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Story [Avatar: The Last Airbender] The Fall of the Fire Empire Revised (Complete 10/19)

Discussion in 'Non Star Wars Fan Fiction' started by MasterGhandalf, Oct 25, 2013.

  1. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 37: In Motion

    High Admiral Yuan was, Shiyan noted as she stepped onto the roof of the palace, almost exactly in the position that Cheng had described. He was relaxing on a couch that most likely had been intended to sit inside of the building rather than on top of it, surrounded by four armored navy firebenders and a group of attendants who were all female, young, and very attractive. Governor Yan Li stood off to one side with a sour look on his face as Yuan took a deep drink from a cup of tea balanced in one of his hands and then began speaking animatedly. Stepping closer, Shiyan could hear his words.

    "My grandfather," the High Admiral said, "was a great man, but he made mistakes. He brought the Water Tribe to its knees, but he let its most valuable member- a princess and a waterbender- live purely to stroke his own vanity. She still troubles us to this day. I, however, will correct where he went wrong. I will bring the waterbender to heel at last, and when I kill her, her rebellious barbarian culture dies with her. A man who accomplished that might go down in history as a great hero, don't you think, Governor?" Yuan rose up into a sitting position and glanced over at Yan Li as he spoke.

    The governor's eyes darted over to where Shiyan stood watching the display with an icy expression, and then turned back to Yuan. "I believe your Chosen is here to see you, High Admiral," he said coolly.

    Yuan turned around to look at Shiyan, and smiled nastily. "I was just telling the honorable governor and his staff here of the glory that awaits us when our pursuit is finished. Care to listen?"

    Shiyan curled her lip in a snarl and then darted forward and struck the High Admiral's couch with a well-aimed kick, sending it falling backwards onto the roof. Yuan was sent sprawling, but quickly pulled himself to his feet and marched forward to stare down at Shiyan's face with fury written across his features and flame playing around his clenched fists. "What do you think you're playing at, girl?" He snarled angrily. "Do you want me as an enemy?"

    "I think that you're showing conduct unbecoming of an Imperial officer," Shiyan snapped. "You should be focusing on the mission at hand, not laying up here indulging in pleasures and humiliating your enemy." Her gold eyes glittered dangerously. "It's not what the Empress would desire, and here I speak for the Empress."

    Yuan stared at her with a furiously incredulous expression on his face. "I have been an officer of the Fire Navy ever since I was in my teens," he said. "My family can trace its service to our Nation’s military back generations. I am one of the most powerful people in this Empire aside from the Empress herself, and I have more than earned my right to conduct my affairs any way I please and not be lectured to by a girl young enough to be my daughter! No one wants to complete our mission more than I do, but as of right now the Governor here has scouts handling the matter, and I took the opportunity to relax while waiting for the information I need to continue. I suggest you do the same, if your kind even knows the meaning of the word."

    Burning rage coursed through Shiyan. She drew her sword and brought its tip up to the High Admiral's neck. "For that insult your life hangs on a thread," she hissed. "You know I'm in my right as a Chosen to execute any Imperial citizen, even you."

    "Do it," Yuan whispered. "Do it and my firebenders there will burn you to ash before my body hits the ground. Don't think they won't- they're navy men, like me, and if it comes down to a conflict between the two of us, they'll side with the commander they’ve served for years, not the high-and-mighty Chosen who marched into their lives a few weeks ago. It'd be easy enough to tell the Empress that your death was a training accident. You're good, but you can't take them all."

    For an instant that felt like an eternity they stood there, Shiyan's sword at Yuan's throat while his guards dropped into fighting stances and raised their hands. Finally, another voice broke the spell.

    "Enough!" Governor Yan Li said, stepping forward and raising his voice. Whatever was haunting him inside was well buried now- here was a man who spoke with the expectation that he would be obeyed. "This is my house in my province, and so I do have a say in what happens here, regardless of your authority, and I say that there will be no bloodshed today! You both have conducted yourselves disgracefully, and if it continues I will report you both to the Empress myself- my rank grants me that privilege. Your duty is to serve her, not yourselves. Resolve your conflict later and on your own time, not now and not in my house."

    Shiyan sighed and withdrew her sword from Yuan's neck, snapping it back to her sheeth. She turned towards the governor. "Your words have wisdom," she said grudgingly. "For now, the Empress's purposes are still served by this man, though it is sometimes difficult to remember that." Giving a slight respectful bow, she turned and stalked from the rooftop, hoping that Cheng had managed to dig up some worthwhile information while she was gone.

    ///

    Yuan watched Shiyan go with a scowl, and then walked over to stand beside his chief bodyguard. "I swear," he said under his breath to the man, "that by the time this is all over, I'm going to murder that insufferable girl, and her little friend too."

    "Yes, sir," the firebender replied in a neutral tone, gaze fixed straight ahead. Yuan glanced away from him to where the governor still stood, and thought that perhaps he might add another name to his list as well.

    ///

    Shu Bei Fong gave a small smile as Jiazin followed Yue into his small side-cavern. "Well, my lady," he said, "It seems that you've decided to help us again. Any particular reason for your change of heart?"

    "Our reasons may be different," Jiazin told him, "but for the moment, I think we're going in the same direction. I'd rather not go into it more deeply."

    Shu nodded. "I understand. So, am I to take it that you have a solution to Princess Yue's dilemma?"

    "I do." Jiazin quickly explained what she'd told Yue about her father's record-keeping and how it was their best chance to locate the captive spirits. "But I can't just walk into the palace and look at them, after what happened with Gian. I'm not certain if my father would turn me over to the Empress's judgment or not, but he certainly wouldn't let me leave his sight again after what I've done. I am, however, reasonably sure I know another way in. Do you have a map of the city?"

    "I do. Chaiy," Shu said. His daughter quickly rifled through a pile of scrolls against one wall and dug out the one she wanted, then rolled it out on the ground in the middle of the cave. She, Jiazin, Yue, and Shu knelt and gathered around what was indeed a detailed map of Long Du Shi and its environs.

    "Now, you know that Long Du Shi is, like old Ba Sing Se, built in circles, with the palace at the center," Jiazin said. "The odds of being able to sneak in through the gate and make it inside the palace itself are slim- to say nothing of making it out again after stealing my father's records. There is, however, another way. Underneath the city there is a complex network of tunnels, once known as the Crystal Catacombs, some of which lead directly into the palace."

    "I know that," Shu said. "However, my understanding was that the Fire Empire was also aware of the Catacombs and had them under guard. How does this help us?"

    Jiazin flushed, feeling a certain degree of embarrassment over what she was about to admit. "When I was a child, I would sometimes explore the tunnel system- I thought it was fascinating, though it drove my tutors mad trying to find me. In any case, at one point I found and followed a tunnel that led to what appeared to be a dead end. I looked it up on a map later on, and found that the end had caved in near the surface. It's not guarded, because no one outside of my father's guards even knows it's there and there's no way to get in."

    "No way in- except for a powerful earthbender who can open the way," Shu murmured, and smiled. "Excellent. As ever, the Empire's arrogance will be its undoing."

    "There might be some guards, deeper in," Jiazin warned. "I can't guarantee about that."

    "That's why you won't be going in alone," Shu told her. "Besides, you'll need at least one earthbender to help you clear out the tunnel." He turned towards Chaiy. "Who should we send?"

    "I will go myself, if that's okay with you," Chaiy said. "I've always wanted to see the inside of the governor's palace." Jiazin, however, heard her unspoken words as well- Chaiy still didn't trust her, and wanted to make sure that she kept to the plan. "I also think that Tong should come- we could use his strength, his ability to read the earth would help us find the tunnel, and he gets along with Jiazin reasonably well."

    "I think I should come as well," Yue said. "This concerns me most of all, and it wouldn't feel right for me to stay behind while others go into danger."

    Shu shook his head. "No. I know you're not under my command, but if you'll listen to my advice, here it is- you are a valuable symbol to all who would rebel against the Empire, and that Empire is seeking you. I don't think you should walk directly into its jaws. However, perhaps the young man Kanoda could go, if you think a Water Tribe presence should be there."

    "Your wisdom is sound," Yue said, nodding. "Kanoda isn't a bender, but he's resourceful and clever, and I think he'd appreciate the chance to strike a blow against the Fire Empire."

    "Very well, then," Shu said with a tight smile. "The pieces are set. You should leave tonight, under cover of darkness. May the spirits walk with you all."

    ///

    After leaving High Admiral Yuan, Shiyan returned to the guest quarters and found that, in her absence, some of the servants had drawn a bath in a small room off to the side of the main one. At first she didn't intend to take advantage of it, but finally the overpowering fact that she had been traveling for some time won out, and she stripped off her armor and slipped inside. It did feel good, she had to admit, though the Chosen weren't supposed to indulge in pleasures that might distract them from their duties. Well, Shiyan thought, perhaps this one indulgence might be permitted after her standoff with Yuan.

    Some time later, after she'd dried herself off, dressed herself in a loose robe and replaced her facepaint, the door opened and Cheng came inside. Shiyan stood from the bed and turned towards her, all business. "Well?" she asked. "What did you learn?"

    "I questioned the servants some more, and managed to find out from some of them that Jiazin got into a fight with her father and ran off several weeks ago," Cheng told her. "None of them knew what happened after, but they said that the governor's guards did. I tracked down one of them and asked him, and he didn't want to talk until I told him that I had a right to know whatever information he had. You were right about them being sworn to silence, by the way. Anyway, Jiazin apparently ran off and hired a mercenary named Gian to take her to a nearby group of rebels- the guard didn't know why. Gian had been hired by someone else to take the rebels down, though, so after he led Jiazin to them he attacked them with a group of other mercenaries and Imperial soldiers. There was fighting, but then Jiazin killed Gian and ran off with the rebels. No one knows what happened to her since."

    "So," Shiyan muttered, "the governor's own daughter is a rebel. I wonder what is going on there- he struck me as a loyal and competent man. Is he involved himself, or is Jiazin acting to spite him? Either way, it seems we have to broaden our mission. If there are rebels active here, and they've somehow recruited an Imperial noble to their cause, then our duty as Chosen is to destroy them, as well as capture the fugitives." Shiyan gave one of her predatory smiles and put a hand on Cheng’s shoulder. "You did well."

    The younger Chosen smiled herself at the unaccustomed praise. "Thank you, sister," she said with a bow. "I will do my best to be worthy of your approval." She seemed to notice Shiyan's attire and damp hair for the first time and looked at her questioningly. "Did you like the bath? I told the first servant I met to draw it for you- I thought you'd need it after getting into a fight with Yuan. I don't like him, and I know you don't either."

    That Cheng would think to do something like that for her brought a strange emotion to Shiyan that she didn't fully understand. Kindness was not a virtue Chosen were supposed to possess- it didn't, after all, serve the Empress or the stability of the Empire- but to experience it was not entirely unpleasant. Nothing in her training, however, told her how to respond, and for once in her life, Shiyan found herself uncertain of what to say.

    Finally she settled on a curt nod and rose to check over her armor and sword, making absolutely certain both were in working order. That was a world she was familiar with, and she was no doubt going to need both soon.

    Cheng stood quietly behind her, waiting for an acknowledgement that was not to come.

    ///

    As the pale moon rose into the dark skies above Long Du Shi, four figures crept from a cavern mouth and made their way north and west towards the city walls. Chaiy took the lead, bow in hand and posture wary. Behind her was Jiazin, one hand resting on a borrowed sword and golden eyes alert. Tong and Kanoda- former slave who'd lived in this part of the world all his life, and Water Tribe hunter to whom everything was still unfamiliar- took up the rear.

    They walked in silence, Jiazin pausing every so often to light a small flame in one hand and check a smaller version of Shu's map to make certain they were on the right course. Finally they came to an unremarkable pile of rocks near the location she'd marked on the map as being that of the hidden tunnel.

    "We're here," she said softly. "Earthbenders ready?"

    Tong and Chaiy nodded and stepped forward. They centered themselves and took their stances above the earth, and then thrust forward with their hands towards the rockpile. The earth began to shake slightly, and there was a strange groaning sound that seemed to rise from deep within it. Then the pile burst apart, most of the rocks shooting down into what was revealed now as a dark mouth sloping downward.

    "Well, well," Chaiy said, shaking her head. "You were right after all."

    "What? Did you think I was lying?" Jiazin asked her.

    "It doesn't matter," Kanoda said. "We're all here to fight the Fire Empire, not each other. Now we'd better hurry." He began to walk down into the dark tunnel.

    Chaiy looked somewhat affronted at being told what to do, but she nodded. "He's right. Let's go." She followed Kanoda into the tunnel, with Jiazin immediately behind her and Tong taking up the rear. At first the moonlight penetrated down and lit there way, but finally it could no longer be seen and then darkness swallowed them.

    ///

    And so our main characters are off together for the first time. Their part of the chapter is pretty straightforward – essentially set up for the bulk of their mission, which will take place next chapter. Unfortunately, none of them have realized yet that they don’t have to deal just with Yan Li, but with Shiyan and Yuan as well.

    Speaking of our antagonists, I think that the real meat of this chapter is on their front. Shiyan’s confrontation with Yuan has been a long time coming, and it’s not done yet, but their scene reveals the fundamental problem they have in dealing with each other – Yuan only cares about their shared mission for the personal glory and ego boost he gets out of it, while Shiyan is incredibly dedicated to the mission for its own sake. I’ll just say that they should be very glad that Yan Li, a level-headed third party, was there, because otherwise I do genuinely believe that one or both of them would have ended up dead after those escalating insults.

    The Shiyan-Cheng scene is, I think, a very important one for understanding how our two Chosen think and react to the world around them. I deliberately skimmed over Shiyan’s bath itself – I’m not much of a fan of pointless fanservice scenes, and even if I was, Shiyan would probably find a way to emerge from the story and murder me for using her in one – because her reaction to Cheng’s attempt to do something nice was the most important part. Shiyan, fundamentally, is a child soldier who has never experienced any other life and has absolutely no idea how to function in social situations that aren’t defined by the strict, militaristic order of the Chosen community. Cheng also has little idea of how to function in ordinary social situations, but unlike Shiyan she does have something of an idea that there can be more to life than fighting for the Empress. Ultimately, for all that Shiyan scares me more than a little, I do feel sorry for her too – she is very much the victim of the evil system that has defined her life, and she really has no idea that she is.

    -MasterGhandalf
     
  2. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 38: In the Governor's Palace

    It was dark in the tunnel as they quickly left what moonlight could stream in through the opening behind. Jiazin took the lead, both because she was now the only one with any familiarity with their surroundings and because of the small flame she held cupped in one hand to light the darkness ahead. The tunnel itself was long and straight, sloping steadily downward with no branches or major obstructions to be seen. Its walls and floor were also eerily smooth, and Jiazin found herself wondering how it had come to be here in the first place- the final escape route, perhaps, of some powerful earthbender during the fall of Ba Sing Se? She couldn't know for sure.

    In the oppressive darkness, none of the four felt like talking- they just continued following the tunnel down beneath the walls and buildings of Long Du Shi, unable to accurately tell the passage of time. Jiazin was beginning to think that they had made a wrong turn somewhere and were going to keep on walking down into the depths of the earth- though a voice in the back of her mind told her that wasn't possible, as they hadn't passed any other tunnels to get lost in- until finally a strange, greenish light began to shine up ahead. Behind Jiazin the others stopped and began to shift nervously.

    "What's that light?" Chaiy asked softly. "It doesn't look like fire. Are there guards ahead?"

    Jiazin turned and smiled, though she doubted the other girl could see it since she was now facing away from her small fire. "It's not the guards- not yet. It's something natural, and it means we're on the right track. In a few moments, you'll be able to see what it is."

    Chaiy seemed unconvinced, but both Kanoda's and Tong's silhouettes could be seen nodding. Jiazin turned back forward and walked towards the pale light, the others following behind her. When the tunnel abruptly opened into a far larger cavern from which the glow came, all four stopped in their tracks to take it in.

    The underground chamber was so vast that it was difficult for the mind to take it all in with just one glance, and it was obviously not natural. Carved columns and the remnants of other structures could be seen built into the walls or carved from the floor, which was itself lined with evenly spaced pools that were perfectly rectangular in a way only man-made structures could be. The source of the green glow was the outcroppings of crystal that seemed to grow from every available surface- pale individually, but together enough to illuminate the entire room clearly in soft green light.

    "Growing up in the South Pole, I never imagined anything like this," Kanoda finally said.

    Chaiy turned towards Jiazin, a dark expression on her face. "What is this place? The Fire Empire didn't build it- the architecture's not the same style. This is someone else's work- earthbenders'."

    "Nobody knows for sure who made the Crystal Catacombs- at least nobody I ever talked to," Jiazin admitted. "But you're probably right- it seems like there was another city on this spot before the Ba Sing Se the Empire conquered, and either some of it sank beneath the ground or was there to begin with. Now, we need to keep moving- and keep quiet. I know the way from here, but we're getting close to being under the palace, and pretty soon we'll start running into guards. Not many- not a lot of people know about the tunnels- but they'll be there."

    The other three followed Jiazin as she made her way across the cavern floor, Tong pausing occasionally to reach out and run his hands over one of the crystals. Jiazin found herself wondering what kind of meaning this ancient place would have for an earthbender as powerfully gifted as she'd heard the rebels say the young man was supposed to be. Soon they passed out of the cavern and into another one, which was similar but smaller, andfrom there to the base of a rough tunnel leading up. A strange expression crossed Tong's face as a he reached the entrance of it and he knelt, pressing one hand to the floor.

    "I'm feeling something up there- vibrations in the rock," he said. "I think there are people up there."

    "Guards," Jiazin said. "We're getting close to the basement of the palace proper. How many are there? Can you tell?"

    "Not really," Tong told her. "I'm still learning how to do this. I don't think there are that many, but I can't say for sure."

    "Let's go up, but be careful," Chaiy said. "If it looks like we're outmatched, we can collapse the tunnel behind us and run." The others glanced at her and nodded, and then proceeded slowly up the tunnel. As the glowing cavern disappeared behind them and they approached a bend, they heard voices and stopped suddenly.

    Jiazin crept forward and stuck her head around the bend. Two guards sat at a table there, talking in low voices while playing what might have been a game of Pai Sho on a low table illuminated by torchlight. A third was pacing back and forth, occasionally glancing darkly back up the passage with an expression that showed he didn't relish this duty. He held a skull-helmet under one arm- the other guards were wearing ordinary helmets that left their faces visible.

    "There's three of them," Jiazin said to her companions, pulling back. "I don't think they have any idea we're here. Only one of them is a firebender."

    Chaiy smiled. "Let's take them."

    The gaming guards leapt to their feet in shock as the four charged around the corner towards them- apparently the idea that they might actually be attacked on this notoriously dull duty hadn't occurred to them- while the firebender jammed his helmet on and fell into a fighting stance. He was met for his troubles with two boulders launched by Tong and Chaiy, which struck him directly in the torso and mask and sent him flying back into the wall, where he slid to the ground and lay still. Behind him, one of his companions pulled his sword out in time to meet Jiazin's in a clang of steel. The two traded blows for a few moments, his superior size and strength balancing out Jiazin's speed and elite training, until finally she raised a hand directly in front of his eyes and formed a bright flare in the palm. The guard stumbled back, cursing, and she knocked his legs out from under him and then slammed his head back against the wall, knocking him out. She then turned to see that Kanoda had tackled the final guard and wrestled him into submission.

    "That was easy," the Water Tribe boy said, looking down at his defeated enemy. "After Shiyan, I was expecting Imperial troops to be a little, I don't know… tougher."

    Jiazin wondered who “Shiyan” was, and then decided it didn't matter. "These men got stuck with this job for a reason," she told him. "No one ever attacks from below, so it's a safe duty to give the incompetent. Any guards we run in to actually inside the palace will be much tougher."

    "What do we do with them now?" Chaiy asked. "If anyone stumbles across this scene, they'll know there are intruders and start actively looking for us."

    "Nobody comes down here when they're not on duty, but we'd better be sure." Jiazin motioned towards the unconscious forms. "Let's drag them down into the caverns and leave them there. No one should find them down there until we're gone."

    "Good idea," Chaiy said grudgingly. "And you can get by fine, but the three of us should probably take their cloaks and helmets- a disguise never hurt, and at night they probably won't notice we're not wearing the full uniforms."

    That accomplished, the four moved up into the basement of the main palace. Jiazin felt a strange feeling creeping over her- this place had been her home her whole life, and though these dark under-corridors were not where she had spent most of her childhood, it still looked and felt like home. Now after weeks of being among peasants and rebels she was returning as an invader. It was an uncomfortable notion, and she did her best to ignore it. She wasn't entirely successful.

    Suddenly she held up a hand and the others stopped behind her. "I heard someone," she breathed. "Stay quiet and let me handle it."

    "I don't like it-" Chaiy began, but Tong cut her off.

    "It's her house," the former slave said in his quiet voice. "She knows what she's doing."

    The footsteps came closer and then rounded a corner, revealing that they belonged to an elderly man in a red robe, walking along with a scroll in one hand and a torch in the other. Jiazin recognized him as one of her father's servants- presumably some member of the household had sent him to fetch something from the basement. Studying the scroll intently, he seemed oblivious to his surroundings until Jiazin stepped forward, grabbed him by the collar of his robes, and pulled him back against a wall.

    "L-lady Jiazin?" he breathed. "What are you doing here? Don't you know they're looking for you?"

    "I need something from the palace," she said, which was technically the truth. "Listen, Anjing, do you know where my father is right now?" If Father was in his office, Jiazin knew- unlikely but not impossible at this late hour- it would make her task far more difficult.

    "Both of your honored parents have retired for the night, milady," Anjing said. He glanced over at the other three and then back to her. "The soldiers say you joined with the rebels. Are you here to strike against your own household now?" His tone indicated he didn't believe that, but was determined to ascertain her purpose nonetheless.

    "I'm not here to hurt my father, mother, or anyone in this palace," Jiazin answered. "Now then, you're not going to tell them I'm here, are you?"

    He shook his head. "If I believed you wanted to bring harm on your father, I would tell him, but I do not. Do what you must quickly, and then leave. I hope to all the spirits that I will not regret this," he added in an undertone. Jiazin nodded and then released him. Anjing regained his composure and continued along his path, pointedly ignoring Jiazin and her companions.

    "That was dangerous," Chaiy said when he was gone. "What if he does tell your father?"

    "He won't," Jiazin told her. "Anjing's been with my father's house since before I was born, and he's loyal to my family first, the Empire second. If I don't try to hurt my father directly he won't turn me over to be executed as a traitor. His principles wouldn't allow it."

    "Lucky we met him and not someone else," Kanoda observed. "And lucky the guards were incompetent. Let's hope our luck tonight holds." Something about his tone, though, said he doubted it.

    Something else was bothering Jiazin too, something she'd wished she'd been able to ask Anjing. If her parents had already retired, and the ministers would surely have all returned to their own homes at this hour, then who was still about and ordering servants down to the bowels of the palace? Something was wrong here, and she didn't like it.

    Shaking off her uncertainty, she led her companions through corridors and up staircases and into the main body of the palace. Here the walls were hung with tapestries depicting maps, dragons, and scenes of ancient victory, and though decorations weren't as fine as those in the Imperial palace, there was still a great deal of gold evident in the decorations. Looking at them, Jiazin found herself thinking of the earthbender slaves, and the rebels living in a cave, and a surge of unexpected guilt shot through her.

    Passing through a hall hung with tapestries, they came to another lined on one side with windows that allowed a view of the city below. Jiazin, Tong, and Chaiy, who had lived in or near the city all their lives, passed by the windows without comment, but Kanoda took one glance out and stopped, staring out over the vast metropolis that twinkled with torchlight against the night sky.

    "It's so… big," he breathed in amazement. "I knew that hundreds of thousands of people lived in this city, but I never realized what it meant until now." He stood staring and Long Du Shi as though entranced, his eyes drinking in every detail he could make out.

    “I guess you don’t have anything like that, where you’re from?” Jiazin asked, regarding him intently. It was strange to see someone react with such wonder to something that was so commonplace to her, and somehow reassuring to know that there were still people who could take wonder in the world.

    “Not even close,” Kanoda told her, unable to tear his eyes away. “At the South Pole, getting a couple dozen people in one place is a big deal. I’d heard of big cities, but never really imagined one until now.”

    "Yeah, it's pretty amazing, isn't it?" Tong said. "My people spent their lives building it."

    Kanoda turned to look at him, sympathy dawning on his face. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't know."

    "Come on," Chaiy said, impatience in her voice. "We need to get moving. I imagine we're looking real suspicious standing here staring at something the people here see every day. Let's go."

    Leaving the windows behind, they continued on down another corridor until they came to one that ended in one ornately carved door- the Governor's office. "You three," stand guard," Jiazin told them. "It'll take me time to find the information on the High Admiral's fortress, and I don't want anyone stumbling in here while I'm at it."

    "We understand," Chaiy said. "But I at least would appreciate not having orders barked at me, my lady." The sarcasm in her voice as she said Jiazin's title was biting.

    "Sorry- old habit," Jiazin said, feeling vaguely sheepish, and then opened the door and slipped inside. Her father's office was as she'd remembered it- much like Qing Xi's, and equally filled with shelves and boxes of paperwork, but also somewhat smaller. Calling a spark into one hand, she used it to light the lamp that rested at her father's desk and then began to browse through his papers, looking for anything that might lead her to High Admiral Yuan.

    ///

    Kanoda and Tong positioned themselves on either side of the door, drawing their cloaks about them and doing their best to look like serious and professional Imperial guards, while Chaiy paced back and forth in front of them like a caged animal. For a time that felt like hours, though it was probably far less ,nobody spoke, and the few servants who passed by took quick glances at apparent soldiers and hurried about their duties. At one point old Anjing passed, shooting them all a disapproving glare but continuing on his way. Maybe, Kanoda thought, he really was loyal enough to Jiazin that he wasn't going to report them.

    "You said your people built this city?" Kanoda asked Tong finally. "I thought the Fire Empire built Long Du Shi atop the ruins of Ba Sing Se. That's what Yue told me, anyway."

    Tong shook his head. "They may have created the plans, but it was earthbenders who did most of the construction work," he said; his voice was soft, but Kanoda couldn’t miss the undercurrent of pain in it. "Enslaved by the Empress's orders, kept alive only to work. I killed my overseer and escaped, but I'll never forget being a slave."

    "My people mostly got ignored," Kanoda said. "I guess the Fire Empire never cared about a few hundred "barbarians" living at the South Pole. I used to hate that- rather than even conquering us, the Empire just pretended we didn't exist at all- but it sounds like your people had it worse." He shook his head. "Of course, I think Yue's people had it worst of anyone. She's the last of her Tribe, did you know that?"

    "I didn't," Tong said quietly. "The Fire Empire has a lot to answer for."

    "Quiet!" Chaiy said. "I think I just heard someone- heavy boots, not a servant. Stay here- I'll check it out." Stringing her bow, she drew an arrow from her quiver and crept off down the corridor.

    Kanoda shook his head. "She doesn't like Jiazin giving us orders, but she gives us orders herself the moment she can. Doesn't that seem a little odd to you?"

    "No," Tong told him with a faint smile. "Chaiy and Jiazin come from different places and different ways of life, but they’ve both been raised to take charge. I think it actually explains a lot."

    Kanoda chuckled. "I think you may just have a point."

    ///

    Jiazin smiled tightly as she rolled up some of her father's notes and placed them in a bag she'd found beneath his desk, probably for that exact purpose. She'd been right- he'd and his agents had tracked the movements of Yuan's fleet and the supplies he took that simply vanished, and a spy slipped aboard one of his vessels had finally confirmed the location of a hidden fortress in the northern seas. She had the information she needed now- it was time to get out of here.

    Dousing the lamp, she stepped out of the door to find Kanoda and Tong waiting for her. "I got what we need," she told them. "Let's go." Frowning, Jiazin glanced around. "Where's Chaiy?"

    "She thought she heard someone and went off to follow the sound," Kanoda told her. "She went the way we'll need to go, so we can pick her up on the way out."

    Jiazin nodded and the two boys followed her out into the main corridor and into the window-lined hall. There they stopped, staring. A fearsome figure held Chaiy around the throat with one black-armored arm; the rebel leader's daughter was glaring murderously, her bow lying useless on the ground. It took Jiazin a moment to recognize her captor as one of the Empress's Chosen; her dragonscale facepaint was doing its job of removing all trace of humanity from her features, replacing it with fearsome power.

    "Shiyan," Kanoda said in a disbelieving voice. "What are you doing here?" He looked at her more closely. "Do you sleep in that armor and makeup?"

    The Chosen- Shiyan- chuckled darkly. "Well, well," she said. "If it isn't the Water Tribe spy. I thought I heard something going on down here, and I decided to investigate. What did I find but a rebel who attacked me on sight- she put up a fight, I'll give her that." She glanced at Jiazin. "And you look Fire Nation, so I’ll guess that you must be the governor's daughter. I've heard so much about you- but I still wonder how a man as obviously competent as your father could raise a filthy traitor."

    Jiazin's sword was out of its sheath in an instant and levelled directly at Shiyan. "I am Jiazin, and my father raised me to believe in honor," she said, "and I've found that honor doesn't always lead to the Empire. You're outnumbered. Let Chaiy go, and we'll let you walk away."

    "Loyalty to your companions is something I can respect," Shiyan said, "but you are- or were- an Imperial noble. You know the reputation of my order. Do you seriously think you can beat me?" There was nothing in Shiyan's voice and bearing that indicated anything but calm self-confidence- Jiazin realized with a chill that she really believed with absolute certainty that she could win this fight alone.

    "Let Chaiy go," Jiazin repeated. "Or have the Chosen sunk to cowering behind hostages?"

    That barb drew blood. A feral snarl crossed Shiyan's face and she hurled Chaiy against the wall, where the rebel lay in a still heap. The Chosen's own sword was in her hand in a heartbeat, and then she and Jiazin were shooting straight towards each other.

    They met in a clash of steal, trading blows so fast that Jiazin doubted Kanoda or Tong's untrained eyes could track them. It was quickly obvious, however, that in this opponent she had more than found her match. Jiazin trained with the sword; to Shiyan, it was an extension of herself. The young noblewoman found herself wondering what kind of life the Chosen must have led so that by her mid-teens she would already be little more than a deadly living weapon. Shiyan lacked Gian's experience, but her formal training was far superior to his, and unlike the mercenary, who had wanted to capture Jiazin alive, Shiyan gave every indication of fighting for the kill.

    Finally Jiazin pulled back, and drawing up one hand created a fireball which she blasted at the Chosen. Shiyan spun and managed to duck aside in time, though her armor was singed, and she turned to look at her opponent with a feral smile on her face. "You're good," she said, "but not good enough."

    Jiazin knew she was right, but then with a sudden flash of inspiration remembered that there was one weapon she had left in her arsenal, if she was able to use it. The blue flames had startled Gian long enough for her to finish him- how much more fearful would they be to a member of the Empress's own fanatics? She just needed to be able to summon it again.

    Recalling what she had felt during that previous fight, Jiazin drew upon her will and focused it into a single overpowering purpose, one that left no room for doubt- the defeat of this smug Chosen who stood in front of her. Then she drew a deep breath, felt the energy building inside of her, and released it in a single jet of intense blue power from her free hand.

    Shiyan dodged aside, and looked up at Jiazin with an expression so hateful it seemed barely human. "How dare you," she said in a voice that was soft, even, and utterly terrifying. At that sound Jiazin felt her control wavering and she took an involuntary step back. "How dare you blaspheme against the Empress, you filthy traitor!"

    Then Shiyan was on her, lunging with terrifying speed and strength. For a moment their swords met again in a flash of ringing steel, and then the Chosen twisted her wrist and sent her opponent’s blade flying from her hand. She followed with a kick to the stomach that knocked Jiazin to the floor and wrapped one hand around her throat, raising her sword in the other. "You turn against the Empire, fight against the Chosen, and then you dare to wield the Empress's own blue fire as though it is yours?" she demanded in that terrible, quiet, hateful voice. "I don’t know how you did it, but for that alone, you will die, here and now!"

    She raised her sword higher, but before it could fall a voice called out from nearby. "Chosen!" Tong shouted. "Catch!"

    Shiyan half-rose and turned towards the sound just in time to be hit square in the stomach by a large chunk of rock the earthbender had apparently torn from one of the palace walls. The force of it knocked her off her feet and sent her stumbling backwards into one of the windows that lined the corridor. The glass shattered, and it, rock, and Chosen fell through. Shiyan shot one last, murderous glare and the young man who had stolen her victory, and was gone.

    Jiazin pulled herself to her feet and turned to Tong. "Thanks," she said, gasping for air. "I think you just saved my life."

    "I would have done something sooner, but I didn't want to risk hitting you," he said. "Finally, I realized that if I didn't do something, the Chosen was definitely going to kill you." His eyes went to the window. "Do you think I killed her?"

    "No," Kanoda said, running over to the window and staring down into the night. "I can’t see her from here, but I know Shiyan, and she's every bit as good as she thinks she is. A big rock and a fall aren't enough to finish her off, believe me. Now, I think we should get out of here. Someone will have heard that."

    Tong bent down and picked up the unconscious Chaiy in his arms, Jiazin retrieved her sword, and then they hurried down the corridors of the palace, towards the basement and the tunnel. Jiazin could heard booted feet running in the levels above them as they descended towards the basement, but they made it without incident until they stood at the mouth of the tunnel leading down into the caverns. A fireblast struck the ceiling above their heads, and Jiazin turned her head to see a squad of guards pursuing them.

    "Hurry!" she commanded, racing down the tunnel with the others close behind.

    "Stop!" Chaiy's voice said, and Jiazin turned to see Tong setting her down. "Running won't do us any good, they'll just catch us. But we've got another solution. Jiazin, Kanoda- get back. Tong- we're collapsing the tunnel entrance."

    Water Tribe boy and Imperial noble hurried into the body of the main cavern as the two earthbenders faced the oncoming guards and planted their feet firmly. The earth seemed to shake as they raised their arms, and as they brought them crashing down the whole tunnel entrance fell in with a shower of rock and dust. Tong and Chaiy stumbled back into the cavern coughing, but the passage behind them was completely blocked off.

    "It'll take them a while to get through that," Chaiy said, panting. "But I bet there are other tunnels if they know where to look. Did you get what we came for?"

    "I did." Jiazin patted her bag. "I have the location of High Admiral Yuan's secret fortress here."

    "Good job," the earthbender told her, voice tinged with what sounded like grudging respect. "We've got what we need to shake things up. Now let's get out of here."

    ///

    I think this is a nice action chapter, and one that I remain fairly proud of (though it’s not one of my favorites – we haven’t gotten to those just yet). Our protagonists have worked together and managed to get their hands on some pretty critical intel, thanks in large part to Jiazin’s help. This whole mission wouldn’t have even been possible without her help, and even Chaiy is starting to come around, though their personalities do still clash. Though much of their tension is cultural and political, I do think Tong is right that it’s partially the natural result of two people who were until recently on opposite sides of the conflict but are both naturally inclined to taking charge being stuck working together.

    I knew from fairly soon after I introduced Shiyan that I wanted her to have a duel with Jiazin, my other main swordswoman, and this was the ideal place for it. Jiazin’s good, but Shiyan’s better, and I thought that it was important that Jiazin’s life should be saved by a former slave. An early review for the original fic had actually worried that Jiazin and Shiyan were too similar as characters; I think by this point in the story, it should be obvious that they are on very different paths, though they do have some similarities (in most cases, traits they share with Azula as well, since both are partially takes on her basic personality and archetype) and both will have key roles to play before the end.

    Except for the fight with Shiyan, our team did manage to get in and out in mostly one piece without too much trouble. But Shiyan, of course, is still out there, and don’t think there won’t be repurcussions…

    -MasterGhandalf

     
  3. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 39: The Penalty for Treason

    The chunk of rock slammed into Shiyan's body with enough force to send her reeling back into one of the glass windows that lined the corridor. She barely had time for the realization that the earthbender had gotten the drop on her before the glass shattered behind her, and then she tumbled backwards out the window.

    Shiyan spun madly in midair, attempting to see if there was anything nearby for her to grab onto, and if so to orient herself towards it. Before she had the chance, she slammed into a sloping roof and began to slide down it. The rock that had started this whole mess, on the other hand, crashed clear through it, presumably landing somewhere within the palace. Hissing in pain and anger, Shiyan attempted to slow her descent by embedding her sword in the roof, but all she managed to accomplish was to tear tiles free and send them flying. Finally she pitched into the air and seemed to hang suspended for what felt like an eternity before falling to the palace lawn in a painful heap. Two startled servants stood nearby; she glared at them and both hurried fearfully away.

    She attempted to pull herself to her feet, but the pain that shot through her body told her in no uncertain terms that this was out of the question. Shiyan didn't think anything was broken, but her whole body had just taken a pounding and was filled with a dull ache. The Chosen cursed herself for a fool for allowing herself to be so distracted by the traitor Jiazin's mockery of the Empress- how had she produced the blue fire?- that she had forgotten the girl's companions. It was a mistake that no Chosen should make. Shiyan's earlier defeat by the waterbender had occurred because she hadn't known the full extent of the woman's abilities, but this defeat was only because of her own foolishness. That stung worse than the pain of the fall, but it was a lesson she would not soon forget.

    Still, she'd confirmed one thing for certain tonight- the Governor's daughter was indeed a traitor. Her actions- invading the palace and attacking a Chosen, to say nothing of her mockery of the Empress- put that beyond doubt. Armed with this knowledge, there were certain duties which Shiyan knew she now had to perform, and she almost felt a pang of regret for Governor Yan Li, who had seemed the picture of the loyal Imperial noble. She quickly banished the feeling- the Empress's law had to be fulfilled, regardless of personal preferences or desires. That was the core of Shiyan's existence, and her failure to capture the traitor, the spy, and their companions only solidified her need to hold to it.

    As soon as she was able to stand…

    ///

    "Did you find what you were after?" Shu Bei Fong asked as Jiazin entered his side-cave. Yue sat across from him- apparently the two had been engaging in conversation before her arrival- and she also looked up at the young noblewoman with a questioning expression.

    "I did," Jiazin said, sitting herself down across from them and pulling the scrolls from her pack. "In my father's office, I found information he's gathered on all the major nobles, just like I told you. Among his information on Yuan, there was information regarding a fortress on a far northern island that the High Admiral seemed unusually determined to keep secret."

    Shu looked thoughtful. "If Yuan was so determined to keep its location secret, how did your father manage to uncover it?"

