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|"Dream of a Distant Past"|
Lost and Found
Dream of a Distant Past
The garden of the Fire Nation governor in the city of Gebel Nagara came to life with the laughter of two young children, the sounds brightening the vivid colors of the trees in bloom. While the older started a countdown, the younger dashed away like a little fox doe through the neatly trimmed bushes.
"Nineteen ... TWENTY! Who's not hidden, will explode!" The girl's face gleamed with excitement as she ran off to go look for her sister. After turning around several trees and pulling away branches, she stuck her head in a bush to see if her prey was there, which was when she heard it; the faintest sound of giggling. She could not help but smile as she moved toward the source. "You know that the whole point of hiding is that I won't find you, right? Being silent is sort of key there." The giggling grew into a suppressed snort. "I got you now." Levitating a small fireball, she pulled away the greenery that served at her sister's last line of defense, though before she could tag her out, a blur of white linen knocked her over in her haste to get away; gazing up, she saw her sister race off like an arrow released from a bow and quickly scrambled to her feet to give chase. "You're fast, La-La!" Her longer legs served her well, and she quickly gained on her sister. "But not fast enough!" Preparing to throw another fireball, the flames already licking her small hand, she saw something that made her stop in her tracks; she nearly slipped and fell in her haste to come to a complete halt; her sister had sought refuge behind a tall, beautiful woman in her end-twenties, clinging to her skirt while sticking out her tongue.
The woman wore the royal robe of the Fire Nation. An elegant tiara, decorated with little flames along the side and an Ureaus in front, adorned her brow. The perfect eye for detail made the engraved fire look like it was dancing in the light. Her long black hair gleamed in the gentle touch of the afternoon sun. She crossed her arms and cast a stern look at the child –a look that did not belong on her soft features. The radiant blue-gray eyes of Fire Lady Amanra made her eldest daughter cringe as only a mother could. "Lostris Kenna Tamose! What have I told you about playing hide and explode with your sister?"
Lostris cowered at her mother's words, and her fireball disappeared like snow in summer's heat. She glanced down, developing an immense interest in her feet. Feeling her mother's burning stare upon her, she fidgeted uncomfortably and slowly looked up to meet that intense gaze. As Amanra arched a questioning eyebrow, Lostris felt like the seconds turned into minutes, hours, even days. Her throat seemed dryer than even the desert surrounding the city when she murmured her reply. "I'm not to play hide and explode with Tayla. She can't firebend yet, so it is unfair and dangerous."
Tayla's indignant voice cut through the air. "I can too!"
"Oh yeah? Prove it." Lostris' eyes twinkled as she provokingly smirked at her younger sister.
"Tayla, sweetie ..." Casting a berating look at Lostris, Amanra tried to hold back Tayla, who looked like a miniature version of herself, though could not prevent the young child from wriggling free and persisting stubbornly.
Tayla took on a firebending stance, her face contorting with effort and concentration, her eyes closed. Taking a deep breath, she thought of how her mother performed the move over and over again; the motions were engraved in her mind, and her body just needed to follow the outlines. Taking a second deep breath, she clenched her little fists in her side, and the words of her mother, whenever she was instructing Lostris, whirled in her mind. The power of firebending comes from the breath. With a third breath, she opened her fiery, amber eyes, smoldering with passion, and shifted her weight to punch her right fist forward.
Her anticipation was nearly palpable, though the flames never came. Tayla tried again, repeating the movements over and over until, in a sudden blissful moment, a flame erupted in front of her; warm; bright; hers. Her laugh started as a little trickle, but the mirthful excitement soon broke through the dam of inhibition. The wave of joy flooded the garden, the villa, the whole city. "I did it! I did it! I di—" The wave would never reach the surrounding desert, however, for it had turned real. Tears of frustration streamed down Tayla's face, as she had turned around to discover her sister, standing there as a true firebender, her fist still stretched out. It dawned on Tayla that she had not been the source of the orange flame.
It had been Lostris.
Lostris grinned at Tayla as she demonstratively shook her hand. "You were trying so hard, I just thought I'd help you out and give a demonstration of how it's done ... Spark Princess."
"Lostris, that's enough!" Amanra snapped at her eldest, before squatting in front of her youngest. "Tayla, honey, it's–"
Before she could say or do anything more, however, Tayla turned on her heels and made a beeline for the comforting embrace of the lush, green branches of the garden; her vision blurred by a mist of water, she knocked roughly into Lostris and pushed her out of the way. As she ran, the fire that had burned in her eyes died down, extinguished and flushed away by the salty water of her tears.
Unprepared for the sudden collision, Lostris was unable to keep her balance and was harshly introduced to the hard soil; a throbbing pain emanating from her tailbone bubbled through her body and erupted via a high-pitched cry.
The pained scream made Amanra tear her gaze away from Tayla's retreating form and regard her eldest. Sighing deeply, she squatted next to Lostris and helped her to sit up. Verifying that she was not hurt, the gentle mother became accompanied by the stern teacher. "What was that all about? You know how sensitive Tayla is about the fact that she can't bend. Why did you have to provoke her like that? You know better, or at least I hope you do." The Fire Lady looked at the crestfallen face of the young Crown Princess and sighed, her tone mellowing. "Lostris, as future Fire Lord—"
"And what if I don't want to be Fire Lord?" Despite the tears threatening to spill, Lostris fiercely locked on to her mother's eyes, the same gray-blue as her own staring back. "Doesn't seem like it's any fun ..."
Amanra was momentarily taken aback by the outburst, though instantly softened when a tear broke through and spilled over the small cheek. Gently brushing it away with her thumb, she cupped Lostris' face, who readily leaned into the embrace. "Tris, would you really call teasing your sister like that 'fun'? You really hurt her."
Lostris buried her face deeper in her mother's palm. "I ... No, I ..." She sighed. "I didn't mean to make her cry. I was just ... I didn't ... I-I-I'm sorry, Mom. I didn't want to hurt her, I was just playing around."
"I know you didn't mean to, sweetie, but you did, and we also both know that I'm not the one you should be apologizing to." Amanra lovingly ran her hand through Lostris' shoulder length, brown locks. "Now, I'm going to find your sister. You are welcome to join us when you feel like it." She kissed the top of her daughter's head before vanishing into the garden after Tayla.
Lostris remained rooted where she sat as her eyes tracked the retreating form of her mother. She wanted to follow her, though felt too guilty to move, the shame of her actions pinning her to the ground. When the sound of approaching footsteps reached her, she quickly swept away her tears with a single stroke of her hand. Although she briefly glanced to the side to see who it was, she already knew to expect the gentle features of her caretaker and averted her gaze to stare at the pebble in front of her, putting her arms around her legs and resting her chin on her knees. "I already know that what I did was mean, Taita; you don't have to repeat it again."
Taita smiled calmly at the six-year-old princess; he had the aura of a wise, all-knowing, and gentle spirit, although he was only forty. "I know. There is no need in telling a soaring bird that it can fly." Lostris did not react and only rolled her eyes at Taita's wisdom of the day. "Can I sit with you, my Princess?"
When Lostris murmured a barely audible "I guess so" into her knees, Taita squatted down in lotus posture. "If you would excuse my indiscretion, Your Highness, but I could not help but overhear your conversation with Her Majesty and your denunciation of the throne. As Crown Princess, the second-highest power in the Fire Nation, have you given it any thought what you would like to be then when you grow up if not Fire Lord?"
Lostris looked up from burning a hole in the pebble to Taita's inquisitive, light gray eyes. Even when she and Tayla were still infants and could barely speak, Taita never tried to indulge in baby-talk with them, always addressing them as equals, if not even more, and Lostris enjoyed every minute of it. Despite not understanding everything that he said, she loved the fact that he made her feel important, and it never failed to capture her attention. Creasing her brown, she ran over the words of his question that she did understand. What do I want to be when I grow up if not Fire Lord? While she thought about it, a squirrel redbreast hopped towards Taita, and he opened his hands to welcome the bird. The little animal chirped as he picked it up and caressed its head before setting it free again. Trilling, the squirrel redbreast spread its wings and caught an upwards current that carried it high above the villa, its bushy tail dancing behind it. As she watched the bird fly away, a thought struck her. "I want to help animals."
"So you want to be a veterinarian?"
Lostris' brow furrowed as she pondered about the words. "No ... I want to be a doctor for animals."
The honest correction made Taita laugh pleasantly. "Yes, Your Highness, that's what it means to be a veterinarian."
"Oh, okay, in that case, I want to be that, a vete ... veterinarian!" Lostris beamed up at her oldest friend.
"Any particular reason as to why?"
"I want to help them. They can't speak, so they need someone to fight for them and help them get better."
"You want to defend the helpless?" Lostris nodded vehemently at the statement. "Like your mother is helping the helpless?" Lostris nodded again. "But she's aiding the helpless people; don't you want to help them too?"
"Yes, of course I want to help them. I want to help everyone. Make a difference, like Mom!"
