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Pyres and Storms
April 26, 2013
The world is engulfed in war. Blood has spilled as the Nations contest a balance of power. Avatar Tala must guide the world in order to bring stability back, but must deal with resistance and ancient threats that risk to change the course of the world forever.
Chapter 15: Black River
It is an odd thing to look back on history and think, "Was it so certain that we would succeed?" We certainly didn't think so, we were battered, broken, and beaten so many times from so much blood that we could barely stand for the final test. The test of a master is not how well they fight, but for how long they can stand it. It was here that the Avatar truly proved herself a master. She had been broken, both physically and mentally, then reforged into someone far greater than any man or woman that walked that world.
She was both a hero and a conquerer, an aggressor and defender. That is what was needed of the Avatar, and she gave it, despite the cost it was to her. The Avatar paid a dear price for the people of this world. She gave much and was content with the small reward of happiness she received.
Tala, Liam and Rishu walked the compound at Iseran. Things here were in a state of panic. With the siege lifted, no one knew exactly the enemy's next move. Would they march as one and challenge the army they beat back? Or would they split and hit from all over?
Rishu led the way with the air of confidence and power that he always had. The men were inspired when he passed, whispers of the Black Dragon's return had come. It was morale boosting. But Tala and Liam knew better. He was paler than normal and veins showed where clean skin was before. Rishu had not fully recovered from the Storm Grave.
Tala wondered how it would effect his combat capability. She recalled Lira's last words to her as they left Ba Sing Se with the Earth King's reinforcements.
"Look after him, please, for me."
She nodded her consent, but when Lira left, it was doubt. Look after him, did anyone ever have to look after Rishu? She had the feeling that he always watched over others, that no one ever had to look out for him since he was a child. Despite her doubt, she was the Avatar, if anyone could do it, it was her.
Rishu turned to enter the building. As they reached the war room, Kuir was looking over a surveillance map of the area between Iseran and Omashu. Kuir acknowledged their presence with a nod before returning his gaze back to the map. The look on his face was one of guilt.
She didn't know Kuir very well, but she knew enough to see that he took the failure of the siege as a personal failure. His absence from the siege was something he would carry with him for a long time.
Rishu began the conversation, "Have we had any new developments?"
"Your recon sent these pictures and maps," he gestured to the map, "The armies are largely condensed but seem to have split into two forces that will likely break off soon."
Rishu observed the map and accompanying pictures for some time, "My math seems to be off."
"I know, this army is far larger than it should be, even with all the mercenaries."
Colonels and generals soon filed in, as did the Dragon Commanders behind Grand Admiral Alov and Grand General Toz, as well as the Captain of the Royal Guard. Others soon followed, Ralyn, Hava, and Ustad entered the war room. Everyone except Tala, Kuir and Rishu sat down for a briefing.
Rishu addressed the group of important military officials, "Good, everyone's here. Now bad news first. The siege is broken and the main forces are all but shattered. Based on the reconnaissance, the army of Omashu seems to be two fold larger than it should be and they are splitting in two, likely a tactic to hit us from the sides."
Kuir started, "The good news? Our reinforcements are some of the best forces in the world, the Royal Guard and the Dragons. The Wolves have not betrayed their contract. And we have both Clan Rohan and the Dai Li at full fighting strength."
The officers and leaders talked among themselves briefly when Kuir looked to an analyst, "Colonel Shin, you are an expert, what do you make of these movements and how would you explain this oversized army?"
A thin man stood up. He was young for a colonel and had the gold lining that said he was not far from a promotion. The young officer looked at the maps for a time before he answered, "The army is this large for several factors. The mercenaries are augmenting the size by adding some three to four thousand fighters. The armies of Omashu themselves are great because all the forces of the region rallied here when the war began. Still, that would not explain this army. With the previous factors, Omashu would have somewhere near twelve thousand in fighting strength, they have over twenty."
Muttering began and Toz spoke up, "How did they get those numbers?"
The colonel spoke without hesitation, "The United Forces," more muttering and a "How is that possible?" followed.
The officer continued, "The formations and colors here signify the uniforms and tactics of the United Forces mountain divisions, the guerrillas that have been plaguing us in the Air Nation."
No one liked that concept. The United Forces seemed to have fallen over when the war began. Little did they realize that they hid in the mountains, waiting till the invaders had a false sense of security, then attacked in a bloody guerrilla campaign.
The scourge of the occupation were these small units of guerrilla who disappeared into the mountains they came from. It was soon discovered that their headquarters was a massive base that was led by General Quru. The base was hit hard by Dragon Corp saboteurs, but it was still uncertain whether the base was active despite severe bombings from Fire Nation air forces.
General Siil spoke, "How did they get there? There has been no reports of movements between the mountains and Omashu."
"My guess is that tunnel that Avatar Tala had destroyed. They must have began digging again and head north instead of south, opting for manpower over supplies."
Tala thought on the ancient tunnel. A massive marble-encased hole in the earth. Kuir had tried to use it to sneak into the palace in order to capture Urri. Tala among other defenders had held off the assault but would not be able to keep Kuir from trying again. Tala had collapsed the structure with the Avatar State and assumed that was the end of it. Apparently Urri still had plans for it.
The colonel let this settle before he continued to the next subject. The army they were facing was larger than theirs, a shift from the status quo.
"The other question was about movements, my lord, yes?"
"Mm-hm," he nodded in confirmation.
"I would guess that based on their position and distance from us that they will march on us." He then pointed to the break of forces, "These seem to be the mercenaries here, they are a little more loose and not as columned as the Omashu and United Forces. They will split off and circle around to hit us from the flank while we are confronting the main force head-on."
"Is there a way to stall the break off and keep the two forces separate?"
The colonel looked on, not sure how to answer. Hava stood up, "Here."
Everyone looked to a black stripe on the map. Hava continued, "This is Black River. With winter, it is shallow because of the snow in the mountains and its high altitude. It is a fast way to cross with a shallow point here," he pointed to a particular spot.
"From here, they can cross quick and join battle with fearsome speed. Likewise, that crossing is narrow, we can stall them or even break them there."
"How much will we require in manpower to hold the river?"
"Two to three thousand at least."
Kuir and Rishu looked at here other, "Our regular forces number just over sixteen thousand. If we are to face the main force, we cannot break that much off."
