nation and the Cause. He had no choice but to cooperate, but he wouldn't do so blind. Calming himself, he stood up. "What manner of mission?" he asked calmly.
"As I'm certain you're aware," Zhao replied, gesturing to Zuko's own maps, "the Avatar has been sighted heading for the North Pole."
Zuko snorted dismissively. "You still have clearance to pursue the Avatar?" he asked, feigning shock. "How did your last encounter with him go again? Failed to capture him, but you did succeed in destroying...three of your own river boats?" Seeing Zhao's temper rising, Zuko suppressed his smirk. Zhao was dangerous when calm, but predictable when enraged. If Zuko was to keep any control of the situation, he would have to keep Zhao angry.
Unfortunately, Zhao had apparently learned a lesson about controlling his temper, as he calmed himself rather quickly. "No, this isn't about capturing the Avatar," he replied. "This is about preventing him from mastering Waterbending. I've gathered together a massive fleet...with the specific purpose of the destruction of the North."
Zuko raised an eyebrow. "That's a rather ambitious endeavor," he replied. "I assume you have a plan?"
"I do," Zhao replied. "One I will share with my ship commanders."
"Then I look forward to hearing it." Zuko did let his grin show as Zhao flinched. Zhao had expected him to throw a tissy fit over being slighted, which would give Zhao grounds in this mission to remove Zuko from command of his ship. By staying calm and letting Zhao have his way, he pulled Zhao's teeth, forcing him to leave Zuko in command. And as long as Zuko commanded his own ship, he had a chance to steal the glory of this mission right out from under Zhao.
"Then prepare to sail for the north!" Zhao snapped out, spinning and storming out of the room.
Zuko let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. Keeping himself under control around Zhao had been harder than he had anticipated. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he looked up.
Iroh rested a hand on his nephew's shoulder, smiling proudly. No words were needed. Zuko returned the smile, accepting his Uncle's silent praise.
As the ships approached the Arctic Circle in a massive fleet - Zuko's ship positioned at the back at Zhao's orders, officially to protect the Prince - Zuko staggered into his quarters, stunned beyond belief as he fell into his bed, staring at the ceiling.
"Zuko?" Cadence called out worriedly. She had followed him after he'd returned from the conference of Captains to discuss the plan of action against the Northern Water Tribe. Seeing him staggering about as though his strings had been cut, she followed him into his quarters, only to see him collapse. Climbing up onto the bed beside him, she nudged him with her muzzle. "What's wrong?"
"Zhao's plan..." Zuko began, his voice barely above a whisper. "He doesn't plan to attack the Water Tribe directly. This entire assault...it's a diversion..."
"Then what is his plan?" Cadence asked worriedly. "Is it all to get Aang?"
"No," Zuko replied. "He plans to change the very shape of the world, and become a living legend. It's his intention to capture - or kill - the physical embodiment of the Moon Spirit, making it impossible to Waterbend."
Cadence gasped. "He's going to hurt Tui?" she whimpered, stunned and horrified beyond belief.
"And I don't have a political leg to stand on in countering the plan," Zuko concluded. "I know in my heart...this is the worst mistake anyone could make...but there's nothing I can do about it..." Rolling over, he faced the wall, staring into nothing.
Cadence stared at Zuko for a time, seeing how broken he looked...and a deep frown crossed her face. "Nothing you can do, maybe," she whispered, turning to head for her own quarters. Once there, she entered deep meditation, trying to stretch her magical connection to the Spirits. After all, Zhao couldn't capture or kill Tui if she wasn't there...
As the ships entered the range to begin the assault on the North Pole, Zuko was startled at his post as he saw Cadence charge out of her quarters onto the deck. "Turn this ship around!" she shouted at the top of her voice, panic and terror filling her words.
"Now hang on!" one of the crew objected. "You don't-"
"I didn't say talk!" Cadence snapped, spinning and launching a burst of flame at the poor sailor, who barely managed to duck. "I saidturn this ship around! South! South as fast as we can!"
Zuko rushed to his cousin's side, grabbing hold of her. "Cadence, what's gotten into you?" he demanded.
Cadence spun to stare at him. Her face was pale, the color seeming to even have drained somewhat out of her fur coat. Her eyes were wide with terror, her mane frazzled, and she was practically hyperventilating. Zuko wasn't certain what was going on, but one thing was certain. If Cadence was this scared - scared enough to attack her friends - then immediate action was needed.
"You heard her!" Zuko shouted. "Turn this ship around! That's an order!"
"Yes sir!" the crew replied. While the ship had been recruited for Zhao's mission, the crew was loyal to Zuko, first and only.
As soon as the ship was turned around heading South, Cadence began to calm down, but she continued to stare Northward. "Now do you think you can tell us why we're committing treason?" Zuko asked, his words harsh but his tone concerned.
"I...I made contact with Tui and La," Cadence replied. "I thought...if they weren't there when Zhao made his assault, then he couldn't hurt either of them. But they can't leave their pool."
"Then why are we running?" Zuko inquired, now more confused than concerned.
"Because La had his own plan for handling Zhao," Cadence explained, shivering convulsively. "He called in...backup." Cadence looked to be on the verge of throwing up. "Since I was still in contact with him...I felt the mind he contacted..." At this point, she rushed to the side of the boat to give La a less than polite offering.
Zuko and Iroh were both at her side immediately. "Who did La call in that has left you like this?" Iroh asked, stunned and afraid.
"One older than La himself," Cadence replied. "One who watched the land and seas form from his home in the depths. One of a few who, with cruel wisdom, do their part to maintain the balance for their own reasons. One...who is rising to defend the moon."
The seas around the North Pole began to bubble, froth, and swell. Iroh stared at the sea in terror. "A...Deep One?" he gasped out.
Terror swamped the crew, and those tending the engines pushed them as hard as they could go to be out of range of what was about to happen.
"Yes," Cadence replied, staring at the fleet. "Or...as the scrolls of Wan Shi Tong call them..."
A massive black tentacle erupted from the sea, wrapping around one of Zhao's ships and crushing the metal like tissue paper. Another tentacle followed, and then another, until the fleet was hemmed in by a black forest atop the sea...and a massive head, the face of nightmares, rose to open a gaping maw, unleashing an unearthly screech.