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May 19, 2012
Fire. Air. Water. Earth. For thousands of years, the Avatar has been a paragon of righteousness and order to all nations. But fifteen years ago, an Avatar was born into the Hei Chaoliu, organized gangs that all but held Ba Sing Se captive. Since then, civil war has erupted between Ba Sing Se and Omashu over which great city deserves to lead the Earth Kingdom, and the influence of the Hei Chaoliu gangs has only increased. Only the Avatar can stop the war, depose the corrupt Earth King, and return balance to the world. But the circumstances of Avatar Zhengyi's birth have lead him to forsake the Avatar's duties for a selfish life dedicated to what he calls "justice" and most call "revenge." The world waits as he struggles to choose between his two roles: the Avatar, and the Heir of Ban. But I believe Zhengyi can save the world...
In the fifteen years since Er Shi Wu took over as Mountain Master of the Ban clan he had become one of the most well-known people in Ba Sing Se, although it was mainly by his handle, "One-Eyed Wu". Other than the Earth King and a few nobles, he was the richest man in the city, maybe the whole Earth Kingdom. Rumors of criminal activity always swirled around him, but they were never proven.
Publicly, he was a successful merchant, but anyone in the Hei Chaoliu knew—or almost knew—who One-Eyed Wu really was. They knew a man who had taken over the largest clan in the city when the previous boss was killed by the Du clan. After several years, Wu had wiped out the remnants of the Du clan and proceeded to use violence to take funds and territory from nearly all the other clans. From almost 50 clans 15 years ago, there were now less than ten left. Under Wu, the Ban had absorbed or wiped out all the rest. Wu was known for his fierce, incredibly skillful earthbending abilities and his willingness to use violence as an intimidation tactic.
He had become a local celebrity in Ba Sing Se, and like all larger-than-life figures, rumors and urban legends about him had begun to crop up. One told by members of rival clans, and which Wu himself particularly liked, went this way: Yanluo, Lord of the Underworld, had appeared to Wu and offered to give him the power of a demon in exchange for his soul. However, Wu was so threatening that Yanluo became frightened and decided to charge him only his right eye for that power.
Zhengyi's foot stamped the ground, ejecting a rock from its resting place. He shot his fist out from his hip, sending the rock at his earthbending tutor. The other man quickly erected a wedge of earth and the rock shattered on its edge. The wedge sped toward Zhengyi. He thrust both his forearms at it and a rock wall rose up to block it. "Don't bore me with this kid stuff, Shi Hua," he teased, a grin spanning his broad face.
Shi Hua made some uppercuts, each lifting a rock out of the ground. He kicked each one at Zhengyi. The young Avatar's green vest fluttered as he dodged each one, exposing his bare chest and the tattoo of a growling pygmy puma on his right pectoral muscle. He smashed the last two projectiles on diagonal columns of rock he erected. "So it's just the same old rock-throwing?" Zhengyi mocked. With a flip of his thick arms, he twined the two columns together and sent them careening toward his tutor. "What do you think I am, a kid?" The sunlight glinted on the metal studs in his black leather wrist bracers.
Shi Hua saw the rock formation arcing overhead. He bent a curved trench out of the ground and rode a wave of earth through it, closing the distance between himself and his student. "I know a thing or two," he shot back at Zhengyi. He angled two rock formations in an arc above the boy's head. Shi Hua thrust his fists downward. The rocks were about fall on Zhengyi.
The boy erected twin columns of rock, stopping the falling crags only a foot above his head. Zhengyi grabbed onto the crags and flipped over his tutor's head. He unleashed an arc of flame from his foot, and Shi Hua stumbled forward.
Er Shi Wu wanted to make Zhengyi as powerful a bender as he could, so he never concealed from the boy the fact that he was the Avatar, although he made sure the boy did not know about the Avatar State and that he thought the traditional Avatar's role of protecting the world was not an attractive lifestyle. Traditionally, Zhengyi shouldn't have found out until he was a year older than he presently was, but Wu wanted to get him training with all four elements as soon as possible. As it was, Wu had started Zhengyi training as soon as he was old enough to walk. He did start on earthbending, but moved on to water and fire after just a few years. Ba Sing Se was the biggest city in the world, and people from all over the world flocked there for various reasons. There were many waterbenders and firebenders in the city, and because émigrés were often discriminated against and forced to take lower-paying jobs, quite a few of them ended up working for the Hei Chaoliu. Most clans had at least one waterbender or firebender, and a clan the size of Wu's had several of each. Wu had hired or assigned these to teach Zhengyi their bending styles. The only bending style Zhengyi had never learned was air, since Air Nomads rarely had reason to leave their own society, despite the many who made regular journeys to the city as part of their spiritual pilgrimages. And no Air Nomad would ever stoop to working with criminals. Still, by now Zhengyi was very proficient with the other three styles.
Zhengyi spun around and pumped one fireball after another at Shi Hua. The earthbending teacher erected a wall of earth and the flames dissipated on its surface. Zhengyi bent water out of the koi pond in the courtyard and sliced off the top three-quarters of the wall. He followed this by erecting a spire of rock out of the ground straight for Shi Hua's neck. The spire's point was inches from the man's neck.
"Well, your control is good," Shi Hua commented sarcastically, relinquishing the fight and walking around the rock formation. "You can transition between bending styles nicely, as far as I can tell. But then, I'm just an earthbender. I think I've run out of things to teach you."
"I don't know why Wu keeps making me take lessons," Zhengyi said, relaxing his stout body. "I can already beat anybody in the city. I must've beat Wu himself a hundred times."
"Yeah, we're really at the level of repetition and reinforcement. But as long as he keeps paying me I'll keep drilling you. And hey, the stronger you are, the richer this clan'll be when you inherit it."
"Yeah, but it gets boring if there's nothing new to learn. Maybe the next stage in my training could be how to use bending to impress girls. At least that would have a point," he grinned. Shi Hua chuckled as Zhengyi picked up his pet pygmy puma, Fu Shan, who was trying to fish in the koi pond. The boy held his pet under its forearms as he nuzzled it and talked baby-talk to it. Although Zhengyi fancied himself a tough guy, and he was indeed a powerful fighter, he had a soft spot for his fuzzy animal guide.
Ying Su, heavier and more wrinkled than she had been fifteen years ago, was sweeping dirt off the front walkway to the house. Her hair was done up with a comb, and the long skirt of her green and yellow ruqun brushed back and forth as she swept. Out of nowhere, she heard a voice.
"The Tong clan has a warehouse in the Eastern Quarter of the Lower Ring. I want it," Er Shi Wu said, tossing her a map of the building and surrounding streets.
Su laid the broom aside and dusted her light yellow waist skirt. She took the map and examined it thoroughly. "Will you take Zhengyi with you again?" she asked.
"Of course," he replied snidely. "If I don't take Zhengyi, how do I know you won't steer me right into a trap?"
Su just looked sad and distant, but she was thinking. "Take as few men as you need besides him," she said morosely. "Let the Tong think you've brought a weak force. The entrances will be guarded, so set him up outside this window in the middle. He can use just a single spark to ignite the dai zhiwu—"
"What?" Wu bellowed. "Dai zhiwu is just dried leaves! It'll go up like that!" He snapped his fingers. "And one tael of it is worth a thousand gold pieces!"
"Exactly. The Tong will be too busy worrying about the fire to put up a fight. Zhengyi can control the fire to herd them into a confined area. Then you can take them out with two or three people, while they cut your losses by keeping the fire down. Zhengyi can control water and fire. Between all that, I wouldn't guess you'll lose more than five percent of the total inventory, and you're guaranteed not to lose a single man."
Wu thought about it. "The death stipend for a clan member is well over a few thousand gold pieces...All right. Seems like a sound plan. Hope it works," he threatened with a smile, then strode past her into the house.
"You know I can't mislead you, Wu," she whispered to his back as he walked away.
As Zhengyi tickled Fu Shan's belly, One-Eyed Wu emerged from the house. Shi Hua promptly bowed to him. Far from the dirty linen shirt and ku he had worn before his rise to power, Wu now sported a silvery-gray silk zhaoshan with mountains and clouds embroidered across the back in gold thread. "Zhengyi, I need your help today," he said. "The Tong clan has been trying to run dai zhiwu dens in Ban territory. The men found the location of a warehouse where they hoard the stuff, so we're going to retaliate by seizing it."
"Again?" Zhengyi complained, stroking Fu Shan.
"Kid, that dai zhiwu is worth hundreds of thousands of gold pieces. You better not be telling me the heir of the most powerful criminal organization in the Earth Kingdom would rather play with pets than fight," Wu said playfully, although he knew it would get under Zhengyi's skin.
"Pfft, no..." the boy said defensively. "But I've been fighting Tongs every day this week. It's annoying, especially because you won't let me go up and fight them directly, like a normal person."