Ralyn inquired, "What about our irregular forces?"
General Siil inquired, "What do you mean?"
Ralyn answered while sitting in a rested and relaxed position, "I have over five hundred Wolves, almost a hundred Air Nomads, and some hundred Dai Li. Also there are the Dragons, nearing another hundred. That is eight hundred, combined with other special forces, we might be able to hold, as long as we properly use the element of surprise."
Kuir looked on in doubt, "Eight hundred against four thousand?" Kuir shook his head, "That will be a slaughter. Even if we could muster another thousand men for you, you will be outnumbered far more than two-to-one."
Ustad answered, "We have no choice, if the mercenaries can back up with the armies on the field, we will be done for."
Alov agreed, "The forces at the river will have the thickest fighting, but if its our best, they have a chance of holding. I will put my men to it, that's another two hundred."
Rishu agreed as well, "The Imperial Firebenders that are here can join them. We can scrounge for a couple more troops." Rishu then looked to Alov, "Grand Admiral, can you hold the line at Black River?"
All eyes were on the Sea Wolf. His career was full of victories where he was heavily outnumbered and won. He concerned himself more with quality over quantity. Standing up, "I will hold the river."
Kuir agreed out of necessity, "Very well, the rest then will take to the field against the United Forces and Omashu. The best of luck, to all of you. You are heading to the maw."
Worries and Words
Tala stood with Hava, pacing, "Master, I know we need everyone that can be mustered at Black River, you will need my help."
Hava shook his head, "No, Tala. You need to lead the battle itself. The armies need to see you and where you are fighting. They will not see that at Black River."
"You will be outnumbered three to one!" Tala was using the latest numbers, the defenders of the river would have less than fourteen hundred men at arms against the four thousand that were marching that way.
"That is our burden to bear. You need to be on the field to face Lenet. She will be there with her monsters, stop her."
Tala's shoulders slumped in recognition and admittance of that fact. She needed to defeat Lenet, or else she would slaughter the enemy in waves of sorcerous monstrosities.
"Master, you will be slaughtered," a tear was forming in the emerald eye.
"Does that mean what we did was in vain? Tala, sacrifice is not the sole domain of the Avatar. It is something we must all do. It can be as little as eating less to stay healthy to as great as life to save a loved one. We are aware of the choices and the consequences."
She exhaled, accepting his resolve, "Keep an eye out for Kulek then, will you? I know I didn't end things right, but-" She couldn't quite put words to finish her thought. Hava nodded his response nonetheless.
Into The Fire
Tala sat on the saddle of her most loyal friend. Behind her was Liam, tension was present. Liam was 'old-fashioned'. He felt battle was the domain of men. Tala was a stick in his theory. Despite that, Tala would agree with him. Most women were emotional and did not have the same qualities required for war and battle. Still, she knew that was not a blanket for all women. She was one of several examples, Ralyn was another and so was the Fire Lord.
"Tala, if something should happen, I want you to know-"
With an annoyed voice, "I don't want to hear it. I am about to go to battle against a witch that can turn trees into giants that can't be killed. Your master is weaker than he has ever been and we are about to face an army that is eager to cut us apart. Do you really think now is the time to add on any more pressure on each other?"
He smirked, "I guess not."
Tala turned to face him, "I know, Liam, and so do I."
Her eyes gave a message that was far greater than words, the light of her emerald on his grey was soul-reaching. He smiled at the reassurance of something he had never really expressed to except family.
The army reached the valley that would soon become the field of battle between the great armies in the world. The enemy had yet to arrive. One of the concerns was that an air force from Omashu would strike first. Rishu assured them that his fleet would be more than enough to counter and repel any force they had.
Waiting even for minutes was agony. She looked at Rishu. She was expecting the Grand Marshal to wear one of his suits of armor, either his black or his Sky Dragon armor. Instead, he wore light flowing robes. They were tight around his chest but loose below his waist in a flowing manner.
On his waist was a black sheath that had a golden rose insignia. Tala had seen the weapon in action and wanted to know how it could do what it did. "Rishu, what is that sword really?"
Rishu chuckled as he tapped the handle of the sword, he looked around to ensure that no one was listening in, "Its called a Ghost Sword. Ancient weapons for a war long before the era of bending. These weapons have untold power and can do amazing things."
"You said before that it was in the vaults, were there any others?"
"No, I have searched all over the world for such a weapon as this one and have had no luck finding one. But I suspect that the Earth King's family has one too. The Snowbold dodged me when I inquired about it."
"Are you sure there were others anyways?"
"In the old days, there were at least six. The Mortal Blossom, the greatest sword of them all. The Raven Rose, this great lieutenant. The Fire Lily, a courageous blade. The Storm Flower, the witch blade. The Thorn Cutter, a painful weapon. And the Black Soul, the foulest of them all. Those are the only ones that records exist of, and I have one of the only copies."
"What did they do?"
"Another time, Tala, when we don't have the fate of the world on our hands."
He was right. They had to put their test at hand above anything else. At last, they came. Armies marched and the footsteps clapped against the earth. Over twenty thousand strong and ready to take out their anguish and suffering on the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom forces that had kept them bottled up in Omashu.
At the head of the army emerged the very thing Tala feared. Over a dozen of the demons that had proven hard to kill were at the vanguard of the enemy march. Behind them were the leadership of the resistance.
Urri stood at the forefront in royal robes that were less splendid than usual and gave hint of the armor beneath. On his right was Kuel, Grand Lotus and powerful firebender. On his left was the witch Lenet, but something was off. They could feel that it was Lenet, but before them was a young woman, pale with white hair and green cat eyes."Someone got some work done."
She soon saw that the flanks each held commanders too. On one side stood Chief Arkoda of the Southern Water Tribe leading his wolf warriors and waterbenders. On the other side, leading the United Forces, was General Quru.
Tala almost whispered it, "Impossible, Lira and I killed him."
Kuir grunted, "Kill that old bastard? Hah! I'll take care of my old master." A dark look took Kuir's face with a murderous glee. He then went to lead the flank against Quru.
Rishu looked to Liam, "You know what to do."
"Yes, sir, it will be taken care of," Liam mounted up and took to lead the forces opposite of Arkoda. Liam gave her a quick smile before he went to face off his target.
