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|Change of Plans|
12 November 2013
Message from the Author
I know it's been an insane amount of time since the last chapter, and for that I apologize. I promise that I will be quicker with chapter 7, as the storyline is heating up. I hope that you have not lost interest, and if all goes well there will never be another delay this long.
"What... is that?" I sputtered, gawking at the hideous sight.
Jirou was approaching me with some nasty beast that had a long body, bony legs, and a massive head complete with tusks. "This lovely gal is my bhoarse, Uma."
"A bhoarse?" I could only keep staring as the terrifying, dark grey creature huffed and sneered. Its short legs kept its body relatively close to the ground, and the thing sure looked like it was a force to be reckoned with.
"Nothing's tougher," declared Jirou with a smug grin. "If I ever have someone in my way, I can count on Uma to take care of it." He reached out and stroked its surprisingly smooth fur as if it were an exotic beauty.
"How'd you come up with the name 'Uma?'" I asked dully, unimpressed. I took another look at my fellow Shepherd's ugly new pet. "Don't tell me it's your wife's name." The jab was my reminder to the hotshot that working with him didn't mean that I liked him or even tolerated him.
Jirou didn't seem affected. "Close," he replied casually, his grin unfazed. "It's my mother-in-law's."
I laughed out loud before realizing it, but frowned immediately after and looked away. I didn't want to be anything close to friendly with the man.
Jirou mounted his disgusting pet. "All right, Sweetheart, you ready to go?"
There was no way I was going to let some douche-bag call me Sweetheart all the time. "My name is-"
"Don't tell me your name," he said coldly. "Never tell anyone your name. It's dangerous enough that we're working together as it is."
I recalled him addressing me by my name minutes beforehand. "You know my name..."
"I know your codename." Apparently, he was under the impression that Nalia is simply my 'codename.'
"Right, my codename," I nodded. "But hold on you told told me your actual name! Jirou!" I protested.
"I told you a name, and you can call me it if you want. Our identities have to remain completely confidential. The idea that two Shepherds have even seen each other is unheard of."
I nodded. "That's what Sozin said." As I hopped on Nightmare, a perturbing thought ran through my mind, and I remembered what Mabuk said about Sozin disposing Shepherds. What if this is how he does it? What if he sends another Shepherd to do the job? Paranoid, I glanced at Jirou, my eyes as narrow as Sozin's world view. I trusted my new partner about as much as a farmer would trust coyotes to watch over his chickens.
I looked over at him, and I could see the confidence emanating from his large stature. The man was a giant, with the height and muscle to back him up. "Where are we going?" I croaked.
"We're gonna set up camp in the mountains. I'll tell you about our next mission there."
The fact that Jirou seemed to know what was going on while I remained completely in the dark didn't settle well with me. I just hoped that I wasn't Uma's next meal, and it was at that moment that raisin cookies deceiving me for chocolate chip became the least of my trust issues.
The hump up the mountains was almost entirely silent, and it couldn't have been any more awkward. Every now and then, one of us would open our mouth, only to take a brief inhale and look at the ground.
"So," Jirou started. The break in the quietness startled me. "I, uh- I knocked you out with darts back on The Road."
I twiddled my thumbs. "Oh." What then came from my throat was the most forced laugh in human history. "Ha, so that's why I just woke up in the evening."
"Well," I tried to put on a friendly voice and gave him a verbal elbow-nudge, "nicely done, sir!"
He just glanced at me and then at the ground again. "It's getting late."
"Maybe, but I'm not tired at all because of that nap you gave me, right?"
He chuckled, I think.
"Ahem. Well, where do you want to set up camp?"
"This place is as good as any."
We both dismounted our respective animals, but I stumbled just as I got off, which earned a sarcastic "Don't hurt yourself, Sweetheart" from Jirou.
"I think I can take care of myself," I retorted coolly.
"Sure," he mocked. "I just don't want you to break a nail or anything."
The man was infuriating. He was a cocky, full-of-himself, dickhead. There is no other way to put it. Dickhead. "How long are we going to be working together?"
"Until the job gets done."
At that point, I was almost certain that the "job" was to kill me, and paranoia became my new best friend. Jirou, however, hinted at nothing. "Let's build a fire," he said, "a red one, too."
"How did you know?" I snapped, ready to defend myself, ready to light him up like a firework.
He glared at me quizzically. "You used blue fire when you attacked me, remember? Will you just relax?"