Because Zhengyi was the Avatar, Wu could not let just anyone see Zhengyi bending fire or water. The Avatar was the protector of all four nations, and Wu was using him to fight for drugs and control of territory. If the public discovered that their Avatar was essentially being raised as a protégé to a crime lord, Zhengyi would most certainly be taken away from Wu—or Wu would have to kill him before he could be taken away. Wu did not teach Zhengyi anything about what being the Avatar traditionally meant, and made sure he was loyal to Wu and the clan over everything else. The way Wu explained the situation to Zhengyi, if people discovered he was the Avatar he wouldn't be allowed to succeed his father and run the clan when he grew up, which was his greatest ambition. Consequently, Zhengyi usually had to hide on far-off rooftops or around corners, somewhere where he could get a vantage on the fighting, but could not be seen himself. It was not beyond his abilities, but was pretty unsatisfying and a good bit harder than a straight fight.
"This is important, Zhengyi," Wu urged. "Do I need to explain again how important dai zhiwu is to the Hei Chaoliu? It's more powerful than betel nuts or alcohol," the one-eyed man counted out on his fingers. "It's addictive, which means repeat business. It's illegal, which means if someone wants it they can only come to the clans. And the more this war with the western cities drains the economy, the more people buy dai zhiwu to forget their troubles. Dai zhiwu is the future of organized crime in the Earth Kingdom."
Dai zhiwu was a recently discovered hybrid plant that could be ground up and smoked to produce a powerful narcotic. It had originally been grown in the western Earth Kingdom. Because the strict and self-righteous current Earth King, Jin Ling, had outlawed alcohol, betel nuts, gambling, and other things he felt "impeded the mind," the soldiers fighting against Omashu in the Earth Kingdom Civil War had no substance they could use as a painkiller for the first few years of the war. When dai zhiwu was discovered, it was so new it had not been officially outlawed. It was used in army hospitals, but because it was addictive the soldiers brought it with them when they returned to Ba Sing Se. Dai zhiwu made users tired and listless, causing them to neglect work and relationships. Taking too much could cause death, although the medical knowledge as to why this happened was lacking. Soon it was propagating in the city and eventually King Jin Ling declared it illegal as well. But it was so potent that people couldn't stay away from it. Since it was illegal the Hei Chaoliu took control of its trade, and the remaining clans were making a killing off of it.
"You want the clan to prosper, don't you?" Wu concluded, running his fingers through his slicked-back hair. His hair was receding more prominently from the sides than the front. His hairline made a U-shape on the top of his head.
"I know, I know," Zhengyi relented, placing his puma on the ground. "Let's go."
"Lucky Cho and the others are staking the place out. We'll meet them there."
Wu strolled very casually through the streets of the Lower Ring. He had changed out of his more expensive clothes, not wanting to draw any undue attention to himself. He rarely personally accompanied his men on clan business anymore, trying as he was to cultivate an image of a law-abiding merchant in order to deflect any real accusations by the city government. If peasants or rival clan members knew he was a crook it hardly mattered—no one listened to them. But as rich as Wu was, the odd do-gooder public official still had some potential to make trouble for him. Ti Xi had let a city guardsman too close to the clan once, and it ended badly for all involved, so Wu was sure to be cautious about what he was seen doing.
He continued to crunch on his apple as Zhengyi marched along next to him. Zhengyi was apparently bored, even though they were off to what would have been a life-and-death battle for someone other than the Avatar. Wu decided to try and engage him about the mechanics of running a clan, as he sometimes did. "So, Xiǎo Zhengyi, let me ask you something."
The boy rolled his eyes at Wu's nickname for him. Wu liked to tease Zhengyi with it.
"Say I have two suppliers who want me to distribute their dai zhiwu. One guy says if I pay him an extra five percent now, he'll sell to me first a year from now. No matter what happens to the market, he'll sell to me first. The other guy says he'll give me a ten percent discount now if I agree to buy from him first a year from now. Who should I buy from?"
"Second guy," Zhengyi said assuredly. "Always take the sure thing. Dai zhiwu supplier could be dead or in jail a year from now."
"Exactly," Wu smiled. "You're shaping up to be a pretty good Mountain Master, kid." He took a bite from his apple.
They turned into an alley, on approach to the warehouse. Suddenly Wu felt something sharp poking into his back. "Hand over all your money," the knife-wielding mugger demanded.
Wu calmly took a last bite of his apple, chuckling. He threw the core away.
"What's wrong with you?" the mugger cried. "I said gimme your money!" His hands were shaky and he looked emaciated. He had dark circles under his eyes. Zhengyi could tell he was a dai zhiwu user. He probably bought from the Ban clan.
"Sorry," Wu said, stifling his laughter. "It's just funny that you picked me to rob. You must have terrible luck." With that, Wu raised some rock to trap the hand in which the mugger held his knife. Turning to face him, Wu drew the rock back into the ground, pulling the mugger with it. He bound the mugger's other arm and feet to the ground with more rings of earth, then levitated a large rock. Wu let it hover over the frightened mugger's knife-hand. He let it drop. The mugger howled as his hand was crushed. Wu released the man, then shifted his foot to drag the mugger away on a carpet of earth.
Zhengyi chuckled at the ease with which Wu had beaten up the attacker. "You really messed that guy up," he laughed.
"If you want to be seen as a strong leader, you can't allow people to take what's yours. Come on, let's find Lucky Cho and Aguta."
The two walked on and came to a dai zhiwu den. Wu stopped outside. "This is Kun's place," Wu said. "Go inside and tell Lucky Cho that his due date passed. I'll be waiting out here. Then we'll head to the warehouse."
Zhengyi entered. The floor was littered with the living corpses of addicts, and the air stank of the acrid smoke fumes. Zhengyi snorted, trying to force the smell from his nostrils. Wu's men were seated at a couple tables in the back, enjoying some noodles and illegal báijiǔ liquor. They all rose and bowed as Zhengyi walked over.
Lucky Cho—as scrawny, squirrelly, and sycophantic as he had been fifteen years ago—was there, plus the three other men Wu had assigned to this. And then there was Aguta, a tall, slightly lanky waterbender. Animal bone piercings decorated his ears, septum, eyebrows, and lips. His hair was tied into several very small knots, forming a semispherical grid pattern all over his head, giving the impression of spikes from far away. A chunk was missing from the top of his left ear. Aguta was a psychopath, with a genuine enthusiasm for violence. He had been granted Wu's old position as clan General, although in practice Wu still directed all the clan's combat operations. Aguta was more like Wu's personal hitman, who went after Wu's chosen targets while Wu himself kept his hands clean. He was also Zhengyi's waterbending teacher.
"Wu says it's time to make Kun pay up. Then we're going to the Tong warehouse," he told them.
Lucky Cho nodded at Aguta and they both approached the man tending the bar.
He was serving drinks and dai zhiwu when he saw the two Chaoliu enforcers approach. His eyes widened and he started shaking.
"Mr. Kun," Lucky Cho regarded him.
"I-I'm sorry about money. Please," the owner pleaded. Zhengyi leaned against the doorjamb. Aguta bent the drinks out of the glasses sitting around the bar and swirled them casually around right hand with a small flutter of his fingers. "I can get the money, I just need a little more time. Business just hasn't been as brisk as I thought. I, I couldn't have known profits wouldn't pick up. J-just a little time, please. That's all."
Lucky Cho was indifferent. "Your payment for the stuff was due yesterday. Now, I know you would never intentionally disrespect the Ban clan by trying to stiff us." His tone was mockingly sympathetic. "So the problem must be that you're just not good at remembering dates, right? Then we'll help you."
Aguta moved closer to the man. Lucky Cho continued. "Ban clan policy is to give everyone a ten-day grace period to repay overdue loans. Your payment was due yesterday, which means you have this many days to repay us," said, holding up his fingers as though he were talking to a child. "As of today, you have nine days left. Aguta, show him how many 'nine' is," Cho said, nodding to the waterbender.
Aguta seized Kun by the wrist in one hand, and grabbed his pinky finger in the other. He broke it with a snap.
Kun screamed and cradled his broken hand in the other. Aguta grabbed him by the hair while Cho stared coldly into his eyes. Zhengyi looked on. "Some guys are going to come by here and give you another math lesson every day until we get our money. Understand?" Aguta tugged a little harder on his hair to emphasize the point.
The Ban members left the den. Aguta, at the tail of the group, stopped to bulge his eyes at a woman sitting by the door for good measure. He laughed as she fumbled her cup.
The men all bowed to Wu when they met him outside. "Mountain Master," Cho addressed him.
"You've staked out the warehouse already like I asked?" Wu said.
"Thirty men, dà gē," Aguta told him. "They've been guarding that place since yesterday. They should be pretty tired by now. A good time to strike," he said, grinning.
"Let's head over. I'll wait at the noodle house across the street," Wu said. "I'll give you the plan when we get there."
People gave them a wide berth as they moved through the streets. Zhengyi tagged along at Wu's side. "That was kind of rough what they did to Kun back there," he observed. "What if he has trouble paying you cuz he can't use that finger?"
"It doesn't matter how much business he does between then and now. He's afraid of what'll happen if he doesn't pay," Wu assured the boy, "so he's going to get the money somewhere. And everyone who sees his broken finger is going to know what happens when you don't pay the Ban clan on time. I made an example of him. Get it?"