"And how do you think your mother is able to make that difference?"
"Because she's amazing!"
The matter-of-fact statement put a smile on Taita's face. "Yes, that she is. That she definitely is." His eyes momentarily glazed over with a loving expression, before he roused himself from his thoughts and turned back to one of his little bundles of joy. "But besides that, why can she do what she does?" Taita's light gray orbs locked on to Lostris', and it was as if his gaze went right through her soul.
Lostris thought about his question for a while before whispering her realization. "Because she's the Queen."
Taita's eyes twinkled as Lostris came to the conclusion that he had been guiding her to. "That's correct, My Princess. You see, while being Fire Lord means that your responsibilities sometimes keep you from doing everything exactly like you want, it also means that you have the power to affect change, force people to listen to you, make a difference. Now, you can quit and choose to refuse the job of being Fire Lord, but no one can quit being who they really are, and you are a princess by birth; it's in your blood."
Lostris took a few seconds to process what had been said, before she smiled genuinely at Taita, the joy of conclusion practically radiating from her every fiber. "Mom often says that a queen is servant to her subjects and must always do what's best for the people and the nation. I want to grow up to do what's best for them, too. So I've decided I do want to be Fire Lord. I'll be the best queen the Fire Nation has ever seen!"
Taita chuckled at her declaration. "Better than your mother?"
Lostris gasped, and her eyes flung wide open. "That's not possible, TaTa!" Her childlike indignation over the suggestion of someone being better than her mother caused Taita's chuckles to evolve into a mirthful laughter. "Though I will try to be as good as her. That would be great."
His laughter dying down, Taita opened his arms, inviting the young princess into a warm hug. "For what it's worth, My Princess, I think you will make an amazing Fire Lord one day. You'll make us all proud."
Hearing the praise at her address, Lostris smiled contently into Taita's shoulder.
Walking along the garden path, Lostris made her way toward a hidden pond that she and Tayla had discovered earlier, thinking that if Tayla wanted to be left alone, she might seek refuge there. As she rounded the last line of trees, she noticed that their mother had only just now discovered the secret hideout as well. As opposed to moving forward and joining them, Lostris found that she could not move. Wondering if she would intrude by coming closer, she hid behind a tree.
Amanra found Tayla sitting on the bridge over the pond, her feet dangling just above the water. It was filled with hyacinth and fish from the Nile, which shone like jewels below the surface of the limpid pond. The flowers swayed up and down as tears broke the smooth surface; the princess's tiny body was shaking with every sob that escaped her. Amanra sat down and pulled her close, rocking her gently.
"W-w-why can't I bend, Mom? Why can't I be like you and Lostris?" Tayla choked out between sobs, her face burrowed into her mother's side.
"Oh sweetie." The mother lovingly clutched her daughter even closer while she caressed her jet-black hair. The beauty of the pink blossoms of the overhanging cherry tree was duplicated in the pond before them as the wind rustled the branches above their heads; one of the delicate flowers drifted down and landed on Amanra's leg. The Fire Lady gently picked it up and looked at the tree, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. "Blossoms are truly a thing of beauty. Each year, the Earth Spirit Geb blesses us with a wide variety of splendid colors and magnificent smells; they bring joy to everyone who's blessed enough to lay eyes upon them. But you know, even though the flowers grow on the same tree, they're all different. Some are bigger, others are brighter, and look there, my darling, some don't even bloom at the same time." As her daughter lifted her head to see that she was pointing at a closed bud between all the open blossoms, she placed her right hand under Tayla's chin and gently pulled it up to meet her eyes. "There are those who would say that the flower is late, but I believe that it's right where it should be; it will bloom when it's ready, and I bet that when it does, it will be a magnificent sight to see. So just be patient and allow it to grow at its own pace; give it time." After placing the flower in her daughter's hair, Amanra dried Tayla's tears with the sleeves of her robe, conjuring a faint smile on the little girl's face. Helping her daughter to scramble onto her lap and nuzzle into her right shoulder, Amanra gently wrapped her arms around her and gave her a kiss on the head. "You don't need to be like me, your sister, or anyone else. You need to be you, and that's already a wonderful person to be. Only the spirits know if you'll ever develop firebending abilities. It may happen, it may not, but know that you are perfect just as you are, little Light of Mine."
As she rested her head on Tayla's, Amanra had the feeling that they were being watched. When she looked up, she saw Lostris standing at the other side of the pond. Upon seeing the doubt on her daughter's face, her uncertain bearing, and the nervous shuffling of her feet, she could not help but smile, so she gestured Lostris to join them with a nod of her head and a wave of her hand.
Dragging her feet, the princess shuffled toward her family. As she sat down, she was all too aware of Tayla looking up at her with eyes still puffed from crying. Dangling her feet into the water, she splashed around a bit, mustering up the courage to say what she wanted to say. "La-La ... I'm ... I'm sorry for what I did. I shouldn't have tricked you like that, and I shouldn't have laughed at you ... I-I didn't mean what I said about you being a 'spark princess'. I was just angry because you ratted me out to Mom ... I didn't mean any of it. Please, don't be mad at me. I am really, really sorry ... I bet you'll be the greatest firebender there is one day! Well, after me that is." Lostris flashed a prudent smile at her sister and, much to her delight, saw that it was returned. Strengthened by this gesture, she was struck by an idea. "You know what? Here." She removed her golden necklace and placed it over Tayla's head.
Tayla grabbed the little pendant and looked at it in awe; two intertwined flames, one golden and one blue, were peppered with rubies and diamonds respectively, making the flames look like they were alive. "This is your firebending necklace! You love this ..."
"Yes, it is; Taita made that for me when I first started bending. And I do love it, but not as much as I love you, and you're more important to me, so ... I want you to hold on to that until you get your own. And you will get your own, I just know it."
Tayla's broad smile threatened to split her face, and her tears had become nothing more than a distant memory as she whispered, "Wow ... Thank you, Tris!" The girl could not stop grinning, just as she could not stop looking at the pendant.
Lostris' goofy grin slightly faltered as she looked from her sister to her mother. "Mom? I'm sorry about what I said earlier about not wanting to be Fire Lord because it doesn't seem fun. I was wrong, I know that now. You're a great queen, and I hope that I'll grow up to be a Fire Lord you could be proud of."
Amanra offered Lostris a smile full of love and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. "I'm already proud of you, Tris. Now come here, you goof."
As Amanra offered her other shoulder, Lostris settled gingerly atop her mother's lap and burrowed contently in her unoccupied shoulder. The two sisters giggled from their respective places as Amanra snaked her arms around their little frames and pulled her two daughters close.
Taita watched the royal family from a distance. Although he was the servant of Amanra, she had always treated him more as a friend, as part of her family, than as the slave he was. He would always be in her debt for that gesture of kindness, because he had never known what it meant to have a family before her. He had no clear memory of his own parents; he did not even know if he had had siblings or not, as his village had been raided by Shrike slave traders when he was just a five-year-old boy, leaving him only with some fragmented memories of the mountainous land where he was born. Though he had been bought on the slave market in Thebes by a rich noble family to work as a kitchen help, it was clear, growing up, that he was very talented and capable of so much more than just doing the dishes. By the time Amanra was born, Taita was a bright, strapping twelve-year-old, and Amanra's father appointed him as her teacher and caretaker. Taita had loved Amanra from the start, and those feelings had only grown stronger and changed in nature as Amanra had blossomed from a child to a girl and eventually into the beautiful woman that held his heart captive. He had always known that it was only a matter of time before he had to part with her, before another man would take her heart away. That day had come nine years ago, when sixteen-year-old Amanra had caught the eye of Fire Prince Memnon, later to be crowned Fire Lord Tamose. It was true love at first sight, and it was not long before the two were married. Taita had mixed feelings about that day; he could still feel his heart chattering when he recollected the memory of his beautiful bride walking down that aisle, walking out of his life, toward another, toward a man that was not him. Though as it was custom when a woman changed from the house of her father to that of her husband, she could ask any boon of him as a parting gift. His heart had soared to unknown heights when Amanra's soft voice had rung clear through the room. "You have always been generous with me, Father, and have given me everything that I needed. So now the last thing I'll ever ask of you is to give me the slave Taita." When he had looked at her, she had radiated warmth, friendship, and love; with those words, she had ensured that he would forever be part of her family.
Taita's heart swelled with love now at the sight of his beloved queen and his two new bundles of joy and threatened to burst his chest asunder. He walked over to them, his eyes locking on to those of Amanra; there was such appeal there, such love and kindness, but at the same time, there was a shadow of sadness and sorrow, for the burden she had to carry weighed heavily on her young shoulders. After the premature death of Fire Lord Tamose five years prior, Amanra was left alone to rule the Fire Nation and to mother a one-year-old while being pregnant with another daughter. Although Taita had been there to assist her, no matter how hard he tried, he could never fill the void left by her true love. She had told him once that not a day had gone by when she had not dreamed of being with Tamose again, but though her heart longed for him, she knew that she had a duty to her nation, her people, and her daughters.