He was right. I had shot a blue fireball at his chest when he confronted me by the pond. "So... you don't care?"
"Of course not," he shook his head. "I don't buy half the crap the government puts out there." As he said this, he assembled a pile of kindling while I created a circle of rocks.
"So you don't think we're demons?" I scoffed.
"Nope. I frankly don't care."
I plumped down on a log, which hurt my ass a lot more than I anticipated. As I bit my lip, Jirou tossed Uma some sort of cracker from his pocket. "I'm not a betting man, but If I was I'd say you're new," he yawned.
I felt uncomfortable with giving away any personal information to a man who could rip my face off like he was peeling off a blister, so I changed the subject. "Did the Fire Lord... promise you anything?" I inquired in a dull tone.
"I'm going to be the next governor of Taku, an Earth Kingdom city we've colonized," he declared proudly. "That's what the contract says."
Unable to believe my ears, I my jaw fell to the ground and my eyes nearly popped out of my skull. "You signed a contract? To be a governor? That's your reward?"
"That's what happens when you take down the Fire Lord's biggest threats. Why do you care? What are you getting?"
He squinted as he stoked the fire, and then he took a seat on a rock. "You're being forced."
"That's not even the worst part." For some reason, I was unable to look Jirou in the eyes, and I could hear my voice quivering as I bit my lip and employed every bit of strength not to cry. "He killed my father. He ripped my sister and I out of our own home. This is the only way I can get her out of prison, assuming she's still alive." So much for not sharing personal information.
Jirou struck me as the kind of man who could never be at a loss for words, but he kept silent, flicking a few embers into the fire. "I, uh. I figured that your relationship with the government would be somewhat... tumultuous, given your status, but I never would have guessed all of that. I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault," I said coldly. "I'm killing to save my sister while you're killing for glory and power."
His lower lip curled in as if he had eaten something acidic, and he glared at me from the other side of the bright orange flames. "There's more to it than that. My mother-in-law, Uma, forced my wife to go with her to Taku. Becoming governor is the only way I can take her back."
"Why don't you just go there right now and take your wife from Uma? Why do you have to be the governor?"
"Because Uma is the governor, and she's also a Wolf."
Our eyes locked across the fire. "You're going to kill your own mother-in-law..."
"I think I might have the bhoarse Uma rip the bitch Uma's head off. I've always had a taste for irony."
That's when I realized I was merely the second craziest person in the Fire Nation.
"So," he stood up. "As for tonight's sleeping arrangements."
"No." I didn't care how hot he was, and he was hot, there was no way I was sharing a tent with that lunatic- not yet anyways. Instead, I climbed a sturdy tree and tied myself to its thickest branch. I never understood why my father imparted in me that lesson when we used to go camping but it finally was put to good use: to stay away from the tempting piece of man-meat below.
Jirou had a good belly laugh over my set-up. "You do realize that binding yourself to a tree is about the dumbest thing you can do in a country where the primary weapon is fire, right?"
His words of mockery went unappreciated. "You come anywhere near this tree and Nightmare will gobble down your two-inch pecker," I warned.
"Trust me, Sweetheart. That branch is the only hard wood you're gonna feel on your backside for a long time."
"Don't forget to bring your telescope into your tent so you can see your dick when you pleasure yourself." I won.
It was the shaking in the bushes below my precious branch that woke me up that night, and after my eyes fluttered open to see the starry sky through holes in the leaves, I became concerned. Something was moving, and it sure didn't sound like Jirou taking a midnight leak.
Peering over at the ground, I could make out Uma asleep next to Jirou's tent, but Nightmare was on his feet gazing suspiciously at something I couldn't see from my vantage point. He started to growl, but then whimpered and fell on his stomach. I slapped my cupped palm over my mouth to avoid making any noise at all, despite how much I wanted to shriek at the sight of my only friend biting the dirt. I could feel my face turning white as snow and a frigid chill crept up my spine. All there was for me to do was hold every single one of my muscles completely still and hold my breath, hoping my existence wouldn't be revealed to the four men who entered my line of sight and approached Jirou's tent in utter silence. I closed my eyes in sheer terror, ready for my tree to become a barbecue at any second.
One of the men leaned into the tent and began to slowly pull open the front flap, with Uma peacefully dreaming beside them. Every exhale I took was the only sound I heard, and my heart was pounding like the beat of a war drum. My eyes were straining to see the mysterious figures in the dim starlight, at least until a new source of light shot out of the tent.
