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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 57: Fall of a Dragon

    Jiazin rose shakily and backed up, instinctively trying to escape even though she knew that there was only one way out of this room, and to get to it she'd have to get past Azula. She struggled to master herself, but it was hard- the instinctive awe and fear of the Dragon Empress that had been instilled in her was too strong. To speak of fighting Azula when she was far away was one thing; to follow through on that when she was here before her, and Jiazin still remembered her power and madness from their last encounter, seemed almost impossible. Yue had possessed a kind of quiet power that had been beyond human, stemming from her connection to the Moon Spirit, but Azula had power of another kind, hot and strong, stemming only from her matchless will.

    "You fear me, child," the Empress said. Her tone wasn't malicious, or happy, or concerned; she was merely stating a fact. "You know that I could lay you low with only a gesture and a thought."

    "Yes," Jiazin said softly.

    Azula tilted her head, regarding her prisoner curiously. "And yet you do not bow. Come, child; accept the inevitable. Bow before your Empress. It is only polite, after all."

    Jiazin raised her eyes to meet the empty pits of Azula's mask. For a moment all was quiet and she could almost feel that awesome will straining against her. Then she hissed a single word. "No."

    "No?" Azula's tone was disbelieving for a brief moment, but then she laughed, and her laughter was cruel and knife-edged; in it was the harsh confidence of nearly five decades of ruling and the focused, destructive power of the blue fire. "Of course not- you're a rebel and a traitor now, aren't you? Fascinating. You are a noble of the Empire, raised from birth to serve and revere it, and you have stood in my presence before and felt my power. Why do you stand against me, child? Can't you see that it is hopeless?"

    "Because what you do is wrong," Jiazin told her, voice rising in power and confidence. "I was loyal to the Fire Empire because of what it represented- peace, prosperity, order. But where are those things in villages destroyed, an entire people enslaved, spirits held captive? I didn't betray your Empire- it betrayed the principles it was supposed to be founded on. Any now you want to destroy it all for the sake of your own ego. I can't stand by and let that happen."

    "Principles?" Azula asked. "Foolish girl. Principles, morals- these are lies that people use so that they can put a pretty face on their selfishness, their greed and cruelty and ambition. I have looked into many hearts, and I have never seen anything that might be called "human decency". Everyone is a traitor waiting for the right moment to strike. The world is a wretched pit of savages clawing over each other to reach the pinnacle of power- and even that is meaningless, for death will claim us all in the end." Her voice grew thoughtful. "In fact, today I'm doing the people of this city the greatest favor they can ever know. Their deaths will be the beginnings of an event that will echo across the centuries. I will give their small lives some measure of meaning."

    "You are mad," Jiazin said, backing up slowly again. "But if you believe that everyone's a traitor, why are you surprised that I turned on you?" Sudden realization hit her. "But you weren't, were you? It wasn't an accident I found those documents back in the Capital. You planned this!"

    "Clever," Azula said, folding her gloved hands in front of her. "You're right, of course. I let you find out the truth, and I let you run, to distract the world from my true purpose. I wasn't sure if you'd join the rebels, of course, but I'm honestly glad you did. The heiress of one of my most powerful noblemen, fighting alongside my enemies? The very idea breeds chaos- and right now, I have a need for chaos. I even have to thank you for your part in freeing the Moon and Ocean spirits, because that has shattered the stagnation that clung to the world during my captivity, paving the way for chaos to reing once again. So you see, even though you turned your back on me, you remain my servant. You always have been. Even now, you serve me- for after this airship crashes into the battle below, and the blasting jelly in the hold wipes out both armies, my Chosen who survive will spread the tale of how the treacherous, ambitious Jiazin slew the Dragon Empress aboard her own flagship and then plunged it from the skies and into ruin. And so the world will remember me as a martyr, and curse you and your rebel allies as butchers."

    Jiazin slumped weakly to the floor as Azula's voice continued to wash over her. "Do you think you can make this world a better place by killing me? Even if you prevent my plans from succeeding, another will take my place who will be just as horrifying to your limited understanding. For when you wield power, you learn to see this world as it truly is, and you learn what you must do to tame it. Do you think High General Xia could hold my throne and not be changed by it? Or your rebel friends? Or yourself?" Azula laughed bitterly. "Of course not. Power strips away all the lies and masks we hide behind, and reveals the truth- that all desire power, and having obtained it, will stop at nothing to keep it. In the end, you will come to understand that even that is transitory, for death comes to claim us all, rendering all of our struggles meaningless. What makes you think that a world without me would be any better for you than one in which I still live?"

    "Because," Jiazin said softly but intently, "it has to be." Leaping to her feet, she raised both hands and focused with all her will on the Empress, drawing on reserves of strength she barely knew she possessed. The blue fire answered her call, and shot from her palms and towards Azula like a lance forged of the vengeance of the spirits.

    ///

    "Are you sure this thing is safe?" Kanoda asked, clinging to the back of Aang's glider as though hanging on for dear life- which, he reflected, he probably was.

    "It should be!" Aang said back. "It wasn't really designed for two people, and it's not supposed to be this wobbly, but since we're not going that far, it should be all right."

    "Great," Kanoda answered, feeling rather queasy and doing his best not to look down. "Thanks for the reassurance."

    The glider swung across the sky towards the great airship, bobbing dangerously in the air as it went. Fortunately, no attempt was made to attack them or knock them from the sky; apparently if the airship's crew had even noticed something so small, they had dismissed it as a threat. Kanoda allowed himself a grim smile at that thought- the powerful always discounted the little things, until it was too late.

    They swung up along the side of the airship and skimmed along its surface until they came to a hatch. There Aang landed and Kanoda grabbed hold of one of the spikes projecting from the vessel's side to steady himself while the Avatar folded his glider back into a staff and bent to study the hatch. He waited calmly for a moment, then swung the staff back and brought it forward with great force. It missed the hatch by some distance- but then, Kanoda saw, he hadn't really been aiming for it at all. Rather, he had swept up a massive blast of air which struck the wheel that opened the metal door. The force of it spun the wheel with a strength neither Aang nor Kanoda could have matched with their bodies, and the hatch swung open.

    "After you," Aang said cheerfully, gesturing with his staff and looking far more at ease than anyone who was hanging on the side of an airship several hundred feet above the ground had any right to be.

    Slowly Kanoda made his way along the hull and slipped through the hatch, breathing a sigh of relief as he landed on the solid metal floor. Aang followed, shutting the hatch behind him, and together they looked at the corridor around them. It was much like the oceangoing Imperial ships Kanoda had seen- cold, mechanical, and implacable. He suppressed a shiver.

    "So," Aang said, "any idea where they'd take your friend?"

    "No idea," Kanoda replied. "But there's only one way to find out." He drew his knife and began to slowly advance down the corridor, Aang behind him with staff at the ready. They walked for what felt like several minutes without meeting another person, but they passed several intersections where corridors led deeper into the airship. Occasionally Kanoda took one, going on nothing but a gut instinct. It wasn't much to base his navigation of the ship on, but unfortunately, it was all he had to work with.

    Suddenly the sound of marching feet echoed down the corridor. Kanoda tensed and turned the other way, grabbing hold of Aang's arm, but before they got more than a few steps the marching was joined by more, coming from the opposite direction. "Burin it," he muttered, a Fire Empire curse he decided fit the situation. "We're surrounded."

    Soon the patrols became visible- five men each from each side, including two firebenders in each group. They stopped as they regarded the intruders and drew their weapons. Aang looked up at them and smiled. "Hi," he said. "You wouldn't happen to know where they keep the prisoners around here, would you?"

    "Spies," the commander of one group muttered. "Older one looks Water Tribe- no clue where the kid's from. Hands in the air, both of you. Chosen Zhi will sort you out."

