Story [Avatar: The Last Airbender] The Fall of the Fire Empire Revised (Updated 8/19)

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  1. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Title: The Fall of the Fire Empire (revised edition)
    Author: MasterGhandalf
    Fandom: Avatar: The Last Airbender
    Genre: action/adventure, drama, epic
    Characters: Azula, OCs, some surprises
    Timeframe: Approximately 100 years post-series, and AU
    Summary: A hundred years ago, Prince Zuko succeeded in capturing Avatar Aang, and the Fire Nation achieved victory in the Hundred Year War, subjugating the other nations. Now it is the Fire Empire under the ancient Dragon Empress Azula and it rules the world with an iron fist, but new heroes- a noble of the Empire who will learn that all she believes in is based on lies, a young warrior from the Southern Water Tribe who is inspired by heroic legends, and an earthbender slave who finds himself finally pushed to take a stand for his people- must arise to challenge tyranny.

    Prologue: Conquest

    I remember a time when there was hope.

    For a hundred years the Fire Nation waged war on the other nations of the world. Water Tribe, Air Nomads, my own beloved Earth Kingdom all fought valiantly for our freedom, but to no avail. The Air Nomads fell first, for the Fire Lord believed that the Avatar had been reborn among them, and so he hit them with all of his power. They were a brave people, but peaceful. They knew little of war, and in the end war consumed them.

    For a century afterwards the war ground on, and every few years a rumor would resurface that the Avatar lived and would save the world. All prove false, until one- a boy named Aang was said to have airbending powers, and to have mastered the basics of waterbending as well. But that hope was short lived- he was captured by Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation and born back to the prince's homeland in chains. Imprisoned in the depths of the Fire Lord's fortress, he was never heard from again.

    That summer Sozin's Comet returned and enhanced the powers of the firebenders a thousandfold. Fire Lord Ozai assaulted Ba Sing Se himself, along with his elite warriors, and the great city was leveled to the ground. My advisors had kept the war secret from me- for my own protection, they protested as the palace burned around us- and so I watched my world destroyed without knowing fully why, and I wept for my people. Ozai came for me himself- I will never forget his savage smile, or his eyes that burned like comets themselves- and ordered his soldiers to me to take me back to his Nation in chains. He did not fear me, personally, for he knew that I had spent my life as nothing but a figurehead. A dead king, he said, might still become a martyr, but an imprisoned and humiliated one was nothing but a joke.

    Moments later, his daughter rushed in, telling the Fire Lord that her brother Zuko had been killed in the fighting. Neither firebender seemed overly concerned, or surprised, and I have wondered often if one or both of them had not arranged the prince's death. From what I later heard, there was little love between brother and sister, or father and son.

    Standing on the ashes of my palace, Ozai proclaimed himself the Phoenix King, absolute ruler of a new world born from the ashes of the Four Nations. Then he had me loaded onto an airship and transported to the Fire Nation, where I was locked in a cell and largely forgotten, save by a single sympathetic guard who brought me news. I was to learn from this same guard that at the same time as Ba Sing Se fell, a certain Admiral Zhao led a vast fleet to attack the Northern Water Tribe. With the comet's power behind them, the battle was intense but brief. I do not know what horrors Zhao committed against that people, but the moon itself seemed to shine less brightly through my window, and the friendly guard told me that with the fall of the north, waterbending itself had seemingly vanished from the world.

    Another century is almost past, and the great Fire Empire rules the world unchallenged. Ozai is long dead, and his daughter Azula is an old woman now (though not yet as old as I!). She took the throne of Fire Lord following her father's passing, and gave herself the personal title Dragon Empress. Even in her age, her wits and firebending powers are as sharp as ever, though I have heard rumors that she is no longer entirely sane. The Dragon Empress has no heir, and I have heard the guards talking fearfully of the future. When that dreaded monarch is no more, they think that the power struggles will tear the Empire apart.

    I am older than she is and likely will not see that day. The guards allowed me paper to write these thoughts, because they know that no one will ever read them. But I hope that someday, somehow, it will be read. This tyranny cannot last forever- it never does. Sooner or later the captive Avatar will die- if he has not already done so- and then his spirit will be reborn into the world. Even if the Fire Empire somehow manages to silence him again, oppression breeds heroes. Sooner or later, someone in some oppressed village of the former Earth Kingdom or Water Tribe- or even the Fire Nation itself- will decide that they have suffered enough and will lead their people to freedom.

    I believe this with all my heart and soul. I must. To all those who resist the Empire, I give you these ancient words of wisdom- "from beginningless time darkness has thrived in the void, but it always leaves to purifying light." I do not know their origin, but I hear them in my heart in the stillness of my prison. Once, I thought I was such a light, but I learned too late that I was merely a tool for others’ ambitions. Now it must be new heroes, true heroes, who will take up the challenge. My blessings and those of all the spirits be with you, whoever you are.

    You will need them.

    (From the writings of Kuei, once Earth King, during the last days of his imprisonment under Dragon Empress Azula, year 89 post-ascension)

    ________________________________________________________________________

    Fall of the Fire Empire is a fanfic I first began to work on in May of 2009, and wrote until November of 2010 (60 chapters in total, counting prologue and epilogue). It remains one of the most difficult, but also fulfilling, fics I’ve ever written, not to mention the longest. The repost awas inspired by the recent, and amazing, Korra episodes detailing the origins of the Avatar; though grad school leaves me little time to write completely new fics, I still have the time to do a sort of “Special Edition” of an old favorite of mine, with some minor revisions, general editing, and some commentary/reflection on the individual chapters. For people reading FotFE for the first time, I’ll try to keep spoilers out of my comments. My hope is to have a couple of chapters up per week.

    FotFE was a somewhat unusual writing experience for me, because of how quickly the idea came to me and how I started writing only a few days after the initial brainstorm. Ordinarily, I try to plan out every detail in my head before I start writing, but FotFE was very much a process of discovery. I knew my three main characters, I knew the general world situation, and I knew the shape of the story I wanted to tell in broad details, and that was it. My inspiration came from three main sources, not counting the original Avatar: The Last Airbender show itself. The first was a little oneshot on FF.net by one Atiaran, called, if memory serves, “When All Your Dreams Come True”. It was a dark, introspective, and very well-done little character study about Zuko capturing Aang at some point early in book one, and how achieving the Fire Nation’s victory and ending his banishment didn’t really bring him the happiness he thought it would. I was struck by the basic idea, but wanted to take it in a different direction, exploring the consequences of victory not to Zuko personally in the immediate aftermath, but to the world at large a hundred years down the line. My second inspiration was the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, of which I’m a major fan; the trilogy’s basic premise is to take the archetypical fantasy story and twist it, showing a world who’s “Dark Lord” won (though books two and three introduce further complications). The world of Mistborn is very different from the world of Avatar, but FotFE definitely has some Mistborn in its DNA. Finally, at the same time I was writing a trilogy of fics I call my “Azula Trilogy” dealing with the redemption of our favorite evil princess. Of course, if there’s one thing that we fanwriters are prone to falling prey to, it’s liking our favorite villains a bit too much, so I decided to challenge myself by writing a really evil version of Azula in contrast to the trilogy’s sort-of-heroic one. Thus did the Fire Empire find its Dragon Empress (though seriously, do you really think Ozai would have let Zuko inherit if he could at all avoid it?).

    There’s not a whole lot to say about this little prologue. It’s a brief rundown of the history of this AU, though it leaves out a lot of the specifics which Kuei wouldn’t have access to. Some of my first reviewers thought he was a bit of an odd choice to write the intro, but I thought he fit- he always struck me as someone who wanted to be a good person and a good king, even if his own government was determined to keep him in the dark, and I would hope that with age, reflection, and loss he’d find some measure of wisdom. I also wanted a canon character for readers to recognize, but who was minor enough that I could still pull out the big names later on. I don’t think I’m spoiling much to say that most of the canon cast is dead (it is a hundred years later, after all), but Azula is still around (of course) and there are a couple more who’ll be popping up later…

    Welcome to the Fire Empire. If you’ve read it before, this won’t be different in any meaningful way, but will hopefully be cleaned up and polished a bit from a technical standpoint, and I hope you don’t mind my rambling. If you’re new, strap in. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I think it’ll be a ride.

    -MasterGhandalf
    Last edited by MasterGhandalf, Aug 19, 2014 at 5:01 PM
  2. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 1: Rite of Passage

    Jiazin came awake as the sun's first rays slipped around the edges of her window shade and bathed her bed in soft golden light. She lay there for several minutes more, luxuriating in the light that was shone from the first and greatest of all fires, before rising. Today was her birthday- the precise anniversary of the moment of her birth had passed sometime in the night, and today she was now officially sixteen. This had been the customary age of majority in the old Fire Nation, but for a child of the nobility of the Fire Empire adulthood had to be earned. Jiazin smiled confidently as she swung out of her bed and stretched. She had been training for this day for the better part of a year.

    The young noblewoman walked to the window and opened the shade so that she could look down on the great city of which her father was Governor. It was called Long Du Shi, City of the Dragon, so named in honor of the great Empress who had ruled now for almost fifty years. She had ordered the city's construction within the first months of her reign upon the site of what had once been the great capital of the fallen Earth Kingdom, Ba Sing Se. The Impenetrable City had failed spectacularly to live up to its name, having been burnt to the ground by Phoenix King Ozai on the day of the great Comet, but the great Fire Lord's daughter felt that by rebuilding it as an Imperial stronghold through and through, ultimate victory could be achieved over a vanquished people and the Empire's glory multiplied.

    The city was still quiet in the early morning as Jiazin watched it. Her father's palace stood at its hub, upon the very site (or so the original blueprints said) where the Earth King once had his palace. Radiating outward, the buildings of Long Du Shi greatly resembled those of old Ba Sing Se, as per the Empress's precise instructions, though they were dominated not by drab greens and browns but the bright red and gold of the Fire Empire. This is our city now, the colors said. You have lost.

    Expansive though Long Du Shi was, it still only covered what had been the Inner and Middle Rings of Ba Sing Se. Beyond the wall lay a vast construction area which Jiazin had never personally visited, where earthbender slaves worked under the watchful eye of firebending taskmasters to build the city out to the full extent that the Earth King's city had once occupied. Only that, Jiazin knew, would satisfy her father and the Empress. The slaves were driven hard, she knew, but she also knew that the people of the Earth Kingdom had been little more than barbarians until Fire Lord Sozin had come to give them proper rule. They should be honored, she thought, to have a chance to work on the Dragon Empress's city now.

    Though she always drew pride from watching her father's city rise, Jiazin knew that she had delayed long enough. Turning from the window, she pulled a silken cord and was quickly joined by a pair of young servant girls, who bowed deeply and respectfully to her. The governor's daughter stood perfectly still and allowed them to removed her sleeping robe and dress her in the clothing that her day would require- red pants and shirt that would allow her the freedom of movement required of a warrior, with a black vest over them that was belted at the waist but hung almost to her knees, trimmed in gold. Moving over to her mirror, Jiazin sat down and her servants combed her dark hair and pulled it back into a topknot held together by a golden pin. In her reflection she beheld the classic features of Fire nobility- pale skin, golden eyes, and black hair that would hang to the middle of her back if allowed freedom. Rising again, she motioned for them to bring her sword belt and buckle it around her waist. Resting her hand on the hilt of the weapon that had been her father’s and grandfather’s before her, Jiazin strode from the room and sough her parents.

    They were waiting for her in the dining room, Mother sitting elegantly in her chair and nibbling on a fruit, while Father was already working on some official decree. Jiazin sighed- she'd hoped that he'd pay more attention to his family than his work today of all days- but did not try to interrupt. Yan Li, the Governor of Long Du Shi, was the type of man who apparently did not know how to delegate. When combined with his natural gift for administration, that was what made him so valuable to the Empire.

    Unfortunately, it also made him frustrating as a parent. Jiazin loved and respect her father, but she often did so from a distance.

    "Good morning Father, Mother," Jiazin said formally with a respectful bow. "Sixteen years ago today I came into this world. I am now prepared to step into adulthood." She smiled slightly after finishing the ritual phrase- she hadn't stumbled at all.

    Father looked up from his work, his face expressionless. "May you bring honor upon us and all your family," he intoned, completing the ritual. Then he gave his daughter a rare smiled. "Good luck," he said softly.

    Mother stood and glided over to Jiazin. "You look beautiful," she said. "I'm certain you do wonderfully."

    Jiazin smiled. "I plan to," she said. "I think it's going to be quite a show."

    "I hope so," Father put in. "You'll have someone of high importance in your audience. High Minister Qing Xi arrived here last night, and he specifically asked to watch you today."

    Jiazin paled. High Minister Qing Xi, the most important person in the Empire after the Dragon Empress herself, would be watching her. She'd seen the man before on his frequent visits to Long Du Shi, but only from a distance- he didn't have time to waste on children, even the daughters of governors. She wasn't sure why he took an interest in her now, but one thing was for certain- where Qing Xi walked, the world shifted around him.

    Quieting her fear- or at least shoving it into the background where it could do no visible harm- Jiazin allowed herself a tight smile. "Then I hope the High Minister isn't disappointed," she whispered.

    #############

    Dragon Empress Azula had been known in her youth as a great warrior- a true firebending master even in her teens. As a result, she had little patience with young nobles who had learned to do nothing but laze about in decadent splendor, and when she took the throne she made certain that all the children of the Imperial elite had useful skills to put forth in the service of the Fire Empire from a young age.

    Thus she had instituted the Agni Li, which all of the nobility had to perform before being granted the full rights and honors of adulthood. For those of scholarly and political inclination, this took the form of an extended debate with experts on Imperial law and customs; but for those like Jiazin, whose skills lay along a more martial path, the test took an altogether different and more dangerous form.

    A huge arena, capable of seating all the nobility and many of the commoners of Long Du Shi, stood adjacent of the Governor's palace. Most commonly it was used for the Agni Kai, an honor duel between two firebenders, or else for the execution of particularly notorious rebels and traitors. Today it would be the site of Jiazin's Agni Li, and as she strode onto the sands from beneath one of the entrance arches, the sun shining down overhead, she could hear the gathered crowd cheering for her.

    Jiazin strode into the center of the arena and looked up at the high box where her mother and father sat. Both of her parents kept their faces perfectly expressionless, but she knew them well enough to sense both their fear and pride. Beside them sat an elaborate golden litter, and behind its gauzy red curtains she could make out the silhouetted figure of a man who could only be Qing Xi. Between the distance and the curtains, she could not make out his expression. Putting the High Minister from her mind, Jiazin drew her sword with a flourish and saluted her parents. Her father raised his hand and brought in cutting down, and the Agni Li began.

    From the four corners of the arena stepped four warriors in full battle armor and wielding drawn swords. They would not fight to kill- Agni Li were never lethal; the nobility would not have stood for seriously risking the lives of all their children- but if they defeated her then she would have to wait another year to be accounted a full adult. Silently she vowed not to let that happen.

    The challengers advanced and began to circle around her. Jiazin waited for them to make their move, trying to anticipate which one of them would be first- there. The warrior who had emerged from the eastern corner lunged forward, sword raised for a downward stroke, but Jiazin met it with her own steel. For a moment the weapons pressed against each other, the eastern warrior knowing that he had the advantage of strength and size, but the governor's daughter suddenly pulled away with a flourish, and his own momentum send him plowing into the ground. From the stands came the crowd's laughter.

    Jiazin knew better than to allow herself to become complacent. There was more than one opponent here, and she leaped aside just in time to avoid a stroke from the western warrior. As he righted himself for another strike, she leapt into the air and somersaulted over his head, landing immediately behind him. The warrior spun around, and Jiazin struck him in the forehead with the pommel of her sword, sending him collapsed to the ground in an unconscious heap.

    Now all three of her remaining opponents were back on their feet and closing in. Sweeping her sword back and forth, Jiazin held them at bay, made them think that she was desperate. Then she gave a fierce smile and dropped into a crouch. Her free hand came up, and from it shot a blast of red-hot flames, striking two of the warriors in quick succession. Both of them stumbled backwards, dropping their swords and trying desperately to peel off superheated armor. That was two more foes down.

    The sword was her father’s, but her mother was the firebender. Jiazin did honor to both sides of her family today.

    One opponent remained- the man she had downed in the beginning of the duel and the crowd had taunted. He glared at her from beneath his helmet, his sword held at the ready to avenge his humiliation. Jiazin considered using the fire on him too, then decided against it. She would face this opponent sword to sword.

    Quick as a dragon she lunged forward and he brought his sword up in defense. Back and forth, strike and parry, they fought, until both opponents were tired and sweaty and faced each other across their crossed swords. Then Jiazin twisted her wrist sharply, and her opponent's sword was wrenched from his grasp and flung across the field. Her own blade shot quickly upward and pressed against his throat.

    "Yield," Jiazin hissed.

    "I yield, my lady," he gasped and sunk to the ground in defeat. Jiazin looked out at the crumpled forms of her opponents and smiled. Agni Li warriors were chosen for loyalty, not necessarily skill- it wouldn't do to have a skilled traitor take the life of a high nobleman's child, after all- but still, defeating four of them in front of a crowd was an accomplishment. More importantly, Jiazin had passed her test. She was an adult now, a noble of the Empire in her own right.

    She turned back towards the box and brought her sword up in salute once more, this time shooting a stream of flames into the sky with her free hand as well. The crowd burst into applause, and though it was hard to tell from this distance, her mother's eyes seemed wet with tears she didn't even try to hide. Even Father looked proud.

    And beside him, the High Minister's silhouette could be seen clapping its hands together with regal dignity, and Jiazin could sense that his eyes were focused on her with the intensity of a hawk.

    #############

    That evening, long after she had been cleaned after her duel and lead to her birthday feast, Jiazin stood in her training room and brought her sword through a series of swift, clean practice strokes, punctuated now and then by a blast of fire. She finished, wiped sweat from her brow with one hand, and turned to see one of the servant girls standing in the doorway.

    "Forgive me, my lady," she said, "but High Minister Qing Xi sent me. I was told to tell you he wishes the presence of your company."

    Jiazin had been waiting for something like this all day, ever since she'd noticed how intently he'd been watching her. The High Minister had disappeared after the Agni Li, not even putting in a polite appearance at her feast, and she'd wondered if he'd returned to the Capital already. Apparently he was still around.

    Jiazin sheathed her sword. "Take me to him," she said.

    The girl lead her to an observation platform atop the palace, where her father often came to watch the activities of the city while he worked. Now, as the sun sank slowly past the horizon and the first of the stars were appearing, the platform was empty save for the High Minister's litter near the edge. The servant bowed and departed, and Jiazin stepped forward to stand next to Qing Xi's conveyance.

    "It is magnificent, isn't it?" the High Minister said suddenly in a soft, cultured, voice. "Truly amazing what your father was able to accomplish here. This began as a construction project when he took command, and he turned it into a bustling metropolis that the Empress finds to be one of the jewels of her domain." The silhouette turned to look at Jiazin. "I would expect his daughter to be equally talented."

    "You called me up here," she said. "What do you want with me?"

    Qing Xi chuckled. "Direct and to the point, I see- a noble quality in some situations, but one which you should learn to keep under control. There are those who find bluntness offensive. Fortunately for you, I am not one of them. I was most impressed by your Agni Li this morning, Jiazin. You are truly a talented warrior, and from what I saw of your bending you are skilled in that area as well."

    Jiazin shrugged. Her mother and other trainers had told her that she was one of the most talented benders of her age they’d ever seen, but somehow admitting that to this man made her uneasy. He wanted something from her; that she could tell. "Wasn't that why the Empress started Agni Li in the first place?” Jiazin said neutrally. “To make sure that her nobility would all be skilled at something?"

    "Indeed. Tell me, Jiazin, what do you know about the Empress?"

    Jiazin searched her mind for old history lessons. "Not much," she admitted. "Either my tutor didn't know much or he wasn't allowed to tell- probably a bit of both. Fire Lord Azula, who prefers to be called the Dragon Empress, was the only child of Phoenix King Ozai, who won the Great War and created the Empire. She made his victory possible by leading the team of warriors that captured the Avatar, a task he would trust only to her. She is the most powerful bender of any element alive, and quite possibly the greatest firebender in history. For the last few decades she has rarely left her palace." Jiazin looked over at the High Minister. "That's it."

    From behind his curtain she got the sense that Qing Xi was smiling strangely, though what is was about the expression that struck her as odd she couldn't say- maybe it she could have gotten a better look at him. Too, she couldn’t shake the feeling that his eyes were scanning her face intently, though she couldn’t guess what he saw there. "Very good, Jiazin," he said. "Very good. Now then, you know that the Empress relies on her ministers to carry out those tasks that are beneath her royal dignity, and that I am the leader of those ministers. It is on the Empress's business that I have come here today- to see you."

    "To see me?" Jiazin's head spun. "What does the Dragon Empress want with me? I've never even met her- unless you count seeing her give a speech once, a long time ago. I mean, I was just a child then; I barely remember it."

    "The Empress and I," Qing Xi said grandly, "require your services- in a matter that could mean the salvation of the Fire Empire."

    _____________________________________________________________________________________

    And so we meet our first main character for this fic, Jiazin. Fall of the Fire Empire was designed around three core protagonists, each of whom from one of the three surviving nations (there is arguably a fourth main character, but they’re an antagonist, not a protagonist). Of these, Jiazin came to me first, gets the first chapter to herself, and though FotFE is not the story of any one person, is probably the closest it gets to a central character. This was the first time I’d ever written a completely (well, almost completely) OC-centric fic, but at the same time FotFE is intended to in certain respects parallel the Avatar: Last Airbender show itself, and the same is true of its characters. Jiazin is her own person, but she has more than a little Zuko, Azula, and Mai in her. I’ll note other such parallels as they crop up.

    Qing Xi was another character who arrived very early in the creative process. I can’t discuss his full purpose without spoiling people silly, but at his core he derives from two sources. The first is Long Feng from ATLA, who was probably my second-favorite villain on the show after Azula herself; QX is a Long Feng figure who comes from a situation where his monarch, rather than an easily-led puppet, is even more dangerous than he is, and has adjusted his methods and actions accordingly. It’ll be a while before we get to QX/Azula interactions, but they were some of my favorite things to write. The second purpose he serves was to give a character who could provide a face for the Fire Empire’s government while Azula herself can remain in the shadows for a while- I always enjoy Big Bads with a great deal of mystique about them, and I definitely intended to provide it for the Dragon Empress. QX’s presence helped a great deal with that.

    The Agni Li pretty much exists so that Jiazin can show off what she can do in a controlled setting, I’m afraid. Jiazin’s fighting style- in particular her combination of firebending and swordsmanship- was inspired by Zuko’s, but she uses a single straight sword rather than two curved ones.

    -MasterGhandalf
  3. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    I am so excited to catch this fic from the beginning. This is quite the AU, and I am fascinated as to where it will head. I love the thought and time you have so clearly put into this, and can't wait for the rest of the ride. This looks to be quite the rollercoaster. :D

    And I like your notes at the end - they definitely add spice to the reading. :)

    =D=
  4. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 2: The Forgotten People

    The cold arctic wind knifed through the air, and Kanoda drew closer to the fire for warmth. Looking around himself, he saw the other people of the village doing the same, pulling closer to the flame and scrunching up in their furs, looking almost like children rather than the last remnants of a great people. Kanoda had never lived to see the glory days of the Southern Water Tribe, and had certainly never seen the lands their mightier cousin in the north had once ruled, but he knew about the past through his grandfather's stories. It saddened him to hear that and then see what his people had come to, and he suspected that was the old man's purpose.

    Grandfather stood now, looking dignified and almost regal. As the oldest person in the village, he was the closest thing the Water Tribe now had to a chief, since no one had been formally elevated to that position in the century since Chief Hakoda had traveled with his warriors to battle the Fire Nation and never returned. None who lived now could even remember the great leader's face- even Grandfather had been a toddler when he'd left. But Grandfather did remember Hakoda's son Sokka and daughter Katara, and the day that the Avatar had come to the Southern Tribe.

    Grandfather would tell that story tonight, saving it for last. He began, as always, with the beginning of the Water Tribes, when the Moon and Ocean Spirits descended from the Spirit World and became the two forces that shaped the existence of all seafaring people. But it was the Water Tribe that followed the rhythm of those two great beings the closest, and so learned how to control the water themselves.

    At that point of the story Grandfather always paused, and the entire village lowered their heads in quiet mourning. There had been no waterbenders in a hundred years- the last the Southern Tribe had produced was the same Katara who left with the Avatar and was never heard from again, and the Northern Tribe had been destroyed by fire and sword on the day of the Comet and the birth of the Fire Empire. Even if, against all odds, a new waterbender was born, they would have no master to help them perfect their powers. Waterbending, as an art, was dead.

    Water and air- two elements gone, and if the stories were true the earthbenders had become little more than slaves in the lands their people once ruled. Kanoda wanted to rage at the injustice of it all- something was terribly wrong with this world, and everybody knew it, but they were all too afraid to act! If any time needed heroes it was now, but heroes didn't seem to exist anymore except in Grandfather's stories.

    Kanoda's attention returned to the present and he found that the old man had turned to the part of the history he knew best- the finding of the Avatar. The young man leaned forward as his grandfather told of how Sokka and Katara had found the Avatar frozen in a block of ice, and brought him back safely to the village. Then came Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation is his monstrous metal warship, but Sokka and the Avatar were able to humiliate the prince and escape his clutches, and together with Katara set off for the Northern Tribe and a waterbending master. Zuko's ship steamed off in pursuit, leaving the village unharmed.

    And there the story ended. None of the three young people had ever been heard from again, at least not in the South Pole. The Fire Nation won the war and became an empire- the only reason the Southern Water Tribe survived at all was because the Imperial government didn't consider them any kind of threat, on the rare occasion they thought of them at all.

    Grandfather said none of this last, of course. He didn't have to- everyone knew it. They were a last pathetic remnant of a great people, but Grandfather's stories were meant to remind them that the seeds of greatness were still within them. That belief, coupled with simple, stubborn endurance, was all that kept the tribe alive.

    But years of listening to them had done something else as well- they had lit a fire in Kanoda that would not die. This world needed heroes more than it ever had, and one young Water Tribe hunter hoped to provide it with one.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------

    Kanoda is five when the Imperial warship comes, blown off course in a terrible storm. The winds howl and a curtain of snow prevents visibility for more than a few feet, and the people of the Southern Tribe hide in their huts and wait for it to end. When the storm clears, the warship sits in the bay, belching steam from a smokestack. It looks like a metal monster belched out of the depths, or crawled forth from one of Grandfather’s stories, but this monster is not the true peril. What it carries inside is.

    Kanoda doesn't know why they attack- maybe the firebenders needed food, or supplies to repair their ship. Or maybe they were frustrated by the storm and just wanted the pleasure of dominating something. For whatever reason the warriors swarm ashore, and the villagers are forced to flee in terror and confusion. Kanoda's father is cut off in the chaos and finds himself facing the enemy alone. An Imperial officer cuts him down with a contemptuous fireblast- the boy will never forget the way the flames reflected in his golden eyes, or the smile on his brutal features. Someday, he vows, he'll meet the officer again as a grown man, and then he'll be sorry. Then Grandfather's hand digs into his shoulder and drags him away.

    The village is destroyed, though there are only three casualties- Father, another man, and a woman. The tribe moves down the coast and establishes a new village, and there they mourn their dead. Later scouts return to the old site and find it ransacked, anything of value taken away. The Imperial ship, of course, is long gone.

    It is a day that Kanoda and his tribe will never forget.

    ------------------------------------------------------------

    Kanoda came awake with a start, shaking his head to clear sleep from it. He'd never forgotten the day of the raid, but he was fifteen now, not five, and he had the skills to make a difference. Tonight was the night his plan went into action.

    He stood slowly, quietly, careful not to disturb his mother's sleep. Wishing her a quiet goodbye, hoping that she would understand, Kanoda crept from the igloo and out into the night.

    The village was still and quiet, and he made his way unnoticed from his home down to the beach. There, behind an ice-covered rock, was his small boat, stocked with food and weapons to last him until he reached the shores of the former Earth Kingdom. Kanoda turned to the village and stood there quietly for several minutes, taking in his last look at the Southern Water Tribe for what he assumed would be years- perhaps forever. Finally he turned back to the boat with a sigh- and stumbled back when he saw that someone was sitting in it.

    "Where do you think you're going?" Grandfather asked pleasantly.

    "How did you get here?" Kanoda demanded. "I was sneaking away in secret!"

