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|A Brief History of War|
A Brief History of War is the fourth chapter of's .
Previously in A Tale of Rebels
In Ba Sing Se, Fire Lord Tokai is murdered by his ally and overlord, Earth Emperor Yi Ming, for his failure to keep the Fire Nation unified, all being watched by Tokai's daughter and Yi Ming's wife, Zoruka, who then is confronted by Yi Ming on what she has observed, and offered the position of the Grand Secretariat of the Earth Empire.
In Omashu, Skado constructs, upon Senqok's proposal, a manually-repeating crossbow, which he then builds and also presents to General Anyang.
Chapter 4: A Brief History of War
The bolt penetrated, as expected by two of the present persons, the armour. The shooter, Skado, lowered the crossbow of his and turned to the other two, who seemed baffled by the weapon's power.
"This is our armour, it ought to hold off every projectile!" the surprised General Wei spoke, only to be corrected by Senqok, who previously only had assisted Skado with the crossbow. "Might I correct? It was designed to hold off any projectile fired by hand-held weapons of the Imperial Army."
If looks could kill, Senqok would've been dead a thousand times. But, fortunately, the glare Wei shot him after his statement only seemed to be deadly. Anyang, the other rather baffled one, soon had his amazement under control. "And what, if I might ask, do you intend by showing us this joint construction of yours? I don't doubt your abilities as an engineer, Skado, nor do I doubt Senqok's creativity, but why do you present the crossbow to us?"
Dumbfounded, Senqok and Skado glanced at each other. "Well..." they simultaneously began.
The silence following felt rather uneasy for all four of them, to say the least. Shifting their attention from each other to the two generals in front of them almost every second, neither of the two boys knew how to answer the simple question. "I, er, I mean, we didn't really think this through, actually... In other words-"
"You don't know why you propose this idea to us? Senqok, that's not making a good image, you know?" General Wei's disappointment was clearly hearable, and only made the other two more insecure. So the silence continued for a few minutes, that was, until Senqok suddenly had an idea.
"I've got an idea! You see, almost every sold- member of the Alliance has got a short sword, the one with the ring pommel..."
"Yes, but what do you want to- " General Anyang seemed a bit puzzled by the young man's speech's beginning.
"We could add some kind of lug... or something similar... below the bow, you know? To..."
"... you mean to... like, combine the sword with the crossbow, so the latter can be used to... well, impale as well?" Skado somewhat spoke the exact words the waterbender would have, but then let him continue.
"Yes, exactly. However, the design should be further simplified in terms of construction and also of usage to enable basically everyone to make use of our construction. So, well, basically, my idea is, since our Alliance's style of warfare focuses on personal combat, to give the ordinary nonbender soldier of ours access to great firepower. The crossbow would become our... service weapon. Sure, specialised units or just soldiers would still focus on their respective fighting styles, like I on swordfight and waterbending, but everyone should receive basic training with the crossbow. Think about it! It has the power of a javelin and approximately twice its range, it only takes about ten seconds to reload, given the bolts are easily accessible, and also is it easier to handle than an ordinary bow and, most of all, takes less training and strength to load, to operate in general. Of course, it weighs more than an average bow and an average crossbow combined, but this would be – except maybe some technical issues, since it's the first prototype – the only actual problem. So, well... what do you think?"
Anyang and Wei looked at each other briefly, then nodded and turned towards the two of them again. "We will give you a chance, at least. We will train your unit with it, we will equip it with nothing else, and then, as one last trial we'll assign you to a mission which will have to be accomplished with the crossbow," Wei decided. Anyang seemed not to agree. "You didn't mention anything of-"
"One more word and I'll have you demoted, understood?"
Senqok and Skado both had idly watched the scene, then turned to face each other, and couldn't suppress their laughter anymore. However, such behaviour of theirs soon ceased when, without knocking, a dark figure burst into the room. He - it was, without doubt, a young man - was completely covered in ash, the clothes partially scorched. The man dusted his face off, revealing himself to be Shizon, and, despite his exhaustion, without hesitation spoke. "The armoury... it's... it's caught fire!... recently delivered gunpowder... about to... be..."
"Thanks, we get the image. Now, WHAT WERE YOU DOING AT THE ARMOURY?! YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO GO THERE IN YOUR little FREE TIME!" General Wei seemed to have other priorities than saving his local units' weaponry and equipment.