Tala looked to Rishu, they were now at the center, "And us?"
"Deal with Lenet, I'll keep the others off your back."
"And those things?" She referred to the monstrosities that were a thorn in battle.
"If they come, I'll try to take them out, but no promises. I suspect that she will send them after our troops to demoralize them."
Tala looked at the battle to come. The leaders had split now to fight. Each had a duty, a destiny. Kuir against Quru, Liam against Arkoda, Rishu against Urri, and her against Lenet.
The armies began their march as fates would be made and destinies would end. Tala sat with her muscles tensed, ready to fight, to end this. But her thoughts weren't on herself. They were there for her father and her family, the Dai Li were possibly going to their death. She also thought of Liam, he was going against a swordmaster at command of Rishu. Would she see them at the end? Would she live to see it?
The march moved faster, feet hit the ground harder and a breath before the plunge took the field. As if agreed, the forces charged forward. The roar of the beasts that had plagued the city deafened the field before they ran forward.
Tala whistled a sharp tune and Ilan sprinted with all haste. Rishu yelled in an odd tongue and Kohlen charged, close behind her. The Black Dragon drew the Raven Rose as he commanded his men forward.
The space between closed and soon it was the silence that people craved. Blood was what came next, and screams.
Tala sent blistering waves of fire after the first of the beasts that had galloped after her, they stopped stunned when the unnatural sharpness of a black blade opened their hides. A white flame hit true and ignited them. They fell defeated as the two kept running forward.
Lenet could easily be seen, as could Urri and Kuel.
A sick and evil voice came from the witch, "You never learn do you, children?"
As battle began, Kuir charged forward. Speeding forward with bending he readied himself to take on his old earthbending master, the man who taught him everything it was to be a man.
Quru had also sped forward and now were soon ready to meet. Creating columns and walls of stone to narrow and divide the enemy troops, the Crown-Prince charged straight for the General of the United Forces.
As a student, he had always gone for the high strike down, it was a weakness that was trained out of him. Remembering that as Quru was only feet away, he slid down with a clawed hand to hit his knee and tear it apart.
The knee, in fact the whole leg, was gone. A shadow passed over his face as the large man leapt over him, "You have to be quicker than that boy!"
Landing, he readied to strike the prone Prince when a shoulder in his chest halted him. A flurry of punches came as an armored warrior attacked. The Royal Guards had once called Quru a brother until he left and joined the United Forces. This defection was so treasonous to the Royal Guards, they would have blood if they could get it.
Quru easily parried the fist and with a metalbending punch, impaled the guard's chest and caved it in with one hit. The crack of a metal cable whip came after him and he ducked to see more guards had arrived.
Two whips launched for him, catching them in his hand, he pulled the men to him and struck them with a fist of stone.
Kuir was soon swarmed before he could join the skirmish by United Forces grunts. A firebender charged him with fury and flame. Coming in close, an elbow cracked his face and knocked him out. A waterbender tried to take the offensive, but he just dug them into the ground. An earthbender tried to keep the Prince a distance away but didn't have the skill or power to.
Grabbing him and lifting him over his shoulders, he brought the body down onto his knee and broke the man in a single strike. Throwing the lifeless body aside, he returned his attention to Quru. The traitor had taken out three more Royal Guards and was now engaged with Captain Lee while the rest were now pitched in battle with the army.
Lee was one of the finest of the Royal Guard and a persistent warrior, but Quru was the best they ever had in their ranks and wore the captain down. On his knee, battered, he waited for the final blow from the massive warrior only to be saved by his master.
A strong kick across his chest forced Quru to back off and face his student.
"Good, take advantage of distraction. You learned one lesson since I taught you then. Let's see if you learned anything else."
Boulders collided and slides of earth broke each other. Kuir and Quru knew each other's styles too well, for it was the same. Bending would not decide this, physical combat would.
Kuir charged forward with a powerful punch. The red and white robed general barely got his arms up in time to block it and had to hold the defense and strike after strike came. Unfortunately, Kuir took too long after the fifth strike and his old master pounced.
A bone shattering punched stumbled the sturdy prince. Still reeling, he took his disc hat and shield himself from the next strike. A thud hit, again and again. Suddenly, the steel hat dented as the general enhanced his strikes with metalbending.
Barely staying balanced, the powerful punch that Quru put all his weight into sent Kuir flying. Thrown by the force into one of the very walls he created, Quru jumped after him and attacked.
Fists crashed into the wall making small craters as Kuir dodged left and right. Quru hadn't lost a step since he left, if anything, he improved. Kuir sent a knee up into his opponent's chest, giving him plenty of space to spin an elbow on give the older warrior a good tap into the chin.
He needed to take the offensive. Quru was too powerful to let him lead the fight. Clenching his fist he threw his weight and muscle into a strike, letting his fury at his old master's betrayal. While reeling, Kuir kept hitting while yelling, "You were the best! You had everything! Respect! Influence! Wealth! And you threw it all away! For what?"
Quru rolled back and away from the savage assault he had suffered, "Honor, something you and your father have lost."
"Honor is one attribute of many, and one we can't afford in this world. Especially when our 'neighbor' is land of a treasonous province. And you would join them, you would betray your brothers and join those who stole our land and our people?!"
Kuir had renewed fury, he would not hear about honor from a man who defected from the personal bodyguards of the Earth King. Gripping his dented disc hat, he charged forward and struck forward with a snake strike.
Hitting his chest, Quru backed up unsteadily as the two fought for tooth and nail. Broken bones and shattered skin and rent armor was about as they ripped at each other. Kuir could feel his ribs crack but knew that he had blood on his fist as he kept pummeling his master.
Ending it, he shot his fists out and gripped the open throat of the United Forces General. Unable to break the grip, Quru fell to his knees as the Prince looked on in determined exhaustion as he readied for the final blow.
A bright explosion of light took his eyes and he lost all focus as he and all those around looked up into the sky.
Liam marched forward with his men as battle began. Drawing his Jian, he cut down any who crossed him, bender or not. His steel sang a sweet note as it cut flesh. The weapon was him and he was the weapon as more fell to his fighting style.