    "Hardly. The whole village knows what you're up to. Did you really think you could keep a secret in a town of less than sixty people?"

    Kanoda deflated. "Fine. You caught me. I'll go back home and stay there until I'm older than you are." Try as he might, he couldn't quite keep the bitterness out of his voice.

    Grandfather laughed. "Well, that's what I'm supposed to tell you- use this as a lesson that you can't just sneak away from your Tribe like that, make you promise to be a good little boy and all that. I just don't think I will."

    "What?"

    Grandfather's eyes turned hard. "Kanoda, you're impetuous, foolhardy, and far too idealistic for your own good. But you're right about one thing- this world does need people who are willing to fight. An Empire cannot live if its people would rather fight- even to the death- than be ruled by it. You're probably not going to bring it down by yourself, of course, but maybe if you inspire one other person to fight, and they inspire someone else, and so forth, the end result will be a wave that will crush the Fire Empire beneath it."

    "That's not the only reason why you're letting me go, is it?" Kanoda asked. "You don't really believe that anymore."

    Grandfather sighed and lowered his head. "I try. I really try to believe, but I have to give hope and pride to our people every night, and in the end there isn't any left over for myself. I'm tired, grandson. The Fire Empire cannot be beaten by one man, Kanoda- it is too strong, the Empress too cunning. The only reason we're still free is because they barely know we exist. If you try to bring it down all by yourself, it will only lead to your death. I hope that you learn that and return home, with your courage tempered by wisdom, to become a leader here. I'd ask you not to go, but I know it will do no good, and I will not forbid you, because I won't trap you here."

    "You mean you've just… given up?" Kanoda asked. "I can't believe this, from the man who tells the history of our people every night! You think that story's just going to end here? You think that the man who killed your son should just go unpunished?"

    "No," Grandfather said. "That is something you can accomplish. Find the man who killed your father, and show him how a true warrior exacts justice."

    "I'll do that." Kanoda jumped into his boat, and Grandfather stepped out. Turning, the old man put his hands on his grandson's shoulders.

    "Good luck," he whispered. "Show no fear."

    "I won't. Good-bye, Grandfather. I'll be back- I promise." Kanoda pushed his boat away from the shore and pulled on his oars, sending himself away from the shoreline. When he turned back to look at it, Grandfather was gone.

    Kanoda faced the north, his mind fixed on a mission. Not to find his father's killer- though he'd gladly face the man given the chance. This was a grander mission. He was going to prove Grandfather wrong- the history of the Water Tribe wasn't over.

    Kanoda was going to find the lost secrets of waterbending and return them to his people.

    -------------------------------------------------

    Kanoda's grandfather stood beside the boy's mother and looked out over the sea in the dawn's light. "He'll be back in a week," the old man said, "maybe less. He has a strong heart, but it's too much for him now- something he needs to learn for himself. When he's older though- then he'll be a greater leader than I am, I think."

    "You underestimate him," his daughter-in-law said. "He has his father's courage and your love of our people's heritage. He'll change the world yet- you'll see."

    Together the two Water Tribespeople stood silently and watched the sun rise for some time before returning to their village.

    ------------------------------------------------------

    And so we meet our second main protagonist, Kanoda. He’s a bit of a blend of elements from both Sokka and Katara- like Sokka, he’s a male non-bender with a tendency to think his way out of trouble, and like Katara he’s a determined idealist and optimist. We’ll see further examples of his arc paralleling the canon Water siblings as FotFE progresses, albeit sometimes with a bit of a dark twist to it. His having a dead father and living mother and grandfather also weirdly parallels Sokka and Katara’s family except with the genders swapped, though it wasn’t intentional. His love of stories and legends- and whether or not they’ve really done a good job and preparing him for what’s in store for him- was the central core from which the character sprang, shortly after I created Jiazin.

    One of my early reviewers wondered about why the Fire Empire doesn’t seem to care about the remnants of the Southern Water Tribe and why they aren’t worried about the Avatar reincarnating there. Let’s just say that no, this is not a plot hole, and there are things going on in the world that go beyond what I revealed in the prologue…

    And yes, Kanoda’s name was supposed to sound similar to Hakoda’s, and Kanoda’s grandfather is one of the little boys Sokka was trying (and failing) to teach to be warriors in “The Boy in the Iceberg”.

    -MasterGhandalf

  5. NYCitygurl NSWFF Manager

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jul 20, 2002
    star 9
    You're BACK! [:D] Oh, how I love this story [face_love] I'm excited to read it again! And I hope that when grad school slows down, you'll be back and posting more!
  6. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    Oh, I LIKE Kanoda. He is just the sort of presence that this world sorely needs. I like the blending of Sokka and Katara's personalities in him, especially. I really look forward to following his tale. :)

    =D=
  7. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 3: Honor and Prestige

    Jiazin rapped lightly on the door of her father's office.

    "Who's there?" came the terse reply from the other side. "I'm busy."

    Jiazin sighed. Did her father ever do anything but work? She knew full well that what he did benefited the Empire and brought honor to their family, but on a personal level it could get incredibly annoying. "It's me," she said. "I need to talk to you."

    The door opened and Father was standing there, looking like he often did by this point in the evening- disheveled and exhausted. He always started out each morning the very picture of a dignified Imperial nobleman, but by the time the sun set work had caught up with grooming and left it in the dust. "Jiazin," he said with a tired smile. "Come in. Have you been enjoying your birthday?"

    "I have," she said. "But that's not what I'm here to talk about. Earlier this evening, High Minister Qing Xi sent a servant to say he wanted to talk to me."

    Father put his hands on Jiazin's shoulders excitedly and looked her straight in the eyes. "What did the High Minister say?" he asked.

    "Well, he talked about how he was impressed by my Agni Li this morning, and we discussed the Empress’s history a little bit- nothing big," she added quickly when Father's eyes went wide, "just about what I already knew about her. And then- then he said that he needed my help to save the Empire and that he wants me to come to the Capital with him. I asked him, but he wouldn't say why."

    "Jiazin, this is incredible!" Father began to pace excitedly around the room. "To be given a task of such importance from the High Minister himself!" He looked at his daughter straight on, expression crafty. "Are you absolutely certain he didn't say what he wanted you to do, or why he thinks the Fire Empire needs 'saving'?"

    Jiazin shook her head. "When I asked him, he just smiled and said I'd find out when we got to the Capital. It was kind of annoying, actually, but I didn't think it would be smart to tell him that."

    Father chuckled. "Of course it wouldn't. Qing Xi deals in secrets, Jiazin- knowing things that no one else does helped get him his position in the first place, and I think he rather enjoys being mysterious. But this is so exciting for you- when do you leave?"

    "Tomorrow morning. I think that I'm actually the whole reason he came out here, believe it or not. Now that he has me, he can head home." Jiazin shook her head. "I don't even know what I did to interest him in the first place."

    "As I said, the High Minister works in mysterious ways. But I do know this, Jiazin- those who serve him well go far. This will bring honor and prestige to you and our entire family! I must tell your mother!" With that, the Governor of Long Du Shi hurried from his office, leaving Jiazin there alone.

    "Honor and prestige," she muttered. "That's what you really care about, isn't it?" It was a somewhat unfair criticism, and Jiazin knew it- the favor of the Empress and her ministers was essential to any noble family, and Father did love his wife and daughter, even though it often seemed he had little time for them. But she had to admit that the fact that he'd thought of the political benefits of the High Minister's request above anything else hurt just a little.

    -------------------------------------------------------

    The next morning, Jiazin walked with her parents, High Minister Qing Xi, and an escort of guards down the streets of Long Du Shi to where the train waited to bear them to the docks. Crowds of citizens had turned out- it wasn't every day one saw the governor and his whole family out for a walk, much less with the Empress's right hand in tow. This close to the palace most of the people were quite well off and of Fire Nation descent, and Governor Yan Li was popular and respected. In the outer rings, where there were more people of Earth Kingdom stock who remembered that they had once had a proud and independent nation of their own, things were different.

    The train was a cylinder of black iron decorated with images of stylized flames. Once, trains like this had been run by the power of a handful of earthbenders, but that had been ended when the Fire Nation leveled the original Ba Sing Se. The trains of Long Du Shi were purely technological, powered by burning coal, and a plume of black smoke rose steadily from a stack as this particular transport waited for its passengers.

    The governor's family climbed into their car, accompanied by their guards, while Qing Xi's litter was loaded by his own guards into the car behind them. "Why doesn't he ever get out of that thing?" Jiazin asked when she was certain he couldn't here. "Can he walk?"

    "It's just theatrics," Mother said. "It makes him look like royalty to be carried around like that all the time- and it makes him more mysterious when people can't see his face when he's talking to them."

    "More mystery," Jiazin muttered. "Dad told me last night that the High Minister loves that kind of thing."

    "And he isn't the only one. I grew up in the Capital, Jiazin- the Empress loves intrigues, and that entire city is thick with them." Mother looked at her carefully. "Watch yourself while you’re there. It can be a dangerous place."

    "Mother, I've been to the Capital before."

    "Never by yourself." Mother smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry too much, though. You're smart, as skilled firebender as I’ve seen, and you know what to do with that sword. You'll do fine."

    The rest of the trip passed in silence, Mother looking at her lap, Jiazin at the city, and Father at some report or other from one of his underlings. Finally they passed through the outer wall- not nearly so high as the famed walls of Ba Sing Se had supposedly been, but in Jiazin's opinion even more impressive, as they were coated with iron and topped with a row of black spikes- and crossed the plain to the docks.

    The train came to a stop and belched a satisfied cloud of black smoke, and the passengers stepped out of it. Jiazin saw the High Minister's ship- larger and more magnificent than any other vessel in the harbor, including the handful of the High Admiral’s warships which had currently put in for repair- waiting for them in the harbor. The young noblewoman turned back to her parents.

    "I'm going to miss you both," she said. Her mother rushed forward and wrapped her in a tight embrace.

    "Good luck, Jiazin," she said emotionally, then pulled away.

    "Remember to write," Father said with a smile. "I want to know everything that happens to you."

    "Everything?" a cultured voice said from behind him, and all three turned to see the High Minister's litter being borne towards them. "Now, now, Governor- I can't let your daughter get away with sending you state secrets."

    "Of course not," Father said, bowing. "I didn't mean to imply that she should." He turned back to his daughter. "Good-bye, Jiazin. I know you'll serve splendidly however High Minister Qing Xi requires. I will miss you." His tone was even and collected, but Jiazin could see in his eyes that he meant it.

    "I'll miss you, too," she said, surprising even herself by wrapping him in a tight hug. Father patted her on the back awkwardly, and then she released him and went to stand by Qing Xi.

    "Well, then," the High Minister said. "With that taken care of, we must be off. I am on a tight schedule, after all."

    -------------------------------------------------------------

    Tong grunted and planted his feet, the four other earthbenders in line beside him doing the same. Behind them, the taskmaster raised his fire whip above his head and cracked it- not to cause pain (at least not this time) but to signal the slaves to begin and remind them what he could do if their work displeased him. As one they brought their hands together and pulled them back, and in front of them a stone wall shot up from the ground.

    The taskmaster (he'd never told the slaves his name; most of them did not, and so far as Tong were concerned they all might as well be a parade of interchangeable bullies) stepped forward to inspect their handiwork. "Crude," he said, "but why should I expect otherwise? It does appear serviceable." Tong sighed in relief- coming from the cruel firebender, this was almost praise. He seemed to be in a relatively good mood, and probably wouldn't burn any of them today if they kept the quality up.

    Once, the elders said, the earthbenders had their own nation- a great Earth Kingdom that spanned the continent. Tong wasn't sure he believed that- all he had ever known was crushing poverty and the tyranny of the Fire Empire, and then enslavement when his earthbending manifested itself. Under the old Phoenix King, all known earthbenders had been killed, but his daughter was of a cannier sort. The Empress was loath to waste a valuable resource, provided there was no chance it could rebel. Captured rebel earthbenders were still summarily executed, of course, but those born and identified in secure imperial territory faced a different fate.

    There was no chance of rebellion from most of the earthbender slaves- their will to fight was crushed out of them at an early age. They learned only the most basic techniques needed for construction in a closely supervised environment, meaning that even if a slave did chose to fight back, it was no challenge for a firebending overseer to put them back in their place. It was perfectly safe for the Empire to use them on expansive construction projects, such as Long Du Shi. Tong and the work gang to which he belonged were working on expanding the docks. The Fire Empire had a vast navy, and apparently High Admiral Yuan had been complaining to the governor. Tong knew this because the taskmaster's superiors had been complaining to him- a fact he made his slaves very painfully aware of.

    Tong paused to wipe the sweat from his brow while the taskmaster inspected the newly-raised seawall. Looking up, the young slave saw some kind of gathering at a dock near them- a large group of people, all well dressed, some preparing to board a ship. He elbowed the man next to him. "What's going on over there?" he asked quietly.

    "Don't ask me," the other slave said. "Do I look like the Governor's personal secretary? I just build stuff, same as you."

    "It is the governor," one of the other slaves hissed, his eyes burning. "I worked in the inner city for years- that's him. He's the reason we're living like this!"

    Tong knew what was coming a moment before it happened. The will to fight had been crushed out of the slaves, but sometimes one just… snapped, pain, deprivation, and rage driving him or her that one step too far, and the results were never pretty for anyone involved. The wild-eyed slave stood there for a moment staring at the Governor’s procession, and then he roared at the top of his lungs and grabbed the earth with both hands. With a grunt he pulled out a lumpy block of stone and hurled it at Yan Li.

    It never hit. A slender figure near the Governor exploded into motion, drawing a sword that was instantly limed with fire. The blade struck the boulder dead on and it exploded into red-hot fragments. Looking through the debris, Tong could make out the figure- a girl about his own age, her features possessed of the cold beauty of the aristocracy, her golden eyes burning with fierce determination.

    The slave who'd attacked stood there open mouthed, but not for long. The taskmaster hurried over with his whip of fire at the ready and began striking the man repeatedly and savagely. Tong stared in horror, as he always did at beatings where he wasn't on the receiving end, and stepped forward to try and help in some way. A hand touched his arm, and he turned to see the fourth member of the work gang, a sad-eyed older man.

    "Don't," he said. "You can't do any good there. You'll just get beat too."

    "So should I do nothing at all for him?" Tong asked. "I wasn't going to step in- just offer to help him up when it's over, is all."

    "No. But there's a right moment for that sort of thing, and this isn't it."

    "'This sort of thing'? What do you mean, old man?" Tong demanded, but the other slave didn't respond.

    "Who was she?" the second slave asked absently. "That girl who saved the Governor?"

    "Jiazin," the old man said. "His daughter. Must have been- I've heard she's real good with firebending and that sword."

    "Jiazin." Tong repeated the name softly, allowing his thoughts to wander briefly to the this young person who was his opposite in almost every way, wondering at how different, how much easier, her life must have been from his own. He turned to look back at the Governor's daughter, but she was gone. Her parents were boarding the train in a hurry, while the last in a line of firebender guards was marching onto the ship.

    Finally the screams and sounds of fire from behind them stopped, and the slaves turned to see the taskmaster stepping away from the attacker. "Let this be a lesson to you lot," he said, kicking the man and eliciting a pained moan. "You're lucky I'm in a good mood today. Any of you misbehave like that again, and you'll get it worse."

    Tong and the other young earthbender hurried forward to help the beaten man to his feet, but a line of fire shot between them and the body.

    "Oh, no," the taskmaster said. "You're friend's not gonna get any help from you. Oh, he's not going to die- couldn't afford to lose the muscle- but there's still work to be done here. Get to it!" He cracked his fire whip for emphasis.

    "Yes, taskmaster," Tong said quietly, his voice level and subservient, but deep inside, he could feel his anger at the taskmaster and the whole brutal system behind him smoldering. Now isn’t the time.

    But someday… maybe someday it will be…

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Most of the first third or so of Fall of the Fire Empire is structured in a rotating three-character format, going from one main character to the next in a cycle. In this case, though, I didn’t have quite enough material for a full chapter with either character, so we get a bit more Jiazin as well as meeting protagonist number 3, Tong.

    Tong is, in many ways, the anti-Toph. She’s female and short; he’s male, tall, and muscular. She’s the daughter of a wealthy noble family; he’s a slave. She’s brash and aggressive; he’s the quiet type who simply endures and survives whatever dangers life throws at him. What they have in common is that both are extremely powerful earthbenders, though Tong hasn’t had much chance to show off what he’s capable of in his life, even to himself.

    The fact that the earthbenders are enslaved in an area with access to plenty of earth is, unfortunately, reminiscent of a certain movie which shall go nameless, though I like to think I justified the situation somewhat better than Shyamalan did. The key point here is that these earthbenders are not warriors; an earthbender warrior is always executed. The slaves are trained under firebender supervision, and the only kind of bending they’re trained for is building. Sure, they can still throw rocks (and sometimes do, as the unfortunate man in this chapter demonstrates), but in most cases even if an entire work crew rebels at once, their taskmaster (a trained firebender warrior) will be able to put it down (and the slaves are constantly beat over the head with the knowledge that “if you rebel, that’s what happens to you”). Not saying a slave could never rebel and successfully kill the taskmaster and/or escape, but, well, it would probably take some pretty exceptional circumstances…

    On the other side of this chapter, out of the major Fire Nation characters in A:TLA, Jiazin’s home situation most closely resembles Mai’s (though Jiazin gets on better with her mother than Mai did). Yan Li is not a terribly good father, but he’s certainly no Ozai; his problem is, as Jiazin notes, his tendency to prioritize his job over anything else, including family. Still, something I wanted to do with Jiazin’s home situation in contrast to Zuko and Azula’s is that, while certainly not ideal, Jiazin’s family is largely functional and nothing in her life has particularly damaged or traumatized her. Of course, that means that what’s coming in her life is what she should probably be watching out for…

    -MasterGhandalf
  8. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 4: The Empress's Chosen

    Being a hero, Kanoda was discovering, wasn't nearly as glamorous as the stories made it seem.

    He'd been gone from home for a week and a half now, and so far the young Water Tribe hunter had failed to bring the Dragon Empress to justice for her crimes, or avenge himself on the officer who'd killed his father- or, for that matter, even see an Imperial warship at all. Instead, Kanoda's journey had consisted of paddling his boat steadily northward, relaxing and allowing favorable currents and winds to do his work for him, and sleeping on rocky islands and relatively stable ice flows. He fully expected to face great dangers and hardships on his road, but none of Grandfather's stories had mention how truly boring a quest could be.

    Recently, Kanoda had come into somewhat warmer waters and had been forced to shed his outer layer of furs. Perhaps someone from farther north would have still found it cold, but to someone born and raised in the South Pole it felt almost balmy. It was pleasant at first, but after a hard day of sailing he came to the conclusion that working in warm temperatures had just as many drawbacks as in colder ones.

    The sun was setting and Kanoda was exhausted when he looked to the north and saw what appeared to be a rather large island on the horizon. He steered towards it, and as the first stars came out in a clear night sky and the moon was rising high overhead he pulled into a small natural harbor. Kanoda pulled his boat up onto the beach and then collapsed, exhausted onto the sand. He was asleep within moments.

    ----------------------------------------------------

    Shiyan stalked down the shores of Empress Island, hand resting lightly on her sword and senses alert. Two younger trainees followed closely behind, careful to match the other girl's poise and deadly grace. Shiyan was fifteen and would soon be tested to see if she was ready to become a full Chosen, and she currently occupied a leadership role for the younger students, as a shining example of the virtues which their order held highest- skill, elegance, and above all, loyalty. The Chosen served the Empress, the Fire Empire, and their comrades, in that order. All other concerns were secondary.

    Their current assignment was a patrol along the coasts of the island, intended to teach initiates to maintain their full concentration and readiness even in a situation most would find unspeakably boring. There was little sea traffic around Empress Island- the best to make sure the Chosen could train new members of their order without distractions- and as a result the nighttime patrols saw little that could be called interesting. Shiyan knew, though, that their instructors weren't above creating obstacles of their own simply to test their young pupils, and you never knew whether a night would be truly uneventful or not. As a result, trainees on patrol were forced to be vigilant or suffer the often humiliating consequences. They learned quickly that it was not in their interest to slack off.

    One of the younger girls- Cheng- suddenly came hurrying over. "Shiyan!" she said excitedly, "I saw something by the beach!"

    "Control yourself, sister," Shiyan snapped. "Emotion is well and good, but we are the Empress's Chosen- we do not show it, or let it rule us. What have you found?"

    Cheng straightened, trying to imitate the older Chosen’s poise. "I was walking closest to the shore, as per your orders, Sister Shiyan, and I was looking for anything out of place. When I looked over at the beach, I saw a boat pulled up on it. I didn't recognize the design. I thought I saw someone sleeping next to it."

    "Very good," Shiyan said, privately wondering whether this was some new test the instructors had devised. Whatever it was, she would discover it. She motioned to the third trainee, who hurried over. "Let's take a closer look at our strange visitor."

    ------------------------------------------------

    Kanoda came awake to a curious sensation that he quickly realized was that of a sword pricking lightly against his throat. His eyes went wide and he plastered himself as flat as he could against the beach to avoid being skewered, in the process getting a good look at the person- or was it a person at all?- that had ambushed him.

    A fearsome figure stood over him. It was clad from neck down in elaborate black armor trimmed with gold, and the sword pressed against his neck was made from bright steel- far outclassing the bone and stone weapons used in the Water Tribe. But it was the figure's face that Kanoda knew would haunt his dreams for the rest of his life (assuming that the rest of his life was longer than a few minutes, that is). It was not the face of a human being.

    The creature that stood over him had a golden face that seemed, on closer inspection, to be patterned with overlapping scales. Its eyes burned the same golden color, and its dark hair was bound up in a tight topknot held back by a gleaming gold headpiece. Out of the corner of his vision, Kanoda could see two similar beings standing farther back, looking almost identical except that they didn't have the headpieces or the gold trimming on their armor.

    "What are you?" he managed to croak. He supposed that "who are you?" would have been more polite, but he simply said the first thing that popped into his head.

    "You are on our island, Water Tribe filth," the reptillian figure snapped in a voice that was at once pitiless and- to Kanoda's astonishment- undeniably feminine. "You will answer our questions."

    "You're a girl," the young hunter blurted out in surprise. His captor scowled. Now that he thought about it, though she was armored and slender, he could see a somewhat feminine outline to her nonetheless.

    "A brilliant deduction," the girl said acidly. "I am glad that the Water Tribe maintains such a high quality of intelligence in their young men. You will, however, learn to treat the members of the Empress's Chosen with the respect due to our station. You may begin to do so by answering my questions- namely, who are you and what is your business here?"

    "My name is Kanoda," he said stiffly, "and I don't have any business here- I'm just passing through, and I was tired, so I thought I'd take a nap. Didn't realize that was a crime around here- for that matter, I didn't even realize that there were people on this island. Now, if you'll kindly take the sword off my neck, I'll just leave and we'll all be happy."

    The strange girl looked down at him with an expression that could best be described as amused contempt. "A likely story," she said. "I think that you're a spy, sent by the Water Tribe to steal the secrets of my order."

    "Oh yeah, like real Water Tribe warriors need to steal tips from a gang of girls in fancy armor," Kanoda said. "How'd you know I was Water Tribe, anyway?"

    "For one thing, you're darker than most residents of the Fire Empire, and for another your ship is clearly of Water Tribe design." Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "And now, would you care to repeat what you said about the Empress's Chosen? I haven't had a good fight in weeks."

    "If that's what you really want," Kanoda said, twisting his legs sharply and knocking his captor backwards. With the sword removed he quickly got to his feet and ran towards his boat, intending to grab one of the spears he'd brought with him and show these people what a real warrior could do. Before he'd even made it halfway there, though, the girl was in front of him- how did she move so fast?- and caught his wrist in one hand. She twisted viciously and Kanoda collapsed to his knees, pain shooting up his arm.

    "Pathetic," she said. "I expected better- but then, since when has the Southern Water Tribe been good for anything? Your people are a disgrace."

    "Who are you?" Kanoda asked, wincing from the injuries to both his body and his pride.

    "I am Shiyan of the Empress's Chosen," she said imperiously, "and you are my captive." She twisted Kanoda around and pulled both of his hands behind his back, binding them with a thin rope. "Come, sisters," she called to the other two warriors. "We're taking this wretch back to the fortress. The Mistress will find out what he knows."

    Shiyan drew her sword again and held it against Kanoda's back, forcing him to march in the direction she indicated. The other two Chosen fell into step beside them, and together they began to walk inland. Now Kanoda could see their faces more clearly- that strange color and scale-patterning wasn't natural, but seemed to be some kind of make-up or paint not unlike that which Water Tribe warriors had once worn into battle. Twisting his neck around, he was able to get a better look at Shiyan and realized she might actually be attractive, in a severe, sharp-featured way, without the paint- with it on, though, her visage was too inhuman to be anything other than disturbing.

    "Look forward, scum," Shiyan snapped, and Kanoda did so- not only because of her instruction, but because he'd realized that looking behind him while walking would be less than wise, and be barely avoided blundering headfirst into a tree. "We wear makeup in honor of the Dragon Empress," she said, apparently having guessed the source of his curiosity. "The dragon is the ultimate firebender, the ultimate warrior- it is for that reason that Empress Azula adopted them as her symbol. We wear the dragon-scale paint to honor that choice."

    "So you all are some sort of cult devoted to the Empress?" Kanoda asked.

    "You put it crudely, but accurately. This island was once home to an order of female warriors who patterned their appearance and behavior after Avatar Kyoshi. When the Empress was still no more than Princess Azula, she and two of her friends arrived here to test themselves against them. She was triumphant, of course, and the Kyoshi Warriors were all captured, killed, or exiled. The princess recognized in them, however, the power that a symbol can have to unite people into a cohesive, devoted fighting force. Freeing some of the captive Kyoshi Warriors in return for their loyalty, the princess used them as the core of a new order of warriors absolutely devoted to herself alone.

    “She turned Kyoshi Island- renamed Azula Island-into a training ground for these warriors, and when she became Empress we became her elite. We are the Empress's Chosen- her personal guards, messengers, and enforcers, trained in swords, knives, and hand to hand combat. Every noble family with more than one child is required to give a daughter to our order to bolster our ranks. Here we are trained from earliest childhood in order to hone our skills and our loyalties." Kanoda couldn't see Shiyan's face, but he could hear the pride ringing in every word, and could easily imagine that she was smirking haughtily. “In all the world,” she finished, “there are no finer warriors than the Chosen, and no truer servants of the Empress.”

    "You don't seem so elite to me," he said. "You think I'm a spy, but you're spilling all your secrets to me? That's not too smart a move. I think you just like to brag."

    "I'm telling you nothing that isn't already common knowledge," Shiyan said with a slight sniff. "Besides, it isn't like you're ever going to leave this island again."

    "We'll see about that," Kanoda muttered, but he was careful to keep it low enough that Shiyan couldn't hear.

    The sun was rising when they came to an open area near the middle of the island and stopped, Kanoda's eyes going wide. Standing before them was the largest building the Water Tribe boy had ever seen- a metal fortress with sheer walls and three tall spires rising from its center. The flame symbol of the Fire Empire hung on banners along its sides, done in blue rather than the usual red. A straight road led from the opposite direction from which they'd come to the fortress's gates, where it was flanked by statues of a coldly beautiful young woman holding fire in each hand. Kanoda didn't know for sure, but he guessed that they depicted Empress Azula as she'd been decades ago.

    "Impressive, isn't it?" Shiyan asked. Kanoda could only nod silently.

    They led him down to the road, and then followed it to the gates of the fortress. Two older women stood guard there, dressed in the same uniforms and face-paint as Shiyan and her companions. Kanoda idly wondered how they all told each other apart.

    "I caught a spy on the beach, sisters," his captor said. "We are taking him to the Mistress now." The guards nodded and allowed the three girls and their prisoner to enter.

    They led Kanoda down a long metal hallway decorated with tapestries depicting the glory of the Fire Empire and its Empress. All of the images showed Azula young, beautiful, and in the height of her firebending power. Occasionally they passed a door through which Kanoda caught glimpses of Chosen training, and one room in which a half-circle of young girls sat cross legged as they were lectured on the importance of their duty to the Empire.

    Finally they entered a huge chamber at the center of the fortress. It too was lined with tapestries, but at one end the wall was blank. Carved into it there was what appeared to be an oath of undying loyalty, though Kanoda didn't get a chance to look at it long and Imperial script was different enough from that used by the Water Tribe to give him a bit of trouble anyway.