"Your Majesty, Your Highnesses." Taita prostrated himself in an exaggerated way before the royals, eliciting a fit of giggles from the young girls. "I humbly ask –"
"Oh, give it a rest already, TaTa. We're alone, so shut up and join us. You know that you never have to ask."
Lostris, picking up on the informal manner her mother had addressed their caretaker, wriggled free from her intimate embrace and promptly ran up to Taita. As she flew to him, he gathered her up and lifted her high. While Tayla was engrossed in the sight of her flying sister, Amanra took advantage of her distractedness and attacked her belly, letting her tickling fingers flutter over her body. While laughter filled the garden, Amanra looked at Taita and offered him a grateful smile.
To her shame, Amanra had to admit that she could not remember the last time she had had such fun with her family. It was not that she was absent in their lives, though someone always seemed to interrupt their family time with some important political matter when they were at the palace in Thebes. This time, however, they had played together in the garden, uninterrupted, for over an hour, and she was now contently watching the rising and falling of Tayla's chest as she slept in Taita's arms, while Lostris was intertwining a flower chain into her dark hair. When Lostris finished up, she was all but pushed toward the pond to take in her own reflection; the white of the panda lily contrasted starkly with her raven-black locks, and Amanra was mildly surprised to say that her eldest had actually done a good job, eliciting soft chuckles from Taita.
The moment was forever shattered, however, when the sound of heavy war horns descended upon them. Amanra quickly gathered Lostris up in her arms, while a concerned Taita rose with the sleeping Tayla. They barely had time to discern from which direction the sound came when a tall, muscular man, dressed in the outfit of a Fire Nation captain, came running toward them. Lord Pianki Harrab was a strong and capable firebender who had quickly made his way up through the ranks, and the only reason why he was not yet a commander was for his desire to stay close to his wife and son in Thebes; political visits like these to the outskirts of the Fire Nation territory were the only times he was away from home. The captain of the Royal Red Tiger Division quickly bowed respectfully before Amanra, his right fist clenched underneath the base of his left palm. "My Queen, I'm sorry to disturb you, but we need to get you and your family out of the city." As the nine other soldiers of her personal guard fell into formation around her, Amanra clutched Lostris closer to her chest and quickened her step to walk beside Pianki as he ushered them toward the villa of the governor. "An army breached the gates of Gebel Nagara. The city is under attack, and I doubt that the inner gates will be able to withstand the brutal battering they're receiving much longer." As Amanra took a sharp breath, her captain glanced at her. "And it gets worse. They bear the mark of the Shrikes."
As the fourteen people hastily made their way through the garden, the mixture of colors, only moments ago the scene of happy memories in the making, lush and bright as the sun itself, looked dim and dark. Lostris clutched at Amanra's neck and whispered in her ear, "I'm scared, Mom. Who are they?"
Amanra gently rubbed her back in an effort to calm the little girl while they entered through the large fortified doors of the villa. "It's all right, little one. Don't worry about them, they're no one. Nothing will happen to you. I will make sure of that." As her words left her lips, she glanced over her shoulder toward Taita, whose concern was clearly etched on his face.
The darkness crept forward, pushing the sun further down behind the horizon; the sky was shaded orange as a sign of the sun's losing battle. Pianki and several other Red Tiger soldiers had scouted ahead with some of Gebel Nagara's guards in order to find a clear escape route for the royal family. Pushed forward by the clearly audible sounds of battle, a messenger reached the estate to find Governor Sud and Fire Lady Amanra with her entourage standing on the villa's balcony, looking over the destruction of the city. He saluted Sud and bowed briefly to Amanra before hurriedly giving a scroll to the governor and taking his leave.
Reading the message, Sud's eyes widened as they flew over the words, and he crumbled the papyrus in his fist as he reached the end of it. "They have breached through the inner gate and are now hammering down on the villa's wall, our last line of defense. There are many, and we will not be able to hold them off much longer." Sud sighed as he let his gaze travel over his once beautiful city, now being consumed by flames; fueled by fear, the blazing monsters left a trail of devastation wherever they went, roof after roof, house after house—nothing was safe from their uncontrollable hunger for destruction.
Amanra followed his gaze, and a reflection of the fire danced in her melancholic eyes. "Why? This doesn't make sense. General Apepi has done despicable things before, but up until now, he's always focused on the smaller desert villages; they've never ransacked a fortified city like this before ... I don't understand."
Sud's black hair, ring beard, and stern facial features made him a menacing appearance, though now faced with his worried queen, his soft green eyes contradicted this. "All I can give you is what the reports tell us, and that is that the soldiers all wear masks decorated with black and white bird feathers, the mark of the Shrikes."
Noticing a nervous shift in the governor's demeanor, Amanra placed a hand on his shoulder. "Sud ... that's not all that you can tell me, is it? What else do you know?"
Letting his eyes trail from Amanra to her servant and children standing behind her, Sud sighed deeply and motioned for the Fire Lady to follow him to stand a few steps away from her family, preventing them from overhearing. "The raid has nothing to do with the city. They euhm ... they're here because of ..."
"They're here because of me. They're doing this to get to me." While her words were clear, Amanra's tone was barely louder than a whisper, and she closed her eyes while breathing in deeply to calm the raging emotions welling up inside her.
"I'm afraid that they're not only here because of you ..."
"What?!" Amanra's eyes opened wide, and she backed away in shock; bumping against the railing, she hastily grabbed on to it for support. "No ..." Her chest rapidly rising and falling as she struggled to control her breathing, Amanra looked at her family. By now, Tayla had woken up, though the normally energetic girl was uncharacteristically silent as she held on to Taita's neck as if it was her last anchor to earth and surveyed her surroundings with big, uncomprehending eyes. While Taita soothingly rubbed circles on her back, his gaze was fixated on his queen, his concern for her and the situation nearly palpable, though he dared not to venture closer and console her, lest he overstepped his station in the presence of other officials and shame her. Lostris, on the other hand, had no such qualms and dashed forward to her distraught mother.
"Mom? What's wrong? Why do you look so sad?"
Despite everything that was going on, Amanra could not help a small smile from appearing on her face as she marveled in the innocence her daughter displayed. The thought, however, soon dispersed her smile, as she could not fathom why anyone would dare to hurt such a sweet girl. Caressing her daughter's hair, Amanra shook her head in an effort to keep clouds from gathering in her mind and obscuring her every thought. "I'm sad because there are some very bad people hurting others."
At that moment, an explosion shook the villa to its core, causing everyone to duck for cover. Amanra protectively bent over Lostris, humming a lullaby in her ear in an attempt to drawn out the dying screams of innocent people.
"I'm scared, Mom. I want to go home!" The young princess started to sob against her mother's shoulder.
"Don't be scared, Tris. Everything's going to be all right. Nothing will happen to you or your sister, I promise you that."
The words had barely left Amanra's lips when Captain Pianki returned to join them. "My Queen, the road to the stables has been secured for now, though we have to move fast. That last explosion damaged the gate good, and I doubt it will hold out much longer. We need to move, now."
As Amanra got to her feet, holding Lostris' hand in hers, Sud bowed toward them. "Your Majesty, Your Highness, this is where we part then. My men and I will stay here and do everything that is within our power and more to keep them from following you. As long as one of us still breathes, those foul assassins will never bring their mission to a successful end. That I vow to you. May you both live forever. Long live the Queen!" Knowing the benevolent reputation of his queen all too well, Sud left before she could say anything to stop him, as they both knew that at that point in the siege, those opposing the invaders could only hope to delay them before they inevitably succumbed to their overwhelming numbers.
Pianki and his soldiers led the royal family back inside the villa. Although Taita was walking behind the Queen, he could see that her face was pale and anxious. Her eyes darted to every shadow, alert to the slightest of movements; they were so large and jaded that they heartbreakingly reminded him of the little girl whom he, in years long gone, had ever so often awoken from the grip of a nightmare. Just like then, he longed to hold her tight until the bad dream was nothing but a vague memory, though his position as a servant prevented him from directly addressing the Fire Lady in public. As if Amanra had heard his thoughts, she looked over her shoulder to him and offered him a feeble smile, undoubtedly meant to convey a comforting message. On any other man, it could perhaps have been successful, though Taita had raised her; he knew her better and loved her more than any living person, so the fake smile left an uneasy aftertaste with him. There were dark thoughts running through her mind, he could see it in everything that she was and it scared him; whatever it was that Sud had told her, it had chiseled a grim message in her heart.