    "Kanoda," Aang whispered, "I bet I could blow some of them down, and we could get away."

    "Wait," Kanoda said, thinking furiously as he raised his hands. "I've got a plan. Do what I do, okay?" Aang didn't look convinced, but he dropped his staff and raised his hands as well. Then the guards came to grabbed hold of them, one on each side, and began to march them both down the corridors.

    If Kanoda had read the situation right, they were taking them right where they wanted to go.

    ///

    Chaiy moved her forces along the war room’s map to match the latest report and looked up grimly and the sound of footsteps. Yan Li entered his former council chamber, his firebender wife at his side; Tong watched the rebel leader and the former governor eye one another warily.

    “I grow tired of waiting on your people to report to me what is going on in my city,” Yan Li said. “What’s the situation.”

    Chaiy scowled. “We’re holding, for now,” she said. “Azula has dropped forces into the city, but we’ve got them mostly contained. Unfortunately, the airships are still circling, and we can’t figure out how to get to them.”

    Yan Li’s eyes narrowed. “Azula’s toying with us,” he muttered. “With the strength she has at her disposal, she could simply rain fire down on us from the airships without wasting any of her ground troops. She’s toying with us… or she’s planning something. Either way, I’m worried.”

    "I think you’re probably right,” Chaiy replied. "And I don’t like it one bit. I’m sick of being stuck in here, for that matter. I'm a warrior, spirits take it, not some princess to be coddled. I can't just sit on my hands and let my soldiers get killed out there!"

    “You’re not just some bandit anymore, young woman,” the governor replied. “You’re the leader of this city’s defenders. You’re far more valuable coordinating the battle from here than you would be getting killed in the fighting.”

    "Yes, because I should be taking military advice from a bureaucrat who’s never seen live combat in his life," Chaiy grated, stepping towards him.

    "Chaiy," Tong said quietly, "he has a point. What good would you accomplish dying? We need a leader, and you're her- but you need to live through today."

    "I guess you're right," Chaiy admitted. She made as if to sit down in one of the chairs, but then stopped, whole body going tense and senses alert. "Wait, what was that? I heard something!"

    "So did I," Tong said, standing. More than that, he felt it in the stone, now that he was paying attention- someone was coming at a great speed.

    The doors of the council room burst open; the first through was one of the rebel guards, whose lifeless body slumped to the floor. Behind him stood five figures; the sunlight that shone through the windows glinted off their glossy black armor and shimmering golden facepaint, they held sharp, slender swords in their hands, and their eyes glinted with malice. Tong's breath caught in his throat. Chosen- five of the Empress's elite, fully grown and trained. He'd barely sufficed against Shiyan, except when she'd been outnumbered and distracted. This was far worse.

    "Rebels and traitors," the lead Chosen declared. "The justice of the Empress comes to you. Repent now, and we will kill you mercifully."

    "I don't think so," Chaiy replied in clear, harsh tones. Stomping the stone floor with one foot, she drew a good-sized chuck of rock from it and sent it flying with a kick towards the Chosen. The elite warriors darted aside, but they were met by the guards who had waited for them to separate. The guards had them outnumbered at least three to one without even counting Chaiy or Tong- the odds were against them.

    But the Chosen were not ordinary warriors- they were extensions of Azula's will, trained from birth to bring death to those who offended the Dragon Empress. As they moved, they seemed less like human beings than terrible, majestic spirits of war, and they tore through the guards as though they were raw recruits. One by one the soldiers fell, and the worst that one of the Chosen suffered was a slash along one cheek.

    For the first time, fear flitted across Chaiy's face, and Tong stepped protectively close to her. It seemed pitiful- what could either of them do against that- but the gesture seemed important somehow. He took hold of her hand and gave it a slight squeeze as the Chosen began to advance like a pack of predatory beasts. Yan Li backed away slowly behind the rebels, Nu Shi hovering protectively by his side.

    "Pathetic," the lead Chosen said. "You honestly thought that they could best us? Fool! We are the Chosen- the elite of the elite. You have no hope against us."

    "We have the hope we make for ourselves," Chaiy replied. "And I swear that I'll take at least one of you kissers of Azula's boots with me before I go!"

    The lead Chosen's face twisted into an ugly snarl, and she raised her sword to signal her sisters to attack. Even as they charged forward, though, Tong pulled both hands into the air, and from the floor arose a curving wall of rock to block their passage.

    The barrier did not deter them. Two Chosen came shooting over it; one struck Tong in the side with her feet and knocked him back against the floor, while the other grabbed hold of Chaiy and grappled with her. Tong struggled to rise and help her, but the Chosen who had him, grabbed him by his hair and slammed his face into the marble.

    "Give up," she hissed into his ear. "You people are vermin, the descendants of dirt. What can you possibly do against me?"

    What can you do… the words echoed in Tong's hazy mind as it flashed back to his early life with the family he barely remembered, and his years of torment as a slave, and how he escaped and found a home with Shu and Chaiy Bei Fong- and he remembered also the story, though it had been so long since he'd heard if, of that mighty ancestor of the Bei Fongs, a woman called the Blind Bandit who had almost defeated the Empress herself, because she could do what Tong could… sense the Earth.

    The Chosen called his people descendants of dirt, but she was wrong- Earth wasn't dirt, it was stone, the foundation and strength of the world, the firm bedrock on which the other elements rested. It was firm, unyielding, and it had a kind of slow, steady power that the Empress and her kind would never understand. But Tong knew it- and he knew now how to make that power his.

    Raising up both hands, he slammed them down onto the stone floor and felt the vibrations echo through both the palace and his own body- and then it was as if a dam had broken in his mind, allowing information to rush in. He could feel the building, vast and powerful, and the stone that lay beneath it- and he could feel the Chosen as well, the subtle vibrations of their breathing and heartbeat. They weren't spirits at all- they were flesh and blood, like he was, and what was flesh and blood could be defeated.

    This was the power Toph Bei Fong had possessed- unlocked in her so she could live without the benefit of sight, and unlocked in him by the depth of his need.

    Tong's fingers dug into the stone, drawing strength from it, and then he kicked the Chosen off him as he stood, feeling the power flow through him. She landed on her feet and in a crouch, confidence now shaken by wariness. She hadn't expected this, but she was Chosen, and she would fight to win anyway. Tong raised a hand and beckoned her.

    She snarled and charged with blade raised, but Tong had sensed in the earth how she could move before she even began. It doesn't matter how good you are, or how good your weapons are, he thought. If I know what you're going to do, I can beat you. And so even as she charged he dodged, so that when she reached the place where he had stood her sword cut only empty air. Tong was already in motion; before she could react he raised a pillar of earth beneath her that launched her into the air. She struck the ceiling with tremendous force and then fell back to the ground, breathing, but unmoving.

    "You hurt my friends," Tong said quietly to the others, who stared at him as if he was some unimaginable monster. "You enslaved and tortured my people, and your Empress is a madwoman who would see us all burn. But I didn't survive years as a slave for it to end here."

    Two of the remaining Chosen turned without speaking and advanced on him, blades raised and eyes deadly. Behind them, Chaiy threw off her opponent as she turned in amazement to witness Tong's defeat of her sister, now the rebel leader had the Chosen down, hands wrapped tightly around the other woman's throat. The final Chosen was locked in a battle with Nu Shi, seemingly oblivious to the events around her as the light of fireblasts and slender sword darted between them.

    Tong's opponents attacked, but with the knowledge of his earthbending he was able to easily dodge and then strike back, hitting them with rocks where they were weakest, causing them to stumble and fall. Under one Chosen he opened a crack that swallowed her to her waist before slamming shut again; she struggled madly but couldn't escape. He could sense Nu Shi’s opponent forcing her back, preparing to run her through, and so he pummeled her with a hail of small rocks that she struck from the air while cursing him- leaving her open to a strike from the firebending master that blasted her to the ground and left her armor smoldering. The Chosen were good, there was no question of that, but they weren't used to facing someone who could match them, and they were at once angered and afraid. Tong had found a chink in their armor, and they couldn't accept it.