    A tall woman in Chosen armor stood regarding the oath, her back to her subordinates. She wore a long black cape over her uniform, and as she slowly turned to face them Kanoda could see that her gold headpiece was far more elaborate than any he'd seen on the other Chosen, almost seeming a crown. Her face, though, was decorated with the same fearsome warpaint as he'd seen on everyone else here, and beneath it her expression was utterly devoid of compassion. She regarded him with the same disinterested disgust a person might give some small, unpleasant creature that had wandered in unexpectedly.

    "Shiyan," she said in a tone that brooked no dissent. "What have you brought here?"

    "A spy, Mistress," Shiyan said with a respectful bow, her tone far more subdued and humble than anything Kanoda had thought her capable of producing. "We captured him on the beach. He is Water Tribe."

    "The Southern Water Tribe is a broken people," the Mistress said dismissively. "But the Empress warns us to be cautious- threats could come from any direction, but if we act to eliminate them before they pose a danger they cannot conquer us." She stepped closer and studied Kanoda's face intently. "He doesn’t look like much, but if he is a spy, looks may be deceptive. Take him to the holding cells. We can interrogate him later, and discover who sent him and for what purpose. You have done well, Shiyan. Soon your training will be complete, and then you will truly be one of us."

    Beside him Kanoda felt Shiyan swell with pride, and then the girl's two companions seized his arms, and he was being dragged off towards the holding cells in a fortress controlled by a crew of incredibly skilled fanatics.

    But in the heroic legends of the Water Tribe, characters often faced such difficulties and emerged stronger from them. The Empress might be the inspiration for these so-called Chosen, but Kanoda's were the ancient heroes of his people. There didn't seem much he could do to keep from being locked up, but he vowed inwardly that they were going to have the Spirits' own task keeping him there.

    As the two young Chosen lead him into the fortresses depths, he was already tossing the rough outlines of escape plans back and forth in his mind.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------

    Well, this certainly wasn’t what Kanoda had in mind when he left home to be a hero! I mentioned in the previous Kanoda chapter that his arc was intended to in some ways parallel Sokka and Katara’s, but with twists, and the first of these is that Kanoda and Sokka both meet a female warrior on Kyoshi Island who will be extremely important to them, but while Sokka met his love interest, Kanoda has just met someone who might well be his worst enemy.

    The ever-so-charming Shiyan is arguably the fourth main character of Fall of the Fire Empire, though I put her in a different mental box from the other three because she’s an antagonist, not a protagonist. Equal parts Azula and Evil!Suki, Shiyan is probably the most straightforwardly villainous named character who’s been introduced so far, though she’d never see it that way. In truth, there’s something almost refreshing about writing Shiyan’s point of view, because of her rock-solid certainty- there are no messy shades of grey in her world, only stark blacks and whites, those who are loyal to the Empress, and those who oppose her. At the same time, this trait is what makes her- and the Chosen in general- so dangerous.

    The Chosen are one of my favorite creations from this AU, for all that they creep me out more than a little. Take some Kyoshi Warriors, add a little Azula, a pinch of the Mistborn Trilogy’s Steel Inquisitors and stir, and you get this lovely order of fanatics. Recreating the Kyoshi Warriors in her own image, a giant monument to her power and ego that also netted her some very dangerous followers, seemed such an Azula thing to do that the idea came to me quite readily, and they’ve got a key role to play in the unfolding of this story. There are lots of things I could say about the Chosen, but a couple of interesting tidbits: one, the Fire Nation tends to use lots of three different colors (red, black, gold) in its decorating, but I designed the Chosen armor (which otherwise resembles Azula’s season 3 armor) to use only black and gold with no red to make it more distinct; I also deliberately gave the Chosen (and Shiyan in particular) an overly-formal, somewhat stiff way of speaking, to reflect people who have been trained since childhood to know that only very particular ways of expressing themselves are valid. The Chosen all being female speaks more to Azula’s aesthetic preferences than anything, I think, keeping her mini-mes as homogenous and evocative of her as possible.

    We’re settling in to a particular cycle of focus chapters now; though the structure eventually breaks down, we’ll be going Jiazin-Kanoda-Tong for a while in terms of POV. Most Kanoda chapters will also come with a Shiyan section.

    -MasterGhandalf
  9. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 5: Breaking Point

    Life in the Fire Empire rose and set with the sun, and in this regard it was no different for the earthbending slaves than for the members of the governor's own household. As the sun slipped past the horizon the slaves were ordered to finish whatever project they were currently working on, and were then herded by their overseers back to their barracks to be locked in for the night.

    Tong marched along with his head bowed along with the other members of his work crew. The slave barracks rose up ahead- a solid metal structure built atop steel stilts, so that the slaves would have no access to any earth to bend while inside. Not that any of them were skilled enough to fight their firebending guards anyway, Tong thought bitterly. Even so, the Fire Empire was unwilling to take that risk.

    The guards didn't speak as they herded their captives into the barracks and slammed the door shut behind them. Words weren't necessary –all the parties involved knew the routine. Stay inside, keep quiet, and rest for the next day's work and you'll be fine. Any attempt at escape or rabble rousing would be met with swift, fiery retribution.

    Tong grabbed a bowl of the food the overseer had left for his workers off the table in the center of the barracks and sat down in a corner to eat. To say that the stuff was tasteless muck would have been to pay it an unearned compliment, but it was better than nothing and relatively nourishing. It wouldn't do for any of the earthbenders to faint from hunger on the job, after all. Still, Tong knew it was whispered that the overseers made sure that the slaves' nutrition was as unpleasant as possible. Personally, he wouldn't put it past them.

    As he ate, Tong watched his barracks-mates out of the corner of his eye. He didn't know any of them well on a personal level- the slaves were rotated around by their taskmasters to prevent them from forming any sort of personal attachments that might distract them from their work or inspire them to rebellion. But he knew their expressions and attitudes well- he saw them every day in his fellow workers, and knew them within himself as well. They were unhappy with their lot in life, and hated the Empire for taking their homes, lives, and freedom from them. But they were broken and defeated. They couldn't win and they knew it, so they didn't even bother trying to rebel.

    "Makes you sad, doesn't it?" a rough voice asked from near Tong's ear. Startled, the young man looked up from his meal and found himself face to face with an older slave he'd seen before, but never spoken to. The old man's face was weathered, his hair and beard long and scraggly, but it was his eyes that caught Tong's attention most fully. There was something in their depths he'd not seen in another slave before- something bright and keen. This man wasn't conquered- not fully.

    "What are you talking about?" Tong asked.

    "You know full well what I'm talking about, boy," the old man said. He gestured at the other slaves. "Them. They're broken, lost. This life is all they've known, and it's taken its toll on them. They don't have the will to fight any more." He lowered his voice. "We weren't meant to live like this. It wasn't always this way."

    "You know about the Earth Kingdom?" Tong asked, looking up intently. He'd heard legends about the great nation that the earthbenders had once called their own, but he'd never been able to learn anything definite about it. Everything was distorted- ask ten slaves what the Kingdom had been like, and you'd likely get ten wildly different answers. Part of Tong doubted that this man would be any different. But he was still curious to hear what he had to say.

    "I know about it," the man said. "My father lived it, and he told me stories. We were a proud people then, boy- when the Fire Nation came for us we fought, fought them for a hundred years. In the end, they only won because they cheated- a comet gave the Fire Lord power, and he used it to destroy our nation."

    "Why are you telling me this?" Tong asked. "How do you know I won't turn you in for talk like that?"

    The old man looked at him shrewdly. "Because you're young, and you haven't been broken down completely yet. Because I could tell by looking at you that you agree with me that this isn't the way things should be."

    "Well, of course it isn't," Tong said hotly. "But it doesn't matter. The war ended a hundred years ago, old man, and we lost. We can't win now. We can't even fight properly."

    "Is that really you talking, or is that what they want you to think?" The old man shook his head. "Our people could accomplish anything, once- when we had hope. Now all we hope for is to survive another day. I thought you were different, boy. Guess I was wrong." The old man got up and walked away.

    But Tong remembered his words, and as he lay in his cramped bunk later that night he found himself filled with a strange sense of shame.

    --------------------------------

    It became clear early in the next day's work shift that the taskmaster was not in a good mood.

    Tong's work crew were marched out towards a portion of the outer wall that remained unfinished under the beating heat of the sun, and once there the taskmaster launched into an extended rant about how if the slaves had actually done their job properly the wall would have been completed long ago, punctuated by small (but painful) fireblasts shot at anyone who didn't appear to be paying close enough attention. That wasn't a good sign- normally the man seemed to prefer to treat his slaves as much like animals or machinery as possible. That he was taking the time to berate them in such a manner showed that his temper seemed to be unusually thin today.

    After the taskmaster was finished speaking he formed his fire whip and cracked it over the slaves' heads. Tong and his companions hurried over to the indicated spot near where the wall currently finished and planted their feet, preparing to draw up the blocks of stone that would form the wall's core. Later on, professional artisans of Fire Nation ancestry would affix the metal plating.

    As the slaves began to pull the stone up from the ground, however, Tong got the feeling that something was wrong. He didn't know how, but he could almost feel the earth shifting beneath his feet in ways that it shouldn't, and in a flash he realized what was going to happen. Somehow the crude earthbending had disturbed something deep within the rock- and now the whole section of land they were standing on was unstable.

    "Everybody down!" he shouted, jumping back from the wall and hurling himself to the ground. The other slaves stared at him as if he'd gone mad- and then they felt the rumblings as well. They all pulled back from the wall just as the ground began to shake, and the unsteady construction cracked down the middle before collapsing on itself. Large cracks tore through the ground beneath it, and then everything went still.

    "Fools!" the taskmaster roared, hurrying forward and pulling his fire whip out of midair. "Look what you've done! Can't you people do anything right?" He cracked the whip menacingly. "What am I saying? Of course you can't!"

    "Sir, it wasn't our-" one slave began, but the taskmaster cut him off.

    "Silence!" he roared, pointing his palm at the man and shooting a blast of flame. It caught him on the back- not hard enough to kill, for the Empire was loathe to waste such a valuable resource as an enslaved earthbender, but still a burn that would leave agonizing pain and lasting scars. "Clearly you filth need to be taught a lesson. We can't have such sloppy work around here any longer."

    The taskmaster formed his fire back into a whip, feeding it so that it grew longer, thicker, and hotter than before. Raising the long tongue of fire above his head he brought it slicing down, striking slave after slave who buckled under the punishment. Tong was sickened by the man's brutality- he'd clearly been angry even before they'd arrived, and now he was taking that anger out on helpless victims.

    Tong fell to his knees as the taskmaster stood over him and prepared to bring the fire whip down. The first strike sent him falling flat to the ground, but as the pain lanced across his back he felt something snap inside. He wasn't going to take this lying down- not any more. His hands clawed into the earth, and as before he felt his senses reach down into the rocks, as though he could feel each and every piece of stone as well as the people who stood atop them. The ground here was still somewhat unstable from the brief quake, and without knowing entirely what he was doing Tong twisted it.

    The ground opened up beneath the taskmaster's feet. The firebender barely had time for a surprised yelp and a look of mingled rage and fear as he toppled backwards into the new chasm, which closed with a loud crash behind him. Tong released his grip on the ground and stumbled backwards in pain and surprise at what he'd managed to accomplish. As he released it from his control the earth rumbled again and opened up, partially disgorging its victim.

    The taskmaster was very clearly dead, his armor having been crushed around him by the pressure. His eyes were still open, and the look on his face could only be described as sheer terror. To his surprise, Tong felt his insides twist at the sickening sight. He felt no pity for the ruthless firebender who had made his life torment ever since he'd been assigned to Tong's work crew, but the reality was inescapable that he'd just killed a man without even knowing how. That in and of itself was somehow horrifying. Slowly he raised his hands in front of him, staring at them in shock, uncertain of how to process that he had such power, and what he’d just used it to do.

    Slowly, the reality dawned on him, and with it came a different kind of horror. The taskmaster was dead, and Tong had killed him. There was no salvation or mercy for him now.

    The other members of the work crew were stumbling forward now, poking the taskmaster's body and whispering excitedly among themselves. Finally one of them turned to Tong. "He's dead," the man said in stunned disbelief. "How'd you do it, anyway?"

    "I don't know," Tong said thickly.

    "Come on, you've got to know what you did. Tell us!"

    "I told you- I don't know! I was just so angry at him, and somehow I was able to make the earth take him." Tong pulled himself to his feet and stumbled away. The burns on his back still seared with pain and his head was a daze- he thought he was going to fall, but at the last moment someone propped him up. Looking up, he saw the old man he'd spoken to the night before.

    "You've got to get out of here, boy!" he snapped, reaching Tong through the haze.

    "Get out of here?" Tong asked, still caught in a daze and unable to fully process what was happening.

    The old man shook his head in disgust, then spoke, his words crystallizing the fears that had already begun to grow in Tong’s own mind. "You killed one of them! Do you think they'll just take that lying down? Run, now, before more of them get here!"

    "Run," Tong said thickly. "Where would I run to?" He’d been a slave for almost all of his life; as much as he hated it, he knew no other reality.

    "I don't know!" The old man said in an exasperated tone. "Anywhere but here, boy. Just run, and don't look back. I'll try to slow them down, but they'll make short work of me."

    "Why would you do that?" Tong asked.

    "Boy, raw talent like you just showed is unlike anything I've ever seen. You could do some good in this world if you survive- not like an old, used-up dirt shifter like me. Besides, between the two of us maybe we could inspire the rest of these people- our people- to stand up for themselves." He looked over his shoulder. "They're coming. Run, now!"

    Tong looked in the direction the old man had been and saw guards hurrying over the ground, attracted by the commotion. One of them already held a fireball in one hand. He turned to run, then stopped and looked at the old man. "Thank you," he said.

    "Good luck to you, too. Now run!" The older earthbender turned and began to walk towards the coming guards.

    Tong ran, and though the sounds of the old man’s final stand soon echoed behind him, he didn’t look back.

    ---------------------------------------------

    And so, we see Tong driven to take a stand for the first time in his adult life, and in the process stumble across his true potential for the first time as well. He’s roughly as strong in raw earthbending potential as Toph was, and instinctively figured out the same trick she uses for reading vibrations in the earth (though seeing as he’s lacked the opportunity to train with badger-moles, as well as blindness to inspire him to get as good as possible with it, to say his version of the ability is far cruder and less directed would be a massive understatement). There’s no turning back for him, now, in any case- if the guards catch him, he’ll be executed as an example. Though it certainly took a push, Tong has now joined Kanoda in walking the hero’s path. I wonder how long it’ll take Jiazin to catch up to them…

    Tong’s disgust with killing is something that I initially didn’t plan, but felt right for where I wanted to go with the character- he’s seen power abused his whole life (and often been the subject of that abuse) and now that he’s starting to discover his own power, there is at least some part of him that naturally fears abusing it himself (though at this point that’s still very subconscious- he’s barely processed what he’s just done, after all). It’s also a sign that, in spite of everything that’s been done to him or that he’s seen done, he’s still a decent person somewhere inside.

    The old man was originally intended to be a canon character, but I quickly scrapped the idea as it became apparent that nobody really felt like they fit right. Besides, I’ve got a much more significant role for a canon character coming up in several chapters, and I certainly wouldn’t want to lessen the impact of that. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, here…

    -MasterGhandalf
  10. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 6: The Center of the World

    Jiazin sat on the floor of her cabin aboard the High Minister's ship, legs crossed. Her sword lay unsheathed across her lap, the steel blade reflecting light from the row of candles that stood just behind it. She studied the weapon intently, using it as a visual guide to focusing her will into a tool every bit as sharp and intense. Slowly she breathed in and out, and as she did so the candles flared brightly for an instant before returning to their original state.

    This was a simple drill, one that Jiazin had learned as a child, and it brought her a measure of relaxation and allowed her to order her thoughts. She'd been on this ship for more than two weeks now, and later today they would be making port at the Capital- and as of yet nothing about her mission had become clear. She had dinner with Qing Xi most evenings, and the High Minister seemed intent on quizzing her about her own history and her general knowledge of the Empire and its leader, but whenever she tried to ask questions about why he had traveled all the way to Long Du Shi to find her, he would abruptly change the topic of conversation. It had been maddening at first, but Jiazin had come to recognize that she wasn't going to get anything out of the man he didn't intend to give away.

    The crew was of little help. Jiazin was accustomed to a degree of deference, particularly from servants whom she'd just given a task, but Qing Xi's attendants seemed determined to stay at arms' length from the nobility to what seemed to her an unusual extent. They were always extremely polite and offered to assist her in whatever manner they could imagine, but when she tried to talk with them about their master in an effort to learn more about the man, they always found an excuse to hurry away.

    The candlelight seemed to be going unusually dim, and Jiazin realized that she'd been letting her attention wander. Forming her will again into the sharp, bright sword she focused back on the flames and breathed in and out deeply. The light brightened as the small flames grew stronger again, and Jiazin gave a small sigh and relaxed. It was then that she realized the ship had stopped moving.

    She stood and lifted her sword, studying the blade for a moment longer before sheathing it at her side. After a few moments a knock sounded on her door. "My lady," the voice of one of the sailors said from the other side, "the High Minister requests your presence on the deck. We've arrived."

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The ship was moving again as Jiazin climbed to the top deck. She wondered at that- why would they still be sailing if they'd docked?- but then the reason became apparent. She'd forgotten that the Capital's harbor was blocked off by an iron wall and great, barred gate, and the High Minister's ship had to prove its identity before it would be allowed to pass. Statues of the great Fire Lords whose lives had gone into the creation of the Fire Empire- Sozin, Azulon, Ozai- stood atop the wall, which itself was painted with images of flame-breathing dragons to honor the Empress. The craftsmanship of the statues was exquisite- Jiazin could almost feel their stone eyes boring into her, and she shivered.

    The High Minister's litter sat near the prow, and Jiazin tore her eyes away from the statues as she walked over to stand next to it. The shadowed figure within- she still hadn't seen his face- nodded as she approached. "Jiazin, excellent," he said. "I wanted you to see this. Behold the greatest city in the world- the bright sun around which all else revolves."

    The sea gates were completely open now, and soon the ship had passed through. The Capital of the Fire Empire was before them, and though Jiazin had seen it once before when she was a child, it was still a sight that took her breath away.

    The core of the city was built in the crater of a dormant volcano that rose into the air about a mile from the shore. That, Jiazin knew, was where the most important buildings were located, including the Empress's palace. The Capital had long ago outgrown such restrictions, however, and now spread out around the volcano on all sides. There was the port district where the ship was now headed, of course, but far beyond that were homes and businesses of a city that was second in all of history only to Ba Sing Se in its prime. Most of the buildings had the ornate red and gold styling favored in the Fire Empire, but around the edges of the city could be seen vast smokestacks belching fumes into the air- the only visible sign of the industry that had allowed the Fire Nation to face and defeat all of the other old nations during the War, and continued strengthening the Empire to this day.

    "Magnificent, isn't it?" Qing Xi asked.

    "It is," Jiazin replied. "I saw it once before, but you don't really remember the majesty of it unless it's right in front of you. You just can't.”

    "Indeed." The High Minister sat silent and still as he watched the city approach.

    "So, now that we've arrived, are you going to tell me about why you need me?" Jiazin finally asked. "It seems like a good time for that."

    "Be patient, Jiazin," Qing Xi said soothingly. "You will learn everything in time. First we must go to the palace, and I must make my report to the Empress. After that, she will summon you at her leisure."

    "But if it was the Empress who wanted me in the first place, why wouldn't she want to see me immediately?" Jiazin was becoming increasingly perplexed by this entire situation.

    Qing Xi's silhouette turned towards her, and she could sense that he was displeased. "The Dragon Empress," he said sternly, "is ancient, highly intelligent, and royal- three things that allow for a measure of eccentricity. Do not question her actions here, and know that whatever she does, there is a reason for it that will be made clear in time. Attempt to force her hand, and the consequences could be most unpleasant- for us both. Do you understand me?"-----

    "Yes, sir," Jiazin said with a slight bow. The High Minister's tone brooked no argument.

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    As the ship pulled into the dock and lowered its boarding ramp, Jiazin saw that two rows of guards in red and gold armor that concealed all of their features stood waiting for them, along with another litter. She looked curiously past the guards to see if any of the Empress's Chosen were in attendance- she'd often wanted to meet one of them, and had only avoided becoming a member of their order herself on account of being an only child- but none were there. Apparently even the High Minister of the Fire Empire didn't merit a Chosen escort.

    Qing Xi's servants lifted him up and bore him down the ramp, and Jiazin followed close behind. When they reached the bottom, one of the guards stepped forward and opened the curtain on the second litter. Jiazin looked to the High Minister, and he nodded sharply once. Taking that as a signal, she climbed into the empty litter and seated herself with dignity appropriate to someone of her station. The curtain closed in front of her, and the world seemed to disappear behind a red haze. Then more servants knelt and lifted the litter onto their shoulders, and they began to follow Qing Xi into the city.

    It was an unusual experience. Jiazin was used to being separated from the people by guards or the iron walls of the train, but this was something different still. Riding in the litters was a privilege reserved for royalty and those favored by royalty, such as the High Minister, and traveling in this way gave her a feeling that she was above and separate from the rest of this city on some fundamental level. There was a part of her that enjoyed the feeling, and a part that found it unsettling.

    They passed down the street past rows of ornate buildings, and the people they saw paused to point and stare. Even here, apparently, it wasn't an everyday occurrence for the High Minister and his entourage to pass by. In Long Du Shi Jiazin had sometimes waved to people when they turned out to see her family, but here doing so felt inappropriate somehow. So she sat perfectly still, remembering the lessons her tutors had drilled into her about proper grace and poise for her station.

    They were carried through the city for what felt like hours, but the bearers didn't seem to tire. Finally the rose up the steep and winding path up the volcano, and descended into the inner city within the crater.

    Here the buildings were far more ornate, if such were possible, and a respectful distance apart. Any one of these could have been Jiazin's father's palace in Long Du Shi- this was the home of high nobility alone. There were still people watching them here, but they had more of a casual air about them, and they didn't point or gawk. They, at least, saw Qing Xi on a semi-regular basis.

    In the center of everything towered the one structure that demanded Jiazin's complete attention- the Empress's Palace. Designed to resemble a rising flame, the palace consisted of three main towers rising in the center of a larger complex. The litters made straight for it, and Jiazin felt deeply ingrained awe rising in her soul. This was the home of the Empress, the heart of the Fire Empire- on her previous visit to the Capital, she had never come so close. Even her father, one of the most important nobles in the Empire, had only met to the Dragon Empress on a handful of occasions, and he never spoke of them to his family.

    Finally they came to a halt in front of the palace's great doors, and the bearers lowered the litters to the ground. Jiazin rose and stepped out of hers, and as her feet touched the ground for the first time in hours, she saw that Qing Xi had finally done the same. Her first clear look at the High Minister was underwhelming- he was a slender middle-aged man of average height with grey hair and a short, neatly-trimmed beard, dressed in red robes trimmed with gold. Jiazin wasn't sure why, but from the way he hid she'd expected something a bit more exotic. On reflection, she realized that that was probably why he did it- to build up an aura of mystery and power about himself that his true features were simply too ordinary to convey.

    He walked up the palace steps, and Jiazin kept pace a step behind him. Atop the stairs two men in ornate armor waited. One of them was unfamiliar- he was clean-shaven and had a stern, weather-beaten face. The other Jiazin knew, though neither well nor pleasantly. Those thick, brutal features and perpetual scowl belonged to High Admiral Yuan.

    "Jiazin," Qing Xi said politely, "allow me to introduce two of my colleagues to you- High Admiral Yuan and High General Xia. They are the supreme authorities of our navy and army, and together with the Mistress of the Chosen we report directly to the Empress. Gentlemen, this is Lady Jiazin, the one I went to Long Du Shi to retrieve."

    "I am honored to make the High General's acquaintance," Jiazin said with a polite bow. "The High Admiral and I know each other already, though not well."

    "Ah, of course," Qing Xi said. "High Admiral Yuan is often in Long Du Shi, after all."

    "That's right," the High Admiral said with a slight sneer. "I've been pestering that weasel Yan Li for years to put better docks together for my warships, and he hasn't gotten around to it yet. I'm getting tired of waiting. He may be governor of a great city, but he needs to learn that when the leader of the Fire Navy makes demands, people who know what’s good for them answer."

    Jiazin drew her sword halfway from its sheath. "You may be High Admiral," she hissed, "but if you insult my father again in front of me, I'll challenge you here and now."

    Yuan barked a laugh. "Little girl has claws, after all! I've half a mind to take you up on that one!"

    "No," the High General said in a surprisingly quiet voice. "You are one of the highest officers of this Empire, Yuan- it is beneath you to bait the girl like that, and you know it."

    "Save your breath, Xia," the High Admiral said. "We both know you'd challenge me in a heartbeat if the Empress hadn't forbidden it. I'll say what I want, to who I want."

    "Unfortunately, High Admiral," Qing Xi said, "now isn't the time. I must have Jiazin taken to her quarters, and then the Empress is expecting me. I'd hate to have to tell her I was detained here to settle your quarrelling." Though he didn't say it, the threat hung on the air.

    "Fine," Yuan said dismissively. "I'll not say another word against the girl's father or the High General. Now the, I've got business of my own to take care of." With a swirl of his cloak he turned and stalked off.

    Jiazin slid her sword back into its sheath. "Why is he so… angry?" she asked the High Minister softly.

    It was High General Xia who answered. "Yuan is the grandson of someone you may have heard of from your history studies- Admiral Zhao, the Scourge of the North. After Zhao's defeat of the Northern Water Tribe, he became a legend, but by the time Yuan entered the military, there were no more great threats to face. He desperately wants out of his grandfather's shadow, but is angry that there isn't a path to easy glory that he can find. So he takes it out on everyone he meets- normally myself. I do my best to return the favor." Xia shook his head. “Yuan is a difficult man to work with, but the Empress favors the House of Zhao highly, and so we all must learn to live with him.”

    "Thank you for that explanation of your rivalry," Qing Xi said rather tersely, "but I really must be going. Come, Jiazin." He marched forward and Jiazin hurried to stay close behind, and after two servants opened the doors they entered the palace itself.

    It resembled her home in Long Du Shi, but grander. The walls were a dark gold color, and tapestries depicting the glorious history of the Fire Nation lined the walls. Many of them seemed to depict the Empress in her prime, smiling coldly as she called down lightning and blue fire against the Empire's enemies. The High Minister kept going without giving these a second glance, so Jiazin wasn't able to look for as long as she would have liked.

    Finally they came to another doorway emblazoned with the Imperial seal and guarded by a stern-looking woman in the black armor and gold face paint of the Empress's Chosen. Next to her easy, deadly grace Jiazin found herself feeling rather clumsy and unremarkable, an unusual feeling for the high-born girl. Looking away from the fearsome warrior, she found that Qing Xi was regarding her intentlyr. "I must report to the Empress now," he said. He clapped his hands once and two servants hurried up. "These will show you to the guest room where you will stay until the Empress sends for you." Turning away from her, he nodded at the Chosen and passed through the door she guarded.

    The servants bowed respectfully to Jiazin and led her down another hallway, lined by different tapestries. Finally they arrived at an open door and motioned Jiazin through it. Inside was a large room dominated by an enormous bed, the walls lined with various pieces of furniture including a mirror, desk, and wardrobe. "Your things are being brought from your ship and will be here soon, my lady," one of the servants said. "Is there anything else you need?"

    "Not now," Jiazin replied, and waved the servant away. With a weary sigh she collapsed on the bed, glad to be finally back on dry land again. She didn't know when the Empress would summon her- it could be days or hours. Taking a seat cross-legged on the bed, she began to marshal her thoughts for the coming encounter with the ruler of the Fire Empire, when her eyes fell on a small tapestry that hung beside the door. It depicted a girl about Jiazin’s own age or a little younger clad in a utilitarian but well-made red uniform, holding a blue flame in front of her with one hand and with a mirthless smile playing across her lips. This, the governor’s daughter realized with a slight shock, was Azula, depicted younger than Jiazin had ever seen her, as young as she must have been on the day she set out to capture the Avatar. Her smile and coolly appraising stare were unsettling, and Jiazin glanced away from them, only to catch sight of her own reflection in the mirror. Her breath caught in her throat.