"Oh," the Avatar said. "Yeah, I see."
"Listen. You're like my apprentice, Zhengyi. You have to take all this in. I was your father's best friend, you know. He made me your godfather, and when he was killed by a rival gang he made me swear—"
"—Swear to raise me as your own and teach me how to run the clan so I could become Mountain Master one day," Zhengyi blandly recited the speech Wu had told him about a million times throughout his childhood. "I know. I'm doing my best, all right?"
"I'm just trying to honor your father," Wu told him.
When they were about a block away from the warehouse Wu halted the cadre of men at the corner of a building. It was just beginning to get dark. He briefed them on the plan Ying Su had provided for him. He indicated the place near the window where he wanted Zhengyi to stand. Zhengyi seemed just a little distracted, and Wu remembered how moody he had seemed this afternoon.
He looked to Zhengyi. "How do you feel?" he asked.
"Thirty on five, plus the Avatar? That's cool," he said. "I'm always ready for a fight." He punched his palm enthusiastically.
Aguta laughed. "This kid's an animal!" he said, giving Zhengyi a friendly punch in the shoulder. Zhengyi smiled.
As Zhengyi positioned himself at a window midway down the length of the building, Wu sat down and ordered some food in the noodle house across the street. His men casually waited nearby. Soon cries of "Fire!" erupted from inside. Aguta rushed headlong into the building, followed closely by the other fighters. Lucky Cho stayed towards the rear. Zhengyi hefted himself onto some boxes from a nearby store that were stacked outside the window, so he could see what he was doing. The place was absolutely packed with bundles of dried white leaves. The collection of about fifty packages beneath him was on fire, and Tong retainers were desperately trying to snuff it out with clothing, blankets, and water from a nearby well. Carefully, without being seen, Zhengyi radiated the fire farther and farther, pressing the Tongs back toward the exit.
They never even saw Wu's men coming. For a thirty on five fight, the five won pretty quickly. A few of the Tongs tried to put up a fight, but Zhengyi used earthbending to offset their balance, making them easy pickings for the Ban.
Seeing no more live Tongs about, Zhengyi bent some water out of the well nearby and doused the fire with it. But just as he did so, a fleeing Tong member decided to take refuge from the Ban behind the stack of boxes Zhengyi was standing on. He saw Zhengyi bend the water. Before Zhengyi even noticed he was there, the Avatar began bending earth to snuff the remaining flames. This Tong, not the sharpest man around, watched for a moment and finally realized.
"Th-the Avatar!" he cried, pointing. Zhengyi looked at him, more embarrassed at being caught than anything. He swore at himself. His true identity was not supposed to be known.
Just then, Wu turned the corner, on his way to collect Zhengyi. He saw the Tong who had escaped and instantly seized him, trapping him in a rock formation. He drew a dagger from his sash. "Avatar, help me! He's going to kill me!" the Tong pleaded.
Wu locked a ring of earth around the Tong's mouth, silencing him. "He knows you're the Avatar?" Wu hissed in a whisper.
"I'm sorry! He snuck up on me!" Zhengyi said.
Wu looked back and forth between them for a minute. He removed a dagger from inside his shirt and offered it to the boy. "You have to kill him," he said.
Zhengyi looked at the blade, then back to Wu. Reluctantly, he wrapped his fingers around the handle.
Wu tugged on the man's hair, exposing his neck for Zhengyi. "Do it like I said," he prompted. "Let the blade do the work."
Zhengyi prepared himself to insert the knife. He felt the tendons in his elbow tense. But his gaze met that of the Tong. The man—or boy; he couldn't have been more than twenty—was shaking. His eyes bulged pleadingly.
That was one thing Ying Su had always told him, always seemed to be clucking at him while he scampered out a door to help with clan business: that the Hei Chaoliu was fundamentally about justice. It had been formed by poor people who banded together to help each other against the powerful, and his father had known this well. She told him justice meant treating people as their past actions warranted. "Wu doesn't truly understand what the Hei Chaoliu means, not the way you father did," she would say. "And don't assume you know anyone's past, no matter who the are."
Zhengyi understood that he didn't know this Tong's past. He didn't know who he was or where he came from. And to kill someone in cold blood like this... the guy was begging Zhengyi to save him a moment ago. He was helpless. How could he deserve to die? But Zhengyi had been careless and had gotten caught. He had endangered his brothers, so it was his responsibility to eliminate this enemy of the clan. Enemies of the clan deserved to be taken out. That was undeniable. That was what the son of a Mountain Master should do...right?
Zhengyi's head dropped. "I...I c-can't," he admitted. "I'm sorry."
"That's right you are!" Wu snapped. "You need to grow up, kid." He stuck his head into the warehouse through the window. "Aguta, get out here!" he called.
"Yeah, boss?" Aguta asked, climbing out the window.
"Take care of this," Wu barked, pointing a thumb at the captive.
Aguta grinned from ear to ear, and started chuckling as he encased the man in ice and dragged him off.
"Do you realize how important it is that no one find out you're the Avatar?" he said. "Anyone who knows your identity is a threat to the clan. You father did what it took to protect his brothers. You'd better grow up and start acing more like him."
Zhengyi felt disgusted at himself. "Sorry, all right?" he barked, defensive. "You always say you won't make me have to kill anyone before I'm ready!"
"I won't force you to do anything. But if you want to lead this clan someday you better learn. This is our lifestyle, Zhengyi. We're the Hei Chaoliu! We're outlaws! We don't survive by running to the law, we survive by our strength! Remember the Chen Mo code! If people find out that you're the Avatar, they're going to take you away. They're going to send you all over the world, put you through agonizing training and force you to basically kill yourself rescuing people you don't even care about! And you will never get to lead your clan. The Ban name will be permanently dishonored and the clan will dissolve!"
Everything was still for a moment. Wu hissed in frustration again. "Maybe it's my fault for using a plan that made you bend two elements. We need to train you to be more discreet."
Zhengyi just looked at his feet and clenched his fists, angry with himself.
"Get inside while we wait for the cart," Wu said, already turning his attention from Zhengyi, walking away from the warehouse. They would have to wait for some other Ban retainers to show up with covered carts so they could move the dai zhiwu to one of their storehouses. Zhengyi let Wu get some distance on him before following. At least we actually didn't lose very much dai zhiwu, Zhengyi thought, trying to be optimistic. He knew Wu would still be mad though.
"Great score, dà gē," Lucky Cho congratulated Wu. Other men came up and offered their leader congratulations for the brilliant plan and the great haul. After what had just happened, Zhengyi felt even worse. Could he ever be as strong a leader as Wu?
Amid the congratulations, Wu started sniffing the air. He saw some smoke wafting up from farther back in the warehouse and quickly followed it, thinking some of the product might still be on fire. But when he came to the source he saw it was just a pipe that a young Ban retainer was smoking. "What do you think you're doing? Get that out of your mouth!" Wu barked, ripping the pipe out of the man's teeth. "Did you steal this from me?" Wu threatened, referring to the dai zhiwu in the pipe.
"No, it's mine! I paid for it, I swear!" the man pleaded.
Wu thrust his fingers into the man's mouth and clutched his lower mandible. "I don't care if you paid for it," he growled. "I have made it clear—several times—that I do not approve of my men smoking dai zhiwu. Dai zhiwu is for worthless, stupid junkies. It messes with your head, and I don't want any stupid people working for me. I had better never see you with a pipe again. I don't care if you're blowing bubbles, the next time I see a pipe in your teeth—" he stared right into the man's eyes "—I will break. Your. Jaw," he said, releasing the hapless smoker's jaw but giving him a good punch in the gut. He keeled over and Wu stalked away, waiting for the carts to show up.
Soon some more Ban retainers showed up with ostrich-horsedrawn carts. Zhengyi used his earthbending to levitate the ground under the huge stacks of dai zhiwu, using them like dollies to load the drugs onto the carts. Wu waited across the street. Just as the first cart had been filled and the driver had sent off, a patrol of city guard officers appeared, marching down the street.
"The guard!" Lucky Cho called.
"Relax, stupid," Wu replied, stepping out of the safety of the restaurant across the street. "I can handle guards."
The other men stopped working, and stared at the officers in a way that the criminals apparently didn't realize was quite suspicious. Zhengyi shrank back toward the warehouse door and tried to look casual, but only Wu truly kept his cool.
"What's going on here?" the guard captain asked.
"Good afternoon," Wu greeted them pleasantly. "Oh, Captain Chan, it's you."
"Mr. Er! I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you. Staying out of trouble, I hope," the officer joked.
Wu realized that the captain knew he was doing something illegal, but Wu went right along with the act. Chan was one of the most corrupt guard officers there was, and that was saying something, since almost every high-ranked guard in the city was in Wu's pocket. "Of course. For today, at least," Wu laughed. They had to keep up the act for the sake of the other officers.
"So, what kind of goods are you moving here?" Chan asked pleasantly.