    "He noticed that Yuan was requisitioning more supplies than his forces needed and then shipping them away to a destination that no one recorded," Jiazin explained. "So he kept track of which ships were following schedules with enough room to fit unnoticed stops on them and slipped some of his own spies aboard, disguised as sailors." She unfurled one particular scroll. "Here's the report from one who got lucky.

    " 'The fortress is built upon a small isle of rock that juts from the sea, far from any larger landmass. The seas about it are storm-tossed and difficult to navigate- fortunately, the captain and crew were among the Fire Navy's best, and had run this route for the High Admiral before. The fortress itself is an iron spire that rises high above the island, unadorned by any sort of decoration and guarded by elite Fire Navy marines. What secret the fortress holds I was unable to determine without arousing suspicion- it seems that most of the guards themselves do not know for sure- but I believe it to be some manner of treasure vital to the High Admiral's family's fortune. I managed to get only a quick glimpse into one of the two most heavily guarded chambers and beheld nothing more extraordinary than a metal box; presumably, it is what the box contains that is so valuable. I do not feel I have the knowledge to speculate further with any accuracy.'"

    Jiazin stopped reading and looked up. "He might not have been able to figure out what Yuan had, but I think we can. I've never heard of any normal treasure being guarded so intensely, and with Navy resources. It's got to be the spirit fish, one in each of these rooms."

    "Yes," Yue said, her voice soft and distant. "That is the place- I have never seen any fortress like the one you describe, and yet I feel as though I know it well. Do you know where it is?"

    "Yes." Jiazin pulled out a second scroll from within her bag and unrolled it, revealing a small map of the entire Fire Empire. She pointed to a small island located between the North Pole and the northernmost reaches of the old Fire Nation. "According to the spy's report, it should be here."

    "Finally," Yue said. "You have my thanks, Jiazin- this will not bring my people back, but if I can restore the spirits to their rightful place, perhaps some portion of the Fire Empire's crimes can be undone." She turned to look at Shu. "My boat was destroyed by the High Admiral's ship just before I arrived here. Do you know where I can find another?"

    "There are many ships at the docks of Long Du Shi," Jiazin said. "Perhaps you could steal a small one?"

    Shu raised his eyebrow. "Suggesting theft of Imperial property, Jiazin? Doesn't seem quite like you."

    "Any warships in the harbor would be under the High Admiral's authority," she pointed out. "I don't have any particular problem with inconveniencing him. So far as I'm concerned, Yuan represents everything that's wrong with my people."

    "Very well, then," said Shu. "I'll have Chaiy see if any of our rebels have any experience with either sailing ships or stealing them. Now, it's quite late, and I imagine both of you want to rest. I know that I do."

    "Thank you," Yue said, rising and giving a respectful bow. "I appreciate all that your people have done for me, Shu Bei Fong." She glided from the small side-cave. Jiazin nodded towards Shu- not a bow of subservience, but an indication of respect between equals- and followed after her.

    ///

    Once the waterbender and the young noble were gone, Shu sat quietly for several moments, until he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Looking up, he saw his daughter duck inside- she'd been waiting in the main cave while he discussed the results of tonight's mission.

    "So the scrolls were what Jiazin said they were?" Chaiy asked.

    "They were. I'm still not entirely sure what to make of the girl, but I do think we can trust her for now." He leaned forward. "Now then, you might want to fetch young Tong and bring him here too. There are things I want to discuss with both of you."

    "Such as?"

    Shu smiled. "Let's just say I have a certain interest in the tunnels beneath the palace."

    Chaiy paused for a moment, and then her eyes lit up in understanding and she returned his smile. "I'll get him."

    ///

    Governor Yan Li was awakened rudely by the sound of someone pounding on the door to his chambers. Growling irritably, the governor sat up and swung out of his bed, taking care not to wake his still-slumbering wife, and pulled on a robe. "Who dares disturb me at this hour?" he demanded in his roughest voice as he stalked towards the door. He didn't think of himself as a particularly harsh master, but whoever was out there should know that he still demanded propriety be observed, and they had just abandoned it.

    When he pulled the door open, however, the sight of the Chosen Shiyan- looking rather the worse for the wear, with smeared facepaint and disheveled hair, but still fixing him with that death glare they all seemed to have- brought him to complete awareness with a cold rush.

    "Governor," she said without preamble, "you and I have matters to discuss."

    "What could you possibly want that couldn't wait a few hours?" Yan Li demanded, but he felt a cold, sinking sensation in his stomach..

    "I met your daughter Jiazin earlier tonight," Shiyan said. "She'd snuck into the palace in company with rebels and spies, and assaulted my person before escaping."

    But she did escape. Good girl! The governor thought, though he dared not say that aloud. Even for someone of his station, the Chosen were not to be mocked lightly. "And is there any purpose to this beyond your complaints?" he asked.

    "According to Imperial law, if a member of a noble house is found to be guilty of treason against the throne, all those who are related by blood or ties of friendship to that traitor must be held on probation for such time as it takes to determine if they harbor treasonous thoughts themselves," Shiyan quoted. "Probation during which they cannot wield the authority of any office in the Empire. Including yours."

    It took a moment for her words to sink in, and then Yan Li went cold. "You can't be serious!" he said. "This city is one of the hubs of the Fire Empire, and there's no one of sufficient rank to take over the governorship. You overstep your bounds, Chosen!"

    "Actually," she said, her expression darkening, "There is one such in the palace right now. In the matter of adherence to the Empress's will, there are times when you must make alliances with those you would prefer to avoid." She stepped aside, and the other Chosen- Cheng- stepped into sight, and beside her a familiar smirking figure. "High Admiral Yuan must take your authority until such time- hopefully soon- as this matter can be settled."

    "You cannot mean this!" Yan Li said quietly. "You despise him!"

    "I do," said Shiyan curtly, "and I find giving him more power as distasteful as I’m sure you do, but in this case, he is loyal, while your loyalty is in doubt. The Empress's laws regarding traitors leave little room for doubt. And without the Empress’s laws, the Fire Empire is nothing."

    Yuan's smile broadened."Oh, don't worry, this is only a temporary appointment," the High Admiral said. "I'm sure the Chosen will make certain your superiors are informed and able to clear this matter up- she doesn't want me in your office for long." Suddenly he stepped forward and grabbed Yan Li by the arm. "And if you believe that," he whispered into his rival's ear, "then you're a bigger fool than your traitor daughter. She offered me an opportunity and I took it, but she's a fool as well if she thinks she can control me. This city, all that you have, is mine now. Remember that!" Yuan released the governor, who stumbled back against the wall.

    Shiyan regarded them both with distaste and then spun on her heel and left. Yan Li briefly considered charging Yuan on the spot, but reason took over. The High Admiral was a career military man- Yan Li, unlike his daughter, wasn't a warrior or a firebender. He would accomplish nothing but his own death, and he wouldn't give Yuan the satisfaction. The High Admiral smirked at him again and then departed himself, leaving Yan Li alone in the doorway to rage helplessly and reflect on the insanity of a political system that allowed a teenage girl with too-high an opinion of herself and an unstable egotist with a grudge to depose a loyal official for a crime he did not commit.

    Perhaps, he though and hated himself for it, Jiazin had a point after all…

    ///

    And so our heroes’ success last chapter brings about consequences, not only for them, but for everyone in Long Du Shi. Shiyan’s alive, of course (anyone really think that fall was the end of her?), and now she’s mad. This is a really fine example of the Fire Empire’s screwed-up politics in action, as while Shiyan and Yuan may hate each other, on the rare occasion they do get along, a Chosen and the High Admiral between them have enough authority to bring down just about anyone. We also have a demonstration of Shiyan’s particularly twisted principles that compel her to help a man she hates against one she kind-of respects simply because the latter is related to a traitor, while Yuan is perfectly willing to swallow his intense dislike of Shiyan if it nets him more power. The unstable alliance holds – for now.

    Of course, between the information on Yuan’s fortress and the Crystal Catacombs, the rebels (and Kanoda, Yue, and Jiazin) now have the means to start taking the fight to the Fire Empire. We’re about at the two-thirds mark, people, and things are about to really start heating up (pardon the pun).


    -MasterGhandalf
     
  4. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Another great few updates. The thought and time you are putting into this world is nothing short of amazing. =D=
     
  5. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 40: Madness and Brilliance

    Admiral Chan's family had been in the service of the Fire Empire's navy going back several generations, a fact that the Admiral himself drew great pride from. True, the house of Chan might not have attained the same level of glory as that enjoyed by the house of Zhao (a fact of which High Admiral Yuan never missed an opportunity to remind him), but it had produced three admirals in the past century alone, in addition to numerous other decorated officers. Chan himself had certainly never given the Empress or her minions reason to complain about his service.

    His current command was a fleet base on the shore of the former Earth Kingdom facing the old Fire Nation heartland. There were certainly more prestigious positions, but Chan's was nonetheless an important one, since many ships traveling between the two continents or even just around the Earth Kingdom landmass had to stop there for re-supply and repair. Still fairly young for his rank, Chan saw his command as a stepping stone for greater things- perhaps even a shot at the High Admiralty, once that preening egotist Yuan made his inevitable fatal mistake. The Empress might be inordinately fond of the house of Zhao, after all, but she had no tolerance whatsoever for failure.

    It was early evening and Chan sat in his office, watching the activity below him from the window that overlooked the entire base while he sipped from a small cup of tea. The sound of his door opening behind him caught his ear, and he turned to see one of his junior officers standing there, a strange and unreadable expression on his face.

    "Well," Chan said, "don't just stand there, man. I assume you have good reason for disturbing me?"

    The officer help up one hand, and the admiral saw that he was holding a scroll. "This arrived for you just now, sir- brought in by a ship that sailed into the harbor, and then left immediately. She told me I was to give it only to you."

    "She?"

    "The Chosen, sir." The young officer bowed, seeming overwhelmed. A Chosen, Chan thought darkly. Well, that would explain his subordinate's expression- those in the direct military service had little love for the Empress's elite, but they did have a healthy respect and fear of them. And if a Chosen had been reduced to playing messenger girl, then that meant the Empress herself must have something of incredible import she needed to say to Admiral Chan.

    "Give me the message," he ordered. The young officer hurried forward and placed it in his hand, and then departed as Chan dismissed him with a wave of one hand. The admiral unfurled the scroll, read it once through intently, and then read it again to make sure he'd understood it properly.

    The Empress feared for her own life, and felt that in the event of her death it would be Admiral Chan who would be the best choice in all the Empire to hold the throne in trust for her chosen successor. He could feel his heart swelling with pride- this was a promotion far beyond anything he had imagined, and it was distinctly possible that soon his star would be added to the glories of the house of Chan. Of course, as the letter had said, there would be many who would dispute his right to such a high position- Yuan for one, along with some of Chan's own less pleasant colleagues. Of course, when he was Imperial Regent he'd have the power of the full throne behind him, and then several of his rivals would likely be meeting with unfortunate accidents…

    Chan's cup of tea ran empty, and he rang for a servant to bring him another. He didn't recognize the robed woman who entered, but that wasn't unusual- Chan had numerous servants on staff, and never paid much attention to their individual features anyway. Taking the new cup from the servant, he waved her away and drank deep, imagining precisely what thunderstruck expression Yuan would have when he heard this news.

    Suddenly everything became strangely fuzzy and blurry around the Admiral, and he felt exhaustion creeping over him. He gave a great yawn, and only part of his mind was able to say that this wasn't right before he collapsed into his seat and fell solidly asleep.

    ///

    The Hidden Flame agent who'd disguised herself as Admiral Chan's servant waited outside his door for what she felt an appropriate length of time before entering the room again. She found the Admiral exactly where she expected him- slumped in his chair, unconscious from the drug the agent had slipped into his tea. When he awoke in about an hour, he would have no memory of this, which gave the agent the time she needed to accomplish her goal.

    Slipping up beside Chan's prone form, the agent lightly pulled the message from the Empress from his hand and laid it on his desk to read it. As soon as she was finished she knew that this was something her true master must see as soon as possible, and borrowing ink, a brush, and a sheet of paper from the Admiral, she quickly wrote out an exact copy. Slipping the original back into Chan's hand, she hid the copy up the sleeve of one of her robes, leaving the room as though everything was normal and she had nothing to hide. Acting casual, she'd learned, was essential to being a spy- look like you were concealing something, and people would rightly assume that you were.

    That night a small boat went missing from the base's harbor, and no one ever saw that particular servant again.

    ///

    A week and a half later, High Minister Qing Xi sat at his desk, staring at the document one of his agents had set before him. He had read it several times now, and the more he did the less sense it made. There was no plot against the Empress, at least none that was serious enough to be an actual threat- as he ran the Imperial intelligence operations, he would have been one of the first to learn of such a thing. The idea of a hidden heir to the throne, protected by the Chosen, also didn't fit with what else he knew. Azula had determined that she would create the illusion of her own immortality, and Qing Xi himself had found the girl Jiazin who would wear the mask and robes of the Dragon Empress. Nowhere did this unknown "successor" come into play, and he was reasonably certain that the Chosen were protecting no such personage. Their fanaticism made them difficult to infiltrate, but it was possible to get information from them if you were clever about it. If Azula really did have a hidden successor, he or she was the best kept secret in the Empire.

    Someone was being played. It was certainly either Admiral Chan or Qing Xi himself, and perhaps went beyond that, but the High Minister needed more information before he could know for certain. He needed to know what message Azula had sent to the other high officers of her military. Fortunately, he had received a report that another agent would be returning tonight with information on the content of the message sent to General Yi.

    He waited quietly for what felt like several hours, staring at the scroll that lay unrolled before him, as darkness fell outside his window. Finally the door opened and a servant entered, bowing and placing a scroll on the desk. "For you, my lord," he said quietly before withdrawing. Qing Xi acknowledged him with a nod, and then unrolled the scroll beside the first one and read it through thoroughly. Then he read them both again, just to make certain his mind wasn't playing tricks on him.

    The two messages were the same.

    It didn't make any sense. Azula was appointing both men to the position of regent for a nonexistent heir, and it was clear that they weren't to share the role- each letter clearly identified the recipient as the sole guardian of the throne, and warned against impostors. More than that, while Chan and Yi were both highly competent officers, Qing Xi could think of a dozen who would be more qualified to rule the Empire, himself included. So why was Azula doing this? Were all the messages she was sending out the same? Something in Qing Xi's gut was whispering that they were, but the very idea was madness. If it was true, then every highly placed military officer would consider themselves to be the sole regent and all others impostors, and that would lead too…

    At that moment the High Minister understood, and the blood drained from his face.

    It had been whispered for decades- more intensely recently- that the Empress was mad, and Qing Xi had spent enough time around her to know that for a fact. He had never admitted it to anyone, but he had seen her speaking to empty air or ranting about imaginary enemies on more than one occasion. As she was also brilliant and powerful, and there was no sign it was impacting her rule in any meaningful way, most of the Empire's nobles were willing to allow her instability to slide, or were too scared of her to bring it up in public. But how could it have been, Qing Xi wondered, that no one ever seemed to stop and think of what schemes an Empress who was truly both brilliant and insane might concieve? Especially one who feared nothing more than her own mortality…

    Now he understood, or thought he did, and he was appalled. For the first time in years, High Minister Qing Xi, the second most powerful person in the entire Fire Empire, put his head in his hands and wept.

    ///

    She was the greatest ruler the world had ever seen. Entire continents had been ground beneath her heel, and while she did not technically rule the entire world, she ruled all of it that mattered. Her power as a firebender was unrivalled, certainly in her time and perhaps in all of history, and her very name had become a synonym for awe and dread in all lands across the world. Nobles so powerful that they would have been kings in another age bent their knee at the very rumor of her presence and named her their liege mistress.

    And yet Azula, the Dragon Empress, lived in torment.

    The torment was not her own- she was certain of that. It was them. The filthy masses of the world, who looked at her with fear that barely concealed their bitter hatred and jealousy. They wanted what she had, every one of them did, and it was only a matter of time before one of them tried to take it. They died for it, of course- anyone who dared to challenge her died- but it was still wearying that every time she went out in public she found herself killing at least one worm who twitched wrong and in so doing gave away his treacherous inclinations. That was why she isolated herself from others, communicating only with her Chosen, who were absolutely trustworthy because they were extensions of herself, and her inner circle, who she knew well enough to know when they thought they could plot behind her back, and when they had to be put down.

    In so doing, Azula insulated herself from the living. But even at the height of her power, she couldn't protect herself from the dead.

    They came when she was alone, whispering their threats and taunts to her from the shadows where they hid. When she looked at them directly, she could see them- there was her father, whose death had been her only act of mercy but who called her assassin and traitor, glaring at her with murderous eyes; there was the High Fire Sage, who pleaded with her that his order had done nothing but what she had asked, and that it was not his fault the knowledge she sought did not exist; there was the Earth King who had just recently died in prison, calling her tyrant, coward, betrayer of her own kin.

    Three of the shades were the worst. The first was her brother- had she killed him, or arranged his death? She could no longer remember, though she knew she'd had something to do with it. He'd been one of the first to appear, and she'd stricken him from the histories in response. A dead man might have a ghost, but not one who’d never existed at all. But Azula knew that he'd lived, and so Zuzu came back night after night to torment her. He still looked young, as he had the day he'd died, while she had aged. That was the greatest indignity of all.

    The second was Uncle. After Zuko's death, Uncle had at last been pushed to his limits and had challenged her father to an Agni Kai, but Azula had ensured his defeat. She'd spiked the old man's tea with a flavorless poison, and he'd entered the arena in no condition to fight. Ozai had mowed him down in moments. This ghost never spoke. He just shook his head sadly at her. The last was Mother, who alone of the ghosts didn't hate the Empress, but spoke instead the soft, weak words of love. Of them all, this was the hardest to endure.

    None of the dead ever made move to harm Azula. She knew that they understood that her time had almost run out, and they were patient. They were content to wait and serve as a reminder that sooner or later even she, the mightiest single mortal who had ever walked the earth, would come down to them. That was why she hated them even more than the treacherous living. They were constant reminders that in the end, for all her power, within her robes and mask she was only human, that intelligence, firebending, the divine right to rule – in the end, they all meant nothing. The mighty Dragon Empress was a doomed to die as the lowliest Earth Kingdom peasant, and all she had attained was merely an illusion, a temporary lie.

    They gathered around her now, murmuring to her as she paced before her throne, alone save for the blue flames that had been her constant companions from childhood. Tonight, however, she smiled at them from behind her mask. "You think that you have defeated me at last with the confirmation of my mortality, but you are all too late," she told them. "I accept now that I will die, but I will not go quietly into the abyss like some commoner, as countless others have done before me. The world will remember Empress Azula with awe and dread, even a thousand generations from now. When I depart this life I will blast a hole through this world so vast that it shall never be filled. When I perish, I will leave war in my wake like this world has never seen, and everything that I or all my family built will perish with me, an empire made into a final sacrifice to accompany the Dragon into the afterlife.

    “The board is set; the pieces are moving. The sun shall soon set over this world, and it will not rise again for a hundred lifetimes. Don’t you understand? Even in death, I have won!”

    Azula raised her hands and the blue flames surged to the ceiling, casting the countless ghosts around her in sharp relief as they recoiled in horror. The Empress's smile broadened, for while the dead did not disappear, not yet, for once in all the years they had tormented her she had shocked them into silence.

    ///

    And so Azula’s true plan is revealed, and it is horrifying beyond the scope of anything that even Qing Xi had guessed. Her madness is based on traits she displayed in the series, warped and exaggerated by a century of crueltyand power. Instead of one hallucination of her mother, she’s surrounded by a throng of all the dead who have perished as a result, directly or indirectly, of her actions. Her paranoia has become exaggerated to the point that she suspects literally everyone of plotting against her at every moment (save for the Chosen, who she sees less as independent people and more as extensions of her own will). Her cynicism has turned into outright nihilism. Between these three traits, and the genius she still retains, she’s come up with her final plan – rather than quietly accepting her mortality, she’ll drag as much of the world down with her as she can. All of the pieces QX had stumbled upon in earlier chapters were Azula’s preparations for launching a massive civil war to be kicked off by her death.

    Well, QX, at least, knows what Azula is planning now. The question remains, what will he do about it? How will our heroes, Shiyan, and Yuan play into things? At slightly over two-thirds of the way through, the situation is starting to build towards a climax.

    On a somewhat lighter note, Admiral Chan from this chapter is a descendant of the Admiral Chan who was briefly mentioned in canon (and likely also of the Chan on Ember Island, who did, after all, say that his dad was an admiral). Looks like the Fire Navy, and the admiralty more specifically, is something of a family tradition.

    -MasterGhandalf
     
  6. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 41: Setting Sail

    Jiazin stood amidst the bustle of Long Du Shi's docks, trying to be inconspicuous. She was dressed in plain peasant clothes, her hair pulled back into a simple tail rather than a topknot, and the cloak that she wore concealed her sword hanging at her hip, but she still felt as though she stood out amongst the crowd and sooner or later someone would point at her and call her out for being an impostor. Nobility were trained to be noticeable and commanding; blending in required something rather different.

    "Relax," a voice said from beside her, and she turned to see Kanoda, similarly dressed as a peasant- he was a bit darker than the average Imperial subject, but not so much that it would immediately draw attention without his distinctive Water Tribe clothing. A treacherous part of her subconscious even noticed that he wasn’t that bad looking. "You're fidgeting too much. You need to calm down, and act like you feel like you belong."

    Jiazin raised an eyebrow at him. "Fairly sophisticated advice on hiding, coming from someone who's never been in a city before in his life."

    Kanoda shrugged. "Hunting, you learn a lot about stealth. Stay still, act like part of the environment, and nothing- or no one- will even realize you're there – unless they’re really looking for you."

    She supposed that did make a certain amount of sense. Kanoda had come along on the mission to steal a small ship to steal in order to reach High Admiral Yuan's island fortress because Yue had, and the Water Tribe boy seemed to consider himself tied to her in some important way. Jiazin herself was going because the presence of a firebender would make managing even a small engine much easier- and also, she admitted to herself, because the idea of sneaking under Yuan's nose and stealing his most prized treasure away from him appealed to her. The High Admiral had made his disdain for her father and her family plain many times, Jiazin knew, and a certain part of her was more than willing to take pleasure in his downfall. Along with them, Shu and Chaiy had sent three of their rebel warriors- two of them, Song and Chin, had stolen and sailed small vessels before, while the third, Hu, had been a slave on an Admiral's flagship after it had been discovered he could cook quite well. Song and Hu were both earthbenders.

    According to Shu's spies, there was a small scouting vessel berthed near the far end of the docks, designed for speed and needing only a handful to crew. The raiding party had slipped into the port area early this morning in pairs, and would wait for night to fall and the crowd to thin before attempting to seize the vessel. Glancing across the crowd, Jiazin could make out Yue's cloaked form near a merchant stall, apparently haggling over a bit of food, with Song – a short, sharp-featured young woman who wore what appeared to be a pair of thick, knobby gloves - hovering behind her. There was no sign of Chin and Hu, but then, Jiazin had only met them briefly and didn't feel confident picking them out of a crowd.

    She felt Kanoda's hand tugging on her sleeve, and turned back to face him. "What's going on over there?" he said, pointing towards the edge of the docks district and towards the main city walls. "It doesn't look good."

    Jiazin found herself agreeing with that assessment. A group of soldiers were moving with purpose through the crowd, stopping every so often to affix a sheet of paper that seemed to have writing on it to an available surface before moving on. Sudden fear gripped the young noblewoman, and her mind leapt to the image of wanted posters with her face on them. The Chosen must have survived her fall, or perhaps Anjing had betrayed her after all, unthinkable as that seemed. Either way, her hand went to the hilt of her sword, and she silently vowed she wouldn't be taken without a fight. After a few moments, however, the soldiers posted one of the sheets close enough that she could make it out, and there didn't seem to be any image on it at all- only writing.

    "They're putting up proclamations," Jiazin said softly to Kanoda. "My father must want something done badly enough he's bringing the whole city in on it. We need to get a better look at one of those."

    Kanoda shrugged, as if to say that this was Jiazin's city and therefore her call, and the two wove their way through the crowd towards a proclamation that had already been up for a while, and therefore was not particularly close to the soldiers. Jiazin began to read it almost as soon as the characters were large enough to be legible, and her eyes widened in horror as she took in their full meaning.

    "By Imperial Law," it read, "Lord Yan Li has been removed from the position of Governor of Long Du Shi until such time as his true loyalty to Her Majesty the Empress may be ascertained. Until he is either reinstated or his successor appointed, this city shall fall under the authority of Lord Yuan of the House of Zhao, High Admiral of the Fire Navy. This is done in full compliance with the laws of the Empress, and is supported by the High Admiral and the Empress's Chosen."

    "No!" Jiazin breathed, fear twisting her gut. This was all her fault, she knew, and she should have seen it coming sooner- with she herself known as a traitor, her entire family were suspect. Now Yuan was in control of the city, and from what she knew of the man she couldn't imagine he'd treat her father or his people with any leniency. She knew that her father could be a hard man when he felt it necessary- and her discovery of the Fire Empire's atrocities had truly shown her how hard- but he took no pleasure in it. Yuan, though, was a cruel man who lived only to aggrandize himself. While he ruled, no one in Long Du Shi would be safe – certainly not its deposed governor.

    "Jiazin," Kanoda said quietly, "we need to move. You're blocking the view, and people are staring at us." He reached out a hand and put it on her arm.

    She whirled on him, eyes blazing, and she watched him take a step back fearfully. "Get your hand off me, barbarian peasant!" she snapped, rage at Yuan and herself boiling over onto him. "My father is in danger, and I do not care about whether or not I'm making a scene!"

    "Fine – think that way if you want to, but we've got bigger things to worry about than just this," Kanoda said, stepping close again so he could talk in a voice that wouldn't be overheard. "This is about the whole world, not just Long Du Shi or your father. If we can free the spirits, we can change everything."

    "I don't care about that right now," Jiazin said, pulling away from him again. "It's my fault he's in trouble, and I'm going to the palace to find him and get him out of there!"

    "Are you crazy?" Kanoda asked. "You can't just march in there- that place is going to be swarming with soldiers, and probably Yuan's marines now too, not to mention Shiyan the homicidal dragon girl. If you go there, you'll just get yourself killed and then you won't help anyone." He took a deep breath, and then looked her in the eye. "My people have lots of stories about heroes, and they did great things, but at heart they were all just people, like us, and they had families and friends and all sorts of entanglements. There'd always be a time when they'd feel called away by some other commitment, but if they did that they'd lose sight of what they were really trying to do- what was really important. I'm not saying that you shouldn't be worried about your father, but if you come with us you can do a lot of good, but if you run off to the palace you're just going to get killed accomplishing nothing. Is that what you want?"

    Jiazin hung her head. "No. Thank you for helping me see that – for what you said. I’m sorry I yelled at you." She shook her head, but her eyes were hard. "I'm going to take what Yuan values most away from him, and we'll see how he likes that. But when we return, I will find a way to help my father. I won't forget him."

    "I know it hurts," Kanoda said. "My father died a long time ago, but it still hurts to remember that. But that's why we're doing this, isn't it- for all the fathers and mothers and children this cursed Empire has hurt."

    "Yes," Jiazin whispered, nodding. "For families."

    ///

    The sun sank below the horizon and the crowds dispersed from the markets and taverns in the dock district. A few stragglers remained, but for the most part the area was empty except for a handful of soldiers on patrol.

    The rebel group crept slowly along the docks. Hu led, wearing an Imperial captain's uniform that the rebels had stolen from somewhere along the line- having had more direct experience with naval officers than anyone else in the group, he had been selected to play the role of one. Jiazin had initially offered to do so herself, but the only captain's uniform the rebels had was for a man, and Shu had wryly pointed out that she looked rather young for that rank. Yue, for her part, had plenty of experience with the navy as Zhao's captive, but her distinctive appearance made it difficult to disguise as anything other than herself without the hood and cloak.

    Every so often they ran into actual guard patrols as they made their way towards the scout ship they intended to steal, but these noticed Hu's uniform at once, saluted, and quickly made way. That they didn't recognize Hu himself was no major problem, since ships came and left Long Du Shi's docks every day. Finally, they reached their target- a vessel similar in design to the great warships, but smaller and slimmer, with only a single smokestack.

    "There it is," Hu said, his voice deep but soft. "Right where Shu said it would be. Perfect. Everyone remember the plan?" The others nodded; Jiazin's own role wouldn't be substantial until the little ship was already captured.

    Turning, the false captain marched towards the ship's ramp, his companions following closely behind them. He set foot on the metal with a distinct clanging sound that roused the two guards who appeared to have been playing Pai Sho farther back on the deck- they hurried forward with spears raised, but stopped when they saw Hu's uniform. "Apologies, sir," one of them said. "How may we assist you?"

    "I'm here on orders from the High Admiral himself," Hu said. "I have been given the assignment of inspecting the Fire Navy's scout ships and their crews- the High Admiral feels that serious oversight has been lacking in this area."

    "I assure you, sir, our vessel is in perfect working order," the guard said proudly.

    Hu smiled. "Good. Then you have nothing to worry about. Fetch the rest of your crew and let me get a look at them." Both guards saluted, and the one who hadn't spoken hurried off belowdecks, returning with two more soldiers and an engineer. They formed a line on the deck and Hu began to walk up and down them, murmuring under his breath and every so often nodding approvingly. As he did so, the other rebels and Jiazin began to spread along the deck. Before Hu was finished, however, a strong wind blew across the harbor and caught Yue's hood, pulling it back from her head and revealing her white hair, unnaturally-colored eyes, and too-young face. The crew stared at her in shock.

    Yue smiled and them, and then raised her hands. Water leaped from the sea and twined itself around their limbs before solidifying itself into chains of ice. The crew collapsed prone to the deck. The raiders looked at each other and nodded once before each running off towards their appointed task. Hu headed for the bridge on the ship's small observation tower, while Jiazin ran for the engines. One of the marines was quicker than the others, and he lunged forward quickly enough avoid the water and seize her by the wrist. Jiazin raised her free hand to launch a fireblast, but before she had the chance, something made of stone shot through the air and wrapped itself around his face, knocking him to the ground. It looked like a pair of hands, wrapped tightly together – and then Jiazin realized what it really was; Song’s gloves, which had been made of stone, not fabric. She looked up to see the rebel girl standing there, and nodded at her once in thanks.

    “Some of my ancestors were Dai Li agents, back in Ba Sing Se,” Song said in her quiet, scratchy voice. She raised her hands and the stone gauntlets flew off the downed marine and back onto their wielder. “We’ve kept some of their tricks alive.”

    “Well, I’m glad you did,” Jiazin said, and then turned and made her way into the bowels of the ship.

    The rest of the group seized the original crew and began to haul them belowdecks. They would be released to the shore several days to the north, as holding prisoners aboard for an extended period of time would be difficult and Yue had refused to consider executing them in cold blood; it would be very difficult for them to get any message to Yuan in time for him to mount pursuit.

    Finding the correct steel door, Jiazin opened it and found herself in the ship's engine room. A box of coal lay near the engine itself; seizing a small shovel, she fed several scoops of it inside before breathing deeply and setting the coal ablaze. Pulling herself back from the heat, she slammed the grate over the engine closed and then sat down nearby, where she could use her bending to keep the flame at a regulated level.

    Shortly thereafter, the captured vessel was sailing out of Long Du Shi's harbor and towards the north, and the fortress where High Admiral Yuan kept the Moon and Ocean Spirits captive.

    ///

    And so our heroes set off on the next major stage of the story – finding and freeing the Moon and Ocean spirits. That means they’re all going to be spending a lot more time with each other. I especially enjoy writing Kanoda and Jiazin’s interactions, as I feel that they have an interesting dynamic despite coming from almost completely opposite situations. Our Water Tribe hunter is becoming more worldly; though he’s still into myths and legends, he’s getting better at applying them to real situations. Our Fire Nation noble is becoming less proud; though she still has flashes of it, she’s better at swallowing it, admitting when she’s wrong, and dedicating herself to a greater cause. I think their conversations, of which there will be more, shed some good light on both of their development.

    In the first version of FotFE, Song (no relation to the Earth Kingdom girl of the same name from “The Cave of Two Lovers” – nor is Chin any relation of Chin the Conqueror’s, btw) was a guy, named Feng. The gender, the name, and the backstory as a descendant of the Dai Li and heir to their techniques are all new for this version – an idea I’m honestly kicking myself for not implementing in the first go-around.

    -MasterGhandalf

     
  7. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 42: A Report to the High Admiral

    The Long Du Shi garrison, assisted by the High Admiral's marines, continued their search for the rebels and the fugitives they harbored, but as of yet had not encountered success. Shiyan had wanted to join them in their hunt, but the fact that her body was still bruised and aching horribly from her fall had convinced her that at least for now she shouldn't overexert herself. After all, even the Empress's writings noted the difference between courage and risking yourself when you weren't able to fight at full strength. Currently she was standing on the roof of the palace, pacing back and forth as she looked down at the city beneath her, occasionally glancing to what little she could make out of what lay beyond.

    At the sound of footsteps behind her, Shiyan turned to see a red-robed servant approaching. She waited silently for him to approach and go down on one knee. "What is it?" she asked.

    "Chosen Shiyan," the servant said, "Governor Yuan requests your presence in the audience hall at once. He says that his scouts have important information and that you should be there when it is presented."

    More likely Yuan didn't want to run the risk of Shiyan getting angry if this information turned out to be important and she wasn't there to hear it firsthand. Still, she nodded. "Very well. I shall join Yuan presently." Sweeping past the servant, she descended from the roof and into the main body of the palace, following the winding corridors until she finally arrived at the audience hall.

    Yuan was seated in the governor's chair, looking incredibly pleased with himself, as he had for the last several days. Looking at him more closely, however, Shiyan could see that his fingers were twitching and his eyes continually darting to the main door. Despite his appearance of confidence, the High Admiral was clearly worried about something- probably this same news he'd called her down to hear. His officers and the ministers of Yan Li's court stood beside the chair, the latter group still looking rather displeased with the new arrangement. Yuan had little love for paperwork, and less for the bureaucracy.

    "Ah, Chosen Shiyan," the High Admiral said when he noticed her, smiling broadly and falsely. "So glad you could join us. Now then, my scouts say they have news that can't wait, so let's bring them in, shall we?" Shiyan nodded stiffly. She and Yuan might have to put on a show of solidarity in front of the court, since they'd deposed Yan Li on their combined authority, but that hardly meant they had to like each other.

    Yuan motioned to his guards, and they left the audience hall and returned with two scouts and a handful of men in rather ragged-looking sailors' uniforms. Yuan snorted. "This is what was so pressing?" he asked. "A handful of deserters? Throw them in the dungeons and forget about them. I was expecting news of the waterbender or the rebels at least!"

    "Your pardon, my lord," the head scout said, "but these men aren't deserters, and I think you should listen to what they have to say."

    "I'm listening," Yuan said.

    "My lord," one of the ragged-looking men said, "my companions and I are- were- the crew of a scout ship moored in this harbor-"

    "The ship that went missing a few days ago?" The High Admiral asked angrily. "You should hope for your sakes you have a good excuse for that. I'm not a man who forgives lightly."

    "I know, my lord," the officer said, "but our ship didn't leave of our own free will. It was seized by rebels pretending to be Navy officers. And one of them…" the man paused to draw a deep breath, "one of them was a white-haired waterbender."

    "No!" Yuan shouted, leaping to his feet and seizing the officer by his collar. "She can't escape from me that easily! Where was she going? How did you escape? Tell me!"

    The officer seemed rather taken aback by this display, but he swallowed and nodded. "They dropped us off on the coastline a few days north of here. That's where they're going- north. I don't know more than that, I swear by any spirit you can name!"

    "North," Yuan breathed, and suddenly fear blossomed in his expression so swiftly even Shiyan was almost taken aback. "No- it can't be! But, this, leaving so soon, after the records that the rebels stole from, Yan Li’s office - what else could she be after?" He dropped the man he’d been questioning and spun to face his officers. "Mobilize the fleet. I want every warship that's seaworthy ready to sail before the day is out, carrying as many soldiers as they can fit. She has to be stopped before she ruins us all!"

    "My lord," one of the ministers said, stepping forward, "I'm afraid I don't understand- this doesn't seem wise…"

    "Of course you don't understand – people like you aren’t supposed to understand, you’re supposed to obey!" Yuan snapped. "Suffice to say, the fate of the entire Fire Empire could lie on the line. You have your orders, and question them again at risk of your own life. Now, go!" The members of the court bowed hurriedly and scurried out. When they were gone, Shiyan approached Yuan.

    "Are you mad?" she hissed. "Leaving this city virtually undefended- you're inviting the rebels to try and take it! And for what- a personal obsession? I will stop at nothing to fulfill my mission, but I will not drag this Empire down to do so!"

    Yuan spun to face her directly. "This is about far more than a simple obsession, young lady," he growled. "Tell me, how much do they teach you Chosen about the true history of my grandfather's conquest?"

    "Enough to know that he took something from the Water Tribe essential to the victory, and that you guard it still. We're told we don't need to know more." Shiyan's eyes widened in understanding. "I see- you think the waterbender plans to steal this prize back. But what could it be that could endanger the Empress's rule with the Water Tribe a hundred years gone?"

    "I'm not giving you that secret," Yuan said, smirking. "Let's just say that if the waterbender manages to steal it back, it would mean disaster for all of us."

    "How can you be certain that is what she plans? All you know is that she goes north."

    "I can't take that risk," Yuan said softly. "If I can't stop her, then she could destroy the Empire- and more to the point, the Empress would destroy me for failing her in that mission. You and your kind aren't the only ones with special purposes, young lady. And don't worry about the city- I'm leaving most of the garrison, with the ministers in command. It will be safe from the rebels while I take care of important matters. So, are you accompanying me or not?"

    Shiyan gave him a cold smile. "Of course. If the waterbender is there, then the spy is likely with her- I wouldn't pass up that opportunity." And of course, she added silently, someone loyal and competent has to keep an eye on you, High Admiral.

    ///

    Jiazin shivered as she paced the deck of the small ship. They'd passed into the open ocean several days ago now, after making one brief stop at a small port town to pick up some supplies that they would need for their mission, and were heading directly for where her map indicated Yuan's fortress was. Already the air had grown colder, especially at night. She'd wrapped her cloak tightly about herself to keep the cold off, and every so often used her breath of fire- a technique she now regretted having never practiced much- to heat up the air in front of her.