    From the color of their eyes to the length of their hair, she and the future Empress bore a noticeable resemblance to one another. They weren’t identical, by any means, but still… Jiazin stood and held herself in a similar formal pose, and realized that if she and the young Azula stood side-by-side, it might be entirely possible for a stranger to mistake them for sisters.

    Jiazin doubted that every guest room in the palace was decorated with such an image. Someone must have wanted her to see this portrait, and whatever the reason, it was deeply disquieting, even more than the uncanny resemblance itself. Head swimming, she dropped down to the bed once again, leaned her head back, and felt it bump against something hard. Turning over, she saw that a scroll case lay on the pillow.

    Curious, her sense of unease growing, she opened it up and unfurled the scroll on the bed. Igniting a small flame in one hand, she bent over the paper to read- and pulled back, shocked. It was addressed to her- of that there could be no doubt. And its words sent chills down her spine.

    JIAZIN, the scroll began, YOU HAVE BEEN BETRAYED.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Well, that wasn’t ominous or anything! It should be pretty obvious by now (if it wasn’t from the moment QX told her he needed her help to save the Fire Empire) that someone is trying to manipulate Jiazin, possibly several someones. It’ll be a while before we find out for sure what’s really going on here (though I always enjoy watching people guess).

    The Capital, of course, is the same city as it is in the series, albeit a hundred years and one conquered world later. The city has grown quite a bit larger in the time being, and the Great Gates of Azulon got a full-fledged seawall built, but the palace and the central city inside the caldera is much the same.

    Yuan and Xia were two characters I created early in the process of developing FotFE, and naturally played off each other. Xia is a somewhat Rommel-esque figure, a basically decent man who serves a tyrannical regime out of patriotic duty even while he has a certain degree of distaste for it (and for some of the people he has to work with), while Yuan is a nasty little tyrant with family issues and a serious temper. I’m not sure when exactly I decided to make him a descendant of Zhao, but it was early in the process; it just seemed to fit so well with the character as I envisioned him, as well as providing a nice connection to canon (and it nicely explains his personality- living in his grandfather’s shadow his whole life, Yuan is literally trying to out-Zhao Zhao!). Both of these guys are going to have bigger roles down the line, but introducing them to Jiazin provided a good way to introduce them to the reader as well.

    Anyone catch the running theme in the names of Azula’s closest lieutenants? Hint: think historical Chinese dynasties.

    -MasterGhandalf
  11. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 7: Water Tribe Heroics

    Kanoda sighed as he looked around his small cell for what felt like the thousandth time that day. At least, it felt like it had been a day since he'd been captured, and a Chosen novice had brought him food twice, but his cell had no windows and without the sun, moon, and stars he couldn't mark time with any precision. His prison did have the effect of making time seem to slow, though- with its featureless metal walls and barred door looking out into a corridor of other (empty) cells, it was easily the most boring place he'd ever been.

    There were no permanent guards down here, even. Of course, Kanoda was the only prisoner, and even if he did somehow manage to get out, he’d have to make it through the upper fortress, which was full of Chosen. His odds of sneaking through there seemed abysmal; between his clothing, his skin tone, and his gender, he’d stick out like a sore thumb up there.

    In spite of his predicament, Kanoda wasn't idle. While he sat dejectedly against one of the walls, his mind was whirling as he raked through his memory, trying to remember what the great heroes of the Water Tribe would do in similar situations. None of the heroic legends involved a warrior trapped in the fortress of a bunch of crazy women in face-paint, but there were plenty of stories about warriors faced with overwhelming odds.

    Each of the four Nations, Kanoda's grandfather had told him, had its own strengths. Fire was passionate and driven, and the people of the Fire Nation used this to achieve greatness. Earth was stubborn and unmoving, not shifting an inch once a stance was taken. Air was free and unbound, and the Air Nomads had been a creative and carefree people. Water, though… water was adaptable, and could go from a raging torrent to a still sea to a giant iceberg and back again with ease. The heroes Kanoda knew were all great warriors, but when strength failed they all knew that cunning might succeed.

    And so, as he sat alone in his cell, the young hunter pulled a plan together.

    A shadow fell across him suddenly, and Kanoda looked up to see one of the younger girls who'd been with Shiyan- he thought her name was Cheng, but he wasn't completely sure on that- standing there, with a metal bowl in one hand. He allowed himself a slight smile. Now things could get moving.

    "Dinner," the young Chosen said stiffly. Removing the key from her armor, she opened the cell door and scooted the bowl inside. Kanoda picked it up and quickly began to eat- sure, the stuff was hardly sea prunes, but it was better than nothing and he needed to keep up his strength. Cheng watched him with barely concealed disgust. "Your eating habits are atrocious," she muttered. "The Water Tribes really are uncultured savages."

    "You know, it's not like I've got a whole lot of choice in the matter," Kanoda replied. "You can't really do a whole lot with prison food besides slop it on in."

    "You do have a point," Cheng admitted. "But that doesn't mean I have to watch." With a scowl she turned away and waited until Kanoda said that he was finished. Turning back around, she opened the cell door again and made to retrieve the bowl.

    The prisoner was on her before she could react, grabbing both of her arms and pinning them against her sides as he knocked her to the floor. Unfortunately for Kanoda, this wasn't enough to disable even a novice Chosen, a fact which she proved by pulling her legs back and then snapping them forward, her knees impacting quite forcefully on a region he held in rather high personal regard. Kanoda released her and fell back, quietly moaning as he collapsed to the floor. Cheng smirked and picked up the bowl.

    "Pathetic," she said. "You really thought you could defeat me so easily? I've trained all my life to be the best warrior possible, and you're just a savage."

    Kanoda winced and looked up at her. "But you're not as good as Shiyan, are you?" he asked, silently praying to Moon and Ocean that his instincts about the older Chosen and her relationship to her fellows were right.

    "No," Cheng admitted softly. Realizing what she said, she snapped her painted face into a scowl and spun around, heading back towards the door.

    "I mean, really- she gets all the glory from capturing the "dangerous spy" and you just get stuck with guard duty? You were with her too! How does that make you feel?"

    "My feelings are not to be discussed with the likes of you," Cheng snapped. "This conversation is over."

    "That's too bad," Kanoda said, feigning nonchalance. "Because if you stick around, I might be able to tell you something that even Shiyan doesn't know- something very important."

    Cheng paused. "Why would you do that? You have no interest in helping me."

    Kanoda shrugged. "Not really. But I don't want to be raked over the coals by your interrogators- or whatever it is they do to people who don't talk- so if I could just get the whole thing over quickly and without the whole torturing part."

    "I suppose that makes sense," Cheng admitted. "But what could you possibly know that would be of value to me? I think you're just trying to waste my time."

    "You really think that the Avatar is just a waste of time?"

    Cheng froze and slowly turned around- the stunned expression on her face was priceless. "What did you say?" she whispered.

    "The Avatar- you know, master of all elements, person responsible for maintaining balance. I'm sure you've heard of him." Kanoda's tone was nonchalant, but inside he was taut as a ceremonial drum- if the Chosen girl didn't buy this, it was back to square one.

    "I know who the Avatar is!" Cheng snapped viciously. "The current Avatar is imprisoned underneath the Imperial Palace, guarded day and night- and he's an old, weak man by now anyway. What could you know about him?"

    "Well, maybe your Empress wants you to think that he's still under lock and key," Kanoda said, "but what if she's wrong? The old Avatar's been dead for years now- and we Water Tribe savages know that, because he's been reborn into our tribe. Water's the next element in the Avatar Cycle, after all. He's about five now, but he bends like an old master. It's really something to see."

    "Impossible," Cheng breathed.

    "Yeah," Kanoda said. "The greatest threat your Empire will ever face, and it's right under your noses. But now I'm telling you, and that gets me out of a torture session and you get to see the expression on Shiyan's face."

    "This is too easy," Cheng said. "You wouldn't sell out the Avatar after just a day in a prison cell."

    "Well, it's not just the prison cell," Kanoda admitted. "I've already lost family to the Empire, and I know you can't win. I will want your Mistress to promise not to hurt my mother and grandfather when you hit the village to get the Avatar- and I won't tell you where it is until she promises. Sound fair?"

    "I need proof," Cheng said.

    "I have proof, actually- only it's not on me. Out on my ship I've got written instructions from my tribal leaders which explicitly mention the Avatar. You were right all along- I am a spy."

    "I still think you're lying."

    Kanoda looked her straight on. "But can you afford to risk it?"

    Cheng looked torn, then finally shook her head. "No. Tell me where these instructions are, so that I can retrieve them."

    "Well, you see the hard part here is that only I can find them. They're hidden pretty well, and with just instructions you'd probably miss them. You need me to show you the way."

    "How do I know this isn't an escape attempt?"

    Kanoda winced. "You beat me once. You think I'm dumb enough to try again?"

    Cheng drew her sword. "Up," she commanded. "We're going out to the shore- try to escape and you'll get skewered. Understand?"

    "Yes, ma'am," Kanoda said without a trace of irony. He stood and followed Cheng from the cell.

    There were no other Chosen nearby, and as he’d thought, the cells were all empty. Apparently they didn't get too many troublemakers around here, which made sense considering that the Chosen themselves would be rather off-putting to any potential malcontent, and the impression Kanoda’d gotten was that there weren’t many non-Chosen around here in the first place. Rather than going back up into the main body of the fortress, however, they continued down the hallway until they came to a large steel door which Cheng pushed open. Beyond was what appeared to be a dark tunnel.

    "In," Cheng ordered, gesturing with her sword. "I don't want to have to explain to my sisters what you're doing out until we have something concrete to show them."

    Kanoda raised his hands in mock surrender and hurried into the darkness, the Chosen girl following close behind him. They proceeded down the tunnel for some time, the only sounds their footfalls and breath, until finally the ground began to rise. Cheng grabbed Kanoda and pulled him back, and then went forward herself and pressed a shoulder against the wall. It slid open, and beyond the hidden door was an empty beach.

    "Come," Cheng commanded after they were both out and she slid the door shut behind her. "The beach your boat was left on is this way." She led him for what felt like a mile around the shore, until at last they came to the spot where Kanoda had run ashore two nights ago. That boat was his escape route, but first he needed to get the Chosen off his back- a task easier said than done by far.

    "Get aboard," Cheng said. "Don't think about casting off- I'll be right behind you."

    "Wouldn't dream of it," Kanoda said, pulling himself aboard his vessel with Cheng right behind him.

    "Now then- find me the orders from your leaders. You had better not be lying, savage."

    Kanoda made a show of searching around the deck, until at last he reached underneath the mast and pulled out the object he'd truly come here to retrieve. He wasn't as good a shot with it as some, but it was still his best shot at getting out of this mess. "Found it!" he called out.

    Cheng hurried over, but before she could get far Kanoda spun around and pulled his boomerang back behind his head and let it fly. The traditional weapon spun past Cheng's head and off into the distance, and she snorted in disgust.

    "If you're going to betray me," she said coldly, "at least make some effort. That was truly pitiful- you didn't even come close to hit-" she was cut off suddenly as the boomerang came spinning back towards its owner and took her in the back of the head. She fell in an unconscious heap.

    "I may not be a highly trained elite warrior like you," Kanoda said conversationally as he picked Cheng up and tossed her onto the shore, "but that doesn't mean you can guess every trick up my sleeve." Before the Chosen could wake up, Kanoda retrieved his boomerang and pushed his boat off the shore, and then began to sail away from Empress Island as quickly as the small vessel would carry him.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    "Unacceptable," the Mistress said, and Cheng hung her head dejectedly. Shiyan, standing off to the side, was furious. She had captured the Water Tribe spy by herself, and then the younger trainee just came along and ruined everything. How could she be so foolish!

    "I'm sorry, Mistress," Cheng said, absently nursing the back of her head. "He said he could tell me about the Avatar, but he tricked me- he had a weapon I've never seen before, that flew in a curve! There was nothing I could have done."

    "Wrong. You could have reported your information to me immediately, and then let your sisters ascertain the truth of them. You underestimated your enemy and fell into his clumsy trap. These are unacceptable failings in my eyes, and in the eyes of the Empress." The Mistress's eyes bored into Cheng's. "And what is worse- you allowed the Water Tribe spy to escape. I am more certain now than ever that he is working towards our destruction."

    The commander of the Chosen then turned her steely gaze to Shiyan. "Do not think yourself blameless in this, sister. You were assigned to be Cheng's mentor- you should have taught her better, or at least exercised better control over her."

    Shiyan knew better than to protest the Mistress's words. "Name your punishment," she said with her head bowed. "I will accept it."

    "Punishment?" the Mistress asked. "The order still has need of you. The spy has escaped- he must be recaptured and returned here that we may learn his true purpose. I am putting that in your hands, Shiyan. You and Cheng will pursue the boy and capture him. Succeed, and you will be promoted to full Chosen status and Cheng's record will be wiped clean. Fail and we will be forced to enact heavy consequences on you both." And you will never be one of us. The words weren't spoken aloud, but they didn't need to be.

    "I understand, Mistress," Shiyan said. "Cheng underestimated the enemy. We know better know. We will return with the spy in chains." She motioned for Cheng. "Come, sister. We must prepare."

    Shiyan stalked out of the audience chamber, the younger girl hurrying to keep up. Clearly the Water Tribe boy was more than the fool he'd seemed when they last met, but she knew better than to fall to his tricks. He might have been able to trick a thirteen year old girl who'd never been off the island since she was an infant, but Shiyan knew that she was both more intelligent and more skilled than Cheng. All of her masters agreed that she was one of the best they'd ever trained.

    Empress Azula in her youth had never let anything stand between herself and her goal. Shiyan was Chosen, and could do no less.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Well, Kanoda should be thanking his lucky stars for the fact that the Chosen don’t actually hold prisoners in their fortress very often, and for the fact that a naïve thirteen year old is still naïve even with the best hand-to-hand combat training in the Fire Empire. Cheng may be an elite warrior-in-training, but she has practically zero life experience outside of a carefully controlled training environment, and in this case Kanoda was able to use that to his advantage. Of course, Kanoda may have escaped, but now he has the much more dangerous Shiyan on his trail.

    Cheng was originally intended as a bit part, just someone to help facilitate Kanoda’s escape. However, it quickly became apparent that her need for redemption in her sisters’ eyes would keep her in the story, and she provides a Chosen character who is a marked contrast to the ruthless Shiyan. Cheng is someone who, had she lived under other circumstances, would likely have not even been a warrior- she’s not really cut out for this sort of thing, but thanks to a lifetime of indoctrination, she can’t really imagine any other path for herself now. She’s basically stuck trying to prove herself in a career she should never have been a part of in the first place, and I think deep down she’s probably painfully aware of that fact. I have to admit, I do kind of feel sorry for her, but it’s a good thing for Kanoda, since her insecurities and lack of real life-experience made her easy to trick.

    Next up is another Tong chapter, where Tong is still trying to make his escape, and one of the most evil characters in this entire fic is introduced.

    -MasterGhandalf

  12. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 8: The Slave Hunter

    Tong ran from the scene of his rebellion and didn't look back. His body seemed to be moving of its own accord now- certainly his thoughts were too much of a whirl for him to consciously be in control. It was still impossible to move away from the fact that he had killed a man- though he hated the taskmaster and like many slaves had fantasized about killing firebenders before; the act itself was something different.

    From behind he could hear the shouts of the soldiers and the other slaves, and sounds of a struggle. Tong wondered what was going to happen to the old man- the taskmasters didn't kill earthbending slaves often, but that was out of practicality rather than compassion. Anyone they caught in the act of deliberate rebellion would be punished terribly. For a moment Tong considered looking back, but the part of him that had taken over his body seemed to think that would be unwise. He kept running without a backward glance.

    He left the immediate environs of Long Du Shi behind and passed into an area of forested hills. The earthbender had lived his whole life in the city and he wanted to stop and marvel at his surroundings, but a voice in the back of his head told him that would be very unwise- he was still too close to the scene of his crime, and no doubt soldiers were in pursuit. If he stopped now they would catch him.

    The trees made running more difficult. Tong was in excellent shape as a result of hard labor and hadn't yet begun to tire, but the unfamiliar terrain meant that he had to make a conscious effort to dodge around obstacles and avoid tripping on rocks and vines. He could hear distant voices behind him now, and coming closer- the soldiers. After a few more minutes the voices were replaced by the hissing of flames and the smell of smoke. Apparently the firebenders were burning a path for themselves through the trees, rather than get hung up as Tong was.

    That wouldn't do at all. At this rate, even if the soldiers themselves didn't catch up to Tong, the fire would either burn him or smoke him out. No doubt that had been their intent, but the escaped slave had no intention of dying here or going back to face torment- especially after the old man's sacrifice.

    Dropping to one knee, Tong placed a hand on the ground and focused, trying to recapture the same feeling he'd experienced just before the taskmaster had died, when he'd felt the earth almost as an extension of his own body. At first there was nothing- and then, for just an instant, he could feel the vibrations in the ground and from them form a picture of his pursuers. Acting quickly before the sensation could fade, he performed the one earthbending move he knew he could work alone with any degree of accuracy.

    Immediately in front of the Imperial soldiers a wall of stone sprang into being. Tong could feel them falling back in surprise as the rock blocked their fireblasts and sent them stumbling. He felt the earth-sense fading, but before it was completely gone he pulled on the earth again and sent the wall tumbling back, burying the soldiers in rubble and leaving a large crack in the ground where it had stood. That wouldn't hold them for long, but it would buy him some time.

    Quickly the slave scrambled back to his feet and started running again. He passed through more of the forested hills, but as exhaustion was finally starting to reach him the plant life came to an abrupt end. Tong kept running a short distance more and then stopped short. The land here was dry and barren, and immediately before him was a deep, dark lake.

    Tong collapsed to his knees, panting heavily. Now that he'd stopped it was finally registering to him just how tired his body was, and he didn't even want to know how far he'd run- only whether or not it was far enough. He devoutly hoped so, because even if the lake hadn't been here he didn't think he had the strength to go much farther.

    "It's over, boy," a deep voice growled. Tong rose to his feet and spun around in surprise, only to find himself face to face with a group of a half-dozen firebending soldiers. Five of them wore the fearsome skull-masks of their elite rank, but the one who had spoken had his mask off and was rubbing sweat from his forehead. "You lead us a merry chase, but it's over now," he repeated. "Come along quietly, if you know what's good for you. They want you alive as an example, but if you try to fight I can do plenty of things you won't like but won't ruin your usefulness."

    "Sorry," Tong replied, "but I really don't think I've got anything left to lose." Marshaling what remained of his strength, he planted himself firmly on the ground and heaved. A wave of earth shot towards the soldiers, but by the time it reached them it did little more than rock them slightly.

    "You shouldn't have done that," the officer said, shaking his head in a mockery of fatherly concern. He raised one hand and summoned a small flame into it. "Time for some real discipline, boy."

    He thrust his hand forward, preparing to throw the fire and inflict what would no doubt be a very painful burn- painful, but not lethal, since Tong would be wanted alive for his execution. Suddenly his arm halted, and Tong wondered why- and then he saw the equally confused expression on the officer's face. A slight groan escaped the man's lips, and he collapsed face-first onto the ground. An arrow was lodged in his back.

    "What in the names of the spirits?" One of the other soldiers gasped out, and the remaining five spun in different directions, summoning fire and looking for the source of the attack. Mocking laughter rang out, and Tong raised his head to stare in the direction of the sound.

    A person in drab green and brown clothing stood on top of a rise, a bow with arrow nocked held in his hands. Behind this archer were several other warriors, all dressed similarly and armed with the same weapons. The firebenders raised their hands and shot blasts of flame at their opponents, but the mysterious warriors dodged easily and returned fire. Four firebenders fell dead, arrows sticking out of the weak points of their armor. The final soldier fled back into the trees.

    The archers climbed down from the rocks to stand over Tong. The one who had fired first bent down and helped him to his feet. "Who are you people?" the earthbender asked thickly.

    "Hold it," one of the other warriors said. "We don't know who he is- he could be a spy sent by the Empire to learn where we're hiding. Don't tell him anything until you're sure."

    "He's an earthbender," the archer holding Tong up said, and he was surprised that the voice was female. He turned his head and looked at her more closely- her hair was short and her face dirty, but now that he knew she was a girl he could see it. "Even if he was loyal to the Empire- and have you ever heard of a slave who didn't hate his master?- there's still the little fact that they wouldn't trust him with anything important. Besides, look at the shape he's in. He's been beat up pretty bad, and he looks like he's about to faint."

    "Tong," he gasped out. "My name's Tong."

    "I'm Chaiy," the girl said. "We're rebels, Tong- like you, apparently."

    "All right," the other rebel said crossly. "You make a pretty good argument, but I still think we should blindfold him before we take him home."

    "I was going to do that already, Yan," Chai said rather crossly. "I'm not that stupid, after all. You can't be too careful in this place." The one called Yan pulled a strip of cloth from a pocket and began to step towards Tong.

    "Wait," Tong said, "where are you taking me?"

    Chaiy smiled. "Don't worry, Tong- we're taking you to our home. You're safe now."

    Then the blindfold went around his eyes, and the world went dark.

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    Qang, Underminister of Labor in Long Du Shi, was not having a good day.

    It had been midmorning when one of his slaves- he thought of them all as his slaves, even though they technically belonged to the Empress and he never had any more direct contact with them than was strictly necessary- had snapped, as they sometimes did. Unfortunately, the slave in question had proven to be unusually powerful and had somehow succeeded in killing one of the Underminister's most valuable overseers before escaping. Then another slave had intervened, fighting so hard that the soldiers had been forced to kill him and preventing them from immediately chasing after the escapee. Now one member of that patrol was in Qang's office, claiming that a band of mysterious archers over by Lake Laogai had wiped the rest of his companions out.

    "And tell me again how a gang of peasants with primitive weapons and no bending whatsoever managed to kill an entire squad of firebenders?" the Underminister asked, rubbing his forehead in an attempt to dispel the headache he could feel coming on.

    "They took us by surprise, sir," the soldier said. "We weren't able to react before they had us."

    Qang sighed. The Imperial army had been- and still was- the pride of the world, but in recent years most of its soldiers had never seen action outside of training drills, and were thus woefully inadequate to deal with real combat situations. That bunch over by Lake Laogai were especially tricky opponents- they'd attack quickly, and then when the army was sent to retaliate there wasn't a trace of them. A few weeks later, they'd attack again out of nowhere. It was maddening, but thankfully it wasn't the Underminister of Labor's department.

    Or rather, it hadn't been the Underminister of Labor's department until today.

    "Is there anything else you need from me, sir?" the soldier asked.

    "No. Get out. I've got another appointment coming up shortly- a very important one." The soldier stood and gave a respectful bow, then departed.

    When he was gone, Qang stood up from behind his desk and began to pace. One slave escaped, another dead, and almost an entire patrol wiped out. It was a bad situation, and if word of it got out it would make him look very bad indeed- might even get the Governor involved, and considering the man's notoriously meticulous nature, that meant that Qang's career would most likely suffer horribly. The Governor of Long Du Shi wasn't one to reward failure. Thankfully, the Underminister had anticipated that things might go wrong and made a point of sending for the one man who might be able to salvage things even before the patrol's lone survivor had returned. That way, even if the ordinary soldiers were successful Qang lost nothing, but if they failed he might be able to turn his fortunes around.

    The Underminister was facing his window and looking out over Long Du Shi when he heard his door open. "You wanted to see me?" a rough voice asked.

    Qang turned around and smiled. "Ah, yes. I'm glad you're here, Gian- I have a job for you."

    "I'm listening." The man who stood in the Underminister's doorway was tall and lanky, wearing a sleeveless red and black tunic over his tightly muscled frame. He was bald save for a rough dark braid, and carried himself with the casual confidence of one who knows with absolute certainty that there are none better at his chosen profession, and the eyes that stared out from his scarred and beaten face were without mercy. Gian was a mercenary, one of the few truly skilled enough that the Fire Empire was willing to tolerate his existence in return for his services. His specialty was tracking and capture, though he'd perform almost any job so long as the pay was good. There were rumors- probably exaggerated- that he was almost as good in hand to hand combat as the best of the Empress's Chosen, though so far as anyone knew that had never been tested. No one knew for certain where he came from, what part of the Empire or what social class he’d been born into, or the circumstances under which he’d acquired his skill. Everyone, or at least everyone who might require- or fear- his skills, knew his reputation.

    Gian had never failed, at least not to Underminister Qang's knowledge. Even if he had at some point, the efficiency with which he'd kept it quiet spoke well of his skill.

    "There was a slave who escaped earlier today," the Underminister said. "He killed his overseer before fleeing east."

    "And you want me to find him," Gian finished. "I can do that. Barely even a challenge." There was a hint of disappointment in his voice.

    "That's not all," Qang said. "The reason he managed to escape pursuit was because he had help- a band of rebels you may have heard of. They killed five skilled firebenders and drove the survivor off. He can take you back to where he fought them, but I want information on their location. If you can, bring me back a rebel as well. A leader would be nice, if you could manage it."

    "Manage it?" Gian laughed softly. "I've been waiting for someone to have the guts to admit their failings and put me on this job. I'll do what you ask, Underminister- don't get me wrong. This just might be fun after all."

    Qang pulled a small bag of gold coins from his robes and tossed it to Gian, who caught it effortlessly. "That's for taking the job. There will be twice as much waiting for you when you succeed."

    Gian smiled like a predator smelling fresh meat, and the Underminister shivered involuntarily. Other rumors about this man began to rise in his subconscious, stories not of Gian’s skill but of his utterly merciless nature, the joy he was said to take in the most brutal successful jobs. "Oh, I will,” the mercenary said. “Now where's this soldier you told me about? It's never too early to get started."

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Well, things are looking up for Tong now, seeing as he’s escaped his pursuers and fallen in with Earth Kingdom rebels. I very deliberately made Lake Laogai the rebels’ hideout mostly for the sheer irony factor- what was once the heart of oppressive Dai Li power has now become one of the last bastions of freedom in the former Earth Kingdom- and we’ll definitely be seeing a lot more of what’s going on here. Chaiy’s a character who’s going to be pretty important, and she actually ended up more important than I’d initially intended her to be, though I can’t say much more about her until the next Tong chapter. I will say that she’s connected to a canon character…

    Also, it wasn’t intentional at first, but I do think there’s a nice parallel between two of my main female warrior characters- Jiazin the high-class Fire Nation swordswoman, and Chaiy the outlaw Earth Kingdom archer.

    Gian was a character I created initially to give an antagonist for Tong’s storyline, now that he’s reached the point that he’s out of the power of guards and slavedrivers. I’m not going to lie, he’s probably the most purely evil person who’s appeared in the story so far. Gian is pretty much a pure sociopath, capable of killing someone with the exact same amount of emotional response he’d have for throwing out his trash, and he’s very, very good at his job (which means killing people is something he’s done a lot). He’s not as devious as Qing Xi, as fanatical as Shiyan, or as personally unpleasant as High Admiral Yuan, but Gian is probably the closest thing possible to someone without a soul.

    Fun fact- when writing fanfic for a setting which initially appeared in animation, I sometimes mentally cast voice actors for the characters. I can’t imagine Gian as anyone but Lance Henriksen, aka the Lieutenant from Legend of Korra, Lockdown from Transformers Animated, and Grim Reaper from Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, among others. The funny thing is, Gian sounded exactly like Henriksen in my head even before I’d ever encountered a character voiced by him (I wrote my first scene with Gian in summer of ’09, and didn’t encounter Henriksen until I watched Transformers Animated that December). Weird, huh?

    -MasterGhandalf
  13. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 9: The Hidden Flame

    YOU HAVE BEEN BETRAYED.

    Jiazin blinked and read the characters again, making certain she had gotten their meaning right the first time. She'd only been in the Capital for a few hours- how could she have been betrayed, and who would know about it in time to get a warning to her? Maybe the rest of the scroll held answers. Looking past the initial warning, she continued reading.

    THE HIGH MINISTER IS NOT WHAT HE APPEARS- HE HAS BROUGHT YOU TO THIS CITY UNDER FALSE PRETENSES. IF YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE, COME TO THE LOCATION INDICATED ON THIS DIAGRAM OF THE PALACE AT MIDNIGHT. MORE INFORMATION CANNOT BE INCLUDED HERE, LEST THIS SCROLL FALL INTO THE WRONG HANDS.

    The diagram mentioned in the text was near the bottom of the scroll, and beneath it was a strange symbol that resembled a silhouetted flame. Jiazin hadn't seen a sign like that before, and she didn't know what it meant.