They sped through the halls of the villa, which, like the rest of the mansion, stood tall and proud, decorated with the most wonderful frescos that mirrored the might of the Fire Nation, but were now silent and deserted, for everyone was off fighting or had left for safer grounds. Their rapid footsteps mingled with Pianki's soft voice in the dark corridors. "There is a secret passageway in the stables leading away from the city and straight into the desert. It was built long ago as a way to supply the city when it was under siege or to serve as an escape route. I left Isa, Dalawa, and Tatlo to guard the stable and prepare the horses. We should be–"
The sudden sparking crackle and yellow flicker of light of an incoming fireball cut Pianki off, who only barely ducked out of the way in time. As five masked figures dashed forward from the shadows, four royal guards moved to meet them, their flames lighting up the corridor. The remaining two guards, Apat and Lima, quickly took up positions behind and next to the royal family, using the wall to protect their other side, while Pianki, leading the group, urged them to break into a run.
The group managed to reach the courtyard, their last hurdle before reaching the stables. The moment they set foot outside the relative safety of the corridor, however, they were ambushed once again by what they deduced to be the ten remaining soldiers, a first scouting group that had managed to breach the gate and evade Sud's men. Amanra dissipated the incoming fire and promptly moved to stand in front of Lostris and Taita, who clutched on to Tayla with renewed vigor. As three of the masked Shrike warriors propelled themselves in the air with their firebending, Pianki, Apat, and Lima moved as if they were one being and simultaneously created a fire arc that slammed into the incoming fighters, knocking them out of the air; they landed heavily on the stones, where they collapsed unconsciously in a heap of rags. As the seven others readied their weapons, Lima and Apat took on defensive positions, ready to lay down their lives if it meant giving the royal family enough time to escape. Pianki took a breath to notice that Isa, Dalawa, and Tatlo had heard the commotion and were speeding toward them to provide backup. With help on the way, Pianki dared to leave his two severely outnumbered soldiers and ran toward the stables with his protégées.
Another explosion at the villa's wall lit up the sky right just as they reached the safety of the stable, causing them to involuntarily duck their heads. The unexpected action proved to have been a lifesaver, as three solid balls of burned clay, the size of a ripe orange but as heavy as marble, thudded and shattered against the wall, cracking and dislodging a part of one of its heavy bricks. With a sickening crack, the bulky stone came down over Lostris' head, who could do nothing more than shriek at the incoming danger.
It all happened in the time it took a heart to beat once. Amanra spun around on her heels upon hearing her daughter's scream of terror, though as she lunged forward, Pianki had already, without a second's thought, thrown himself over the young royal, pushing her out of the way and inadvertently catching the stone with his head. Although Amanra longed to take her baby, now sobbing in earnest, into her arms, the angry buzz of more incoming projectiles building up a dreadful momentum forced her to turn her back to her daughter; straining to make out movement against the evening sky, she pulverized the balls by piercing them with three pressurized fire arrows, showering them all with dust. Noticing the slingers were reloading the leather pouches at the end of the long straps of their hand-catapults, Amanra swiftly glanced over her shoulder; Taita had fallen to his knees to gather Lostris into his unoccupied arm, murmuring reassurances against the shell of her ear.
"Are you okay, sweetheart?" Amanra's voice was strangled, sounding as if she was on the verge of tears herself. "Is she all right, Taita?"
"Yes, yes, she's fine, she just had a bit of a scare." Taita's words nearly tumbled over each other in his haste to reassure his queen, his own panic over the situation still swirling through his body.
"And Lord Pianki?" Aware that their adversaries had started to whirl their straps once again, double-handed as to counter the weight of the hard-baked clay projectiles, Amanra jumped up and twisted around her own body, sending a flaming arc their way with a roundhouse kick, forcing the slingers to postpone their release.
Taita released the two girls and scrambled over to the still body of the captain. To his unconcealed relief, the man groaned in pain as Taita turned him on his back in order to assess his injuries. The sharp edges of the rock had caught Pianki straight on his brow and laid open his eyebrow to the bone; a sheet of blood gushed out of the otherwise shallow wound. "He will be fine, he's just a little groggy from the hit. He will be fine!" Taita had known Pianki for over a decade, and while there was no honor to be gained in claiming a slave to be your friend, Lord Harrab had never concealed his more personal relationship with him, even when they were around others, and had freely invited Taita to be a part of his family as well, making him an important asset to his son's education.
Further examination of Pianki's condition was cut short, however, as the three Shrikes had decided to launch a last volley before forsaking their long-range attacks for a more close-up approach. Amanra destroyed two of the deadly projectiles with precise fire blasts and barely ducked underneath the next one. She used the time it took the three soldiers to reach them to help Taita place the unconscious Pianki against the wall, out of the way of the impending fight. Being in such proximity to one another without a bodyguard around, Taita used the moment of grace to gently stroke the black hair out of Amanra's eyes. "I know you despise fighting offensively, but you can't deny the abilities the spirits have bestowed upon you. Please, my darling, we need those now. We need you."
Amanra did not have time to respond as a fireball seared right over their heads and splashed against the wall above them. She stood up to counter the incoming threat, while Taita clambered toward the frightened princesses. Picking up Tayla and leaning over Lostris, he used his own body to shield them from the sights of battle.
Although Amanra managed to keep a man from slipping by her left side by creating a towering fire wall and occupied the middle soldier with fierce fire arcs, she could not prevent the third one from passing her by. When the soldier tried to take Tayla, however, Taita punched him in the face, causing him to growl with pain and stumble back, grabbing his bloody nose. Enraged, the Shrike warrior lifted his hands to shoot a fire stream at his attacker, though Lostris crashed into him the moment he released his aim. As he smacked to the ground, the little girl stuck her tongue out, while Taita looked a bit queasy at the scorch mark that was smoking on the wall just centimeters away from his head. Swallowing hard, he tore his gaze away from what would have been left of his head if Lostris had not intervened and reached out to his savior, ushering her to stand behind him. The unguarded moment was all the downed Shrike needed, however, to slide into a crunch and spin, sweeping Taita's legs from under him. Taita fell backward; his arms creating a protective barrier around Tayla, his body smacked on the cold stones of the courtyard, forcing the air from his lungs. He rolled over, desperate to shield the youngest royal from the masked horror, whose fire struck the stone where they had previously been.
Despite her fear, Lostris resolutely stepped in front of Taita and her sister, her little hands poised in the classic Agni Kai opening stance. "Stay away from them!"
Taita's demand for her to get away from there was drowned out by the muffled laughter of the soldier, who menacingly erected himself to his full length, being twice as tall as Lostris. "Or what?"
Without warning, Lostris shot a fireball at the man's mask, setting it on fire. "Or you'll explode!"
His screams wailed over the courtyard, and the man desperately clawed at the blazing object to escape from the flames licking his face. As he eventually resorted to just ripping to it off, tearing it to pieces, the damage Lostris had inflicted became apparent; the skin on his face was cracked and oozing fluid in several places, while it gleamed and stretched in others. While Taita had the distinct feeling that he had seen the man somewhere before, Lostris gulped at the horrific sight and backed away, squealing in terror for her mother as the man angrily flared large flames from his fists. "You'll pay for that!"
Taita quickly placed Tayla on the ground and surged forward to take down the enraged soldier, though as an untrained civilian, he was quickly smacked aside by a rough backhand to the jaw. Not wasting any more time with the servant, the man stalked toward Lostris and grabbed her by the collar, easily lifting her off the ground. "Not so tough now, eh?"
Lostris clawed with all her might at the enormous fist that held her suspended, though her efforts made no impact at all. The man growled, however, when Tayla kicked him hard against his shins, though she too was swiftly lifted off the ground.
"Hands. OFF. My children!"
Surprised by the menacing hiss echoing right behind him, the soldier turned around and found himself standing face to face with a furious Amanra; her defensive nature had completely disappeared upon seeing her children in the claws of the strange man. Like an angry armadillo lioness protecting her cubs, she leaped forward, completely surprising him with her sudden charge. Striking his biceps with her fist, she stunned his arms momentarily, allowing her to quickly take Tayla out of his grasp, while Lostris nimbly landed on her feet. With her children safe, she thrust the palm of her free hand against his chest; the fire blast sent him flying into the wall, where he slumped down unconsciously next to Pianki, who groaned slightly, the first signs of consciousness gripping him once again. Amanra placed Tayla back on the ground, and the three royals quickly ran toward Taita, who was sitting on the floor, clutching his jaw.
"Are you all right?"
As the two youngster latched onto him, Taita looked up at the worried eyes of his queen. "Yes, I'm fine. My pride took the brunt of the blow." He drew the girls closer to him and tried his best to smile at Amanra. "Your timing was impeccable; nice work."
Amanra could not help but smile genuinely at the airy tone Taita addressed her with, as if he had been spectating her firebending training. The gesture did not last long, however, as the fighting around her still continued and drew in her attention; although her guards had managed to gain the upper hand by now, it had not come without casualties, as Lima, Dalawa, and Tatlo had started their journey over the vast plains of the Spirit World.
With a groan and tremendous effort, Lord Pianki pushed himself off the ground, shaking the dizziness from his head. Noticing the unconscious soldier next to him, his warrior instincts took over, and he was on his feet in no time, scanning the area for the Queen. "Your Majesty! Are you all right?"