As if a booby trap, the mouth of the tent spat a spiraling ring of flames that blew the intruder out of his shoes, and probably his skin. Then, a half-naked Jirou emerged from his sleeping place and kicked a ball of fire at one of the astonished men.
"Nalia, wake up!" he bellowed. He had engaged the remaining two men in combat, but that was only the second reason for me to descend from my branch. I glanced up and gasped in shock when I noticed the leaves of the tree had been set ablaze, and suddenly I could hear the crackling of old wood as embers danced around my constrained body. I incinerated the rope that bound me and rolled off the branch to crash on the grass beneath me with a thud, and one of the attackers charged at me until the space in between his eyes met the blade of my dagger.
"What's going on?" I cried.
Jirou dove out of the way so Uma could stomp in the fourth man's face with her hoof. "You're about to find out." He ignited a flame in his fist and pulled back his arm for a punch. I was right. This was all part of a plan to get rid of me.
A blazing stream of red shot past my face and lit up the bushes behind me, to the screams of other men I hadn't noticed. When I turned back, ready to thank Jirou for not melting my face off, I saw a canister fall in between our feet before releasing a pungent gas into the air. As soon as it hit my face, my eyes stung like someone had squeezed lemon juice in them, and the tears I cried blocked my vision as I coughed and collapsed on my knees. The collision with the hard ground sent a sharp pain up my legs to my thighs, and I wheezed until the gas finally dissipated.
When my vision was clear again, I spotted Nightmare still out cold and a disgruntled Uma shaking her head vigorously. My aching head was spinning, but I could tell that I was surrounded by fire based on the walls of orange and red surrounding me accompanied by the toxic fumes that penetrated my nostrils. I clung to Uma, and with my remaining upper-body strength through myself on her back. "Let's go!" I barked, tugging on her fur. With some combination of a yelp and snarl, she bucked and darted forward out of the blazing wilderness and onto a clearer path. With the stars as my only source of light, I made out two parallel lines in the dirt and a sea of footprint. It wasn't until that moment I realized Jirou wasn't with me, but I had a feeling I was right behind him.
With every tug of fur came a boost in speed for Uma, and as hard as it was to hold on to her back, I pushed her to the maximum, which, as it turns out, was faster than Nightmare's. She also proved to be faster than the komodo rhino-pulled carriage that eventually appeared ahead of me in shadows. On the carriage was a large box, just big enough to fit Jirou's biceps and quads.
I leaned over Uma's colossal head to block the incoming fire blast before hurling a spinning blue disc of flames at the carriage's back left wheel. With a horrible screeching sound, it skidded to the right and toppled over, leaving an unfortunate komodo rhino stuck on its side, flailing its legs. It was the first thing I incarnated with blue fire. The next was the screaming man who charged at me with a raised sword. I dodged his initial swipe and shoved my open palm in his face to clench down with my fingers and melt the sorry son-of-a-bitch's face off. When he fell on his back, I retrieved his sword.
"I know there wasn't just one of you!" I cried into the darkness. "If you don't wanna end up like your friend you better-" If I didn't catch him out of the corner of my eye, I wouldn't have been able to slice off the tip of his spear and, in a similar fashion, his head.
Uma was a step ahead of me in rescuing her master, and ferocious beast made its way to the metal box incarcerating Jirou, sniffing and then clawing vigorously. I, always being the calm and patient one, carefully approached the cage and looked for some kind of door. What I found was a handle and a lock, which proved no match for my newly acquired sword.
The treasure in the chest was a disoriented and non-responsive Jirou, his hands bound by rope and his mouth gagged with a white cloth. I untied him and force-fed him some water from my canteen. It took a couple of minutes, but eventually he returned to the asshole he normally was. He chuckled when Uma licked his face, and I sat him upright against the overturned carriage where he stayed until he regained enough strength to talk. As he was recuperating, Nightmare appeared behind me and gently nestled his snout against my back, officially sending the message to my mind that the conflict was over.
"They've never hunted me down before."
"The sages. We were attacked by Fire Sages, or at least hit men they hired."
"What? Why would they want to hurt you?"
"They'd want to hurt me because the Fire Lord's suspicions of them are true."
"The Fire Sages are hiding the Avatar."
I was taken back by this revelation, but I knew what this meant for my mission. "So now you know where the Avatar is..."
"Which means I know where I can kill him."
- A "bhoarse" is a hybrid between a wild boar and a horse.
- Uma is Japanese for "horse."
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
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