    Rolling the scroll back up, the governor's daughter sat back on her bed and tried to make sense of its contents. What did it mean that Qing Xi was not what he seemed, and why had he brought her here if not by the command of the Dragon Empress? Why did whoever sent the scroll seem terrified of revealing too much information, while at the same time giving a detailed map to their whereabouts? And, above all, who sent it in the first place?

    Jiazin knew that she had to make a decision. She could treat the message as some attempt to manipulate her under false pretenses, ignore it, and continue to wait for her summons to the Empress, but if the High Minister really was plotting something underhanded, that would leave her open to whatever it might be. The other alternative was to follow the instructions on the scroll and seek out the person or people who had sent it, which meant that she might free herself from Qing Xi's plans and possibly expose them to the Empress- but there was a risk that they might be the true betrayers. For all Jiazin knew, the message was a trap.

    She sat on the bed with her head bowed for some time, turning ideas over in her head. Finally Jiazin raised her head and regarded the disquieting image of the young Azula that so inexplicably resembled her. “What would you do?” she muttered quietly, going over all the stories of the Empress’s exploits that she could remember in her mind. Azula was, by all accounts, ruthless and cunning, but she was no coward when it came to getting what she wanted. Whether as princess or empress, she wouldn’t simply stick her head in the sand and pretend this message didn’t exist; whoever they were, she’d play their game however long it took to understand what they really wanted, and when she knew who her real enemies were, then she’d take whatever action was needed to rid herself of them. Jiazin was a noble of the Empire, and she could do far worse than trying to follow in her ruler’s footsteps.

    Her mind made up, Jiazin rang for a servant to bring her food. She would need strength and rest before tonight, whatever happened.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Darkness hung over the Imperial Palace. Cloud cover had rolled in from the sea, thick enough that neither moonlight no starlight could shine through. There were fires lit throughout the complex, of course, but they did little overall to diminish the brooding gloom that filled the Capital.

    Jiazin crept from her rooms, the scroll clutched tightly in one hand. She wore a long cloak and robe that she'd found in her wardrobe, but not her sword- she doubted that whoever was waiting for her would take kindly to her showing up visibly armed. If it came to violence, she would have to use her firebending, but hopefully that wouldn't have to happen.

    She walked down the Palace's labyrinthine corridors, every so often stopping to light a small flame in one hand and check her progress against the map. After taking a number of twists and turns through the halls- leading away from the throne room, she thought- Jiazin came to the head of a staircase. Deciding that this must be the strange-looking squiggle marked on the map immediately before her destination, she steeled herself and descended.

    The staircase ended in a small stone room illuminated by a single torch. A plain wooden door was the only other feature- Jiazin stepped forward and pushed it open. Beyond she could smell smoke and hear the crackling of flame as she walked inside. The door shut behind her.

    She stood in a large room whose walls disappeared into the darkness. A large flame rose from a pit in the center, sending smoke throughout the chamber. Shielding her eyes from both the smoke and the bright light, Jiazin looked around the edges of the room. As her eyes adjusted, she realized that she was not alone.

    At least a dozen figures lined the walls, dressed in dark red robes which were marked with the same symbol she had seen on the message. Their hoods were all pulled up over their faces, giving them the look of evil spirits or the unquiet dead. Jiazin suppressed a shudder- the overall effect was deeply disturbing, but no doubt that is what they intended. She wasn't about to give them the satisfaction of a reaction.

    "Earlier today you sent me a message that said I had been betrayed," Jiazin said as calmly as she could. "It directed me here if I wanted answers. Well, I've come. What can you tell me about the High Minister?"

    "I had heard you were blunt," a deep, rasping voice said from the shadows. One of the cloaked figures stepped forward, his robe billowing about him. "We are glad that you received our message, Lady Jiazin. It may sound melodramatic of me, but the future of the Empire is very much at stake in what we discuss."

    "Who are you people?" Jiazin asked.

    The figure in the hood seemed to smile. "We are called the An Jiong- in the ancient tongue, Hidden or Shadowed Flame. Like the Chosen we are elite servants of the Empress, but ours is a very different mission. They act as the public face and threat of the Empire's reign. We remain hidden in the shadows, acquiring knowledge and dealing with situations that cannot be brought into the light of day."

    "Spies and assassins," Jiazin muttered. The cloaked man chuckled.

    "We often get that reaction, but believe me when I tell you that we are every bit as vital to the functioning of the Fire Empire as the military or the ministry. Many of the comforts and privileges that the nobility in particular live with couldn't have come to be without our aid." The An Jiong agent stepped forward. "So do not be so contemptuous of that which you do not understand."

    "You actually took that better than I expected," Jiazin admitted.

    The An Jiong spokesman shrugged. "In our line of work, it gains you nothing to be an ill-tempered thug who cannot stand criticism. We kill where and when we have to- and no more. Now then, Jiazin, I believe you have questions for us."

    "I do," she said. "Why did you bring me here? What do you know about the High Minister?"

    "That is a complicated question. I know much about High Minister Qing Xi- he has had a fascinating career, believe me- but little of that is relevant to our discussion. What you must know is this- no High Minister has ever held his or her position long. Sooner or later they have all been discovered to be involved in plots to seize the throne, and then… dealt with accordingly."

    "Executed by you or the Chosen, you mean," Jiazin surmised.

    The spokesman chuckled. "Not entirely- High Ministers are rather out of even our league. It is the Dragon Empress herself who has killed every one of them, rendering them down to little more than ash. Qing Xi has held the position longer than most- close to ten years now- but we believe that out of either pure ambition or fear for his own life he has begun to plot as well."

    "How can you tell?"

    "We've intercepted secret notes which revealed bribery and blackmail, and reports from our sources among the Capital's nobility report the same things. Qing Xi is gathering allies, very powerful allies- we suspect High Admiral Yuan’s involvement at the very least- and when that begins to happen there are very few possibilities other than personal advancement. And the second most powerful man in the Empire can advance only in one way."

    Jiazin shook her head. "Then why haven't you moved against him yet? And what do I have to do with anything?"

    "The questions are one and the same. It seems obvious to us that you are to play a central role in his plans or else he wouldn’t have bothered fetching you in person and bringing you here, but we don't know what exactly that role is to be, and that puts us at a disadvantage. Move against Qing Xi with incomplete information, and the conspiracy could very well survive his arrest. We need to know precisely why the daughter of one of the Empire's most influential governors is seemingly so key to his schemes." Eyes seemed to glitter from within the cowl. "We know you, Jiazin- we know that you and your family have always been loyal to the throne, and that you are no fool. That's why we decided not to perform various forms of unpleasantness on you to get you to talk, but rather simply ask nicely."

    "You know me?" Jiazin asked. "Does that mean you have been spying on my family? On me?"

    The spokesman laughed. "Did you think that you were exempt? We spy on all the nobility- a formal precaution in your case. Your father is an exemplary governor, and the rest of his house is no less respectable. I assure you that we are quite impressed by your family's competence and loyalty. Now then- has the High Minister let slip to you any reason why he brought you to the Capital?"

    "Not really," Jiazin admitted. "He just said that the Empress wanted to see me, and that it was a matter of the salvation of the Empire. Nothing else."

    The sound of soft murmuring among the An Jiong filled the chamber, though Jiazin couldn't make out their words. Finally they paused and looked to their spokesman, whom she was beginning to guess was also their leader. He peered at Jiazin intently from under his hood. "In that case, Jiazin, I must require a service of you- one that could earn you a great deal of favor with the Empress and our own order."

    "I'm listening."

    "The High Minister no longer trusts us, and he has forbidden us to access his personal chambers- and the elite guards he surrounds them with are too formidable for even us to deal with without a great deal of commotion that would be unacceptable in this situation. We are certain that he keeps records of his plans there, but we have no way to access them. You, however, are known to be in Qing Xi's company- as far as most know, possibly even under his wing. You could bluff your way inside and retrieve the information we require."

    Jiazin found herself torn between loyalty towards the Empire and doubt that she could pull this task off, along with some underlying sense that something here was very wrong. "Do I have to decide now?" she asked. "Or can you give me more time."

    "We would be willing to give you a day," the spokesman said. "The servant girl who cleans your room is one of us- she was the one who left the message earlier today. You can contact us through her once you've reached a decision."

    "Thank you," Jiazin said with a slight bow. Turning she prepared to open the door again when the spokesman's voice stopped her.

    "I don't think you will betray us," he said, "but keep this in mind- if you force us to act before we are ready, you will be the first to feel our displeasure. Those who trifle with the Hidden Flame once do not live to do so again."

    "I'll remember that," Jiazin muttered. She stepped through the door and hurried up the stairs, leaving the spies and their smoke-filled room behind her. She didn’t stop until she had made it back to her quarters, and for hours she lay sleepless on her bed, tossing over everything that she had heard in her mind, and coming to no conclusion as to what the proper course of action should be.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    After the girl was gone, one of the An Jiong agents stepped around the fire and came to stand beside the leader. "What do you think she will decide?" she asked quietly. "In a conflict between the two most powerful people in this world, which do you think she will choose to back?" She lowered her hood and shrugged. “We probably gave her enough of a scare to send most people hunting for the first boat back to Long Du Shi, anyway.”

    "It doesn't matter," the leader said, his voice slipping out of the dry rasp it had affected while speaking to Jiazin and returning to its natural smooth and cultured tones. "If she chooses the Empress, then her loyalty is cemented and she is proven fit for the grander purposes. If not- well, she was the most likely candidate for the project, but hardly the only one." The leader shuddered slightly as the fate of his predecessor rose unbidden in his mind, though he maintained his composure. "After all, what is one life compared to the continued glory of the Empire?"

    The other agent shook her head. "Nothing at all."

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Well, there was quite a bit going on in this chapter; unfortunately, it was almost all manipulation or deception from pretty much everybody, so it’s hard to say at this point exactly what significance it all has. The Hidden Flame were initially conceived because I needed a clandestine group within the Fire Empire for this subplot; they’ve got some further, very important roles to play, but I can’t really get into that without being ridiculously spoilery about this organization and its leader. They don’t normally go around in creepy hooded cloaks or meet in spooky rooms with firepits in the middle, either- that was just a bit of theatricality for Jiazin’s benefit.

    In the original version of FotFE, the second agent who speaks to the leader at the end was a man; he got changed to a woman in this version because, while I feel like I did a pretty good job of keeping the main cast gender-balanced, I (accidentally) made a disproportionate number of the extras men, and that was something I wanted to fix in this edition. I probably won’t call attention to it every time I switch someone out, but I thought I’d point it out here.

    -MasterGhandalf

  14. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    Wow! Your worldbuilding and depth of plot is just amazing here. Fantastic, fantastic writing so far. =D=
  15. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 10: The Stranger

    Kanoda rubbed his eyes to stave off sleep as his boat sailed closer to a forbidding coastline. Grey clouds hung low in the sky, and he could feel that a storm was coming. The young hunter had every intention of getting onto dry land before that happened, even if it was dry land that was grey and barren. A flat beach stretched back a good distance from the shore, and beyond that rose tall rocks that seemed rather ominous in the fading light. There was no sign of life, but as far as Kanoda was concerned that was a good thing. After his last experience on a strange island, he had no real desire to meet anyone else from the Fire Empire for some time yet.

    Rain began to fall as he pulled his boat up onto the beach. Kanoda wanted nothing more than to pitch his tent and sleep, and if it hadn't been raining he would have skipped the tent pitching altogether, but before he did that he needed to get the lay of the land. Strapping a knife to his waist and his spear to his back, he walked over to the base of the cliffs and began to climb.

    It was too cold to rain at the South Pole, and Kanoda quickly realized that he greatly preferred snow. Within minutes he was soaked to the skin, and it was too warm to wear furs thick enough to prevent this effect. "You're supposed to be my element," he muttered to the airborne water droplets. "Can't you be a bit more cooperative?" The rain showed no sign that it heard or cared.

    Finally he reached the top of the cliff and looked out over a flat, barren plain. Tall grass waved in the wind and rain, but otherwise the land was featureless. Kanoda looked more intently- there wasn't anything nearby, but in the distance he could see mountains.

    "Well, this is boring… and miserable," he muttered. "In the legends wherever the hero lands is always full of enemies, allies, or monsters. This is just a whole lot of wet nothing. Maybe after I go home I can get Grandfather to spice it up a bit." His whole body was suddenly wracked by a giant yawn. Deciding that sleep was the priority at the moment, Kanoda began to slowly climb back down the cliff. Reaching the bottom, he pitched his tent as close to the base as he could and crawled inside. He was asleep within moments.

    The rain continued to fall. In the sky above, thunder rumbled.

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Cheng doubled over, sneezing loudly. "This is horrible!" she said- or at least that's what Shiyan thought she said after thinking about it for a minute. The younger girl's cold made understanding her difficult. "We're supposed to be the greatest warriors in the Empire! Getting sick like this is… is embarrassing!"

    She sneezed again, and Shiyan sighed and passed her a rag. "It's your own fault, you know," she said rather stiffly. "You shouldn't have stood out there on deck in the storm. It's simple common sense."

    Cheng glared at her. They'd set out from Empress Island in pursuit of the Water Tribe spy yesterday on a small warship. The younger Chosen had spent the whole day on deck, staring determinedly off towards the north- even as the cloud bank rose and the rain began to fall. Now she was paying the price for her stubbornness.

    "It's easy for you to say," Cheng muttered. "You weren't the one who let him get away. It isn't your fault- you're just along for the ride." The words "you're here because the Mistress thinks I can't handle myself" weren't spoken out loud, but they hung in the air nonetheless.

    "You're a Chosen," Shiyan said. "Comport yourself with dignity, or at least try to. Yes, you failed- don't forget that- but don't keep bringing it up either. It's your private drive and disgrace. The rest of the world needs to see a composed, competent warrior to respect and fear. Never forget that."

    "What do you know about that?" Cheng said sullenly. "Since when did you ever screw up?"

    "Suffice to say that I have, and learned from it," Shiyan replied. The failure she was thinking of was being unsuccessful in drumming proper discipline into the girl in front of her, but she felt that saying that wouldn't help Cheng's self-confidence. She didn't particularly care for the other girl, but they were both Chosen, and the Chosen were loyal to their own. That was a bond stronger than mere personal feelings. "Now you know better than to fall for his tricks- and you knew already that you are the superior warrior. Apply that in the next battle, and your victory is assured."

    Cheng folded her hands and bowed her head. "Thank you, Shiyan," she said. "I appreciate the advice."

    Something rapped against the door of their cabin. "Who is it?" Shiyan asked imperiously.

    "The captain sent me to tell you that we should be coming into port on the mainland tomorrow morning, my lady," a sailor's voice came from the other side. "When we get there, what would you have us do?"

    "First, I am not a lady," Shiyan said coldly. "Though born to the nobility, I hold no formal title apart from "Chosen"- therefore that is how you should refer to me. Remembering that, tell the captain that we will check with the port authority to see if they have seen a person or boat matching the description of the spy or his craft. In the likely event they have not, we will fan out and search the coastline both east and west. He can't be too far."

    "I will tell him, my la- Chosen Shiyan," the sailor said. "Good night." Shiyan could hear his footfalls fading.

    "Get some rest, sister," the older Chosen said, taking her own advice and lying down in her bunk. "You'll need it."

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Her husband was dying.

    Gajing knelt by his side as he lay still on the ground of their barn and cursed the Imperial overlords for driving him to this. The Fire Empire didn't care about peasants- especially not peasants who lived in what had once been the Earth Kingdom- except when the harvest came around. Then they arrived mercilessly, storming down from their fortresses and collecting all the food they could find. That was the tribute the peasants owed them for "protection", which in Gajing's opinion was a colossal joke, and one in very poor taste. Unless there was something to be had from them, the Imperials utterly ignored their subjects.

    It was a long way yet until harvest, but Li Jan was already out working as hard as he could. Gajing worked hard as well, but her husband threw himself into it like no one else she knew, determined that the village would be able to feed itself even after their so called masters took their share away. He'd risen early even by peasant standards this morning- as he always did- and gone out into the field to work, only to trip on a stone. Gajing found him lying senseless on the ground, and despite her best efforts she couldn't wake him. She'd called their friends over and they'd dragged him to the village barn to rest, but his breathing grew increasingly weak and shallow. Li Jan might live out the night, but she doubted he'd last much longer.

    Thunder and lightning flashed in the sky outside and the rain poured down. Their friends huddled in the other end of the barn, mostly asleep- exhausted but unwilling to leave the stricken man. Gajing still knelt at his side, dabbing his forehead with a wet rag and whispering his name. Every so often he stirred, only to fall back into some dark pit.

    Finally she could take it no longer, despite her best efforts. Giving a great, involuntary yawn, Gajing fell asleep at her husband's side and with her last conscious thought prayed to the spirits of the earth for a miracle.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Gajing awoke suddenly, and the first thing her sense registered was quiet. The sound of rain and thunder was gone- the storm had passed. Groggily she sat up and looked over at Li Jan, and realized that the sudden quiet hadn't been what had wakened her.

    A figure knelt over her husband, swathed from head to foot in a dark robe. A gloved hand was extended over his cut forehead, and from it emanated a soft blue glow. Gajing stifled a scream and scrambled to her feet and grabbed a nearby pitchfork. "Get away from him," she hissed. "I don't know what you are, spirit or demon or mortal, but if you don't put your hands up right now I'll gut you. Can't you let a man die in peace?"

    The figure stood and raised its hands, but its hooded head motioned down at Li Jan. Gajing followed its gaze, and gasped. The strange glow from where the being had touched him was fading, and she couldn't tell for sure but it looked like the cut on his forehead was gone. Gasping, she bent down to inspect him more closely and saw that it was true. Not only was the superficial wound gone but his breathing was stronger as well, and when she touched his hand he groaned softly and his eyes opened.

    "Gajing?" he asked quietly. "What… happened?"

    "You cracked your head open, you tough old badger-mole," she said through happy tears. "But somehow it got put back together again."

    Li Jan reached up and rubbed his head. "But, how?" he asked, sitting up. Gajing forced him back down.

    "You still need to rest," she said. "As for how- well…" she turned and looked up, but the mysterious visitor was gone. The door at one end of the barn was slightly ajar. "Stay here," Gajing said, getting back up to her feet and hurrying out of the building.

    The clouds had parted and pale moonlight shone down over the wet grass. The cloaked figure was hurrying towards the nearby trees, and Gajing hurried after it. "Wait!" she called out, and it halted. "I just wanted to thank you."

    The figure paused and nodded. It turned away again but Gajing caught up to it and caught its arm. "Before you go," she said softly, "who are you? I thought you were a demon- or worse, one of them- but you saved my husband's life. I promise I won't turn you in. I just need to know."

    The figure turned to look at her, and the moonlight illuminated a quick glimpse of the features beneath the hood. For an instant she could make out a dark-skinned face that appeared young, though white haired- but those eyes, an uncanny blue that seemed to hold a timeless depth of sorrow and compassion, were not the eyes of a young person.

    "I'm a healer," the figure said softly- a woman's voice. "And a friend."

    Then she pulled away again and vanished into the shadows of the nearby trees. Gajing stood there for several more minutes as if waiting for her to reappear, and then turned back to the barn to see her husband. She'd asked for a miracle and received one.

    She just wished that she understood what it meant.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Not a whole lot to say about this chapter, other than the fact that it was pretty much there to move the various characters into the position they’ll need to be in for the next time the chapter cycle comes around to them. The universe really does seem out to get Cheng, doesn’t it, and at least in part that’s because she’s intended to represent a more human side to the Chosen, in contrast to the almost inhumanly dedicated and skilled Shiyan. Unfortunately, that partially translates into a tendency to be the butt of various misfortunes, though on the plus side it means she’s also a somewhat more sympathetic character than her sisters (though the personalities don’t particularly line up, in some ways Cheng is the Ty Lee to Shiyan’s Azula).

    Of course, this chapter also introduces a key character, even if it reveals very little about her. I was afraid I’d made it too easy to figure out who (and what) this person is, but I don’t recall anyone guessing it before the reveal in the first version. Suffice to say, this is someone we’ll be seeing a lot more of her.

    -MasterGhandalf
  16. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 11: The Resistance

    Tong was slowly and carefully led around the lakeshore, eyes covered by the blindfold the rebels had put on him. He could hear the others walking along beside him and feel Chaiy's comforting hand on one arm, but otherwise he had little sense of his surroundings. He tried to feel into the earth with his bending as he had before, but nothing. After the long chase, he was simply too tired.

    Finally they stopped, and Tong felt the familiar rumble of earthbending beneath his feet. He could hear soft whispering as the rebels conferred among themselves, and then he was lifted by a pair of strong arms and slung over someone's back. He wondered what was going on and was about to protest when he felt the person carrying him began to descend as if down a ladder. That would by why- Tong couldn't very well climb while blindfolded.

    He didn't know how for certain long they descended, but after what felt like a very long time they reached bottom and he was set back on the ground. The rumble of earthbending sounded again- more distant this time- and then he felt a hand on his arm again. "It's all right," Chaiy said soothingly, "come with us."

    Tong felt himself be led off again, and now he had the distinct feeling that he was in an enclosed space- probably underground. He revised that opinion as he heard the dripping of water and felt dampness on his feet. Not underground- under the lake!

    Finally they halted and the former slave heard a door opening. He was led inside, and then he felt someone reach up and remove his blindfold. Tong blinked a couple of times to clear his eyes and saw Chaiy folding the strip of cloth up and putting it in a pouch that hung from her belt. "Stay here for now," she said. "I don't think you're a spy, but we do have rules about these things for our own safety. Someone will be coming in a few minutes to ask you some questions- answer whatever he says, and it would be easiest for everyone if you tell the truth."

    "I will- thanks for the warning," Tong said. Chaiy turned and left, closing the door behind her.

    The room in which Tong found himself was grey and bare, except for a stone table, two chairs, and a flickering torch on one wall. Taking a seat in one of the chairs, he tried to keep his exhaustion from overwhelming him. Whoever this interrogator who was coming was, he would need to tell his story clearly, concisely, and truly, and that would be difficult if he fell asleep halfway through it.

    The door opened again, and an expressionless middle-aged man in a dark green tunic entered and seated himself in the chair across from Tong. "You are the young man Chaiy and her group rescued from Imperial soldiers earlier today?" he asked without preamble.

    "Yes."

    The man nodded. "What is your name?"

    "Tong," the former slave answered.

    "Tell me, Tong, why you came here when the soldiers were chasing you?"

    "I didn't have any real idea where I was going," the young earthbender said. "I am- was- a slave, and I used my earthbending to accidentally kill my overseer earlier today. Well, it wasn't entirely an accident. I didn't mean to kill him, but I did mean to hurt him. He'd been cruel to us for a while, and finally this morning I just… snapped. Anyway, I knew that I had to run after that. The things they do to slaves who kill their overseers don't really bear thinking about. So I just ran, and I when I was finally exhausted and couldn't run any more I thought they were going to catch me. Then Chaiy and her people saved my life."

    The man nodded. "I see. And did you know that there was a hidden rebel fortress in this area before you met them?"

    Tong gave a bitter chuckle. "I didn't even know that there were rebels before I met them. The Fire Empire doesn't like to keep its slaves knowledgeable about things that could inspire them to rebel too."

    "You say you killed your overseer. Describe it for me."

    Tong lowered his eyes. "It's not something I'm proud of," he said. "I hated him, but still- he was a person, and I killed him. I'd rather not talk about it."

    "I understand that you are reluctant to discuss this, but I still want you to answer my question- how did you kill him?" The man's eyes narrowed coldly.

    "The wall we were working on collapsed," the former slave began, "and he was angry. He was beating us with a fire whip, and I was next. He knocked me to the ground, and suddenly I realized that I could feel the earth underneath me- where it held together, where it was unstable, and how I could use it to open up a crack beneath his feet. In that moment I hated him more than anything, so that's what I did- I didn't think, just reacted. He fell into the hole and it closed above him, crushing him. Then I realized what I'd done and released control, and it opened up again and spat him back out- very dead."

    The interrogator paused. "You're certain of that?" he said.

    "Certain that he's dead?" Tong asked, bewildered as to where this might be going. "I saw the body- it had been crushed and wasn't moving. Unless he's a spirit in disguise, he's dead."

    "No, not that!" the man snapped. "Are you certain that you were able to use the vibrations in the earth to sense its state and enhance your earthbending?"

    "I hadn't thought about it that way," Tong said. "I just know that I was able to feel the earth moving."

    The interrogator sat still for a moment, and then without a word he stood and swept from the room, slamming the door behind him. Tong sat in his chair, dumbfounded. Part of him considered getting up and going after the man, but he realized that that was an unwise course of action that would lead at best to him getting lost and at worst killed because the rebels had decided it was proof that he really was a spy. For now the best thing to do seemed to be to wait and hope that somebody came back.

    Finally the door opened again, and rather than the interrogator it was Chaiy, accompanied by two archers who Tong was pretty certain had been with her when she'd rescued him. "Come on," she said, motioning with one hand. "My father wants to talk with you in person."

    "Your father?" Tong asked as he stood and left the room with her.

    "Shu Bei Fong, leader of the resistance- or at least the few hundred people living under a lake that make up the local resistance," Chaiy said.

    "You're the leader's daughter? Then what are you doing wandering around with warriors outside of the fortress? Wouldn't he want to protect you better?" Tong didn’t know much about life outside of the Fire Empire’s slave camps, and the only model of leadership he had to go on was the distant figure of Governor Yan Li, but he simply couldn’t imagine that man sending his family to run errands or fight battles instead of his servants or warriors, and that was the closest he’d come to imagining what this rebel leader might be like.

    Chaiy laughed. "It's not wandering- it's patrolling. And there are too few of us for anybody to just lie around without doing any work, and like you saw, I'm pretty good with the bow. I’m usually in charge of leading patrols or raids- Dad doesn't always like it, thinks I’m a bit reckless, but he knows better than to complain."

    The corridors they were walking through were low, dark, and damp, lit only by torches along the walls. Finally they came to another door that looked no different from any of the others, and Chaiy stepped forward and knocked. "It's me," she said. "I've got him."

    "Good girl," a male voice said from the other side. "Bring him in." Chaiy opened the door and ushered Tong inside before following herself.

    The room was bare by Fire Empire standards, but still more comfortable than any place Tong had been in for a long time. Several chairs stood around a roaring fireplace, and what appeared to be the weapons of Imperial officers hung on the wall. The only other decoration was a portrait of a young woman in warrior's clothing who held a large boulder lightly in one hand. Her eyes were a strange, cloudy color; Tong didn’t know much about art, but he was reasonably sure her gaze wasn’t focused on whoever had painted her portrait, or at anything in particular.

    "My grandmother," the voice that had spoken to Chaiy said. Tong turned to see a man of medium height but dignified bearing standing there- he looked relatively young, despite the streaks of grey in his hair, and he resembled the rebel girl enough that he must be her father. "Toph Bei Fong, the greatest earthbender of her generation and one of the first leaders of the rebellion. They called her the Blind Bandit, because even though she was born without the ability to see, she made up for it in a unique way- she used her earthbending to perceive vibrations in the ground, and could use it to "see" not only the earth, but other objects as well. It made her a formidable opponent, because as long as both she and her enemy maintained contact with the ground, she could never be taken by surprise."

    Tong lowered his eyes respectfully. "Why are you telling me this, milord?"

    Shu Bei Fong smiled. "I'm not a lord, boy. My family had wealth and a title once, but that was a long time ago. You can call me Shu, like everyone else does."

    This was a concept that Tong found almost incomprehensible. "So, even though you're the leader you don't use a rank or title?"

    The older man shrugged. "Everyone knows I'm in charge- why should I bother putting on airs? It only gets in the way of getting things done. Besides, it’s different from the way the Fire Empire does things, which only makes it more attractive as far as I’m concerned As to why I'm telling you about my grandmother, surely you can't help but noticing that you and she have something in common- the same innate ability to sense the motions of the earth, an ability most earthbenders have to train very hard to perfect. Some never do."

    "So you're an earthbender, then?" Tong asked. He glanced over at Chaiy, who stood silently beside the door. "Her, too?"

    "Yes," Shu said. "We both have the ability, though neither of us possesses the same raw aptitude that my grandmother had. We've always had earthbenders with our rebellion, in order to make use of this fortress. Only by earthbending can the secret passage be accessed. Even then, it took me years to find it for sure."