Amanra turned to face her captain and tried to reassure him. "Yes, Lord Pianki, I'm fine. We all are ... as well as could be, anyway."
He visibly exhaled his relief. "Thank the benevolent Rairet! I'm sorry for –"
"Stop." Amanra placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Please, don't apologize. You saved my daughter, and for that, I owe you my gratitude. Thank you, my Lord."
The captain smiled and inclined his head upon being bestowed with such praise. "Now let us save all of you. We need to get to the stables!"
Taking Lostris out of Taita's arms, Pianki pulled the servant to his feet, and they both ran toward the stable, Amanra in their wake. As she reached the doors, she looked up and was mildly surprised to see that the first stars were already showing their twinkling lights above their heads, illuminating the sky with a milky radiance. Before entering the room stacked with hay, she gazed solemnly at the glow of the burning city. Every explosion left a mark on the Fire Lady's heart, as it meant more innocent souls where whisked away from their lives prematurely, and she could not help but feel guilty about that. She was to blame for their suffering; they were hurting because she was still breathing. Her gaze shifted to her daughters standing beside two magnificent horses, petting the animals with a glee on their faces as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened to them that day. The sight made her heart lurch. They were so innocent. They did not deserve that which was coming to them, but neither did the people who were now dying because of them. They deserved time. They needed time. They all did. Swallowing hard, Amanra's soft eyes hardened as she made her decision. Casting one last look toward the city's glow, she could have sworn that she saw the mirage of her late husband smiling sadly down upon her from the Spirit World; an equally sad smile briefly crossed Amanra's face when she entered the stables.
Pianki was talking to a fifteen-year-old boy who was holding the reins of the horses, a bay stallion and a dark brown mare. The teenager was small for his age, but clever green eyes peeked through his dirty blond hair. When the Fire Lady joined them, Pianki turned to her. "Fire Lady, may I introduce Garrett. Sud ensured me that he would trust this kid with his life, and Garrett knows the tunnels of the labyrinth better than anyone." Garrett pulled his shoulders back to make himself look taller and smiled complacently at the compliment, though a fierce blush burned him when the Queen smiled directly at him.
Amanra lovingly stroked the neck of the stallion, Nash, who was her own personal horse; the animal whinnied as it recognized the touch of its master. "Lord Pianki, Garrett, could you both give us a moment, please?"
"Certainly, Your Majesty." The man and the boy bowed toward the Queen and moved to stand a respectable distance to the side, giving the royals as much privacy as the situation allowed.
Amanra squatted down beside her youngest daughter and pressed her close against her chest for an intimate embrace. She kissed the side of the girl's head before picking her up and placing her on Nash's back. Tucking a wayward lock in place and running her fingers down the sides of her face, Amanra took the time to appraise her daughter. They looked so much alike that Taita often mused that Tayla was a cherub-faced miniature clone of her mother; the same raven-black hair; the same nose and chin; the same smile. The one obvious difference, however, were Tayla's fierce, amber eyes, as that was something she had inherited from Tamose. Amanra had always loved her husband's eyes, and she adored them in her daughter, often telling her that she truly had the vision of a royal. Although her girls had never known their father—Lostris had only been one, and Tayla was yet to be born when he passed—they always took pride in whatever resemblance they shared with the man. Looking in those familiar orbs now, Amanra felt tears well up in her own. In an attempt to conceal them, she pulled her daughter close again and buried her face in those dark locks, her voice higher pitched than usual when she spoke. "Promise me that you'll find your own place to stand so you can be free to be who you are. I love you so much, little Light. Be good, okay?" Amanra kissed Tayla's temple again before letting her go.
"I will, Mommy. I love you, too."
A first tear rolled down over the Queen's cheek as she turned her back to her youngest.
"What's wrong, Mom? Why are you crying?"
The honest question broke down the last of Amanra's strength. Another watery witness of her sorrow streamed down her face while she squatted again, this time facing her eldest daughter. Wiping away the tears with the back of her hand, she conjured up a faint smile and cupped Lostris' face. "My sweet little firebender. You are something special, you know that? You were born to do incredible things, things that will change the world. When you're older, you'll understand." Amanra cleared her throat, desperate to fight back the sorrow threatening to render her mute. "And above that, you are the Fire Lord's first born, which makes you the future queen. I just ... I wish your father and I could've been there to see you rule." There was so much more that Amanra desired to say to her daughter, but her throat felt as dry as sandpaper, making it very hard for her to continue. "Tris, never forget that I love you."
As she smiled bravely and moved in to give her daughter a kiss on the cheek, Lostris pulled away from her grasp. "Mommy, why are you saying goodbye to me? You're coming with us."
It was not a question, but a statement, and once again, it pierced Amanra's heart. She prayed to the spirits and Tamose for the strength to explain what needed to be done to the young child. "I'm afraid not, darling."
"No!" Lostris launched herself into her mother with such a force that the Fire Lady only barely managed to maintain her balance. Her wet face gleaming in the dim light of the enemy fire that grew bolder with every passing second, Lostris latched herself firmly to Amanra's neck. "No, Mommy, no. You can't leave. I love you. I promise I will never tease Tayla again. I promise I'll be good! I'll be better, I promise, I promise! Please don't leave me!"
Amanra's heart lurched at the promise of her daughter, and she immediately made Lostris look at her; her blue-gray eyes were identical to hers, right down to the tears streaming freely down from them. "Oh honey, no, this is not your fault! You have done nothing wrong, so don't ever think that. No matter what, it is not your fault! I love you so, so much, Tris, more than you will ever know, but I just can't come with you, not this time. But that does not mean that I'm leaving you. I could never do that. I will always be with you. In here." She placed her hand on Lostris' chest, right above her heart. "Now, you are going to feel sad for a while, but that's ... that's okay." Amanra sniffed back her own sadness, swallowing hard. "Just promise that you won't be sad forever. I need you to be strong now, okay? For you. For your sister. For Taita ... And for me. Can you do that? Please?"
The six-year-old girl nodded, silent testimonies of sadness framing her face, and Amanra crushed her to her chest, hugging her as tightly as she could. Stricken down by grief, Lostris was unable to resist any further and let herself be picked up. Amanra placed her behind Tayla and Lostris hugged her sister from behind while their mother addressed them both. "Now there is just one more thing I need from both of you." The girls looked up at their mother, who gently wiped their tears away with her thumbs, cupping their faces. Her emotions were slowly choking her, making it harder and harder to speak. "Please ... take very special care of Taita. He will need you to take care of him, just as you will need him. So be kind to him, take care of him, and love him, just as I love you all. Just ... take care of each other." Her voice broke as she uttered those last words, each one barely louder than a whisper. Unable to say more, she hugged both her daughters and gave them a kiss on their cheeks before turning to face Taita.
Taita stood there frozen still, looking at the scene, taking it in, but the true meaning eluded him. He did not understand; he did not want to understand. He simply waited there, waiting for Amanra to come to him. He could not think; he could not breathe; he could not move; but most of all, he could not believe. He saw his little girl, now a woman that held his heart so tight that it hurt, move toward him. It looked like it took forever for his love to cross the few meters that parted them, but with every step she took in his direction, he felt like she took one step further away from him. Amanra placed her hand on his cheek and forced him to focus and meet her gaze. Before she could say a word, however, he cut her off.
"Don't. I am not saying goodbye to you. Not here. Not now. Not yet." Those last words were almost inaudible, smothered by the sound of his heart breaking. Tears streamed down the grown man's face, but he did not care to hide them, for his pride no longer existed in a world where she would no longer be.
Amanra cried with him. "You know I wouldn't do this if I thought there was any other way, Taita. It's breaking my heart to part from them, from you, but the Shrikes ... they don't want the city, they're here for –"
"You and the girls?" Amanra nodded solemnly, causing Taita to capture her hand and bring it close to his heart. "Then that's all the more reason for you to come with us!"
Amanra smiled sadly as she reached for Taita's face with her free hand, a gesture he readily leaned into. "I can't, TaTa, you know that. They will not stop until they've found us, even if it means burning down this whole city, killing everyone they find. No man, no woman, no child will be safe until they have found what they are looking for. I could never live with myself, knowing that I'm responsible for that much death and heartache."
"You can't fight them off!"
"No, I can't, but I can save those innocents, and I can give you and my girls the time needed to escape. At the very least, I can give you time ... Time to escape ... Time to live. They need to live. I need them to live." She took a minute to recompose herself and force her voice to continue; her words were mournful but clear when she spoke again. "I want to thank you for everything you've done for me and my family, Taita. I hereby release you." Her eyes softened as she removed a golden pink ring and placed it in his hands, closing his fingers around the token. "Take this ring as proof of my word that you're a free man again. You've always been more than a servant to me. You are intertwined with all my earliest memories. Every important moment in my life, you've always been there. To guide me, support me, help me. Wherever I went, you followed, and there is nothing I can say right now to tell you how grateful I am for having had you in my life as my best friend. I am glad to know that my girls will have you as well. I know you love them as much as I do. They are my past, my present, and my future. Please, my dear friend, stand by them like you stood by me. Help them fulfill their destiny, help them grow into the women I know they are destined to be. Take care of them like you've taken care of me. Take care of them as if they were your own."
