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The Firebenders' ship looked much larger up close then when it had been attacking Otan and his companions days earlier. He was surprised that something so large could move so quickly through the water. Most peculiar of all where the dark slabs that lined either side of the ship. Lahn had explained earlier that they were meant as shields but hadn't elaborated any further.
At the far end of the deck, Otan could make out Jiran and his wife, who immediately rushed over to him.
"Otan! You're alright!" cried the merchant, "Have you seen Zisa?"
Otan shook his head, "I sent her away on the rowboat back to the ship."
Zisa's mother jabbed a finger at his chest. "She was on the ship before those pirates came, but thanks to you she decided to go back to the beach! We should be the ones asking you where our daughter is!"
Behind them, the General cleared his throat, "I may be able to shed some light on that matter, I'm afraid," he said. In his hand he held a tattered scroll, which he promptly handed to Jiran. "I fear your daughter has been taken for ransom by the Seahounds."
Jiran shook his head. "First they take our cargo, and then our little girl!" he cried, "What more could they possibly want?"
"It doesn't matter," said Ghef, taking the scroll back "The Fire Nation doesn't negotiate with pirates. You should know that we've been tracking these Seahounds for several years now and that their seizure of your ship's cargo may have given us a golden opportunity."
"What does that mean?" Jiran asked.
Ghef coughed. "The Shadow Painters are an elite and semi-autonomous unit of the Fire Nation army, specializing in highly experimental Firebending techniques."
Zisa's mother's eyes narrowed. "What sort of techniques?"
"You may have noticed a decline in the condition of the vegetation and some of the wildlife of Sulphurcrab Atoll over the last few weeks," said Ghef, coughing again. "Unfortunately, that was partially our fault. We have found that some of our techniques have adverse affects on lower forms of life. Fortunately, our techniques have had no adverse effects on human health, so I can assure you that everyone here is perfectly safe."
Somehow Otan doubted that, but said nothing as the General continued.
"However, the technique seem to leave a trail of invisible fire on whatever material it touches which is undetectable to anyone but advanced Firebenders."
Jiran's eyes lit up, "So you'll be able to follow the trail right to the Seahounds' lair and my daughter!"
The General smiled. "Exactly."
"Then what are you all standing around for?" Zisa's mother exclaimed, "As defenders of the Fire Nation and its people, you should be out looking for Zisa!"
Lahn tried to calm the merchant and his wife, placing a hand on each of their shoulders, leading them off of the ship, "We still have some last-minute preparations to make," he said, "But I can assure you that we will do everything in our power to bring your daughter home safely."
"Otan," said the General, causing the boy to turn around.
"I'm guessing that you'll be joining us on our little expedition?" said Ghef.
Otan nodded uneasily, "Do I have a choice?" He said, feeling more and more like a rat in a cage.
Ghef's smile only reached one half of his face. "Not really," he said with a cough, "Oh and, when we get out to sea, there's someone that I want you to meet."
People Like You
The air around Zisa's head was freezing when she awoke, and yet everything below her neck still felt surprisingly warm. Opening her eyes, she found that she was up to her neck in a burlap sack, the drawstring tied so tightly around her neck that she felt like she might choke. She was on a Southern Water Tribe long ship. Men and women in furs and light armor moved about as the ship rocked from side to side in the waves.
Testing her mobility, Zisa found that her hands were unbound, restricted only by the sack and whatever sort of substance filled it.
"That the funny thing about blubber," said Hako, coming up from behind her, he squatted down to look her in the face, "It's very good at keeping in body heat, but try any sort of Firebending and, well-" he made a parting gesture with is hands, "Fwoosh! You're out like a light!"
Zisa's heart sank, but she put on a brave face. "Where are you taking me?"
Hako snorted. "Where we're going shouldn't matter to you, little lady," he said, "What should matter to you is whether or not mommy and daddy will break the bank for their spoiled little Fire Nation brat."
Zisa glared at him. "I don't understand why you're doing this. We've never done anything to you!"
Hako just laughed in her face. "Really? The way I see it," he said, "The oceans belong to the Water Tribe, the land to the Earth Kingdom and the skies to the Air Nomads-As far as I'm concerned, ever since Sozin took the throne, you Fire Nation types have always been taking what doesn't belong to you, so I'm just returning the favor."
"It's people like you that make the Fire Lord right," Zisa said, "One day the Fire Nation will get rid of pirates and robbers and hunt you all down."
The captain scowled. "Maybe so," he said, "But it's people the Fire Lord who are the reason people like me exist in the first place. Think on that-you'll have plenty of time before we get back to the base."