    Finally only the leader was left. Her sword shook in her hand as she regarded him- she Tong defeat three of her sisters, and for what was likely the first time since she had completed her training, she was faced with her own fallibility. "What are you?" she asked between clenched teeth. "What sort of demon could do this?"

    Demon… Tong glanced at the Chosen he'd defeated; the one in the crevasse was still struggling, but the other two lay still, their breathing and heartbeats irregular. Maybe they were dying- Tong was too inexperienced with his new senses to tell. He shuddered slightly as the realization of that stole over him- he hated killing, even of those who served the Fire Empire, and now he realized he knew why. That was how they lived and ruled- for his people, he wanted something better.

    Across the room, Chaiy had apparently choked her opponent into unconsciousness and looked up to watch him, eyes expectant. Tong looked from her, to Yan Li and Nu Shi who regarded him with unreadable expressions, and back to the Chosen, and then he spoke.

    "I'm just a warrior who doesn't want any more killing," he said quietly. "I've been a slave, and you're one too, even though you don't know it. I guess I'm a patriot, and I know you are. I don't want to fight you, but I will if you make me." His tone was calm, confident- he didn't boast, but he left no doubt of who he believed the winner would be.

    The Chosen regarded him for another heartbeat, and then she charged with her sword raised. Tong waited until she was almost close enough to touch and then stomped the earth, creating a shockwave that threw her backwards; raising his hands, he pulled twin pillars of stone out of the floor that seized her wrists and left her hanging, immobilized. She regarded him hatefully for a long moment, and then dropped her sword and hung limp in her restraints.

    "You have humbled my order, and broken its pride," she said in a quiet, pained voice. "We are great, but… you, an earthbender and escaped slave, are also great. I will not let you humiliate us in battle further. I… surrender." She looked up at him with eyes that hated, but that were also defeated.

    Chaiy walked over to stand beside him, looking down at the fallen Chosen. "Tong," she said, "that was… incredible. How did you learn to do that?"

    "I listened to the earth," he told her. "It has things to tell you, if you stop to let it."

    "What impresses me was how you defeated the Chosen," Nu Shi said, stepping forward at her husband’s side. Tong realized that he’d rarely heard her speak, but he could hear Jiazin in her voice. "I don’t believe I’d ever heard of one surrendering – certainly not to an earthbender."

    "I had a power they didn't understand," Tong told thoughtfully. "They didn't know how to fight it- and I don’t think they could accept that. It drove them into a rage, and they got sloppy, and I was able to take them down. Maybe it was their training that did them in - if they were more willing to accept that other ideas had value, they wouldn’t have had such a problem."

    "I need to find some more soldiers to put these under guard," Chaiy said, moving towards the door. "Something tells me this isn't over."

    "No," Tong said, looking up towards the sky. "I think the real battle's only just begun."

    ///

    Shiyan had found the war balloons where Zhang had told her they would be, and now she flew it- war balloons had been, of course, a part of her training- through the sky towards the Empress's mighty airship. Her lips peeled back from her teeth in a snarl as she considered what was to come. The traitor Jiazin might already be there, plotting spirits-only-knew what evil, and only Shiyan knew of it- only Shiyan could stop it. She was the Fire Empire's last, best line of defense.

    The balloon came up against the airship's side, and Shiyan leapt from the basket onto the larger craft's hull. Holding on to the spikes, she began to slowly make her way along it, looking for an entrance.

    ///

    The soldiers marched Kanoda and Aang into a large, semi-circular chamber near the prow of the airship. The front portion of it was taken up mostly by windows, and crew-members milled about the edges, attending to various tasks. At the very front was the airship's steering wheel, and to one side of it two figures stood in conversation- an officer who must have been the ship's captain, and the Chosen who had taken Jiazin, the one the guards had called Zhi. There was no sign of Jiazin herself, or of anyone who looked like they could be the Dragon Empress.

    As they approached, Zhi stepped away from the captain and walked over to the prisoners. "Well," she said in a coldly arrogant voice, "what have we here? Spies, I would imagine." She grabbed Kanoda by his chin and tilted his head back, fixing him with her gaze. "Talk. Why are you here? What is your mission?"

    "Where's Jiazin?" Kanoda grated out, the soldiers' grip on his arms and Zhi's on his face holding him otherwise immobile.

    "The girl is with the Empress, and she is no longer your concern," Zhi said. "Do you mean to say that you somehow managed to get aboard this airship for the sole purpose of finding her?"

    "Yeah," Kanoda shot back. "There are these things called 'friendship' and 'personal loyalty'- though you wouldn't know anything about that!"

    Zhi released her grip on his chin and struck him across the face. "How dare you, Water Tribe savage!" she hissed. "I know more of loyalty than your small mind could possibly imagine. I am Chosen; I serve the Empress with mind, body, and spirit. My devotion is absolute, my service is absolute."

    "Why?" All heads on the bridge turned in the direction of the voice that had spoken; Aang's expression was as innocent as his question had seemed, though Kanoda got the sense that the Avatar knew exactly what he was saying. "Why do you Chosen work for Azula, anyway? I mean, I get that she's your Empress and all, but it just seems there's more to it that I'm not getting."

    "Azula is the Dragon Empress," Zhi replied coldly. "Her power is absolute, her will is law. She is the greatest leader this world has ever known- even more than her father, it was she who forged this Empire. I would gladly lay down my life for her, given the chance."

    "Really?" Kanoda asked. "You do know that she plans to destroy her own Empire along with her death, don't you? Does that sound like the action of a great ruler to you, or the action of a mad dictator? Because I know what it sounds like to me. Azula doesn't care about you- she just wants to kill enough people to make her own death easier. Maybe you do things differently in the Fire Nation, but to me, that just doesn’t sound like someone worth following."

    "She is the Empress!" Zhi hissed. "She holds our lives in her hand. If she wishes to destroy us, it is her right! I told you I would lay down my life for her, and I would also drive this ship into the ground and set off the explosives in the hulls if she commanded it. I am Chosen- I know my duty."

    "You listening to this?" Kanoda asked, glancing over at the soldiers across the bridge- and indeed, they were glancing to one another nervously. "You heard it from her own lips- your Chosen and her Empress planned to sacrifice all your lives, and it doesn't even look like they bothered to tell you about it beforehand. You just going to sit there and stand for that?"

    Zhi struck Kanoda across the face again. "Silence!" she shouted. "If you sully the air again with your treacherous words, I'll kill you myself!"

    "Huh," Kanoda said. "You know, people who say things like that usually do it because the person who's talking to them is saying things that are really uncomfortable." He fixed her with his gaze. "And right now, you know that every word I'm saying is true."

    Zhi snarled, but before she could draw her sword or strike Aang sucked in an inhumanly deep breath and released it as a blast of concentrated air in her direction. The Chosen was rocked back off her feet and slammed into the metal wall of the bridge; she slid to the ground and lay still. The crew stared in shocked silence.

    "Whoa," Kanoda said to Aang. "I saw her fight Jiazin, and she took her apart- but you knocked her down in one strike."

    Aang shrugged as much as having his arms still held by an Imperial soldier would allow. "She really didn't know much about airbenders," he said. "Otherwise, she would have had them put a gag on me or something."

    "Well, it's been two hundred years since anyone's seen an airbender- I think we can cut her some slack." Kanoda looked to the captain. "You heard what I said about the Empress, and Zhi didn't deny it- she all but said she was going to kill you all. Is that what you signed up for? Because if it isn't, then we're not your enemies."