    Footsteps sounded behind her, and she turned to see Kanoda- and was stunned to see that he wasn't wearing any heavier clothes than usual. "Aren't you cold?" she asked.

    He shrugged. "Cold? This isn't cold- not compared to what I'm used to. It almost never got this warm near the South Pole."

    Jiazin tried to wrap her mind around the concept of such freezing temperatures all year round and failed. "Long Du Shi and the Fire Nation heartland are both warm," she finally said. "I guess I'm about as used to cold weather as you are to cities."

    He laughed. "I think we've all been out of our comfort zones lately. And it's probably going to get worse from here out- I doubt that getting into Yuan's fortress is going to be nearly as easy as stealing this ship was."

    They were both quiet for several moments, and finally Jiazin spoke again. "I'm sorry for blowing up at you back in Long Du Shi," she said quietly. "I was worried about my father, and it's hard to remember sometimes that I can't talk to foreigners and rebels the way I would to servants or peasants. Just because I was raised to have authority doesn’t mean it’s right to treat everyone like I can order them around."

    "I understand." Kanoda shrugged. "When you're that worked up by emotion, you can do stupid things. Besides, you're not the only one who's had to adjust how they think about the world. A few months ago I would have said that the idea of a girl fighting with a sword was completely unbelievable. Believe me, I know better now."

    Jiazin raised an eyebrow at that. "So none of the Water Tribe legends you talk about have female heroes? How very boring that must be."

    "Some do," Kanoda admitted, "but from our perspective it's just one of those things that only happens in a story. But we have lots of legends- for a long time now, they've been all we've had."

    "My people have stories too," Jiazin said quietly, "about the Great War, and the Phoenix King's ascension, and the Empress's heroism as she brought order to a chaotic world, but all those stories are hollow when you know what really happened." She shivered again, this time not from the cold. "It's a hard thing when the entire world you thought you knew betrays you."

    Kanoda shook his head. "I can't imagine. If I was in your place- well, I'm not sure what I'd do."

    In my place… an image of the Empress's golden mask, the mask she was supposed to inherit someday, rose in Jiazin's mind. Suddenly she shivered, and not just from the cold, something that sounded like Azula’s laugh echoing in her mind. “Do any of your stories say whether it’s possible to be the reincarnation of someone who isn’t dead?” she whispered; whether to Kanoda, the sea, or herself, she wasn’t sure.

    “Huh?” Kanoda asked. “I didn’t catch that.

    “It’s nothing,” Jiazin said, shaking her head and focusing on burying the disturbing thought. "I'd like to hear some of your stories," she said. "Maybe it would be good for me to learn about another people's heroes."

    "All right," Kanoda said, smiling. "Now, I'm not as good at this as my grandfather, but I'll give it a go…"

    He launched into a surprisingly involved tale of a warrior who fought against a spirit of deathly cold to protect the Moon Spirit's daughter, and for a little while the story of what was to Jiazin an exotic and mysterious place and people helped keep dark thoughts of the Dragon Empress at bay.

    ///

    "So you're leaving?" Cheng asked, disbelievingly. "And taking the entire fleet with you? What could possibly have Yuan scared that badly?"

    "He thinks that something his family keeps in trust for the Empress is being threatened, and he rightly fears her wrath," Shiyan said, pacing in the middle of their quarters. "I'm not certain he is correct- his decision seems based more on paranoia than on logic- but on the off chance he is actually right, I must accompany him. Not to mention that I don’t trust him out of my sight. You, however, will be staying here."

    "What?" Cheng asked.

    "Think," Shiyan told her. "With Yuan gone, the city will be under the control of the high nobility, and its defenses greatly weakened. The rebels might take this as the perfect opportunity to strike. You must remain here as the eyes and blade of the Empress- your presence alone will help keep the nobles in line, and if the city is attacked, you must be certain to provide an accurate report untainted by self-serving ambition. Do you understand?"

    "I think so," Cheng said. "But I'm not sure if the nobles will actually be intimidated by a Chosen initiate."

    Shiyan turned to glare at her. "Of course they will. Remember, who you are beneath your armor and paint doesn't matter. You are the Empress's presence, her will, and her blade, even as I am. Do you understand me, sister?"

    "I do," the younger girl said quietly, lowering her head not quite quickly enough to hide the flash of something in her eyes- was it resentment? Shiyan couldn't be sure. "I will not disappoint you."

    "I would expect not." For all her shortcomings, Cheng was still a Chosen trained, and seemed to have learned from her mistakes. When it came down to being seriously tested, Shiyan couldn't truly imagine one of her order failing. "The Empress's wisdom guide you." Tentatively, knowing only that it felt like the right thing to do, Shiyan reached out and rested one hand on Cheng’s shoulder for a brief moment, then let it fall.

    "And you," Cheng said. Collecting her clothing and weapons, Shiyan departed the room and headed for where the train would take her to the docks. Between Chosen, no more complex farewells were necessary.

    ///

    From a hill near Long Du Shi, two rebel scouts watched with great interest as what seemed like every warship in the harbor was made ready to sail. At first convinced this had to be some kind of bizarre drill, they were proven wrong as the entire fleet cast off and departed from the harbor, High Admiral Yuan's Eye of Agni in the lead and a good portion of the city's garrison aboard.

    The two scouts didn't fully understand what they'd seen, but they knew that here was an opportunity their leaders could make use of. Turning away from the city, they departed the hill and hurried to bear their news to Shu and Chaiy Bei Fong.

    ///

    Another necessary “getting characters into position” chapter, though I think it’s got a few good character moments anyway. Yuan, upon realizing what Yue and co. are up to, is on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown, and no, his decisions in this chapter are not meant to be logical. This is a man who is panicked, and who fears not only losing Yue’s trail, but that his family’s crowning achievement may be undone on his watch. Shiyan and Cheng’s little scene is pretty telling as well – Shiyan is at least trying to be a supportive mentor/surrogate sister here, even if she really has no idea how to pull it off. As for Cheng herself, I think it’s pretty clear that even though she knows she’ll probably never surpass Shiyan, she’d be willing to settle for making her proud. Of course, now that Cheng’s on her own for the first time in the entire fic, we’ll see how she handles herself…

    Jiazin and Kanoda’s scene is also short, but fairly significant. For Kanoda, this is the first time he’s really had to make casual conversation with a firebender who isn’t an enemy. For Jiazin, it’s one of the first times she’s started to willingly open up about her insecurities, though she’s keeping the really significant things hidden for now. The story that Kanoda tells Jiazin was completely made up (by me) since the show didn’t give a whole lot of Water Tribe mythology to work with; I never intended to tell a whole story, here, but give the feel of what a Water Tribe fairy tale might be like. Also note that Jiazin uses the breath of fire technique to keep herself warm, just like Zuko does in the show.

    -MasterGhandalf
     
  8. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 43: Fighting Spirit

    Several days after Yue, Kanoda, and Jiazin left, the rebels were called together into the central cave for reasons Tong didn't know. It was tightly packed, and for a moment he found himself missing the larger chambers of the Lake Laogai base- and then mentally chided himself, reminding himself that crowded as it was, these were still better conditions than he had known for years, or most of his people still had to endure.

    Conversation died down as Shu and Chaiy moved to the front of the cavern. "Our scouts have recently reported to me," the rebel leader began, "that High Admiral Yuan, now acting governor of Long Du Shi, has made a serious tactical error. In pursuit of an unknown target or targets, he has pulled his entire fleet from the harbor and many land soldiers from the city itself and is leading them personally north at full speed." He looked around at them all, seeming to make eye contact with almost every other rebel in the room. "As this seems rather excessive for chasing down the little expedition we sent out, I admit I don't know why he's doing this or what he hopes to accomplish, but I do know that this is a major opportunity for us." Shu drew a deep breath before continuing. "I believe that, with the proper timing and coordination, we can capture Long Du Shi before the High Admiral returns."

    The cavern erupted into noise as everyone began talking at once, until Chaiy stepped forward and slammed one foot into the ground. The earth rumbled briefly and then stilled, and the rebels fell quiet. "I know it sounds unbelievable," Shu told them, "but I think that it can be done, and I'm certain we won't have a better chance. Several nights ago, a small group conducted a raid into the governor's palace using a series of secret tunnels that run beneath the city. The guards appear to be aware of the tunnels, but they are uncertain as to which one we used, and can't block them all off without the assistance of earthbender slaves- slaves they know better than to allow access to such a secret. As a result, they have merely increased their watch on the tunnels tremendously- but they are still firebenders in caves. They won't be a match for earthbenders surrounded by their element, particularly if they take them by surprise.

    "Our goal is simple- to seize control of the palace. It is more than just the governor's home; it's the whole center of his government. If we can capture it, and take the officials within alive, we'll have crippled the city's ability to administer itself, and we'll have leverage to convince the soldiers to surrender. With numbers reduced as they are, and not expecting an attack on the palace itself, they won't be able to stop us."

    An older rebel near the front stepped forward to face Shu. "I'm not sure about this," he said. "Even if we take the palace, we don't have the numbers to hold it, much less pacify the entire city. And if we fail, this could very well be our end."

    Shu looked at him straight on. "I know, Rao. But sooner or later, we need to strike back, take risks, or else we'll end up as dead as generations of rebels before us. Besides, as I said before, we're not going to get a better opportunity- all we've fought for is in our reach now, and may the Fog of Lost Souls take me if I let that slip away. But I don't think that the vast majority of the population will trouble us- they're Earth Kingdom stock, and for years have lived in fear of their Imperial overlords, especially knowing that they'll steal any children who show bending power and put them to work as slaves. And as for numbers…" He turned and glanced at his daughter.

    Chaiy stepped forward. "My father and I have discussed this, and we think it's time. Freedom for Long Du Shi means freedom for its entire people." She glanced out over the gathered rebels, and it felt to Tong as though she was looking directly at him. "It's time for us to free the slaves."

    ///

    Tong suppressed a shudder as he followed closely behind Chaiy and the small group of rebels she'd brought with her to approach the slave compounds. She'd brought him along both for his bending power and his connection to the slaves, but now as he saw again the place where he'd spent most of his life laboring under the lash, he felt a wave of memories assault him. It was hard, coming here again, but he had to force himself to do it. Chaiy needed all the help she could get.

    Suddenly she dropped into a crouch and waved the other rebels down beside her. Tong could see the slave quarters nearby, silhouetted against the night sky, and he could feel the earth shaking ever so slightly as people paced across it. It took him a moment for him to register their forms- guards.

    "Wait, wait," Chaiy said softly. "Now." As one the rebels leaped to their feet and tore shards of sharp rock from the earth. The guards didn't even have time to react before the projectiles struck them, sending them collapsing to the ground in twitching heaps. A part of Tong still recoiled from the killing, but he reminded himself that these were evil men, the same kinds of men who'd tormented him most of his life. That made him feel a little better.

    Quickly the rebels spread out, going from one individual building of the slave quarters to the next. Opening the doors of the slave houses, the motioned them outside; the slaves seemed perplexed, but were too used to following orders to disobey. It made Tong sad to see them gather meekly in the space between buildings, though their eyes widened when they saw the dead guards. Finally one of the slaves spoke. "Who are you?" he asked. "What do you want from us?"

    Chaiy stepped forward. "We don't want anything from you," she said. "We're here to help you. We're here to set you free."

    "Free?" the slave asked her, shaking his head. "No, I don't believe it. No slave is ever set free, and nobody ever escapes and survives. Freedom is an empty dream; we can't fight them, and they will never let us go. You're only here to toy with us or get us killed, and I don’t know what kind of sick pleasure you get out of it won't listen to it." He turned to walk back towards the building he'd come from.

    Chaiy snarled and ran forward, grabbing him by the back of his arm. "Fool!" she said. "Don't you understand? They can be fought- I've been fighting them all my life. You saw what we did to those guards! You can't just give up!"

    He turned to look at her. "More guards will come- they always do. And if they catch us here, they'll punish us- and if they catch you, and you really are a rebel, they'll do worse. My advice is that you get out of here while you can, save yourself. Don't waste your time with us."

    Chaiy gaped at him, and then hurried back over to the rebels. The rest of the slaves were watching apathetically, with a few glancing back towards the direction of the guardhouses. "I don't believe this!" she said. "Look at them! It's like they've already given up- do they not want to be free?"

    "They do want it," Tong said softly, approaching her. "They want it more than anything, so much that it hurts inside. But they don't really believe in that anymore as anything but a dream. You said it yourself- you've been fighting the Fire Empire all your life; you never had to be a slave, to live with the despair. Neither did your father. I have." He looked her directly in the eye. "Let me talk to them."

    She seemed surprised at first, then nodded. "All right- I'm certainly not having any luck with them. I hope this works out better for you." She put a hand on his shoulder and nodded at him, then let him step forward.

    "Listen to me," Tong began, fear growing in him as he stepped in front of the crowd of slaves, hoping desperately that he would say the right thing and not inadvertently make the situation worse. "Until not long ago, I was one of you. Some of you here may have known a slave named Tong; that was me. I know what you live with day by day- the fear the pain, the exhaustion." Turning his back to them, he pulled up his tunic so that burn scars from fire-whips showed there. "I bear scars, the same as you. But I tell you that the Fire Empire can be fought! I've been in their palaces, faced their warriors, and they aren't the demons of our nightmares- just people, no more, and no less. They have done us a terrible wrong, but they aren’t invincible. I myself threw one of the Empress’s own Chosen out a window! They can be fought, they can be killed, and they can be conquered-" He stopped speaking suddenly. He could feel the earth tremoring beneath him, and barely heard Chaiy shout a warning before a group of armed guards burst into the compound, led by an officer mounted on a rhino. The beast was armored for dispersing crowds, and snorted angrily at the slaves, who cowered before it.

    The officer smirked. "Well, now," he said. "What have we here? Gathering together unsupervised and after curfew- my, my, how many rules have we broken tonight? More than I can count, anyway. I think you rabble need a proper lesson in discipline!" Forming a fire-whip in one hand, he cracked it over his rhino's head; the beast reared and stamped, then charged into the crowd, scattering the slaves.

    Suddenly it reared back again, an arrow protruding from its neck. It wasn't sharp or long enough to penetrate the beast's thick hide, but it certainly caused it pain, and the officer struggled to bring it back under control. Doing so, he glared over its horn at Chaiy, who stood with her bow drawn and another arrow on the string. "You dare shoot at me?" he growled angrily, but there was also a hit of fear in his voice. Slaves didn't carry bows, and they certainly didn't fight back. For the first time, he seemed to realize that this was not routine crowd control.

    She gave him a cocky grin. "Oh, I'll dare a lot of things before I'm through. Are you man enough to face me, or are you just a bully hiding behind your men and your monster?"

    The officer roared incoherently and snapped his whip at the rhino again. It gave a bellow of its own and charged towards Chaiy, but before it could reach her Tong dove to the ground and placed his hand flat against the stone. Walls of rocks sprung up that were knee-high to the rhino; the beast tripped over them and went sprawling. The other rebels joined in, and layers of rock rose from the ground and wrapped themselves tightly against the creature, wedging it in place.

    Roaring curses, the officer leaped from its back and landed in front of Chaiy, fireblasts forming around his hands. He lunged towards her, but before he could strike she took aim and let her arrow fly with the force of earthbending behind it; he collapsed with it protruding from center of his breastplate, the force of Chaiy’s power having punched it clean through the steel. The fire about his hands sputtered briefly, then died with him.

    The other guards were staring in shock; Chaiy leaped on top of the immobilized rhino and stared them down. "See?" she shouted to the slaves, "They can be beaten! They can be hurt, they can bleed, and they can die!"

    "But we don't have any weapons!" one of the slaves shouted.

    "You have all the weapons you need," Tong said. Centering himself above the earth, he pulled a boulder up out of it, and with a thrust of his fist sent it hurtling towards the guards, who scattered as it landed in their midst. They took up defensive positions and raised their hands for bending of their own, but now the slaves were looking at their own hands as if they'd never seen them before.

    "Yes," Tong said, "you have the power- you always have. They want us to fear them, but it’s always been the other way around. They fear us. Now we can show them why."

    The guards struck out with fire, and the rebels met them with stone. Then, one by one, the slaves joined in, adding their own power to the earth. It was over in minutes; the entire guard contingent buried beneath a veritable avalanche. Still attuned to the earth, Tong could almost feel their deaths, and despite it all, he still found himself wishing that there was another way. But the rest of him knew that they were on opposite sides of a war, and if there was a better way, he at least didn't know it. Nonetheless, he found that every death –even the deaths of men like these- saddened him.

    When the last of the guards were dead, the slaves stared at themselves and each other as if they were waking from a trance, and some embraced while others looked towards the city with renewed purpose. Chaiy approached Tong. "Thanks," she said, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. "I didn't know you had it in you; you probably just needed the chance to shine. I guess I'm too used to leading people who already want to fight. I didn't realize how much the fighting spirit can be beaten out of people." She scowled and pulled away. "The Fire Empire has much to answer for."

    "I know," said Tong thoughtfully. "But that spirit never really dies; it just needs the right motivation to come out. Seeing us- their own people- take on those guards and win was what they needed."

    "Seeing you, I think," Chaiy told him. "I'm an archer first, but you're a bender, and you've lived their life. Seeing you in action was what made them realize they could rebel too." She glanced off towards the north. "I'll send the freed slaves back to my father with one of my warriors, but we have more compounds to visit before tonight is over with."

    "I know," Tong said. "It isn't over, not by far. But tonight, we made a start."

    ///

    Some of my early readers joked that Tong is better at inspirational public speaking than Katara was in “Imprisoned”, though I think the comparison’s a bit unfair to her – she was, after all, coming to her set of captive earthbenders as an outsider who could be easily dismissed as not really understanding what their lives and struggles had been like, while Tong’s strength is that he can speak to the slaves as one of their own. Chaiy was at a similar disadvantage here, as well, because as Tong points out she’s always been a rebel, from a family of rebels- not fighting was never an option for her, and while she can motivate people who already want to fight to jump into the action, instilling fighting spirit where it’s largely been stamped out is a rather different beast.

    The guards didn’t help their cause by picking precisely the wrong moment to show up and crack down- the resulting fight was what really shocked the slaves out of their despair, regardless of what Chaiy or Tong think. Speaking of Chaiy, did she or did she not say she can use earthbending to punch a stone arrowhead through steel armor? It may not be metalbending, but Chaiy’s got some good techniques.

    We’re already coming up on the end of the second act, people, and it’s getting ready to climax on two fronts that between them, if both groups of heroes pull their plans off, will likely rock the Fire Empire to its foundations.

    -MasterGhandalf
     
  9. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 44: The Iron Citadel

    The wind whipped Kanoda's cloak as he stood at the prow of the small boat, staring north into the storm-tossed night. It was noticeably cold even for him now- not as bitterly cold as nights at the South Pole sometimes got, but still uncomfortable. He pulled the cloak tighter around himself as he looked towards the horizon, and then in the distance he caught sight of a red beacon fire.

    "There it is," a voice said from behind him, and he turned to see Yue walking up to the prow beside him. Her gaze was fixed on the point of light with an expression of intense longing on her face, and it took Kanoda a moment to realize she wasn't dressed any more heavily than normal. Somehow, the cold didn't seem to be bothering her.

    "Are you sure?" he asked. "It could just be another ship."

    She shook her head. "No. That is the place- believe me, I know." There was something in her tone the brooked no argument.

    "I believe you," Kanoda said quietly. "Let me go tell the others." Leaving her watching the distant beacon, he hurried across the ship's deck and down into its belly, where he found Jiazin sitting beside the engine, holding out her hands in front of it as though sucking up its heat. Of course, he thought, maybe that's exactly what she was doing- he still didn't know a whole lot about firebenders.

    She looked up as she heard his footsteps. "What is it?" she asked.

    "We're there," Kanoda told her. "Well, almost. Yue and I just caught sight of the fortress's beacon fire. We should be there before the night is over. Are you ready for your part?" Knowing that with the numbers they had, straightforwardly storming the fortress would be impossible, the raiding party had come up with a deception that would at the very least get them onto the island, and hopefully to wherever the spirit fish were being kept. One of the most important parts of said deception was falling to Jiazin, the only one of their group with any realistic chance of pulling it off.

    "I'm ready," she told him, her voice steady and confident; this was somewhat undermined when she added a quiet "I think," under her breath.

    "You'll do fine," Kanoda reassured her, resting a hand on her shoulder. “But are you sure you’re willing to go through with this? From what I’ve heard, doing what you’re about to carries a death sentence.”

    Jiazin regarded him levelly. “I’m already under a death sentence for treason after what I did to Gian and my fight with Shiyan; not even Azula can kill me twice. Let’s do this.”

    “Yeah; let’s do it,” Kanoda said. "Now, I'd better go tell Hu; up in the pilot's cabin he's probably already seen, but we'd better not take chances. We can't risk screwing this up; obviously, we're not going to get another chance."

    "I know," Jiazin said softly as he turned and left.

    ///

    The scout ship pulled into the harbor beneath the citadel, flying the flag of the Fire Navy. Kanoda, dressed in one of the spare uniforms they'd found aboard, stared up at it in wonder and horror. The island was little more than a jagged hunk of rock that thrust up from the sea like a talon clawing at the sky, and the only feature on it was High Admiral Yuan's iron fortress. The basic compound was a rectangular steel wall, and in the midst of that thrust upward a single, featureless metal tower that came to a sharp point high above the harbor; the beacon-light glowed from one of the top windows. The whole place looked distressingly impenetrable.

    "We can do this," Jiazin said from beside him, already dressed in her own disguise. He turned to look at her and smiled, and she returned it from the shadows of the hood she wore. Then they turned to face the dock as the ship's ramp lowered and a small group of guards came aboard, led by an officer.

    "It's not common for us to receive visitors," he said curtly to Hu. "Tell me, captain, what brings you and your crew to us at this time of year."

    Jiazin pushed forward, chin held high and bearing coldly regal. "It is not the place of a common soldier to question the Dragon Empress's will," she said, and let her hood fall slightly back; the officer's eyes widened as he took in a face that had been painted gold. It wasn't nearly as intricate as a true Chosen's make-up, being a quick job applied from paints they'd picked up at their last stop in a small port on the edge of the former Earth Kingdom continent, but between the poor lighting and the fact that few soldiers had ever seen an actual Chosen up close in their lives, it was good enough. It was helped by the fact that, because it was death to impersonate a Chosen, few ever dared attempt it.

    "For-forgive me, Chosen," the officer said, backing up further and twitching oddly, as if he was uncertain whether to salute, offer a deeper bow, or both. "I-I wasn't expecting someone of your stature here, and…"

    "Be silent," Jiazin said coldly, making a dismissive gesture; Kanoda found himself thinking that she was frighteningly good at this. "I did not come all this way for idle prattle. The Empress feels that the… objects you are protecting for her here are not as secure as she would hope. I have been sent to retrieve them and return them to her."

    "But, Chosen," the officer said, "that is impossible. Sure the Empress would have notified us…"

    "Do you question my authority, soldier?" Jiazin demanded, drawing her sword. "Are you familiar with the penalty? I speak with the Empress's voice, and to question me is to question her - do not forget that!"

    "Forgive me!" the officer said again. "Of course, the wishes of the Chosen must be honored. Follow me."

    Jiazin turned to Hu. "Captain, remain with the vessel. The rest of you, with me." The "captain" saluted; the other members of the raiding party, clad in Fire Navy uniforms (Yue wearing a firebender's mask to conceal her strange hair and eyes) followed the false Chosen down the gangway and onto the stone island. Kanoda almost had to suppress a chuckle as he watched the officer fawning over Jiazin ahead; Empress Azula ruled through a combination of cunning, respect, and fear, with the Chosen as her mouthpieces and enforcers, but now that fear and the Chosen’s status outside the chain of command had been turned against her. The irony was very appropriate.

    Hopefully, it would be enough to get them through the night.

    ///

    The group emerged from a tightly winding narrow passage into a small chamber near the top of the citadel. Four guards stood in corners around the room at full attention (though Jiazin spied the remains of a pai sho game that had been hastily shoved into one corner), and the center was dominated by an immense metal chest. There was something about it that made her uneasy; she didn't think it would be pleasant to try and look at it for long. She assumed that meant that one of the two great spirits of water, her opposite element, was within.

    "This is the… item, Chosen," the officer said. "Are you certain you wish to…"

    Jiazin cut him off- best not to let the man get a coherent thought out, or let him look at things too closely; he didn't seem all that bright, but she wasn't taking chances. "I am certain. Remove it."

    The officer looked at her strangely and nodded, then motioned for the guards. One of them removed a smaller box from a shelf and brought it forward, while the others undid the locks on the large chest and heaved it open. Within it was filled to the brim with standing saltwater, and within that water circled a strange black-and-white fish. The guards scooped it into the smaller box, along with a healthy portion of water, and shut it.

    Yue came forward and leaned her helmeted head close to Jiazin. "The Ocean Spirit fish," she whispered. "It must have been kept up high and away from its element to weaken it."

    Jiazin nodded, and then turned to the guards. "Take that to my ship. You," she indicated the officer, "will now show me the other one."

    "Yes, of course," he stammered. "It is down below. Follow."

    This, Jiazin said to herself as she followed him once more into the twisting corridors, was quite simply too easy.

    She should have known it was far too good to last.

    ///

    The Warden of the Citadel watched from the window of his office as his soldiers scurried about in the yard below. It had all started with the arrival of that small ship in the harbor earlier tonight; the Warden had assumed it to be a usual supply or message run and sent his subordinates to deal with. Now, however, he was no longer so sure.

    "Guard!" he shouted, and one of his subordinates entered the room, quickly saluting. "I need to know what's going on down there; go find out and report back to me at once."

    "Yes, sir!" the soldier said, saluting again before ducking out. The Warden stood there motionless, waiting, until finally the man returned.

    "Well?" he asked. "What is it?"

    "Sir," the guard began, "one of the Chosen has arrived, and she says she is under orders to remove the spirit prisoners as quickly as possible; none dared to question her. The men were not even given time to report."

    "What?" the Warden demanded, wheeling on him. "That isn't possible. My orders are clear on that matter, and any Chosen who was sent here would know them, unless…" his mind suddenly went to a most unpleasant place, "unless that fool out there is no Chosen at all, and we're being had!"

    "Orders, sir?"

    The Warden began to pace furiously. "Rouse the garrison; I want every guard we have down at the docks to have a little talk with this "Chosen" before she leaves; and I do believe that she and I will have very much to talk about…"

    ///

    The Moon Spirit's prison was identical in almost all respects to the Ocean Spirit's, save that it was deep beneath the central spire rather than atop it. As before, Jiazin curtly ordered the guards to remove the spirit fish from its crate and place it into the smaller travel box; what she hadn't anticipated was Yue's reaction.

    The moment the fish was removed from its prison, the waterbender's gaze went directly to it, and Jiazin could almost feel the spiritual connection that crackled between them like lightning. Then Yue gave a small cry and collapsed forward, knees buckling; looking carefully through the eyeslits of her helmet, Jiazin could see that her eyes had begun to glow. Kanoda hurried to her side and caught her before she hit the ground, helping her to her feet and positioning his body between her face and the guards.

    "What's wrong with her?" the officer asked warily. "It's not catching, is it? We're isolated enough that one infected person could get us all ill!"

    "Her condition is her own and of no concern to you," Jiazin snapped. "Now hurry. I don't recall giving you permission to stand and gawk!" Fearfully the officer saluted and the guards finished "packing" the fish before marching from the room and up to the surface of the island. Jiazin deliberately let herself fall behind them and leaned in to Kanoda. "What's going on?"

    "I don't know," he admitted. "I've never seen her like this before- it's like she's in some kind of trance. I should have known weird things might start happening when the Moon Spirit was nearby."

    "Nothing to do about it now!" Jiazin said. "Just keep playing it cool, and if we're lucky we'll get out of this in one piece." Kanoda didn't look convinced, but he also knew that the middle of the High Admiral's fortress was no place for an extended argument.

    Finally they emerged into the citadel courtyard, Jiazin taking the lead flanked by the rebels Feng and Chin, with Yue leaning on Kanoda taking up the rear. There was their ship, and escape, just a short distance away, but between them and it stood several ranks of soldiers in Imperial livery, with an older man in a more ornate uniform standing in front.

    "Greetings, Chosen," the man said. "I am the Warden of this Citadel, and I am curious as to exactly what business brings you here today."

    "I need not explain my business to you," Jiazin said, trying to sound as arrogant as possible even as fear crept up her spine. "Now stand aside and let me pass."

    "I'm afraid I can't do that," the Warden told her. "You see, I think you're trying to leave with something of mine, and I want it back." He motioned to the box containing the spirit fish; the guard holding it put it down and hastily backed away, obviously wanting nothing to do with the coming conflict between his commanding officer and the Empress's enforcer.

    "The Empress's Chosen may take whatever is necessary to serve the Empress’s will!" Jiazin snapped. "I don't like to repeat myself- stand aside, or suffer the consequences!"

    The Warden shook his head. "Ah, but you see here, girl, I have a written order in the Empress's own hand that says I am only authorized to release the fish to herself or the High Admiral in person. No one else, not officers, not nobles, and not Chosen. If you really were Chosen and really had been sent here, you'd know that. Of course, if you have written orders in the Empress’s own hand to the contrary, I’ll be happy to oblige you – but somehow, I don’t think you do.” His grin widened when Jiazin stayed silent and backed away nervously. “Therefore, I'm afraid I have to conclude that you and your so-called crew are nothing but a bunch of spies and thieves." His gaze narrowed. "Arrest them, and seize the ship. I don't want them or either prize getting away!"

    The guards rushed forward, but before they could bring weapons or bending to bear Song fell into an earthbending stance and raised her arms to the sky; the island heaved and a wall of rock rose between the raiders and their attackers. It was thin and fragile, lasting only a few moments before firebenders on the other side blasted through it, but that was long enough for Jiazin to throw aside her cloak and draw her sword in one hand, fire burning in the other. She met the first guard through blade to blade and forced him back, and with her free hand formed a ring of fire around herself, sending nearby guards stumbling backwards, burned. Nearby, she could see Chin draw his own sword and duel one of the attacking soldiers, while Song pinned one man with her stone gauntlets and then launched a series of boulders into the ranks, scattering them. Across the courtyard, she saw the gangplank of the ship retract and Hu shake the earth under the would-be-boarding party's feet; she hoped that the Ocean fish was already safely aboard. Distantly, she heard the Warden's voice shouting that they were to be taken alive if possible for interrogation.

    In the end, however, the fight was no contest, and Jiazin knew it. She was skilled, as were the rebel fighters, but Yue was still in her trance and Kanoda was burdened with defending her, and the two of them were quickly surrounded by guards. Jiazin ran to help them, but she was tackled from behind by two of her opponents, who pinned her arms against her sides to keep her from bending. Looking up, she saw the two rebels fall as well.

    Her captors dragged her to her feet, and she looked up to see the Warden approaching. He smiled cruelly at her and yanked back her hood, revealing her painted face. "Pathetic," he sneered as he casually smeared the paint with one hand. "Anyone with half a brain could tell you're not really Chosen," he glanced at his men, "though hopefully some will take this as a lesson. I don't know why a firebender like you is doing this, but I'm going to find out. I'm sure the High Admiral is going to be most interested in you." He bent down and picked up the metal box containing the spirit fish. "And this is going back where it came from."

    He opened his mouth to say more, but before he could he was cut off by a howl so awful it scarcely seemed human. Jiazin turned her head towards the sound and saw Yue, helmet off and eyes blazing, staring at the Warden with an expression of awful intensity. This was not the sad, kind, driven woman the firebender had come to know over the past few weeks; something else had taken hold of her now, something old and primal. There was no recognition in her eyes, only hatred for the Warden.

    “No!” she said in a voice that shook the earth. “Too long have I been held prisoner beneath this island, and I shall never return!”

    With terrible strength she wrenched herself free of the guards who held her and raised her arms to the sky. The sea about the citadel boiled, and then rose in great waves before crashing down into the courtyard. Jiazin ducked and covered her head, anticipating a terrible blow, but it never fell; looking up, she saw that the water parted just above her head and the heads of the other raiding party members and didn't touch them. The guards, however, were not so lucky. The seawater slammed into them and then suddenly withdrew, dragging many of them out to sea. She barely had a chance to register the Warden's terrified face shooting past her before he was gone.

    The water wrapped itself around Yue and lifted her high above the island; she gestured with one hand, and a tendril of water wrapped itself around the moon fish's box and bore it up to her waiting hands. Then, water swirling around her, she jetted forward- it deposited her on the ship, and there she stood, still as a statue, staring at the citadel.

    Realizing that she was free, Jiazin sprang into motion. She grabbed her sword from where it lay and shouted for the others; they followed her through the soaked courtyard and to the dock. The few guards who remained on land were too soaked and stunned to present any threat; the gangplank descended as she reached the ship and they hastily scrambled aboard.

    "Is the ocean fish already here?" she gasped to Hu as soon as she was on deck.

    "Yes," he said, nodding. "It's already below."

    "Then let's get out of here, now!" Hu nodded and hurried up to the pilot's box; Jiazin herself hurried down to the engine and gave it a blast of flame to start up. Climbing back onto deck, she saw that they were pulling slowly away from the citadel and that Yue still stood perfectly still, the moon spirit box clutched tightly in her hands. Jiazin felt a sense of vertigo overtake her as she regarded them, and knew in her heart just who the inhuman voice that had spoken through the waterbender’s mouth belonged to.

    Suddenly a light flashed on the island, and Jiazin's eyes widened as an immense fireball hurled towards the ship. She moved to deflect it, knowing as she did so that it was far outside her power, but before she could act a whip of water shot out of the sea and struck the fireball from the sky. Yue didn't move, but the blue glow from her eyes became more intense as more fireballs followed, and each one was batted away. Finally, however, her body didn't seem to be able to take the strain any longer; as the final fireball hurled towards them, she swayed and collapsed in mid-block. The fireball struck the edge of the ship, tearing off a section of the railing and hull (mercifully above the warer-line) before sinking into the sea. The ship rocked and slowed, but then they were out of range.

    Kanoda and Jiazin knelt beside Yue and propped her up. She shook her head, and when she opened her eyes they were their normal bright blue without the eerie glow. "What happened?" she whispered. "The last thing I remember was the Moon Spirit's prison."

    Kanoda quickly told her. "No wonder I feel so tired," she whispered. "That must have put my body under a tremendous amount of strain." She shook her head. "I'll live, but I feel so weak…"

    "We have the spirits," Jiazin said to her. "That part of the mission is done. But we don’t know what to do with them. Where are we going next?"

    Yue's eyes focused on something Jiazin could not see. "North," she said. "To the North Pole, the grave of my people and the ruins of their way of life. Only there can the spirits be truly set free. We end this where it began."

    ///

    The bedraggled Warden was quaking with fear as he finished his report to High Admiral Yuan, then fell forward to the deck of the Eye of Agni, kneeling in supplication but too proud to beg his superior for his life. The High Admiral paid him no further mind; his thoughts were elsewhere in a whirl of hate and fear.

    "Fool!" Shiyan spat; she was glaring at Yuan hatefully. Whatever small camaraderie they'd shared in seizing control of Long Du Shi was gone now in light of what she saw as his latest failure. "How could you have such lax security around our Empire's greatest prize- the Moon and Ocean spirits?" She shook her head, apparently still amazed about that revelation from the Warden - though whether it was amazement that the spirits had been captured or amazement that Yuan had managed to hold on to them this long, the High Admiral wasn't sure. "You could have at least sent a hawk and warned them of what was coming!"

    "The weather around this fortress is too stormy for hawks to make it through with any certainty," Yuan snapped back. "Besides, all the warning in the world wouldn't prepare a garrison that hardly ever sees battle for that waterbender; there's something uncanny about her. But if you'd listened to our friend the Warden here, you would have learned that she has only a few days' lead on us- and her ship is damaged. They struck it at least once. Before we reached this place I sent messengers to the fleet commanders, knowing that I might need them. Soon, the entire might of the Fire Navy will descend upon her; no one can survive that, not even her."

    Shiyan snorted. "How are we to capture her? We don't even know where she's going!"

    "I do," Yuan said. He turned to stare off towards the north. "She runs to the North Pole, hoping to undo what my grandfather did to her people. In her folly, she will leave herself boxed in with nowhere else to run to, and there we will run her to ground at last. We're going to the North Pole after her, Chosen, at full speed. It's time to end this."

    ///

    Well, this chapter was pretty straightforward over all. Shiyan may have been mercilessly abusing her position as a Chosen throughout this story, but the heroes finally get to get in on the action there as well – we’ve seen Jiazin be imperious before, but this time she was really tested! Fortunately for her, the Warden himself didn’t come out to meet her; unfortunately, Azula, still several steps ahead of everyone else, had given him instructions that anticipated the con she and her companions were trying to run. There was absolutely no way this would have succeeded if it hadn’t been for Yue’s spirit-fuelled meltdown – the Moon Spirit is, along with the Ocean Spirit, Raava, and Vaatu, one of the closest things to an actual god in the Avatarverse, and not really a power that can be dealt with lightly. At least, when it has a useful vessel and isn’t stuck as a koi fish in a box, anyway.

    Thanks to Yue, this part of the plan went about as smoothly as can be hoped. Unfortunately, an increasingly unstable Yuan is on to them, and he’s bringing Shiyan and as much of the Fire Navy has he can gather with him. Trust me when I say his assessment is accurate –he’s finally got Yue right where he wants her, boxed in with no alternative but to face the Fire Empire’s power. In the next Jiazin/Kanoda/Yue chapter, this subplot is going to at long last come to its head – and I think that may just be my favorite part of the fic.

    -MasterGhandalf

     
  10. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 45: Triumph and Tragedy

    Neither Shu nor Chaiy made any stirring speeches to the rebels before they made their attack on the palace; it would have only eaten up time, and it wasn't necessary. Everyone here knew what was at stake, from the newly recruited slaves to battle-scarred veterans- freedom for themselves or their people. This was the best chance they would likely ever have to seize the city, and they intended to take full advantage of it.

    The small rebel army gathered near the entrance to the tunnel system that Tong, Kanoda, Chaiy, and Jiazin had used; scouts reported that the larger chambers further in were crawling with Imperial soldiers, but that there were few benders among them, and they didn't seem to be expecting an attack. Most of the elites who hadn't been dragged off with Yuan on whatever mad chase he was on were out scouring the countryside for the escaped slaves; small groups of rebel scouts were deliberately leading them in circles, keeping them away from the city itself until the battle was done.