With that, he rose to his feet to speak with some of his men, leaving Zisa alone once more.
Truth and Practicality
"Yemi?" Otan couldn't believe what he was seeing. He had expected to see his old friend and mentor shackled to the hold, not sipping tea with the General.
The old monk smiled his same old smile. "Ah, Otan, why don't you join us, this Fire Nation tea is excellent!"
Otan backed away towards the door only to stop when Lahn clapped him on the shoulder with a vice-grip. "I-I don't understand," he said, "I thought you were a prisoner."
The General let out a wheezing laugh. "Contrary to any preconceived notions you might have about us, the Fire Nation is not as uncivilized as you may have been led to believe, Airbender."
Otan shrugged off Lahn's grip. "I'm not an Airbender, " he said, "I'm a-"
Yemi shook his head. "He knows, Otan," he said, "I've already told him everything."
The General gave a nod to Lahn. "Leave us," he said, "I think the three of us need to sit down and have a very long talk before we reach the Seahounds' lair."
Lahn bowed and closed the door behind him as Otan was offered a cup of tea from Yemi. Otan knocked it aside angrily, "That's how the Fire Nation knew that we were going to fly over the Atoll," he said to Yemi, "You betrayed us! I thought you were an Air Nomad-just like me and Meili and Fen!"
Yemi nodded. "That's just it, my boy," he said, "Independence! Freedom! The core of Airbender philosophy-not to be constrained by cause, government or ties other than your own!"
"So you just did it to save yourself," said Otan.
Yemi shook his head, taking in another gulp of tea, "That's the other half of it," he said, "Pacifism. Let's be honest with ourselves; we're Nomads-wanderers-not fighters, despite anything that Meili might have you believe. If there's any dirty work to be done, let someone else do it."
Otan glared at him.
The General coughed. "Let me put it this way," he said, "Based on our current estimates, we could easily wipe out the entire Air Nation with minimal losses, so I figure, what's the point?"
"So," said Otan, "What if I were to walk out of here right now and go to the nearest Air Temple?"
Ghef laughed. "Go right ahead, boy," he said, "I'm not stopping you. Besides, after we clear up this whole business with the Seahounds, it won't matter that one of the Air Nation's monks has joined us. A week from now, the Avatar will be safely within the Fire Nation Capital."
"That's what the Shadow Painters' little performance a few days ago was for," said Yemi. "When you and I arrive at the Southern Temple for the Avatar, news will have gotten out about Meili and Fens' "unfortunate demise"."
"So you're just going to hand him over then," said Otan, "The Avatar."
The General coughed again. "I can assure you he will be well looked-after," he said, "I'll see to it that he attends the finest academies in the Fire Nation and that he'll become one of the most powerful Firebenders the world has ever known."
Otan narrowed his eyes. "That's what I'm afraid of."
"As I've said before," said the General, "you are free to leave any time you like, but you should know that I am under no obligation to see that the daughter of a certain Fire Nation merchant comes out of our battle with the Waterbenders unharmed."
A lump caught in Otan's throat. The General saw it and smiled. Crookedly.
Yemi finished off the last of his tea. "It's simple, Otan," said the monk, "Help the General here take down the Seahounds and deliver the Avatar to the Fire Nation and no-one has to get hurt-we can avoid a lot of hurt for a lot of people that way."
Otan sucked in a breath, then let it out. "Fine." He said, "I'll help you take down the Seahounds-and find the Avatar."
Yemi grinned. "Ah! Spoken like a true Airbender," he said, "You've done yourself proud today, Otan!"
It was midday when they came to the tip of Whale Tail Island, where the Shadow Painters had pinpointed as the source of their invisible fire. Lahn, Otan and a score of regular soldiers waited in the hills overlooking the Seahounds' encampment; a sizable number of tents just off the beach in a small cove that would have hidden them from the sight of passing ships. Perhaps half a dozen longboats were moored to the beach. For the Seahounds below everything seemed to be business as usual. Of course, sooner or later they would notice the sentries that Ghef's men had systematically found and disposed of.
Otan felt strangely hollow after his encounter with Yemi. Beyond rescuing Zisa from the Waterbenders, he had no idea what he was doing there on that hill with the Fire Nation troops. He had agreed to help bring in the Avatar! The Avatar-who was part of his people. Of course, Yemi had insisted that he wasn't technically an Air Nomad-Yemi said that he was as far above the Airbenders as the Airbenders were above the other three nations. Otan almost felt sick to his stomach knowing that he probably would have believed anything that Yemi had said to him earlier under different circumstances.
At the head of the formation, Lahn kept his gaze fixed in the direction of the Shadow Painters ship some distance from the shore. "Wait for the signal," he whispered to the rest of them.