    The captain paused for a moment, considering. "I thought we were here to put down a rebellion," he said. "I never intended for my airship to be used in a suicide mission with a full crew aboard. I'd give my own life in a heartbeat if I thought it would mean something- but not for this." He motioned to his men. "Release them. The rest of you, pull us away from the battle. We're done here." He looked over at where Zhi lay prone. "And someone chain her up- I don't want an angry Chosen on the loose on my bridge when she wakes up."

    As the soldiers released Kanoda he stepped up towards the captain. "Thanks," he said. "I'm glad someone in this Empire has sense. But there's one more thing- Zhi said that Azula has my friend. Where is she?"

    "Observation tower, top deck," the captain replied. " But, kid- she's not a Chosen. She's Azula, the best firebender in the world. What exactly are you planning to do when you get to her?"

    "I don't know," Kanoda said quietly, "but I'll think of something."

    ///

    Jiazin's bolt of blue fire streaked towards Azula's masked face, but the Dragon Empress remained seated, apparently perfectly serene. She waited until the blast had almost reached her and then almost lazily raised one gloved hand; she caught the blast on it and dispersed it with negligible effort.

    "You thought you could kill me with that?" the Empress asked, a faint chuckle audible in her voice. "Child, I am the greatest firebender of this age, and you are little more than a talented novice." She leaned forward. "I do have one question for you. The blue fire is mine. How is it that you can make it? Answer me!" She didn't truly raise her voice as she spoke, but she filled it with such fierce power that it left no option but to do as she commanded.

    Jiazin smiled. "You know, I've thought about that," she said, "and to be honest, I don't know. But I might have an idea. You think that this world and this life has no purpose beyond what you force it to have, but there are forces out there that you don't know- I've seen them, and there's one principle they all share. Balance. Ever since this began, I’ve been noticing similarities between us. It’s more than the blue fire – I even look like you did at my age. Even Qing Xi noticed it. Is it coincidence, or is it something else? The sages teach that for every action, there is a reaction. You've pushed too hard and for too long, and now the world's pushing back at you – you did these terrible things, and maybe I’m here to undo them. You're not as all-powerful or all-knowing as you think you are. Everything balances out."

    Azula sat quietly on her throne for several moments, and then she stood and slowly, horribly, she began to laugh. "So you see?" she said, half to herself. "You come to me speaking proud words about principles and morals, but now you show your true self. Do you think yourself some prophesied savior, some shadow of the Azula who might have been sent by the spirits to destroy me? You admit it yourself! Like all the others, you want what I have, but you hide yourself in a cloak of spirits and destiny. Hypocrite!" She suddenly shouted. "You are all hypocrites! I alone see clearly, and admit the truth!"

    Jiazin backed away slowly. "You're mad," she said again.

    "No," Azula replied, calm again. "You are. I am sane- I'm the only one who is sane." She raised her hands slowly; sparks flickered around her gloved fingers. "I am the Dragon Empress; I am wisdom and power the likes of which the world has never known. You dared attack me. For that, and for your pride- die."

    The Empress raised both her hands, and from them unleashed a blue torrent of fire that made Jiazin's blast seem like little more than a candle flame. The young firebender's eyes widened in sudden fear, and reflexively she thrust her hands out in front of her, breathed deeply, and focused her power. Azula's inferno struck; Jiazin could feel the heat wrapping itself around her. But the fire didn't burn her- her own power held enough to deflect it around herself.

    Azula lowered her hands and the fire died- if she was astonished at all by Jiazin's survival, her mask did not show it. Jiazin, however, exploded into motion, running directly at the Empress and launching into a jump. Azula might be by far the more powerful firebender, but physically she was an old woman, while Jiazin was young and in good shape. If she could force the battle to become one of hand to hand combat, perhaps she could swing it in her favor.

    But Azula stepped lightly aside and seized one of Jiazin's wrists with both hands. Something within her- perhaps her indomitable will, perhaps simple anger- lent her a strength beyond that which her ancient frame suggested. She sent Jiazin flying and slammed her into one of the room's metal walls, where she slid to the floor, head ringing.

    She looked up to see Azula slowly approaching. Quickly Jiazin sprang to her feet and launched another fireblast, and the Empress raised her hands to counter it – but no, something was wrong. Jiazin’s mind barely processed at Azula’s stance and form were strange before she was jerked off her feet and slammed back against the wall. Her fireblast had become a jet of flame spurting uncontrollably from her hand; horrified, she tried to stop it, tried to clench her fingers, but she couldn’t. Somehow, Azula was bending the fire that Jiazin’s own chi had produced, a technique the young noblewoman had never before seen or imagined. Azula raised her hand higher and stretched her fingers wide, and the torrent of flame from Jiazin’s hand intensified, the force of it smashing her more tightly against the metal wall; finally, the Empress released her hold and Jiazin slumped to the floor.

    Now she saw Azula standing over her. The Empress bent down slowly and grabbed Jiazin by the neck, lifted her up, and slammed her back into the wall again. She blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision and her thoughts- four dragon-masks swam in front of her eyes- but she couldn't focus.

    "You thought you could kill me?" the Empress asked. "Foolish girl. Only one person can kill me- myself. Even as I ruled the world in life, so shall I command the hour of my own death. Did you honestly think you could take that from me? Perhaps you need to be taught a lesson before you die? Yes, I think you do." Something in her voice made Jiazin shiver through her haze.

    Then Azula raised one hand and formed a sharp blade of blue flame above it- and with the speed of the great and fiery beast for which she was named shot out and seized hold of one of Jiazin's own hands with it. Fiery agony coursed up her arm, and a horrible smell filled the room. Azula held her burning grasp for what felt like an eternity, then let Jiazin drop. She lay in a still heap, in too much pain to move, not wanting to look at what had been done to her.

    Then a familiar voice said clearly from far away, 'Leave her alone."

    Azula spun towards the sound, and Jiazin dragged herself up into a sitting position so that she could see. Kanoda stood in the doorway, glaring at the Empress, and beside him was a stranger- a boy with a shaved head, tattoos, and a staff… the Avatar.

    The Empress's gaze lingered on the boy. "You should be dead," she said softly. "You time is past. Accept the inevitable."

    The Avatar leveled his staff at her. "No," he said. "You're crazy, and you're a tyrant, and I can't just stand aside and let you hurt innocent people!"

    "Charming. You really believe that there are such things as innocent people, don't you?" Azula chuckled darkly to herself. "Try me, then, if you are able."

    Kanoda stepped forward. "Leave Jiazin alone," he said. "Your Chosen is down and your airship crew are getting ready to desert. Your plan failed. If you go ahead and surrender, we won't hurt you."

    "No," Jiazin gasped, "Kanoda, you don't know what you're dealing with- don't underestimate her!"

    "Listen to your friend," Azula said. "She's actually talking sense. Leave now, and you might live somewhat longer."

    "No," Kanoda said stubbornly.

    Azula shrugged. "Your loss." Darting forward, she grabbed him tightly by the arm and twisted, and then tossed him to the side as if he'd been of no import at all. He landed in a heap and lay still and the Empress turned her attention to the Avatar, who leveled his staff at her.

    "Please, give up," the Avatar said. "I don't like hurting people- you're powerful, but you're not the Avatar. If I go into the Avatar State, you can't beat me. If you just stop fighting, it'll be easiest for everyone."

    "Ah, but you are wrong," Azula said. "You can't go into the Avatar State at will- you may have more power, but I have far more control over mine. It is you who cannot win." Raising her hands, she blasted a torrent of fire at him. The Avatar quickly spun his staff, producing a small whirlwind that caught the blaze and dispersed it harmlessly across the air around him. Then he leveled it at her, unleashing a blast of air that actually forced Azula back.