Liam recognized an approaching enemy. Uluk, Chief Arkoda's right-hand man. Holding a ringed guan dao called the 'Wolf's Head' for its iconic design on the hilt around the blade of the spear. He had last fought the wolf warrior on the Day of Black Sun when he and his master, Rishu, tried to hold off Arkoda's raiding party. Uluk had proven a tough combatant, and held out long enough for back up to arrive. Uluk had an army behind him now, and so did Liam.
Uluk gripped his spear tightly as he charged forward. A powerful thrust shot forward that would have been enough to tear ribs out. The skilled captain sidestepped the hit and sent a back-swinging sword after the tribesman.
Turning the spear sideways, it caught the blade with the polearm. Uluk had trained long and hard to have a weapon that was both functional and unusual in a technological world. He could both hunt and fight with it, and the few weapons masters left were unprepared for it.
Using the range he spun wide strikes to keep the Fire Nation swordsman back. Controlling the distance of the fight gave him the advantage.
Liam leapt and ducked under the long spear, he needed to get close and finish off the wolf warrior if he wanted his prize.
In an impressive display of speed, Liam's sword spun circles around Uluk's spear, even delivering cuts on his forearms twice. Uluk used the spear as a staff to block fast strikes with minimal effort.
Liam was a better warrior, that was for sure, Uluk's only chance was the range he had with his guan dao. A wide swipe forced the agile Fire Nation Captain to fall back. With all his strength, the Water Tribe warrior thrusted, it would end this fight.
Liam easily foresaw the maneuver and countered with an end-move. Sidestepping the thrust by as little as he had to, his left hand grabbed the shaft of the Wolf's Head. He lifted his sword high and brought it down with incredible force to shatter the halberd from its staff. In one movement, Liam spun backwards and threw his weight into the blade of the spear as he thrust it, landing it perfectly, right into the heart of its owner.
Uluk stood there, unable to move as his own weapon was turned against him. Liam was too good for him to fight, and he should have realized that sooner. Now he paid the final price. He could only hope he wore down the agile officer enough for Arkoda to finish him.
"Uluk!" Arkoda looked on in terror as his best friend fell to the floor with a broke piece of his own weapon lodged in his heart. Standing over him was the sly back up to Rishu from the Day of Black Sun.
He quickly looked up to see Arkoda on a ridge charging him. He smiled, as if being granted a wish. Readying their swords, the two clashed. Two jians, two masters, but only one outcome.
With blades locked, Arkoda was close and used an elbow to push the young man back. His blue eyes looked on him venomously, "You are foolish, boy. That was my best friend."
"Then you shouldn't have sent him to do your work."
Arkoda stabbed after the heart of his enemy. With a downward cut, Liam redirected the strike. A thrust of the blade shot for the Chief's head. Arkoda turned his neck, seeing the blade was only centimeters from his eyes.
Again the blade came at him. The boy was fast, he was thrusting, pulling back and attacking again in seconds. He was barely avoiding the stabs. Arkoda had only heard of this style, he never met someone who practiced it, let alone mastered it. The boy must have spent years alone teaching himself without someone to learn from.
He swept low for the young man's exposed knee. "Why do you hate me so much?"
"You," he parried and countered, "have been a plague to me my whole life."
"We never even met before this war," Arkoda could hardly understand how this boy could have so much hatred for him. He put both of his arms into a cutting strike.
The Fire Nation officer rolled and back-swung his Jian after Arkoda.
"I lived my life in your shadow. Anything I did with the sword was compared to you. If I mastered a technique, it was measured to you. When I learned to dual wield and craft, I was judged by your standard."
"My whole life was dominated with being compared to a man I never met!" He struck at the chief with a savage strike.
"That says more about you and your teachers than it does me." With blades locked, he put his weight into it, he had at least fifty pounds of muscle on the young man.
"Perhaps, and you'll join them soon." A gleam of a killer took Liam's face. Hatred of something so strong that no reason could pierce the veil was at work. Arkoda had seen it before and knew there was no stopping it with anything but a sword through the heart.
Liam would kill him or die trying, there was no other alternative.
Black and silver steel crashed against each other and sang a sad note. Captain Liam of the Fire Nation was determined to kill Chief Arkoda of the Southern Water Tribe. Their rivalry was shaped by years of comparison of the child to the master, growing a dislike until it became hatred.
Arkoda fought with his all and didn't know if it was enough. The raw hatred from the young swordsman and his fast agility was daunting. His advantages over the fierce opponent were few; his Space Sword, and his strength. Liam was younger and smaller than him by virtue of muscle.
With heavy-handed strikes, he beat back the nimble fighter. Just as he pushed him back, a flood of troops from both sides entered the space they had been fighting. Firebenders charged him while his Wolf Warriors cornered Liam.
Heavy cuts cleaved a way through the Fire Nation troops as Arkoda readied to face Liam again. He looked in shock as his men were slaughtered like sheep by a vicious animal raging and screaming, "Fools! You think you can fight me?"
He mercilessly killed them all, even impaling one multiple times in a frenzy of bloodlust. His blue armored warriors were covered in red blood. They suffered what Liam wanted to do to him. He had lost all the restraint a swordmaster was taught in life. He had abandoned it for the ultimate goal.
Taking a stance as Liam charged, he took the same style that had given him the edge against the Black Dragon. A fierce war cry came from him as he attacked with fury. Striking again and again, he gave Liam no chance to recover, beating him back.
Attack after attack made the young warrior recoil. Stepping back, Liam was put at odds. He had always taken the offensive, even if deceptively, but Arkoda was now pushing him back with a savage attack pattern. He was barely able to get his blade up after each strike.
He sidestepped the thrust and his eye caught a gleam as a katana reflected light from the cloud covered sky. That was his opportunity, let Arkoda take him to success.
Pushing him back to the bodies of his fallen comrades, Arkoda kept up his assault. Liam kept falling back, unable to counter. At this rate, he would soon beat down and tire the young officer.
Finally, Liam seemed to tire, breathing heavily and panting. Arkoda raised his blade, ready to finish this in one clean stroke and give the poor kid that mercy at least.
As the black blade sped down, Liam fell back, now feet away from Arkoda. He rushed forward with his sword low to the ground. As he ran by, his left hand flashed and Arkoda realized the error he had made. A storm of swords came for him as Liam now carried one of his men's katana in his left hand and spun around with dual strikes.