    Chaiy breathed deeply, steeling herself as she stared down into the tunnel's depths. She'd been down here once before, but now she had the entire rebellion at her back; because he wasn't much of a fighter, her father was staying behind and under guard until the palace was taken, so she was to lead most of the actual fighting. This was her night, and its success or failure was riding on her, larger than anything she'd led before. She could feel the weight of it on her.

    "Are you ready?" an older earthbender asked her quietly from behind.

    She breathed deeply, ran a hand over her bow, and nodded. "Yes. Let's go." She darted down into the tunnel, her warriors following in a thin column behind her. They moved silently through the earth (or at least as silently as a group as large as theirs could), until finally they came to the entrance from the tunnel into the first of the larger caverns of the Crystal Catacombs. Just before they reached it, Chaiy held up a hand for the rest to halt, and then slipped forward on her own into the crystal-lit chambers.

    The Fire Empire soldiers milled about in the center of the room; most weren't even trying to maintain a pretense of military discipline, but near the entrances on both ends the guards were alert and wore the distinctive masks of firebenders; Chaiy had to dart behind a rock to miss being seen by one particularly observant sentry. She had no doubt that the moment they saw danger they'd rouse the others to action, and then the rebels would have a major fight on their hands.

    It was Chaiy's job to make sure that danger came from an unexpected direction, and she had refused to allow anyone else to take that risk. After all, she was the best shot in the rebellion.

    Creeping along behind concealing rocks and crystals, the last daughter of the Bei Fong family hissed angrily to see the Fire Nation scum having so casually planted themselves among the ancient ruins of her people; logically, she knew they weren't all bad, but they represented the invading, oppressive presence and she hated them for it. Still, she carefully scanned the subterranean encampment, until at last she saw what she sought; a middle-aged man who sat by a table on the side of the cave closer to the entrance to the palace, clad in ornate armor and talking animatedly with the ordinary soldiers who stood nearby, all of whom were deferential to him. That would be the leader, probably a colonel from his uniform and the nerve center of this entire company- Chaiy knew that the Fire Empire prided itself on discipline and hierarchy, but while that was often a strength, if the top of that hierarchy was suddenly torn off, it could turn into an exploitable weakness as well.

    Finding an appropriate crystal outcropping, Chaiy began to climb to the top, taking care not to allow any of the guards to see her; she didn't dare draw attention to herself by earthbending her way to the top. Finally she reached a height that gave her a good angle; holding herself in place by wrapping her legs around the crystal, she drew her bow, strung it, and drew an arrow from her quiver. Focusing with as much care and precision as she could muster, she aimed straight for the officer's neck, where his armor didn't cover.

    From the ground below she heard a shout, and realized that one of the guards had glanced up and seen her. She allowed herself a slight smile and a smug thought of too late before letting her arrow fly, putting as much force behind it with bending as she could from such an awkward position. The officer turned to regard it for a brief moment, and his eyes widened in surprise and horror, but it was too late for him to do anything about it. He toppled to the ground with Chaiy's arrow in his throat, and chaos erupted in the crystal caves.

    Chaiy slipped down from her perch, centering herself so that she could earthbend at any soldiers who came at her. She was, however, still fairly far away from the main body, and by the time they managed to get over to her, they were going to have much bigger problems.

    The sudden noise and chaos from the cavern was the rebel warriors' signal to act.

    ///

    Tong was in the forefront of the rebel charge, along with the other powerful earthbenders. Some of them were warriors with a great deal of experience; others, like Tong, had great raw talent; still more were slaves who had great endurance and skill at calling simple structures from the earth. All were needed.

    They first met the guards who waited near the entrance; they immediately raised the alarm and then turned to face the attackers, raising their hands and summoning deadly blasts of fire. Tong and the earthbenders planted their feet and then pulled on the earth; walls of rock shot up in front of them and absorbed the fireblasts harmlessly. Then, as the firebenders prepared their next attack, the rebels thrust outward- the rock walls shot forward, burying the Imperial soldiers beneath them.

    Across the chamber, the other guards were struggling to get organized, but they were hampered by the loss of their leader, and they were not prepared to fight, while the rebels were. Splitting up, they moved quickly across the stone floor, ripping rocks and crystals from the ground and using them to herd the enemy into tight groups, where they could be confined and overwhelmed. Across the cave, Tong saw Chaiy battling against a small group of firebender guards who'd intercepted her as she made her way back towards her warriors; she was good, but Tong wasn't sure she could win against so many enemies alone. Sprinting towards her, he focused all his will into the earth and seized the loose stones near one of the guards' legs, wrapping around and immobilizing them. The Imperial soldiers stumbled, and then Tong pulled up a larger rock, which he sent slamming into the man, knocking him to the ground in a heap. Then he was beside Chaiy, and the two turned to face their three remaining opponents.

    "Nice timing," Chaiy said, "and good bending, too- nice trick with that gravel."

    "I had a good teacher," he replied.

    "Thanks. Now let's take these guys."

    The firebenders rushed forward, and Tong fell to his hands and knees, feeling the earth around him and then focusing his will on it, creating waves of vibrations that knocked his opponents back. One of them attempted to pull himself back to his feet and launched a fireblast, but Tong met it with a small wall of earth that he then pushed forward, pinning the soldier against a crystal outcropping. The second used the opportunity to get back to his feet and rushed forward, meeting Tong hand-to-hand. Here his greater experience gave him the edge, and Tong was forced backwards while blocking the blows. Finally, however, the former slave wedged his foot into a crack in the rock and shoved with all his strength; the section of stone on which the guard stood was ripped from beneath his feet and sent him flying backwards, where he landed in a heap and lay still. Turning away from his fight, Tong saw Chaiy pin her opponent against a rock and then swiftly stab him with an arrow. She jerked it out and stepped lightly back; the soldier cursed her and fell forward to the ground.

    Tong looked away from the dead man and back across the cavern; he saw that most of the guards were captured or dead, while the rebels seemed to have suffered only light casualties. They'd had the element of surprise, but in the likely event that some of the guards had escaped, they'd lost that. Now they'd need the advantages of speed and determination.

    Chaiy stepped forward. "All right, people, good work," she said loudly. "Now let's get moving. I want this over with as soon as possible."

    The rest of the rebels nodded and then fell into step behind her as she led the way through the caverns, coming at last to the one directly beneath the palace. The rockslide that she and Tong had triggered to stop pursuit had been mostly blasted away by fire, but it was blocked by several ranks of firebenders with their hands outstretched. In any other place, it would have been a formidable sight, but here they were surrounded by stone and pitted against earthbenders.

    "Take them," Chaiy said.

    ///

    Yan Li was awakened by the sound of something crashing deep within his palace. Sitting up straight in bed, he pushed the sheets aside gently so as not to wake his wife, and then moved through the suite until he came to the door, and the guards- once his protectors; now, thanks to High Admiral Yuan and that mad Chosen, his jailers.

    "I heard something," he said without preamble. "Do either of you know what's going on out there?"

    "I believe it's some sort of attack, sir," one of the guards said- Yan Li was still a high-ranking nobleman, and even if his imprisonment kept the guard from using the full honorific, he still was bound to show some respect. "Rebels are invading the palace from the bottom up. We should have the situation back under control shortly- no need for concern." He didn't say that no matter what happened, Yan Li wouldn't be leaving the room- he didn't have to. It hung unsaid between them every time they spoke.

    "Thank you," the former governor told him, and then retreated to a low couch to think. Despite what the guard said, he remained quite confident that things weren't in any sense under control, nor were they likely to be any time soon. Not if the rebels were in the palace itself, and certainly not when there was no strong chain of command for the guard to follow. If only Yuan hadn't gone gallivanting off to who-knew-where, or better yet, if Yan Li himself had been free, things might have gone differently. Unfortunately, neither situation was true.

    Yan Li had always served the Fire Empire loyally, but recent events had begun to cast doubts on that loyalty. It had begun when he'd seen his daughter's reaction to learning the Fire Empire's secrets- that an idealistic, honorable girl like Jiazin could be driven to the rebels' side by such knowledge had forced Yan Li to think on whether or not those actions had really been worth it, something the increasingly cynical governor hadn't done for years. Then, despite his years of hard work and loyal service, he'd been stripped of his position by the whim of a fifteen-year-old girl, and it had been taken by a preening egomaniac of a man who existed only for his own aggrandizement. Finally, that man had ran off and dragged the entire fleet and part of the garrison on a personal errand, leaving Long Du Shi without leadership and largely undefended. From afar, the Empress had watched all of this and done nothing to halt it.

    To Yan Li's mind, the Fire Empire had always stood for peace and order- whatever else it was, whatever wrongs it committed, could always be justified by that. Now, though, he saw that a rot lay at its heart, and had been growing there for a long time. For the first time, he perceived that the Empire's fall was inevitable- Azula was the only thing holding the unwieldy system together, and when she finally died, it would die with her. That was not in any way a pleasant thought.

    He heard soft footsteps, and looked up to see his wife approaching him. "What's wrong?" she asked quietly, sitting down beside him. Theirs had been an arranged marriage negotiated by their parents, wedding a rising politician to a budding firebending master for the benefit of both families, no grand storybook romance, but still over the years they had come to know each other well, and rely on one another. Yan Li wasn't certain if what they had was love, but it was something real and meaningful nonetheless.

    "I have been a fool, Nu Shi," he said. "We all have. And now I fear we are going to pay the price."

    ///

    Fighting raged through the corridors of the governor's palace, but the rebels pushed steadily upwards. The guards within the actual building were good, but they were few and spread out, and were clearly unprepared to deal with so sudden an attack. More rebels fell, but they managed to kill or capture the vast majority of their opposition. The single battle dissolved into a series of running fights within the twisting corridors, the guards using their familiarity with the territory against the rebels' greater numbers.

    Of course, even that couldn’t halt the rebels’ true advantage – earthbenders who had an entire building made largely from stone to work with.

    As more of them moved into the palace, the rebels began to fan out, tearing through the building and capturing as many nobles as they could find. This late, many of the ministers had returned to their own mansions, but some remained and, being bureaucrats rather than warriors, fell rather easily to their earthbender captors. Still, Chaiy was coming to realize, these were mostly mid-to-low ranking functionaries, rather than the ones who actually held the major reins of power. Those likely lived in some of the nearby mansions, and she sent a small group of warriors she could spare out into the central city to see if they could find them. Still, the hostages she'd taken so far were distinctly disappointing.

    She remained in the palace herself, leading a team of earthbenders that were tracking down the remaining guards who were putting up resistance. Rounding one corner, she found herself face-to-face with a small group who were guarding what appeared to be a single door. Whatever was behind there, Chaiy realized, was important. The guards had just noticed her group, and were turning towards them to firebend, when she let loose her first arrow, taking the leader down. Her warriors deflected their fireblasts will walls of earth wrenched from the palace itself, and then they closed in melee. Earthbenders tended to be physically strong, and Chaiy's rebels had gotten a lot of practice over the years at fighting, certainly more than these firebenders, who had a largely ceremonial look about them. The enemy fell quickly, with only one rebel having to be carted away to be treated for bad burns. Turning to the now-unprotected door, Chaiy kicked it in.

    "Now, really," a calm voice said from inside. "Was that necessary, young lady?"

    Irritation and curiosity warred in Chaiy as she stepped inside- why would anyone be so calm while their entire world was coming apart. Then she saw the dignified-looking middle-aged man who sat on the couch within the room, studying her coolly, and he looked enough like Jiazin that she knew at once who he was. The elegant woman who sat beside him had a look of coiled readiness about her, and her folded hands might easily conceal a small flame. "The governor," Chaiy breathed, “and his firebender wife!” Now here was a prize!

    "Indeed," the man said. "I am Yan Li, until recently governor of this city. This is my wife, the Lady Nu Shi. And you are?"

    "Chaiy Bei Fong, field leader of the rebellion," Chaiy answered proudly. She gestured for her warriors and they rushed into the room, surrounding the governor. "And you, milord and lady, are coming with us."

    Yan Li stood and looked around curiously. He didn't look like a warrior, but neither did he seem afraid. He seemed… calculating, and that made Chaiy uneasy. His wife hung close beside him, unarmed but taking the deep, slow breaths a firebender might if they felt they might have to spring into action at any moment. "Field leader, you say," the governor said, not taking his eyes from her. "I take that to mean that you are answerable to someone else? I would imagine so- you seem too young to be leading an entire rebellion by yourself."

    Chaiy didn't rise to the bait, though there was a part of her that she realized wanted to very badly. "That would be my father, Shu. I'm sure he'll have lots of questions for you." She turned to leave, but Yan Li's voice stopped her.

    "I'm sure he will. I'd hoped we could work something out."

    She turned back, wary. "Work something out? What do you mean?"

    Yan Li spread his hands. "You've won the battle, child- I can see that clearly. But you haven't won the war, if I'm not mistaken. You have the palace, and you have hostages. But you don't have the garrison, which I've been told is out chasing slaves right now. They'll come back, and High Admiral Yuan eventually too. Then there will be a real battle, and who can say who will win that?"

    "It sounds to me like you'd be better off waiting for your friends to come back and liberate you," Chaiy said.

    "High Admiral Yuan is no friend of mine," Yan Li spat. "Surely you heard that he usurped my authority, and ran off leaving my city defenseless? I say my city and I mean it- I have spent most of my life working to build Long Du Shi into a metropolis as great as Long Du Shi, and I will not see it destroyed in senseless warfare!"

    Now Chaiy was intrigued in spite of herself. "And so what exactly are you offering?"

    "The garrison remains loyal to me," Yan Li said. "I have been their ultimate leader for years, and that is not something broken by a few weeks of Yuan. If I order them to stand down, most of them- I can't guarantee all, but most- will. That will remove one threat from you, and I will also offer my services in keeping the city orderly during the transition." His eyes grew dark. "I believe in peace and order, you see, and I'm afraid I no longer trust this Empire or its Empress to maintain them. Low-born rebel or not, you can surely be no worse."

    "Can I really afford to trust you?"

    Yan Li's eyes bored into hers. "Can you really afford not to?"

    Chaiy weighed her options, and sighed. "No. Come with me, both of you, and meet my father. Tell all this to him, and he will decide your fate."

    ///

    Cheng darted at the practice dummy with her sword and then pulled back at the last moment, coming at it from a different angle and with a different stroke. She was good, and she knew it, but she knew full well that she needed to be better. She wasn't a very good Chosen, at least not compared to Shiyan. Her feelings towards the other girl were complicated to experience, but they could be summed up easily enough. Cheng admired Shiyan, and she resented Shiyan, but above all, she wanted to be Shiyan.

    That was why she was drilling so late into the night, wearing her armor but not her facepaint; she wanted Shiyan to be proud of how she'd handled things when she got back from chasing spirits with Yuan, and to do that, she needed to be better than she was- a lot better.

    Suddenly Cheng stopped, cocking her head. There were sounds coming from outside her room- it sounded like fighting. Opening the door, she ducked out in time to see one of the palace guards dueling an earthbender in the middle of the hall. The earthbender was good, or seemed to be to Cheng, but the guard was better, and soon he felled his opponent with a fireblast. Cheng watched in fascination- the Empress was supposed to be the greatest of all firebenders, but for some reason Cheng didn't understand, the Chosen weren't permitted to practice the art at all.

    The guard realized she was watching him and turned to face her. That was enough to force Cheng to remember herself, and she straightened her posture hastily. "What's going on?" she asked, doing her best to copy the commanding tone Shiyan used sometimes, and the Mistress back on Empress Island used all the time.

    "We're under attack!" the guard panted out. "Rebels in the palace- they took us off-guard, and now they're winning. We're in retreat!"

    "Not for long," Cheng promised. "I'll join you shortly, and once we get organized, we'll make short work of this." There- that sounded like something Shiyan would say. The guard, though, looked at her skeptically.

    "This is no place for a little girl!" he snapped. "You need to get out of here, now!"

    There was no need for Cheng to imitate someone else's cold tone this time. "I'm not a child- I'm one of the Empress's Chosen, and there aren't any better fighters in the Empire than us. I'll be safer out there than you!" Darting back inside her room, she found a mirror and began to hastily apply her facepaint. She would go into battle wearing the colors of the Chosen, and she wouldn't fail.

    ///

    The fighting had largely died down when Chaiy found her father standing in a corridor lined with windows- the same corridor where she and her companions had fought Shiyan, she realized absently, noting that one of the widows was boarded up where the Chosen had crashed through it. He was watching the great city through one of the windows, staring out with a thoughtful expression. "Once, all of this was ours, Chaiy," he said softly, "and Ba Sing Se was greater than Long Du Shi ever will be. But it will be again, I promise you. I will see to it."

    "I know you will, Dad," Chaiy said in a voice barely above a whisper. Then she spoke again in her normal voice. "And here is someone you'll be very interested to meet. Bring up the prisoners." Her rebels came forward at her command, and shoved Governor Yan Li and Lady Nu Shi in front of Shu. The two men regarded each other appraisingly, and for a moment Chaiy was struck by certain similarities between them- they were both about the same age, the fathers of daughters who were about the same age, and they were both the leaders of their people. That considered, looking at her father's rough clothing and Yan Li's rich robes, she was forcibly reminded of the stark differences between them as well.

    Chaiy took up a position slightly behind her father so as to best watch his back, and a part of her noted with wry amusement that Nu Shi did the same beside the governor. Though still dressed in her nightgown, the Fire Nation woman still held herself with the easy confidence of a master bender.

    "So," Shu finally said, "you are the Governor of Long Du Shi. We meet at last."

    "I've also anticipated this meeting, rebel leader," Yan Li said, "though I'd expected my men to be dragging you in front of me, rather than the reverse. It's interesting, isn't it, how these things work out?"

    "Listen to me, Father," Chaiy put in, trying to sound businesslike and formal. "There's a bargain he offered, and I think you should listen to it."

    Shu stood still as a statue as he listened to Yan Li outline his offer again, and then he shook his head. "This sounds good- almost too good. You are serious?"

    “My husband is deadly serious,” Nu Shi said. “If you are wise, you will recognize that fact.”

    The governor nodded. "I do, however, have a request I wish to make of you, or rather, two requests, or I can't offer you anything."

    "Name them, and we'll see," Shu said.

    "First, if I offer you my services, my family is not to be harmed."

    "Done before you asked it. Unlike some, I don't harm those who've made no quarrel with me," Shu said, his tone making it abundantly clear who he was talking about when he said "some". He glanced over at Nu Shi and gave a small bow towards her; her eyes narrowed suspiciously, but then she returned the gesture.

    "And second…" a pained look crossed Yan Li's face. ”My daughter defected to your cause not long ago- her name is Jiazin. I would like to speak with her, if I could."

    "Jiazin is currently a long way from here, and likely will be for some time," Shu said. "But I give you my word as an honorable man that she lives, and if her mission is successful, she may help save us all. I'd rather not say any more."

    "And as a man of honor, I will accept your word," Yan Li replied. "But if I learn you have lied to me, Shu Bei Fong, I will not take kindly to it."

    “Nor I,” said Nu Shi. “No matter what else happens tonight, our daughter’s safety and well-being remains of utmost importance.”

    "I understand," Shu told them. "If I thought my own daughter was in danger, I don't think I'd have much mercy for the one who put her there. I promise you that Jiazin was well when I last saw her, and you can speak with her at once upon her return."

    The three shared a smile that was more coolly understanding than precisely friendly, and then Shu reached out and shook Yan Li's hand.

    Then everything went wrong.

    ///

    By the time Cheng made it into the halls of the palace, the fighting seemed to have almost entirely died down. Here and there she saw guards or rebels (far more of the latter), but she always hid from her enemies- even she couldn't take five or six earthbenders at once. Maybe Shiyan could, or the Mistress, but Cheng wasn't either one of them.

    Finally she rounded a corner, and quickly pulled back. There stood a large group of rebels standing around four people- a girl with a bow and a loose tail of hair, the Governor of Long Du Shi, who must have been a captive, his wife, and another man who was dressed like a somewhat better-off peasant, but held himself like a lord. That one, Cheng realized, must be the rebel leader, and in that realization she found her purpose. If he died, this whole attack would fall apart, and Shiyan would know when she returned that Cheng had been the one to save the city.

    Cheng had failed with the Water Tribe spy- she wouldn't fail again. Holding her sword tightly, taking a deep breath, she darted into the corridor.

    ///

    Tong knew that the scene he saw as he and the warriors he was with entered the corridor where Shu waited with the surrendered Governor would be seared into his mind for the rest of his life.

    From the other end of the corridor he saw the girl, who looked like the Chosen he'd fought in this very hallway but somewhat younger and slighter, come darting into the midst of the rebels with a drawn blade in one hand. A woman he would later learn was the Governor’s wife saw her too, and spinning, launched a fireblast, apparently under the impression that her husband was the girl’s target. The young Chosen, however, had her eyes on a different prize; she ducked under the fireblast lightly dodged and rolled past the next series of blows, earthbending or mundane, and then catching herself on one rocky slab she launched herself into the air and hurled herself at Shu, blade now reversed and pointing down. Time seemed to slow as she descended, and Shu's eyes widened, but before he could reach she slammed into him, knocking him to the floor. She rolled off him and landed in a fighting crouch; he lay on the ground with the blade buried in his side.

    "Well that's… really quite unfortunate…" Tong heard Shu say, a sort of shocked amusement in his tone. Then his head fell back, and through the stone floor Tong could feel his heartbeat sputter and cease. The leader of the rebellion was dead.

    At once time returned to its normal course. Chaiy gave a howl of rage that was almost animal in its intensity and hurled herself bodily at the Chosen girl. The two toppled to the floor and rolled about, tearing at each other. There was nothing of sophistication or skill on either party's side- just rage and grief on the one and fear and need to escape on the other- and here Chaiy's greater size and strength came into play. Still, the Chosen girl was good, and she seemed almost like she might manage to squeeze from the archer's grip until two other rebels seized her arms and hauled her to her feet. The girl hung there, twisting and writhing in their grip.

    Chaiy struggled to her feet and spun to face a robed man who stood off to one side- Tong’s eyes widened as his mind processed that this was the Governor himself, who he'd seen from a distance a handful of times before. "You did this!" she spat. "You set this up!"

    "I had nothing to do with this!" the Governor shouted back, anger and a tinge of fear in his voice. Tong thought both had the ring of truth. The nobleman backed away slowly, his wife standing protectively at his side with her hands raised. "Do I strike you as some fanatic, to put myself in this position only to throw away my own life for negligible gain? Do you think I would risk the lives of my family to kill a man I never met before tonight? And neither I nor any other member of this government have or had any authority over the Chosen. The girl acted entirely on her own."

    Chaiy spun. "Then she will die alone!" she shouted; Tong could hear the grief in her voice and see the tears that ran down her cheeks. She drew a knife from her belt and advanced on the Chosen. At that moment, Tong got a clear look at the killer's face, saw past the paint that had been hastily applied and was now largely smeared away, and suddenly he was darting forward to grab Chaiy's arm.

    She whirled on him, eyes full of tears. "What are you doing?" she demanded. "I know you don't like killing, but my father's blood demands justice!"

    "Look at her, Chaiy," Tong said. "Look at her! She's not like Shiyan, she’s a child! She can't be older than twelve or thirteen. Do you really want her blood on your hands?"

    "I'm not a child," the girl said softly. No one paid her any mind.

    "She killed my father," Chaiy said, her voice shaking. "I know you barely remember your family, but I remember mine, and I will not let her walk away unpunished from this! She was old enough to kill, she's old enough to die!"

    "Chaiy, listen to yourself," Tong said. "You're our leader now. Do you want your first act as leader of the rebellion to be to kill a thirteen-year-old girl, no matter what she did?"

    Chaiy stood still, seeming torn between sobbing and screaming, and then let the knife fall from nerveless fingers. "No," she said. "That's not what great-grandmother would have wanted, it’s not what my father wanted, and it's not what I want. Find out if this place has jail cells, and lock that murderer in one of them. If we're lucky, she'll never see the outside of it again."

    The rebels nodded and marched off, dragging the now limp Chosen between them. When they were gone, Chaiy sank down beside her father's body and let the tears flow. Tong, a former slave no stranger to death, stood beside her, a hand on her shoulder, uncertain of what to say. The Governor and the lady watched the whole scene coolly, their expressions inscrutable.

    The rebellion had won, and it had lost.

    ///

    Well, this was a big one, not only in terms of length, but in terms of content as well. The rebellion’s section of Part Two has been wrapped up, with the seizing of the Governor’s Palace and the death of Shu Bei Fong. In my original conception, Chaiy died here rather than Shu. However, when I actually wrote the first version of this chapter I changed it for several reasons, not the least being that it felt more dramatically appropriate to have a young leader thrust into a position of ultimate authority at this juncture. Also, killing off a young woman to show the stakes to a mostly male section of the cast didn’t, and doesn’t, sit well with me. There’s another reason as well which will become more apparent shortly.

    Cheng finally managed to accomplish something; unfortunately for her, that has the meaning here of killing a man at exactly the worst possible time and place. She’s not as comfortable with her role as a killer as Shiyan was, though, and I think this is a moment that’s going to profoundly change Cheng. Also, just thought I’d get this out there since I just realized this is a possible reading that wasn’t my intent, but Chaiy having a much stronger reaction to Shu’s death while Tong is the more level-headed one is primarily down to the fact that Shu was her father, while Tong had only known him for a few months; I certainly wasn’t trying to use the “emotional woman, rational man” trope, and if it came off that way to anyone, I apologize.

    Yan Li and Nu Shi also nearly died when I was planning the story; initially, Yuan would have killed them both when he took over the city. I ended up deciding that they would work better alive and forced to work with the rebels. I’m sure Jiazin’s grateful for that decision as wellJ Nu Shi got her part in this chapter beefed up substantially in the rewrite, where I’ve been focusing more on her status as a master firebender. She remains, however, a character I wish I’d done more with.

    Well, with the rebels’ arc having come to a climax for now, next time we’ll return to Jiazin, Kanoda, Yue, Shiyan, and Yuan, who are about ready to have their own climax as well.

    -MasterGhandalf
     
  11. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 46: The Ruins of the North

    Yue was sixteen years old on the day that the life she knew ended forever.

    It began with the falling of the black snow, which owed its unusual color to having been mixed with the cinders spat out by the Fire Nation's monstrous warships. The Northern Water Tribe had heard reports of the vast fleet gathering immediately to their south, and knew that the great comet (they refused to call it Sozin's Comet) was destined to soon return, but it was the black snow that showed without room for doubt that doom was indeed close at hand. The Northern Tribe prepared for battle as best they could, but they knew that it was only a stalling measure. Hahn boasted of killing the Fire Admiral himself, but that was because he was Hahn more than from any real expectation of success- Yue could hear the fear and uncertainty that underlay her betrothed's brash self-confidence.

    The battle was disastrous. Despite the strength of its warriors and benders, the Tribe was no match for the unbelievable power that the comet granted to the firebenders. Yue watched from the palace as a wave of fiery death engulfed her beautiful city, and behind that wave came the massed legions of the Fire Nation to kill any survivors and claim the spoils of victory.

    Hahn and the elite warriors were drawn up to defend the palace, and Yue saw her father himself take down an old ceremonial spear, even though he was past his fighting prime. He ordered her to flee the city along with a group of master waterbenders, including the great Pakku himself, to preserve their peoples' identity and culture, and, though Father didn't say it out loud, so Pakku could use his skill to keep Yue safe. They fled the great hall just as the firebenders blasted through the door, and the last she saw of her father or the betrothed who she had never loved, but was still one of her own people in spite of that, they drew themselves up bravely to face the inferno.

    The waterbenders and the princess did not make it far; they were cornered just outside the palace by a squad of firebenders. The waterbenders were good, but even Pakku himself wasn't good enough to defeat a squad of the Fire Nation's elite while the comet blazed overhead. He lasted longest by far, but in the end he still died, and Yue wished she was a fighter, or a bender, or something so she could have made a difference. The firebenders saw her fine robes and ornaments, so they decided to take her alive to their commander. She felt their cruel hands grab her, and then they were dragging her off to the great iron ship where she met the arrogant man called Zhao, who laughed as her whole life burned…

    ///

    Yue awoke with a start and lay still for a moment, breathing heavily as she reminded herself that those horrors lay almost a century in the past. It helped, but not much- she still remembered it as though it was yesterday, and the fact that for the first time since that day she was returning to her homeland didn't help matters at all.

    Turning over, she faced the metal box that held the Moon Spirit- she could tell which fish was which without having to look at them. She'd moved her bedding down to the ship's hold so she could stay close to the spirits, and placed her hand against the cool metal to draw some measure of the timeless strength of the being that was trapped inside.

    Finally she sighed, somewhat relaxed though not as much as she wished to be, and curled back up on her blankets and went back to sleep. Perhaps by some grace the spirits still had the power to bestow, this time she didn't dream.

    ///

    "I'm worried about Yue."

    Jiazin turned to regard Kanoda oddly. "Any particular reason?" she asked. "I haven't seen enough of her since we rescued the spirits to tell, and I didn't know her nearly as well as you did before that."

    Kanoda gave a small laugh. "I'm not sure how well I know her either- can you really know someone who's lived over a hundred years after just a few months?- but not seeing her is the problem. She's just been locking herself away with those spirits and not talking to anyone except when she has to. It's almost like they're more real to her than we are."

    "Maybe they are," Jiazin suggested. "You can't wield power without being changed by it, and she's been very close- the only one close- to the Moon Spirit's power for a very long time. I'm not sure either of us can really understand what that's like, to be spirit-touched and carry all that weight for more than a hundred years."

    Kanoda tried to think of a reply to that, but nothing that came to mind really worked. Turning away from the firebender, he looked out over the sea, towards the direction they were headed- due north. In the distance, he could see what looked like mountains made of ice, and something in his gut told them that they were very close.

    As if on cue, footsteps sounded behind him, and he turned to face Hu. "Assuming our charts are accurate," the captain said, "we should be making landfall at the Northern Water Tribe's city- or what's left of it- soon. Just in time, too- I've spotted smoke trails to the south, and lots of them. I think that the High Admiral's angry that we stole his fish, and with our ship damaged, we'll barely make it there ahead of them."

    "What do you mean, 'barely'?" Kanoda asked, not liking the sound of that at all.

    Hu looked at him darkly. "Hours, if we're lucky. Whatever you and Yue are going to be doing up there, you'd best do it quickly."

    Kanoda gave a shiver that had little to do with cold. He himself wasn't entirely sure what Yue had in mind, and he certainly didn't like the idea of doing it with half the Fire Navy breathing down his neck. Meeting High Admiral Yuan once, however briefly, was enough, and something told him that odds were good that Shiyan was on one of those ships too.

    His update given, Hu returned to the pilot's box, and Jiazin went down to the engines to try and coax a bit more speed out of them. Kanoda remained near the prow, and watched intently as the icy cliffs drew closer and closer. He was coming up on the great city of the Northern Water Tribe now, one of the oldest homes of his people in the world, a place where so many stories even in the Southern Tribe began and ended. A part of him could barely suppress a shiver of awe.

    The sun was sinking towards the horizon as the stolen ship entered a narrow bay, and there on the shore the ruined city was laid out before them. Many years and many snows had come and gone since Admiral Zhao and his fleet had destroyed it, and so little remained of what must have once been one of the wonders of the world. The rubble of a frozen wall stood near the shore, and beyond it lay a snowy plain wedged between the mountains; most of the buildings had been destroyed during the attack or crumbled over the years, and the few that remained now seemed like jagged teeth thrusting up from white gums, and yet every so often Kanoda could spot some piece of architectural artistry that had survived somewhat intact, and he had a vision of what this place must once have been and it was nearly enough to make him weep. His heart went out to Yue; this had been her home, and he couldn't imagine what it would be like for her to see this.

    "So… empty," Jiazin breathed, wrapping her cloak around herself as she came up to stand beside him. Tears that almost immediately evaporated into steam trickled from her eyes, but Kanoda could somehow sense that these were tears of rage more than grief. "Look at it! My people did this, Kanoda. This is the rotten core at the heart of the Fire Nation’s glories. Growing up, I always thought that the Empire stood for peace and civilization, but this- this was simply destruction for its own sake."

    "Destruction for the sake of vanity would be more accurate," an eerily calm voice said, and they both turned to see Yue standing there. There was a strange, strained look in her eyes and face, as though a thousand emotions struggled to get free, but she couldn't risk showing any of them without being overwhelmed. "The vanity of Zhao, who wanted to destroy a nation, and of Ozai, who wanted to rule the world, and before them of Sozin, who wanted both. The pride and greed of the Fire Nation tore our world apart.” She looked away, eyes closed. “I haven’t been back since that day. I thought I was ready to face it.”

    She stepped aside, and Kanoda could see that she was shaking, ever so slightly, as if it was all she could do to keep from breaking down on the spot. As she moved, he saw Chin and Song come up behind her, each carrying one of the spirit-fish boxes. "Tonight, we can't undo the past –what is done is done, and even the great spirits cannot change it," Yue said quietly; now the sorrow in her voice was plain to hear. "But maybe, we can create a better future."

    ///

    Shiyan paid no mind to the ruined city as the Eye of Agni entered the Northern Water Tribe's bay at the head of the armada. The once-great habitation of a people a hundred years gone was irrelevant to her mission. Her attention was completely on High Admiral Yuan as he leaned against the rail of the observation platform atop the ship’s tower, his hands clutching it so tightly that his knuckles were white. She'd been studying him for several days now, ever since they had learned the spirits had been stolen, and she'd come to one inescapable conclusion- the High Admiral of the Fire Navy was going insane.

    There was something in his eyes that said it, the way they darted about their sockets like a caged beast's, and something in the way he prowled the deck after dark, muttering to himself, pausing occasionally to scream challenges and invectives towards the horizon. But mostly it was the way he would stop and stare off into the north for hours at a time, like he was doing now, with absolute hatred in his expression.

    Suddenly Yuan stood up completely straight and turned to the startled officer who stood behind him. "Glass," the High Admiral said simply, and the man thrust a spyglass into his hands without a word. Turning back towards the city, Yuan put the device to his eye and scanned it. "There you are," he muttered. "I see them right now- they've pulled their ship up against the shore and are going inland. Fools- they've boxed themselves in and there's nowhere left to run." He gave a short burst of laughter.

    "That will make our task of capturing the waterbender, the spy, and the spirits easier, then," Shiyan said, nodding.

    Yuan turned to look at her. "Capture?" he asked incredulously. "Oh no - that won't do at all. That was my grandfather's and Ozai's mistake, you see - they captured and were praised for their foolishness, but something that's captured can be freed. It's far better to simply destroy completely."

    Shiyan went cold. "You're not suggesting what I think, are you?" she asked. "That's madness!"

    "Is it?" Yuan said. "I don't think so. You see, this time I'm not going to bother with locking the spirits up - let us simply be rid of them once and for all! And when both the moon and ocean spirits are dead, we'll never have to worry about the Water Tribe rising ever again. My grandfather's glory will be nothing next to mine."

    "I am no expert on spirits, Yuan," Shiyan said slowly, "but I know that it was the will of the Empress and her father than these beings were taken alive. What if their presence is necessary for the forces they embody to continue to function? The Empress would not want the moon to go dark or the seas run dry, I’m certain!"

    "Then burn the Empress!" Yuan screamed, rounding on her. "My family has been guarding those spirits and chasing that waterbender for generations, when we should have simply ended the problem when we had the chance. What does it matter if we disrupt the cycle of the spirits? The people of this world should have known to submit to us long ago, and if they are destroyed, then they deserve no better!"

    He was panting heavily now, and Shiyan revised her assessment. Whatever had been eating at this man had been at its work a long time; the chance to destroy his family's greatest enemy and simultaneously become far greater than his illustrious predecessor had simply been the final straw that undid that fragile mind. One hand went to her sword. "If you defy the Empress's will," she said quietly, "then you have left me no choice."

    In an instant, the blade was drawn and she leaped at the High Admiral. Yuan, however, was in motion as well; his hand came up and burst into flames, striking the flat of her sword and sending heat coursing through the metal. Shiyan screamed in rage more than pain as she dropped the blade, clutching her smoldering hand. It didn't matter, though- she could take the fool unarmed if she had to.

    She moved to lunge again, but before she could do so strong hands grabbed her shoulders and legs. Shiyan tried to twist away, but the soldiers held her fast; craning her neck, she could make out the hard features of a man and a woman, both in the armor of Yuan's elite marines. "Unhand me, fools!" she shouted. "I'm one of the Empress's Chosen, and he's a traitor defying her will!"

    "And they have been with my command for years," Yuan told her, smirking. "They're loyal to me personally before the Empire, and they're quite well-trained. I don't doubt you could beat one of them, but two when they have the element of surprise? I don't think so."

    "Fight me yourself, traitor," Shiyan spat.

    "Ah, no. Unfortunately, I have bigger things to take care of right now," Yuan said, "but rest assured I'll deal with you before long. Take her below and lock her up, and put her under guard. I don't want her interfering with what I must do. Today, sailors, the world will change - forever."

    ///

    "So, what exactly are we going to do with these?" Kanoda asked Yue as they stood on the Northern Water Tribe's coast, looking down on the spirits bound within their metal boxes.

    "At the far edge of this city, at the base of the glacier" Yue said, her voice distant, "there is an oasis where the spirit world crosses over to this one. At the heart of that oasis is a pool and it is from that pool that the spirits were taken, and there they must return. When that happens, they will be joined once more to their full power and aspect, and can resume the dance of ages. The balance will not be fully restored, I fear, but it will no longer be in a state of total collapse."

    "What do you mean?" Jiazin asked.

    "The world will no longer be in a state of stagnation- great change can once more happen." Yue regarded each of them with her unnaturally bright blue eyes. "The Fire Empire at last can fall." At those words, the gravity of what they were doing struck all of them; Kanoda felt a great weight of history settling around him, and Jiazin looked troubled, though she didn't speak.

    "Whatever you're going to do, do it quickly," Hu said, looking out over the bay. "The Fire Navy's here, and it looks like Eye of Agni in the lead- it's Yuan in person."

    "This is not good," Yue said, looking worried. "The oasis is all the way across the city; it will take time to reach it, time we don't have. If Yuan deploys tanks or rhinos, he’ll be able to catch us long before we reach it."

    "How do we even know it will still be there, anyway?" Chin asked, looking around at the ruins. "Everything else here is a wreck."