    "You know, I've never actually fought an airbender or an Avatar before," Azula observed with a strange detachment, "but if what I have read is true, you die as easily as any being of flesh." One of her hands began to move in a tight pattern, as though gathering energy and preparing to direct it- Jiazin realized what was coming, but it was too late to shout a warning.

    A bolt of lightning shot from the Empress's hand and struck the Avatar's staff. Azula kept the energy coming, forcing him back, even as he seemed to be trying to bend air in some way that would turn the lightning back on her. Finally, however, his staff gave out- it splintered into tinder before Jiazin's eyes and the Avatar was flung back. The staff had taken the brunt of the bolt, but his limbs twitched and she could see small sparks running up and down them. He was alive, but in no condition to fight.

    Azula came to stand over him. "Now at last it ends," she said quietly, raising her hands. "Almost disappointing, really, that it should be so easy. No matter. The world the Empire has built dies today!"

    A ball of blue flames formed between her hands – and then it vanished as the Empress stumbled, the point of a sword protruding from her chest.

    ///

    Shiyan paused in the door of the Empress's observation deck and took in the scene before her. A figure in the robes of the Empress stood with its back to her, with indistinct figures lying across the room and a ball of blue fire between its hands. “The world the Empire built dies today!” the figure hissed, voice made distorted and unrecognizable by the mask, and in a flash, Shiyan understood. The Hidden Flame spy had been right – this was not the Empress but the traitor Jiazin, who she had seen could somehow bend blue fire, in those robes; somehow she had defeated the Empress and her guards and now prepared to finish them off. Only Shiyan now stood between Jiazin and victory.

    Something whispered in the back of her mind that this wasn't right, that she was missing something important, but she ignored it. Shiyan had failed to stop the theft of the captive spirits, failed to prevent Cheng's fall from grace, and then been captured herself. Now before her was a chance to redeem herself- and her pride and her sense of duty demanded that chance.

    "By the authority of the Chosen, die, traitor!" Shiyan shouted, charging into the room with blade raised to attack. The robed figure barely had time to register what was happening, much less move. Shiyan was death incarnate, the avenger of the Empire- this was the moment all the power and purpose of her life had been leading up to, and she could not fail. The blade bit deeply into the traitor’s back; she stood still for a moment, then slumped forward.

    But as she fell, the figures who lay scattered around the room were revealed in greater detail. That was Jiazin there, lying half-dead with a burned hand- then who had Shiyan struck down? The truth crashed into her in an instant, and she realized her mistake, and how thoroughly she had been used. She had been the perfect Chosen- and in her blindness, her zeal and her pride she had committed the worst crime her kind could imagine.

    Nonononononono…” Shiyan said, half sobbing, as she sank to her knees beside the Empress to whom she had been devoted, and who now lay dying by her own hand.

    ///

    Azula sank slowly to the floor, hot agony twisting her body. It wasn't possible- the girl who had struck the killing blow had declared herself a Chosen, but no Chosen could have turned against her… they were her… others might betray, but they were faithful… and now she was dying, and it was too soon.

    The shadows gathered around her, and one by one they stepped into the light- or maybe she was joining them in the darkness. There was Zuko, and Uncle, and Father, and countless others, and in front of them all was Mother, who regarded her with compassion and sadness.

    "Azula," Mother said softly, her voice filled with compassion and love as she spoke for the multitude, "come home. We have waited for you too long."

    No…. Azula tried to fight them, but there was no more strength in her limbs. Mighty as she was, death was mightier still, and it had come to claim her at last. Mother stepped forward from among the shades, bent down, and placed her arms around her daughter in a tight embrace.

    Then other hands joined hers- dozens, hundreds, all the dead known from a century of life. The dead seized hold of the Dragon Empress as she ceased her struggling, and they drew her down into the peaceful dark with them.

    ///

    Jiazin slowly got to her feet and approached Azula's body, cradling her maimed hand against her torso. Shiyan- yes, it was unmistakably her, even without the paint- knelt beside the Empress, eyes staring and vacant as if she was a corpse herself. Jiazin didn't know how she'd come to be here, or why she'd slain Azula. It made no sense, but for now she found she didn't care.

    Kanoda came to stand by her side, the Avatar leaning against him. "Is she really dead?" he asked. "I'm not sure I believe it."

    "Some Avatar I turned out to be," the airbender boy said. "I barely fazed her at all, and someone I don't even know ended it."

    Jiazin looked at him. "You didn't fail," she said. "Your task hasn’t even begun. The Avatar's purpose is to make peace- and with Azula gone, you can do that now. Evil destroyed evil- Azula died at the hands of one of her own pet warriors. Balance." She spoke the last word almost as a whisper.

    Kanoda knelt down beside Shiyan and waved a hand in front of her face. Lost in some private grief, the Chosen didn't even acknowledge him, and he shook his head. "I never thought Shiyan would be the one to end it all. I wonder why she did it? Do you think we'll ever know?" He turned to Jiazin. "What about your hand? I should have asked earlier- will it be all right?"

    Jiazin held it up and regarded it critically- the flesh was burned horribly, and pain still lanced through it. "I think I'll be all right, if I can get a healer to look at it." She lowered her voice. "I don't think it'll work right again for a while- maybe not ever. But at least it wasn't my sword hand."

    "Then let's go," the Avatar said. "We need to tell the captain what happened here- then maybe we can stop the fighting."

    "Wait," Jiazin said. "There's one more thing I have to do. I have to know." Bending down, she reached out with her good hand and pulled the dragon mask from Azula's face.

    The Empress had been a beautiful woman in her youth, and echoes of that beauty could still be seen in her features. But her face was lined with hate and cruelty as much as with years, and her hair, while still thick, was a dull white-grey. Her golden eyes lay open, shock and horror written in them, but the fire had gone out of them- they stared out dully over the world she had ruled so long, and now ruled no more.

    Jiazin stood, hefting the mask. "Let's go," she said.

    ///

    They showed the mask to the airship captain, who relayed the message of the fall of the Empress to the rest of the fleet over the airship's external speakers. Most of the ships and soldiers stopped fighting upon receiving the news- some surrendered, others merely ran. A few stalwarts fought on, but were soon overcome. In an hour, the Battle of Long Du Shi was over.

    ///

    And so we come to our climax. There’s a lot to talk about here, so let’s get on it:

    Shiyan kills Azula. From the moment Shiyan first stalked across the nighttime sands of the former Kyoshi Island, I knew that her sword would end up buried in the Empress’s back – the irony was too great to ignore. In a way, QX’s plans succeed beyond his wildest dreams, though in truth he didn’t create this specific situation, just gave the orders that indirectly made it possible. In the end, Shiyan became an unpredictable element, a true wildcard driven by a fanatical dedication that she’d taken to places beyond even the other Chosen, and that made her the ideal spanner in the works to Azula’s grand designs. So though Shiyan was essentially the main villain for most of FotFE, to paraphrase Frodo Baggins, let us forgive her, for without her the quest would have been in vain.

    Azula vs. Jiazin, Kanoda, and Aang. I deliberately wanted to subvert the “guys heroically rescue the captive heroine” trope. Jiazin tries to fight Azula on her own, and gets easily defeated; the guys show up and, if anything, get beaten even worse. Azula was simply to powerful to be easily overcome by anyone, even the Avatar. Her technique of turning Jiazin’s own fire against her was a new addition in this version; I think of it as the firebending equivalent of bloodbending; it can’t control someone’s body, but it can turn their own attacks against them. Just one of many tricks up Azula’s sleeves, and a technique she invented herself.

    Jiazin’s hand gets burned. The parallels to Zuko’s scar are obvious, though I wanted a different injury – instead of a visible scar on the face, Jiazin has lost most of the functionality in her hand (and yeah, I’m afraid it’ll never fully heal). I felt that she needed some sort of permanent wound to carry away from that battle, a reminder of the power and cruelty of the Dragon Empress that she’ll never forget.