With the speed that he had behind his stabbing strikes before, he hit after Arkoda again and again. The two silver blades against his black Jian furiously danced. Arkoda let his sturdy blade take the brunt of the hits, he didn't know how long he could handle a master like this with two swords.
Light on his feet, Liam attacked. Arkoda had fallen for his feint. He now was using an old and forgotten style of dual wielding. His ancestor had excelled at it but rejected it for the elegance of one weapon.
Liam liked it, the rush of speed and power, and the fear of his opponent. He blocked with the katana and thrust with his own. He finally was getting results as he saw Arkoda grimace as he placed a cut across his back.
"You are a good master, Arkoda, but you let your pride expand your legend beyond its truth, and now you face the price!"
Arkoda tried ignoring his taunts but thought on it. As a young man himself, he was humble and reserved. But he wanted more; more respect and recognition. He had lauded his skills wherever he went. Was it that behavior that led so many to call him the greatest swordsman alive? Or was it his own hubris? Now it came back to haunt him in the form of a boy who lived in his shadow, desperate to get out of it and make his own, he would kill to make a name.
Arkoda may never have meant this boy harm or grief, but his pride and determination to make himself a legend had a negative effect on this child, and now it was time to pay the price.
"I will kill you, and there will be no doubt who is the master!"
Arkoda's eyes watched in horror at the master move played out and he could do nothing to stop it. With both his katana and jian in reverse grip, Liam had forced Arkoda to strike low. With lightning speed, the katana crashed down and blocked the Space Sword from coming back up. To keep it there, Liam stomped with his boot onto its hilt, forcing Arkoda low to hold his sword.
He was open when the reverse gripped jian came right for his chest. Blood and screams of pain took Arkoda as Liam's sword hit its mark, his right shoulder. A clean stab, it was past his collarbone and still in of his shoulder, ripping his muscles and flesh with no resistance.
The pain was unbearable, his hand was dead in place and let go of the Space Sword as Liam's sword cut through muscle and bone. His right arm was useless with a sword in his shoulder. But as the young man pulled the blade out, Arkoda saw an opening. He could not win, but he could make sure Liam went down with him.
Drawing his left arm across, he reached for the heavy kukri at his waist. As he felt the blade completely leave his body, he swung from his waist to his upper left shoulder with the heavy machete and saw the blade cut deep into the chest of the young officer.
All his strength left him and he fell to his knees as he held his bleeding shoulder.
Stepping back, Liam clutched his bleeding chest tightly as his right hand held his Jian loosely. He was faltering.
"Damn you, Arkoda!" He grunted while breathing heavily, coughing up blood "You can't even die without causing me trouble!"
Like Arkoda, he fell to a knee, too weak now to continue. Now it was a question of who could muster the strength for a final blow. Liam gripped his blade tight as he tried to stand up, Arkoda tried to muster his strength to stand, but he couldn't. His heart beat frantically as his shoulder bled profusely, he had lost. He didn't even have the strength to stand. Was this how it ended?
Before they had their answer, a bright light in the sky blinded their eyes as the wind howled and a voice spoke ominously.
Ralyn looked at the river with a purely analytical mind. The river had largely been avoided in its history because of its black rock riverbed. It was at first thought to be cursed and then polluted. It wasn't until just decades ago that it was just onyx sand that gave it a black tint.
Use of the river had expanded, mostly to commercial reasons, but the very reason they were here was one such advantage of it.
"This is good ground to hold," The Sea Wolf spoke out loud, commenting his approval of the battlefield.
Ralyn looked at her younger brother. He was different, just like her and that made it worse. They were too much alike and yet not enough to get along. Alov was cold and cruel, he wanted see things burn, to see people burn. Despite this madness, he was an amazing warrior and a great leader in war.
"We need to keep them on the river. If they get to this side, it is over."
"Agreed, the river is the line, we hold it or die."
Ralyn looked at the forces that were present. Her Wolves were the largest faction, next were the Dai Li, the Dragons and the Air Nomads. The army was able to scrounge reinforcements from the siege forces, men who had not been demoralized and were hungry for payback against the mercenaries. Every element was accounted for in their numbers, but there was no true unity to them.
As a whole, they never fought together. This was no army.
The footsteps of death came as four thousand mercenaries marched on the river. The Seasons, the Spirits, the Mantis, the Desert Winds, all of them.
At their head, the leaders of the Seasons and the Spirits, the most powerful companies of mercenaries in the world and the most eager for power. Vurmaq and the Spirit of Revenge stood ready and waiting.
A hungry man, Vurmaq looked ahead as their forces reached the river. There were some few hundred waiting on the other side, but in the middle of the river was one who should have been with them. Ralyn was the commander of the Wolves, an all waterbender company who so happened to be bloodbenders too.
In her iconic wolf armor, she stood there alone. Vurmaq spoke to the man beside him, "Never did get wise that one. Always had to fight back, even when she was a member of the Seasons."
"That says more about your training than her personality," the man in the emotionless metal mask spoke. Rarely did Spirits speak to anyone that wasn't their own, "Regardless, she's made her bed here on the river, time to put her to rest."
Vurmaq yelled with his great voice, "Give up the river, She-Wolf!"
"Make me!" every word dripped with defiance.
He laughed, "I was hoping you would say that!"
He looked to the army of mercenaries behind him. He twitched his neck towards the river, and the men ran forward. Readying to kill the lone waterbender.
Drawing his swords, a Spirit inched closer. He was a foot away when a seven-foot spike of ice impaled him from the water. Ralyn didn't even flinch, rather, she flicked some blood off her chest plate.
The others leapt back and clenched their teeth fearfully. They charged together, readying with fire and earth. Rather than back away, she ran forward. Her hands extended like claws and talons came out, made of ice.
With bloody gore, she ripped out the firebender's throat, watching coldly as he fell to the floor where his red blood joined the Black River. The earthbender lobbed two disc after her. Just as he readied to kick up more earth, he bent now, seeing his legs were frozen in place.
Coming in, the Crescent Wolf grabbed him by the chin and slit his throat with a single ice claw. Blood sprayed as all watched.
"Well, so much for that," Vurmaq crossed his arms and looked to his men, nodding.
With a large battle cry, the hundreds surge forward. A roar as many came, the thirst for blood and profit ever set on their minds. The meager forces of the Dai Li, Ba Sing Se Regular remnants and Fire Nations forces charged to challenge them.