    “Helps a bit with the archery, too,” Chaiy said, pulling one of the arrows from her quiver and holding it up. “See? Stone arrowhead. Not as strong as metal ones, but easier to make, and we’ve found that if you shoot from the right stance and with the proper form, you can put some earthbending power into your shot. I can punch one of these clean through the best steel armor on a good day.”

    Anger flared uncontrollably in Tong. "I was told that all living earthbenders were slaves. But if you're benders too, why haven't you done anything to help your own people? Do you care at all that we're suffering?"

    Tong saw his anger reflected in Shu Bei Fong's green eyes. "We do not have the resources to wage open war against the Fire Empire- a few hundred of us, against their legions? We would be slaughtered! But don't think we haven't been helping. We harass their supply lines, kill their soldiers, and we do try to free slaves if given the chance. But we can do little more than that. We just don't have the resources, and it pains me like an open wound every time I realize that I can't help my people more."

    Tong hung his head. "I'm sorry."

    "I understand how you feel, Tong- believe me. We all do. We've all suffered." He looked back at the portrait. "We need a rallying point. She was one of our great heroes, but since she died the rebellion has slowly crumbled. We haven't made any real gains, and that makes people think that maybe their better off living under Fire Nation rule than throwing away their lives in a hopeless cause."

    "What happened to her?" Tong asked.

    Shu closed his eyes. "It was almost fifty years ago. I wasn't born yet, but my parents were and they told me the story. They'd just won a great victory against the Empire, using guerilla tactics to completely rout one of their land-based armies. Unfortunately, all that accomplished in the long run was to bring down the wrath of the Phoenix King on them. Ozai was an old man by then, sick and barely clinging to life, but if anything that just made his anger greater. So he sent a massive legion under the command of his daughter- the current Empress- and the female warriors she was already calling her Chosen to find the rebels and kill them.

    "They managed to capture one of the rebels, and Azula convinced him- probably through torture, though we never were sure one way or another- to give up the location of what was then the rebellion's stronghold. The legion came in the night and blocked off all exits, or so they thought. There was one way out that the traitor hadn't divulged, and my grandmother ordered everyone out but herself and her best earthbenders. They faced the wrath of the Fire Empire alone.

    "The last stand of the Blind Bandit is legend, though the kind of legend they wouldn't want slaves to know. Toph Bei Fong and her warriors withstood the assault until they fell, one by one, and she was left alone. But I said she was the greatest earthbender of her generation, and I wasn't exaggerating- her power was enormous, and the Imperial soldiers weren't able to lay a hand on her even as she struck them down with boulders and caused the ground beneath their feet to give way. Finally Azula pulled them back and sent elite firebenders ahead led by her Chosen, and though the battle was now more even in the end my grandmother vanquished them as well. For the only time in their history the proud Chosen were forced to retreat, half their number dead.

    "In the end Toph and Azula faced each other alone. The duel was one of the fiercest seen in living memory, but the soon-to-be-empress was fresh while my grandmother had been fighting the whole night through. She died there that night buying the chance for the rebellion to escape, and for a time we thought that we could rally the people around her sacrifice and throw off the Fire Empire's rule. But without our best warriors the rebellion too was crippled, and we've barely managed to hold together ever since."

    Tong didn't know what to say. "What do you want from me?" he finally asked.

    Shu looked at him keenly. "I have earthbending training but only a moderate talent. You have the reverse- a tremendous raw talent with no formal training. I believe that we can help each other. I will help you learn how to harness your impressive gifts, and in return you will use them to help us in our war against the Empire."

    "And you think I'll turn out to be a hero like your grandmother just because I have a similar talent?" Tong asked.

    "Maybe," Shu said, and he smiled. "Even if you don't, you will still be a great asset to us. And you'll have the chance to help the other slaves who haven't yet managed to escape. Are you interested?"

    Tong looked down at the floor, and then back up at Shu, eyes burning. "The Fire Empire has made my life miserable ever since I can remember. They took me from my family, forced me to build their buildings for them, and beat me whenever I didn't perform up to expectations. I watched them do the same to every other earthbender I ever met. Yes, Shu Bei Fong. I'm interested.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Gian knelt beside the dead officer and scowled. "Pathetic," he muttered under his breath. "Soldiers- hah! They haven't been good for anything but show for years. Should have put me on this job sooner."

    "What was that?" the soldier who had led him out here said from nearby.

    "Nothing you need concern yourself with," Gian said, standing. He paused for a moment, looking out over the lake and the nearby rocks where the archers had been, and then knelt again, looking for tracks. The rebels were sloppier than he'd expected- he could clearly see the trails left by several people's footsteps leading off around the lake. Something about that made him uneasy- if they were that clumsy they should have been found out a long time ago.

    Slowly, carefully, the mercenary hunter followed the tracks along the beach, the soldier following behind him curiously. Gian ignored the man, focusing entirely on his quarry- but after following the trail for some distance he stopped and straightened, dumbfounded.

    "What's wrong?" the soldier asked. "Did you lose the trail?"

    "Apparently it lost itself," Gian said. "The footprints end- right here."

    "Maybe they used earthbending to cover their tracks?"

    Gian snorted. "Then why didn't they do that from the beginning? Maybe while they were at it they used airbending to fly away!" He paced back and forth for a moment, thinking. "But that's not the only possibility, you know- perhaps they did use earthbending, but for an entirely different purpose."

    "What do you mean?" The soldier sounded as confused as he looked, which Gian had to admit was quite an accomplishment.

    "There's an underground base here, fool- but the entrance is hidden. Only earthbenders can find and open it." He glared out over the lake. "No wonder they didn't care about hiding their tracks. Even if we know where they are, we can't get to them."

    "What are we going to do?"

    Gian smiled wolfishly. "We wait, my friend. They may be locked up tight in that hole of theirs, but sooner or later, they'll have to come out. Then we'll have exposed the rebels, and I'll get my bounty. Everyone wins."

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Shu and Chaiy being Toph’s direct descendants but lacking her raw skill was something that I came up with early- after all, being descended from a mighty hero is no guarantee that you’ll manage to become one yourself- though they’ve compensated in clever ways (Chaiy’s archerybending was something that I thought was a cool idea for a weak but skilled earthbender to make use of, even though it’s lethal enough that it probably would have never flown on the show). Shu, of course, is also named for one of the first earthbenders from the story in “The Cave of Two Lovers”. Unfortunately for Korra fans, though, Lin was probably never born in this universe, and Toph was never backed into the specific corner that prompted her development of metalbending.

    Speaking of Toph, as one of the most powerful characters from the original show, I wanted to make sure to give her a truly epic send-off (keeping her around was, alas, fairly out of the question- I think Old Master!Toph would have too much of a tendency to take over any story she was in, and FotFe is supposed to be about a new generation of heroes and villains + Azula). I rather enjoyed making her “Blind Bandit” title literal (wonder if Shu knows exactly where it came from in the first place?) and her death scene was heavily inspired by Hurin’s last stand from Tolkien’s Silmarillion. In my head, the final Toph/Azula duel was one of the most spectacular bending battles in living memory; I’ve always wanted to tell it in a one-shot, but the fear of failing to do it justice has always held me back. Maybe I’ll get around to it someday- a “Tales of the Fire Empire” series of one-shots has been one of those projects I’ve always intended to do and never gotten around to doing.

    We also get to see our first glimpse of Gian in action in this chapter, and it’s not his fighting skills that are highlighted but his cunning. Gian’s reputation as a great warrior is well earned, but he’s also clever and savvy rather than some mindless brute, and that makes him extra dangerous.

    -MasterGhandalf
  17. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 12: The High Minister's Secret

    Jiazin lay in her bed for hours after leaving the meeting of the Hidden Flame, but she was unable to sleep. It was a terrible choice that the empress's spies had presented her with, and it kept resurfacing in her thoughts. On the one hand, she could accept their word and attempt retrieve information on Qing Xi's plotting, but that would mean betraying someone who, even if he was a traitor, was still one of the most powerful people in the world and could certainly have her killed before anyone could act to save her. On the other hand she could stand aside and allow him to subvert the society she had been trained to support absolutely. And that was assuming that the so-called An Jiong really were agents of the Dragon Empress- Jiazin knew she'd never heard of them before. What if they were the traitors?

    After several hours of tossing and turning while considering her predicament, the young noblewoman felt rather than saw the sun rise. Jiazin stood and stretched, walking over to a rope that she pulled to summon servants. As they cleaned and dressed her, she decided that she needed to get out of the palace and away from all the scheming to help clear her head and give her a chance to think things through properly.

    "Do you know of any entertainments in the city today?" Jiazin asked as one of the servant girls held out her sword and belt.

    "Oh, yes, milady," the girl said, nodding vigorously. "The Capital is full of diversions for visitors. We have the biggest market in the world, where you can buy things from any of the old Nations. You could also arrange for a tour of some of the factories and labs, where new machines and weapons are made for the army and navy. But for the next few weeks, something even more special is happening- Yu Shan's newest play is in its first run, and it's supposed to be incredible!"

    "I've heard of Yu Shan," Jiazin said, which was an understatement. He was considered to be the Empire's greatest living playwright, but she hadn't known he had a new work premiering. Long Du Shi was simply too far away from the Capital for her to keep up to date on all the cultural events. "Do you know what the play is about?"

    "It's about the Empress, back when she was just a princess, and how she captured the Avatar for her father," the servant said. "I haven't been able to see it- I don't have enough money- but they let nobles in free."

    "I think I will go and see this play," Jiazin said half to herself. "Do you know when it opens today?"

    "Noon," the servant replied. "I can give you directions to the theater, if it pleases you."

    Jiazin nodded, and the girl did so. Thanks to Yu Shan's reputation and the fact that his current project was apparently an Imperial contract, he'd managed to get a theater that was inside the volcanic crater, within walking distance of the palace. Jiazin had the servants send for some breakfast, and after she ate she went ahead and headed over to the theater, leaving her sword behind. She doubted it would be appreciated if she wandered around the Capital's most prestigious district while openly armed.

    Due to her early arrival and noble status, she was able to get a balcony seat with an excellent view of the stage. As the servant had said, she wasn't forced to pay, but was repeatedly pestered by some mid-level manager who kept wandering up and insinuating it would be in her best interest to make a healthy donation to the theater. Despite Jiazin's repeated insistence that her family’s fortune was on a completely different continent he refused to give up until more patrons began arriving.

    By the time the sun was directly overhead a large crowd had gathered. Shortly afterwards a tall, thin man in bright red robes stepped onto the stage and announced that the production of Yu Shan's masterwork Birth of an Empire would now begin, and gave the customary warning that there was to be no bending from the audience during the play.

    Dramatizations of Azula's greatest achievement were common in the Fire Empire- Jiazin personally enjoyed them and had seen many over the years- but this was truly the best the young noblewoman had experienced. Yu Shan lived up to his reputation, and the cast did justice to his writing. Ironically, Azula was almost always the weakest acting job in any production, owing to the fact that the part was forbidden anyone of common birth. As a result, the young Empress was commonly played by noble girls with more beauty than skill. Here, however, Yu Shan had managed to find a young noblewoman with the ability to pull off the demanding role. The audience shared in Azula's pride as she was selected by her father to pursue the newly returned Avatar, accompanied by her esteemed uncle, General Iroh. They gasped at the princess's first battle with her opponent, really an ancient and powerful creature despite his childlike appearance, and hissed as he declared that he would stop at nothing to ensure the Fire Nation failed in its goal to establish an ordered worldwide rule.

    Azula pursued the Avatar across the Earth Kingdom, her drive to succeed bolstered every time he managed to slip through her fingers. It soon became apparent that someone was sabotaging the princess's attempts at capture, but even though the audience knew full well what was coming they still gasped in stunned horror at the revelation that it was General Iroh himself, who coveted his younger brother's throne. They waited with baited breath as the cunning old firebender tried to convince his niece to join him by offering to make her his heir, since he had no children of his own, and cheered when Azula defeated him and ended his ambition. Strengthened by her victory she faced the Avatar one final time, and through a combination of power, cunning, and luck she brought the ancient spirit low. With the Avatar and her traitor uncle bound in chains, the princess returned home, knowing that she had done her part to ensure the Fire Nation's ultimate victory.

    As the curtain fell, the audience rose and applauded. Truly it had been Yu Shan's finest work, sure to go down in history as a classic. After the cast took one final bow, the audience began to disperse, talking intently among themselves.

    Jiazin was silent as she made her way back to the palace, lost in thought. The play had been highly entertaining in and of itself, but she found it also helped her make up her mind. It reminded her that the Empress too had once been faced with a terrible choice, but had ultimately decided to fight for her nation against her treacherous and powerful uncle, knowing full well that she might die. Jiazin could do no less.

    Returning to her room, she found a girl maybe a few years younger than herself was waiting there, apparently cleaning the floor. When Jiazin entered, though, the girl looked up at her with a gaze that seemed too penetrating and shrewd, too self-assured, for a mere servant- she was probably older than she looked as well. This must be the agent the Hidden Flame had mentioned.

    "I've been waiting for you," the girl said softly. "Have you made up your mind yet?"

    "Yes," Jiazin said. "Tell your masters that whatever they want me to do, I'm ready for it. I won't let the High Minister's treachery continue."

    The girl smiled. "They said you'd say that. I'm supposed to tell you to wait until this evening and go to the High Minister's office. Tell the guards that he's your patron and they'll let you in. He won't be there- he's having dinner with some of his underministers in the city to discuss business. There'll be lots of scrolls and letters in his office- you need to search through them and find one that shows proof of treachery. More than one would be good. When you have them, take them to the room where you met the Hidden Flame last night. They'll tell you what to do from there."

    Jiazin nodded. "I understand. One problem- I don't know where his office is."

    The girl pulled out a scroll. "Here- this is a map. Remember- wait until night. He might be there and catch you, otherwise." Jiazin took the map from the girl's hand, and then she watched as the servant- or spy- slipped quietly from the room.

    When she was gone, Jiazin unrolled the map and looked over it once, nodding. Rolling it back up and sticking it inside her tunic, she drew her sword and began to move it through a series of practice routines. She still had several hours to kill, after all, before she acted.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    That night, Jiazin followed the map down the twisting corridors of the palace until she came to High Minister Qing Xi's office. The door was flanked by two guards in the armor of the Imperial Firebenders, and several more lounged down the hallway. Short of the Chosen these were the best warriors in the Empire- Jiazin didn't like the odds of anyone trying to force past them. Thankfully, that wasn't an issue for her.

    Squaring her shoulders, she called on all of her noble training and strode towards the guards like this stretch of corridor was her own private domain. As she approached, one of them stepped forward and raised his hand. "Halt!" he said. "What is your business here, girl?"

    "My name is not 'girl'," she said with a sniff. "I am the Lady Jiazin and you will treat me with the respect due to my birth and station. I require access to the High Minister's office, now. Let me pass."

    "The High Minister is not in," the guard said. "We are not permitted to allow anyone access when he is gone."

    "The High Minister brought me to this city personally," Jiazin snapped. "I seem to have an important role to play in some plan of his, and he sent me here to fetch some notes explaining exactly what that is. Do you want to have to explain to him why you kept me- a noble in his favor- waiting?"

    The guard seemed to think on that for a moment, though it was impossible to tell what really went on behind his mask. "Very well," he said, "but be quick." Producing a key from inside his armor, he unlocked the door and motioned Jiazin inside.

    The office was not as opulent as she thought it would be, though on further reflection she realized that since Qing Xi didn't hold large audiences here, it being visually impressive was largely unimportant. The walls were lined with bookcases containing many scrolls and tomes, and the large desk in the center was covered in paperwork. It looked rather like Jiazin's father's office back in Long Du Shi- it seemed that like him, the High Minister believed in doing as much of the work as possible himself.

    "Leave me," Jiazin said, motioning to the guard. "Or do you want the High Minister to think you've been getting in my way?" The soldier quickly backed out of the door and shut it behind him.

    Jiazin walked over to the desk and began to rifle through Qing Xi's papers, looking for anything that might be suspicious. Most of this was unimportant, the sort of mindless paperwork that any government official might be expected to have on hand. True, it was possible that requisitions for mining equipment in the upper Home Island might be code for something more sinister, but if so Jiazin had no way of telling. Digging deeper into the pile, she focused on looking for something more openly subversive.

    At one point, though, she was given pause. In what was otherwise a bland report on the construction work in her home city, a name that Jiazin had never heard popped out- Prince Zuko. He was referred to as a traitor and a failure, but she had never heard of him before. She knew the Empress had been an only child- could this be some illegitimate brother or son of hers? Either way, there was nothing directly treasonous there- in fact, it seemed to date from several decades ago; perhaps Qing Xi was reviewing one of his predecessors’ records for some reason- so Jiazin put the report aide. She did not, however, forget the name.

    Finally, a line of characters on what appeared to be a letter caught her eye. Pulling it out, she realized that it cut off in mid-sentence, but what she did have was clearly what the An Jiong agents were looking for. "—trust that the warships meet with your approval. It is a true pity they've never seen any real action, but I assure you they will serve you well. The Empress will regret that she never gave my fleet an opportunity for glory. I trust that you will remedy that come your rule. Your obedient friend, High Admiral Yuan."

    Jiazin cursed under her breath. She should have expected a pig like Yuan to be involved in something like this. Knowing what to look for now, she began to dig into the papers with greater intensity, looking for the High Admiral's name. This turned up several more letters, expressing similarly treasonous thoughts. "They were right," Jiazin muttered as she folded the letters carefully and stuck them in her tunic. "This is more than just the High Minister- with Yuan and his officers involved too, it's a whole conspiracy!"

    Quickly checking herself to make sure she still looked the part of the proud noblewoman, she opened the door and stepped out into the hall. "Did you find what you needed, my lady?" the guard who had let her in asked.

    "More than you know," Jiazin said quietly. Leaving the office and its guards behind, she hurried down the palace corridors towards the meeting place of the Hidden Flame. As she walked, something was nagging her in the back of her mind, but she couldn't place a finger on what it was. Still, there was undeniably something off about this whole situation, and her certainty of that only grew with every step she took.

    Reaching the staircase that led to the chamber, Jiazin ran down it rather more quickly than decorum would normally have permitted and reached the door at the bottom. She opened it easily and stepped into the dark room filled with fire and smoke. One agent that she could see stood beside the firepit, his hood concealing his features.

    "You were successful, then?" he asked, and by his rasping voice she knew that he was the spokesman from before.

    "Yes," Jiazin said, pulling out the letters she'd found. "These are correspondences between High Minister Qing Xi and High Admiral Yuan that make it plain they are plotting to overthrow the Dragon Empress." She passed them into the spy's outstretched hand, and he began to read over them. For some reason he seemed to find them amusing, if his repeated chuckling was anything to go by.

    That out-of-place laugh clicked with Jiazin along with everything else that was bothering her about tonight. "There is one more thing that I'd like to say before I go," she said to the man.

    "Really?" he asked. "Say on."

    "This was too easy," she said. "The guards let me pass without hardly any complaint, and when I got in there I found what I was looking for right on the High Minister's desk, where anyone could read it. That doesn't make any sense- Qing Xi is supposed to be subtle and cunning. He wouldn't make a mistake like that. On top of it all, why did you need me in the first place? I know you've got agents disguised as servants- any of them could have done it without alerting the guards that you were involved. Surely somebody must clean that office. None of this makes any sense if you stop to think about it. What exactly is going on here?"

    The agent stood still for a moment and then burst out laughing, his voice losing that eerie rasp. "Ah, Jiazin," he said in a voice that was now familiar, "If you had said that to anyone but me you would have died. But, as I told you once before, I at least am not someone who is offended by bluntness."

    "You," Jiazin breathed, backing up a step. "But, why?"

    The agent pulled back his hood and revealed, as she knew he would, the bland features of the High Minister himself. "I was testing you, my dear child," he said casually. "And I must admit you passed. You showed loyalty to the throne and Empire, a willingness to roll with unexpected situations, and the sense to recognize when those situations didn't add up." Qing Xi smiled warmly, but his eyes remained cool and fixed on Jiazin. "The Empress will be most pleased."

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Okay, how quickly did you catch on to the fact that this whole thing was a set-up? It wasn’t supposed to be immediately obvious, but I definitely wanted readers to recognize, like Jiazin did, that this was a bit too smooth and easy to be true, and I wasn’t exactly trying to hide that something fishy was going on here. I had initially intended to draw this sub-plot out for several chapters, but quickly decided against it- after all, QX wanted to test Jiazin under fairly specific circumstances, and keeping the charade going after she’s started to pick it apart wasn’t really in the cards. Finding out that QX was testing Jiazin for his own purposes was, ultimately, more important than several chapters of her running around doing fake spy work that would be ultimately irrelevant.

    The play was a fun sequence to write because of its chance to show off an Azula-fied version of history. Poor Zuko got completely unpersoned (though maybe not for the reasons you’d think), Iroh vilified, and Aang made into an outright demon all for the purpose of making Azula look like a heroine, a natural extension of both the Fire Nation’s revisionist history seen in the show and Azula’s own manipulative personality. Azula always lies, after all, and she’s even worse about it with an entire empire’s propaganda machine at her back. Jiazin is just one of many, many people who’ve been basing their whole lives and loyalties on a lie. The playwright’s name, by the way, is the same as the villain from Disney’s Mulan, but with the syllables flipped.

    The revelation of what Qing Xi is planning will be coming up very soon, I promise you- it wasn’t a subplot I intended to hugely draw out, but there is definitely some mystery for the reader as well as Jiazin there. The next Jiazin chapter is one of my favorites, and one of FotFE’s big game changers.

    -MasterGhandalf
  18. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    I just sat down and caught up on this. And wow. Your world-building. I am just in awe here. =D=

    I especially loved the play here. History truly is written by the victors. :(

    Great job with this - and I can't wait for more. =D=
  19. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 13: Crossing Paths

    Shiyan paused before the door leading to the general's quarters in the Imperial base on the southern edge of the former Earth Kingdom and looked over her shoulder at Cheng. "Be silent," she said. "I will do the talking here."

    Cheng bowed her head. "As you wish," she murmured. Shiyan nodded approvingly and thrust the door open, striding inside. General Yi was sitting in a chair in the room beyond, apparently engaged in a game of Pai Sho with one of his colonels. He looked up angrily to see whoever had the nerve to simply barge in on him announced, and then his face went white as he took in Shiyan's painted face and black armor. Quickly he stood and bowed stiffly at the waist, the colonel following suit.

    "It isn't often that we see the Chosen here," the general said. "How can I serve the Empress?"

    "We are tracking an escaped prisoner- a spy we believe to be in the service of some rebel group or other. He fled to the mainland, so we are requisitioning your troops to aid us in our search." Shiyan kept her tone carefully even, her eyes never leaving Yi's. The uniform of the Chosen would hide her youth, or at least make it irrelevant- he would see only a messenger of the Empress's will who even a general must obey.

    Unfortunately, it seemed that General Yi really didn't see Chosen very often, if his next words were anything to go by. "It would be my honor to lend you a small force," he said, "but I think it's rather excessive to devote all of my resources to chasing after one-"

    Shiyan held up a hand for silence. "It seems, General," she said quietly, "you have forgotten with whose voice I speak. The Chosen are the instruments of the Dragon Empress's will- to question us is to question her. The penalty for either…" She allowed her voice to trail off menacingly, while from behind she could hear the ring of Cheng drawing her sword. At least the younger girl knew how to take a hint and add a dramatic flare, Shiyan thought.

    General Yi bowed. "Forgive me," he said. "I did not mean to doubt."

    "You are forgiven," Shiyan said. "The spy escaped our island in a small boat. He is somewhere along this coast, but we do not know where. Send out your search parties to comb the coastline, looking for any sign of a one-person vessel, Water Tribe make. When they have found it, they are to report to us here. We'll take over the tracking from there."

    "As you wish," the general said. He motioned to the colonel, who hurried from the room, apparently to begin organizing the search parties. Yi then turned back to the two Chosen. "Now then- I shall have my servants fetch you both food and refreshments at once, and-"

    Shiyan cut him off. "Unnecessary. We are warriors, not pampered court ladies. We've already eaten and don't need any of your comforts. Now leave us."

    "This is my fortress!" General Yi snapped. "You can' just-"

    "Leave," Shiyan said, slowly and clearly. The General bowed and backed out of the room, muttering angrily. Shiyan sighed and sank down into one of the chairs at the Pai Sho table. "Soldiers," she muttered. "Ha! Is this what the Imperial Army has come to?"

    "I don't think we should be using them at all," Cheng said. "This is our mission, not theirs! Will we sit back and let them take the glory?"

    " 'The bravest warrior fights all of her own battles," Shiyan quoted, "but the wisest knows when to have others fight her battles for her'. There is much wisdom in the words of our Empress, if you care to pay attention to them. There are two of us, one ship, a handful of our own soldiers- hardly enough to cover all the territory where our runaway spy could have gone. General Yi and his soldiers may be inept, but there are a great many of them- let them cover ground for us, and when they've pointed us in the right direction, we can move in for the capture."

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Kanoda trudged along the dreary plateau, head bowed. It was still raining, though mercifully it had slackened off some since last night. Now it was little more than a drizzle from an overcast sky, and still something the Water Tribe boy was sure he'd never get used to. Where he came from, when water fell from the sky it had the decency to be solid, not some wet mess.

    He'd hidden his boat back along the coastal cliffs. It was difficult leaving behind the thing that most connected him to the Southern Water Tribe, but Kanoda knew that if he wanted to find a way to fight the Fire Empire and avenge his father, it would be among people who lived under the oppression, not on the open waters. Besides, he could always find the boat again when he returned.

    Finally he came to a feature that varied the landscape- a river, flowing from the distant mountains down towards the cliffs and the sea. Kanoda adjusted his course to match the river's, knowing that it was more likely that he would find people by following it than not. He continued walking uneventfully for several more hours, the rain ultimately quitting and the clouds parting somewhat to allow weak sunlight through. Finally, as the sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon and Kanoda was exhausted, he saw the lights of a village up ahead.

    He needed the rest, but before he entered the village he knew that he had to take precautions. His weapons marked him as foreign, and if there were any soldiers in the village they would descend on him in a heartbeat if they thought he didn't belong. Kneeling beside a bush, he used his knife to dig a long, narrow hole in which he placed his spear and boomerang, then covered it over. The knife itself didn't look exotic enough to give him away, and Kanoda had already left his outer furs in his boat. He wasn't sure he'd be able to pass as a Fire Empire peasant, but he was fairly certain he was no longer immediately recognizable as Water Tribe either.

    Straightening up, he walked purposefully towards the village. Up close, he could tell that it was drab and run down, as if the people who lived here either couldn't be bothered to care for it or, more likely, didn't have the time to do so after simply ensuring their survival. As he stepped under the entry arch, Kanoda could see faint traces of green on some of the nearest buildings.

    There were a few people still on the streets, looking as beaten and tired as their home. Kanoda approached one, a middle-aged man who didn't look too beaten-down. "Excuse me, sir," he said, "I've been traveling all day and I need a place to rest. Do you have an inn?"

    The man looked up at him. "Traveler," he snorted. "Been awhile since we've had one of those. Well, we've got an inn up the road, though there's not been a lot of business lately." He pointed off towards the north side of town.

    "Thank you," Kanoda said, bowing. He hurried off in the indicated direction and soon found himself standing in front of a large building that seemed in somewhat better shape than the rest. He pushed the front door open and stepped inside, finding himself in a large room filled with tables, around which sat what seemed like half the people in the village, engaged in low conversation.

    "What do you want?" an old woman demanded as she walked towards him from across the room.

    "Well, I'd like a room, if that's not too much to ask," Kanoda said.

    "Room, eh?" the old woman asked. "Haven't had anyone ask for one of those in a while. Well, boy, that depends- how much can you pay?"

    That threw Kanoda for a loop- the Southern Water Tribe didn't use money, as they were too small to really need it, and he'd had no way to acquire any since arriving in the Fire Empire. It hadn't even really occurred to him that he might need some here. "I don't actually have any money," he admitted, "but I do have something I could trade." Reaching into his tunic, he pulled out some pieces of carved bone and held them out in front of him. "These are genuine Water Tribe carvings that I - er- found. I'm sure they'd be worth a lot around here."

    The old woman picked one up and eyed it closely, then smiled. "Very well," she said. "This is acceptable payment. I'll show you to your room." She put her hand around Kanoda's shoulders and led him to a staircase in the back.