    "The oasis isn't of this world," Yue told him. "If everything else here falls to ruin, it will remain. The only problem lies in reaching it in time." She paused, looked at the fish and then at her companions and back again. Her head and shoulders slumped for what felt like an eternity, and finally, she drew herself up and spoke. "You all must take the spirits and go on ahead- the oasis is at the very end of the valley, and if you keep that in mind you can't miss it. I'll hold them off and buy you time."

    "That's crazy!" Kanoda said, grabbing her shoulder. "You can't fight the entire Fire Navy by yourself, spirits or no spirits. You'll die, and they'll just come through anyway. I won't let you do that!"

    Yue spun to face him, her usually calm expression gone- her eyes were blazing both with rage and the power of the Moon Spirit. "And I will not ask that someone else sacrifice their life for me!" she said. "If no one stands and fights, they'll get to us and stop us; someone has to, and I'm the only one who can call on enough power to do that and survive. This fight is beyond your power." Her expression softened. "You want to be a hero, Kanoda- that means you make sacrifices, do what you must and not what you want. As I do now. Go!"

    Kanoda still didn't move as Yue turned to face the armada, and Chin and Song picked up the fish. He stood still until he felt Jiazin's hand on his arm. "She's doing this for us," she said. "We need to move, so we don’t dishonor her sacrifice by wasting it."

    "You're right," Kanoda said reluctantly. Turning, he followed Jiazin and the three rebels into the ruins of the city, but as they passed the crumbled wall he turned and looked back. There Yue stood, beside the ship, her dark cloak cast aside so that despite the temperature she was clad only in a plain tunic and pants, her white hair blowing in the cold wind. "Good luck," Kanoda whispered, and then he looked away and towards the city, the Spirit Oasis, and his mission. He waded forwards through the snow, the other members of the little band just ahead.

    In the distance, something howled. Kanoda knew in his bones that it wasn’t the wind.

    ///

    Yuan raised the spyglass and looked to the shore. The waterbender stood there alone and defiant, her friends hurrying away in the background. Clearly she thought she could save them through some foolish sacrifice; it was almost quaint. In the end, Yuan would kill her and reach them shortly afterwards, and she would die accomplishing nothing. A fitting end.

    "Orders, sir?" one of his officers asked.

    "Signal the other ships," Yuan told him. "I want everything they have turned against her, so that there's no chance she can escape. I want the gathered might of the Fire Navy to be the last thing she sees."

    "Yes, sir." The officer saluted and hurried off to carry out his orders, leaving Yuan alone atop the flagship's tower. Soon, he thought, the waterbender and her spirits would all be dead, and at last Admiral Zhao would be eclipsed utterly. You conquered a nation, old man, Yuan thought triumphantly. Before tonight is over, I will have conquered gods!

    High Admiral seemed far too paltry a title for a man who accomplished such a thing. Emperor seemed more suitable, or perhaps something even greater. After all, if a man could destroy spirits, what could possible limit his ambitions?

    Yuan laughed to himself as he turned his attention back to the coast and waited for the first fireballs to strike.

    ///

    The last daughter of the Northern Water Tribe stood alone on the shores that her people had once claimed, facing the massed might of the Fire Navy. She was not afraid, as she had been on that night so many years ago; fear had no place beside her purpose. Her friends must survive, the spirits must be protected- that was what mattered, and she would do all in her power to ensure that it happened, even at the cost of her own life.

    Yue stood still on the frozen beach, feeling the cold wind in her hair and listening to the lapping of the waves on the shore. Drawing a deep breath, she reached into that place deep within herself that she shared with the spirit of the moon and drew out its ancient power. At once her body was suffused with strength, and she looked out over the Fire Navy with eyes that she knew now burned blue-white.

    The ships had stopped out in the bay at a distance where the water was deep enough for them; she could barely make out movement on their decks as their crews readied heavy weaponry. Yue raised her hands and closed her eyes, feeling the water locked in the ice around her, and then she pulled. At once the ice leaped up, drawing also on the water from the ocean to help shape it, until two walls of ice towered on either side of her, leaving only a narrow passage that the former princess of the North blocked. They had only one way to reach their goal now- through her.

    From out at sea the warships fired their catapults; she could see the great fireballs racing towards her. Yue raised her hands once more and pushed outwards- great tentacles of water shot up from the sea and seized the great projectiles, hurling them back toward the ships and sending the crews scurrying for cover. She didn't know how long this continued, but finally she stopped wearily and realized that they were no longer firing. From out across the water, she could see small boats coming, bearing with them landing parties.

    Holding her hands outstretched before the water, Yue breathed out a cone of ice-cold air that froze the surface of the sea solid. The boats were stopped in their tracks, but the firebenders aboard them cautiously stepped out and began to make their way to the shore. When they were close enough to stand without fear of breaking through, they raised their hands and led loose jets of flame.

    A wall of ice shot into being in front of Yue, absorbing the worst of the blasts so that all she felt through it was a slight heat. Then she shot her hands forward and the barrier exploded into a storm of ice shards that hurled towards the firebenders, sending them ducking for cover as the shards pounded into the ground and ice around them.

    Suddenly Yue stumbled, a chill seeping into her heart. Between this fighting and what she'd done at the citadel, she realized that she'd overexerted herself, and her power was beginning to take its toll on her body. The sensible thing to do would be to let the power go and crawl away to rest, but that wasn't an option- she had to hold the firebenders off, or else far more than her life would be lost. Straightening up, she formed more ice projectiles and launched them, even as the firebenders retaliated with more fireblasts.

    She tried to deflect the blasts with whips of water, but one managed to get through, striking her shoulder. She fell, clutching it in pain, and then the cold chill within her began to spread throughout her body. It was too late to run now, and too late to fight. She could see the darkness yawning open to claim her, the same darkness that had swallowed her people so long ago. With one last gasp of strength she made a chopping motion with one arm, opening a chasm in the ice into which a number of the firebenders fell, but that was the absolute end of her power. Yue fell forward onto the cold ground and lay still.

    I'm sorry, she whispered in her mind as the darkness wrapped itself around her, not certain if she was addressing her father, Kanoda, or the Moon Spirit. I'm so sor…

    ///

    Lots of things coming to a head in this chapter! Yuan’s rivalry with Shiyan, the High Admiral’s own deteriorating mental state, the attempt to free the Moon and Ocean spirits, and Yue’s storyline altogether. Her last stand has certain elements of Gandalf’s, I’ll freely admit, though she’s fighting a legion of firebenders rather than one powerful Balrog. I’m also fond of the structure of this chapter; beginning with Yue’s dream, ending with her defiant stand.

    Though I cleaned up some of the writing here, the overall changes to this chapter are minimal; it remains one of my favorites of the entire story. As is the next one, though they’re really one long event – evil cliffhanger, I know!

    -MasterGhandalf
     
  12. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 47: What Was Meant to Be

    The cold wind came roaring down from places even further north, perhaps from the very roof of the world itself, as Kanoda and his companions made their way through the ruins of the Northern Water Tribe's city. He tried not to look around, much, but sometimes he couldn't help it, and when he did, he saw the jagged bones of buildings thrusting up from the snow, and occasionally bones of a more human nature as well, left by their enemies where they'd fallen. He was forced to look away, then, and concentrate on his goal. This was a dead place now, Kanoda thought, a cursed place, no matter what it had once been. The site of one of the Fire Empire's greatest atrocities, the memory of fiery death still stained the frozen earth a century on.

    Every so often, he heard behind them a crash or explosion, and knew that battle had been joined between Yue and the armada. Powerful as she was, she didn't really stand a chance of defeating them, and there were times when Kanoda almost turned back to help her. Then he shook himself, reminding himself of her words. If he went back, all he would accomplish would be to die with her; if he kept on his present course, he might actually do something important that would help the world. It was small comfort, but it was all he had.

    Jiazin led the way, a naked flame held in the palm of one hand, which both lit the winter night and let her melt her way through the snow where drifts had piled up that were too thick to easily walk through. Immediately behind her were the Earth Kingdom rebels, Chin and Song carrying the spirit fish in their cages, with Hu in between them. Kanoda himself took up the rear.

    Suddenly, Kanoda stopped. “Wait!” he said, holding up a hand. “I think I heard something.” There it was again – an awful howl that overtopped the wind itself, like a wolf, but far more terrible. “There’s something out there.”

    “There!” Chin shouted, pointing. Kanoda turned, and there, from within the ruins of the once-great city, he saw them –eyes, a pair of them, glowing yellow and full of malice. Then he saw another pair, and another – and then the creatures themselves stepped out where the five humans could see them. They were like wolves, but larger, more primal, and their fur was deep blue with white streaks. Kanoda regarded them intently as he drew his knife, wishing he still had his spear or even his boomerang, but then his eyes widened as he realized that he could see the ruins faintly through the creatures’ bodies.

    “Spirits!” he said. “They’re some kind of spirits!”

    “You’re the Water Tribe expert,” Song said, “what are they and what do they want with us?”

    “I’m not from the North!” Kanoda exclaimed. “And anyway, I can think of about a dozen things these might be, and none of them good.”

    “Well, whatever they want to do to us, I’m not going to let them do it,” she replied, raising her hands flatly in front of her and then shooting tiny pieces of her stone gauntlets in rapid succession. The spirit wolves stood their ground; the tiny projectiles passed straight through them without inflicting any injury beyond small ripples in their forms that quickly subsided.

    “Or not,” Song admitted sheepishly as the wolves growled and advanced. She spun to Jiazin. “Hey, Your Ladyship! I’ve heard some firebenders can shoot bolts of lightning – I bet they won’t be able to ignore that.”

    “Not this firebender!” Jiazin shot back. “I’ve seen it done but I don’t know the technique, and if I tried it without practicing, at best nothing would happen, and at worst I might blow myself up. Neither sounds very appealing!”

    “In that case, run!” Hu shouted; Kanoda grabbed the box that Song had set down, and then the group did exactly as instructed, with the two earthbenders pausing just long enough to raise an impressively large and thick looking barrier between them and the spirits.

    He didn't know how long it took for them to pass through the dark and broken city, haunted by howls and certain that they would be attacked at any moment; like an uneasy dream, it all seemed to blur together in his mind. He lost track of the ruined buildings they passed between and the icy bridges they crossed, until finally, behind what seemed like a gutted-out palace of ice, they came to a low wall through which a tunnel seemed to have been blasted. A frozen door lay in the snow to one side, looking as though it had been violently torn from its hinges, but the tunnel itself was filled with drifts.

    Jiazin stepped forward and raised both hands, breathing deeply and screwing her face up in intense concentration before unleashing a torrent of the strange, blue fire that Kanoda had seen her use once before in the palace at Long Du Shi. In the face of that blast the snow melted away, and then Jiazin fell backwards; Kanoda and Hu rushed forward and caught her each on one side.

    "I'll be all right," she said quietly. "The blue flames are powerful, but making them… it takes a lot out of me, especially when I'm already cold and tired." She shook her head. "The tunnel should be clear now."

    It was. Kanoda knelt and slipped through, followed by the rebels and the firebender. On the other side of the ice wall was the last sight he had expected to see in this place- a grassy field, surrounding a pool of clear water at its heart. The air here was notably warmer, though as Kanoda stepped forward he saw it hadn't entirely been untouched by war- a burned arch lay collapsed on the pool's other side. The pool itself seemed empty and forlorn, somehow, and then Kanoda knew what he was looking it.

    Here was the place where the Moon and Ocean spirits had crossed over to the mortal world when time began, and here they had danced their eternal dance for countless ages, until the oasis became a place as much of the Spirit World as it was of this one. Here had been the spirits' home, and when they had been torn from it, the cycle of the world had been disrupted. Waterbending had vanished like airbending before it, the Avatar had disappeared, and the Fire Empire had ascended to power.

    "So this is where it happened," Jiazin breathed, coming up beside him. "The beginning and the end."

    Kanoda turned to look at her. "Are you sure you're willing to go through with this?" he asked her. "If we return the spirits to their place, it will fix the balance- and maybe doom your people."

    "My people?" she asked, and gave a sharp laugh. "Zhao, Yuan, Azula? They're not my people, not really. Everything they ever stood for was a lie." She looked at him strangely with her golden eyes. "But I'm not the one who's going to be going through with anything. This is your place."

    "Mine?" Kanoda asked in surprise. "Why me?"

    Jiazin looked down at her hands. "My people were the ones who did this to the spirits. I don't think they'd take kindly to being handled by a firebender again, even for this purpose."

    "They're Water Tribe spirits, not Earth Kingdom," Hu put in. "It should be the Water Tribe that restores them, and here and now, that means you, Kanoda."

    He breathed in deeply, and let it out. "You're right," he said. "Yue should be the one doing this- it was her whole life's work, basically- but she's not here right now, and I guess I'm the best representative the Water Tribe is going to get." Kanoda looked from the boxes to the pool and back again. "It's time."

    Chin and Feng knelt with great reverence and opened the boxes; Kanoda bent beside the first one and lifted the black-and-white fish from inside. He didn't know how it had survived the tight space for so long- maybe the spirits could survive just about anything, apart from someone actively trying to kill them- and he didn't know which spirit it was, but he felt a sharp tingle go through his hands as he held it. Quickly he hurried over to the pool, but before he could place the fish within, the sound of howls echoed through the oasis.

    Kanoda spun and saw what looked like thick, dark liquid oozing through the icy walls, and then it formed into the spirit wolves – dozens of them. They formed into a semicircle and surrounded the humans, tightening around them while growling menacingly. Jiazin’s expression steeled as she watched them, and then she spun and launched a kick that sent a wave of fire shooting towards them; the wolves melted away where the blast struck them, but reformed as soon as it passed, their expressions even more murderous.

    “Why aren’t they attacking?” Jiazin whispered as she backed up to stand near Kanoda. “They’ve got every advantage and they obviously want to. Why wait?”

    Kanoda paused, trying to run his mind over every bit of wolf lore his grandfather had taught him, hoping to remember something that would explain these creatures. The wolf is a complicated beast, Grandfather’s voice seemed to say as if he stood beside him. A fierce hunter and an enemy of people, but more like us than most animals. They work together, watch out for each other, just like we do. The wolf can be a terrible, fierce enemy, but he can also be a guide, an ally, a guardian…

    “A guardian!” Kanoda shouted. “You guys are guardians – the guardians of this oasis, after the Moon and Ocean Spirits were taken. No wonder you don’t like humans. But we’re not here to do more damage – we’re here to put right what went wrong. Look!” He held the fish up in his hands. “We’re bringing the spirits back!”

    The wolves regarded him for a long moment, and then one of them, larger than the others, came forward until it stood directly in front of him. Kanoda resisted the urge to recoil back as it approached, but all it did was gently sniff the fish he held. Then the spirit drew back, and bowed deeply.

    “Is that a go ahead, then?” he asked weakly; when the spirit wolves didn’t respond, he turned back towards the oasis and slipped the fish gently into the waters. It began to circle, but erratically, as though waiting for its mate to join in.

    Kanoda returned to the boxes and retrieved the other fish, feeling the same tingle as he placed it beside its mate. For a moment, nothing happened, as the fish still made their erratic half-circles, and both humans and spirit wolves waited expectantly, dreading that something was wrong. Then they found their rhythm again, as if it had been only minutes, instead of a century, since they'd been together.

    And the world filled with light.

    ///

    She drifted in the dark, alone, formless and nameless. She had memories of what might have once been a human life, but that didn't seem to matter any longer. She was being drawn through the void, on towards a destination she didn't understand, and yet longed for. She lay back, and let the flow take her.

    Then she felt another presence about her, like a restraining hand on her arm, and it was familiar and reassuring, like a voice she'd heard all her life. She couldn't go on, not yet, and the presence began to pull her back towards the world she had known.

    Awaken, daughter, a silent voice said. We have need of you again, one final time.

    ///

    Yuan saw the body lying on the shore as his boat approached, and let out a victorious crow of laughter. It was over- after so long, he'd finally beaten her! Now all that remained was the final destruction of the Moon and Ocean spirits, and his victory would be complete. The Water Tribe would be destroyed, now and forever, and with it would die the last hope of resistance against the Fire Empire. Admiral Zhao would be forgotten; it would be Yuan's name future generations spoke with awe and dread. Emperor Yuan, Destroyer of Nations and Slayer of Gods; that had a nicely impressive ring to it.

    The boat pulled up on shore, and Yuan and his elite guard disembarked to meet the marines who already stood around the waterbender's body. "You're certain she's dead, then?" the High Admiral asked as he approached.

    "Yes, sir," the commander of the initial landing party said. "It's strange, though- she's got some burns, but it looks like our attacks only grazed her. Whatever killed her, it wasn't us- it almost looks like she just dropped dead of her own accord."

    "Overexerted herself, most likely," Yuan muttered; after all, he shuddered to think how much strength it had taken to resist the Fire Navy's attack for as long as she had. He doubted any human being could survive it. Pressing through his men, he came to stand directly over the body and looked down on it; it seemed small and broken and impossibly young. It was hard to imagine that this was the enemy who had given him so much grief over the years.

    "It is over!" he shouted, spinning to face his soldiers. "For three generations my family has hunted this witch, the last waterbender, but tonight the chase has ended. The Water Tribe is dead, the Air Nomads are long gone, and the Earth Kingdom is in chains. At long last, the Fire Empire truly owns the world." And soon, he added silently, I shall own the Fire Empire. Azula's sun is setting, and it is time for a new one to rise- it shall be mine.

    Laughing, he bent down over the waterbender's body and lifted it in his arms. He'd have his men carry it with him as they went inland to hunt down her companions, so that they could see her fate and despair. Looking down over the closed eyes and now-blank expression, he smiled tightly and raised one hand, forming fire within it. First, he would mark her, so that none could deny that this had been his victory.

    Suddenly the earth shook beneath his feet, and Yuan was pitched forward so that he lay on the ground atop the corpse. Shuddering in sudden revulsion and fear, he scrambled backwards and saw that his men were staring towards the north with expressions of awe and barely controlled terror. Turning slowly, he saw what had captured their attention- a pillar of blue light, shining from the rear of the frozen valley and up into infinity. Sudden dread suffused Yuan's entire being, dread that he couldn't explain, and yet was more terrible than anything he had ever felt before.

    The sound of something shifting distracted him from the light, and he turned to look at the waterbender's body- and fell back in horror from that as well. The corpse's eyes were open, and blazed with a light so intense he could hardly bear to look upon it. "No," Yuan breathed, falling to all fours and struggling to get away, no longer mindful of his dignity, barely aware that his marines were fleeing as well. "It's not possible."

    She stood slowly and turned her gaze upon him, and from behind it he felt a weight of power beyond anything he'd ever imagined. What was looking out from those eyes wasn't the waterbender anymore, he realized, not really- it wasn't anything that had ever been human. It was the vast force that drove the tides and governed the cycles of the moon, and beside it Yuan found himself reduced and reduced again until he was nothing, just an ant on the beach, alone before the awesome might of the sea. The feeling was unbearable; Yuan heard someone screaming, and realized with a start that it was him.

    The waterbender raised her arms and fixed him with her gaze. "Witness," she said, imbuing that single word with a force that would have driven the High Admiral to his knees, had he still been standing. Then water rose from the ice about her feet and wrapped itself around her, bearing her high into the air.

    The marines who'd come ashore died first, seized by claws of ice that sprung up from the ground and dragged screaming beneath it even as they prepared to strike back. In a heartbeat they were gone, and Yuan's mind reeled even more than it already had been. Then she turned slowly towards the fleet, and raised her hands higher still. The crews saw her in time, and aimed their weapons at her; from every ship came streaking massive fireballs launched from the catapults. She brought one hand up, and then the other; from the sea itself there arose a wall of ice into which the fireballs impacted harmlessly. Then the wall came crashing down and the sea itself came alive- vast tendrils of water wrapped around the ships and broke them into pieces, while icy shards tore into them from below. Ship by ship they sank, save for the few in the rear who saw what happened and turned to sail away. In an instant, the Moon and Ocean spirits took their toll in blood for their imprisonment, and the heart had been torn from the Fire Navy by a force far too powerful for it to fight or understand.

    Then the waterbender turned her attention back towards the beach, and lowered herself directly towards the cowering Yuan.

    ///

    Shiyan paced within the small cell she'd been given in the Eye of Agni's brig, pausing every so often to glare at the two guards who stood outside the bars. They were Yuan's elite marines- very loyal to him, and very skilled; even if she managed to get out of this, she'd have trouble with them. Of course, the first step was also the most difficult- from where she stood now, actually getting out of the bars would take tools she didn't possess, considering they'd taken her sword. She didn't bother trying to speak to the guards, either- as far as she was concerned they were traitors to the Empress, and as far as they were concerned she was a traitor to Yuan. There was nothing left to be said.

    Suddenly the ship rocked as though it was in the midst of a terrible storm, though Shiyan knew it was still anchored in what had been the Water Tribe harbor. She braced herself against the wall, but both guards were knocked off their feet; as they pulled themselves back up, one turned to rush to the ship's deck, presumably to find out what was going on. The second held his place, but when a second shock struck he was hurled backwards and his head struck the metal wall. He slid to the ground and lay still; unconscious or dead, Shiyan didn't know or care.

    Steadying herself against the wall, she walked across the cell and towards the bars, where she could see that the guard was laying within her reach if she stuck her hand out through them. Giving a satisfied smile, Shiyan reached out and grabbed the hilt of the man's sword, pulling it from its sheath and back into the cell with her. She eyed the steel critically- it wasn't as well-made as a Chosen's sword, but it was still high-quality and should serve her current purpose well.

    Hefting the blade, she brought it down on the cell door's lock.

    ///

    Yuan scrambled away as the waterbender set down on the ground and advanced towards him, slow and implacable as the great glaciers of her homeland. She stopped a foot from him, and he raised a hand to ward off her attack- but that attack never came. Instead, she regarded him inscrutably for what felt like an eternity, and then she spoke.

    "High Admiral Yuan," she said in that huge and terrible voice. "Like your ancestor before you, you sought to go to battle against the spirits themselves for your own glory. But the spirits will not be so easily defeated. Your fleet is smashed, all hope of your victory gone like frost under the summer sun. The Fire Empire my believe itself to be the most powerful force in this world, but in the end it is nothing, a dream that in time will fade and be utterly forgotten. The Moon and Ocean are eternal. I will allow you to live with that knowledge, and you will return to your masters and tell them this; the Balance will not be denied. It may be damaged, it may be tilted, but in the end, it will return to its proper course." She gestured out to sea, and he saw his ship there, battered but intact, and the boat he'd ridden in still lay upon the shore. "For this purpose, I leave you these. Now leave this place, and remember my words!"

    There was a terrible flash of brilliant white spirit-light, and then she was gone, leaving Yuan alone on the beach, a broken, terrified man shivering from the cold, and more so from what he had just witnessed and come to understand- the knowledge of his own insignificance.

    It was a long time before he found the courage to move.

    ///

    Kanoda lay on the ground beside the spirit pool, shielding his eyes from the blinding light that lanced from it into the sky. He could feel the earth shaking beneath his feet, and the waves of power coursing around him, and he knew that the world was changing in ways he couldn't even begin to understand. Something that had long been absent from the Spirit World was returning; the breach in the cycle of eternity was healed. What had been broken and stagnant was now being jerked back onto its proper course. In their circle around the oasis, the spirit wolves howled, their joyous cries ringing into the heavens, and then one by one they vanished into mist, their long task done.

    He didn't know how long he lay there, but finally the light thinned and dimmed. Kanoda sat up slowly and shielded his eyes from the still-bright radiance, and saw his companions doing the same. Then the light faded completely, and he saw Yue hovering above the center of the pool. Her eyes were burning with a blue-white light far more intense than she'd had when drawing on the Moon Spirit's power before, and there was nothing of humanity in her expression. Then, slowly, she blinked, and when she opened her eyes again, they were their normal color.

    "It's done," she breathed. "Finally, the dark time comes to an end. Thank you, Kanoda, for what you've done- you healed the world of a great hurt. It will not bring my people back, but it might at least allow them to find some measure of peace."

    "Yue," Kanoda was finally able to say. "What… what happened out there? Where's Yuan's fleet."

    A shadow fell across her face. "Gone, for the most part. The spirits, they… we… destroyed them almost utterly. That wasn't something that I wished; most of those sailors and marines were conscripts merely doing their duty, but the spirits are not human, and they do not follow human morality. They demanded blood for blood. But I convinced them to spare Yuan himself; he will return to the Fire Nation and tell Azula what happened here, so that it will never need to happen again."

    As Yue spoke, wisps of steam began to rise from her body, and her form began to waver as though caught in a dream. "Yue," Kanoda said, "what's happening to you… oh," he breathed, as realization dawned on him. "Oh no. That's how the spirits were able to take you so completely, wasn’t it? You died out there, didn't you?"

    "I did," she confirmed, eyes sad. "I am spent utterly; soon I will be gone. But do not mourn me. I should have died the night I was born, but instead I was given a life far longer than most in order to ensure that waterbending and the spirits from which it comes didn't perish from the world. I think it was always supposed to end this way; the Moon Spirit gave me life, and in the end, I gave it back to her. This is what was meant to be, Kanoda. Do not mourn me."

    "So, is it all over, then?" Jiazin asked.

    Yue turned to regard her. "For me, it is, and for the Moon and Ocean Spirits. But your war isn't yet over. Empress Azula still reigns, and she is wise enough in her way to have understood what just happened. She will feel the world slipping away from her grasp, and I do not know what madness she will plot because of it. Of all the mortals who currently live, she is the only one the spirits truly fear. Be ready for her."

    Her form was growing clearly insubstantial now as she focused on Jiazin. "From where I now stand, on the border between two worlds, I see the secret you have hidden, child, though I will leave it for you to reveal when you feel the time is right. But know that the time comes when you will be tested, and if you fail, more could be lost than you know." She turned to Kanoda. "To you I give the heritage of our people. Do not forget the lessons of our history, or of what you have witnessed here. They may save you in the end, if you let them." She turned her gaze last of all on the Earth Kingdom rebels. "Tell your people that they must be as sturdy and strong as their element, for they must not break in the face of what is coming."

    Yue seemed almost a spirit herself now; Kanoda could see the pool and the oasis through her body. He tried to speak but found he couldn't- this was the loss not just of someone he'd been traveling with for weeks, but of a living embodiment of the Water Tribe itself. The world, he thought, would be a lesser place for her absence. He reached out a hand towards her, and she smiled sadly and brushed his forehead with one of her own hands; it felt cool to the touch, but more like mist than flesh. Then she was gone completely, as though she had never been, with not even a body to mark her passing.

    A full moon shone in the sky above them, brighter than it had been for a century, for Tui and La, Push and Pull, the spirits of Moon and Ocean, had come home.

    Kanoda knelt there on the grass beside the pool, staring at the two fish that circled within it and feeling the weight of Yue's charge on his shoulders. Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes and fell, almost unnoticed, to the ground. Then he felt Jiazin's hand on his arm, and looked up to see the Earth Kingdom rebels crouching nearby, and he smiled slightly, knowing that, no matter what might come, he wouldn't need to face it alone.

    ///

    Yuan was still in a daze as he pulled his boat up against the hull of the Eye of Agni and climbed up the ladder that was thrown over the sides. The crew who met him on the deck didn't seem to be in much better condition than he was; no one spoke until a lieutenant approached cautiously.

    "Sir?" he asked. "What happened out there?"

    "The wrath of the spirits," Yuan told him, his voice dead. "We did a great evil, and no we’ve paid. Come- let us leave this place. I need to go home, and I'm not sure I ever want to leave again." He turned to walk towards the ship's bridge, but only made it a few steps before something slammed into him from behind, knocking him to the deck.

    "In the name of the Dragon Empress Azula," a cold and all-too-familiar female voice hissed, "you are hereby sentenced to death, traitor!" It was the last sound Yuan ever heard; he felt his head jerked back and a slender blade drawn across his throat, and then… nothing.

    ///

    Shiyan pulled back from Yuan's body and looked around at the dead-eyed crew. "Do any dispute the justice of this?" she demanded, and none did. Clearly, whatever had happened out here had left them completely numb; by the time Shiyan had broken free of her cell and made it to the deck, everything was over and most of the fleet was gone. Whatever had done this, it was gone and obviously extremely powerful, but if it returned, Shiyan had no doubts of the Empress's capacity to deal with it. To her mind, Azula was the most powerful force in the universe, beyond even the spirits themselves.

    Stalking away from the body, she faced the crew. "Set our course for the Fire Empire," she ordered. "The fugitives we pursued are no longer important; we have treason and destruction to report." Partly out of fear, partly out of the simple reassurance of having someone give them orders again, the crew obeyed, and Shiyan walked off to stand in the prow of Eye of Agni as it turned towards the south, leaving Yuan lying dead and forgotten on the deck behind her.

    ///

    High Minister Qing Xi was in his office when the palace began to shake beneath his feet. Stumbling upright, he ducked past the scrolls and decorations that fell from his shelves and hurriedly made his way out into the corridor, where servants and guards milled around in a panic. "What's going on?" he demanded, grabbing one of them by the shoulder.

    The man's eyes widened when he saw exactly who had spoken to him. "Nobody knows, milord!" he said. "The quake just started off that way and spread outwards; you should get to safety before the whole building comes down!" Qing Xi fully intended to do just that, until his mind registered where exactly the servant had been pointing. In that direction lay the secret entrance to the catacombs, and in the catacombs… the Avatar.

    "Out of my way!" the High Minister shouted, feeling more panicked than he had in years. Pushing against the crowd, he made his way to the secret door just in time for the floor to explode beneath it. Qing Xi was hurled to the ground and lay dazed for a moment before turning to look at what had happened- and his eyes widened at the immense pillar of light that was rising from the ragged hole.

    A figure rose from within the light, and at first he couldn't make out who or what it was; then he realized it was constantly changing. The first figure he managed to see was a stately woman in the robes and facepaint that had been fashionable for nobility in the old Earth Kingdom centuries ago, and then it became an old man dressed as a high lord of the Fire Nation. Finally, it settled on a form Qing Xi realized with a shock that he recognized- a bald child dressed as an Air Nomad monk, who looked down at the stunned High Minister and gave him a cheerfully irreverent wink. "The Avatar," Qing Xi breathed.

    Then the light flared brilliantly, and for an instant no human figure was visible within it at all – only a shape of blue and white lines that, though it looked more like an elaborate kite than a living being, seemed to regard the High Minister with a look of profound distaste. Then the light, and the figure within it – woman, man, child, or abstract spirit – was gone. The High Minister was left alone amidst the rubble that had been a wing of the Fire Empire palace, certain of only two things- that the Avatar Spirit had somehow come alive and departed for an unknown destination, and that what little illusion he had left of his carefully ordered and controlled world had just vanished beyond all recall.

    ///

    Empress Azula stood at the window of her personal chambers high within the palace's central spire and looked down over the wreckage of one of the outer wings. She had seen the light, and the shifting figure within it- she'd been watching too intently for her not to have- but with her mask concealing her features, it was impossible for Zhi to tell what she made of it.

    "Majesty," the Chosen finally said, "what has happened here?"

    Azula was silent for several long moments, still staring down at the destruction. Then she turned slowly to fix Zhi with the empty-eyed gaze of the dragon mask, so that she could feel the weight of the terrible will that lay behind it. The Chosen could practically feel her Empress's anger in that gaze, and yet behind it, a hint of fear. But that was impossible. Azula feared nothing- or rather, nothing of this world. Zhi shook her head, putting an end to that uncomfortable line of thought.

    "The world has changed," the Empress said. "Already I can feel its tides turning against me. It seems that spirits are not so easy to defeat after all – but neither am I. We must accelerate our plans. You know what to do."

    "I do, Majesty," Zhi said, bowing. Turning, the Chosen departed, leaving Azula standing alone in the high chamber, her dragon's gaze boring into her back as she left.

    END OF

    PART TWO

    ///

    You know, this may just be my favorite chapter in the entire fic (with one more later that might give it serious competition). So much is going on here, and so much is resolved (plus some good old fashioned wrath of God – er, wrath of the Moon and Ocean spirits), though the story isn’t done yet. The wolf spirits were added for this version, since I felt that the return of Tui and La was handled a bit too easily in the original, and I added a cameo from Raava in the scene where Qing Xi sees the escaping Avatar, but otherwise, I largely left this one the same.

    Yuan’s hubris was punished in exactly the way that would be most painful for him – by forcing him to recognize that, in the grand scheme of things, even the mightiest human is only a very, very small part of the universe. Would he have become a better man from this experience? Possibly, though I think it’s equally possible that he’d have simply sat in his house and gradually wasted away. Not that we’ll ever know, as Shiyan ended their rivalry rather decisively, in what was intentionally an anti-climactic end for one of the most visible – and almost certainly least likable – major villains of this story. She herself never saw the wrath of the spirits, a deliberate choice on my part, and her faith in Azula remains unshakable – but eventually, if you wind anything too tight, it might snap…

    Yue’s death was one of the other reasons I didn’t want to kill Chaiy two chapters ago (killing two major female characters one right after the other didn’t sit right with me). In the end, her role in this story was that of the Old Master, and like all Old Masters, she needed to pass the torch on. Though I love what I was able to do with her in this story, in the end, she achieved her life’s goal, and thus her death, while sorrowful, is also triumphant.

    Of course, we still have one Part to go (albeit by far the shortest of the three), and Azula is far from defeated. Jiazin, Kanoda, Tong, Chaiy, and all our heroes will have to take their final stand against the Dragon, and they’ll have to do it without their closest equivalent to her able to help them anymore. Of course, there is the little matter of the escaped Avatar, and what QX will eventually decide to do…

    -MasterGhandalf

     
  13. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 48: Repercussions

    High General Xia didn't know why he'd been summoned to appear before the Dragon Empress, but he knew in his gut with the instincts of an old campaigner that something was terribly wrong. It had only been a few days since a messenger had arrived in the Capital and been taken directly to Azula, but ever since a waiting stillness had fallen over the entire palace. High Minister Qing Xi's suspicions regarding Azula herself didn't help matters any; Xia neither liked nor trusted the High Minister, but what he had uncovered so far had the uncomfortable ring of truth to it.

    Then, of course, there was the giant hole that had been blasted through one of the palace's wings by some unknown force. No one knew for sure what had caused it, but Xia had heard rumors, and none of them boded well.

    By some virtue of chance or fate, the throne room itself had not been damaged when whatever-it-was had torn through the palace. It was empty and dark as Xia entered and prostrated himself before the throne- he could still remember a time when, as a young officer, he'd seen the court full of nobles and ministers and, for a lack of a better word, life. For the last decade or so, though, it had become a far more remote and terrible place, as the Empress had taken to meeting with only one or two people at a time and secluding herself when not doing so. A sign of her paranoia, Xia thought, and quickly quelled it- Azula couldn't read minds (so far as he knew) but he didn't dare let any of what he'd just thought show on his face.

    Suddenly the blue flames about the throne roared to life, and after a moment the coldly ringing voice of the Empress spoke through them. "Rise, my High General," she said. "We have important matters to discuss."

    Xia stood and saluted. "The Army of the Fire Empire stands at your command, Majesty. What is you will?"

    "Long Du Shi has fallen."

    The Empress made the pronouncement without preamble, and her tone didn't vary as she spoke, but Xia could almost feel the searing anger within her voice. He himself was too stunned almost for words; quickly he managed to recover himself. "How?" he asked. "Who could do such a thing?"

    "A band of bold rebels managed to infiltrate the palace itself and seize control of it," Azula explained. "They lured the garrison out of the city and captured several key ministers, holding them hostage to ensure the compliance of the rest. Reports indicate, however, that Governor Yan Li aids the rebellion willingly."

    "Impossible," Xia breathed. He didn't know Yan Li well, but what he did know he had liked, and the impression he'd always had of the man was one of loyalty and efficiency. A traitor… it was unthinkable. Then the High General realized what he'd just done and a wave of panic shot through him. He'd contradicted the Empress…

    "Do you question my word, High General?" Azula demanded; she didn't raise her voice, yet somehow gave the impression of shouting. The flames about her throne flared up so high they hid even her silhouette from view, and Xia was forced to fall back and shield himself from the heat. "Men and women have died for less. Consider yourself fortunate, however, that I need you still, and I do not have time to promote a replacement. You must go to Long Du Shi with your forces and crush this insurgency completely. The world must see the strength of the Fire Empire and know that it will be wielded without mercy. Do you understand?"

    "I do, Majesty!" Xia replied; the heat in the room was so overpowering now he could feel the sweat running down his body and soaking his uniform.

    "Good. You will depart as soon as your forces are assembled, and that will take no longer than one week. Now, leave me!" Xia was not by any stretch a coward- he had fought many battles for the Empire on the front lines before his promotion to general- but it was still all he could do to maintain a dignified walk as he bowed once more to the Empress and departed from the throne room. She was an overpowering enough presence normally, but when she was angry- that was something anyone would balk at facing.

    A man was waiting for him out in the corridor- he was clad in simple servant's robes, but had the look of bland confidence and cool efficiency about him that characterized Qing Xi's Hidden Flame agents when they weren't actively trying to conceal themselves. Xia approached the spy and leaned in close to him. "What message does the High Minister have for me?" he asked.

    The agent reached into his sleeve and pulled out several small scrolls that were bound together. "My master knows of your mission," he said, "but he thinks there are some things you need to know about what our Empress intends. These were recovered by my brethren at great risk. Read them before you reach Long Du Shi."

    "And what exactly does the High Minister expect me to do then?" Xia asked.

    The agent smiled slightly. "That, High General, is up to you."

    ///

    The old man shivered in the soldiers' arms as they led him through the forests outside the Capital. He didn't know where these men were taking him- they'd shown up at his house a few hours earlier and simply demanded that he accompany them- but he doubted the Fire Empire or its Empress were trying to do him any favors. Still, he did not show fear in his expression and held his head high and with dignity. He would not dishonor what he had once been by doing anything less.

    Finally they emerged into a clearing that was empty except for a palanquin with open curtains. On the chair within sat a slender middle-aged man with bland features that were neither particularly handsome nor ugly, drinking tea from a fine porcelain cup. When he saw the old man, he smiled. "Gentlemen," he said, "release my friend here and pour some tea for him. We have much to talk about, he and I."

    The old man seated himself before the palanquin and accepted the tea, though he did not drink. "I must admit," he said, "I'm curious as to why the High Minister of the Fire Empire desires to speak with me so civilly."

    "Are you really?" Qing Xi asked, raising an eyebrow. "Allow me to fill you in. Your name is Mushi, and you are- or rather were- the last of the Fire Sages. Your order was destroyed by Empress Azula several years ago, but you managed to survive and go into hiding, where you have remained until I found you. Does that perhaps jog your memory?"