"Flour," Wu said, without the slightest hesitation. It was the standard cover-up. "Are there any fees associated with the transportation of flour in this part of the city that I'm not aware of?" Wu said, subtly offering the captain a bribe.
Chan pushed out a sigh, but he could barely contain his glee, being the poor actor that he was. "I'm afraid so."
"Let's discuss it over here," Wu motioned, walking the captain down the street a little way.
Away from the other cops, Wu and Chan huddled together. "Ten thousand," Chan said flatly. He knew the routine. Wu gave Chan a certificate for the money, a special form of IOU that the Hei Chaoliu clans had used for many years, since they so often dealt in large sums of money.
"I'm not in the Black Current, Wu," the captain whispered angrily. "This is no good to me, I want cash."
"I'll send men to your house with the money tomorrow at midnight. You can redeem that for gold pieces."
Chan looked at the paper coldly for a minute. "Only because I know you're good for it," he finally said.
Wu shot him a grin, their business concluded. They walked back to their respective groups. "All right, let's move along, men," Captain Chan barked. Obediently, the rest of the officers marched down the street.
The Ban members watched them go for a moment. I thought we were gonna get arrested for sure, but Wu handled that so easily, Zhengyi thought.
Then Wu smacked one of his teamsters upside the head, angry having drawn the attention of the city guard despite all his efforts to do otherwise. "Load the stuff! I'm not paying you to stand around!"
"And then he just punched Xuan right in the gut!" Zhengyi recounted to Ying Su, as they sat in the kitchen back at the Ban compound and she turned their turkey-duck dinner on a spit. "Oh, and then the guards showed up!" he drew out the last syllable a bit, emphasizing the incredibility of his story. "Everyone thought we were gonna get arrested. But Wu just bribes the guard and they walk away, like they never even showed up. We got away clean," he said excitedly. "Oh, and you know how much Wu said he thought the score was worth?" Su didn't look up, she just clenched her jaw and kept turning the spit. " Four...hundred...thousand." His eyes shone. "Four hundred thousand gold pieces for the Ban clan. That's the kinda boss I'm gonna be, pulling in scores like that..." he trailed off, seemingly imagining such a scenario.
"Your father wasn't like that," Ying Su spat, sounding rather disgusted. She stopped turning the spit.
Zhengyi knitted his brow, wondering what had angered her so suddenly. "I really think you idolize Wu way too much, Zhengyi. He's not a very nice man," Ying Su explained, a little more calmly.
"He has a responsibility to make money for the clan, and he does. He takes care of his clan brothers and handles his business," Zhengyi said. "That's what a man does."
"Your father made plenty money for the clan too." She looked back at Zhengyi, the venom in her voice increasing. "Wu is just a thug. He doesn't care about the clan. You saw yourself—he beat Xuan up just for smoking."
"If our members smoke plant it makes us weak," he replied, although feelings of empathy for Xuan started to tug at him. "We're the Hei Chaoliu! We're outlaws!" he parroted Wu. "That's our lifestyle! We can't live by society's laws; we have to survive by our strength!"
"Ti Xi was a true outlaw!" Su cried "He had honor! People respected him! Wu is nothing but a bully! He just takes what he feels like, and kills anyone in the way!"
"He's a Mountain Master! He has to do it for the clan!" Zhengyi shouted back.
"The clan!" Su cried. "The clan is nothing! No one cares about brotherhood or honor anymore! It's just a street gang! It's a pack of murderers!"
Zhengyi swore at her. Su was visibly taken aback, but Zhengyi went on. "My father was murdered as soon as I was born! Don't act like you understand me!" He angrily jabbed two fingers at her. "I have no one but Wu and the clan! And I have a responsibility to lead them one day! Every one of those guys is my family!" Zhengyi thought of the Tong member he'd refused to kill earlier. Ying Su was always making him feel like he should question Wu, but Wu was the closest thing to a father he had, and Wu was teaching him how to fulfill is destiny by leading the clan. Zhengyi was still angry at himself for not killing that Tong. "They'd die for me! They'd kill for me! I'd die for them and I'd kill for them!" Zhengyi glared at Ying Su. His voice carried the very slightest hint of impending tears.
"Don't you ever tell me they don't care about brotherhood," Zhengyi whispered. "They treat me like a brother, and they're the only family I'll ever have."
Su was almost crying. She sighed. "...You really believe that, don't you?" She sadly turned to go back to the spit, but Zhengyi just wheeled and stormed off to his room.
"You have to have dinner!" Su called after him.
"I'm not hungry!" he screamed.
Su exhaled. A smile crept across her face.
Zhengyi sat up very late that night, thinking things over, replaying the argument in his mind, and petting Fu Shan. He didn't really feel sorry, although he thought his emotions might have gotten the better of him. Either way, he fell asleep eventually. Tonight, however, his dreams were strange.
He saw a large man with no face, who sort of looked like a portrait of Ti Xi that Zhengyi had seen.
He heard the sounds of fighting, metal striking.
"...Take care of him while I'm gone..."
The man transformed into a pygmy puma. The sound of fighting melted into a strange song, one that seemed oddly familiar to Zhengyi in that dream-state.
"Yáo yā yáo...Yáo yā yáo"
The pygmy puma leapt over Zhengyi, but landed to his left. It curled up and transformed into sickly green light.
"...Yáo nǐ zhǎng dà...Yo liao shiwang..."
The green light was blinding. Zhengyi tried to shield his eyes, but his corporeal body was half-nonexistent in the dream. His arms did not respond.
"...Bǎo bǎo kuái zhǎng dà..."
He heard a crunching sound, almost overpowering the song.
"...Bǎo bǎo kuái zhǎng dà..."
Just as he could barely stand the light any longer, the silhouette of a woman appeared, blocking Zhengyi's view of it. Ying Su? No, Su was taller and didn't have this woman's thick braids. His mother?
"Awaken..." Was the woman speaking?
"Avatar Zhengyi..." Yes, he couldn't see her face, but even through the shadows he knew her lips were moving.
"It's time you learned."
Zhengyi's eyes burst open with a start, and he realized Fu Shan was sitting on his chest, licking him. Zhengyi panted, calming himself. Momentarily, he picked up Fu Shan and placed him on the floor.
The cat immediately bolted to the door and scratched at it frantically. "What is it?" Zhengyi asked his pet, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "I already let you out tonight." Fu Shan kept scratching, and started mewing as though he were in pain. "Wow, you're really serious, huh?" Zhengyi said. He got up and shambled out of bed, opening the door for his pet.
But once in the hall, Fu Shan headed the opposite way Zhengyi expected him to head. He didn't need to go to the bathroom, apparently. "Get back here!" Zhengyi whispered with annoyance, chasing after the pygmy puma.
Sounds drifted up to Zhengyi: laughter first, then the clunk of jiǔ bottles being set down. Soon, three voices became distinct.
"All in, all in," Aguta said, in his usual manic tone. Zhengyi heard gold pieces clinking. Aguta, Lucky Cho, and One-Eyed Wu were gambling in the dining room.
"You always go all in, and then you always lose," Lucky Cho chided him. "The point of the game is to bet strategically."
Zhengyi continued silently down the stairs, not wanting to make Wu any madder by allowing Fu Shan to jump up on the table in the middle of a card game with his top two lieutenants. Then again, if Wu was in a good mood, maybe he'd get in on the game...
"I don't care!" Aguta called out, a little too loudly because of the influence of the drink. "I'll bet all I want! We made a thousand gold piecesh each today!"
"Yep," Lucky Cho said, adding, "and it's all thanks to the boss here! To One-Eyed Wu!"
"You're tha best, dà gē!" Aguta chimed in. Zhengyi heard the alcohol slosh in the near-empty bottles as they lifted them.
"Quit drinking that stuff!" Zhengyi heard Wu say, as Wu snatched the bottle from Aguta. "It'll screw with your head."
"Shorry, boss," Aguta replied. " 'M jusht celebratin'."
"We're enjoying the prosperity you've brought to our clan," Lucky Cho added.
Zhengyi peered around the doorjamb and paused for a moment, noticing their tattoos. As Hei Chaoliu men nearly always did, these three had removed their tops for the game of cards. It was an intimidation tactic, in that it allowed them to show off their elaborate tattoos to opponents. Aguta's torso was a maze of tan skin and tribal symbols inked in indigo. He added tattoos as often as he could because he enjoyed the pain.
Lucky Cho, on the other hand, had no tattoos except the standard pygmy puma on the left pectoral muscle, which nearly all Ban retainers had, even young Zhengyi.
Wu probably had the best tattoos of the three. A fierce-looking badger-mole covered almost his entire back, it's claws curving over his trapezius muscles. This tattoo let other Chaoliu members know that the bearer was a strong earthbender. Across Wu's shoulders ran a tattooed proverb, interrupted in the middle by the badger-mole's arms. It read, "Do no evil deeds, and you need not fear ghosts knocking." Zhengyi had asked what it meant once. Wu told him it meant that one who carries out evil deeds would be tormented by guilt. "That's why I never do anything evil," he had added with a smile.