    He didn't notice her shoot a cold look at the man behind the bar, who quickly set the cup he was cleaning down and slipped out a back door.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Captain Jiang prodded the strange boat his patrol had discovered poorly hidden at the base of a cliff with his boot. "Definitely Water Tribe," he said. "I've never seen one before myself, but I've seen pictures of this design. Besides, it's far too primitive to be one of ours, and who else is there?"

    "Do you think it's the spy we're looking for?" his lieutenant asked eagerly.

    Jiang scowled. "Of course it is- unless you think there's a rash of Water Tribe savages running around here? Wait- don't answer that. I’m not sure I want to know what you’re thinking."

    "Well then, we should return to the base," the lieutenant said. "The Chosen want us to report back to them when we find the spy's trail. Now we have- they'll deal with him."

    "Chosen," Jiang spat. "A gang of silly girls playing at being warrior." He wouldn't have dared say anything had Shiyan or Cheng actually been present, but putting powerful people down in their absence made him feel important. "No, lieutenant, we're not going to do that. We've got him in our sights- why let them get the glory? He's not down here, so there's only one place he could have gone- up! So that's where we're going, too. Up the cliff and after the spy, so that the glory belongs to the hardworking soldiers of the Imperial Army, not some club for noble daughters with too much time on their hands."

    The Captain stalked over to the base of the cliff and began to climb. The lieutenant and the four other men of their squad followed closely after him.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Kanoda woke refreshed in the small but not entirely uncomfortable room the innkeeper had given him. Standing up, he opened the window to let sunlight stream through. He stretched, then pulled his shirt on and splashed water on his face. Tying his hair back in a wolftail, he made his way down to the ground floor to see what was for breakfast.

    He stopped dead at the base of the stairs. Six men and women in red Imperial armor sat around the tables, leering menacingly at him. The old innkeeper woman and the barman stood behind them, counting coins and looking quite pleased with themselves.

    "Well, spy," the lead soldiers said, "I'm Captain Jiang, and you'll be coming with me. You can go quietly and make this easy for all of us, or you can fight and force us to break your limbs. Your choice."

    Kanoda spoke not to them, but to the innkeeper. "You sold me out!" he spat.

    The old woman chuckled. "Nothing personal, dear," she said. "But you didn't have any real money, and I figured the soldiers might be willing to pay for information on a dark-skinned boy with Water Tribe artifacts. I sent my son to find them, but he crossed their path in the middle of the night. Seems they were already after you and really did appreciate the tip. So it all worked out for everyone."

    "Everyone except me, you mean," Kanoda said. The old woman just shrugged nonchalantly and went back to counting her money.

    "That was a fascinating little talk," the Captain said, "but we're on a tight schedule, so- come with us. Now."

    Kanoda ignored him and made a headlong dash for the door. Before he was even halfway there, his arms were caught from behind and pinned against his back. Captain Jiang stood and walked out the door, motioning for his soldiers to follow him with their captive.

    "I don't know what you did, spy," Jiang said when they were outside, "but you've really got the Empress's Chosen angry at you. Wouldn't want to be in your boots, my friend. They don't normally go for torture, the Chosen, but when you really make them mad- brrrr. I've heard stories. Wouldn't want to be you when that girl back at the base gets a hold of you."

    "Girl at the base?" Kanoda asked. "Shiyan! She must've followed me."

    "Shiyan," Jiang said. "Yeah, that's her name. Real spooky thing, I'll say that- looks at you like she'd kill you in a heartbeat if she thought the Empress wanted it."

    "Yeah," Kanoda said. "That's her."

    "Well, I hope you two enjoy your reunion!" The Captain laughed. "Come on, boys, let's take our spy here to meet his girlfriend!" Amid Kanoda's protests that Shiyan was in no way, shape, or form his girlfriend, the soldiers dragged him through the streets. Some of the villagers appeared at their windows and in alleys to watch, but although many looked hateful, none acted. Living within a day's hard march of the fortress on the cost, these people had lost the will to fight.

    Or at least, most of them had. As the soldiers and their captive approached the arch that marked the entrance to the village, they found their way barred by a tall figure wrapped in a concealing cloak. Kanoda couldn't recall seeing someone like that in the village last night- the soldiers too looked confused.

    Jiang swaggered forward. "Out of the way, fool," he said. "We're on Imperial business. Move, or we'll make you."

    The figure spoke, its voice calm and clear, but underlain with strength. "Release him now," it said. To Kanoda's surprise, it was a woman's voice.

    "We don't take orders from peasant scum," Jiang said. "Out of my way, now!" He raised one hand, and sparks crackled from it.

    "I will not move," the woman said. "Release him now. I don't want to hurt you."

    "Well, we don't really have a problem with hurting you, and we've warned you enough." Jiang thrust his fist out, and launched a blast of fire towards the stranger. Kanoda looked away, not wanting to see her die- but then something in the corner of his eye caught his vision, and his head swung forwards again. The woman seemed to reach into a pouch at her side, and from it emerged a long rope of water that struck the fireball in midair. Both vanished in a puff of steam.

    "Not possible," Jiang muttered, stumbling back. "It's not possible!"

    "A waterbender," Kanoda breathed, equally bewildered, but overjoyed rather than afraid. The arts of waterbending lived after all!

    "I will warn you one more time," the stranger said. "Let him go."

    "Take her!" the captain ordered. He and the four soldiers not directly involved in holding Kanoda lunged forward, preparing to unleash blasts of fire, but the woman was quicker. Both cloaked arms came up and pulled, and from the river there arose a wave of water that surged through the air, grazing the tops of some of the taller buildings before slamming onto the stunned soldiers. The waterbender then exhaled, slowly and deliberately, and the water turned to ice encasing Jiang and his men up to their necks.

    "You'll be able to break out of that before long," she said. "But I hope you'll not follow me. I don't want to have to fight you again, but I will if you make me." Jiang nodded weakly, and the waterbender turned to the two unfrozen soldiers holding Kanoda. "Release him." They let go of Kanoda's arms so quickly that he collapsed to the ground and then ran off into the village and presumably out the other side.

    Kanoda pulled himself to his knees, and saw a slender hand holding itself out to him. He took it, and the waterbender pulled him to his feet. "Come with me," she said. "We need to be away from here before they thaw out."

    "I'd agree with that," the Water Tribe boy said. He followed the stranger out of the village and across the barren landscape, heading north. "That sure was lucky that you showed up when you did," he said after a long silence. "Thanks a lot."

    "You're welcome, but it wasn't luck," the waterbender said. "I saw in my dreams several weeks ago that you would need my help, and I've been traveling since then to get here."

    "Saw me in your dreams?" Kanoda asked. "Who are you?"

    She reached up and cast back her hood. Kanoda stared at her for a moment, because at first glance she seemed only a few years older than he himself- until he saw her eyes. They were a clear blue that seemed somehow brighter than even the eyes he was used to among his own people, but more than that, they seemed old and sad. They were not the eyes of someone who was roughly his own age- they had more in common with his grandfather's. Her hair, too, was unusual- it was white and thick, bound up in a braid down her back. He'd never seen hair quite like it, certainly not on someone so seemingly youthful.

    He realized he was staring. "Sorry," he said.

    She laughed quietly. "I get that a lot. Apparently I make an impression on people, which is why I wear the cloak. If the Fire Empire got a good description of me- well, I wouldn't be hard to find. As for your question, my name is Yue, and I think we can help each other."

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Kanoda’s story has just hit a major turning point, it would seem. Yes, this is the same Yue from the show, and yes, I know she wasn’t a waterbender there. There are some very, very odd things going on here, and I promise that there is an explanation for them- unfortunately, an explanation which will have to wait until the next Kanoda chapter. Suffice to say, this is the canon character appearance I’ve alluded to in some of my earlier commentary, and I’m extremely pleased with where I was able to take her.

    Shiyan bullying the general was also a fun scene to write, and I think it provides a good illustration of how screwed up the Fire Empire’s internal dynamics can be. Shiyan is a teenager who’s hardly ever left her isolated home island, but because of who and what she is, she can threaten any Imperial citizen with death and commandeer any military or government resource she wants, and unless a senior Chosen or Azula herself steps in, she has full legal right to do so. Captain Jiang’s character exists, in part, to show how the ordinary military really resents the Chosen in a lot of respects, both because of the amount of prestige they get and the way they exist completely outside the chain of command- picture your average Imperial officer from Star Wars’s opinion of Darth Vader, and then imagine that instead of one Vader there’s a couple dozen of him, and you have what the average soldier thinks of the Chosen. Of course, sooner or later Shiyan may run up against someone who isn’t just going to roll over for her…

    -MasterGhandalf

  20. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    Gah, the internal dynamics of the Fire Nation are just a mess here. :oops: But Yue! :D I am really, really excited to see where you are carrying that plot arch. How neat. =D=
    Last edited by Mira_Jade, Nov 29, 2013
  21. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 14: Heirs to Legends

    After leaving Shu Bei Fong's office, Tong followed Chaiy down the winding halls of the rebel base. They walked in silence for some time, though whenever they encountered one of the other members of the resistance he or she gave a polite nod at the leader's daughter, which she returned. Finally, though, Tong asked the question that had been eating at him ever since he arrived here. "What is this place?"

    Chaiy turned to look at him, a crooked smile on her face. "It's our headquarters. Thought you would have figured that out by now."

    "I know that," Tong said, feeling himself go slightly red. "I mean, what was it before? Surely you didn't build all this without attracting attention to yourself, and it doesn't look like anything I've seen the Empire make."

    She nodded. "You're right. This fortress is old- older than the Fire Empire. It was built during the last days of the Earth Kingdom as a hidden stronghold for a group of Earthbenders called the Dai Li who controlled the government. It was abandoned after Ba Sing Se was leveled, and the Dai Li were dispersed. Some of them joined up with the Blind Bandit's rebels and they told their companions that there was a base beneath Lake Laogai, but they swore to reveal its location only in absolute need. They died before that happened, but my father was able to find the hidden entrance after years of searching. When he became the leader of the resistance, he moved us here. We're close to the center of Imperial power on this continent, but in a place where they can't reach us. It's the perfect set-up, really."

    "The Dai Li," Tong said. "So, does that mean you have history? You remember what the world was like before the Fire Empire took over, when our people were free?"

    "Not much," Chaiy admitted sadly. "We're better off than you are, because we haven't had to deal with filtering out their lies so much, but mostly we just have legends, like the one my father told you about my great-grandmother. The Dai Li destroyed a lot of the old records themselves to keep Ozai from getting them, and then he had the rest destroyed because they belonged to his enemies. Then Azula came along and rewrote everything herself so that she looked like the Hero of the Universe. Not much that was reliable survived."

    After that they both lapsed back into silence as they moved further into the underground fortress. It was huge, and despite being full of rebels it seemed somehow empty, as though it had been intended to hold a much larger population. That, combined with Chaiy's story, hit home to Tong everything that the Fire Empire had inflicted on the people of the Earth Kingdom. More than simply enslaving them, it had robbed them of their culture and history, so that now their greatest folk-hero was a woman who'd been dead less than fifty years.

    "We're here," Chaiy said, snapping Tong out of his reverie. She pushed open the plain door in front of them, and they stepped through into a huge, empty cavern. The former slave simply stood and stared at the vast scope of the place- he'd never imagined anything quite like it. Of course, imagination wasn't something that was encouraged in the Empire's laborers.

    Chaiy walked out into the cave floor and stretched, then pulled something from inside her tunic and tossed it at Tong. He caught it with some surprise, and then realized what it was- a loaf of bread. "I imagine you’re pretty hungry, after everything," Chaiy said. "I know this isn't the most exciting food, but it's probably better than what you've been having. Eat up, and then we'll start."

    "Start what?" Tong asked, taking a bite.

    "Training," she said. "My dad's going to handle some of it, but I'm going to try and give you the basics first, of fighting and earthbending."

    "I already know the basics of earthbending," Tong said. "It's all I've been doing for the last several years."

    Chaiy winked at him. "You think you know the basics of earthbending. That's where you're wrong- slaves aren't taught bending that would be useful in a fight. What you think you know is flawed, and no matter how much raw power you have, that will bite you in serious battle. I'm here to fix that."

    Tong finished his bread and swallowed, then stepped forward. "All right," he said. "Let's get started."

    The rebel girl stretched again and moved to stand opposite Tong in the open floor. Stopping, she turned to look at him. "Now bending is really all about channeling the energy in your own body and spirit and using it to control one of the four elements. Imperial nobles have all kinds of fancy terms for that- chi and what-have-you- but the basic idea is that you have to tune yourself to the element, become like it, in order to use it. That's why firebending is all about energy and passion, because that's what fire's like.

    "Earth's different. Rock is stable and stubborn- it doesn't want to move, so you have to be even more stubborn to make it, both in body and mind." Chaiy dropped into a crouching stance similar to what Tong and the other slaves used when working, but with the feet spread out more and the body's weight lowered closer to the ground. One of her hands suddenly shot forward, and a wave of rock flew across the cavern and impacted the far wall.

    "A good stance is the key to good earthbending," Chaiy continued. "If you get it right, you're whole body becomes planted and immobile- that way the rock moves, not you. That's a big part of what the slaves do wrong. Your masters are forced to teach you the wrong stance, and your bending is weakened. They think it's a better trade-off to have a bunch of weak benders who work slower rather than a bunch of strong ones who might be able to resist."

    Tong stepped forward and dropped into a crouch similar to the one Chaiy had used. She walked up and looked him over, making minor corrections. When she was satisfied, she nodded and Tong made a forward lunge, imagining himself striking a boulder and sending it rolling downhill. The effect that he produced stunned him- a massive wave of earth shot forward, tearing the ground apart and causing Chaiy to jump aside to avoid being crushed. Finally, it struck the wall and stilled.

    "Well," Chaiy said breathlessly, "your form was good, but you need to learn to keep that under control. Power isn't enough- the Blind Bandit always won because she wasn't just a strong bender, but a smart one too."

    Tong nodded. "I understand. What should I do?"

    "Practice that a lot, and we'll work on keeping the effects less… spectacular, more focused." She put one hand around her chin. "After that, I'll start teaching you the bow. I'm a better archer than I am a bender, so that should be a bit easier, and have less of a chance of causing massive destruction." Chaiy stepped back and began to walk around Tong again. "Get back in your stance, and I'll see if I can help you modify it to keep things under better control. We'll not practice actual bending again until I think we've gotten it."

    Tong did as she instructed, but frowned slightly. "Your father said that the reason you want me for the resistance- that you think I could be a great bender- is because of my ability to feel the earth. Why haven't you mentioned that?"

    "Because that's one thing I can't help you with," Chaiy admitted. "Nobody here can. My father's the best of all of us, but he's nothing compared to what Masters were like before the conquest, and only the best of them had the tremorsense. And none of them were like my great-grandmother. Learning how to use that, like she did, isn't something you can be taught by anyone but yourself."

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    High Admiral Yuan paced back and forth on the deck of his flagship, Eye of Agni, as it sailed from the Capital harbor. It wasn't an important mission- just a simple patrol- but Yuan requested that he always be in command whenever the vessel sailed, and that it would have a disproportionate number of missions to its name. Even the tiniest bit reflected glory on him, and he lived for glory.

    Yuan ceased pacing and leaned against the upper deck's railing, looking down at the crew members scurrying on the torch-lit deck below. He snorted. Little men and women, doomed to be forgotten by the passage of history without having accomplished anything of importance. The High Admiral knew what it was like to be overlooked, and he had made it his goal to insure that he never would be again.

    It hadn't been easy growing up the grandson of Admiral Zhao, Scourge of the North. The great man's shadow lay over the whole family, and all of them knew that they could never equal his heights. In case his numerous children and grandchildren forgot that fact, Zhao had always been quick to remind them. He was an Admiral of the Fire Navy, conqueror of civilizations and one of the greatest firebending masters alive, and nothing they ever did could challenge his place in the Empire's pantheon of heroes. Part of Yuan had worshipped his grandfather- the rest had just wanted to hit the old man right in his smug face.

    Zhao had lived an inordinately long time (it was a common theory among all who knew him that this had less to do with good health and more to do with the fact that the spirit of death just didn't want him), and Yuan had seized his chance. He was the youngest son of Zhao's second daughter and therefore unlikely to inherit the estate, but some bribery, blackmail, and a few well-placed poisons had changed that. Barely into his twenties he had succeeded to control of one of the most powerful noble houses in the Empire, and was summoned to the palace to meet with the Empress and be officially instated. After the ceremony was over she took him aside, and that spooky old woman with eyes that saw right through you revealed to him the true secret of Zhao's glory, a secret the Admiral and the royal house had kept since the Comet. Returning home, Yuan saw it for himself and it was hammered home to him again that he would always live in his grandfather's shadow.

    Years passed and he attained the rank of High Admiral, one of the two most powerful military officers in the empire, but it was a hollow victory. The Fire Navy, once so glorious, was a shell of its former self. The force that once overran the world was now limited to chasing pirates and putting down the very occasional coastal revolt. All other duties were ceremonial, and to a man of Yuan's ambition it was maddening. He had risen to the peak of power, and found that true glory was still just beyond his reach. He could hear his grandfather's laughter from beyond the grave. The thought of it caused him to clench the rail tightly.

    "Sir," a voice said from behind him, and he turned to see the Eye's captain approach, scroll in hand. "This message came to you from the High Minister. He wished to inform you of his progress with the girl. He feels that she is working out quite well."

    Yuan whirled and struck the scroll from the captain's hand. "Spare me," he snarled. "I've had enough of Qing Xi and his self-congratulation for a lifetime. Can't a man even think out here without being interrupted by prattling?"

    "I'm sorry, sir," the captain said, picking up the scroll and backing away with a bow. "Forgive me."

    Yuan ignored him and turned back to the horizon, staring off into the distance with his predator's gaze, searching for new enemies to kill, new lands to conquer, and a new legend to be born, one that would bear his name and eclipse that of Admiral Zhao for all time.

    High Admiral Yuan had gone unrecognized and unimportant for too long. Soon the time would come when all the Fire Empire would chant his name.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    It’s been a while since we’ve seen High Admiral Yuan, though he’s about to become a whole lot more important, and this is our first serious look inside his head- and boy does he have issues. Outwardly he’s a lot like his grandfather, but inwardly I think he’s even more unstable, and that makes him particularly dangerous. In any event, I included him in this particular chapter largely because I liked the contrast between him and Tong and- as the title suggests- their vastly different attitudes towards feeling expected to live up to a famous historical figure (who was also, in both cases, a major character on the show, not that either Yuan or Tong knows that;)).

    Speaking of characters who are part of the legacy of a canon character, Chaiy is a very different person from her great-grandmother, but I did try to put a little Toph into her mannerisms, particularly her flip, somewhat irreverent tone when talking to Tong.

    There’s an interesting story behind the name of Yuan’s ship. When I first started writing Avatar: The Last Airbender fics (almost five years ago now, which is hard for me to believe) I was influenced by other fics I’d read which had a sun spirit named Agni who was worshipped in the Fire Nation. While there’s some evidence to back this up in canon (the Agni Kai duel is named for a real-world Hindu god of- you guessed it- fire), it’s pretty thin, especially compared to the prevalence of the idea in fanon. In any case, the Fire Nation had largely lost touch with its spiritual heritage in canon anyway, and that trend was unlikely to be reversed in this AU, so whether Agni exists or not, him being a major part of contemporary Fire Nation culture felt out-of-place. In my later works I definitely tried to tone Agni references down or remove them altogether, and I’ve mostly taken them out of the revised FotFE, but leaving it in as the name of Yuan’s flagship felt right, although I think it’s more equivalent to naming a ship after Zeus or another figure from classical mythology rather than after an actual god who is worshipped in peoples’ day-to-day lives.

    -MasterGhandalf

  22. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 15: The Dragon Empress

    Jiazin stood still and quiet, staring at Qing Xi as she attempted to process this latest revelation. "Now come," the High Minister said, his smile still in place. "We must go and see her at once."

    "Who?" was all that Jiazin was able to ask.

    Qing Xi shook his head. "Why, the Empress, of course," he said. "She is expecting you."

    "The Empress?" Jiazin asked, baffled. "I don't understand. It's the middle of the night, and she's old- surely she's not still awake?"

    "As I told you once before, dear child, age, wisdom, and status all entitle one to a certain degree of eccentricity- and Empress Azula possesses all three qualities in great amounts. I assure you that she is quite awake, but you must come with me now. It doesn't do to keep the most powerful person in the world waiting." The High Minister turned and marched up the stairs leading back into the main palace, Jiazin following close behind out of a blend of deference to Imperial officials that had been hammered into her by her tutors and her native curiosity.

    They hurried through the palace corridors, which were largely deserted due to the late hour. The few servants who were about paused in their work and averted their eyes as the High Minister passed, not seeming to notice Jiazin at all. Finally they arrived at the entrance to the throne room, where the same Chosen stood guard as before. Qing Xi stepped forward and looked her directly in the eye. “The Empress is expecting us, Zhi,” he said softly.

    "She is," the Chosen said, nodding once, and she pulled the door open. The High Minister stepped inside, Jiazin following at his heels.

    They stood in what was obviously the throne room of the Fire Empire, and Jiazin found herself feeling very small and humble in comparison. Her father's audience hall in Long Du Shi was grand, but it had nothing on this chamber. The room was vaster than the eye could take in, supported by golden pillars intricately decorated with carved flames that seemed almost real. The throne itself was golden as well, perched on a raised dais against the far wall and guarded by two golden dragons. It was magnificent- but no one sat on it. The throne room was dark, and apart from Jiazin and Qing Xi, quite empty.

    "Where is she?" the governor's daughter whispered. Somehow it felt wrong to speak loudly in this place.

    "Watching," the High Minister replied in an equally quiet voice. "She makes certain that we are alone before revealing herself. The Empress fears assassination- but more than that, she has a finely tuned sense of theatricality." He turned to look at Jiazin slowly, eyes dark. "When she arrives, for your own safety remember what I'm telling you now- do not speak to her unless she speaks to you first, answer any question she puts to you as thoroughly as you can, and above all, do not look the Empress in the face."

    "Why not?" Jiazin asked. Before her companion could reply, however, the dais around the throne burst into brilliant blue flames. The young noblewoman fell back, startled, and suddenly felt Qing Xi's hand on her wrist. The High Minister was already kneeling, and he pulled Jiazin down into the same position beside him. She copied his pose, but not before she caught a glimpse of a human-shaped shadow standing amidst the flames out of the corner of her eye.

    "Hail Azula," Qing Xi intoned. "Fire Lord of our Nation, Empress of the world, capturer of the Avatar, called Dragon. Behold, I have brought you Jiazin, daughter of Yan Li, who is governor of the city of Long Du Shi in your name. What is your will?"

    "You have done well, High Minister," the Empress said. Her voice was dry and scratchy with age, but not as much as Jiazin would have expected from someone over a century old- there was still calm, controlled power there. There was something strange about it, too, an echoing quality that was surely more than just the acoustics of the room, but Jiazin couldn't place it. "I am pleased with your work. You have selected a worthy candidate."

    Candidate for what? Jiazin wondered, but as she did so she was distracted by the sound of a robe brushing against the stone floor. Not daring to raise her eyes, she could nonetheless now see the hem of a rich red garment- the Empress's robe of state, no doubt- immediately before her.

    "You say that she is clever without being rebellious, loyal without being blind, and a powerful firebender," Azula continued. "All of these traits will prove essential in the task ahead. Tell me, girl- do you believe in the Fire Empire?"

    "I do," Jiazin whispered.

    "Why?"

    "Because it brought peace and order to a world in chaos," the young noblewoman said. "Before the Empire there was constant warfare between the Four Nations, and the Avatar ensured that it continued for his own selfish purposes. But the Fire Nation brought peace to the nations and you yourself imprisoned the Avatar, and since then we have achieved a pinnacle of civilization that could not have been dreamed of before. That is why I believe in the Fire Empire, Majesty."

    The Empress seemed to consider this answer, and to Jiazin's surprise she chuckled softly. "And do you have ambition, child? Do you seek, perhaps, eternal glory to shine on your name and your family's name, as it has on me and mine?"

    The girl thought of her father, working half the night through and having little time left over for his family, all in the name of honor and prestige. "My only ambition is to serve you, Majesty, however I might. If that brings glory I will take it, but I do not need it."

    "Very good." The hem of the red robe moved out of Jiazin's vision, though the flickering firelight still cast a twisted reflection of it on the glossy floor. "It is so rare to find anyone who believes in a cause for its own sake, instead of for personal gain. Unless, of course, you are lying to me."

    Jiazin could feel the Empress's presence behind her, somehow. She certainly felt it as a hand, bony but gloved, descended on the back of her neck and pressed down lightly. "You are not lying, are you, girl? I can tell- I can always tell. Many great and powerful lords and ministers and admirals have tried to deceive me before, and all have died, right here, by my hand. Now then, tell me- was all that you said the truth? Or are you just another scheming little hypocrite here to leach off of me in my old age?"

    The hand's grip tightened, and though Jiazin felt the glove go hot, that was not the only reason she was sweating. Fear rose up inside her- she hadn't intended to deceive the Empress, but here, in this grand hall, surrounded by fire and listening to that hypnotic old voice with its strange echo, it was impossible to believe that Empress Azula was human. Rather she seemed like so spirit that had the power to look into Jiazin's heart and weigh her fears and hopes and desires, and punish her if it found her wanting.

    "I am not lying, Majesty," she finally said in a voice somewhere between a gasp and a whisper. "I am your loyal servant."

    The Empress did not reply, but Jiazin felt the hand lift from her shoulder and heard the sound of the robe sweeping across the floor. In one of the polished tiles she caught Azula's reflection again, more fully this time, and it seemed that there was something wrong with it that couldn't be fully explained by the distortion, something to do with the face…

    Without thinking, Jiazin raised her head and looked upon the Dragon Empress in all her glory.

    She was dressed, as Jiazin had guessed, in the long, flowing robes that had been worn by Fire Lords since the days of Sozin- mostly red, with black around the collar and cuffs, all trimmed in gold. Magnificent as the royal regalia was, however, it was the face that drew the young noblewoman's complete attention. As she had noticed in the reflection, there was indeed something wrong with it- it could not, in fact, be rightly called a face at all.

    It was a mask, a gleaming golden mask shaped into the intricately detailed visage of a snarling dragon. There were gaps between its fangs that were presumably to allow the wearer to breathe, and the eyes were dark, empty pits, but otherwise the mask covered the Empress's face completely. A hood pulled up behind it hid even her hair from view. Together with the voluminous robe and gloved hands, it ensured that not even an inch of Azula's skin showed. The effect made it seem, more than ever, that she was not human, but rather some ancient and powerful creature.

    The Empress stood still for a moment as she regarded Jiazin, and the girl herself was frozen in place, unable to believe that she had just defied the High Minister's warning. Finally, the masked head shook once. "Foolish girl," the Empress whispered, and then she brought one gloved hand through a tight, complex pattern and leveled it at Jiazin.

    There was a brilliant flash of blue-white light, and the young noblewoman knew no more.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Jiazin awoke slowly and with a pounding headache. Shaking herself to clear out the pain, she sat up slowly and realized she was back in her room, lying on the bed. High Minister Qing Xi was sitting on a chair near the end, apparently engrossed in the scroll on his lap. When he heard Jiazin stirring he rolled it up and looked at her solemnly.

    "That was a very foolish thing you did," he said. "I warned you not to look at the Empress's face. Thankfully for us both, she was in a good mood tonight, relatively speaking. She gave you a warning, but let you live."

    "What did she do?" Jiazin asked, rubbing her forehead. "That wasn't any firebending I've ever seen before."

    "It was lightning," Qing Xi explained. "Always a specialty of our Empress, even in her youth. In her age she has perfected it, being able to control the current she creates so finely that she can choose when it kills- or when it just gives pain. She can even do it without damaging her gloves, though I believe that's only true for weaker charges."

    "The gloves," Jiazin said softly, "and the mask. Why?"

    Qing Xi closed his eyes and drew a deep breath before speaking. "Empress Azula is one of the greatest firebenders who has ever lived, and the ruler of an empire greater than any in history, but her power in not absolute. There is one foe she knows she cannot defeat- time. She has lived for more than a century, reigned now for almost half of one, but at long last her body is failing her.

    "She has feared that more than anything since the day her father died. I was only an apprentice scribe then, but I remember it well. Phoenix King Ozai had lived to a great old age, and age had… unmanned him. I still remember the sounds of his screams on the day he realized his memory was going, that for all his power he was going to go senile and die like any other man. In the end, he didn't know anything- not his own name, not the name of his kingdom, not his daughter's face, but something in him still refused to die. In the end, it was Azula herself who killed him- smothered him with his own pillow, I believe."

