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|More from The 888th Avatar||Tragedy/War||PG-13 (13 and above)||None||Main fanon page|
|A Greater Existence|
March 14, 2011
The freezing night was silent but for the sound of shuffling feet. The wind that had blown all day, the wind that had caused the dust storm that had delivered victory, had finally gone.
Defeated, demoralised, an Earth Kingdom General led a small detachment of wearied Earthbender guards through columns of Imperial Firebenders. Above, perched on a mountain of rubble, a detachment of Fire Nation archers stood at the ready.
The general came to a stop before Iroh. His grey beard and hair were unkempt, his cloak ragged. The general knelt down and attempted to bow down to him, but his shoulder was stopped by Iroh's hand.
"We are equals. There is no need to bow."
"I am surrendering."
"Please. You have suffered no dishonour." Iroh helped him up. "I have always dreamed of meeting you, General Ong."
"That is no surprise, General Iroh. Whoever dreams of taking Ba Sing Se is destined to encounter me."
Iroh laughed. "But of course. You led the Outer Wall garrison for twenty-seven years."
"Led. Now the Earth Kingdom may fall."
"Only time will tell."
Ong withdrew a sheathed dagger from inside his cloak. Inclining his head, he offered it to Iroh in a formal gesture of surrender. Iroh bowed slightly and accepted the dagger. Both men straightened up. Iroh unsheathed the dagger and proceeded to inspect it in curiosity. It was finely crafted from pearl, a unique object the likes of which Iroh had never seen before. Characters were inscribed upon its blade.
"Never give up without a fight," Iroh murmured to himself. The words chilled his heart in a way that no wind could.
Nearby, a tent collapsed as though pushed over by the hand of a giant.
The wind had picked up again.
Morning came. Iroh looked out east from the battlements of the Wall, as he had all night.
Soon after dawn, he had written a letter home to report his victory and in the process rid himself of the dagger that was the source of his disquiet. Zuko would appreciate the gift. He had thrown in a doll as well for Azula, to ensure that he would not be seen as overly favouring his nephew over his niece.
"Father." Lu Ten joined him in his vigil. "Did you predict that the wind would return?" he asked.
"No. Did you?"
"Of course not."
"The wind is not too much of a problem at the moment. It blows from the west. But tomorrow, I am sure that the wind will change direction."
"You think so?"
"Yes. It will not favour us."
The silence was filled with the whistling of the gale around them. Several feet away, a banner was ripped from its post. The eyes of both men followed its red mass being carried away.
"We are in trouble. If we are still in this position tomorrow, we will have great difficulty defending against a counter-attack with the wind behind them. I am sure that the enemy would not waste an opportunity such as this."
Lu Ten grunted in agreement. "We have two options, of course. We shift our position so that we are not facing the wind. Or we retreat again."
"We are not retreating. That would be almost six hundred days wasted. We will have to manoeuvre around the city. But if we get attacked while we are doing that, we will suffer losses."
"Well, the ends justify the means."
"Yes. I believe that as well. Six hundred days it has been and I still believe that."
"Something else is bothering you." It was a statement.
Iroh said nothing.
"What is it?"
"Never give up without a fight.."
Lu Ten looked confused. "Why does that bother you? It's a pretty universal statement regarding life."
"I am not sure why."
The gale had not weakened by noon. Indeed, it had strengthened. Soldiers laboured to stay on their paths as the Fire Nation army moved northeast, their cloaks around them, their heads bowed low.
Astride his ostrich horse, Iroh could not escape the feeling of danger. On their left stood the conquered Outer Wall, shining white in the noon sun. On their right was the unconquered Inner Wall, dark and forbidding. The land around them was hilly and undulating, something Iroh had not foreseen from the flat plain where the Fire Nation Army had been position only yesterday. An orderly escape from an ambush would be difficult.
"Hey, Taozu!" Iroh heard a soldier run up to join one of the bodyguards in Iroh's column.
"Why, it's you, Zuyan!" the bodyguard named Taozu in a return greeting. "It's been ages since I've seen you. How are you?"
"Yeah, it has been a while. But nothing's changed since we last talked. We're still here. We still haven't gone home."
"Too right. Ain't this an awful war?"
Iroh was suddenly listening very carefully.
"It's a damned war, all right."
"Do you reckon we'll win? Do you think we'll break into Ba Sing Se?"
"What's the difference?"
"What are you talking about?"
"If we win, we'll be here for years. If the officers reckon these Ba Sing Se people will just listen to Fire Nation, they're kidding themselves. I say we get a better deal if we lose. We get to go home."
The column had arrived at the bottom of a ravine. Iroh could no longer see the other columns of soldiers in the distance to the left and right. It was just his company.
"But what about honour?"
"Screw honour. At least I get to live."
"But you're alive."
"You call this living?"
The soldier named Taozu had no answer to that. The soldier named Zuyan had more to say.