A depiction of a gold piece decorated either of Wu's shoulders, with a one-horned eagle-lion twined through each. Eagle-lions were believed to bring wealth. Although Wu's back was to him at the moment, Zhengyi also remembered that Wu had the standard pygmy puma tattoo on his pectoral, as well as an eye on his bicep. The eye tattoo ensured that anyone who didn't know his face would still be able to identify him, because everyone in Ba Sing Se knew the name of One-Eyed Wu.
"We're doing much better than we ever did under Ti Xi," Lucky Cho continued.
Zhengyi was a little offended at Lucky Cho's callousness. He turned into the room, following Fu Shan but also fully prepared to give Lucky Cho a piece of his mind if Wu didn't first.
He thought he knew what Wu was going to say, but what Wu did say would change this Avatar's life forever.
Wu chuckled and said, "Killing him was the smartest thing I ever did."
Zhengyi was paralyzed. He felt as though the force of that news had ripped away the world around him, and left a void in which the words echoed forever. His life, his reality, everything he thought he knew, was suddenly shattered.
The loud profanity Lucky Cho exclaimed upon noticing him jarred the boy out of his daze. Wu and Aguta turned their attention to where Lucky Cho was looking, and they realized Zhengyi had overheard everything. Wu sighed and shook his head, getting up slowly and picking up an apple had been eating.
"No...No, it's not true," Zhengyi muttered, as embers of rage began to glow in his eyes.
Wu locked eyes with Zhengyi. A smirk curled over his face. "Xiǎo Zhengyi. You finally found out."
"You...you killed my father?" Zhengyi asked, quaking, about to collapse under the news.
Wu's tone was absolutely matter-of-fact and emotionless. "I did."
"Wh—what?" Zhengyi stuttered.
"I killed your father, Ban Ti Xi. I stabbed him in the stomach shortly after I found out you were the Avatar." Wu saw how Zhengyi had curled his hands into fists, shaking with rage. Fu Shan was ready to pounce, flicking his tail at the boy's feet. "I knew you'd find out eventually. But don't misunderstand me, Zhengyi. Your father was my best friend in the world."
Wu had to keep talking, preventing Zhengyi's mind from focusing on his anger. Wu had long ago researched the Avatar State, and although he had prevented Zhengyi from ever knowing about it, he knew what it took for an Avatar to enter it. He also knew he had no real mode of defense against it, should the situation ever arise.
"Your father was a good guy, but he was too soft. No matter what anyone tells you, business comes first in the Hei Chaoliu. I knew I had to act when I found out you were the Avatar." Wu casually tossed his apple to himself. "The greatest weapon in the world fell right into his lap, but I knew Ti Xi wouldn't be willing to use your abilities to the fullest. He didn't understand your potential. It wasn't his fault, really, but he had to be taken out of the picture. So, I gave the Du clan the location of our headquarters and, knowing they would attack, I framed one of them for the murder."
Zhengyi snarled at him. "You piece of—"
"What?" Wu mocked him. "You think I'm some kind villain now? You think you're some righteous avenger? This is the Hei Chaoliu, kid! The Black Current! Organized crime!" Wu raised his arms in a sweeping gesture. "That kind of thing has been going on as long as the Chaoliu has existed! And you think your father was so perfect? He might have had a few more qualms than me, but he was still a crime boss. He still did all kinds of illegal things. The only difference between him and me is that he was naïve."
Wu moved closer to Zhengyi. He noted that his tactic was working, as Zhengyi had not taken the opportunity to attack. Wu had anticipated this moment for a long time. He knew what to say to keep Zhengyi confused, and if his emotions were not pure the Avatar State would not activate. And Wu had built a further advantage over decades of raising Zhengyi as a criminal, namely that he had left the boy's spiritual capabilities hopelessly underdeveloped.
Wu appeared to calm. He took on a bargainer's tone, laying a deal out before Zhengyi. "Listen, Zhengyi: nothing has to change just because you found out I killed Ti Xi. You and I are both the same people we were this afternoon. What does it matter that he's your father? I mean, think about it: you never even knew him, so why should you care if he's dead? I want you to keep working for me. I'll still let you take over the clan one day, just like I always said. We can keep everything the way it was." Wu was closer to Zhengyi and he spoke very softly now, almost in a whisper. "Just turn around, and go back to bed."
They glared at each other.
Zhengyi started to shake his head slowly. "No," he said.
Zhengyi's building rage was palpable, but Wu's words nagged at Zhengyi in the back of his mind. Zhengyi had been taught to reach for anger first, but that didn't mean his emotions were pure. Zhengyi was not perceptive enough to understand it, but the true source of his anger was his confusion, having his perceptions broken by the realization that he had been deceived. Still, Zhengyi would use that rage. "I'll kill you!" he roared.
Zhengyi instantly dropped into his fighting stance and exploded a fist and palm from his chest, smashing a boulder up through the floor right at Wu's face. Wu grinned, placing his palms together and thrusting his fingers, spearlike, into the boulder. It shattered easily, never really a threat at all. He quickly brought his fists back to his waist. He shifted to a sideways stance and punched them both out, leaning laterally. A crag crackled toward Zhengyi under the floor like a burrowing animal. Before the boy could react, it exploded out of the ground and knocked him back.
"Your bow-and-arrow-stance is too narrow," Wu chided him. "Makes the rocks brittle," he smirked.
Zhengyi shook his head. Regaining his lucidity, he planted his hands and wheeled his legs in the air above him. A ring of fire radiated from them. It kept his opponents at a distance as he sprang to his feet.
Aguta looked around for something he could bend. Lucky Cho drew a knife and started to advance on Zhengyi, but Fu Shan sprang on him before he could make a move. He fell to the ground, rolling back and forth, struggling to keep the cat's claws from his face.
Zhengyi's eyes were burning and wide. He pumped out four fireballs, but Wu went low, ducking underneath. He snaked around them all and closed the distance between himself and the boy. "Your fireball punches are too high," Wu smiled.
Zhengyi snapped another fireball at him from a high kick. Wu shifted his front foot and the earth under Zhengyi's planted foot reacted. It was as though Wu had known the move Zhengyi was going to use ahead of time. The boy fell on his behind. Wu stamped his foot, freeing a boulder. He levitated it over Zhengyi, then let it fall. The boy gasped. He swung his fist at it and a rock ripped through the floor to his left to knock it away. He rolled on to his feet and made a grand motion with his arms. A large pillar rose up under him and he sprang off it, landing on the other side of the room.
Suddenly, the jiǔ bottle came flying at Zhengyi's head. Aguta was bending the liquor inside. Zhengyi countered with his own waterbending move, pressing the jiǔ into a vertical blade and slicing it through the back of the bottle. Aguta made a small motion and the blade liquefied again, splashing harmlessly on his feet.
"And you angle your hand too much when you do dān biān!" Wu called, rushing at him.
Zhengyi blasted a rocky spire out of the ground under Wu, but Wu brought his own fist down and the spire retracted back into the earth. "Who paid all your teachers, Zhengyi?" Wu said. The boy sent a chunk of rock sliding across the ground at Wu. With a bit of effort, Wu was able to send it off course, collapsing it harmlessly on a wall. "Your whole life, all your bending teachers have answered to me," Wu said. "I told you that I knew you would find out eventually."
The other Ban retainers around the compound started to appear, standing on the sidelines of the room. The ruckus of the battle must have woken them up.
"Ti Xi's son tried to assassinate me!" Wu announced to them. "He tried to kill me so he could take over the gang prematurely! Help me!" The men hesitated. The Ban family's heir was sacrosanct. It was like a king's vizier asking them to subdue a crown prince.
"No!" Zhengyi cried out to them. "Wu's lying! He's been lying to you all! He killed Ti Xi!"
Lucky Cho was able to throw Fu Shan off of him and stand up. The cat scrambled to right itself and began stalking around Zhengyi's planted feet.
"How dare you!" Wu protested fiercely. His voice did not waver at all. It was as though he were telling the absolute truth. "How can you accuse me of such a thing? After I raised you! After everything I did for you!"
Wu and Zhengyi circled each other, waiting to see with whom the men would side.
Wu narrowed his eyes.
Zhengyi's gaze was solid.
"Who's your Mountain Master, me or him?" Wu cried. "You swore your oaths to me, not him!" That convinced several of the men to fall in with Wu. They started advancing on Zhengyi. They seemed to want to end this calmly, but Zhengyi noticed one or two draw knives. "Calm down Zhengyi," he heard someone say. And someone else: "There should be no disagreements between brothers."
Zhengyi started to panic. He threw rocks back at the advancing horde of men, whom he had formerly considered brothers, unable to unbalance more than a few. It only antagonized them, made them think he was the one who had started the fight, as Wu implied. More men drew knives. Some started to send rocks at him.
"Stop!" A rock wall rose up in front of Zhengyi and sank into the ground again, blocking several projectiles. Behind it stood its summoner, Zhengyi's earthbending tutor Shi Hua.
The room fell silent. "You are disobeying your Mountain Master," Wu growled.
"I serve the Ban family," Shi Hua said. "I served Ti Xi, and I will protect his son."