    "Indeed it does," Mushi replied. "Azula had become obsessed with immortality and demanded my order seek through the ancient scrolls and find the secret of eternal life for her. We tried, but there was no answer for her. The High Sage counseled her to accept her mortality and name a successor; the Empress flew into a rage and massacred the entire order." He smiled thinly. "Fortunately, I was out of the Capital on a pilgrimage- I learned what had happened when I returned and succeeded in hiding myself before her killers tracked me down."

    "You don't seem worried for a man who stands before someone who has both authority and cause to kill him out of hand," Qing Xi observed.

    Mushi shrugged. "I long ago accepted my own mortality, High Minister- you cannot frighten me. Besides, it would take a truly cruel man to offer his victim such hospitality if all he sought was to kill him; you are merely a ruthless one."

    A smile twitched the edge of Qing Xi's mouth. "An excellent point. You are safe, for now- my agents found you some time ago, but the Empress has moved on to other matters and, so long as you do not approach her or openly proclaim yourself, no longer actively desires your death. I, however, desire answers, and I believe only you can give them to me."

    "I admit, I am intrigued," Mushi allowed, sitting forward. "What do you wish to know, High Minister?"

    Qing Xi sighed and blinked, and for a moment the former Fire Sage saw fear and uncertainty beneath his bland mask. This was a frightened man, he realized; only monumental effort of will was keeping him this composed. "In ancient days," he finally said, "your kind served the Avatar. Even now, you have more knowledge of such matters than anyone else. Something terrible has happened, and I need to know what it means.

    "You know that the Avatar has been held in a perpetual sleep beneath the Fire Palace- your order was one of few groups let in on that secret. Just a few days ago, he awoke, created a terrible light that blasted through the palace, and vanished. What do you believe caused this, and where did he go?"

    Mushi sat still for several moments as his mind tried to assimilate the information. "The first question you ask is simple," he said finally. "The Avatar was sent into his sleep when the balance of the world was broken by the imprisonment of the Moon and Ocean Spirits; his revival means that the balance was restored- therefore, we can conclude that the spirits have been freed. As for the other," he shook his head. "So far as I know, this is unique in our history. Perhaps time finally caught up with the Avatar's incarnation after so long in sleep and burned it out, in which case the Avatar Spirit has no doubt either just been reborn, or is about to be. Or perhaps the Avatar merely fled to recover his strength, in which case I have no doubt he will return to seek his justice. Or perhaps it is something even stranger. Sage I may be, but in this, I know nothing. I am sorry."

    Qing Xi still looked troubled, but he nodded. "Thank you; you have given me much to think on. My men will return you to your home and, provided you tell no one what has transpired here, you will not be harmed."

    "Thank you, High Minister," Mushi said. He stood and bowed, and then the guards took up positions by his side and turned to walk him back towards the city. As he left the clearing, however, the Fire Sage looked back over his shoulder and saw Qing Xi staring down into his teacup like a man struggling to categorize what he had just learned, and yet knowing deep down that it was not possible.

    Mushi shook his head once, and turned back towards the Capital.

    ///

    Jiazin paced on the deck of the stolen ship as it bore the raiding party down from the north and back towards Long Du Shi. The ship had still been pulled up against the shore even when they'd emerged from the ruined city, protected from the spirits' wrath, and of the High Admiral and his fleet there'd been no sign. Knowing their probable fate, the raiding party had been chilled, and they'd left that place as quickly as possible.

    Jiazin herself hadn't been able to sleep since that day, despite the fact that she was growing increasingly tired. Yue's parting words about her secret gnawed at her and wouldn't let her have peace. The waterbender had been right- she needed to tell the rebels about Azula's and Qing Xi's plans for her- but at the same time, it was something so terrible and powerful that admitting it aloud seemed impossible. The Empress was a towering, fearful presence even in thought, especially now that Yue, who had seemed in some way to counterbalance her, had died (or ascended, or whatever had actually happened), and the idea that the High Minister had believed that Jiazin herself had the potential to become such a being was not a comfortable one.

    "But I won't," she whispered to herself. "I'm fighting against you now, and everything you stand for- I won't become you."

    Won't you? A little voice that sounded disturbingly like the Empress's hissed in the back of her mind. You wield my fire; now you have removed one of your deadliest enemies from power. Yuan was always an enemy of your family, but even if he still lives he's no threat to you now- and you did it without lifting a finger. All it took was telling a foolish savage he should be the one to put two fish in a well. In the end, you will accept your fate. It is inevitable.

    "Liar," Jiazin muttered. "My fate isn't written. I make my own destiny now."

    The only response from that part of her that sounded like the Empress was laughter.

    ///

    Belowdecks, Kanoda turned in sleep. As he dreamed, he saw again the day of the Fire Empire raid, when his father had died, and then the ruined city of the North, and then his grandfather and Yue standing side by side. "We give our people into your hands," they said together, "Your hands, your hands…"

    "What do you want me to do?" he asked. "I'm just one person- I'm not even really a warrior. How am I supposed to save the heritage of the Water Tribes?"

    They gave him no answer, merely fading away into mist. Kanoda was left alone, standing in the center of an empty, shifting nothing. And then, suddenly, the dream changed. He found himself standing in a place he had never seen, and yet somehow seemed far too detailed for him to have simply imagined. He was in the courtyard of a vast building atop a mountain, its graceful spires curving towards the sky. Looking beyond it, he could see only clouds and empty sky.

    "Where am I?" he asked. "This doesn't feel like a normal dream."

    "It's not," a high voice said from behind him. "This is the Southern Air Temple, where I'm from. Nice, isn't it?"

    Kanoda spun towards the voice, and saw that it came from a kid who sat casually on a low wall, idly twirling a wooden staff in one hand. He was wearing a strange, brightly orange tunic that didn't resemble any clothing Kanoda had ever seen, and he was bald- the only marking on his head was a tattoo of a strange, bright blue arrow.

    "Hi," the kid said, smiling. "Nice to meet you. I'm Aang."

    ///

    We return after a brief hiatus; my intention is to finish off all of part three in one cycle of “new chapter every few days”. This chapter is mostly setup – Xia has his mission, but now has the pieces he needs to put Azula’s plans together as well; Qing Xi has answers that just lead to more questions; Jiazin continues to struggle with her fear of turning out like Azula; Kanoda receives a strange visitation. All in all, the groundwork for many of the plots that will carry this fic through to its conclusion have been laid (we’ll see Shiyan and the rebels’ part of things next time).

    A few notes. One, the fate of the Fire Sages has been alluded to quite a bit so far, but this is the first time I really spell out what happened to them. Azula hates being thwarted, especially after decades of absolute rule, and being unable to take her rage out on her real enemy, death, she turned on the Sages by proxy instead. I shudder to think what the servants who had to clean up after that must have thought. The surviving Sage’s name, Mushi, was based on Iroh’s fake name from Book II of the show.

    And no, Kanoda’s not what you might be thinking he is. More information on what his vision is about will be coming next time.

    -MasterGhandalf

     
  14. NYCitygurl

    NYCitygurl Manager Emeritus star 9 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Registered:
    Jul 20, 2002
    So uber behind, but I'm catching up (slowly). I think Jaizen is my favorite character. She's spunky! And she's proud, but not so much that it's a character fault. I love Kanoda as well--such a kind spirit.
     
  15. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 49: The Bonds of Slavery

    Shiyan sat in her cabin- which had been Yuan's, before she'd taken it over after his death- aboard the Eye of Agni as it sat in the harbor of a naval base on the northern shore of Fire Empire territory. She had allowed the crew to go ashore- she suspected she'd lose a few here, though most of them seemed to have accepted her leadership- and the captain had been instructed to find a messenger hawk and use it to deliver a letter Shiyan had written describing the fate of Yuan's armada to the Capital. Rumors would, of course, begin spreading before it arrived, but the truth of what had happened at the North Pole would reach the Empress and her advisors before anyone.

    For now, Shiyan sat and waited, legs crossed on the bed before her and her unsheathed sword resting on her lap. She breathed in and out deeply and rhythmically with her eyes half shut- Chosen may have been forbidden to practice firebending, but their meditative techniques drew strongly on its traditions. Now those techniques were proving most helpful in keeping Shiyan's calm and self-control- she'd not witnessed the worst of whatever had really happened at the North Pole, but her mind kept going back to the inescapable truth that a force existed that was powerful enough to tear through the Fire Navy like a hot knife through butter. It hadn't affected her so much at the time, as she had been focused on delivering the Empress’s justice to the traitor Yuan, but in hindsight it was deeply disturbing- and Shiyan couldn't afford to let the soldiers, her soldiers now, sense her weakness.

    She was distracted from her meditations by the sound of a hand rapping against the steel door. "Chosen Shiyan," the captain's voice came from the other side, "I sent your message to the Capital as requested, and stopped briefly to talk with the base's commander. There is… news that I think you should hear."

    Shiyan opened her eyes and focused them on the door. "I would hear this," she said. "You may enter." The door swung open and the captain did so, going down on his knees in the center of the floor- not necessary for an officer in the presence of a Chosen, but the crew had gone rather overboard with their professions of loyalty to her, perhaps out of fear she'd turn on them next.

    "According to the commander," the captain said hesitantly, "what happened to our fleet is not the only calamity to have befallen the Fire Empire lately, or even the worst." He took a deep breath as though steeling himself for whatever news he was about to deliver. "Long Du Shi has fallen. The great city is now in rebel hands."

    "What?" Shiyan asked, feeling her body go cold and still. Long Du Shi, fallen… it was unthinkable. No rebels could possibly challenge the Fire Empire so openly and succeed- surely the Empress in her wisdom would have foreseen it and taken measures! But then, the Empress hadn't foreseen- or if she had, had neglected to inform her Chosen or her High Admiral- of the peril that awaited them in the North either. Perhaps Azula really hadn't known… no, Shiyan pushed those thoughts away. She was Chosen, and there was no place in her life for doubts. "Are you certain?" she finally managed to say.

    "Almost positive," the captain said. "The commander had reports from several different sources, and I checked with his officers as well. If it is some sort of hoax, the whole base is in on it."

    Shiyan stood and began to prowl back and forth before the captain. Thoughts whirled in her mind, the loudest and most disquieting of which was that this was all her fault. She'd been the one to lead Yuan to Long Du Shi and used him to remove the Governor from power, and then left the city with a mere girl to watch over things. She was the foremost Chosen trainee of her generation, and now the fall of one of the Empire's most important cities was her fault… no, she pushed that doubt away as well. This situation called for action, and so finally she turned to face her officer again. "This changes things," she said, "but not as much as you might think. We're going back to the former Earth Kingdom; we'll land in the closest port to Long Du Shi that the Empire still holds, and then I'll travel to the city by land and learn what I can about the situation myself."

    "Chosen," the captain said, his tone shocked, "are you certain that is wise? Why put yourself in that kind of danger…"

    Shiyan silenced him with a raised hand. "My reasons are none of your concern. You have your orders. Now go carry them out." The captain stood, gave a rather fearful salute, and departed.

    The Chosen was left alone in her cabin, lost in her dark reflections. The Fire Navy had been gutted, Long Du Shi had fallen and, a part of her admitted, she was worried about what had happened to Cheng. Still, whether or not the situation really could be laid at Shiyan's feet, she knew one thing- she was Chosen, and she would do everything in her power to put things back in their proper order.

    ///

    Chaiy marched down into the prison levels of the palace, Tong following at her side. It was about a week since the rebels had seized the city, and it had taken a great deal of effort- and help from former Governor Yan Li- to keep the city from falling apart from shear panic at the change in regime. The governor's suggestions had been, for the most part, quite good- though Chaiy had refused to institute the punishments he'd suggested, feeling they were quite draconian and because she still didn't fully trust him or want to give him too much influence over her. Now, she finally had time to take care of some other important business "Remind me again," Tong said, "exactly what we're doing down here."

    She turned to look at him darkly. "This person killed my father, Tong," she said. "It's been a few days now, and I think I've calmed down enough to face her without tearing her apart. But I need to face her- you might not understand, because you told me you barely remember your parents, but I need this."

    "I think I do understand," Tong said quietly, and the two walked in silence past the rebel guards and into the prison, which currently held only one occupant. The Chosen girl sat with her back to the bars- she was dressed in a plain, too-large prisoner's uniform scavenged from the guards' storerooms, her hair hung loose, and she no longer wore her facepaint. Just from looking at her, it was hard to tell how dangerous she really was, unless you knew it already.

    "Get up, girl," Chaiy said through the bars. "I want to talk to you, whether you want to or not."

    "I told you already, I'm not a child," the Chosen shot back. "My name is Cheng. And a Chosen who is held captive is not to speak to her captors, so that she may not reveal to them the secrets of her Order, her mission, or her Empress."

    "You're talking to us now," Tong pointed out. Cheng froze- apparently she hadn't considered that- and then lapsed into sullen silence.

    "Listen," Chaiy said, "Tong here says I shouldn't kill you, because of how young you are, but that man you so heroically stabbed in the back about a week ago was my father, and I want to know why. Oh, I get that he was an important rebel leader and the Fire Empire wanted him out of the picture, but I want to know why a twelve-year-old took it on herself to do the deed."

    "Thirteen," Cheng said, turning around; without her facepaint she looked very young- far too young to have done what Tong knew she had. Obviously, something about what Chaiy had said had struck home. "And I didn't take it upon myself. I am a Chosen, one of the Empress's elite, and it is my duty to destroy her enemies wherever I find them. From almost the moment we can walk we are given practice swords and taught their use, and that our lives exist solely to serve the Empress. That is why I killed the rebel leader, and why I am not a child- I never really have been. I was raised to serve a higher calling. It's an honor you can't know." She finished this with a glare that reminded Tong strongly of the other Chosen, the one named Shiyan, and he wondered if Cheng was deliberately trying to emulate her older comrade.

    Chaiy's reaction to that speech, however, was hardly what Cheng must have expected. Her eyes widened in horror, and she looked over at Tong. "Did you hear that?" she said, anger lacing her words. "No wonder the Chosen are as messed up as they are- I knew they started training them young, but I didn't imagine that. No wonder Azula's been able to hold on to her manufactured maniacs, if she steals them right from the cradle and turns them into little copies of herself." She shook her head and glanced from Tong to Cheng and back again. "And this one's proud of it! Azula turns these people into monsters, and that's monstrous itself."

    "It's what the Fire Empire does," Tong said thoughtfully, his mind going back to his own years of enslavement. "They break people and control what's left. They needed my people for their labor, and their own for fighting, but it's the same idea." He looked back at Cheng, but found he could no longer hate her- only pity her. "The Chosen are slaves just as much as I was, but they can't see their chains."

    From the look on Cheng's face, if Tong had run her through with a sword, he couldn't have caused her greater pain than he did with those words.

    ///

    "I'm Aang," the bald kid said.

    Kanoda's mind went into a frenzy. He knew that name from somewhere, but at the moment he couldn't immediately bring it to mind- and then suddenly, it hit him. His grandfather's story of Sokka, Katara, and the boy they found in the iceberg, the boy who was an airbender, who was named Aang, and who was also… "The Avatar," Kanoda breathed.

    "That's me," Aang confirmed. He looked Kanoda up and down critically. "You look Water Tribe, but I don't remember seeing you at the South Pole. Are you from the North?"

    Kanoda shook his head. "No," he said in a baffled tone, "I'm from the South, and right now I'm obviously dreaming."

    "From the South…" Aang said slowly. "Wait a minute. Do you know what year it is?"

    "It's almost a hundred years since the Fire Empire used the power of Sozin's Comet to seize control of the world," Kanoda told him. "My grandfather told me stories of how two kids from my Tribe saved you from being trapped in ice, but then… you vanished."

    Aang's eyes widened. "No- not again!" he breathed and leaned forward, clutching his head. "This wasn't what was supposed to happen. I remember now- Zuko captured me, tied me up real good so I couldn't bend, and then locked me up on his ship. Katara and Sokka tried to save me, but they just got caught to. Zuko hired some old herbalist who made me drink funny stuff that kept my head fuzzy so I couldn’t do anything and he could take me back to his father, the Fire Lord." His eyes went distant. "I don't remember much after that, but then I woke up in a cell under the palace, and then- I was here."

    "Here, as in my dream," Kanoda said, trying to draw the conversation back to some place he could understand.

    "No," Aang said, shaking his head, "the Spirit World- I'm sure this is it, now. I think my past lives must have pulled me here so I could heal from what the Fire Nation did to me. But if I'm in the Spirit World, how am I talking to you?"

    "I just spent a while traveling with someone who was… very close to the Spirit World," Kanoda explained, "and I was the one who put the Moon and Ocean Spirits back where they belong. I guess some of that rubbed off on me."

    Aang shrugged. "Makes as much sense as anything I thought of. Wait- the Moon and Ocean spirits got stolen, and you put them back? That's got to be some story!"

    "It is. Want to hear it?"

    "Sure!" Aang exclaimed, looking like little more than a kid happy to have something to distract him from the dark reality of his situation rather than the incarnation of one of the most powerful spirits in existence. Kanoda sat down on the low wall and faced him as he explained everything, trying to remember his grandfather's techniques. He started with the rise of the Fire Empire and went on to describe his own role in events, and how he met Yue, Jiazin, and the rebels and had finally recaptured the Spirits and freed them. He couldn't even bring himself to edit Shiyan out.

    "Wow," Aang said when he was done. "You're a really good storyteller, you know."

    Kanoda smiled. "Guess it runs in the family."

    "I wish I could help you," the Avatar said, "but I don't know how long I'll be stuck in the Spirit World until I'm ready for action again. You probably want to get back to regular sleep right now- I know I would- but I just want to tell you something the monks taught me. The Fire Empire must seem huge and powerful, but in the end, nothing can last forever. Sooner or later, it'll burn itself out, like a fire that's used up all the wood. Just keep at it, and you'll see."

    "I will," Kanoda replied. "Thanks. Even if you can't do anything yet, it's good to know that you're still out there, because it means they can't really ever win."

    "See ya," Aang said, standing as the dreamscape began to dissolve. "Thanks a lot for the story- I hope we'll be able to talk again soon!" Then he and the Air temple were gone, and Kanoda awoke in his bed aboard the ship, content now with the knowledge that the rebellion was not alone.

    ///

    What to do about Aang was something I wrestled with quite a bit when bringing the original FotFE to a close. Obviously he was alive under the palace, as I’d established at the end of part one, but I knew I didn’t want him to show up and Avatar Ex Machina the plot away at the eleventh hour either. My first instinct was to simply have him die when the spirits were freed and the universe set back on its proper course, but killing off a twelve-year-old didn’t sit well with me at all. Aang’s definitely alive, and we’ll see more of him in action a bit down the way, and I think I prevented him from taking over the story completely, but it’ll be a while before we get to that. In any case, the poor guy must be feeling absolutely horrible that he got yanked ahead a hundred years twice in a row, and I think he’s probably very glad to have had Kanoda’s story to take his mind off it.

    Are the Chosen slaves? Not in name, of course, but in practice they might as well be. You don’t leave the Chosen – it’s a lifetime of service, though you might be able to get transferred elsewhere in the Fire Nation government if you prove absolutely incapable of being a warrior even with Chosen training – and it’s not permitted to be anything short of 100% loyal at all times. Shiyan is certainly starting to come apart under the strain of forcing herself to believe that Azula is infallible despite mounting evidence to the contrary. As for Cheng, that one line from Tong pretty much ripped her whole worldview out from under her. Unlike Shiyan, she’s not particularly well-equipped mentally to be a hardliner, and now I’m not sure she knows what to believe.

    -MasterGhandalf

     
  16. NYCitygurl

    NYCitygurl Manager Emeritus star 9 VIP - Former Mod/RSA

    Registered:
    Jul 20, 2002
    Chapter 5: Go, Tong! I'm glad he was able to find it within himself to fight back.

    And if I haven't said so before, I love the annotations/comments!
     
  17. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Another excellent few updates! I particularly like your developments with Aang. =D=
     
  18. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 50: An Unexpected Offer

    Jiazin spun and kicked in the center of the boat’s deck, sending blasts of fire shooting into the sky with every blow; firebending serving as a means by which she could let out some of her inner conflict, if only for a short time. Finally she stilled, took a breath and a bow, and then raised her head to see Kanoda come walking towards her. There was a strange expression in his eyes- it seemed at once haunted and confused, and yet at the same time it didn't quite seem dreading or afraid. If she didn't know better, she might almost have said it was hope. "You look almost like you've seen a ghost," she observed.

    "Maybe I have," Kanoda told her, and it was clear from his tone that he wasn't joking. "Listen- something happened to me last night, and I'm not sure what to make of it, but… you need to know. It could change everything." He paused for a moment and then, hesitantly at first, as if he wasn't sure whether or not he believed it himself, he began to describe his encounter with the Avatar the previous night.

    When he was through, Jiazin shook her head. "Are you sure it wasn't just a dream?" she asked. "I mean, the Avatar was captured a century ago, and disappeared shortly after that. How could he still be alive?"

    "I think that when we freed the spirits, we did something more important than we realized," Kanoda said thoughtfully. "Yue told me that while the spirits were trapped, the world was knocked out of balance. Now that their free, the Balance is starting to correct itself. Maybe that was enough to bring the Avatar back."

    Jiazin turned away and looked back out over the waters. "I should be happy about this," she said quietly. "The Avatar is supposed to be the guardian of the balance, but my people have done… horrible things. I saw that at the North Pole- what Zhao did to the Water Tribe was just… evil. The Avatar's people suffered the same fate. What's to stop him from just wiping us all out, in revenge or to make sure it never happens again? Even worse, I can’t help but think he’d be right to do it."

    Kanoda put his hand on her shoulder. "Trust me," he said, "he didn't seem the type. Besides, you're trying to make up for it. That's got to count for something, right?"

    "Yeah," she murmured, and Kanoda looked at her closely, as if he was certain that there was something she wasn’t telling. Before he could ask, however, the sound of running feet echoed across the deck and they both turned to see Song hurrying towards them.

    "Come quickly, both of you," she said. "Hu wants you up on the bridge right away- there's something you need to see." Without even pausing she turned and began to hurry back the way she came, Jiazin and Kanoda running to keep up- there was no possible way this could be something good, and Jiazin could feel dread building in the pit of her stomach. Quickly they followed the rebel up the ladder to the stolen ship's small bridge. Hu was waiting for them there, glass in hand.

    "You need to see this," he said without preamble, handing the glass to Kanoda, who was slightly closer. The Water Tribe youth raised it to his eye and looked out the window, and then his skin went a slightly paler shade of brown.

    "Didn't we just get away from this?" he muttered, and then handed the glass to Jiazin. Raising it to her own eye, she looked- and saw a line of Imperial warships coming from the west at top speed, with the columns of smoke behind them indicating that there were more following behind. No, she realized, not warships- troop transports. The massed might of the Imperial Army was on the move.

    "They must be moving to crush the rebellion at Long Du Shi," Hu said as Jiazin lowered the glass. "And we're directly in their path."

    "That's not good at all," was all that the firebender managed to say.

    ///

    High General Xia lowered his glass and turned to the captain of his personal transport. "You're right," he said, "it appears to be one of ours- a lightly armed scout, from the looks of it. Do you know of any that are currently in this area?"

    "I do not, sir," the captain replied. "However, it appears to be of the same make as a ship that High Admiral Yuan reported before we lost contact with him- he didn't go into specifics, but maintained that the vessel was to be captured at all costs." He cleared his throat. "If I may offer a recommendation, sir, I think we should take it in for questioning. If the crew are loyal, they may have information for us. If not…"

    "If not, then we will have apprehended potentially dangerous fugitives," Xia finished. "Yes, I agree. Signal the ship to stand down. If it refuses- have some of our own prepared to capture and board it."

    "Aye, sir!" the captain said, snapping to a salute before turning to carry out his commander's orders. Xia remained behind, raising his glass again to watch the scout ship intently, curious as to what it would do.

    ///

    Song lowered her own glass and handed it back to Hu. "We're being hailed," she said. "You were slave to a naval officer- do you know what that signal means?"

    Hu took the glass and watched the flags the nearest Imperial ship was running up closely. "We're to stand down and prepare for boarding," he said darkly. "Apparently their commander wants words with us, though they must think there's a possibility we're still loyal, or they wouldn't be trying it and would just attack."

    "Do you think we should try and play the part?" Kanoda asked.

    "I might be a problem there," Jiazin said. "If they insist on looking at us without helmets, there's a chance that someone over there might recognize me. Considering the size of that fleet, odds are the commander is a high noble, maybe someone I've met. With Yuan gone, it might even be High General Xia- he's the highest officer left in the military, unless they've appointed a new High Admiral already. Do you think we can outrun them?"

    "We're still damaged from where Yuan's ships got us," Hu said. "If we were in top condition, maybe, but as it is, we're practically sitting turtleducks. We can run, but they'll catch us quickly enough that it won't make much difference." He hung his head and growled quietly. "I think our best hope is to bluff them. Song, bring us to a stop. Lady- you might want to find a helmet and mask. It's not a good plan, but it's the best we have."

    ///

    "They're stopping, sir," the captain informed Xia. "Maybe it is just a scout vessel that we didn't know was in these waters."

    "Maybe you're right," Xia mused, "but there's something about this that doesn't sit right with me. Look at that ship- it's obviously taken heavy damage from somewhere, and it showed no inclination of moving towards us until we flagged it, despite being part of our navy and in need of repair." He paused, considering. "Bring the crew to me- alive. In any case, I want to debrief them personally."

    ///

    Jiazin was sweating heavily beneath her mask- how did rank-and-file firebenders wear these things comfortably, anyway?- while one of the transports pulled up beside them and extended a ramp. The ship's captain came marching across it, hands clasped behind his back and posture military-straight, with several of his soldiers following close behind. He stopped in front of Hu, who appeared to be his equal in rank, and they exchanged formal bows.

    "Quite a mess you have here, Captain," the Imperial officer said, looking around. "You're in luck that you found us- we're putting down a rebellion and need all the men and vessels we can have, and we'll get yours repaired for you. Now then, there must be quite a story behind how you came to be in the middle of the ocean in such a condition!" His tone was light, but his eyes were cold; Jiazin realized that he knew, or at least suspected, that all was not well.

    "Indeed there is," Hu said noncommittally; his gaze was darting from one soldier to the next, sizing them up.

    "Then I am certain the High General will wish to hear it," the captain said. Jiazin drew in a sharp breath- Xia was here, and he knew who she was, and likely what Azula and Qing Xi had planned for her. If he saw her, the entire game would be up. Her heart sank further as she heard the captain's next words. "In fact, the High Genral requests that you join him personally aboard his flagship- he would like to hear your story for himself."

    "I'm afraid I have to decline," Hu said. "The Governor of Long Du Shi is expecting my report- I have to bring it to him as quickly as possible."

    The captain's smile became something much nastier. "It escaped your notice, then, that Long Du Shi is currently in a state of open revolt? Whatever you are, I don't believe you are a loyal soldier of the Fire Empire. And, as you have just disobeyed a direct order, I am fully authorized to take you into custody. Seize them!"

    Jiazin exploded into motion before he finished speaking. In an instant the mask was torn away- it didn't matter anymore, and it was much easier to see without the blasted thing on anyway- and she held a sword in one hand and a ball of flames in the other. At her side her companions were also drawing their own weapons and preparing to fight, but the captain only laughed. "What exactly are you expecting to accomplish, anyway?" he asked. "There are five of you, and one damaged ship, against thousands of soldiers in dozens of heavy warships. You'll only delay the inevitable. Surrender now, and you'll all live. High General Xia is a reasonable man. Fight, and it's very likely you'll force us to kill you. It's your choice."

    Hu let his sword fall. "He's right, curse him," he growled. "If we go with them, we might be able to get into a better position to get out of this, but if we fight now, we'll gain nothing."

    "That's the spirit," the captain said, laughing; Jiazin glared daggers of flame at him as his men took their weapons and then led them onto the Imperial transport, which slowly turned and began to sail back towards the heart of the formation.

    ///

    Jiazin and her companions were herded into a richly appointed stateroom aboard the fleet's flagship. It's center was dominated by a table on which was laid a large unrolled map of the former Earth Kingdom continent, and above the map stood a man of dignified middle years whom she recognized immediately- Xia. He looked up and smiled as the prisoners were brought before him, his gaze falling on each in turn, until he came to Jiazin and his eyes widened.

    "Lady Jiazin," he breathed. "I'd heard you'd fallen in with traitors, but I wasn't certain I believed it. It seemed such a waste- or rather, it used to…" his voice trailed off and he didn't finish that thought. "Now then," he continued, "I believe we should discuss how exactly you came to be aboard that vessel, and what you did to rile Yuan before he disappeared, because I find it safe to assume that there aren't two vessels of that precise type sailing Imperial waters with rebel crews."

    "And why exactly should I discuss any of this with the highest officer of the Imperial army?" Jiazin asked coldly.

    Xia raised an eyebrow. "I certainly see your outlook has changed since your stay at the Capital, my lady. Well, if you won't talk, allow me to fill you in on some details you may have missed. Long Du Shi has been seized by the rebellion, your father is said to be aiding them, and we have been sent to crush them. High Admiral Yuan and much of his navy have simply disappeared without warning, and we have heard nothing yet from them but rumor. The Empress is in a worse rage than I've ever seen her, and somehow I can't help but think that you have something to do with at least some of this."

    Jiazin's mind was reeling from the magnitude of what he'd just said- her father, helping the rebellion? It seemed impossible- but she worked to maintain her outward calm. "And why exactly are you giving me this information? How does it profit you?" she asked.

    The High General leaned forward, and looking into his eyes, Jiazin saw something she had most certainly not expected- desperation and fear. "Because," he said in a quietly intense voice, "I think you and I might be able to help one another."

    ///

    Another “getting characters into position” chapter here. Jiazin practicing at the beginning was a new addition – originally she was just standing and watching the ocean, but I decided it was more interesting if she was doing something, and since bending is a skill that must be practiced extensively, it seemed the logical choice.

    Thanks to QX, Xia now knows what Azula is up to. We still haven’t seen what he plans to do about it yet, but it’s probably pretty obvious at this point that “keep following the Empress’s orders” isn’t one of them; though he can be ruthless if he feels the need, he remains a basically decent man who wouldn’t voluntarily be party to a plan to, essentially, destroy the world. Exactly what he wants Jiazin to help him with and how the rebels will end up fitting into things remains for next time.

    -MasterGhandalf

     
  19. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 51: Against the End

    Chaiy sighed as she shoved the report away from her along the table. Another riot had broken out in one of the city's market districts; the people had been complaining that the merchants were using the upheaval as an excuse to gouge them, and before long the situation had overflowed into violence. Soldiers- both some of Chaiy's rebels and a handful of guards who, like their governor, were more loyal to stability than the Empire- had broken it up shortly, but hostilities still lingered.

    She glanced to her side where Yan Li was drumming his fingers idly on what had once been his own council table. He glanced up at Chaiy and shrugged. "Now do you see my point?" he asked. "This city- my city- stands on the brink of chaos, and your methods are clearly not working to contain it. Now, if you merely execute, say, one out of ten rioters, the rest will be forced to fall into line-"

    "No!" Chaiy snapped, rather more harshly than she'd intended, though she found she didn't regret it. "This isn't your city any more, Governor, and your methods are why my people rebelled in the first place." She lowered her voice and glanced down at her hands. "My father wouldn't have wanted us to kill our own people just to ensure temporary order."

    "You'll find I'm far more lenient than most of my peers," Yan Li observed mildly. "Most of the nobles or officers of my acquaintance would simply execute all of them and have done with it. That's not my way- it's cruel, it’s sloppy, and it just breeds resentment- but if we don't crack down Long Du Shi is going to come apart at the seams and I will not allow that!"

    Chaiy glared at him, and then glanced at the rebel guards that flanked him. "You're not in a position to allow anything, milord, and there's no "we"- the other rebels and I are making the decisions. You're just an advisor."

    "Then listen to my advice," the former governor insisted. "Don't try and claim the moral high ground with me- we both know you would have killed me already without a second thought if you didn't need me. You want order? So do I, and I have more experience with maintaining it."

    "You have experience being a tyrant!" Chaiy spat, rising to her feet in anger, fists clenching and the ground rumbling slightly beneath her feet.

    "You don't know what true tyranny is!" Yan Li retorted, rising himself, eyes blazing. They stared at each other for a moment, then the former governor collapsed back into his chair. "What's the point?" he muttered. "You're not going to listen- I accomplish nothing here. We solve nothing by quarreling. I wish your father was still here- him I could have worked with."

    "Don't talk about my father," Chaiy said, but her heart wasn't in it. She slid back into the chair and put her head in her hands. She might deplore Yan Li's ruthlessness, but he was right about one thing- they were solving nothing. By the Spirits, running a city like Long Du Shi made leading a force of rebel earthbenders look easy!

    They both looked up at the sound of the council chamber's great doors bursting open. A group of rebels came hurrying inside- Tong was at their head, helping to support a scout who looked so exhausted he could barely stand, though there weren't any visible wounds. Chaiy frowned. Had this man run all the way from the walls, and if so, what had prompted it? "Tong," she asked, rising to her feet. "What's going on?"

    "This man was on patrol near the docks," Tong told her. "He saw… well, you need to hear it for yourself.

    ///

    Roughly an hour later, Tong and the elite rebel warriors who formed Chaiy's unofficial guard disembarked from the train at the docks, followed closely by Chaiy herself and Governor- former Governor- Yan Li. Glancing around at the abandoned construction sites, Tong recalled the day he'd seen the governor and his family leave this very train from where he'd labored. How far they'd all come since then- the slave was now a free warrior, the proud nobleman, a captive. It was at once humbling and unsettling.

    Tong turned his gaze out to the harbor itself. There could be seen the first lines of the approaching warships- guards looking through their glasses had confirmed there were many more behind. They'd dropped anchor out there, and now waited for some signal, save for a small ship that had sailed into the middle of the harbor and put up a flag of truce. One of the guards had recognized it as matching the description of the same ship Yue and her companions had stolen; that was when he'd dispatched a runner to the palace. Whatever this meant, Tong doubted it was good.

    He glanced back at Chaiy and Yan Li. "Do you think it was smart to bring him?" he asked her. "Jiazin was sincere, but I don't trust him. Are you sure you want him so close to his people?"

    Chaiy shrugged. "He knows how to talk to them, and he's not a fighter. What can he do? Besides, I could always offer to trade him to them for concessions. I, for one, wouldn't miss him."

    Yan Li shrugged. "They would not take me," he said, almost sadly. "I am a traitor to my class and my Empire- I am marked for death as much as you, if Azula or her minions catch me."

    "Small comforts," Chaiy muttered. "Well, let's see what they have to say." Taking the lead, she marched towards the end of the nearest dock, her guards, Tong, and Yan Li following behind. As they stopped, the small ship began to move slowly towards them, pulling up along the pier and lowering its ramp. Two soldiers in the armor of elite firebenders marched down it and faced the rebels silently. Next came a dignified-looking middle-aged man in a general's uniform.

    "High General Xia," Yan Li muttered to Chaiy. "Supreme commander of the Imperial Army, and an honorable man. But I don't know what he's doing with a fleet. This is Yuan's territory, not his."

    The High General said nothing, merely regarding the rebels speculatively, and then stepped aside. Several more figures began to descend, and Tong's eyes widened as he recognized….

    "Jiazin?" Yan Li breathed in a strangled voice.

    She stopped, eyes falling on him and widening in shock. "Father?" she asked, seemingly unsure if she believed it. "Xia said you were with the rebels, but I didn't believe it!"

    "Not by choice, to be sure," Yan Li said. He seemed trying to maintain his calm dignity, but there was emotion and concern barely contained within it- Tong was certain that, if the two hadn't had an audience, he would have run forward and embraced her. It was the most genuine humanity Tong had seen from him since Long Du Shi fell. "But what are you doing with Xia?" He glanced over at Chaiy. "I was told you were on some sort of mission and I wasn't to enquire further."

    Jiazin looked over her shoulder at her companions- Kanoda and the rebels who'd gone with them but, Tong noted, no Yue. Was the waterbender simply not showing herself yet, or had something happened to her? Either way, Tong found himself concerned. "Xia and his fleet captured us on the way back," the firebender finally said. "I'd thought we were going to be imprisoned or executed for certain, but… well, the High General has something to say."

    Xia stepped forward, eyes haunted. "I know you have no reason to trust me," he began, "and it is difficult for I, who have spent my life battling rebels and bandits at every turn, to trust you. I hope the fact that I have returned your warriors to you alive and whole will help with that. But you see…" he drew in a deep breath, as though preparing himself to say something very difficult, "you see, we need each other's help."

    "Help?" Chaiy demanded, after an incredulous silence. "Since when has the Fire Empire ever helped us? What's your angle, General?"

    Xia looked at her intently. "You would be Chaiy, I take it? My "angle", as you put it, is simply survival." He began to pace up and down before the ship. "Let me tell you something about myself, in the hopes that you will understand my decision here today. I entered the military as a young man, of a noble but unimportant line, afire with high ideals and determined that I would help bring peace to the world. I found corruption and brutality, and it sickened me, but I still thought that the Empire could bring about good purposes, if its power was used correctly. So I played their game, and worked hard to improve my skills, and my successes and a few well-placed connections earned me the High Generalship and a seat along with Yuan and Qing Xi at Azula's right hand.

    "Along the way I saw and did things that have blacked my soul and my honor, but I convinced myself it was justified because my cause was just. I was a blind fool- I think I knew all along what Azula and her Empire were, but I deluded myself into thinking I could still be a force for order and fulfill my youthful dreams. It was Qing Xi himself who opened my eyes, strangely enough, for he stumbled on something very dark and terrible at the heart of the Empire."

    He turned to look full on them now. "Azula grows old, and her reign draws to a close. She fears and hates death above all other enemies, because it is the only one her cunning and deadly skill cannot defeat. We of her inner circle thought she pursued some form of immortality," he glanced at Jiazin when he said this, and Tong wondered what he meant by it, "but we were misled. Azula, it seems, has come to terms with her mortality after all- but only if all she has built shares it with her."

    Chaiy's eyes widened as she seemed to process what he was saying. "You're not serious," she breathed. "You can't mean…"

    "I do," Xia said gravely. "I've never been more serious in my entire life. Azula intends to drag the entire Empire- and everyone in it- down into death with her. She's already laid the groundwork for a civil war to be triggered at her death, and even if the world survives it, the Empire as we know it will be smashed beyond recovery, and millions of innocents will die. She needs only an excuse to set it off- and you have given her one."