    "Assassination?" Jiazin said, unbelieving, but Qing Xi shook his head.

    "No. It was an act of mercy, perhaps the only one she ever performed in all her long life. Ever since then, though, she feared the same thing happening to her. The Empress prides herself above all on her intelligence and firebending power, and now she knew that there was a foe that could take both of these from her, one even she had no hope of overcoming. For years, there was no sign of it in her actions, until a decade ago, when she became convinced that she was now dying as well. She summoned the entire order of Fire Sages to the palace to question them about the secret of immortality, but none had any answers for her."

    "What happened to them?" Jiazin asked. Qing Xi did not respond, continuing his story without pause.

    "That's when she began to wear the mask and gloves, Jiazin, concealing her age behind them so that no one would see it and think her weak. It's worked, so far, but only as a stalling measure. The Empress does believe that she has found a solution that is, if not perfect, at least acceptable." He raised his eyes and looked at her keenly. "That, my dear girl, is where you come in."

    "What are you talking about?" Jiazin asked, more mystified than ever.

    "Though the Dragon Empress must die, her name will live forever," Qing Xi said. "The world will not be made aware of her passing, when it comes, for another will wear the mask and robes, abandoning her own name to claim that of Azula. The ministry will help her rule, of course, and the Chosen will ensure that the Empress's legacy is followed.

    "You must realize that by 'she', I mean 'you'."

    Jiazin was stunned. Never, in her wildest imaginings, had she considered this possibility. "Me- you would make me Empress?"

    Qing Xi smiled. "Not just Empress, child- we will make you Azula. She still has several years left in her, plenty of time for you to learn her history and mannerisms."

    "But, why me? I'm not of royal blood; I've never lived in the Capital. Why not one of the Chosen?"

    The High Minister's expression turned distinctly sour. "I suggested that very idea to the Mistress of the Chosen, and she was mortified by the thought of it. The Chosen revere the Empress, Jiazin- it's beaten into them from the moment they can walk and wield weapon. None of them could imagine becoming her replacement. Besides, none of them are benders- they’re trained to suppress the ability even if they have it, you know, so that they never forget that they are the servants and Azula their mistress- and if one is to be Azula, one must possess the power of firebending. But you- you are young, nobly born, loyal, clever, and a talented bender.” He smiled again and glanced at the portrait on the wall. “You even look something like she did when she was your age. You're not a perfect match, of course, but you're the best I could find after scouring the Empire for a year. You'll do a fine job."

    "But I'm not of royal blood," Jiazin repeated, less because she thought the High Minister hadn't thought of that, and more because she felt a need to say something and couldn't think of anything else.

    Qing Xi waved the comment away. "There is no royal house anymore, apart from the Empress herself. She was married- several times, I believe- but all of her husbands vanished mysteriously before an heir could be born. Another reason why this must happen- if Azula dies with no successor, the Empire will be torn apart by civil war, and more than likely a hogmonkey like Yuan would take the throne. Therefore, she must not die. Do you understand me?"

    Jiazin nodded weekly, and the High Minister stood. "Now then, you should rest, child. Your training will begin in earnest tomorrow." He turned and made for the door, but before he reached it Jiazin stopped him by voicing a question that had suddenly popped back into her mind- a name from earlier this evening.

    "High Minister," she said softly, "who was Prince Zuko?"

    Qing Xi stood still for several moments without speaking. Finally he looked back over his shoulder at her, and this time he was not smiling. "No one who concerns you," he said quietly, and then he left the room, shutting the door behind him.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Now this was a big one, one of the major turning points of FotFE- the unveiling of our Big Bad, Dragon Empress Azula herself. I hope I managed to do her justice. I like to think I did, and this remains one of my favorite scenes in the whole fic, in large part for the atmosphere of the throne room, which I think I did a good job with. I like my Big Bads to have a certain grandeur and mystique about them, and it was certainly my intention to give it to Azula; I’ll confess that while I thought Ozai on the show had a great build-up, he was enough of a generic Evil Emperor-type that I found him rather underwhelming once revealed- I tried to make Azula a bit more striking, though exactly how won’t be completely clear for a while yet.

    I was torn for a while between different looks for Azula’s mask, specifically between one made to resemble her youthful face and the dragon mask I ended up going with. I ended up preferring the dragon for a couple of reasons- one, Azula’s fear of old age has little to do with outward vanity and more to do with fearing weakness, and so I thought that a fearsome mask made more sense than an eerily beautiful one (not that Azula’s not vain, but I think given the choice between beauty and power, she’d take power every time). My other reason was a bit more meta- the Norn Queen, a villain from the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series* who has certain parallels with this version of Azula, wears a mask made to resemble a youthful version of her face, and as creepy a villain as that character is, I didn’t want my Dragon Empress to seem derivative (especially since I only recognized the similarities after I’d already decided what old Azula would be like), and ultimately, I feel both characters have different reasons for going masked.

    Well, we’re starting to see some of the shape of Azula and Qing Xi’s plans now, and the reason for some of the striking likenesses between Jiazin and a young Azula is that she was specifically selected for those likenesses. There’s more to this, but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say so, considering the schemers involved. And of course, Qing Xi knows more than he probably should about a certain long-dead prince, and now Jiazin knows at least a little of that too…

    -MasterGhandalf

    * Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is one of my favorite series, though I’ll freely admit the first third of the first book is noticeably slow. It’s still probably the best non-Tolkien “traditional” fantasy epic I’ve ever read, and well-worth checking out.
  23. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 16: Out of Balance

    Kanoda followed the strange woman who called herself Yue for what felt like hours. They walked in silence- after introducing herself, the white-haired waterbender had insisted that they hurry in order to get safely away from the Fire Empire's immediate reach, and that she would explain more when they were safe. Kanoda found the idea of safety incredibly appealing, which was enough to restrain his intense curiosity about his rescuer, at least for a little while. Part of him still wondered if he should trust her, but she had saved him from the Imperial soldiers, and he had to admit that he didn't have any better options.

    They paused briefly to eat some fruit that Yue produced from the voluminous folds of her cloak, and then continued on. The sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon when they finally arrived at their destination- a jumbled area of rocky hills rising up from the flat plain. The waterbender led the way among them, finally coming to a cave beneath a rocky outcropping. She ducked inside, and Kanoda followed her.

    "It isn't much, I'm afraid," Yue said as she pulled off her outer cloak, revealing that beneath it she was dressed in the dark greens that seemed common among peasants of the former Earth Kingdom. Digging into her pockets, she produced another small handful of fruit which she passed on to Kanoda, and more which she began to eat herself.

    "It's better than wherever those soldiers would have taken me," Kanoda said. "Thank you again, by the way. I've only been in an Imperial prison for a few hours- maybe a day, I'm not sure- but I do know that I don't want to go back. Ever."

    "You were in an Imperial prison?" Yue asked, looking at him curiously. "I wondered why they wanted to capture you so badly. The knowledge I get from my dreams is useful, but not complete. I knew where to find you, and that you would need my help, but nothing more than that."

    Kanoda looked at her pointedly, unable to restrain himself any longer. "You mentioned those dreams before, and you said you'd tell me what this was all about when we were safe. We seem safe now, and I want to know more."

    The waterbender sighed and sat still for several moments, then turned and looked out the mouth of the cave. The sun was almost gone now, and a crescent moon hung in the blue-black sky. Yue's eyes seemed to fix on it, as if she was drawing strength from it in some fashion.

    "Why do you look at the moon like that?" Kanoda asked in a soft voice.

    "My story is not an easy one to tell," she said. "I look to the moon to remind myself of the cause I have dedicated my life to. I look, and remember what it was like before, when it was brighter. Before the Comet came, and the Fire Empire owned the world."

    Kanoda laughed. "That's impossible," he said. "To remember what the moon was like back then, you'd have to be, what, a hundred years old? You don't look that much older than me! And how could the Fire Nation winning the war dim the moon, anyway? It doesn't make sense!"

    Yue looked at him straight on, and once again Kanoda felt the weight of those too-old eyes. "I am one hundred and fourteen years old, actually," she said calmly. "Roughly, at least. It gets hard to keep track, after a while. Now listen, and I will answer all of your questions.

    "I was born over a hundred years ago in the Northern Water Tribe. My father, Arnook, was the Tribe's great Chieftain, and by his position he had been given a sacred trust. Long ago, the spirits of the Ocean and the Moon crossed over to the mortal world and lived in a sacred oasis in the heart of the Northern Tribe's city, and the people were charged with protecting them.

    "When I was born I was very sickly, and my parents were afraid that I would die. My father took me to the Spirit Oasis and there the Moon Spirit gave of her own power to heal me, at the same time creating a bond between us. That's why my hair is white- I was born with dark hair, like most children of the Water Tribes, but it was changed as a sign of the Moon Spirit's touch.

    "For most of my childhood we lived in relative peace- there were skirmishes with the Fire Nation, but no large force dared challenge us in our own waters. That changed the summer of my sixteenth year, when the Comet named in honor of the tyrant Sozin appeared in the skies once again. The firebenders' power was enhanced beyond understanding, and they came for us in force. My people tried to resist, but there was little that we could do against such power. I saw my father die that day, and the man I was engaged to marry, and even old Pakku, the Waterbending Master. My people, my life, my beautiful city- all went up in flames.

    "The commander of the Fire Navy was named Admiral Zhao, and he was an animal. His men captured me alive and brought me to him because of my station, and he decided to let me live- as a trophy. I was chained and locked in the depths of his flagship. Most of the fleet pulled out after the battle was won- it took less than a day- but Zhao waited until they were gone and went back ashore with some of his men. It would be a long time before I learned what they went to do, but I still remember feeling a jolt in my body about an hour after he left, and I knew that something was terribly wrong. That night, I looked out the window in my cell and saw that the moon had risen red.

    "The next several months were a blur- I remember spending most of my time locked in a cell, brought out only when Zhao wanted to present me to his peers and gloat about how he'd destroyed my nation. After a few months, though, he seemed to get bored with me and largely forgot I existed. It was some time after that- I'm not quite sure how long, honestly- that I started hearing the voice in my dreams.

    "At first all it was able to convey were basic concepts and images- feelings of entrapment and isolation. Maybe these were easier to communicate because I was feeling the same thing, or because they were the emotions the voice itself felt most strongly. After a while, though, it became able to communicate more clearly, and I realized that it was the Moon Spirit herself who was speaking to me.

    "She explained to me where Admiral Zhao went after the battle at the North Pole- the Spirit Oasis, where he captured the Moon and Ocean Spirits and removed them from the sacred waters. Cut off from their connection to the Spirit World, they were no longer able to fuel the power of waterbending. There have been no waterbenders since that day, and this is why- because an arrogant Admiral decided to toy with the balance of the world. He wanted to kill the Moon Spirit at least, apparently, but Fire Lord Ozai ordered him to capture only. That way the spirits' power would be disrupted without risking the end of the world that the Fire Nation newly ruled.

    "Because we were linked, I remained the one person to whom the Moon Spirit could reach out. Though I had never been a bender before, she was able to feed me enough of her power that I was able to escape from Zhao's prison. I tried to free both spirits, but I couldn't find them. The Moon Spirit was trapped in a container full of water but otherwise had no idea where she was, and the Ocean Spirit's location was a mystery to both of us. Apparently Zhao decided to keep them separate in order to ensure they weren't able to pool their powers and escape.

    "Unable to free the spirits, I stowed away on a ship bound for the former Earth Kingdom. I've spent most of my time since then traveling the continent, using my waterbending to heal people who suffered under the Empire's rule and undermine it where I could. I would have gone back for the Moon Spirit, but she told me to wait until everything was in place- after all, what is time to an immortal? My bond with the spirit kept me from aging, and as I travelled I waited for her sign. A week ago she appeared in my dreams again and told me to find you, Kanoda of the Southern Tribe, and help you. Powerful forces are in motion now, and the Spirit believes that this time is ideal for trying to break the Fire Empire's power.

    "You have seen a small taste of how the world has been damaged by Imperial rule, but even the oppressed descendants of the Earth Kingdom do not know the full extent of the Fire Empire's crimes. By removing the Ocean and Moon Spirits they threw the whole world out of balance. An element has been removed from the cycle, as have two nations. There are no more waterbenders apart from me, and as a result the world's best hope for freedom is gone. Without the next element in the cycle, the Avatar cannot be reborn, and more than that, without the presence of the Moon and Ocean Spirits- Tui and La as they name themselves, Push and Pull- time itself is stalled. Ever since the Empire's ascension, nothing has changed or grown- instead, the world has only sunk deeper into darkness and despair. I know how to change that, help, from you and others." She looked at him straight on again, the expression in her eyes quietly pleading. "Will you help me?"

    Kanoda sighed and shook his head. "You know, my grandfather is a great storyteller, but even he never had one like that. I'm not sure I'd believe you- except that I saw you waterbend, and I can tell that there's something about you that's not quite of this world. I don't know if that's enough to believe you, but I do know this- I left home to fight the Fire Empire, and it looks like you're doing the same thing." Kanoda extended his hand. "Count me in."

    Yue took Kanoda's outstretched hand in her own and smiled sadly. "Thank you."

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Shiyan spun in the center of the empty dueling field, bringing her blade through the sword forms she had known since childhood at faster and faster speeds. Her will was focused on her weapon to the exclusion of all else, so that it became almost an extension of her arm. Had anyone been unlucky enough to be standing near Shiyan as she practiced, they would have been sliced into pieces in six different ways before even having a chance to blink.

    Finally the young Chosen sheathed her blade and bowed to an imaginary opponent. Rising up, she saw Cheng standing across the field from her, holding herself for once with the poise and dignity befitting her station. Maybe, Shiyan thought, there was some hope for the girl after all.

    "What is it, sister?" she asked calmly, as if she'd just been taking a leisurely stroll rather than engaging in a grueling practice regimen.

    "The soldiers we sent out after the spy have returned," Cheng said. "Some of them have news you should hear."

    "Lead me to them," Shiyan commanded. She fell into step behind Cheng as the younger girl left the dueling field and came to the front of the fortress. General Yi was waiting there along with two members of his staff. Standing in front of them were five soldiers who looked rather the worse for the wear.

    "Ah, Chosen Shiyan," the General said, "you've arrived. Good. Now then, Captain Jiang, tell Chosen Shiyan the story you just told me."

    Shiyan stepped forward to regard the captain with a keen eye. He gulped as their gazes met and looked away, then began to speak. "It's not a story, Chosen," he said. "It's the truth. My men and I, we found the spy's boat, and we decided to follow his trail. I thought we could save you and your friend the trouble of catching him, you see."

    Shiyan snorted. "You mean you wanted all of the glory. Continue."

    Jiang gulped again. "Anyway, we caught up with the spy outside a peasant village and captured him. We were bringing him back here when we were ambushed."

    "Rebels!" Shiyan hissed. "How many were there, what were they wearing? The spy must have been working with them all along!"

    "There was only one of them- a woman in a dark cloak. She was pretty, but funny looking- she had white hair, but her face was too young for it."

    "You're saying that one woman defeated five Imperial soldiers?"

    Jiang shook his head. "Not just one woman. One waterbender."

    "Waterbender?" Shiyan demanded. "Impossible! There have been no waterbenders for a hundred years!"

    Now it was the captain's turn to snort. "Tell her that. You can believe me or not, Chosen, but I'm telling you the truth of what happened."

    Shiyan grabbed his collar and pulled his face within inches of her own, studying it intently. Finally, she let him go. "I believe you," she admitted, a tingling sensation that might have been deep-rooted apprehension running down her spine. She swiftly buried it. "General, the situation is more serious than I thought. I'll be needing a squad of your best troops to come with me- you can't be too careful with a bender, and we don't know if there are more of them. Captain, you'll need to lead us to where you picked up the trail- we'll take it from there. Cheng, you're with me."

    Even as she finished speaking, the Chosen spun and began to march towards where her ship was docked, Cheng and the captain following close behind.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------

    When Shiyan was out of earshot, General Yi leaned over to one of his aides. "You know what the waterbender means," he said softly. "This is about more than those two little Chosen. Someone very high in the Empress’s court will be very interested in this information. He'll want to know everything- maybe even handle things himself; he can be hard to predict that way. You know what to do."

    "Aye, sir," the aide said, saluting. Turning from the General, he began to hurry towards the central tower of the fortress. He had a letter to send.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------

    Yue is a character who I thought had a great deal of untapped potential in the show, particularly as regards her status as a human with a unique connection to the Moon Spirit, one of the closest things to an actual god that exists in the Avatarverse. I’ll certainly not deny that her sacrifice/rebirth as the new Moon Spirit was a great scene, but I wish we’d gotten more than three episodes to get to know her and her unique status before that happened. She wasn’t originally intended to be part of this AU during my initial brainstorming, but the idea of Yue, the spirits’ immortal emissary grabbed me relatively early in the process nonetheless, and tied in very well with where I wanted to go with Kanoda’s storyline, so she got to be an integral part of the story in what I sometimes think of as a kind of “fem-Gandalf” role. Now, it’s hard to imagine FotFE without her.

    In hindsight, I probably overestimated how much damage the captivity of the Moon and Ocean spirits would do to the world (I knew immediately that the I didn’t want both spirits dead, which would probably immediately render the world uninhabitable, something I think Ozai recognized as well when giving Zhao his orders), and I’d assumed the Avatar Cycle was a lot more integral to the metaphysics of the Avatarverse than it turned out to be. However, considering Tui and La’s nature as complementary opposites- the way they’re discussed in the show, they seemed to be as much Yin and Yang as Moon and Ocean- I still think that permanently separating them would do pretty hideous things to the world (as well as providing a handy reason for technology to have stayed largely the same), and it adds even more to the necessity of toppling the Fire Empire. In short, Zhao, you kind of broke reality.

    I’m not going to spoil who the general was sending his letter to, though honestly, it wasn’t supposed to be that hard to figure out. Suffice to say, Shiyan and Cheng are about to have some competition…

    -MasterGhandalf
  24. Mira_Jade The NSWFF Manager With The Cape

    Manager
    Member Since:
    Jun 29, 2004
    star 4
    Ooh, I liked looking in to more of Yue's story here. Wonderfully done. =D=
  25. MasterGhandalf Jedi Grand Master

    Member Since:
    Oct 25, 2009
    star 2
    Chapter 17: Bait


    Gian crouched among the rocks near the spot where the rebels had vanished, carefully hidden from the view of anyone who might be walking along the shores of Lake Laogai. He hadn't moved for hours; his predatory gaze was fixated on the spot he had guessed to be the entrance to the rebels' lair with an intensity that was almost inhuman. Every so often he would accept food or water from the soldier who waited with him, but otherwise he might have been a statue.


    "You're sure you know where they are?" the soldier asked after a while. "No one's surfaced for days now. How do you know there aren't other entrances, and they aren't just fooling us?"


    "They’re here," Gian growled. "Tracks don't just disappear like that. There may well be other entrances, but this is the only one we know of- sooner or later someone will use it. In my line of work, patience is often more important than courage or ruthlessness." He gave a slight smirk. "That's a lesson many in the army could stand to learn."


    The soldier ignored the barb. "Then if the entrance can only be accessed by earthbending, why not force some slaves to open it up for us?"


    Gian actually laughed at that suggestion, though the sound was devoid of mirth. "Because enslaving an earthbender is the act of shackling something very powerful to your will. The only way it works is to convince them they can never be free, never resist us. I've tracked many escaped slaves over the years- since before you were more than a knee-high brat playing with a wooden sword, no doubt. The moment they would be exposed to free earthbenders and the possibility of successful resistance, they would turn on us. No, we need to make the rebels come to us. All of them."


    "How?" the soldier asked, unimpressed. "They've shown no sign of doing that so far."


    "You haven't been paying attention," the mercenary said. "Last night I sent a message via hawk to our friend the Underminister of Labor and explained the situation to him." He reached up and fingered a small silver whistle that hung from a chain around his neck. "We have devised a plan."


    "What kind of plan?"


    Gian turned to look at the soldier straight on, and the man shrunk away from that merciless gaze. "How do you lure an animal out of hiding?" he asked quietly. "With bait."


    -------------------------------------------------------------------------


    Tong drew back the arrow slowly, focusing on the target in front of him with all his being. When he was sure he was lined up right, he released his hold upon the string, launching the arrow into flight- and winced as it struck the target on the far edge. It wasn't a complete failure, but he felt that he simply didn't have the same knack for archery that he did for earthbending.


    "You're getting better," Chaiy said encouragingly from behind him. "You did hit the target this time. You're just not lining everything up right. Archery is all about patience and precision. Watch." Drawing an arrow from her quiver and notching it in a single fluid motion, she let fly and it struck her target dead center.


    Tong shook his head admiringly. "I'll never be able to do that," he said.


    "You're being silly," she retorted. "You just started learning this two days ago- you're not going to master it already! At least with earthbending you had experience, even if your technique was wrong. This is something completely new."


    "You're right," Tong sighed. "But, on the bright side, at least my archery isn't likely to be tearing up the practice floor any time soon."


    Chaiy chuckled. After going through a few more practice exercises with earthbending on the first day, it had become increasingly obvious that while the amount of power Tong possessed was truly stunning, his fine control was sadly lacking. As a result, their training had begun to focus on that area of bending exclusively- Chaiy had said that while earthbending had once been stereotyped as nothing more than brute force, the truly great earthbenders knew how to carefully apply that force in order to accomplish more subtle and complex moves. As a result, Tong's earthbending practice had become little more than repetition of basic exercises, trying to carefully limit the amount of force used each time to no more than what was necessary.


    In the meantime, Chaiy had begun teaching him the bow, her preferred weapon. Firebenders, she said, had a natural advantage in the area of precise ranged combat. An earthbender might be able to lob a boulder an impressively long way, but such an act would be hard to hide and any skilled firebender could blast the rock from the air. An arrow, by contrast, was a much smaller and stealthier projectile, easier to aim accurately and much harder to shoot down. A skilled archer could kill a bender without having to close in on him- without his even knowing they were there- which resulted in an immense advantage.

    The problem was that Tong was simply having a difficult time grasping the skill. He knew that Chaiy was right- he shouldn't expect to master it in just a few days- but it was still annoying.


    Sighing, he put another arrow to the string and raised the bow. "Let's try this again," he said, taking careful aim at the target and drawing the string back, but before he could let the arrow fly he was distracted by the sound of the door opening behind him. Tong and Chaiy turned simultaneously and saw a rebel the former slave didn't recognize standing there.


    "What is it?" Chaiy asked. "Does my father have a message for me?"


    "He does," the rebel said. "Shu told me to tell you that there's a caravan moving towards Long Du Shi from the north, carrying weapons and supplies for the army. It's only lightly protected, and he wants to hit it."

    "Excellent," Chaiy replied, drawing back her bowstring and letting it fall slack again. "I could use a bit of action. What about Tong?"


    "The kid?" the rebel asked. "Your dad says to bring him, if he wants to come. He thinks he could use the experience."


    The rebel leader's daughter rested her chin in one hand and studied Tong critically. "Well?" she asked him. "Your archery could still use work, but I think your earthbending's up for a little mayhem. What do you think?"


    Tong's eyes narrowed. "Strike back at the Fire Empire?" he asked softly. "Yeah. I'm up for it."


    --------------------------------------------------


    Gian's gaze remained fixed on his target as the sun began to set, barely sparing a thought for the soldier who was now nodding off beside him. Assuming the underminister's bait worked, the rebels ought to be coming into view any time now. If they did, the mercenary would be waiting for them. If not, he'd find another way to drag them from their hole. He'd learned over the years to be nothing if not resourceful.

    As the sun sank below the horizon, the earth began to rumble. Gian's grip tightened on the rocky ledge before him, and the soldier at his side was completely roused, looking around wildly for the source of the commotion. The mercenary hushed him absently, eyes focused on the lakeshore. There… a long strip of rock was rising from the waters, and after it settled one end of it opened. From it a line of figures crept, their clothes drab greens and browns and their movements furtive. The lead rebel looked around for any observers, but he did not spot Gian hidden among the rocks. Deciding the coast was clear, he- no, she- motioned for the others and they followed her along the coastline towards the north. The last one in line stamped his foot on the shore and thrust a fist out, and the entrance sank once more beneath the waters.


    "There!" the soldier hissed, pointing at a rebel in the middle of the line. "That's the slave who escaped from us, the one you were hired to bring back."


    "And?" Gian asked him coldly.


    "Aren't you going to do something about it?"


    "Such as? He's surrounded by allies, fool! Even I couldn't take him now and get away unscathed." The mercenary grinned. "But if I’m not mistaken, he and his little friends are walking into our trap right now. It'll be easy enough to take him then." Reaching up, he seized the whistle that hung around his neck and blew into it, making no sound that human ears could discern.


    The soldier opened his mouth to ask what precisely the point of a silent whistle was when a winged shape descended from the sky and landed lightly on Gian's wrist. The messenger hawk sat silently as he drew a scroll from his pouch, one he'd written earlier in the day in the event of his plan's success, and fitted it into the case on the bird's back. He gave his wrist a flick, and it shot off into the sky once more.


    "There," Gian said. "Now the underminister knows that everything is ready." He waited until the last of the rebels was out of sight and rose to his feet, motioning for the soldier to do the same. "Now come. The hunt awaits us." He turned and stalked off into the twilight like the predator he was, the soldier following at his heels.


    ----------------------------------------------------------------


    High Admiral Yuan crumpled General Yi's message in one hand and bared his teeth in a vicious grin. Hate and ferocious joy warred within him- she had surfaced again, and this time they had a location. Now he would be able to do the one thing his blessed and cursed grandfather had failed to do, and end the Water Tribe once and for all.


    The white-haired witch had been the bane of his family ever since she escaped from his grandfather's clutches. That one waterbender yet lived and walked free was Zhao's secret shame, known only to him and to the Empress. The night Yuan had formally assumed his position, the same night she told of how his grandfather had stolen the Moon and Ocean Spirits and used them to ensure a Fire Nation victory, she had told of the one called Yue. If he captured her, the Empress said, he would remove a great threat to the Fire Empire- the last waterbender.


    Rumors of her surfaced every so often, tales of a strange woman with white hair, more spirit than flesh, who brought healing to the oppressed and icy vengeance to the oppressors, though they said she never killed if she could at all avoid it. Taken as a complete whole, they also seemed to suggest that she never seemed to age, though Yuan put this down to poor lighting, combined with her healing powers somehow preserving a youthful appearance. Even if she was a spirit, though, Yuan didn't care. Zhao had vanquished the Ocean and Moon spirits- his grandson could do no less to their final disciple.


    "Captain!" he called out, and the man came running. "Get the ship underway- we're heading east, now. Work the engine crew as hard as you can- I need us at General Yi's base as fast as the Eye of Agni can take us."


    "As you command, sir," the captain said. "Should I send a message to the Empress and inform her that you will be departing?"


    "Yes," Yuan said. "Do that. Tell her I'm going to put an old rivalry to rest. She'll understand." If the captain found this confusing, he gave no sign. Bowing respectfully again, he turned and hurried back down into the vessel.


    Yuan clenched the letter in his fist, and within moments it had burst into vivid flame. "Soon, witch," he murmured. "Soon."


    ------------------------------------------------------


    Apologies for not having posted anything in a while- December is a hectic month, what with finals and various holidays and all- but my regular posting schedule of one revised FotFE chapter every three days should be resuming now.


    Not a whole lot to say about this chapter, honestly- it’s another of those that basically exists to get everyone into position for where they’re going to need to be for the really important stuff to happen. Here we do see a bit more of Gian’s ability to plan tactically, as well as his pragmatism, both of which are to my mind important aspects of the character. Villainous sword-for-hire he may be, but he’s no dumb brute- rather, he’s a coldly calculating man who knows what he’s good at and how to use it to get what he wants.


    Speaking of villains, it’s obvious now that Yuan is the one General Yi was contacting about Yue (and wow, I’d never realized how three “Y” names are all important in rapid succession there!) Honestly, it wasn’t supposed to be that big of a reveal- I think many people probably guessed it- but after a while hanging around being obnoxious, Yuan now has a reason to get directly involved in things. His lines at the end are a bit “cliché supervillain”, I know… but honestly, if anyone in this story comes by his cliché supervillainy honestly, it’s Yuan. Family tradition, you know.


    -MasterGhandalf

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