"He attacked the three of us first," Wu explained. "He's power hungry. I want Zhengyi to take over the clan one day too, but there's no excuse for attacking his sworn brothers."
"You killed my father!" Ti Xi snapped. "You're the one who murdered your brother!"
"I loved Ti Xi! I knew him longer than anyone here, including you!" he said to Zhengyi. "I won't hear any more of these slurs! Aguta, Cho," Wu gestured to them, "take him away until he apologizes."
The two moved to apprehend Zhengyi. Zhengyi dropped back into a fighting stance, but before the men reached him Shi Hua knocked them back with twin tremors. "I stand with Zhengyi. I believe him."
Wu's expression hardened. He stared Shi Hua down. Shi Hua was not a large or powerful man. Even in terms of earthbending, it would be generous to call his abilities anything much above "decent." He was better at instruction than the art itself. He had always been relatively meek and good at taking orders. Wu had not expected this of him, and Zhengyi was taken aback by Hua's display of devotion.
Other men began to join him. "I won't touch the heir," one said. "This is the Ban clan! We're loyal to the Ban family!" cried another. In a few moments, a dozen men had joined Shi Hua.
"Anyone who spread such lies about his brothers is not loyal, and the Hei Chaoliu will not abide traitors!" Wu thundered, and in a flash he threw a rock at Shi Hua.
Hua reacted in kind with almost equal speed, but Wu anticipated this and dodged the stone, while Shi Hua took his right in the chest. Battle erupted between the two groups—civil war in the Ban compound. Zhengyi kept his focus on Wu. He would have his revenge. Barely any thoughts other than a driving urge to kill this betrayer could enter his head.
He rushed at Wu, darting around other clan members engaged in combat. Zhengyi screamed and fired fireballs at him. Wu called fragments of earth up to form small guards over his forearms, and deftly parried Zhengyi's blows. When the boy came within his reach, Wu grabbed and locked Zhengyi's arm and, with a turning step, spun him 180 degress and flung him towards the opposite wall. Zhengyi nearly lost his footing but stayed upright. Wu brought his arms together, fusing the rock guards. He sent them flying at Zhengyi.
Zhengyi dodged the rock, but before he could react Aguta pinned the shoulder of his vest to the wall with a báijiǔ icicle. That was all the time Wu needed to close the distance between himself and Zhengyi. The boy only had time to gasp at the icicle before another retainer nailed him in the stomach with a rock. With his bare hands, Wu struck Zhengyi's neck, ribs, shoulder, and leg. Zhengyi's body went tingly and the feeling left it. He slumped, unable to move any part of his body but his mouth, held up only by the icicle.
"Chi blocks," Wu said, flexing his neck and cracking his knuckles. "All these years that you've been training, so have I." Wu gathered the front of Zhengyi's vest into his fist, lifted his paralyzed body with one arm. "You're going somewhere very secure while you smarten up," he said. "I get the feeling it's going to be a very long time."
The thought that Wu was right to insult his intelligence entered Zhengyi's mind. I should have been smarter. I know Wu. I should have known he was manipulating me. I should have known he'd be prepared. I've been so stupid, he thought. I failed my father.
Wu suddenly swore loudly and dropped Zhengyi. A thrown knife had sliced his bicep and clattered to the floor. But it wasn't one of the combat knives the men used. It was an ordinary kitchen knife, a rather dull one. His head snapped towards the direction it had come from and saw Ying Su, standing there defiant, with her arm still extended.
The fighting had largely stopped while the men had watched Wu seize Zhengyi. Now they remained still as the woman they only knew as a housekeeper faced off with their boss.
Wu stalked toward her. Without pausing, he bent a gauntlet of rock around his arm. He ran his hand over it, and the gauntlet smoothed into a spike. Wu lunged at her with the spike, but Su drew two kukris from her sash and trapped Wu's spike. The knives rattled as she struggled with Wu. Su had been trained in Ban clan combat techniques before Wu took over, but he had counted on her letting her skills atrophy. Apparently he had been wrong.
"Get...away...from..." Su said, straining against Wu, "...HIM!" She kicked Wu in the stomach. He doubled over. Spinning, Su caught him in the head with another kick. Wu fell to the ground, dazed but not unconscious. The men were stunned for a moment.
Su knelt over Zhengyi, trying to get him over her shoulder. "Come on, we've gotta get you out of here," she panted.
The surprise of watching the maid knock out their boss had worn off on the Ban retainers, and they began their assault again. Su knocked away some of the smaller rocks they threw with her knives. Shi Hua called out to her and sent a large boulder careening into the opposite wall. She tumbled out of the way. The boulder blew Ti Xi's grand dining room chair through the wall and onto the lawn outside. Su quickly hefted Zhengyi on to her shoulders and escaped through the hole. Fu Shan hopped out after them.
Several men had already been stabbed, many of them Zhengyi's supporters. Shi Hua had finally recovered from his earlier blow and managed to haul himself up. He fought like mad to cover their escape. It was some of the best earthbending he had ever mustered, but he was fighting alone against—it looked like eight men to Su.
"I take the Ban family as my own! Mountain Master Ban is my father!" Hua cried. He was in a furor, calling out parts of the Hei Chaoliu initiation oath, as though to remind his former comrades of what they had sworn. "If I should betray my sworn brothers I shall be killed by ten thousand knives!" He parried one man's assault with a stone crag, then kicked him in the stomach. He knocked away the knife of the next. "If I should harm my sworn brothers, or bring trouble to them, I shall be killed by ten thousand knives!"
Su turned around just long enough to see Aguta slice through one of Shi Hua's earthen barricades with water and bury a knife in his stomach. Shi Hua heaved a dying breath. His eyes met Aguta's. "If I...should..." he rasped, "cause discord...among...my...broth...ers..." His breath left him. Aguta tossed the corpse aside.
Su ran on with the incapacitated Avatar on her back.
They hurried out of the compound. The chi blocks had worn off a small bit. Zhengyi was able to speak a little. "I'm s—sorry," Zhengyi panted, slurring his words as his lips hung loose.
"Worry about that later. We have to get to Bixia Abbey," Su said.
"Wh—where?" Zhengyi asked.
"You've seen it. It's that abbey about a mile down the road from the compound. I think I know someone who can help us there."
Zhengyi and Su hurried down the dirt road that wound through the fields and paddies of the Agrarian District. Fu Shan trotted along next to his wounded master. The stars were bright that night, and the wood frogs in the paddies were croaking loudly. It all seemed impossibly still after the fight they had just been in, but neither Zhengyi nor Su could appreciate it at that moment.
Su was focusing on getting Ti Xi's son to safety. Zhengyi was glad to be alive, but more than almost anything, he seethed with hatred at Wu. The only emotion he felt more strongly was anger at himself. All his life he had been helping Wu build up the world's greatest criminal empire and he had never even suspected something like this. He cursed himself for his stupidity.
"Go after them, you idiots!" Wu roared. He braced against the wall as he staggered to his feet. His hair had fallen out of place on he sides, hanging near his eyes. In an angry, forceful motion, he smoothed it back to its usual slick dome. He paused briefly as he looked around his men. "Get that kid back here!" he cried.
"It looks like they're headed for the abbey, boss," Cho observed, a hint of trepidation in his voice.
Wu clenched the cut on his arm tightly, trying to staunch the blood. It wasn't a threatening injury, but it stung. "And?" he shouted.
"Well...I mean, they're nuns..." Cho mumbled.
Wu grabbed him by the scruff of his robe and booted him squarely in the behind, as though to urge him to action and punish his hesitation at the same time. "I don't care!" he cried. He looked around at the other men. "Do you understand what's going to happen if the Avatar loses his loyalty to the clan? And comes back looking for revenge?" His tone was urgent, but he couldn't keep a bit of condescension out of his voice. He thought the danger of this situation should concern them more. "We have nothing without the clan! It supports you, it supports your families! What if he comes back as a full-fledged Avatar, cracking skulls for the city guard? You think the clan will survive that? You think the Hei Chaoliu will still exist?" he paused, continuing to meet the eyes of his men. "The young master is confused about his loyalty. If he is given the chance to turn against us he will become a great threat to his father's clan. If we get him back we can set him straight so that he can fulfill his destiny and become Mountain Master. That's what Ti Xi would have wanted. So it doesn't matter who gets in the way—if they keep the heir from his birthright they are a threat to the clan. Bring Zhengyi back alive at all costs! All enemies of the Ban clan must be eliminated!"
Su dragged Zhengyi up to the gate of the abbey. There was a large bell outside, and Su started ringing it, still holding the half-conscious Avatar. She kept an eye out for the Ban members, who were sure to be right behind them.
Soon a middle-aged nun appeared at the small door set into the larger gate. "Yes, who's calling?"
"Please help! The Ban clan is after us!" Su said. "This boy is the Avatar!"
The nun was dumbfounded at having such news thrust upon her in the middle of the night. "Wha—How do you...?" she stammered.
"Just let us in!"