Ready to wipe them out, they charged heedlessly. Not noticing what was truly beneath them. Nearly halfway across the river, the trap was sprung. Emerging from the depths of the river, hundreds fell as they were dragged down by unseen forces and mercilessly killed.
After the chaos broke out, the answer to the mercenaries' fear was given. Steaming water emerged as nearly three dozen blue armored dragons and scores of Wolf mercenaries emerged.
The coldness of their souls could freeze the river. Flames from the hissing armor of the Sea Dragons and blades of ice from mercenaries clashed with the flood of men out to cross the forsaken river.
The charging rage of the men was snuffed out like a candle dropped in the flood as the ruthless killers that formed the Dragons and the Wolves held their ground. With claw, blade, and element, they fought the attackers to a standstill, slaughtering them.
Unaffected and uncaring, the Spirit of Revenge watched the slaughter. It was expected that the defenders would have a few tricks up their sleeves, he would. Now that they had played them, the game was set.
"Send the next wave," The Spirit of Revenge spoke as he loosened the chain on his back. More mercenaries moved forward, crossing into the river.
Meeting again, the forces fought each other. The She Wolf and the Sea Wolf led the charge of their motley crew of protectors. The fury of their fire and ice was hard to stand to as they were the spearpoint in a wedge.
A few were holding and breaking into the wedge. Some were even trying to go after the infamous Sea Wolf. Weaving through the columns of bloody ice spikes that Ralyn had made, they faced the true maker of the Sea Dragons, the monster that made monsters.
An intense flame hit the surface of water, forming a hissing steam. A clawed and armored hand punched through the mist and mercilessly ripped out the throat of the mercenary as the dragon-wolf helm looked on with merciless glee.
Water and Earth
The Sea Wolf had been surrounded by hopefuls that thought they could gang up on him and kill him, how sad. Ralyn actually laughed at the thought. Her brother refused to bow to anything, even death.
The She Wolf was forced to face her own challenge as three mercenaries approached. Two were Spirits, the third was her old commander, "Well, well, the She Wolf has made her bed with the dead."
"Coming from the man who has led his company into failure, I'm not concerned with your opinions."
She briefly looked at the other two as a peace came. The two men were known by reputation as the Spirit of Revenge and his loyal lieutenant, the Spirit of Metal. The aloof leader had his arms crossed, bold in a pitched battle. The Spirit of Metal had his unique curved swords.
Taking a stance to fight multiple attackers she smirked, "I see you need friends to even hope of living."
"No, but I would like to get this over with quick, so don't put up a fight please."
A chain swung at her with lightning speed as two boulders sped for her. That was quick, she didn't even see him uncoil his chain weapon. She leapt up high enough to look as the razor sharp chain passed beneath her.
While dodging the two attacks, a note of wind came as a curved blade rushed for her. Rolling back behind a wall of ice, she readied to fire whips at them as her ice cracked.
A flurry of sword work came from the Spirit as he charged closer. Ralyn stepped in, grabbing his elbow and turning. She spun and forced the Spirit of Metal back into his own comrade who had already swung his sharp chain. His screaming mask caught the strike but left a nice gash in it as Ralyn used the distraction to attack Vurmaq.
The older man was a solid statue of muscle as he charged his old employee. A spike of stone rushed for her, but she rode a wave of water to easily surf around it. Disc after disc came for her but hit nothing.
A rain of ice spikes fell after the agile earthbender. A small dome of rocks stopped the projectiles. Before the waterbender could continue, the chain whip returned for her, as did the second Spirit.
No matter how quickly she could beat them back, one would stop her from taking the final blow. She would be tired out before even taking one down at this rate.
Her quiet need for help came as the Spirit of Metal charged her. His left hand, gripping one of his distinctive swords, sliced down. Before he could get close, a steel cuff wrapped around his wrist, and yanked him sideways. At the other end of the chained cuff stood an older man with grey hair and emerald eyes.
"Don't think cutting my daughter will be forgiven with inaction, boy."
Yanking back, Ustad dragged the Spirit to him were a fist of stone crashed into his mask. As the cuff unlinked, the Spirit staggered back. Ralyn liked these odds better, two to three was not so bad.
Ustad easily bombarded the attackers with multiple rocks, some sharp, some blunt, but deadly nonetheless. The Spirits went after him while Ralyn charged Vurmaq.
A flurry of steel, earth, and ice came as the fight began a brutal melee for supremacy of the river. Waves would bat the Spirits away while boulders collided and grenades ignited.
Ustad punched forward, launching his chain cuff, but rather than send it to catch a wrist, he swung it. As a chain with a heavy cuff at the end, the swing worked as a flail, it slapped the Master of the Spirits just behind his cold mask, catching it and ripping it off.
Ustad smirked with a little surprise, "Well that explains why the Spirits had such knowledge of the Earth Kingdom's movements in this war."
Qisas looked at him, seething in rage as he swung his chain for the Dai Li commander. Sidestepping, he rushed forward as a pair of swords crashed for him. With the agility of a younger man, he spun around the man.
With his back vulnerable, he reached for the base of his neck and gripped it with his rock-covered glove. Squeezing tighter, crushing the life out of the Spirit of Metal, "No one touches my daughter," with a final crunch, he let the man drop down.
A searing pain cut him as his side burn with a chain that spiraled past him. He grunted as he ripped out the barbs that got caught.
"Tell me, Qisas, when did you betray your kingdom for a group of cutthroats?"
"A better question is when did my kingdom betray me? And that answer is easy, when I was born in slums and left in the dirt."
"Everyone should be born in dirt, boy," Ustad chuckled as he shook his head at the traitor, "it is those who rise from the dirt that have earned their place."
"Coming from a child of the Dai Li trash, I shouldn't be surprised that that's what you would say!" The chain sped forward again like a striking snake. Whirling forward with just inches past his ear, Ustad sped forward, and punched into the Spirit's chest with powerful force.
An elbow hit him just below the temple, he kept punching, hearing the damage it was causing. He heard the whistle of the chain as a piercing pain bit into his back. He rammed his head forward, catching Qisas in the bridge of the nose.
As he stumbled back, Ustad pulled the dagger-like end of the chain and grabbed the mercenary commander. Acting fast, he wrapped it around the throat of the dangerous assassin. With all his strength, he tightened the chain as elbows crashed into his ribs again and again as he felt and heard them crack under the pressure. Still, he kept pulling, and kept pulling as every breath left the treacherous Master of Spirits.