The released servant sobbed softly as his sadness became too much for him to bear. "They are my own."
Smiling weakly, Amanra lovingly stroked the hair out of his eyes. "I've only truly loved two men in my life ... and you were one of them. Perhaps in a next lifetime, the Spirits will treat our love more kindly." She leaned in and kissed Taita gently on his lips. Although time seemed to stop for Taita, a nearby explosion signaled that it was only his perception. Breaking their kiss, Amanra squeezed his hands and whispered, "It is time."
Amanra walked over to the horse where Lostris and Tayla sat in complete silence, Taita lingering behind as if he was turned to stone. A strong hand on his shoulder seemingly roused him from his muted state.
"Come on, old friend, we need to get you out of here." Pianki guided him toward the royals and, without hesitation or the slightest thought of it being inappropriate for a captain to help a slave, even a released one, held his hands firm so Taita could use it as an aid to mount the horse. As he sat up straight and positioned himself behind the young princesses, Pianki offered him a folded piece of papyrus. "Could you ..." He cleared his throat, cleansing it from the emotional blurriness seeping in it. "Would you please—"
Taita took the message and carefully tucked it inside his tunic. "I will make sure Tanus gets it, Lord Harrab. Your son and your wife will know of your sacrifice. I shall make sure of that."
The battle-hardened soldier smiled briefly, before saluting him and the princesses. He bowed before the queen, who nodded knowingly in return, and left to take up his defensive position with the rest of the Red Tiger Division, all prepared and intending to sell their lives dearly.
Amanra looked at the broken threesome on the back of Nash. She took a deep breath and released it slowly, buying herself more time to find the courage she needed to part from her family. The Fire Lady's voice quivered. "Remember, my darlings, always listen to your heart. Let it guide you wherever you need to go. Logic and reason will keep you alive, but your heart makes sure that you are living. There is more to life than just the amounts of breath you take; it's about the moments that take your breath away. Someday, you will understand that. You girls are my everything. I will always be with you, every step of the way, to support you, to guide you. I am a part of you, now and forever. I love you, always."
Garrett mounted the other horse, the dark brown mare named Diamond, and used his firebending to reveal the hidden passageway. He grabbed two torches and lit one before spurring his horse through the hole.
"Go on, Nash, save them. Run fast and true like the wind." Amanra whispered some last encouraging words to her horse. As she pushed the stallion to follow his mate, Lostris grabbed hold of her mother's hand and held on for as long as she could, though the dreaded moment they had to part approached rapidly; their fingertips brushed over each other one last time before Lostris inevitably had to let her go. As darkness was swallowing them, the three riders took one more glance over their shoulders at Queen Amanra, her hand outstretched as if she was still holding Lostris'. As Garrett led them to take a left turn, Taita halted their horse, allowing them to form their last memory of Amanra as she launched a massive fireball to destroy the entrance, protecting them from harm with everything that she was.
Although they journeyed in silence, Taita felt like he was deafened by the hooves of the horses that rang like thunder through the silent tunnels and the drops of water that crashed down from the overhanging stalactites, sounding like the beating drums of war. He had never been claustrophobic, though with the devastating feelings of pain and sorrow that seemed to form an impenetrable cage around him, he had never felt as trapped as he did right now in the confinement of the underground tunnels. Without room to breathe, there was only suffocating loneliness.
The small beam of torchlight guided them around yet another corner, yet another step away from Amanra. Each aching beat of his heart signaled the passing of more time away from his Love, creating a distance that could never be bridged in that lifetime. Although the guttering torch acted like a beacon in the tunnel, Taita was slowly succumbing to the darkness in his mind. Everything started to blur together. He wanted to yell, but his voice was no longer at his disposal. He wanted to kick, but his legs felt numb. He wanted to ride back, but he was lost in more ways than one. There was nothing left of him but an empty shell, for he had lost his reason to live the moment he lost his queen. But then Lostris stirred, shifting in front of him to pull her sister tighter to herself. That simple movement, a tiny gesture among sisters, ignited something inside Taita like a beacon. The thought struck him like a coppersmith's hammer on the anvil. They are living proof that she will never leave me. She lives on in them. I will not fail the last charge she laid upon me. I have never failed her in life—I will not fail her in death!
When Garrett suddenly stopped and lit the other torch, the threesome looked exhausted as if they had been walking for hours, though it had only been twenty minutes. "This is as far as I go. I need to get back to the city, see if I can help. You just need to follow this tunnel to the end and take one last turn to the right. At the end, in a niche on the left, behind the statue, you will find a lever. Pull it and a hatch will open, letting you out of here. Continue on North and you'll reach Palm Spring, from where the trade route will bring you to Thebes."
Taita took hold of the torch that was handed to him and made a valiant effort to conjure up a smile, though it looked as if his lips had forgotten how to smile. "Thank you. For everything."
"No need to thank me, I'd do anything for my Queen ... present and future." The boy inclined his head while glancing toward Lostris. "I'm sorry for your loss."
Taita could not muster up the strength to respond, so he just nodded and steered Nash forward into the tunnel. After a few more minutes, they found a magnificent sculpture of a woman, chiseled from a single block of granite with such intricate details that the stone seemed to vibrate with life; it was a statue of Rairet, the Fire Spirit herself. Her beauty was so ethereal that it was both mesmerizing and too frightening to be alluring at the same time. Wearing a simple dress that reached to her ankles and snaked around her neck, her arms were left bare to show off the spiraling tattoos that started on the top of her shoulders and ended in swilling flames on the back of her hands. On her head, which resembled that of a lioness, she bore the sun disk, and her eyes, big and unmoving, seemed to stare right through the beholder's soul and into another world. She carried a fire in her left hand and the ankh, the symbol of eternal life, by its loop, in her right. Normally, Taita would have marveled at the display of detailed artistic wonder and rapidly made his obedience to the spirit, though with grief and resentment ruling his heart, he only cared about the lever that the patron spirit of all firebenders was hiding behind her. His arm snaking behind the deity, his hand catching in several cobwebs before his fingers could locate the wooden shaft of the lever, he pulled it, and with a loud crack and the screeching sound of unlubricated hinges, a hidden door opened up a few meters in front of them. The warm, fresh, desert breeze was inviting after the damp, dark tunnels, and they wasted no time ascending back into the open.
A bright spot along the horizon illuminated the star-dotted sky. When Taita turned the horse to look at what he presumed was the sunset, he noticed that Ra had already begun his voyage through the Spirit World. Gasping, he realized with a shock that the golden light did not come from the Sun Spirit, but was cast upon the heavens by the burning city of Gebel Nagara. Immediately, his heart went galloping back to his love he left behind, though before he could give in to the foolish impulse, his head made him decisively turn the horse and urge it to a trot, turning his back to the city.
The three of them rode in silence, none of them knowing what to say to lift the burden they were all carrying. Lostris was staring up at the night stars, their reflection sparkling in her eyes like a thousand diamonds, and silently mouthed a prayer to the spirits that her mother had taught her. Taita followed her gaze, though could not help but clench his teeth at the beautiful display; the stars were cold and very far away. Like the spirits, they did not care what happened down below; they did not care who lived and died; they did not care about saving good people. There was no profit in appealing to them, spirits or stars, so Taita briskly averted his eyes to stare ahead. He knew he would come to regret the thought later and turn to the spirits to help him cope, though in that instance, his loss was still too fresh to consider their comfort.
After passing another fifteen minutes in silence, Taita noticed the nervousness Nash displayed; his ears were flicking back and forth and he started to rear his head.
"Whoohoo, easy boy." Taita pulled the reins in an attempt to steady the uneasy horse. "What's wrong, Nash? What do you hear?" As he brushed the animal's flank, his ears picked up the imminent threat as well: the neighing of horses pulling the fighting chariots through the loose sands of the desert, growing louder and louder with every second they just stood there. Listening intently, he was acutely aware of the sound of hooves trudging through the murky earth and the creak of the chariot harness, the squeal of the unlubricated wheels turning on the bronze-lined hubs, and the rattle of javelins in their quivers. It sounded like only two or three chariots, but that was already more than enough. The horror of their predicament was increased by a nagging thought in Taita's mind that if those chariots had come their direction, Gebel Nagara, and more notably, its occupants, had fallen for good. In a valiant effort to ignore the dark thought and its meaning, Taita focused on the fact that since he could not see them, it must mean that the charioteers were riding parallel with them, hidden from view by the dune flanking their left. So if he could just ...
"Horses!" Having heard and recognized the noises, Tayla's usual high and ringing tones pierced the silence Taita had hoped the princesses would maintain.