The nun shook it off. "Apologies. Please, come in. All in need are welcome at the Bixia Abbey."
Su pushed her way through the door. "My name is Ying Su. The Mother Superior knows me," she explained. "I worked with her brother Xin Kao under Ban Ti Xi. We need a bed and a physician."
"This way," the nun said, leading them into a room. The nun lit a single candle that rested on a nightstand. Su put Zhengyi on the bed and knelt over him.
Another sister appeared at the threshold of the room. She was only about Zhengyi's age, but tall and stout for her years. "What's going on?" the young nun asked.
"Novice Fung, get Mother Xin! This is the Avatar! He's fleeing the Ban clan!" The girl bowed and ran from the room. The first nun struck Zhengyi's body in several places, and suddenly his joints unlocked. "How's that?" she asked.
"Little better," Zhengyi replied, rubbing his head. Fu Shan hopped up onto the bed, and Zhengyi began stroking him.
"I'll get you a cold compress," the nun said, leaving.
A moment passed after she left. Then Zhengyi spoke up. "Su...why didn't you tell me?"
She sighed. "I used to be one of your father's lieutenants. I was his top strategist. Only Wu and the underlings he had handpicked to participate in the coup knew what he had done, but I figured it out almost immediately. The whole reason he did it was to gain control of the Avatar. If Wu ever lost control of you, if you ever found out, he would have no more use for you, and would have killed you."
Zhengyi rubbed his head. A vague notion to snap at Su for saying something so obvius entered his head, but it was quickly swallowed up by thoughts questioning whether Wu had ever really cared about him.
"Wu was blackmailing me as well. He needed my strategic abilities, which was the only reason he let me live. He threatened to kill both of us if I didn't help him win battles. Ti Xi was...he was my best friend. I couldn't stand to fail him by losing his son." She looked wistfully at Zhengyi.
The Mother Superior swept into the room. The young novice followed her. "By all the spirits! Is this boy really the young Avatar?" she asked Su.
"I'm Ban Ti Xi's son," Zhengyi put in.
"I'm Ying Su. I worked under Ban Ti Xi with your brother Kao. We met before, many years ago, when I delivered his daughter into your care."
"That's right..." the Mother Superior recalled. "Fifteen years ago you brought my niece here so that I could raise her. I remember you told me the Ban compound was no longer safe for her."
"Wait...you knew my father?" Novice Fung spoke up.
"Yes," Su said. "He was a good man. He was strong, and a true friend to Ti Xi."
"You mean...he was a criminal?" Fung asked, shocked.
"I had, er, kept my brother's...background from her," the Mother Superior explained.
"Not all Hei Chaoliu members are wicked," Su told the girl. "We may not respect every law or social rule there is, but we're not monsters. We have our own code of honor that we hold our men to—at least, in theory. Your father was very virtuous, and one of the most loyal people I ever knew. That was why One-Eyed Wu killed him."
"One-Eyed Wu, the merchant?" Novice Fung asked skeptically.
"He's not just a merchant. He's the boss of the Ban clan," Su explained. "And he got that way by killing Ban Ti Xi and Xin Kao." She explained again the entire story of Wu's betrayal.
Zhengyi sat silent and brooding the whole time. Even though Su mentioned him several times, he said nothing, intently petting Fu Shan. He acted like he wasn't even in the room.
"Now we need a way to escape and a safe place to spend the night," Su concluded.
"Yes, I remember you now, Miss Ying. It's a terrible story. Well, you can certainly stay here," the Mother Superior offered. "The Bixia Abbey would be honored to accommodate the Avatar."
"That's very kind," Su said, "but Wu's men are sure to track us here sooner or later. I've already put you in too much—"
There was a thunderous crash. The large front gate of the abbey collapsed into the courtyard and Ban fighters, led by Aguta, flooded through the space it formerly occupied.
"—danger," Su finished disappointedly, reacting to the noise. Zhengyi stood up, readying himself to fight.
The Mother Superior put out an arm to halt him. "Don't worry. We can take care of ourselves," she grinned. She, Fung, and the other nun rushed into the courtyard. Nuns were beginning to assemble in the courtyard, some already grappling with the Ban fighters. "Sisters, the Avatar is among us!" the Mother Superior announced. "These men are after him! Defend the Bridge to the Spirit World with your lives!"
The nuns held their ground as the gangsters attacked. The nuns who could earthbend did so, but even the rest of them easily held their own. Almost to the person, the Bixia nuns bravely intercepted the charging Ban fighters. The nuns employed some sort of grappling martial art, locking the fighters' arms, tripping them, throwing them to the ground.
"Fung!" the Mother Superior called to her charge. The girl was occupied just then, grabbing a gang member by his shirt and slamming him to the ground. His head left a crack in the tile of the courtyard floor. As soon as he was dispatched, Fung turned to her aunt. "Get someone to escort Miss Ying and the Avatar!"
"Please let me go with the Avatar," Fung bowed. The Mother Superior looked at her. "I want to find out about my father. Aiding the Bridge to the Spirit World would be a great honor, and I...I feel my destiny is linked to his."
The Mother Superior grinned. She placed her hands on Fung's shoulders. "So do I."
Another Ban fighter rushed at the Mother Superior. She blocked his knife and twisted his arm behind his back. She held his arm, using his own momentum to guide his face into a column. "Go," she said more urgently, "take them through the catacombs!"
"May the Grace of Jian Lao be with you," Fung said quickly, bowing.
"I will pray for you," the Mother Superior said. "Don't forget to do your meditations," she added, a last note of familiarity and playfulness as her niece departed in the confusion.
Novice Fung attempted to return to the Avatar, but as she ran two armed Ban fighters intercepted her. The first one stabbed at her, but she guided his knife away and seized his shirt with her other hand. She wrapped her leg inside his and swung it out. His legs pulled out from under him, the man hurtled to the ground.
The other man stabbed at her, but Fung again caught the attacker's arm. She turned her back to the attacker. She thrust out her posterior as she pulled down on the man's arm, using her shoulder as a fulcrum. He flipped over and was handily laid out on the ground, unconscious.
Before Fung could move on, another fighter appeared. The girl grabbed his left sleeve. She stepped forward, wrapping her left foot behind his right. Another inward step of her right foot and she simply sat down. The attacker fell backwards, off balance, with Fung sitting on him. A quick chop to the neck neutralized him. Fung hopped up and ran over to the Avatar's room.
Zhengyi and Su were just about to leave when Fung entered their room. "Come with me," she said. "I can get you out of here. There's an underground path into the city."
"Screw that!" Zhengyi barked. "I wanna fight! I want Wu's head!" He punched his palm.
"You're still injured. You can't fight," Su said. "You'd only lose again."
"I didn't see Wu with them. If what you say about his double identities is true, he could never afford to be seen leading an attack on an abbey," Fung added.
Zhengyi said nothing.
"Let's go," Fung said after a moment. Su followed. A little more reluctantly, Zhengyi draped Fu Shan over his shoulder and followed Fung as well.
They hurried into the complex of nuns' cells at the back of the courtyard. They ran down a few hallways, still hearing the shouts and crashes of rocks from the battle. They went out a back door into a cemetery.
A patchwork of turf and stone spread before them. The names and dates of the people of the Agrarian District were all around. Lives summed up in fewer than ten characters. The nuns performed funerary services for the local people of the Agrarian District, and this was the ground where they gave back to the sacred earth those that had passed on. The Abbey had stood for a few hundred years, and the ground was littered with graves. Su and Fung had come very close to going into one.
Further ahead, the inner wall of Ba Sing Se cut the sky in half. They were only a few yards from it, and it towered above them. At two invisible points out there in the darkness it appeared to curve into the outer wall like sky meeting earth, like the real horizon it blocked from view.
Panting, Fung and Su reached a nondescript mausoleum roughly in the center of the graveyard. Zhengyi, tagging along on still-aching legs, caught up a moment later. Fung threw open the door. She removed a torch from a holder on the wall and lit it. The sounds of the battle had now all but faded away. The trio descended a small staircase to a burial vault, containing a large statue of Jian Lao, a spirit of earth, permanence, and moral rectitude, as well as the patron spirit of the Bixia Abbey. The statue depicted him as a stately bearded man in armor, as was the custom. As she approached it, Fung clapped her hands once and bowed. She gave her torch to Su, then grasped the statue's base as though it were a wrestling opponent. She summoned all her strength, grunted, heaved, and sweated, but soon she had dragged the statue away from the wall.
Behind it was an opening, a dark tunnel cut into the very earth.
"Why...why is this here?" Su asked.
"It was built when the abbey was founded. Makes it easier to get into the city for charity work and stuff. No dealing with gate guards or entrance passes. And with all the gangs around, it makes sense to have an escape route."
They entered the tunnel, moving step by step through the darkness. Trying to improve the mood, Su struck up a conversation. "I'm impressed with how you and the sisters handled the clan. I wouldn't have expected nuns to be such capable fighters."
"It's called 'Twining Legs Method.' It's an ancient martial art, as old as the city, the sisters say. We study it as a form of meditation. When the body and mind are focused, so is the spirit."