    Jiazin and Azula. Is Jiazin special? Is she really some sort of quasi-reincarnated Azula with the same basic talents but a more stable emotional state set to oppose her? Or is it all just coincidence? Is that why Jiazin has blue fire, or is she “just” a prodigy? Am I actually going to answer any of this? Nah!

    The Chosen. Tong gets to take out the Chosen not because he got a power boost per se, but because he came to an epiphany about the nature of his element and his place in the world that let him, essentially, use Toph’s blindsight technique to its fullest potential. The Chosen had no idea how to react to it, especially sense they’re trained to consider earthbenders inferior – they just weren’t psychologically equipped for this situation. Similarly, Aang was able to take down Zhi because of her complete unfamiliarity with airbending forms and her inability to realize that most people aren’t going to be as gung-ho about a suicide mission than she is.

    Well, we’re almost done. Just one chapter and an epilogue to go! I hope it’s been worth it.

    -MasterGhandalf

     
  2. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Chapter 58: Coronation

    Jiazin paced nervously back and forth in her quarters aboard the royal airship as it neared the Capital. She was dressed in ceremonial armor with a cloak draped from her shoulders, and her sword hung from her waist in its most ornate sheath. To complete the effect, she wore a small metal flame- not a crown, but something definitely noticeable- in her hair; only her burned hand, still wrapped in bandages, took away from her appearance.

    Today, she intended to claim the throne of the Fire Nation, and both her father and Xia insisted that she make an impression.

    The sound of footsteps echoed behind her; she turned to find her mother standing in the cabin's doorway. "You look wonderful, Jiazin," she said. "How's your hand feeling?"

    Jiazin held it up. "It still hurts," she said quietly, "and I can't move it. The physician who looked at it said I'll likely never be able to use it completely again- the Empress's fire was too hot, and did too much damage. Still, I'm probably lucky. It could have been a lot worse."

    She thought she could see tears in Mother's eyes. "Oh, my child," she said. "I'm so sorry that any of this had to happen to you. If I'd known, on the day when you left us to go to the Capital, what would happen to you…" she let her words trail off.

    "It's all right," Jiazin said, stepping forward and putting her good hand on Mother's shoulder. "We've done something important- whatever happens, we've changed the world. The worst tyrant in history is gone, her true colors laid bare. I'm glad I had a part in it, even if it cost me." She lowered her head and closed her eyes.

    She could feel Mother wrap her arms around her. "Oh, Jiazin," she said. "It's awful that these things had to happen to you, but I think you've learned enough from them to be a better Fire Lord than those who came before you." She pulled back and looked at her daughter square in the eye. "Your father won't admit it, but I think he's glad of Azula's fall as well. The things he did under her rule… stained his soul, or so he's confided in me. If nothing else, I hope that we can all find time to heal."

    ///

    Chaiy stood atop the inner wall of Long Du Shi and watched the workers cleaning away rubble from the battle, now three days past. Tong was at her side, and he regarded the clean-up curiously, for the work detail was composed primarily of earthbenders. Under the Fire Empire’s regime, such workers would be fearful, watched over by scowling taskmasters ready to strike with fiery whips at the slightest sign of rebellion; they would have been quiet, defeated. There was still tension in the air, grief for those who had died in the battle, but there was also a sense of triumph as well – they had survived, they were free. As Tong watched, one earthbender hefted a chunk of debris and hurled it at his companion, who caught it and, though he staggered slightly under the weight, grinned and shot some comment that must have been a joke, because both men threw back their heads and laughed. Earthbender workers laughing as they labored for themselves and their people, not foreign overlords – a scene that would have been unthinkable a year ago.

    Tong found himself smiling. In the end, it had all meant something. What they’d done had mattered.

    “There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Chaiy said. “We’ve got battle damage to finish cleaning up, and most of the continent is still in the hands of one Imperial ruler or another, but this city is free again. From now on, it’s not Long Du Shi anymore – it’s Ba Sing Se again, the capital of a new Earth Kingdom.” She turned to her companion. “It’s not the end, Tong, but it’s a start - a very good start.”

    Tong regarded her for a moment, and then another smile twitched the edge of his mouth. “If we’re a kingdom again,” he said slowly, “then I think that means we need a king to make it official – or a queen.”

    “A… wait,” Chaiy said, backing up and raising her hands. “I know what you’re getting at, and I’m telling you it’s not going to happen. Being in charge of one city was enough of a nightmare, and I’m not taking over an entire country.”

    “As you command – my Queen,” Tong said, sketching an overly-elaborate bow.

    “Oh, stop it,” Chaiy said turning away. “But you know,” she said quietly, “I actually kind of like the sound of that. ‘Queen Chaiy’ has a certain ring to it, don’t you think? But I’m not wearing a crown.”

    “As my Queen wishes.”

    Chaiy hit Tong lightly on the shoulder. “I’m never going to hear the end of this, am I?”

    Tong only smiled again, and a moment later, Chaiy did so as well.

    ///

    As the airship descended towards the Capital, Jiazin stood on the bridge, watching the city below draw closer. Behind her, her father and High General Xia both waited, and Kanoda stood at her side. "Don't worry," he whispered into her ear. "You'll be fine. I've seen you take charge, and you've got the look down. And if you have trouble, Xia can give you advice. I never thought I'd say it about an Imperial officer, but he's a good man."

    "It's not that I'm worried about," Jiazin told him. "Qing Xi's still down there, and I have no idea what he'll do. He's not crazy like Azula was, or fanatical like the Chosen, but he's slippery, and more ruthless than my father ever was." She paused for a moment, then shook her head. "What about the Chosen. Have you checked on them at all today?"

    Kanoda grimaced. The Chosen they'd taken captive in the Battle of Long Du Shi were still locked in the airship's cells, to be transported to the Boiling Rock or other high-security prisons once they reached the Fire Nation's core islands. "They're about what you'd expect," he said. "They're not taking it well at all, and they're either ignoring me completely or glaring death at me- especially that one called Zhi. But with Azula dead, they really don't know what to do with themselves." He sighed. "And then there's Shiyan. She'll eat food if you bring it to her, and she'll go to sleep at night, but otherwise, there's just nothing going on there. She just sits and stares at floor, sometimes mumbling to herself. What she did to Azula- well, she basically killed her own god. That's got to do bad things to a person." He shook his head. "At least the others don't know what she did. Otherwise, I think they'd break out of their cells and kill her with their bare hands, if they could."

    "I never thought I'd feel sorry for her," Jiazin said. "But then, I never thought she'd be the one to kill Azula, either. It's funny how these things work out."

    "It is," Kanoda agreed. "You know, if there's one thing the old stories and our lives seem to agree on, it's this- that the world is a bigger and stranger place than we can imagine, and it's all we can do to just try and keep up."

    ///

    The airship came to rest over the docks, and Jiazin disembarked, followed by her father, Xia, Kanoda, and behind them several ranks of Xia's soldiers. The Earth Kingdom rebels and the Avatar had remained behind in Long Du Shi- their presence would only agitate the Imperial nobles, and right now they needed to be kept under control. If someone got angry enough to assassinate Jiazin on the spot, things wouldn't end well.

    Qing Xi waited for them surrounded by a retinue of soldiers, scribes, and lesser ministers. He sat in his thronelike palanquin on the parade ground in front of the docks; the curtains were open and the man could clearly be seen watching from his seat, hands folded and face unreadable. Jiazin stepped up slowly to face him, keeping her expression a careful aristocratic mask, then drew an object from inside her cloak and tossed it at his feet. Qing Xi bent and picked it up and examined it carefully, then glanced up at Jiazin.