Hearing the death rattle come from him at last, he let go and saw as the man fell into the river, unresponsive. He quickly looked over to see Ralyn finish off Vurmaq as she ripped his heart out with claws of cutting ice.
The mercenaries saw their top leaders fall and yet they kept fighting, as if those two weren't the backbone of this army. Instead, another wave charged the tired and battered defenders. The protectors of the river had one last card to play, and it was not a guarantee by any shot.
Hava looked from the peak with concern. He had watched as Ustad and Ralyn brutally killed both the Seasons and Spirits' leaders, and still the mercenaries charged forward, as if they were under another's command.
Hava looked out to those he commanded, a chirp on the radio meant that Grand Admiral Alov had given the cue for their turn to fight, they were the last wave of reinforcements for the defense of Black River. Nothing would come after them, they had to be enough. Their advantage had to do enough, advantage of the sky.
He looked at them and nodded his head as near three dozen men and women donned fierce Dragon Helms. Tapping his staff against the ground, it spread out fanned wings of orange cloth. A Sky Dragon approached and started chattering, "You sure you could hold me? I got no interest in smacking into the cliff because you can't carry another guy."
"Have some faith, Box," Hava looked to the battle on the river, "worry more about what happens when we get to the river."
"Oh, that's easy. We land, we fight, we kill. That or die."
Hava rolled his eyes, this particular Sky Dragon was infuriatingly annoying. Somehow, the other Sky Dragons were unfazed with his constant talking, how was beyond him.
The battle below grew louder as they approached ever closer on their gliders above. They could not see the intimate details as they had remained in the rainclouds, waiting for the moment to strike.
Hava led as Box held onto him. Diving straight down, he readied to hit with as much force as his airbending could muster. Giving the defenders some breathing room would be needed. He was about to spin and stopped, repeating it, he signaled Box to let go as he kept diving.
He still fell with gravity, ready as he ever would be, to have to kill in order to win. The clouds cleared and a mass of bodies, blood and water filled his eyes. The horror and violence below was sickening as man tore each other apart.
Collapsing his staff, he tightened his hands and tucked in. With just feet between him and the ground, he punched down and let out all the power he had been charging in his dive.
He felt the ground shake as others followed suit. Air blew past and ricocheted, creating a space between those holding the river and those taking it.
The enemy charged again after Black River when fire from above rained on them. The delay of the falling Dragons had been enough to be forgotten in the skies. Flames burned flesh to ash as the black armored killers descended.
Now all the Dragons were there and with the ferocity and bloodlust of their namesake. With clawed gloves, they attacked and ruthlessly battered down their foes. Hava noticed that there were just one too many Sky Dragons.
"Lira? What are you doing here?"
"Doing my duty as a Dragon Lieutenant!" The lithe Sky Dragon leapt over a man, bathing him in white fire. She disappeared in a flood of attackers.
He didn't have time to concern himself with Rishu's wife as a blast of power sent him back. It felt odd and yet familiar at the same time.
A clearing in the waves of flesh that composed his enemy came. Standing in that clearing was the impossible, a man that had died over a decade ago. He was older, but his features were like looking in a mirror, a twisted mirror.
The grey eyes that looked back at him were cruel and full of hatred. His tattoos were heresy, black over the lines that mark a master.
"Greetings, Master Hava, it has been too long."
Hava looked in shock as a man in black and red stepped forward. It was impossible. His nephew, Qatil, who he cared for like a son, had died. And yet, he stood before him, changed, and not for the better.
"I saw you die."
"Did you? Or is that what you told yourself? That way you wouldn't have to hold any responsibility for me."
"If I knew you were alive, I would have dug you out with my bare hands."
"Tell that to Lio all you want, but don't lie to me, Hava!" A punch shot forward and a massive sphere sped for him.
Hava easily made the technique to block a move he taught Qatil himself. He was in confusion when the blast broke his shield and forced him into the water. That blast was too strong for even Qatil to have produced.
He got up as he heard a splash of water and saw Qatil in the air rushing for him. A sweep of his staff sent a thin blade after the exile.
Qatil kicked through it as if it was nothing. Landing in front of him, he punched, Hava was able to direct the punch away but felt that something was off. Even if Qatil had formally mastered air, he shouldn't have been this powerful. It was unnatural. Only one other bender in the world came to mind with this kind of power, Rishu.
"I have spent years waiting for this moment, when I could kill you. This will not, however be the end. When you fall, I will go after Lio and then the rest of that horrid Jinora clan that betrayed me."
Hava was about to deny the claim but lacked the conviction. The fact was the clan had betrayed him. Clan Jinora was in a tight bind for its hereditary leadership and the clan was eager to prove itself of the claim. Qatil's incident proved ample opportunity for them to clear their name of such an ancient system.
Qatil was thrown to the wolves for political convenience. How could Hava refute that? Worse, he stood by and did nothing. It plagued Hava and ruined his relationship with his sister.
A flurry of attacks batted at each other. Hava was the strongest airbender in the world and yet his nephew was steadily beating him back. Qatil was too strong for him. Every move, every hit was stronger than his own and he was losing ground to his attacks.
A fast kick seemed to end it faster as Hava hit the floor hard and looked up to see the malicious stare of his own blood ready to kill him.
He heard the crack of wood and a grunt from Qatil as he stepped away. His view was now dominated by two Air Nomads.
"Get up, you idiot!" Simi was the only Rohan who would talk to him that way, the other nomad was young but a master, Kulek.
"Who is that?" Kulek only knew bits of the true tale.
"Qatil Jinorra, my nephew."
"I thought he was dead?"
"So did everyone else."
Simi shook his head, "Worry more about his marks. Those are a challenge. Those black tattoos have many messages to them. Heresy, supremacy, and revenge being the easiest to tell."
"You forget hatred, Master Rohan!" Qatil had already recovered and was now countering. A wave of air slapped them. Simi managed to blunt it, but realized that it was a distraction.
Half a dozen lights flew at them, reflections of steel as the discs whirled at them with deadly speed. The three airbenders easily evaded the current controlled flights of the discs as they spun their way.