As if it had been the starting shot of a race, the little girl's cry set off a chain reaction of events. There was an instant outcry and shouted orders, followed by the unmistakable sounds of chariots turning and bounding up the slope of the dune, the sand cascading down in their wake and hissing under the pressure of the weight placed upon it.
Meanwhile, Taita had spurred Nash into a canter before pushing him into a gallop, though the three-person load weighed heavy on the horse and broke its gait, enabling their pursuers to gain on them. "Come on, Nash! Faster! Faster!" The horse raced through the desert, plowing through powdery sand, climbing dune after dune, trying to leave the pursuers behind. Taita looked over his shoulder to see the masks of the Shrikes appear above the ridge of the last dune behind them before the rest of them came into view; there were three of them, filed in a line like a serpent, swiftly winding down the sandy hill. Realizing that unless there would be some divine intervention, they could not outrun them, Taita glanced down at the little firebender in front of him.
"Lostris, listen carefully, this is very important. If something were to happen to me, I want you to take your sister and run. Don't look back. You run as fast and as far away from those men as you can. Find someplace to hide and stay out of sight. Do you get that? Don't worry about me, just take care of yourself and your sister." Taita growled as Lostris looked at him with big, fearful eyes. "Promise me, Lostris! Promise me that if the situation presents itself, you'll leave me behind and save your sister and yourself. Promise me that you will do as I say!" The little girl nodded. "I need to hear you say it, Lostris. Please."
Lostris looked up at the serious face of her friend. She nodded again while whispering soft but decisively, "I promise, TaTa." A joyless smile crossed Taita's face before he directed his full attention toward the horizon once more as they were approaching a patch of rough earth that dotted the sand with ragged rocks.
Taita drove Nash hard. When they raced down the escarpment of the dune, the steed had dried white sweat on his heaving flanks and his eyes were bloodshot. The exhausted horse wheezed for air and started to slow down. The pursuing Shrikes saw their chance and uncoiled their strict formation, now riding abreast. The whine and rattle of the wheels served as ominous war horns signaling the attack. The firebenders that rode as lance-bearers positioned themselves beside the drivers, and their fireballs lit up the sky as soon as the fugitive trio was within range. Taita zigzagged between them to the best of his abilities, though the short turns and veers slowed Nash down even further.
The closest driver whipped up his team, and the chariot sped forward. From the corner of his eye, Taita saw the heads of the racing horses draw level with the rear of his own, and they still surged; the Shrike drew up inexorably beside them. The lance-bearer lunged at them, trying to grab the reins out of Taita's hand, though he avoided the snatching fingers and kicked out; his foot made contact with the feathered mask, propelling it through the air and revealing the assassin's face. The lips of the man were drawn back in a horrible rictus, like that of a corpse who had died of lockjaw. For the second time that night, Taita had the unnerving feeling that he had seen that face with the scar tracing its left cheek before, like he knew him from somewhere. It was not the time to pursue the thought, however, as the man lunged again. Before he could protect Lostris, the princess thrust her fists forward and hit the unmasked lance-bearer in the chest with a fireball. The blast was not nearly strong enough to cause lethal damage, though the impact was enough to hurl him back, causing him to lose his footing and fall off the footplate; with a loud thud and a scream of pain, he made contact with the desert ground.
Although the charioteer swerved back to check on his fallen comrade, the other two chasers would not ease their pursuit, coming up swift and hard behind them. The ragged terrain served to their advantage, however, as the chariots leapt and jolted over the lumpy ground, throwing off the aim off the Shrikes; coupled with Nash's agility, Taita had managed to keep them out of the path of the fireballs and arrows that rained down around them. A fireball missed him by an inch, trailing sparks as it passed by, and scorched the tips of Nash's mane, blackening it. Ducking from the heat, a javelin whizzed past Taita, scratching his shoulder like a soft lover's touch; he felt the sting of the razor edge, but could not afford to give in to the pain.
The rattling of another javelin jostling against the sides of its quiver as it was being pulled free alerted Taita that another Shrike was taking aim at them. Intending to dodge the dart, Taita forced Nash to leave the track and tear into the rough ground just when the javelineer swiveled his right shoulder forward in the throw. Whipping his head around to keep track of the trajectory of the weapon, he discovered to his horror that the javelin had never left the man's hand; he had feinted to force his target onto unsavory terrain, trapping them between the chariot and the steep sand dune. The burly Shrike leveled the spear again, ready to throw; the range was so short that even from the bouncing and leaping platform, he could not miss hitting one of them. Preparing for the inevitable impact, Taita covered the two girls with his body as the man took aim. Having his head turned, however, Taita had failed to see the Shrike changing his angle at the last second; the dart took flight for a few seconds and hit Nash high in the shoulder, where it cut through hide and bunched muscle, halting when it struck the shoulder bone. Although none of the vital organs had been hit, the barbed point dangled down his flank, banging his legs and hindering his gait with each stride he took. Nash labored to keep his speed, though the crippling blow undid his effort. Warm blood trickled back along his flank and spattered on the princesses' legs. Tears running over the girls' faces at the sight of the wounded horse, Tayla clutched Nash's neck in sorrow while Lostris angrily turned around, hurling words at their adversaries no six year old should know, enhancing her verbal attack with some fireworks of her own.
A new wave a fireballs came down their way, and one of the blazing projectiles landed right in front of Nash, who startled and reared. Caught by surprise, the three riders were thrown off to soar through the air. With reflexes he did not know he possessed, Taita reached for his princesses and pulled them close, breaking their fall as they all fell back to earth. His head struck first, however, sending a myriad of stars to dot his eyes before darkness took over and left him unconscious.
Taken by surprise by the sudden halt of the injured horse, the Shrikes tore past them, while Nash staggered a few more steps before his knees buckled, whinnying softly as he lay down on his uninjured flank. Tayla quickly scrambled up on her feet, pulling Lostris, who was shaking the dizziness out of her eyes, with her. "What happened?" The fearful tremble in her voice seemed to jolt Lostris fully awake.
"We fell and ... TATA!!" She sank to her knees next to Taita's body and laid her head on his chest. "I can hear his heart thumping!" The relief clear in her voice, she started to shake her caretaker back and forth. "TaTa? TaTa, come on. You got to get up. TaTa?"
"Tris ... Tris, those bad men ..." Tayla held on to the arm of her older sister, tears of sorrow and fright streaming down her face. "I'm scared ..."
Lostris, noticing that the squadron of chariots had regrouped for a final charge on them, tried to console her sister with a confidence she did not feel. "Don't worry, La-La, it'll be okay. It'll be okay ..." She turned back to the unconscious Taita and gave him another shove. "Get up! We got to go, TaTa. Now!" Tears of despair welled up in her eyes, and her voice was breaking. "TaTa, we got to go, please ... Wake up!" Despite her best efforts, she failed to rouse him from his slumber; a tear rolled over her cheek and splattered on the unconscious man's forehead. The crack of a whip made Lostris look up and gasp in terror, for the team of chariots was rapidly approaching once more.
"Lostris, listen carefully, this is very important. If something were to happen to me, I want you to take your sister and run. Don't look back. You run as fast and as far away from those men as you can. Find someplace to hide and stay out of sight. Do you get that? Don't worry about me, just take care of yourself and your sister."
Taita's words echoed through Lostris' mind, but even though she knew what he wanted her to do, she found it hard to act on it.
"Promise me, Lostris! Promise me that if the situation presents itself, you'll leave me behind and save your sister and yourself."
She felt Tayla tremble in fear beside her and protectively moved to stand in front of her, her arms spread out.
I promise ... I promise...
Her own words now buzzed through her mind like a swarm of pesky insects she could not get rid of while her eyes never missed a beat of the thundering hooves about to bear down upon them; the window of escape was rapidly closing.
I promise ... I promise ...
"I promised." She could taste her own salty tears when she murmured her decision. "I promised!" Lostris yelled once more to silence her guilt over leaving Taita. Without wasting another second, she grabbed Tayla's arm and pulled her along while she stumbled over the rocky ground to the base of the dune. Their light feet flying over the loose sand swiftly carried them up the hill, and they were already nearing the top by the time that the squeaking sound of chariot wheels behind them stopped; unable to cross the rugged terrain, the Shrikes swarmed down from the footplates and began their pursuit on foot. The two little girls clambered to the top and vanished from the sight of their ever-following shadows.
Bright like a perfect pearl, the moon illuminated the soft silvery sands of the desert that stretched out as far as the eye could see. The dunes were ephemeral as the winds and the currents of the ocean. The ever-changing landscape was the dominion of Seth, the Spirit of the Desert, barren and uninviting. It was no place for two little girls, though Lostris guided her sister down the hill without a second thought.
They had no place to go but forward.