Then, it came. A volley of burning projectiles careening into the line of long-ships, cutting off the pirates' escape. The Seahounds did what they could to put out the flames, but the damage had already been done.
"Charge!" Lahn cried from the front of the column. As one, the entire body of soldiers moved down the slope to the encampment, trapping the pirates between themselves and the bombardment.
But the Seahounds would not be caught off-guard a second time. The Waterbenders attacked ferociously, loosing a barrage of watery spears from the beach at their foes, taking down most of the men on the front lines save for Lahn, Otan and a few others who were nimble enough to dodge the counter-attack. The Firebenders were eventually force to fall back to the slopes as the Seahounds pressed their advantage.
Lahn grinned beneath his helmet. All was going according to his plan. "Otan," he shouted, "We can take these pirates, go find Zisa. She's probably still down somewhere in the tents."
Otan glanced down at the approaching Waterbenders. They looked angry. "Are you sure?"
Lahn nodded, "We'll use their own Water Tribe pride against them," he said, "If we can lure them into the hills, they'll lose their advantage. We'll be okay-just go!" Otan quickly ducked behind some nearby rocks, planning to circumvent the main conflict and double back to the encampment. When he reached the cluster of tents, the bombardment had ceased. Now all he had left to do was search the camp until he found Zisa.
"Airbender!" Hako stepped out from one of the tents in front of Otan, in one hand he carrie a burning torch and over his opposite shoulder he carried a sack.
"Otan, it's a trap!" Zisa shouted from the sack.
Instantly, half a dozen Waterbenders came into view, hurling icy spears at Otan, who dodged them with ease.
"At first I didn't believe it when my men told me that you had used Airbending on them back at the Atoll, especially after I saw your little trick with the lightning," Hako sneered, "If I had known you were an Airbender then I would have left you alone-of course, had I known that you were going to align yourself with the Fire Nation-"
"What's he talking about, Otan," Zisa said as she struggled to see what was happening.
"The Air Nomads don't align themselves with anybody," Otan answered softly.
Hako raised an eyebrow beneath his horned helm. "Doesn't look that way to me." He said.
"At least I don't base my actions on whether someone's Fire Nation or Water Tribe or whatever-someone once told me that it's the responsibility of those with power to stop those from-from stopping-to stop-uh-" He fumbled for a moment.
Zisa sighed. "What I said was: if we have the power to stand up to people like that-then we have the responsibility too. At least get it right."
"I know that!" Otan shouted, rounding on her and Hako, "I'm the one trying to save you!"
"Ah-ah-ah!" said the captain, holding up his torch, "Take one more step-just one more, Airbender-just one more!"
That was when Otan saw the first Shadow Painter appear on the top of the slope. He was wearing some sort of armor. The material looked strikingly similar to the material of the shields aboard Ghef's ship.
"Hako," Otan began as two more of the Shadow Painters appeared around the outside of the bay, "It's a setup."
Hako laughed. "Of course it's a setup-it would have worked, too, but my men were too slow with their ice spears!"
Otan shook his head as the Shadow Painters situated around the bowl-shaped bay began to gesture as the air before them, which began to shimmer slightly. "No," he said, "Not your trap, look behind you! It's the Shadow Painters!"
"Do you really expect me to fall for that old trick now?" Hako said, "We may be pirates, but we're not complete morons!"
"He's right," a woman cried out, "Look, they've got us surrounded!"
Hako immediately dropped Zisa and the torch. "We'll see about that!" he roared, "Take your positions, everyone! Look alive!"
Otan immediately ran over to Zisa's side.
"What's going on, Otan?"
"Don't even think about trying to escape, Airbender," Hako said as he readied his assault on the Shadow Painters. Otan felt as though is heart had dropped into his stomach as he fought down the sense of impending dread as he watched the Shadow Painters charge their attack, their motions increasing in frequency.
Opening Yemi's glider staff, he helped Zisa from the bag and whispered in her ear. "Hold on to me," he said.
Everything after that seemed to happen at once. Otan and Zisa burst into the sky on a sudden updraft as the ground exploded beneath them in a flash of blinding white as the Firebenders loosed their attack on the remaining Seahounds.
Otan sped away from the explosion as fast as the glider could carry him and Zisa. A quick glance behind him yielded a view of a mushroom-shaped cloud looming over where the small inlet had once been and the sunny day had been overcast with dust and debris. Needless to say, he didn't need to look back after that. In his mind's eye, he could see a familiar scene playing itself out in the distant past-at a small Earth Kingdom village he had once called home as a child.
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