They charged their fallen brother. Kulek sent two palm spheres after the black-marked assassin while Simi created a blade of air with his staff. A wall of passing wind dissipated the attacks before they could hit their target. How could he be this powerful?
Hava sped around, riding a sphere of air to flank his nephew. Qatil saw him from the edge of his eyes and spun, an intricate set of twists and hand movements made a twirling cyclone charge for Hava. He had never seen such airbending before.
He knew immediately that he had seen such a form before, in firebending. Qatil was going to adapt firebending forms into airbending to earn his tattoos before he was exiled, specifically the Dragon Forms. He apparently finished adapting it in his exile.
This was even worse. Qatil was supernaturally powerful and now had a new set of attacks Hava and his allies had no defense against.
Spiraling blades of air rushed for them in frantic patterns that were both direct and yet too hard to predict in time. Batted away like flies, Qatil laughed at them, "It seems the pious Air Nomads have not improved anything since my exile. Perhaps its fate that I remove them from this earth and start them anew."
Simi ignored the quip and charged forward. Qatil wasn't the only one to have felt pain. His entire side was burned to coal by Rishu. He had suffered such agony he couldn't even wake up at first. He learned to cope with the pain and soon realized that he had gained power in return for pain.
As a fireball shaped attack of air came for him, he threw his coal-skinned shoulder into it. Te blast dissipated and halted in what should have been a back-breaking strike. Qatil narrowed his eyes, Hava had backup that was tougher than what was expected. The burned Rohan took that hit like it was a balloon.
In a crossed-arm strike, a scissor cut of wind flew for the youngest airbender. He was the weak link and with him gone, he would only have two to do deal with.
Kulek dodged the crossing blades of air and punched forward, catching the assassin on his side and forcing him to stumble slightly. Kulek rushed forward. Qatil was as powerful a master as he had ever met or faced. Hava and Simi were holding their own, but Kulek was losing ground, Qatil was targeting him. He needed to go on the offensive against this enemy or he would be the first one to go down.
Qatil easily dodged as the young airbender tried to tackle him. An elbow in his back pushed him further as the assassin laughed, "You have only fought for a couple of seasons of war, boy. I have fought for as long as you have lived. Nothing you do can stop me."
Simi came to the rescue as his staff struck down for the black tattoo on Qatil's head. A hand shot up and caught the staff before it landed. Qatil quickly twisted his other hand while punching out, sending a torrent right into his chest.
He smiled as he reached into the folds of his outfit to grab a weapon and finish off the close and near Burned Nomad when something hit him from behind. He tightened his grip on the Sai he had just unsheathed and plunged it behind him. Simultaneously, he felt his muscles tense as a burning pain took his back. The shock kept coming. The boy must have grabbed a fallen Spirits' weapon and charged it.
It was everything he could do not to fall into the water in fits. He stabbed deeper back and heard the grunt of pain as it hit its mark. If he was accurate, he had just opened up the boy's liver, and given him a death blow.
Still the boy kept the electrical Kali to his back, forcing his body to convulse. A blunt pain his hit back on the shoulders and the shock stopped but he couldn't move.
Simi hit with all his might. Kulek had just thrown himself into a death move to give him the opening he needed. Qatil was virtually paralyzed from the voltage running through his body but Kulek had fallen into his dagger.
Simi struck again as the stunned Qatil. Getting up and ready to attack with all he had, Qatil looked ahead, "Fools! I'll kill all- uhn!"
A blast hit him into the water as Hava landed. He ran for the fallen and bleeding Kulek.
Simi saw hope, if the stab had been true, Kulek would already be dead, he may still have a chance. "Hava, get him out of here, I'll finish this!"
"Alone? He's too powerful!"
"One of us or both of us will fall," Simi didn't let his face show which he thought it would be, "but it will be finished. Go!"
Hava had forlorn in face, Simi was always the one risking his life. It was his greatest strength, and his greatest weakness. But he had to let the man hold his own. Kulek was his concern. The dagger was still embedded in him. He picked him up and ran for the defenders' side of the river, but there was a mess of bodies killing each other as war waged around them. He furiously tried to get him out of the clash of steel, elements and blood.
TO BE CONTINUED...
- Black River was originally going to be the finale until the author realized that the chapter would have over thirteen sections of story events. The author promptly decided to cut the chapter in half, or close to it.
- Liam has kept his ego about quiet because he knows it would set a red flag for military conduct.
- The Ghost Swords and their history may be explored if a fanon of the ancient past is decided to be developed by the author called .
- ONE MORE CHAPTER LEFT!!!
For the collective works of the author, go here.
Storms of the Future Cycle
|The Journey of Tala|
|Book 1 - Sand and Steel|
|- - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
|Book 2 - Blood and Swamps|
|- - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
|Book 3 - Pyres and Storms|
|- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
|Fates and Vows|
|- - - - - - Ilera - Solace Fade - Scions - Sovereign|
|The Rise of Lirin|
|- In the Morrow - The White Dragon - Faith in Blood - The Great Gates - Lord Avatar - A Red Sun - Faceless - Faction - Tempest - Rally of Crows - Rally of Eagles - Dragons and Serpents - Kings and Men - Storms of a Spirit - Princes - A Battered Land - Seas of Ichor - Arbiter - Return to a Grave - Declination - Disaffection - Epilogue|
|Myths of the Empire|
|Pacification - Assassins - Empire - Red Sun Under The Empire - White Snow - Heirs|
|The Reclamation of Arein|
|Book 1 - Chaos|
|Refugee - Rogue - Ghosts - Dark Roses - Doyen - Divulgence - The Plan - Abscond - Mists of Illusion - Madonna - Syndicate - Playing the Stakes - Purge - Brothers|
|Book 2 - War|
|Alliance - Temple - Tensions - The Fall - Hunters and Prey - Lussuria - Shades of Relevance - Broken Star - Defiler - Strikeforce - Secrets of the Lair - Eminence - Swarm - Wanderer|
|Dreams of Melasa|
|Book 1 - Servant|
| - - - - - - - - - - - - -
|Book 2 - Shadow World|
|Faint but Clear - Ghost in the Steel - Kurotama - Loyalties - Servants of Shadow - Game of Fate - Shadows and Reflections - Tomb of Blood - Broken Blades - Hill of Shadow - Souls and Swords - Home|