    "What do you mean?" Chaiy demanded.

    "Your rebellion has already weakened the Empire- the nobles grow fearful," Xia explained. "Azula intended for war to begin here and spread with her death- she's named many heirs, all of them powerful and ambitious, and all with legitimate claims to the throne. With her gone and the Empire already fraying, they'll fall to fighting over it like vulturewasps, and that will be the end of it."

    Chaiy looked thoughtful. "So the Empress intends to bring down her own Empire," she mused aloud. "And why shouldn't we let her?"

    "No," Tong said, leaning close, "we have to. The Empire is a great evil- I know that very well- but world war would be worse. And no matter who won, they'd be no better than Azula. We fought for freedom, not chaos."

    "You're right," Chaiy said. "My father's dream was to destroy the Fire Empire, but we never talked about what to do beyond that. But this is worse. We need to remember that we're not fighting against the Empire- we're fighting for our people." She looked back at Xia. "Whatever you're selling, I'm listening."

    "I propose an alliance," the High General said. "Your forces and mine, to stand against the Dragon Empress and stop her before she destroys all either of his has fought for. My footsoldiers haven't yet been informed- I couldn't risk one of them managing to bolt back to the Capital and warn the Empress- but my officers are trustworthy. Azula's death will change the world, and we can discuss later what to make of it, but neither of us wants what she will bring." He held out his hand. "I presume you can speak for your father here?"

    "My father is dead," Chaiy said quietly. "I lead the rebels now, and if what you say is true, we need each other." She took his hand slowly, as though it was the most difficult thing she'd ever done. "We will work together, but your forces will not enter my city en masse, and if you show any sign of treachery, I will deal with you personally. Are we clear?"

    "Very," said Xia with a tight smile as he shook. "Now then, we must talk. We have a world to save." He withdrew his hand, and then added under his breath, "The spirits help us all."

    ///

    Shiyan watched the meeting from the top of one of the cliffs overlooking the harbor, hatred welling inside her. She'd left her ship at a base just west of the city- now largely empty, with Yuan having taken most of the fleet, and Xia having conscripted the rest- and changed into civilian clothes before heading into occupied territory. She felt naked without her facepaint, and had some trouble on the road, but the sight of her sword was enough to deter many would-be bandits, and she'd made excellent time. When she'd heard about Xia's attack force at the base, she'd been heartened- now the rebels would face the Empire's retribution!- but looking down at this… farce shattered all her hopes.

    It was disgusting! She couldn't hear the words being spoken, but she saw the archer girl- apparently the rebel leader- walking together with the traitor Yan Li and speaking to the High General of the Fire Empire as an equal! And he was treating her as one! This was no surrender negotiation, as Shiyan had first thought- it was a treacherous plot against the Empress herself and all she stood for. There was no other explanation.

    Shiyan's blood burned as she slipped away from the cliff and down towards the main city. Her objectives were clear. She would find out what had happened to Cheng, and if the other Chosen still lived, free her.

    Then they would show all the rebels and traitors what it was to so foolishly invoke the Dragon's wrath.

    ///

    Things are starting to come together now. Whatever their differences, neither Chaiy nor Xia wants the world to end, and as such the rebels and the Fire Army have now managed to arrange an alliance against Azula – who, of course, still has some tricks left up her sleeve. The story is now rapidly heading towards its final climax – the Dragon Empress versus the world.

    I wanted to show with the scene at the beginning that Chaiy is not –yet- an ideal peacetime leader. She’s a guerilla fighter, not a politician, and not even twenty at that. She’s trying, though, and the potential is there, even if it hasn’t been realized yet. Yan Li, of course, represents the Fire Empire’s perspective on ruling, a perspective that even he knows may soon become irrelevant.

    And Shiyan is becoming increasingly frayed as her worldview takes blow after blow, but she isn’t someone to bend – she’ll endure or break completely, with no middle ground. In the face of everything she’s witnessed, her need to punish Azula’s enemies has kindled into a burning obsession – but operating on her own, ignorant of the Empress’s intentions, she’s become something of a wildcard. Hidebound, rule-focused Shiyan would be outraged if you called her a rogue agent, but it may well be what she’s turning into.

    -MasterGhandalf
     
  20. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 52: The Death of Trust

    Qing Xi sat within his palanquin, hands folded in his lap, as he watched the slender, knifelike black ship come in to the Capital's dock. The High Minister had seen the vessel only a handful of times in his life, but he knew very well what it signified- there was only one ship like that in the entire Empire, and only one who had the authority to sail it. He shifted uneasily in his seat. She made him nervous in a way that few others did, and the fact that Azula had pulled her off her little island could well prove problematic to his plans. Still, protocol was protocol, and if he wasn't at the docks to greet the new arrival, there would be… problems.

    The ship's ramp slowly lowered, and then five figures processed down it, their bearing at once martial and regal. Four of them were ordinary Chosen, almost indistinguishable from one another in their identical facepaint and black armor; from this distance only their heights gave proof that they weren't one person copied four times. The fifth, who marched slightly in front, was something else entirely- a long black cloak flowed from her shoulders and billowed out behind her as she walked, her armor was trimmed with rich golden designs, and her headpiece was more elaborate than any of the others', almost looking like a crown. Indeed, the woman held herself as if she was a queen in her own right, but in truth she was the Mistress of the Chosen, most enigmatic and personally deadly of the Dragon Empress's inner circle.

    Qing Xi stepped out from his palanquin as she approached and gave a polite bow, as from one equal to another, and was pleased to see her twitch irritably at the gesture. "Greetings, Mistress," he said, for she had no other name; when she took her position she surrendered her entire identity to the Empress. "This is an unexpected pleasure. What brings you from your seclusion back to this part of the world?"

    The Mistress regarded him coldly. "Unexpected?" she asked icily. "I had thought that the great High Minister would have known to expect me- you certainly pride yourself on knowing everything else. But I am directed in this, as I am in all things, by the will of our glorious Empress."

    "As are we all," Qing Xi replied, hoping she didn't hear the slight note of sarcasm that slipped out. Fortunately, the Mistress gave no sign of it. "Shall I have another palanquin brought to carry you to the palace?"

    The Mistress shook her head. "I shall walk," she said, and without further word she and her guards strode off down the street in the direction of the Palace, Qing Xi's startled bearers struggling to keep up. The leader of the Chosen spoke no word as she walked, and the High Minister took the opportunity to study her in silence. This one had always been the most difficult of the inner circle for him to read- Yuan had been driven by pride, and Xia by honor, but the Mistress's inner fire came from pure zeal, tempered by a predator's cunning and that made her easy to predict, but almost impossible to control. She was a living weapon, pure and simple, who waited patiently for the chance to be unleashed upon Azula's enemies. There was little humanity left in her, and that alone made Qing Xi uneasy.

    After a long, uncomfortable march through the city, they finally arrived at the Palace. There the Mistress stopped and regarded Qing Xi imperiously. "I will take my leave of you now," she said. "I know the way from here, and the Empress and I have important matters to discuss. You may continue with your duties." Without a backward glance she turned in a swirl of her cape and marched into the palace, guards trailing behind her.

    The High Minister did not return to his duties- he sat in his palanquin silently for some time, at first seething at the casual dismissal, though his nimble mind quickly moved on to more pressing matters. Whatever Azula and her minion were discussing in there, he would bet his title it had something to do with the plot he'd been tracking, and that was something he knew could not come to pass. Something had to be done, and he, Qing Xi, was the only one in a position to achieve this part of it. His considered his options carefully, and a plan began forming in his mind.

    ///

    The Mistress knelt before Azula and pressed the Empress's hand to her forehead. "I am here as you commanded, Great Mother," she said, giving her sovereign the title that she alone was favored enough to use. "What is it that you wish of me?"

    The Empress withdrew her hand. "Rise," she commanded. "We have much to speak of, daughter. The culmination of all our works draws near." The Mistress rose and followed her sovereign to a corner of the throne room where a small table had been set; on it rested a large pitcher of tea and two cups. They seated themselves on either side of it, and Zhi, the Chosen warrior who was Azula's constant aide, stepped silently forward and poured for each of them. The Mistress took her cup but did not drink; the Empress took hers slowly through the mouth-slits in her mask. Finally she spoke.

    "You know that the hour of my death approaches," she said. "I can feel it coming for me, stalking me like some predatory beast, but I am not some helpless victim to go to the slaughter without a fight. Soon I shall be dead, and the Empire with me."

    "In old days, a Fire Lord's material possessions went with him into the next world," the Mistress observed. "Since you are far greater than they were, it is fitting that a greater sacrifice should accompany you."

    Azula regarded her from the black holes in her mask. "Then I have your guarantee that the Chosen support me in this? It is not, perhaps, your ambition to wait until I am gone and then ignore my commands, giving your service to whatever new ruler might arise?"

    "We could not do so," the Mistress said. "We are your Chosen- created by you, and without you, we have no purpose. There are some, perhaps, of the younger ones who might balk at what you ask, but all of those who I have brought into the fold are absolutely loyal. Whatever you request, it will be done."

    "As it should be," the Empress said.

    "But there are those I do not trust," the Mistress continued. "High Minister Qing Xi, for one. He seeks only his own advancement- I don't trust him, and never have. He could be a danger to us. If I may ask a bold question, why haven't you killed him already?"

    "Because he is useful," Azula said coldly. "Never cast a tool aside until you're done with it completely. If I had killed him, it would have merely meant that others would begin jockeying for his position, and that would be a distraction I can't afford now. I have no doubt he is clever enough to uncover what we are doing, but that is why I dangled the girl Jiazin before him- to provide a plan that would make sense to his mind, and keep him focused on it, rather than the truth. He likely sees that now, at least partially, but it doesn't matter anymore. It is too late for him to stop us.

    "I have dispatched High General Xia to rebellious Long Du Shi, to reclaim it- or so he believes. In truth, I shall declare him and his men traitors and rebels (which they very likely are, at heart- he never did have the stomach for what must be done), and travel there myself, at the head of my elite forces and commanding the greatest weapons in the Empire, to destroy him. In that battle we shall all perish in fire, and Long Du Shi with us, so that the Empire will lose its ruler, much of its military, and one of its great cities in one blow. Then the war shall begin, and the smoke and fire of that great sacrifice shall rise to the heavens, so that the Spirits themselves will mourn at the Dragon Empress's passing."

    "A fitting end, as much as any death of one so great can be fitting," said the Mistress, eyes glinting. "No Fire Lord has ever had a world for their pyre. But what task do you have in mind for me?"

    "You shall remain here, as custodian of my throne until I return," Azula said. "But when you receive news of my death, you will kill Qing Xi and decapitate the bureaucracy, so that they will make no misguided attempt to hold the Empire together beyond its time. After that, go where you will- your duty will be complete."

    The Mistress rose and bowed. "As you command," she said. "I am proud to have such a great role to play in these last days."

    Azula waved her hand. "Leave me, both of you," she said to the Mistress and Zhi. "I am tired, and I must rest and meditate. I don't think I will launch my attack for another few days yet, and I will need all my strength."

    Both Chosen bowed to their Empress, and then turned and departed from the great chamber.

    ///

    When Azula was alone, she removed her mask and stood, pacing back and forth before her throne. Wrapped in the darkness of her own thoughts, it took her several moments before she realized she was not alone, and she spun towards the source of the strange clicking sound beside one of the pillars.

    There she saw a girl in her late teens leaning up against the stone; the clicking came from the folding knife she was idly toying with in one hand. The girl's robes were well-made but dully colored; her hair was pulled up in two buns and her face was expressionless. When she saw Azula was watching her she looked up, and something that might have been an ironic smile flitted across her face. "Hello, Azula," she said tonelessly. "It's been a long time."

    "Mai," the Empress spat. This ghost appeared seldom, but when she did, she was one of the most terrible. "How long have you been watching, old friend?" She put an ironic emphasis on the last word.

    Mai shrugged. "Long enough," she said. "You like that, don't you, having your praises sung by all your mindless little fanatics? Because you know they're only loyal because they've been brainwashed since they were kids to be that way, and that's the only kind of really loyalty you'll ever get."

    "Fool," Azula said. "I am the Empress- my people revere and fear me all at once. What do you know of that?"

    The specter turned to face her full on, eyes glinting though her expression didn't otherwise change. "More than you, I'd say," she whispered. "Do you remember what happened that night, Azula? The night you murdered me?"

    "I do," the Empress hissed. "I remember it well."

    It had been a few years after the destruction of Ba Sing Se and the rise of the Fire Empire; she'd still been the Princess, then, and her constant companions had been Mai and Ty Lee. She thought of them as friends, though she knew it was whispered behind her back that she didn't know what a friend really was. Azula simply ignored them- a friend was someone who you could count on to do what you wanted when you wanted it. That was patently obvious.

    But Mai had become strange and distant ever since Zuko died- Azula knew she'd had a crush on him when they'd been kids, though she'd thought nothing had ever come of it. In hindsight, though, it became obvious why Mai had grown even gloomier than before, and why she would sometimes vanish for weeks at a time- she was tracking Zuko's killer down. Mai was stoic, but Azula had made a rare mistake, confusing stoicism for apathy. But then, Mai found her target.

    Azula still remembered the night when Mai entered her quarters, guards lying dead behind her, knives drawn. "Murderer," she said in a flat voice, but a terrible gleam was in her eyes; Azula barely had a chance to defend herself. But she'd been quick then, even quicker than she was now, though Azula the princess lacked the Dragon Empress's true power, and they'd battled. It had been long and difficult, for though Mai was not a bender she was a master of mundane weapons, but in the end, the outcome was in no doubt. Mai fell dead to the ground, smoldering.

    Azula had looked up triumphantly to see Ty Lee silhouetted in the door, a look of horror crossing her face. The acrobat turned and ran, and from that day forward Azula never saw her again, and her ghost did not torment the Empress. But it had been then that she had realized that true loyalty was even rarer than she'd thought, and had to be carefully nurtured and controlled. That was when she'd taken her first Chosen, then little more than a club of noble-born female warriors in Azula's service, and slowly but surely remade them into a cult dedicated to herself, so that she knew beyond a shadow of doubt that they would not betray her.

    "You think you're so clever, Azula," Mai's ghost said. "But even you can't see everything. You never realized that I might turn on you until it was too late. Now you're going to your own death, but in your heart you know it will come in a way you haven't expected, and all your big plans will fall apart, because no matter how much you know, no matter how hard you plan, there’s always that one little detail you missed. You like think you're perfect, but in your heart, you know you're not."

    "Pretty words," Azula said, and she smiled. "But soon you'll be silenced, along with all the others, and this world will never again forget my wrath or my power. The final act has begun."

    ///

    A quieter chapter, but one that reveals quite a bit of important stuff. First off, it’s been a very long time since we’ve seen the Mistress of the Chosen, though she’s been namedropped quite a bit. She’s everything Shiyan wants to be when she grows up – powerful, elegant, deadly, and utterly loyal. She sees Azula as more like a god than a person, which probably helps explain how she can justify this plan to herself, but she’s also supremely confident in her own abilities. I definitely wanted there to be something more than a little “Vaderesque” as it were about her, at least outwardly.

    The backstory here is also incredibly important; I think that Mai’s death is one of the defining moments that turned Princess Azula into the Dragon Empress (the other big one being Ozai’s death). At the very least, betrayal by one of the only people she was certain was loyal sent Azula on a downward spiral of paranoia and nihilism, the fruits of which include the existence of the Chosen, her tyrannical rule, and now her apocalyptic plans for the Empire. I will note, though, that having killed Mai, Azula was not able to go through with killing her only other friend, Ty Lee. Ty Lee definitely escaped, and I like to think she eventually ended up running her own circus, had a family, and generally managed a fulfilling life away from Azula and the Fire Nation. I never found a good way to work her into FotFE, but maybe she’s still alive out there…

    And of course, QX has plans. Lots of plans. But it’s not quite time to find out what they are yet, though it’s safe to say that standing back and letting the Mistress execute him isn’t on the agenda…

    -MasterGhandalf
     
  21. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 53: Insecurity

    Jiazin sat quietly at the council table, glancing towards the ends where the rebel leaders and the Imperial Army officers sat. The tension in the room was palpable- it was clear that Chaiy hadn't forgiven Xia whatsoever for his years of service to the Fire Empire, and had only reluctantly consented to allow him into the city with only his second-in-command and a small group of guards. Xia for his part seemed rather nervous to be sitting in a rebel-controlled palace, though he was doing his best not to show it. Still, both sides recognized that the danger that faced them now was greater by far than their enmity for each other.

    "So," Chaiy finally asked, "do you have any idea what Azula's immediate plans are? I doubt she'll be happy when she finds out you've turned on her."

    Xia spread his hands. "Unfortunately, Azula is very difficult to predict. I don't believe there's anyone alive, except perhaps for the Chosen's Mistress who truly knows her mind, though I can’t say how much the High Minister has guessed. I can guess, however, that whatever she does, it will be soon. Between your rebellion and my… defection, I believe we will force her hand. It seems likely that she will strike here, where her most dangerous enemies are gathered- doing anything else would arouse suspicion. But there is no guarantee."

    "If Azula makes her move elsewhere, then our forces will be kept ready to respond as quickly as possible, to contain it," Xia's second-in-command, Commander Zhang, added. "I would recommend you keep your forces in similar alert."

    "I don't take orders from Imperial officers," Chaiy snapped, "but in this case, I think your advice is sound."

    Jiazin's father cleared his throat from where he sat beside the rebel leader- Jiazin still didn't know the full story, but she'd gathered he'd allied with the rebels out of convenience and the need to avoid chaos, rather than conviction. This didn't surprise her, though it was rather disappointing. Whatever had happened to him, he still seemed the man who had been so heavily involved in the Empire's atrocities at heart. "What I don't understand," he said, "is how Azula managed to keep her plans secret from us for so long. Surely the inner circle at least would have realized something was wrong?"

    Xia looked uncomfortable. "The inner circle was… misled, Yan Li," he said quietly. "If you wish to know more, ask your daughter."

    "What?" Father turned to face Jiazin, expression at once cold and disbelieving. "I don't understand- Jiazin, what is the High General talking about? Explain yourself!" Despite all that had passed, he fell easily into the role of the stern, disappointed father again, and Jiazin felt like she had as a child caught in some small wrongdoing. But this was more than that on every level, and they both knew it.

    Chaiy froze. "Yes," she said slowly. "I'd like an explanation as well." At her side, Tong looked at Jiazin questioningly, but didn't speak- the quiet earthbender seemed to be waiting for the explanation himself before he passed judgment.

    "Jiazin?" Kanoda asked quietly from where he sat at her side. Somehow his question seemed the most accusing of all. Jiazin felt like an actress who had been shoved onto stage despite the fact she didn't know any of her lines; all eyes seemed to be on her, and she didn't know what to say. Finally she drew a deep breath and spoke.

    "A few months ago now," she said, "High Minister Qing Xi came here and brought me to the Capital, only saying that he wanted me for some secret purpose. When we arrived, I was told that the Empress was old and would soon die, and she had failed to find true immortality, so she needed another way. She needed someone to assume her identity and rule as her after she died, so that the Dragon Empress would appear immortal." Jiazin's voice dropped to a whisper. "The person the High Minister had selected was me. He'd searched through all the noble-born girls of my age in the Empire, and had decided I was the best choice to walk in Azula's footsteps."

    Dead silence fell around the table, until finally Jiazin continued. "I was honored at first, until I began to learn things about the history of the Empire, and all the terrible things the Empress had done. I think Qing Xi meant for me to find out, though I don't know why. That's when I ran, and decided to change things. I fell in with the rebellion, and after I killed Gian, well- I didn't have anywhere else to go."

    Kanoda, Tong, and Chaiy were simply staring at Jiazin, though Father was stroking his beard and nodding to himself as though he'd suddenly found a puzzle piece he'd been missing and now everything was starting to make sense. Finally, Xia spoke. "It seems obvious now that Jiazin was always a decoy- something to keep Qing Xi, myself, and the other high officers busy while Azula and her Chosen hatched her mad plan under our noses." He looked at Jiazin with an expression in his eyes that was almost pity. "Don't be too hard on yourself, girl. You are not the first to have been tricked by Azula and Qing Xi. They never really intended you to become… her."

    "I understand now that Azula didn't," Jiazin said, "but it doesn't sound like Qing Xi was in on the plan. He really saw her in me, and now that I know what she is, that scares me more than you can imagine. And there's more –some of you already know this. So far as I know, there are only two people on the planet who can create blue fire. Azula is one of them." She held out a hand, palm up, and formed a small flame in it. Jiazin turned all of her will on the tiny fire, and after a moment, its color shifted. "I'm the other."

    The room was quiet again for several moments, until Jiazin felt a hand on her arm and turned to see Kanoda. "Xia's right," he told her. "Don't be hard on yourself. I've never met Azula- thank the spirits for that!- but I know you. You put your life on the line at the citadel, and helped us save the spirits at the North Pole. You may think you're like her, but you're not. You're a good person."

    "People can rise above their pasts- I know that," Tong said. "Just because somebody tells you that you're something, it doesn't mean that's what you have to be."

    "You know I don't trust you nobles," Chaiy said, "but if what's coming is as serious as I think it's going to be, I don't think I can afford to throw an asset like you away." She looked at Jiazin head on, eyes cold. "The Fire Empire used you, tried to mold you into someone else, and made you a part of their crazy Empress's plan to destroy us all. Are you going to let that pass?"

    "No," Jiazin said, surprising herself with the intensity in her voice. "Whatever I might have been, I will never stand with the Fire Empire again after all it's done. The world does need peace and order, but not that kind. I will help you bring the Empire down so that something better can be made. I will fight."

    Xia glanced at Zhang and then looked down the table. "Good," he said. "Now, Azula is as cunning as she is insane, but we need to outguess her. Let's talk strategy."

    ///

    After the meeting was over, Jiazin walked down the palace corridors alone. The strategy discussion had, in her opinion, produced nothing valuable in the long run- they simply didn't know enough about Azula's long-term plans to effectively deal with them. That she planned to unleash a war the likes of which the world had never seen was evident, but how and when she intended to start it remained a mystery.

    "Jiazin, wait!" a voice called from behind her, and she turned to see her father coming towards her. "Let me walk with you."

    "As you wish, Father," she said, her voice stiff and formal. "I suppose you want to talk with me about how the High Minister's plans for me might bring honor and prestige to the family?" She imbued the last words with ice.

    Father put his hand on her shoulder, and for a moment his coolly competent mask cracked and she saw a sad, rather scared man beneath. "Oh, Jiazin," he breathed. "You must think I'm a monster now, don't you? I never wanted that. I only wanted to create a stable city, a stable Empire, that could be passed down with pride to future generations- to you."

    "I don't think you're a monster," Jiazin replied, "but I can't forgive the things you've done, and helped do. You supported Azula's reign for years, and you heard in there what she plans to do. Everyone knew she was mad, but you all still served her without protest." Her voice dropped. "How can you live with that knowledge?"

    "I used to be able to," Father said softly. "I told myself that I was working for the greater good, and that made everything right somehow. But I can't tell myself that anymore. There is no good in what Azula is doing, not even for herself." He drew a deep breath before continuing. "I know I haven't been a very good father for you. I threw the opportunity to be one away while working to uphold a madwoman's rule. Now I don't think any of us have much time left- I think Azula will outmaneuver us all, and we will all die soon- but you fought when I stayed silent and did nothing. You have courage and conviction, Jiazin, and I admire you for that." He lowered his voice so that it was barely more than a whisper. "No matter what happens, I am proud to be your father."

    Then he withdrew his hand and was gone in a swirl of robes, leaving Jiazin once more in the corridor alone.

    ///

    Shiyan walked slowly and kept her head bowed, both as part of her disguise and so she could watch her feet and therefore avoid tripping on the servant's robe she wore. How so many people could go about in the things every day was beyond her, but fortunately she would be spared the need to find out. This was a simple operation- get into the palace, rescue Cheng, and get out so they could plan their next move.

    Tracking the younger Chosen down had been surprisingly easy. The city was full of rumors about what exactly had happened in the palace during the rebel takeover, and most of them agreed that a rebel leader had been assassinated immediately after the battle by a girl in Chosen armor. Some said she'd been killed, but most maintained she had merely been imprisoned in the palace dungeons. Shiyan had waited until nightfall outside the great building, quietly killing a servant girl and stealing her uniform. When it was dark, she simply walked inside with a clear objective in mind- if Cheng was alive, rescue her. If she was dead, her death wouldn't go unavenged. No one, not rebel warlords or even high nobility, killed a Chosen and escaped with their life.

    Shiyan approached the dungeon slowly, pausing just outside the guardroom. Three rebels sat there, two playing pai sho and the other idly watching. After a moment, Shiyan slipped inside.

    The guards stood up immediately, going for their weapons. "No one's allowed down here without express permission from Chaiy," their leader said. "Unless you've got a note from her, turn around and go back upstairs."

    "I have all the authorization I need right here," Shiyan said softly, and then drew her sword fluidly from beneath her robes. The guards stared for a moment and then charged, weapons raised. The Chosen brought her blade up to meet them, and for several furious minutes all was chaos. Finally, Shiyan stepped idly over the body of the last guard- wounded to unconsciousness or dead, she didn't know or care- and made her way into the dungeons.

    She passed by several cells whose occupants looked to be no more than common ruffians- some begged or shouted at her, but many simply shrunk back from the hard eyed girl with the bloodstained sword. Finally, at the end of the corridor and away from the other cells, she found a young prisoner in an oversized uniform; it took her a minute to recognize that this was Cheng without her facepaint; Shiyan had seen her bare face before, of course, but imagining any Chosen – even a hapless, half-trained initiate – in anything but full uniform went against her instincts.

    "Shiyan!" the younger girl shouted, standing up. "What are you doing here?"

    "Saving you, sister," Shiyan said. Pulling the ring of keys she'd taken from one of the guards from her belt, she tried one after the other until finally she found the one that opened the lock. The cell door sprang open. "Now, come," she said. "We need to get out of here. Then we'll find a way to deal with the rebels- and with High General Xia. He's a traitor."

    "Shiyan," Cheng said slowly, "thanks for getting me out of that cell, but… I'm not going to help you fight, at least not for a while. I don’t think I can."

    Shiyan stopped dead and turned slowly around, not believing what she was hearing. "What?" she asked quietly. "Has this whole world gone insane? The rebels locked you up in a tiny cell- don't tell me you've turned to their side too?"

    "No!" Cheng said quickly. "It's not like that- I'm not going to fight for them either. It's just that being locked up gave me time to really think, and now I'm just confused. The man I killed, he had a daughter, and she wanted to kill me too. Not because he had been a valuable leader, but because he was her father and she loved him. But there was an earthbender who talked her out of it, and he said later that he'd been a slave, and the Chosen were just slaves too. And what he said made sense, and I didn't want it too. And I've never loved anyone enough to be so sad and angry when they died- I mean, I loved the Empress, but I've never met her, and she never really seemed real, more like an idea. I’m thirteen years old and I’ve never had a friend, just loyalty and discipline all the time! None of the Chosen I've met ever cared for anyone like she did, or would have shown mercy to an enemy like he did. I thought I was right and we had all the answers, but now I'm just so confused, and… I just need time to think."

    Shiyan tried to speak, but no words came from her mouth, only muffled choking sounds. This wasn't right, this wasn't how it was supposed to be, and rage began to course through her body. The world was supposed to be simple- the Empress had enemies, and the Chosen killed them. That was all there could be to life, because otherwise, everything Shiyan had ever been was a lie. But if the world didn't make sense, then she would make it. Slowly, almost of its own will, her arm began to raise her sword.

    "So is that it, Shiyan?" Cheng asked, backing away slowly, eyes wide with terror. "I ask questions, so you're going to kill me? I used to look up to you, and resent you, and want to be you all at once –did you know that? We called each other 'sister'. Are you going to kill your sister?"

    The older Chosen's had trembled, and she regarded her younger companion’s terrified face for what felt like an eternity. Finally, with a disgusted growl she shoved her sword back into its sheath. Turning, Shiyan began to stalk up the corridor, a face burning in her mind- the face of the rebel girl she'd seem by the docks. Cheng was just a victim of the rebels’ madness; killing her would fix nothing. She needed to take her fight to the heart of the problem.

    "Shiyan?" Cheng called from behind her. "Where are you going?"

    "To do what you didn't have the courage to do," Shiyan hissed.

    ///

    Well, I’m back after an unintended leave of absence! This time I hope to get the entire round of final chapters (six after this, counting the epilogue) completed in one go.

    Jiazin and Shiyan are the main focuses of this chapter. Jiazin still fears who she is, the powers that she wields, and what QX wanted her to become, but she also has something to help her bear those burdens – friends. Kanoda most obviously, but also Tong and Chaiy, are willing to stand by her, and while their faith in her certainly isn’t enough to dispel all her fears, it helps give her the strength to keep going in the face of what’s coming.

    Shiyan, on the other hand, is confronted with her fellow Chosen’s loss of faith, and she can’t deal with it – her Chosen’s training is Shiyan’s entire identity, and it never equipped her to handle this situation. Would she have killed Cheng? Probably not – Shiyan does have feelings, as buried and stunted as they are, and she does truly consider her fellow Chosen to be her sisters. Unless Cheng had actually committed treason (in which case Shiyan’s duty would have been to kill her – the Chosen police their own) I don’t think she could have brought herself to go through with it. That said, violence is really the only outlet Shiyan knows for emotional turmoil, and now she’s looking for a target. Her mind has almost reached its breaking point, and cracks are showing –but that just makes her in some ways more dangerous.

    -MasterGhandalf
     
  22. Mira_Jade

    Mira_Jade The Fanfic Manager With The Cape star 5 Staff Member Manager

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    Oh, this was a most gripping update. I'm glad to see this story back and going! =D=[:D]
     
  23. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 54: The Board is Set

    Chaiy's eyes snapped open in the darkness, and the rebel leader realized immediately that something was wrong.

    By the time her meeting with Xia had been concluded, and the High General had been escorted back to his ships, it had already been growing dark, and she'd decided to retire, hoping that a night's sleep might lead to more ideas. Now, however, she had awakened very suddenly, and every instinct was screaming that something was amiss. The she heard it- a sound from just outside her room, as if someone had been slammed quickly and efficiently against the wall and didn't move again. It had to be one of her guards- not Tong, who slept in the next room over, but one of the other rebel earthbenders. Chaiy quickly slipped back down onto her bed, and left her eyes open just a crack facing the door- if someone wanted to attack her in her sleep, she'd give them a surprise.

    Soon, her door opened slowly and a slender, silhouetted figure crept inside, a drawn sword in one hand. Chaiy willed herself to lie very still as the figure approached, waiting until it raised the weapon and prepared to stab down with it, and then sprang into action, lashing out with a kick that sent the assailant sprawling. The earthbender scrambled out of bed and faced her attacker- she was a girl who looked a few years younger than Chaiy herself, but her features were unfamiliar. Then, with a jolt, she recognized her- she had seen those features before, though last time they'd been largely hidden behind golden facepaint.

    "You're the Chosen we fought when we raided the palace," Chaiy said. "You're Shiyan."

    "That's right," the Chosen spat. "And you're the rebel leader- Chaiy, isn’t it? But in a few minutes, it won't matter. I've got you now, alone and unarmed. This will be easy."

    "Easy?" Chaiy asked with a slight smirk. "I don't think so. And you're wrong about one thing- I'm not unarmed." Placing one foot in front of the other, she shoved forward with all her strength- and from behind, she could almost feel it as a block of stone wrenched itself out of the wall and hurtled straight for Shiyan.

    The Chosen's eyes widened with shock, and she barely managed to duck aside as the stone block impacted the opposite wall. The whole palace seemed to shake with the impact, but Shiyan quickly rolled and was back on her feet before it stopped. "You missed," she said.

    "Maybe," Chaiy replied, "but that wasn't really the point. See, I just made a lot of noise- somebody should be coming any minute now. "

    Shiyan bared her teeth in a snarl. "Then I'll finish you quickly." She darted forward, sword raised, but Chaiy met her with another kick to the side, using her superior strength to knock the other warrior back. Then she held both hands out flat over the floor and threw all of her will into manipulating the stone, making it shake- Chaiy didn't want to rip any more out of the walls or floor, and risk the room collapsing on her, but she could at least put Shiyan off balance.

    The Chosen stumbled, but managed to regain her footing with little apparent effort, charging back towards Chaiy and striking out with quick, repeated jabs with her blade. The earthbender did her best to dodge, but one strike caught her along the arm and drew a bright line of blood across it. "That hurt," Chaiy spat, wincing through the sharp pain.

    "I bet it did. And I'll do worse." Shiyan raised her sword to strike again, but before it coulb be brought home a sharp piece of rock shot from the open door and slammed into the blade with incredible force. It was struck from the Chosen's hands and smashed into the wall; there was a loud snapping sound with the impact, and the sword fell to the ground in two pieces. Shiyan spun towards the door, and Chaiy's gaze followed her; both saw Tong standing there, holding another rock in one hand, expression dark.

    "You broke my sword," Shiyan hissed venomously.

    "You tried to hurt my friend," Tong replied evenly. "Now, I think you should surrender quietly- even you can't beat us both with no weapon."

    "I have no intention of surrendering, quietly or otherwise!" Shiyan sprang forward into a flying kick without warning, catching Tong in the chest with both feet and sending the rebel warrior sprawling. Chaiy ran forward to help him up, but the Chosen was already running down the corridor and towards escape.

    ///

    Shiyan ran down the corridor at top speed, determined to escape from the rebels so she could plan her next strike. She'd been too impetuous, she realized, having let her anger at Chaiy's betrayal of her ideals cloud her judgment, and she'd not taken the precautions she should have. Now more rebels would be attracted by the commotion and join the fight, and she couldn't defeat all of them- certainly not without a weapon. Odds were she wouldn't even be able to inflict serious damage before going down. She needed to escape to the city, where she could lose her pursuers and acquire a new blade and a better plan.

    As Shiyan rounded a corner, she saw more rebels pouring out of the rooms behind her out of the corner of her eye, but she paid them no heed. She was lighter than the heavily-muscled earthbenders, and faster- she could escape, if she kept sight of her goal.

    Then one comparatively slender figure stepped out from an open door and directly into her path. Shiyan recognized his dark tan skin and brown hair- the Water Tribe spy!- her mind had time to say, and she prepared herself to shove him out of her way. Too late, she noticed the fist he was raising towards her face.

    "Hello, Shiyan," he said lightly. "Remember me?" She tried to slow herself down, but had built up too much momentum to stop easily. She slammed into his fist as it came forward to meet her, and then everything went dark.*

    ///

    Kanoda bent down and checked Shiyan's pulse, then stood up as Chaiy and Tong approached, along with several other rebels who'd been sleeping in nearby guestrooms or offices that had been converted into makeshift bedrooms. Chaiy looked down at the fallen Chosen, and then up at the Water Tribe boy approvingly. "Well done," she said. "You know how dangerous Shiyan is- it's impressive that you managed to take her down. Congratulations."

    Kanoda shook his head. "In a straight up fight, she'd take me apart. Lucky for me that she seemed distracted- I'm not sure what she was thinking about, but her mind wasn't in the fight. I don't think she realized what I was doing until it was too late, and then her own momentum did most of the work."

    "Luck's a powerful weapon on its own, I think," Tong pointed out. "Good job." He glanced down at Shiyan. "So, what are we going to do with her?"

    Chaiy knelt down beside her and considered. "We don't know why she was here," the rebel leader finally said. "Maybe she was just angry that we locked up her friend- or maybe the Empress had her sent here for some other reason." She stood and motioned to some of the other rebels. "Take her and lock her up in the dungeon- but away from the other one. I want to talk to her when she wakes up."

    Two rebels ran forward to grab the unconscious Shiyan, but even as they did so a guard came running up the corridor, eyes wide and breathing heavy. "Chaiy!" he said. "I was just down in the dungeons to take over the shift, and when I got there, I found that the other guards were dead, and," he gulped, "the Chosen was gone."

    Chaiy put a hand on her forehead and seemed to struggle to contain her emotions. Finally she turned and faced the guard. "And the other prisoners?" she asked. "Were they gone too?"

    "No," the guard shook his head. "Everyone else had been left in their cells. Only Cheng was gone."

    "It must have been Shiyan," Chaiy muttered. She turned to the other rebels. "All right then- search the palace, find the Chosen Cheng. We can't let her get away." As they moved to obey, she turned to Tong and Kanoda and growled under her breath. "This is ridiculous, we catch one and the other slips through our fingers."

    "I've met both Shiyan and Cheng," Kanoda pointed out, "and I'd say we lost a shark, but captured a sea serpent. In the long run, we got more than we lost," he added, seeing their confused expressions at the Water Tribe idiom.

    "This girl killed my father," Chaiy reminded him. "And I'm not going to let her just get away. We will find her."

    ///

    Qing Xi sat in his palanquin on the parade grounds near the Capital docks, looking out over the troops gathered there. These weren't the levies that formed the bulk of the Imperial military, but something else entirely- elites, many the sons and daughters of nobles, most of whom had an older sibling who would inherit, but were nonetheless given the highest quality weapons and the best training available, together with common-born warriors who had distinguished themselves through unusual skill- all recruited into the Dragon Empress's elite legions. Azula had announced that High General Xia was a traitor just yesterday, and quickly mustered this force, which was kept on standby near the Capital at all times in case it was needed. Now, she had declared, they would go to Long Du Shi and crush him once and for all- and she herself would lead the strike, something she hadn't done in decades.

    Xia was a traitor, at least to Azula's mad schemes- Qing Xi's agents had reported that to him, and he was pleased that the High General had acted on the information he provided as predicted. Still, Azula had acted before she had received any report one way or another, so far as the High Minister was aware- he knew that she had intended to go to war with Xia no matter his loyalties, or the situation at Long Du Shi. The Empress had laid the groundwork for the Fire Empire to die in terrible war- now she was ready to strike the first blow.

    Qing Xi glanced sideways at where Azula's palanquin stood- it was raised above his, and its curtains were so thick that her features could barely be made out. Within it, she seemed to be sitting perfectly still, perhaps contemplating her plans or simply meditating. The Mistress of the Chosen stood off to one side, as poised and predatory as ever. In front of them, the elite legion stood in even ranks, hardly any of them making even the slightest twitch. The whole scene had an eerie air of unreality about it.