"It, uh, seems a little...rough for a meditation technique," Su observed. It was a little blunt, but her curiosity got the better of her.
"Anything can be done for the health of the soul if you keep Jian Lao in your heart when you do it," Fung beamed at her.
Su returned a weak smile.
Everything was silent again for a few moments.
"How did he beat me?" Zhengyi asked angrily, to no one in particular. He held Fu Shan on his shoulder with one hand. "I sparred Wu a hundred times and every time I beat him! How did he do all this?" Zhengyi had stopped walking, crying out and letting his rage echo through the tunnels.
Su and Fung turned. Su looked at him with sympathetic eyes. "He knew your moves," Su said. She turned around and continued down the tunnel. Fung hustled a few paces ahead to light the way. "He must have let you win all those times. He said he paid all your teachers, and it's true," Su continued as they walked. "Wu's a lot of things, but he isn't stupid. I doubt he expected you to hear it from his own mouth, but he did know you would find out one day. He probably thought I'd tell you. So he must have made sure your instructors all trained you slightly wrong. He must have had them ingrain very specific flaws throughout your training, and, with knowledge of these flaws, it would be very easy for him to beat you. A very thorough strategy," Su concluded, noticing a green glow building up ahead.
Within a few steps the glow started to drown out Fung's torch. Soon it was everywhere, bright as day. It was emanating from a chamber at the end of the tunnel. They emerged from the tunnel and entered this chamber to a breathtaking sight: Glowing green crystals practically covered the ceiling and walls of the chamber. They had seen these crystals used as light sources on the surface, but never concentrated in such beautiful formations of so many crystals, glowing so brightly. It was very welcome after the trek through the tunnel.
Su gaped. "How beautiful!" Fung exclaimed. "I never knew this was here."
Zhengyi was absolutely indifferent. He barely glanced up as he entered the chamber.
"We can rest here for tonight," Fung said. "We're safe by now. Tomorrow we can follow the rest of the path underground into the heart of the city."
"All right. I think we all need a rest by now," Su said, turning to look at Zhengyi. The boy only put Fu Shan on the ground and stormed right past both of them. He went down a small tunnel adjoining the chamber and disappeared from sight.
Su and Fung exchanged concerned looks.
Taking a wide stance, One-Eyed Wu bent the earth on which Ti Xi's ornate chair rested. He lifted it carefully and tipped it at just the right place, returning the chair to its original place at the end of the dining room. The hole in the wall would have to wait, however.
Exasperated, Wu flopped into the chair. He enjoyed an instant of silence before his men burst back into the room.
"Were they at the abbey?" Wu asked his men urgently.
"Sorry, boss," Aguta said.
"Forgive us, Mountain Master," Lucky Cho said fearfully, bowing low. "They were there, but the nuns helped them escape. They must have gone into the city."
Wu screamed a curse, but quickly composed himself. He addressed the assembled, bowing men with barely concealed anger. "The Avatar could become an existential threat to the clan. As of right now, his return is our top priority. I will not tolerate failure in this matter. I want Zhengyi brought back alive." Wu thought for a moment. "None of us want to see him dead, but if he gives you the chance, you may have to take it. Now get back out there and find that kid!" he barked. The men all bowed more, backed out of the room and scampered away to fulfill their master's command.
Wu relaxed his posture in the chair, beginning to rub his chin pensively. "Yes, this could work," he mused. "I may need to contract some outside help."
Zhengyi pounded his fist into the rock walls of the cave, cursing himself. He fought tears. He was a Mountain Master's son, a gangster. He wasn't supposed to cry. It made him curse himself even more. But how could he not, when his whole life had been a lie? His godfather, a man who raised him, a man who—deep down—he thought he loved, had killed his father.
I can't believe I helped him! I was so stupid! I made him what he is!
He knew he was directly responsible for Wu's success. The Ban clan wouldn't be half what it was if he had not used his powers to help Wu. And now, he knew, Wu was definitely going to use the same riches he had been winning for Wu for fifteen years to hire assassins and bounty hunters to track him down.
And worse, Zhengyi felt he had let his father down. He had aided his family's worst enemy. In the Hei Chaoliu code of honor, death was too generous a punishment for what Wu had done, but Zhengyi had been unable to do anything to him.
He stole my clan! My family's name! It's heart and soul! And he lives like a king because of it! Zhengyi began throwing punches into the close-in walls of the narrow tunnel. The clan is my family's honor, and it belongs to a member of the Ban family! He threw another punch. Fissures crackled out from where he struck as his earthbending subconsciously activated. I want it back! He threw another. I want Wu dead! Another. I want revenge!
He let out an anguished cry, stomping his foot, violently shaking the earth all about him. But Zhengyi wasn't afraid of a cave-in. He didn't care. His old life was so irretrievably gone he felt as though he might as well be dead already.
He yelled and swore more, and sank to his knees. He started to sob and smashed his fists into the ground. He pounded them into the walls around him, into stalagmites, into anything around. He threw his head back, crying out Wu's name.
Now there were no distractions, no one to confuse him or muddle his emotions. Zhengyi was alone. Alone with his anger. He was like a head of steam. Wu had stoked the flame fueling it with fifteen years of inclining Zhengyi towards aggression, but tamped a cover over it with his words just before it could blow up in his face.
Now, however, there was no one to put a cover on him, and all that build up was due to blow. Suddenly it did.
Zhengyi felt an odd sensation. It was...indescribable. Zhengyi gave himself over to his anger and was overpowered.
His consciousness was gone now. His eyes and mouth began to glow like a thousand stars lived inside his body. His clan tattoo was also lit up, as bright as any of his other parts.
His fists clenched harder. The earth beneath him buckled. Fissures crackled out, radiating away from him. The ground shook, then the walls shook, and then the ceiling shook violently.
Su and Fung suddenly felt it in the upper chamber. "What's going on?" Fung called over the rumbling.
"I think Zhengyi's earthbending for some reason!" Su called back.
The shaking grew worse. A stalagtite cracked off of the ceiling and plummeted to the ground next to them. Fung and Su dove to either side, evading it.
"Doesn't he realize we're in here?" Fung shouted.
"I don't know, but we have to stop him! If this gets any worse he could rupture a load-bearing rock formation and bring five city blocks down on us!" Another large rock fell just next to Su. "We have to get to him!"
Rocks started falling faster and faster. It was a mad dash through the chamber as Fung and Su ducked and weaved around the rocks and crystals. Fung dived away from one, spun around another, and sidestepped a third. Su bounced from foot to foot, narrowly dodging each rock, in a stuttering run for the ancillary tunnel. Fu Shan skittered around the heels of the two women following their lead to escape.
They made it out of the chamber and made their way to where Zhengyi was. It was slow going, as they had to compensate for the violent quaking.
When they made it to him his eyes and tattoo were glowing, his hands were balled into tight fists, and he was hovering two feet off the ground. "Of course!" Su exclaimed, still shouting over the rumbling. "He's entered the Avatar State!"
"What do we do?" asked Fung urgently.
"I don't know!" Su called back.
The rumbling grew stronger and louder.
Then Fu Shan approached the Avatar. He sat up and placed a paw gently on Zhengyi's foot.
The rumbling and shaking started to diminish. It grew quieter. Fung and Su found it easier and easier to stand.
Zhengyi levitated to the ground and fell to his knees. He placed a hand on his pet and closed his eyes. A moment passed. Fung and Su waited anxiously, still alert. Zhengyi began stroking his cat.
For a long time, nothing happened. Zhengyi knelt there petting his pygmy puma with his eyes closed. Su and Fung left the silence intact until Zhengyi's eyes burst open.
"I need to train," he announced. His face was stone. "I'm going to kill Wu for what he's done to my family. I need better skills to do it. I'll learn air, and lightning, and all the other bending techniques Wu has never faced."
"Yes, I agree," Su said. "Improving your skills is the best way to deal with Wu."
"Revenge?" Fung said. "That won't make you happy. It won't solve—"
"Shut up! You don't know a thing about it!" Zhengyi snapped. Fung was unsettled by his anger.
"With all due respect, dear," Su soothed her, "One-Eyed Wu is a danger to everyone. He's evil and ruthless. His wealth and influence are incredible. He already runs the whole Lower and Middle Ring. I believe he means to grab more and more power until...well, I don't know when he'll be satisfied. His ambition is limitless. Maybe he wants to take over the whole Earth Kingdom. Considering his wealth and power, it would only take a matter of months for him to make it to the Earth King's inner circle, and from there, who knows? We can't let that happen. It would be better for the world if he were to meet his end."
"I...well, I guess," Fung muttered, feeling slightly sheepish. "I guess you would know."
Ying Su looked to Zhengyi. "If you're going to retrain, you only have a limited time," she said.
"I will retrain," said Zhengyi, staring straight ahead with great intensity. The green light was very strong just above him, casting palls of shadow down from his eye sockets, nose, and chin. "Wu can send all the assassins he likes. I'll train until I'm unbeatable. I will return to challenge Er Shi Wu, and I WILL avenge my father."
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