    "The Empress's mask," he said softly. "So, she is dead, then. I'm curious as to how it was accomplished."

    "Azula is dead," Jiazin told him. "Her body was burned at Long Du Shi without ceremony. She was mad, and in her madness, nearly destroyed us all." Her eyes narrowed. "But you knew that, didn't you?"

    "Indeed I did," Qing Xi said. "I was the one who discovered her treachery, as your friend the High General can attest." He nodded to Xia, who scowled at him. "And so, Azula is gone. Now, the question is- where does the world go from here?"

    "I think you know the answer to that," Jiazin said. "Azula is dead, and she had no heir. The old Royal House is ended. There is no one to claim the throne- or at least, that is what the people believe. But you know better, I think. Once you told me I was being trained to take Azula's place. If there's anyone who has a right to the throne, I do."

    "Really?" Qing Xi asked. "You know now that was only a cover story- you were never intended to rule. What's to stop me from killing you know and taking the throne myself?"

    "The fact that the High General of the Empire supports me, for one," Jiazin shot back. "And for that matter, your own nature. You don't want the throne- you never did. You like being the highest official in the government, where you can run things without the public's eye being on you – you’d rather leave the ceremony and grandeur to someone else. In fact, a young, inexperienced Fire Lord would probably be just to your liking."

    They stood still for what felt like an eternity, staring at one another, and then the High Minister smiled. "You read me well, my lady," he said. "I have no wish to sit on the throne, and all of the Capital's nobles remain too fearful of the Empress to stake a serious claim on her title. She did her job in breaking them too well, I think. So then, you are here to claim the Empress's throne- I see no reason not to oblige." His smile broadened, and Jiazin could practically see the wheels turning in his mind. Yes, he thought he could use her; but she knew him for what he was now.

    She raised a hand. "No," Jiazin said. "I will not be Empress. The Empire is ended. The Earth Kingdom rises again- they have reclaimed Long Du Shi, and soon the rebellion will spread. We do not have the strength any longer to control them, if we ever really did. We must learn to work with them. I will be Fire Lord, nothing more."

    Qing Xi seemed troubled, but he was intelligent enough to recognize that subjecting the Earth Kingdom again would be difficult, potentially disastrous- most of the Fire Navy was destroyed, and nobles in distant provinces would likely try to set themselves up as kings and queens now that Azula was gone. That would be enough problems for now. Finally, he nodded. "Very well," he said. "You shall be Fire Lord." He gestured for one of his ministers, who stepped forward carrying a small wooden chest. Qing Xi took it and opened it slowly; inside was a headpiece shaped like a dramatic rising flame. "I thought I might be needing this soon, though I wasn't sure for who," he mused to himself. "The crown of the Fire Nation, put aside by the Empress when she adopted the mask. Traditionally, the Fire Sages should bestow it, but they are no more. In that case, the duty falls to me." He looked up at Jiazin. "Kneel, my lady, if you please."

    Jiazin stepped before his palanquin and removed her own hairpiece, hands trembling slightly. This was a moment she had never truly believed would come, and she didn't know what scared her more; the surety that she wasn't ready, or the knowledge that there was no one else who was both ready and willing. Still, the alternative was chaos, and she would not allow Azula to look from beyond the grave and see her dreams accomplished. Jiazin knelt.

    The High Minister stood and descended the steps of his palanquin; with great reverence he raised the crown into the air above Jiazin's head, then brought it slowly down into place. She stood carefully; the crown didn't weigh much, but it was a presence that was impossible for her to ignore, and would be a constant reminder of the power which she held.

    "Hail Fire Lord Jiazin!" Qing Xi intoned, and then both her escort and his knelt before her. She had claimed the throne, and with the backing of High General and High Minister had made good on that claim. Now, her one duty was clear- to be a better ruler than those who had gone before her.

    Jiazin turned to face the High Minister. "Rise," she said in the most regal voice she could manage. "In backing my claim, you have been a great help to me," she told him. "It is fitting that you should be rewarded."

    "Indeed?" Qing Xi asked- his tone was bland, but his eyes were interested. "What reward did you have in mind, Majesty?"

    Jiazin smiled at him coolly. "You have served this nation well, and earned rest from you hard work. You will retire with honor from your position as High Minister to an estate in the country, where you will be guarded and attended to for as long as you desire it. Your labors have ended."

    Qing Xi's eyes widened in surprise, and he leaned in close to Jiazin's ear. "What are you doing, girl?" he hissed. "That's little better than putting me under house arrest! Do you think I will merely accept that? Kill me outright as you did Azula, if you must, but I will not become obsolete!"

    "That was the farthest thing from my thoughts," Jiazin said coldly in the same low voice. "I might need your advice, and I don't think you'd let this nation fall to ruin if you could do anything about it. But I won't be beholden to you, and I will not let the man who helped Azula commit her atrocities walk free. Am I understood?"

    Qing Xi was silent for a moment, then he smiled again and bowed from the waist, his expression that of a teacher surprised and impressed by his student. "Well played. Very well, Majesty," he said. "I will submit to your edict, but in the end, you will still need me, and you'll know where I may be found. Someday, you will admit that I am right." He bowed again, and withdrew among his ministers.

    Kanoda and Xia came forward to stand beside Jiazin. "That one will be dangerous," the High General said. "He deserved worse."

    "Maybe he did," Jiazin said, "But there's been enough killing, and he likes stability too much to assassinate a sitting Fire Lord, I think." She shook her head. "It's not really over, is it? Somehow, I think that defeating Azula was easier than holding her Empire together will be."

    "Stories never end, really," Kanoda told her. "They just continue on, until they become new stories. But with Azula gone and the spirits freed, the balance can set itself right. And besides- we have the Avatar on our side now. It'll be all right."

    Jiazin smiled at him. "Thank you," she said. "You've been a good friend, Kanoda. I'm not sure I ever had one of those before." She gave him a quick embrace, then pulled away before anyone could notice a slight redness in her face and, turning, she began to march up the square towards the city. Beyond it lay the palace that was now hers, while the sun rose high in the sky above what was the Capital of, once more, the Fire Nation, nothing more or less. The Empire was gone; now was the time for a new world to be born.

    ///

    Captain Feng stood on the docks of Long Du Shi - it was Ba Sing Se now, burn it, he’d have to remember that - watching as his crew loaded their cargo onto his small ship. There’d been momentous events over the past few days sure enough – the fall of Azula and the rise of a new Earth Kingdom – but Feng remained confident he could ride the storms that were no doubt coming. He had a sneaking suspicion that even more chaotic times were coming, and in chaos there would be a market for a good smuggler just as much as there was under tyranny – if he played his cards right.

    The last of the cargo was loaded, and the captain turned to board his vessel, when a high-pitched voice spoke suddenly behind him. “Excuse me,” it said, “but is this your ship?”

    Feng turned to see a girl standing there – no more than twelve or thirteen by the looks of her, dressed in plain brown shirt and pants but with a surprisingly fine sword slung over her back. “That she is,” he said. “I’m about ready to cast off. Did some local merchant send you? If so, you go tell them that my hold is full for this trip.”

    “I came on my own,” the girl said. “I would like to buy passage.”

    Feng almost burst out laughing, but stopped as he regarded the girl more closely, taking in her haunted eyes and wiry but strong-looking frame. She said she wasn’t a merchant’s apprentice, and he’d thought her some lordling’s child out to mingle with the common folk, from her fancy speech, but now he wasn’t so sure what she was. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. “That might be arranged,” he said slowly, “if you’re able to pay.”

    “Will this be sufficient?” the girl asked, reaching into a pouch at her side and pulling out a handful of gold pieces. Feng’s eyes widened and he snatched the coins from her hand.