    The strangest thing was, nothing seemed to be happening. The legion wasn't parading before their Empress, and they weren't preparing to march towards the docks- and even if they were, there were no ships there to take them to the former Earth Kingdom. They were just waiting, and Qing Xi found himself wondering if Azula hadn't gone completely mad, and wasn't off fighting battles that existed only in her mind.

    He felt eyes on him then, and turned towards the Empress's palanquin, where her masked face was turned in his direction. "You doubt, High Minister?" she asked, echoing voice carrying over the silent parade ground. "Doubt no more. See what comes!" She pointed to the sky.

    Qing Xi looked up, at first seeing nothing- but he heard something, a faint humming he couldn't place. Then shapes appeared in the sky, small but growing steadily larger, and the High Minister fell back in his seat, shock twisting his features. The flying shapes were immense, at least the size of warships and crafted in a similar shape, and yet they remained aloft through some technology he did not understand. But he knew what they were, though he'd never seen them used during his lifetime.

    "Airships," he breathed. "You brought back Great War-era airships out of storage!"

    "Yes," Azula said. "A terrible weapon, and one seldom used, for they were not perfected until after the Earth Kingdom had already fallen. But now I think it is time to remind the world who is its ruler. The rebels shall see the power of our airships, and they shall despair."

    The flying vessels came in over the parade grounds and then stopped, hovering above them and casting the whole area into shadow. Huge doors in their undersides opened and ramps descended, and at the command of its officers the legion turned and began to stream aboard them.

    "Mistress of the Chosen," Azula called, and the warrior addressed knelt before her. "You are in command here until I return. Keep the Capital safe for me."

    "I will, Great Mother," the Mistress replied, striking her heart with her fist. Azula nodded in response and then signaled her bearers, who lifted her palanquin and bore her towards and aboard the largest of the airships, which had an ornate golden prow its fellows lacked. Once the Empress had vanished within the vessel, its doors slammed shut, and then the entire fleet rose into the air and began a steady flight towards Long Du Shi.

    Both Qing Xi and the Mistress watched until the airships were gone, and then the Mistress turned with a curt nod and headed back towards the palace. When she too was gone, the High Minister signaled for one of his attendants.

    "Bring me a sheet of paper, and a brush," he ordered. "The situation has changed. I have new orders for my agent in Long Du Shi."

    "As you command, my lord," the attendant- who, like all his companions, was also a Hidden Flame agent- said, and then he hurried off to fulfill his master's bidding.

    ///

    Azula sat alone on the throne in the Royal Airship's observation deck, breathing the air in deeply through her mask. Soon, it would all be ended, but she would leave such a mark on this world as none had ever done before- in ten thousand years, the survivors and their descendants would never forget her name, and that, she supposed, was a form of immortality in and of itself.

    "Impressive," a dry voice said from beside her, and the Empress turned to see an old man- nearly as old as she herself- standing there, surveying his surroundings with interest. This ghost she recognized, though it had been more than a century since he'd last drawn breath- her grandfather, Azulon, for whom she'd been named. "But then, you always did have an eye for the dramatic."

    "Indeed," Azula agreed. "And the next few days will bring fireworks like this world has never seen." Beneath her mask, she smiled.

    ///

    Cheng’s “betrayal” put Shiyan off her game, and it shows this chapter – had she been a bit luckier, she might have been able to kill Chaiy, but there was no way she was going to get out of the palace after charging straight to the attack. That she got taken down by Kanoda – who she has held in contempt for the whole story – is merely the ironic icing on that cake. Don’t think she’s out for good, though. So long as she’s still alive, Shiyan’s not the type to ever give up.

    Azula getting the airships out of storage was an easy decision for me to make – of course she’d want to go for grand effect for what she fully intends to be her last battle. Why Azulon for the vision at the end? I wanted someone Azula would have some respect for (which meant a Fire Lord, more or less), all of her “hauntings” have been of people she knew personally (so no Sozin) and the Ozai Azula sees has never forgiven her for killing him, even if it was a mercy kill. That left Azulon.

    Yes, the chapter title is a LotR reference. The next one is too. I’m a shameless fanboy.

    -MasterGhandalf
     
  24. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 55: The Deep Breath

    Jiazin paced along the roof of the palace, looking out over the city as twilight fell. Though she had lived here most of her life, it no longer felt like home to her- too much had changed. Long Du Shi had rebelled, so far successfully, the palace was now the headquarters of the rebel government, and the city itself braced for onslaught from the Dragon Empress. Strangest of all, Jiazin herself was on the rebels' side. It was still hard to believe that sometimes.

    It was a day since the attempt of Chaiy's life- so far, Cheng had not been apprehended, and Shiyan, apparently taking the Chosen's rule about not speaking to one's captors, hadn't said a word since waking up; the one time Jiazin had visited the dungeon, she'd been sitting quietly in her cell, apparently meditating, and had made no acknowledgement of the fact that she had a visitor.

    She heard footsteps behind her and turned to see High General Xia approaching. He nodded but spoke no word at first; stepping forward he looked out over the city with her, apparently lost in thought. "You can feel it, can't you?" he asked quietly. "The calm before battle- the terrible stillness in the air, the sense of waiting. I have felt it before, many times. But my opponents were always rebels or bandit lords- I have never faced anything like the might that even now is coming for us, or a leader like Azula." He shook his head. "We may all die when she comes, but I for one will make an accounting for myself so that future generations will remember that we fought her madness, even when all seemed lost."

    Jiazin turned slowly to face him. "I'm surprised you're here," she said. "I was under the impression that Chaiy didn't want you inside the city?"

    Xia chuckled darkly. "She doesn't want my army, but she's willing to tolerate me if I have information." He turned to look back out over Long Du Shi, towards the distant coast. "I have scout ships out patrolling the sea, and they report that something is coming- they could not see, because the clouds are thick, but they heard strange sounds in the sky, moving quickly towards us." He looked at Jiazin. "I fear the Empress sends her airship armada against us, and at the rate they come, they'll be here some time tomorrow- two days from now at the latest."

    "Airships," Jiazin breathed, shaking her head. "I thought they were just rumors and stories- I never knew they were ever gotten to work."

    "They were," Xia told her. "Azula has kept them hidden, apparently feeling the need for a weapon more powerful than anyone else's, which she could spring on the world without warning. Now that time has come."

    Jiazin was silent for several moments before speaking again. "Why are you telling me this?" she asked. "You could have just told Chaiy, and she or Tong would have told me. Why are you really here?"

    "I wanted to talk to you personally," the High General admitted. "There is something that has been on my mind for some time now, that I feel I must discuss with you." He paused for a moment before continuing. "You know what Azula's intention is- to shatter the Fire Empire forever, leaving a legacy of chaos and war behind her. We both agree that this must not happen. Personally, I am not averse to allowing the nations of the old Earth Kingdom to govern themselves, but the Fire Nation itself must hold, or Azula will have won. What I mean to say is- when she is gone, someone must quickly step in and take the throne."

    It took Jiazin a moment to realize what he was saying, and then she simply gaped, surprise overpowering training and dignity. "You're joking," she said. "I may be a governor's daughter, but I'm a teenager - I've barely come of age! There have to be dozens of people better qualified- you yourself are one of them!"

    "No, there aren't," Xia said, voice suddenly hard. "It’s not about experience, it’s about legitimacy. Think- would Azula want someone who could challenge her? No! She had no heirs- the royal line dies with her. Her Chosen are fanatical and brilliant warriors, but they aren't trained to lead, or be independent of her at all. I don’t have any idea what will become of them with her gone. Qing Xi and his ministers are meticulous planners, but they don't have the force of personality needed to command a nation, even if he had any desire to take the throne. I do have the power to command, but I'm just an old soldier who knows just enough of politics to know I want as little to do with it as possible, and I will be tainted by my years of association with her. There is no one in this empire that I know of who is fit to lead it- you at least have a conscience. Perhaps more importantly, Qing Xi himself took you and began to groom you as Azula’s successor. You’re not her legal heir, but you’re the closest thing we have. If you proclaim yourself openly and with the support of my armies after- and if- Azula falls, everyone wouldn't rally around you, but enough would to at least slow and soften the collapse." He sighed and shook his head. "You are young, you have principles- you could represent something new. At the very least, you wouldn't be any worse than the madwoman we have now. At least think about what I said. Good night… my lady."

    The High General turned away and left the rooftop, leaving Jiazin alone. As the last light faded from the sky, she held out one hand, palm up, and a flickering blue flame formed within it. She regarded the small fire for what felt like hours, lost in thought.

    ///

    Once again, Kanoda found himself in the dreamscape of the Southern Air Temple, and the Avatar was waiting for him, leaning against one of the walls. "Hey," he said. "Sorry it’s been awhile- getting to you is a bit tricky, and I'm not the greatest at this Spirit World stuff yet. Anything important that I've missed? Anything else, I mean," he added in an undertone.

    Kanoda snorted. "You could say that," he said. "Turns out Azula's even crazier than we thought. Everybody thought she just wanted to live forever- but she apparently decided that if she can't have that, she's going to take the whole world down with her. And with the kind of power she's packing, she just might be able to pull it off."

    Aang's eyes went wide. "That's horrible!" he said. "I only met her once, when she was just a kid- and they were drugging me on something nasty, so I don't remember a whole lot. I remember that I thought she was creepy, but this is just evil."

    "Deranged is probably more like it," Kanoda pointed out. "I think evil people think they're doing good a lot of the time- even Shiyan probably sees herself as the hero of the story. What Azula’s doing – can it really make sense to anyone but herself?"

    "The monks always taught that life was about balance and harmony," Aang said, "But if this happens, that will be torn apart- maybe forever. I've waited long enough- you need my help. I'm going to try and cross back over, and if I'm really lucky, I'll manage it before Azula pulls off her scheme."

    "You can't," Kanoda protested. "Look, if Azula finds out you're still alive, she'll kill you- and from all I hear, she's tough enough now to give even an Avatar a challenge. And you're just a kid."

    "Hey!" Aang said, "You’re not that much older than me- in fact, depending on how you look at it, I'm a couple of hundred years old. And I'm the Avatar, and the world is in danger. I've been away for too long- this is something I need to do. Do you understand?"

    Kanoda paused, then nodded. "Yes," he said. "I understand. And if you're as powerful as the stories say, we could use the help. Good luck."

    "Thanks. I'll try to cross over near you, if I can- hope I don't come out in a volcano or something by mistake." Aang shuddered. "You probably need your sleep- see you soon, I hope!" Then the Avatar was gone; the dreamscape itself lasted a little longer, then it too dissolved and left Kanoda in his bed in the palace.

    "I hope you know what you're doing, kid," he muttered sleepily to himself. "For that matter, I hope we know."

    ///

    The Lady Nu Shi, wife of the former governor of Long Du Shi and mother of Jiazin, stepped onto the palace’s roof and saw her daughter sitting on the edge, a small flame cupped between her hands. A blue flame – Nu Shi’s breath caught as she saw it. It was true, then. She didn’t know what it meant that Jiazin possessed such a power; there was so much knowledge about firebending that Azula had hoarded for herself alone.

    She couldn’t think of any words to say, so she didn’t bother; she seated herself beside Jiazin and wrapped a comforting arm around the girl’s shoulders. Her daughter started and looked up at her, the blue flame vanishing; when she realized who it was, her eyes widened sharply, and without a word she buried her face in her mother’s shoulders.

    Nu Shi rested her chin on Jiazin’s head and stroked the back of her hair; they remained there long into the night.

    ///

    The servants finished pouring the tea and then withdrew, leaving Qing Xi seated alone before a magnificent feast- what might have been a banquet in another time and place, but here was merely intended for two diners. The High Minister sipped his tea and waited patiently for his dinner guest to arrive, and finally the door curtain was thrust aside and the Mistress of the Chosen stalked in. She stopped when she saw the meal and Qing Xi, eyeing both warily.

    "High Minister," she said stiffly. "I admit, this is a surprise."

    "Surprise?" Qing Xi asked. "We are two of the Dragon Empress's chief lieutenants- is it really so surprising we might chose to be polite to one another? Come, sit and eat- I'm not so gluttonous I could consume this by myself."

    The Mistress regarded Qing Xi’s slender frame with a critical eye and snorted softly before she seated herself and picked up her teacup, sipping slowly. "What is this really about?" she asked finally. "I know you- you do nothing without a purpose."

    "True," Qing Xi admitted. "Tonight, however, my purpose is simple- conversation. There are questions I would like answered, and I think you can provide said answers."

    "What questions?" the Mistress demanded. "Do you think I would spill my Empress's secrets to you, merely because you believe your rank is somehow equal to my own?"

    Qing Xi ignored the insult and smiled politely. "Of course not. The questions I want answered are far more mundane. For example, why would the Empress go into a war zone and leave her most deadly protector behind? I admit to some confusion there."

    "The Empress does not require my services in the field," the Mistress said. "She has Zhi and several other Chosen with her- around six all told, if I am not mistaken. I was to remain behind to oversee the homeland while she is away."

    "Of course," Qing Xi said. "But, I still do not understand why you needed to remain here. I am, as ever, the Empire's primary administrator- did the Empress not think I was up to the job of administering?"

    The Mistress's eyes narrowed. "You forget your place, little man. The Empress does not trust you completely, but she trusts me. Who are we to question her wisdom? Speaking of wisdom, I will admit that you have enough of your own to have figured this out already. What is your real purpose?"

    Qing Xi smiled and shrugged. "My real purpose? It is, of course, to keep you talking long enough that you do not notice the effects of the poison I had my servants put in your tea."

    The Mistress's eyes widened in terror and rage. "Traitor!" she hissed, leaping to her feet and drawing her sword. Even as she lunged, however, sweat began beading on her forehead, causing her facepaint to run, and as she raised her sword to strike, her body convulsed. She collapsed to the ground, twitching, sword still held in a death grip. Qing Xi waited patiently, not having moved at all, and then he stood and slowly walked towards her, knocking the sword from her hand with a kick.

    "Why?" she demanded in a hoarse voice.

    Qing Xi knelt beside her. "Because I know your true purpose- and Azula's," he said. "I know she intends to destroy this Empire to mark her passing, but I will not have something I have worked for my whole life fall so easily. You were, no doubt, left with instructions to kill me- so I took steps to protect myself. You Chosen are among the greatest warriors this world has ever seen, but you have weaknesses- Azula wouldn't want you too much like herself, after all. You have no real conception of subtlety- did it ever occur to you that your drink was poisoned? I didn't think so. Azula would have smelled it in a heartbeat, but you…" he let his voice trail off.

    The Mistress snarled wordlessly and lunged for him, but her body was too weak to do much more than flop pitifully- Qing Xi had deliberately chosen a fast-working toxin. She stared up at him hatefully, but gradually her eyes grew glassy and her struggles weaker, and then with a final ragged choke her breathing ceased altogether. The Mistress of the Chosen was dead.

    Qing Xi stood and rang for a servant. "It appears the Mistress ate something that did not agree with her," he said. "I did what I could, but I couldn't save her. Inform the palace staff and the funerary attendants. You may go." The servant bowed and departed, and Qing Xi looked back at the body. "Now I can work unimpeded- there is so much work to be done, but unfortunately, most of it is out of my hands." He turned his gaze towards the east. "Now it's in your hands, Xia, rebels. Don't disappoint me."

    ///

    Some pretty big developments hear. Jiazin being offered the throne wasn’t intended to be hugely surprising for the reader, but it certainly is for her. Is she a particularly good candidate for the throne? Not in normal circumstances, but as Xia says, right now she’s literally the only one they’ve got. The Fire Nation retains the strongest military powerbase on the planet – if someone doesn’t take charge after Azula goes down, it’ll explode with devastating consequences. QX is an able administrator, but he’s no king, and knows it. Xia’s a tired old soldier. Yuan would have been an abysmal ruler even if he hadn’t come down with a terminal case of dead. Nobody else has the authority to take over and seem legitimate. That doesn’t mean Jiazin has to like her situation.

    We have another new scene of Jiazin and her mother here. We’ll be getting a bit more new material in the next couple of chapters, as the climax kicks off for real.

    Yes, I killed the Mistress off by poison without a fight. Why? Well, for one, I don’t think any of my protagonists could have beaten her (at least not one-on-one). For another, QX has done a lot of scheming so far, but I wanted him to get in on the action. Was he a bit overconfident here? Well, he chose a poison he knew well enough that he could predict exactly when the Mistress would keel over, but I also think that, in openly betraying Azula, he was also feeling a little reckless – after all, if she gets wind of this while she’s still alive, he’s dead anyway. What else is he planning? He has one final gamble, which we’ll be seeing soon.

    It’s all coming to a head now. If I may be so bold as to paraphrase LotR, it is before the walls of Long Du Shi that the doom of our time shall be decided. Strap in.

    -MasterGhandalf

     
  25. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 56: The Battle of Long Du Shi

    Kanoda found Jiazin standing atop the palace, her face turned west towards the Fire Nation. He cleared his throat loudly and she turned to face him, and he saw that her face was haggard and her eyes were dark. He wondered if she’d slept all night.

    “Are you okay?” he asked her.

    “I don’t know,” she said. “I feel like I’m trapped on an out-of-control train racing towards a destiny I can’t escape – and that destiny has Azula’s face. I ran away from the Capital because I didn’t want to become her, not after I learned what she was, but now I feel like fate is pulling me back onto that course, no matter what I do. It’s like I was born to be the next Azula.”

    Kanoda put a hand on her shoulder. “Jiazin, you can’t let it get to you,” he said. “It’s like I said the other night – I don’t know Azula, but I know you. You made the right choice even when it was the hard one. I don’t think you’re going to become like her.”

    Jiazin was silent for several moments. “Xia wants to make me Fire Lord,” she finally said.

    “Oh,” Kanoda said. It sounded silly even to his own ears, but what else could he say? This was bigger than him – bigger than either of them. “Well,” he finally managed, “I guess there is something kind of poetic about it – that High Minister wanted you to be the next Azula, but instead you’ll be creating a new Fire Nation that’s the opposite of what she’d have wanted, right?”

    “It’s not funny, and it’s not something out of your stories!” Jiazin snapped, pulling away. “Azula didn’t create the evil in the Fire Empire – it goes back to Sozin at least, who was the first to try and conquer the world. Based on the histories I saw in Qing Xi’s office, Sozin started out wanting to bring peace and prosperity to the world – he was a good man in the beginning. He got carried away, his plans took on a life of their own, and that lead to his corruption and the rise of the Empire. There’s something dangerous about having that much power.” Jiazin held up her hands. “I have too much power already.”

    Kanoda took her hands. “Look, I understand,” he said quietly, “but I have faith in you. Without you, we couldn’t have saved the Moon and Ocean Spirits. I don’t believe you’ll become the thing you’re so afraid of.”

    Their eyes met for a moment, and then Kanoda felt a sudden heat rising in his cheeks – and from her expression, he imagined Jiazin did as well. They quickly broke eye contact and pulled apart, turning their attention away from each other and towards the west – and the coming enemy.

    ///

    High General Xia stood on the deck of his flagship, staring up into the cloud-covered sky with intent eyes. Today was the day- he could feel it in his bones. Today his scouts reported that the airship flotilla would arrive, and the battle would be joined to see if the world would endure, or whether it would fall before Azula's mad scheming. And so the world turns on a used-up old soldier, a largely untried girl, and an army of rebels who've never faced an enemy like this in direct battle, he thought grimly. Songs have been sung of less. In reality, it seems more likely that we will be crushed. But if we have any integrity at all, we have to take this stand!

    "High General, sir!" an officer shouted, running up to him and saluting. "Sir, the spotters have reported and- they're here."

    "So it begins," Xia muttered, looking in the direction the younger man was pointing. Sure enough, the clouds seemed to be parting- no, they were being knifed through by the sharp points of the airships as they descended towards the city. Each of the flying monstrosities was as large as an oceangoing warship, but far more maneuverable- they could quickly cross any terrain, and deliver troop complements or bombardments directly to the battlefield. At the head of the wedge was an airship even larger than the others, its prow set with gold. Xia knew in his heart that Azula was on that ship.

    "Spirits help us all," he muttered.

    "Orders, sir?" the officer asked him.

    Xia turned to face him slowly, determination etched on his face. He spoke one word. "Fire."

    The officer repeated the command at the top of his lungs, and across the flagship and then the rest of the fleet, soldiers scrambled to obey. The ammunition that had sat waiting in the catapults was set ablaze and then launched into the sky, filling it with a strange storm of burning pitch. But the Dragon Empress had been ready for such an assault; firebenders stationed aboard the airships deflected or extinguished many of the fireballs, and the few that struck did little real damage. Then the airships responded, their benders launching a torrent of flame towards the fleet. Now it was Xia's benders' turn to scramble to the defense, and most of the flame was sent harmlessly into the water. Some ships, however, either had fewer benders or less experienced ones, and on their decks the soldiers scrambled for cover to avoid being consumed.

    "We can't keep this up forever," Xia said, "but neither can Azula. We'll see who breaks first. Give her another volley!" Even as they prepared to fire again, however, the High General focused his attention back on the airships, and his eyes widened. A handful of them had stopped at were preparing to engage his fleet, but the rest- they were moving on, directly towards the city.

    "Of course!" Xia growled. "She doesn't need to worry about leaving us behind her, because she doesn't care about winning- she just wants to cause as much destruction as she can before going down, and that means targeting Long Du Shi!" He motioned the officer over. "Send the word to the other ships- leave enough strength behind to hold the rest of the airships here, and then start moving the rest to the coast to unload our troops. The battle's not going to be fought here after all- and that city's going to need all the help it can get!"

    "Yes, sir!" The officer saluted and hurried off to convey Xia's orders to the captain. He only hoped that it wasn't already too late.

    ///

    "I hate waiting here," Jiazin said, pacing back and forth along the palace roof behind a mixed line of Earth Kingdom rebels and Xia's soldiers who had come to stand on guard as soon as the airships had been sighted. "The battle is about to be joined- I feel like I need to do something!"

    "I think we'll all get our chance," Kanoda told her. "Remember, Azula will probably try to come here as soon as she can, since it's where the rebel leadership is- if we want to fight her head on, this is the place."

    "I know," Jiazin muttered. "It just feels wrong. What about the Avatar? Do you know if he's going to show up at all? I'm still not sure if those dreams of yours are real or not, but- we could use the help."

    "He said he'd try," Kanoda said. "But I don't think these things work on a timetable- it'd be a lot easier for us if they did. I hope he'll show up, though- we need an edge."

    Jiazin turned to look back over the city, and then her eyes widened as she saw what appeared to be distant flying shapes approaching- airships. Could they have defeated Xia already? No, there didn't seem to be enough of them there to be the complete fleet. Maybe some had been left behind to hold Xia in place while the rest moved on into Long Du Shi.

    She turned to one of Xia's officers, who had a spyglass. "Can you take a closer look at them and tell me what they're up to?" she asked.

    "Yes, my lady." The officer lifted the glass to his eye and studied the airships. "Looks like about five of them have spread out along the wall and stopped," he said. "They're dropping troops into the city- not unexpected. But we've pulled the civilians further in and both the rebels and our soldiers are stationed in the buildings there. Yes- I see fire. The fighting has started."

    "So they're all stalled out there?" Kanoda asked. "Well, at least that will slow them down a bit."

    "Wait," the officer said. "One of them is still moving- a big one, with a golden prow. It's coming straight here, not dropping soldiers or turning aside. It's targeting the palace, or I'm a raw cadet!"

    Kanoda and Jiazin shared a meaningful glance. "Azula," they said together.

    ///

    "Ah, Long Du Shi," Azula said, looking down from the window of her observation tower over the great city below her. "Once the jewel of the Earth Kingdom, rebuilt in my own image- soon to fall and become my pyre. Soon, all that has gone before will be swept away." She turned to look at Zhi, who as ever stood quietly at her side. "Are the barrels of blasting jelly prepared?"

    "Yes, Majesty," Zhi said. "The cargo bay is filled with them, all primed for detonation. We have enough to destroy any target you might wish."

    "Any target," the Dragon Empress mused, looking back in the direction of the outer wall, where battle had already begun. "Or two armies, and to start and inferno great enough to consume this city down to the bedrock. The age of the Empire shall end as it began- in fire. We have only to wait for the traitor Xia and the forces aboard his ships to join in before we unleash the destruction." She turned in the direction of the palace. "Oh, and one more piece of business, of course."

    "The rebel commanders and the traitor Yan Li," Zhi said. "You want my sisters and I to find them and eliminate them."

    "Yes," Azula said. "I must make certain that there is no one left to take command once this day is over. The captain has orders to fly the airship low over the palace- you will be dropped off there, and then- you know what to do."

    They stood in silence for several minutes as the airship approached the heart of the city. The Empress looked down at the palace, shaking her head at the guards lined up on the roof. "Pitiful, really," she said. "They think that they can actually hold me off- that their lives actually matter in the grand scope of reality. Fools. If even one such as I can die and be forgotten, what possible point can they serve?" Suddenly she paused, focusing on one figure in particular. "Well, if it isn't the prodigal child herself," Azula breathed. "Zhi, you have new orders- your sister Chosen will proceed into the palace and kill the rebel leaders, but you will capture Jiazin alive and bring her to me."

    "Jiazin?" Zhi asked. "She is here? How?"

    "She joined the rebels, and this is their great battle- it isn't that difficult to figure out," Azula snapped. "But I will have her- when you bring her, I will explain why. Am I clear?"

    "Yes, Majesty!" Zhi said. "Your will shall be done, as always."

    "Yes," Azula said quietly. "My will be done, one final time."

    ///

    Chaiy stood in the center of what had once been the Governor’s audience hall, bent over a map of the city that had been set with markers representing their forces and Xia’s. Tong stood at her side, and the room was ringed with rebel guards.

    “Cursed Imperials,” she was muttering angrily under her breath – as much for the sake of her nerves as for any practical gain, Tong thought. Even cooped up in the center of the palace, Chaiy was the sort of person who needed to be doing something. “Even with their help, who knows if we’ll have enough troops to hold Azula off – assuming they don’t go ahead and turn on us.” She shook her head. “We’re spread too thin.”

    One of the doors opened and an earthbender messenger came running in. “Chaiy!” he called, “Azula’s airships have bypassed Xia’s fleet. They’re dropping troops into the city! The outer rings are under attack!”

    Chaiy swore and rose to her full height. “We should have seen this coming!” she said. “Pull troops out of the inner rings and have them reinforce the areas that are being attacked. We can’t let them get through and target the city’s civilians!”

    “Yes, Chaiy!” The warrior responded, gave a quick salute, and hurried back out. When he was gone, Chaiy slumped dejectedly.

    “What am I even doing here?” she asked no one in particular. “I’m a guerilla, not a general. I’ve never had to run a battle this big before and I’ve always been on the front lines. It’s almost enough to make me wish they’d just come here and let me fight them!”

    Tong glanced out the window at her words, and then paled in shock at the sight of the massive airship that was even now swinging low over the palace, as if Chaiy’s words had summoned it. “I think you may get that wish,” he said. “I hope we’re ready for it.”

    ///

    "Okay, not good," Kanoda said to himself as the massive airship seemed to swoop down over the palace. It seemed even larger than the ordinary battleships of Yuan and Xia's fleets, almost a fortress of the sky, though at least in part this was probably because of how close it was. Kanoda himself, Jiazin, and the turncoat Imperial soldiers knelt down low as the earthbenders launched volleys of stone towards the flying behemoth, but they accomplished nothing more than to slightly dent the surface of its armor. Whoever had created the airship, they had done a good job of protecting it.

    "Why aren't her firebenders attacking?" Kanoda asked. "She's probably got enough on board that she could wipe us out with no trouble. Why wait?"

    "Because she wants something else," Jiazin said, staring up at the airship. "Whatever she's after here, it's not just destruction."

    Even as she finished speaking, a great groaning sound came from above. On the airship's prow, directly above the palace, a pair of double doors swung open. Several long cables descended from it, and riding them down were six figures in glossy black armor, their painted faces gold and inhuman. Chosen.

    "Great," Kanoda muttered. "Six grown-up Shiyans. One was bad enough!"

    The Chosen landed on the wall and then quickly drew their swords and fell on the rebel warriors. Fighting together, they were like a swift whirlwind of bladed death, cutting through resistance like a plague of rabbit-locusts through cropland. Bursts of rock or flame slowed them, but didn't stop them; in less than a minute, most of the guards were down.

    Jiazin ran forward to face the lead Chosen, blade in hand. An expression of cold fury clenched her face, and just before she struck her blade burst into those strange, eerie blue flames. The Chosen's eyes widened in surprise, but then she smiled and waved her sisters away before sheathing her own blade. Jiazin struck at her, her blows directed and powerful, but her opponent lightly dodged each one, cruel laughter in her eyes. Back and forth the two women darted, flames and armor glinting in the light of the sun as they struck at each other, neither able to land a meaningful blow.

    "Leave her alone!" Kanoda shouted, drawing his knife and charging forward, knowing that he would probably accomplish nothing but unable to stand still and wait any longer. A Chosen who had just dispatched and earthbender rebel turned to regard him with an expression of bored disdain, but made no move to defend herself. Before Kanoda even reached her, she launched herself at him with both feet forward and struck him in the chest, knocking him back. He collapsed to the ground, head throbbing and sight blurry. His opponent stood over him and smiled coldly before turning to finish off the other rebels. Apparently, Kanoda thought groggily, he wasn’t even worth killing.

    As the Chosen stepped away, his eyes focused once again on Jiazin’s battle with their leader. The Chosen had forced her to the edge of the roof, and no lunched forward with one hand raised to seize her arm. Jiazin stumbled back one step – one step to far – and then, with a cry of surprise, she toppled backward off the roof.

    ///

    Jiazin was falling. She could see the palace courtyard, so far below, rushing up to meet her, and she knew that she was dead. Her sword fell from her loosened grip and spun towards the ground on its own, glinting in the light. Maybe, some treacherous part of her thought, it was better this way. Maybe it was better to end now that to accept whatever dark fate might await her…

    But no. Something awoke in her that refused to accept defeat. Alive, she might fall into evil, but might also find it in her to do good – life was possibility and hope, death was the end. Kanoda’s words came back to her – I have faith in you. Did she have faith in herself? She must.

    Something burned in Jiazin’s heart – a passion that lay at the heart of firebending, an unquenchable will that refused to die. The fire within was answered. She stretched out her hands, and the blue flames came to her.

    ///

    Kanoda cried out as he saw Jiazin fall, and he tried to pull himself to his feet to run to the edge of the roof, though the only thing he managed to accomplish was flopping around rather pathetically. The lead Chosen stood on the edge looking down, the expression on her face unreadable but somehow disappointed.

    Suddenly there was a strange roaring sound that came from over the edge. What it could be, Kanoda had no idea, but the Chosen stepped backwards in sudden alarm. A figure rose over the edge of the roof, a slender young woman who stood perched atop jets of blue fire that shot from her hands and feet. Jiazin was flying. If Kanoda wasn’t seeing it, he doubted he could have believed it. He wasn’t entirely sure he believed it now.

    “Leave now, Chosen,” Jiazin declared, voice cold. “Depart this city, or be destroyed.”

    The Chosen leader smiled thinly. “You have become bold since the Capital, young one,” she said, “and I see you’ve managed to teach yourself to fly. But the Empress knows this technique as well, and she has prepared us against it.”

    She raised her hand and the other Chosen stepped forward to stand beside her. As one they pulled long, thin cables from their belts, spun them in the air, and let fly. Jiazin’s eyes widened with shock, and she tried to dodge, but her control over the fiery jets was not precise enough. Two cables wrapped around her arms, another around a leg. The Chosen gave a great heave, and the young firebender crashed to the roof. She tried feebly to raise her head, but the leader kicked her sharply and she fell still.

    Darkness and pain were swimming in on Kanoda as well. The last thing he saw was the leader throwing Jiazin over her shoulder and then climbing back up the cable into the airship, while the others turned to proceed into the palace. Then Kanoda's eyes closed and he sank into shadow.

    ///

    The sound of a key rattling in the lock pulled Shiyan from sleep, and she leaped up to face the cell door. A man stood there, dressed in the uniform of a high Fire Empire army officer, and after the lock clicked he swung the door open. "Hurry!" he said. "You don't have much time."

    "Time for what?" Shiyan demanded, crossing her arms but not moving. "Judging from your uniform, you came here with the traitor Xia. Why would you help a loyal servant of the Empress?"

    "Because I, too, am a loyal servant," the man replied. "I am Commander Zhang, Xia's aide, but I am also an agent of the Hidden Flame. The High Minister sends his regards, by the way. I sought to free you earlier, but was unable to get here alone; now, however, the battle has begun, and Xia ordered me to remain here as his liaison with the rebels. I dismissed the guards to join in the fighting and… well, you can figure out the rest."

    "Hidden Flame," Shiyan repeated. That was reassuring- the Chosen did not have respect for the spies' skulking ways, but their loyalty was nearly equal to the Chosen's own. Such an agent betraying the Fire Empire was inconceivable- Shiyan held to that fact as immutable among the betrayal and disappointments of the past few days. "Wait- you mentioned a battle. Who is fighting?"

    "The Empress has come in person to crush the rebellion, Chosen," Zhang told her. "But I have to warn you- there is a plot. Xia seeks to seize control of the Empire himself, and he is using the girl Jiazin as his puppet. He intends- I can scarcely believe it- to sneak assassins aboard the Empress's airship, and when she is dead, to replace her with Jiazin."

    "Replace?" Shiyan demanded. "Speak sense!"

    "He will have her assume the Empress's identity- behind the mask, no one will know! Then Xia will rule the Empire from behind the throne." Zhang shook his head. "Chosen, you must stop this madness!"

    "The traitors must pay!" Shiyan said hissed, barely able to believe the… sacrilege she was hearing. This was a chance to redeem herself for her failure, to fight alongside the Empress herself! She could not ignore it. She stepped out of the cell and turned to Zhang. "Do you have a sword for me?"

    "Here, Chosen," he said, drawing his own weapon and handing it to her. "Now, listen- there is a small stock of war balloons in the palace, in the north wing, for emergencies. If you take one of them up, you can reach the airships."

    "Very well," Shiyan said, starting up the corridor. "The Empire will not forget your service, commander. The Empress will be preserved- and Jiazin and Xia will be made to pay for their crimes."

    ///

    As Shiyan left the dungeons, Zhang allowed a small smile to creep over his face. He did indeed lead a double life as Hidden Flame agent and Imperial soldier, but besides the location of the war balloons, that was the only truth he had spoken. The Chosen was correct in assuming that the Hidden Flame's loyalty was unshakable, but that loyalty was and always had been to the Empire itself, not its leader- and the order's head, the High Minister, had been the one to discover Azula's madness and treachery.

    His orders to Zhang, delivered by hawk just the night before, had been clear- do not take part in the battle, but find a way to throw unpredictable elements into Azula's schemes so that she would stumble, and in stumbling, might fall. A poor, deluded Chosen looking to destroy a conspiracy where there was none seemed just the tool.

    That was what Zhang loved about fanatics- they were so easy to manipulate, if you knew the right thing to say.

    ///

    Kanoda awoke slowly to the sensation of someone shaking him. Blinking and sitting up, he stared into a now-familiar youthful face, bald head, and blue arrow tattoo. "Aang… Avatar," he said thickly. "So, I guess I'm dreaming again."

    "No, you're not," Aang said, helping him pull himself into a seating position. They were on the walkway on the palace roof, the same place where the Chosen had knocked Kanoda out. "I managed to pull myself out of the Spirit World near you, like I said, but it looks like I missed something important. What's going on?"

    Kanoda stood shakily and glanced around him- he saw the bodies of the rebel soldiers, a few of whom were groaning and twitching feebly, most of whom seemed completely sill. "Azula's Chosen," he said. "Remember, I told you about them? A whole gang of them did this- most of them went on into the palace, but one of them- she took Jiazin!" At that thought, Kanoda spun to face the sky, and saw the great airship- but it was out over the center of the city now, too far to reach.

    "You know what's going on here a lot better than I do," Aang said. "What are we going to do?"

    Kanoda stopped to think. "The five Chosen who went into the palace- they're probably after Chaiy and Tong; that's the rebel leader and a friend of mine, who's kind of her self-appointed bodyguard. The other one took Jiazin- I don't know why Azula wants her, but it can't be good. We can't just sit here, but I don't know what to do- I can take a Chosen if I've got surprise on my side, but in a straight fight, I'd be history against one, much less five. As for the airship- we don't even have a way up there."

    "If we want to save the world, we have to stop Azula," Aang said, looking up at the sky. "I don't know if airbending would be any good against a Chosen, but," he grinned and picked up his staff from where it had been lying on the ground beside him, "if you want to get up onto an airship, I think I might be able to help you."

    ///

    Jiazin found herself lying on cold metal as she came too. Slowly she sat up and rubbed her head and sides, which still ached from where the lead Chosen had hit her. Looking off to her side, she saw that she wasn't in a prison cell, as she might have expected. Rather, she was in what looked like an airship's observation tower- the wall was almost completely taken up by windows, and looking down, she could see Long Du Shi spread out beneath her, the cityscape's peace broken by flashes of fire and shaking earth. The battle still raged below.

    A rustle of cloth came to Jiazin's ear, and she turned to see that the other side of the tower room was dominated by a raised throne, and on it sat a figure she had seen up close only once before- rich red robes trimmed with black and gold, gloved hands that gripped the armrests, and a fearsome golden mask made in the likeness of a dragon.

    "Azula," Jiazin breathed.

    "Once more we meet, child," the Empress said, voice echoing behind the mask. "From here, you will witness with me the end of an age."

    ///

    And so it begins. There’s a fair bit of new material here – Jiazin and Kanoda’s conversation at the beginning, Chaiy and Tong in the war room, and Jiazin taking flight are all original to this version. The first was because I wanted to develop their relationship a bit more. The second was to give our Earth Kingdom characters to have a bit more to do. The third was mostly me wanting to give Jiazin something a bit more impressive to do than just get stomped by Zhi, little though it ultimately availed her.

    Some long-foreshadowed plot points come to fruition in this chapter. Zhang, who’s been hanging around quietly in Xia’s scenes for a while, has been revealed as QX’s contact in the army, and he has sent Shiyan into the fray as an unwitting agent of chaos. Aang has returned to the material world, but at this point, can even the Avatar make a difference against the Dragon Empress?

    Yes, Jiazin got captured by the bad guys, but rest assured that “damsel in distress” was not what I was going for. “Luke and the Emperor” might be a bit closer to the mark…

    But that’s next time, when everything comes to a head. In the skies of Long Du Shi, doom shall fall…

    -MasterGhandalf