"Screw honour. Screw victory. Screw sacrifice. They're just words thrown around by people who don't understand what they mean. The officers —"
Zuyan never finished his sentence. A boulder, the size of an explosives cart, fell down and crushed him. The soldier named Taozu started and screamed in panic. More boulders were falling among them. Iroh's ostrich horse started in panic, throwing Iroh off. Earthbenders and Ba Sing Se non-bender soldiers rushed down both sides of the ravine. The bodyguard chief rushed to help Iroh up, but he was run through by Earth Kingdom spears.
Iroh got to his feet. Taking up his battle stance, he blew away the group of the soldiers chasing the soldier named Taozu several feet away. This gave him away.
"It's him! It's the Dragon of the West!"
A dozen Earthbenders rushed at him, and began an effort to tear up the track around him to trap him. Too slow. Iroh created a wall of fire and sent it towards them. His enemies screamed as they were hit, or fled.
Iroh's company was destroyed or had fled, and there were seemingly endless numbers of Ba Sing Se defence soldiers against him. It would be suicidal to stay. Iroh ran into the wood that lined the sides of the ravine and disappeared.
The sun was beginning to set as Iroh scrambled out from the wood alone. The wood had protected him from the wind, but the ice of it struck him in full force now. Around him, the grass was clearly trampled on, and the footprints all led in the direction of the Fire Nation march. He was behind the main army.
In the distance, Iroh could see something odd. He walked towards it. Coming up to it, Iroh realised that it was a statue. It was of Avatar Roku. It was an open-air shrine of some kind. Why was it here?
Squinting, Iroh read the inscription. The characters read, "Dedicated to the memory of Avatar Roku, who learned Earthbending here in a past age. We live in hope of the return of the Avatar. We shall not give up without a fight."
There it was again. "We shall not give up without a fight."
"Never give up without a fight." A deep voice sounded out behind him. Iroh spun around, ready to meet an adversary.
"One whom you cannot see."
"Then show yourself!"
"I cannot. You have not seen the Spirit World."
"The Spirit World?"
"Yes. Here. I will show you."
Iroh suddenly felt himself leave his body. The shrine reappeared before him. He was outside of his own body, a pale blue spectral existence. His own body was still in a battle stance facing the voice. The wind could no longer be felt. Iroh realised that he could see the source of the voice now.
"Avatar Roku!" he cried.
"Welcome to the Spirit World, Prince Iroh. I have wanted to talk to you for many years, but only now have the circumstances allowed it. Do you know what day it is?"
"It is the day of the winter solstice. One of two days in a year where ordinary beings can cross into the Spirit World."
"Why have you brought me into the Spirit World? What do you wish to say to me?"
"You are troubled. Never give up without a fight. What do you know about the Earth Kingdom, Iroh?"
"Its people practise endurance."
"Precisely. They will never give up without a fight. They will weather a storm, and wait for an opportunity to strike. What do you think that means?"
"I am not sure what you are talking about."
"Do you remember what the two soldiers were saying?"
"They implied that even if we captured the Earth Kingdom... its people would not stop fighting. They believed that the war cannot ever be won, and is pointless. I do not believe that."
"What do you believe?"
"I believe victory can be achieved." His voice was fierce. "I believe we can fight on. I believe that victory is a path to an era of peace. I believe that we can build a greater, more prosperous world than has ever been before. I believe that unifying our world can bring a new era. I believe in a greater existence."
"You believe what your father believes. You believe what your grandfather believed."
"Yes. It is a noble principle."
"A noble principle? Have you seen what your noble principle has done to the world?"
"Yes, I have. We have brought technology and wealth to those areas which we have already brought under our control."
"No. You have not seen. Let me show you."
The ruins of Taku flashed before Iroh, empty and devoid of life. A soldier, maimed, his legs crushed, screaming for his mother. A child screaming into his mother's shoulder upon the realisation that his father would never return. A group of people wearing rags, limping across grassland, crying with hunger. The boulder crashing down on the soldier named Zuyan, driving his friend into madness.
Roku reappeared before him.
"Do you see? This is war, Iroh. This is what war means for ordinary people. There is nothing noble in it. There are no principles. Only suffering, and destruction. Nothing is achieved."
"If suffering and destruction can bring prosperity and peace, then something is achieved."
"I implore you, Iroh, to look at what has happened."
"You are wrong. I will prove you wrong. This will be the war to end all wars! An era of peace will dawn!"
"No, Iroh." Roku seemed resigned. "You are wrong. You will not achieve what you aim for. But you do not know it yet. On the six hundredth day, you will."
"What do you mean?"
"You will see what I mean. You will understand the true nature of war. Your wisdom will provide you with that understanding. We will meet again."
With a wrench, Iroh became one with his body again. Darkness surrounded him. Roku was gone, and the wind had returned.
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