    “That’ll do just fine, Miss,” he said, “just fine. Now, where is it you wish to be going? I’m bound to the north, myself. There’s supposed to be some big industrial town up there, near an old airbender temple. Can we drop you off there?”

    “That will be fine,” the girl said softly. “It doesn’t matter where I go, so long as it’s far from here.”

    Feng put a hand lightly on the girl’s back and began to steer her up the gangplank; something told him that she was running from something, and he was determined to be gone from here before whatever it was caught up to her. “Now, I don’t believe you told me your name, Miss?”

    She looked up at him and regarded him calmly. “You can call me Cheng,” she said.

    ///

    This last full chapter is more about tying everything up after the big explosion that was the previous one. There are two new scenes in this version – the first being Tong and Chaiy, and the second being Cheng – that I honestly probably should have included in the first FotFE. There I didn’t directly touch on our earthbenders after the battle, and didn’t establish what happened to Cheng at all, but I thought they all deserved further elaboration.

    Jiazin becomes Fire Lord, the culmination of her storyline. Of course, it wouldn’t be possible if QX hadn’t agreed to support her, but he didn’t want to leave the throne vacant long, and all told he’d rather have someone young and impressionable in power rather than someone older and more powerful – he’s been there and done that already. Of course, by forcibly retiring him, Jiazin made a pretty strong statement about her refusal to let him influence her, but I wouldn’t count QX out yet. I think he remains confident that Jiazin will need his advice sooner rather than later.

    Both the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom are now under the rule of female monarchs. It wasn’t initially intended that way – Jiazin and Chaiy were simply the most natural choices for the position – but I do like it thematically for a particular reason. Azula has been our Big Bad for most of the story, but there’s always a certain risk with female evil overlords that you’ll inadvertently send a message of “women in power=bad”. Having two young women take over the two main surviving nations helps refute that; Azula’s issues were her own, not a result of her gender (and in terms of characters who influenced my characterization of Azula, I’d previously mentioned the Norn Queen, but there were more than a few male villains – including her father, Mistborn’s Lord Ruler, and Wheel of Time’s Moridin – who were on my mind as well).

    Yeah, Aang wasn’t in this final chapter. While he was the main character in canon, in FotFE, his return was less about him personally and more a symbol that the world can free itself from the Fire Nation’s control. This story wasn’t about him. That doesn’t mean there aren’t stories about him in this AU to tell…

    Just the epilogue remains now, and the revised FotFE will be done!

    -MasterGhandalf
     
  3. MasterGhandalf

    MasterGhandalf Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Oct 25, 2009
    Epilogue: Aftermath

    It has been five years since the Fall, when Empress Azula in her pride and madness attempted to destroy us all, and was herself defeated and slain. Shortly afterwards, I took the throne of the Fire Lord myself and proclaimed that our nation would respect the independence of the former rebels of the old Earth Kingdom. The Fire Empire as it was known for a hundred years was ended.

    The world has changed much since then. Upon the death of the Empress, many of the lesser nobles on the Earth Kingdom continent- ambitious men and women kept in check only by their fear of Azula's power and influence- declared themselves independent and almost immediately fell on one another. The conflict, however, proved to be less catastrophic than the one the Dragon Empress had envisioned, for at the same time many of the conquered peoples of that region entered revolt against their Fire Nation masters. Queen Chaiy and her Champion, Tong, of the city that is once more called Ba Sing Se, were quick to lend the rebels their support, while the petty kings each stood alone. Most of them were expelled within the year, their territories once more falling to Earth Kingdom control. Those who held on to power learned to be more cautious.

    In the Capital itself there has been some unrest- I myself have been the target of assassins several times, unfortunately- but the people of the Fire Nation heartland are too used to following an absolute authority to make large scale trouble for me, even though I know many of them disagree with me. I am fortunate, however, that I was able to take the throne when I did- if I hadn't, I shudder to think at how quickly they would have been at each other's throats without a moderating influence.

    The Empress's Chosen were a great concern for me at first, though fortunately my fears have proven largely unfounded. It seems that without Azula, most of them simply don't know what to do with their lives- their education, so extensive in the methods of combat, is apparently quite lacking on the subject of thinking for themselves. A handful, needing some sort of authority, have sworn themselves to me- I don't fully trust them, though I've never witnessed any of them doing anything more or less than what I ask them to. Many more have simply killed themselves, if reports are to be believed. A handful, however, are reported to have fled from their island and allied themselves with the remaining warlords on the Earth Kingdom continent. There are rumors of strange rituals performed there in honor of Azula, who they say has not died, but transcended flesh, becoming a mighty spirit herself. So far, I haven't been able to confirm or deny these stories, but I have to admit, they worry me.

    Then there is Shiyan, the Assassin of the Empress. I pity her. Her mind was unable to come to terms with what she'd done, so it turned upon itself. She remains in the palace, not as a prisoner, but not quite a guest either- mostly, for her protection. She came out of the silence that gripped her for months after the Fall, but she has no memories of her life. In most respects she is now a child in an adult's body- how much of her history she's guessed, I can't say, but she does not know, but neither I nor anyone else has had the heart to tell her that it was her blade that felled Azula- partly out of pity, and partly from fear that her former identity might reassert itself. Being in her presence can feel like walking a tightrope over a volcano's crater.

    I still see Kanoda frequently, and am in correspondence with him. He travels the world in the company of the Avatar, working to restore the Balance of the world. Much that once was is lost, but they are determined and resourceful- slowly, the Avatar once more is becoming a symbol of peace and justice in the minds of the people. Above all, they search for any knowledge left behind by the last waterbenders, so that the ancient art won't perish from the earth.

    My left hand still aches even as a write this; the pain has almost faded now, but is still present. I can move it some, but my physicians tell me that I will never regain full use of it. It is a reminder, however small, that I will carry with me for the rest of my life of the damage that Azula and her father wreaked on this world. Now that they are gone, the future is uncertain, but I will say this- the long tyranny is over. The Avatar has returned. Whatever else may come, for the first time in a century, there is hope.

    -Entry in the Royal Logbook, dated Year 5 After Fall

    Scribed by Fire Lord Jiazin

    ///

    The epilogue, which I have left largely untouched, is a counterpoint to the prologue; both are extracts from a monarch’s private writings, but where the first was of an overthrown king reflecting on a dark past, this is a young Fire Lord looking to a more positive future. The world situation isn’t perfect, but it’s better off on the whole than it was under Imperial rule – and certainly better than what would have happened if Azula had her way! The feuding warlords set up was mostly inspired by the world situation in Mistborn after the Lord Ruler’s downfall, but it also parallels the Star Wars Expanded Universe’s take on what happened to the Empire after Palpatine’s death. It’s a natural enough situation to develop after the downfall of an extremely powerful centralized tyrant, I think.

    What happens now? Several months after I finished the original FotFE, I started work on a sequel, Legacy of the Fire Empire. Unfortunately, real life caught up to me and it updated only intermittently, and by the time I was ready to return to it, Korra Book 2 was underway and revealed that several of my assumptions about the Avatarverse’s metaphysics were incorrect, and there was no real way the setup I was planning on using would work with the new info (in particular, a spirit I was planning to include was too much like Vaatu for both to comfortably exist in the same universe, while being too different for Vaatu to actually be substituted into the role). I doubt I’ll ever finish “Legacy” now, but I do intend to post a final chapter summarizing where I wanted to take the story.

    Well, this project took me longer than I anticipated – almost a year – but I think it was worth it. I hope everyone who’s been reading has enjoyed the ride! Thank you to everyone who has stuck with me, read and reviewed – it’s much appreciated!

    -MasterGhandalf
     
  4. Mira_Jade

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

    Registered:
    Jun 29, 2004
    This was a fantastic end to a truly epic tale. Thank-you, once again, for sharing with us. =D=