Although their short legs were not made to outrun the soldiers, their lightness helped them to traverse the shifting sands that slowed down the heavier men trailing them, who were bogged down by their armor that made it difficult for them to maintain a decent speed. Despite that small advantage, it served only to buy them time as they could not hope to escape the adults; the soldiers were decidedly closing in, the clanging of sickle swords in scabbards growing louder and louder.
Desperate to find something, anything that would give them some reprise, a place to hide out of their reach, Lostris scoured the terrain and, after ascending another dune, the Moon Spirit showed her mercy by guiding her gaze to a small collection of rocks not too far from them. The oddity in the sea of sand stood tall, and the air around it still reverberated with the accumulated heat from the day, radiating off the rocks like a bonfire. Although no life could thrive in that ragged wasteland for a prolonged period of time, the fissures and cracks in the cliffs, carved by the wind, were the perfect size to harbor a small creature, desperate for a safe place to catch its breath, as no adult could squeeze through the small crevices to follow it. Not wasting a breath to form words, Lostris tugged her sister with her, who only needed to glimpse to the raised earth to understand Lostris' intention. The labored breathing of the soldiers behind them increased the princesses' efforts and seemed to fuel their stamina. Lostris could see the outline of a cave in the rude wall; the sight of the entrance of their salvation seemed to soothe the stinging pain of exhaustion in her legs. She could feel Tayla alter her course beside her, a sure sign she too had seen their goal. Reaching the narrow gorge, Lostris pushed Tayla through it and swiftly flung herself into the small opening behind her. She lay sprawled out on the floor, and despite aching everywhere, she managed to crack a reassuring smile at Tayla, who had her back pressed against the inner wall and her chest heaving like she was hyperventilating. Flipping over on all fours, Lostris crawled close to her sister and took her in her arms. Although she lacked the oxygen to form words, the comforting embrace, the closeness of the other body, the head on the shoulder, was enough to calm the young princesses down.
And then it was gone.
A roaring flame burst through the entrance, eliciting a howl of terror from the sisters. Lostris pushed the heated tendrils back, though by doing so, exposed herself to the grabbing hand that latched itself on her wrist and threatened to pull her out of the belly of the rock. Before she could do anything, however, the foreign hand released her again, and a muffled cry of pain pierced through their stone barrier. The relief brought by Tayla's teeth in the soldier's flesh was short-lived, as another hand quickly snaked up and coiled itself around Tayla's slim neck, dragging her out of Lostris' view.
"TAYLA!" Lostris' scream sliced through the air as she dove after her sister. Lashing out with blindly-aimed flames, she avoided the snatching hands of the other soldiers and found her sister being suspended in the air at arm's length due to the frenzied five-year-old assaulting her aggressor with all the might she could summon with her small body; she clawed at his arms, punched at his mask, kicked at his stomach. The ring of bronze whenever she managed to hit his armor and her terrified screams pierced the night.
While Lostris' young age and short legs had been unsuited for outrunning grown men, they were perfectly capable of lithely swinging and squirming her out of the way of the other three soldiers. For the second time that night, the Moon Spirit was on her side and decided to pitch in by allowing herself to be darkened by a rare desert cloud, flooding the dunes with darkness. Lostris, completely attuned to her sister's voice in the cacophony of shouts and enraged cries, moved through the assassins' ranks as nimble as a snake cat trailing a mouse weasel. Guided by her ears rather than her eyes, she sped forward, turning, jumping, and ducking under various arms and legs that appeared in front of her.
"Lemme go, you big baboon pig!" Tayla's outburst was followed by a howling cry of pain.
"My eye! Oh that's it, you little rodent!"
Lostris' efforts to weave through the darkness toward Tayla's struggle suddenly came to a halt when a loud thud stopped her sister's screaming; the instant silence was deafening and crippled her. "Tayla?" Although she had intended to yell, the name passed her lips no louder than a whisper. Her ears where throbbing with the sudden silence, leaving her to be assaulted with the sound of her own heartbeat, and her breaths were becoming more rapid and shallow as a coursing panic consumed her.
"TAYLA?!" This time her outburst rang over the plain with a force that would have made a commanding general on the battlefield proud. No matter how loud she was, however, so silent was the reply.
She was alone.
The realization knocked the wind out of her.
She had failed her mother, who had asked her to be strong for her sister. She had failed Taita, who had asked her to save her sister. She had failed Tayla, whom she had promised that everything would be all right.
As if to confirm her inner panic and desperation, the Moon Spirit shattered the desert cloud with a single beam and illuminated the horrible spectacle before Lostris; Tayla's motionless body dangled in the man's arms, and the pink flower, the last gift Amanra had given her, slowly swiveled down, its vibrant petals getting splattered with bright red specks trickling down the left side of Tayla's face. As the flower fell to the ground, so did Lostris. Robbed of all she held dear, of every reason she had to continue fighting, she dropped to her knees, her stare fixed on her sister; Tayla's eyes were closed while her mouth hung slightly open. Lostris' blue-gray eyes trailed the blood oozing from a wound atop her head to the pool it was making on Tayla's linen tunic. Further down, the thick forearm of the Shrike soldier draped itself around her chest, holding her aloft. The dark hairs on the limb stood out against the bright white of the fabric. Unable to handle the sight, she closed her eyes and felt herself be consumed by an uncontrollable fury; baring her teeth and wheezing out labored breaths, she clutched the sand in anger, her fingers leaving deep marks like that of a predator in the smooth surface, while she had the distinct feeling dozens of unseen people where whispering reassuringly in her ears.
Eleven years later, a young woman shot up in bed, gasping for air while cold sweat ran down her back. On the rhythm of her heavy panting, her blue-gray eyes rapidly scanned the room, though found she was alone.
- I apologize for the length of this "". The only explanation I can offer you is that it was never intended to be a prologue, it just became one in the end. I've rewritten this chapter at least four times and each time it became longer and longer. With the exception of the first, all the rewrites were inspired by
after reading her . After I first read her story, one of my initial thoughts after raving over what a wonderful writer she is, was "Wow... my story really is crap compared to this." So thanks to her, I started to rewrite and this is the result.
- In 2015, I decided to rewrite this prologue as I felt that it didn't reach the same standard as my later chapters, which inadvertently made this chapter even longer. Due to that, I decided to rename it to be an official chapter, because still calling it a prologue became too ridiculous.
- The names of Lostris, Taita, Pianki Harrab, Tamose, Memnon, Gebel Nagara, and the Shrikes are taken from Wilbur Smith's River God and Warrlock.
- Taita is pronounced as "Ty-ee-tah".
- Lostris is pronounced "Loss-tris".
- Tayla is pronounced "Thai-lah".
- Originally, I wasn't going to use Avatar World fauna, but to increase the Avatar feel, I did anyway. However, I added horses, because I think they're magnificent animals and I had already thought out the story with horses in it, so I was hard for me to leave them out. Think about them as "just horse".
- Tayla's name was originally written as "Taila", but one of my editors thought it was too confusing with Taita.
- Kenna, Lostris' second name, means "born of fire" or "handsome", though I chose the name due to its first meaning as a reference to her being a firebender.
- There are several references to Disney movies in the chapter, such as The Lion King 2, Mulan, and The Princess Diaries.
- The Earth Spirit in Heiress of the Nile, Geb was the ancient Egyptian god of the Earth. It was believed that earthquakes were his laughter, and that he allowed crops to grow.
- "Isa", "Dalawa", "Tatlo", "Apat", and "Lima" mean "one", "two", "three", "four", and "five" respectively in Tagalog and are a result of pure laziness.
- Garrett's name and appearances are inspired by the blind Garrett from Quest for Camelot.
- The quote "I've only truly loved two men in my life ... and you were one of them. Perhaps in a next lifetime, the Spirits will treat our love more kindly." is taken from Wilbur Smith's River God, though there he speaks of gods and not spirits.
- The Ancient Egyptians didn't really have a Fire God, but they did have many gods that were associated with fire, the Goddess Sekhmet being one of them. However, since many people mainly associate her with War, that wasn't really fitting. What is fitting is that she is the daughter of Ra, the Sun God, and as such is also known as the Eye of Ra. So with the courtesy of Seliah, who put Ra + iret (eye) together to form Rairet, I deemed it appropriate for the Fire Spirit (technically it should be iret-Ra, but let's face it, that's just not as catchy at Rairet).
- Rairet is depicted with the head of a lioness, similar to Sekhmet.
- There is a fun mythology story about how Sekhmet came to be, so if interested, ask Seliah or use Google.
- Before the rewrite, Gebel Nagara and its inhabitants were part of the Earth Kingdom and there was a fighting scene between Amanra and her Red Tigers and Governor Sud and his earthbenders, though I changed that to Amanra fighting some Shrikes directly, since I felt it made more sense.
- "There is more to life than just the amounts of breath you take; it's about the moments that take your breath away" is a quote inspired by the movie The Vow, though originally is a quote said by Hilary Cooper.
- This chapter counts 15112 words.
|Heiress of the Nile|
|Book 1 - Lost and Found|
|☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥|
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