"Wei, shut up. I think there's something more important now than obeying to your stupid de-facto curfew." Anyang's voice was clear and demanding, however, it somewhat lost the latter as he continued. "Time to test another of Skado's inventions..."
The robes did little to hide the armour beneath, but still made her seem more like the official she now was. It was relatively simple robes, of black colour with golden lining, wide sleeves, few ornaments and of course bearing the Imperial insignia. The armour beneath, however, was all but ordinary, and that it was by its sole colour, red. It was the Fire Nation Royal Armour the offspring of the reigning Fire Lord wore. She, however, wore it more as an act of honour towards her deceased father. Recently and violently deceased, that was. Zoruka inhaled heavily and took a look at the massive door before her, then glancing to her left and right, respectively. She decided to approach the door, but then seemed to have gathered courage and confidently marched to, or rather, through it, bursting it open with her bare fists. Behind laid an equally massive office, the new office of hers. It was rather dark, only illuminated by a few glowing crystals attached to the walls like torches. Narrowing her eyes to make a rather intimidating appearance, she took a look around. It was more a hall than anything, shelves full of codices, scrolls and files lining the high walls, which were bisected by a catwalk-like - or rather, balcony-like - walkway - the office spread over two storeys. Aside from the many shelves, desks with their respective chairs filled the massive room, map tables being positioned in its centre, showing maps of the Earth Empire, the world, Ba Sing Se, the main areas of operation of the Liberation Alliance, and others. But one table - or desk, on that part - towered all others. It was situated just before a fireplace, in which something emitted obscure green flames, and the chair behind it was alike a small throne. Zoruka had ceased her inspection of the room, and just then noticed dozens of soldier-like people - agents, she correctly presumed - lined up to both sides of the room's massive entrance, all garbed in uniforms akin her own robes, only bearing little to no ornaments. Furthermore, they all also wore rice-hat-like helmets and rock-gloves and -shoes, always ready to strike any occurring threat. She was about to examine the agents further - which made her presume that they were of both genders - however, then the entering of someone more powerful than her interrupted her. Her - she gritted her teeth at the sole thought - husband had entered.
"I'm glad you decided to take my offer. I was in dire need of a second-in-command after my eldest son died of battle wounds... However, now you are here, you, someone who sure can also organise and execute operations on her own, I am be relieved - after all, ruling the greatest Empire of all recorded history is not something one can do on their own. Anyway-"
Yi Ming ceased his elaborate speech only because Zoruka rose her index finger as to shush him. Her grave expression seemed to - at least temporarily - frighten even the mighty and almost fearless Emperor.
"I need to know something personal." She spoke absolutely calm and yet there was sadness in her voice.
"You can say it right here, right now. If anyone is good at keeping a secret, those ladies and gentlemen are." Yi Ming walked closer to her, but stopped about three metres from her.
"Well then... it didn't seem like you were comforting someone for you first time. I know it's very- " This time, Zoruka was cut off. Yi Ming shut her up with the same gesture she had used before, with the same intention and result.
"You're right. T'was not the first time, and it wasn't the first time I was the cause for their - for her - loss. But for one thing it was the first time, it was the first time I comforted someone with courage. Someone who would consider fighting me, someone who would consider revenging their fallen close one. But you see, failure is a crime just as treachery, and I cannot forgive either." Yi Ming spoke sincerely, but the information he had given simply failed to convince her. However, she then decided to leave the topic at first and to face the gathered agents.
"Agents! You all have already seen action previously, I presume?"
"Yes, ma'am!" The agents' shouted response was rather deafening.
"Very well then. Then you know what awaits us. Or do you? We will bring upon the end of the so-called Liberation Alliance, be it on the battlefield or by the information we can deliver. Their army is not weak, nay, it indeed is strong, but what is a single warrior against an entire army? Our organisation may not be all too big, but we all have expertise in stealth, material arts, interrogation and torture - is that correct?"
"Yes ma'am!" The dozens of voices - combined with the office's size of course - were simply booming.
"Then there ought to be nothing to stop us! Henceforth, to work!"
The carriage rolled past the well, and somehow, its wheel managed to shoot a small piece of rock at the girl by it. Kabura failed to shield her eyes as she pulled up the bucket of water, and - surprised by its impact - let go of the rope which she had pulled.
"You filthy idiotic bastards!" she angrily shouted at the carriage, but it was out of earshot, and so she had no other option than to resumed her previous task. It was exhausting for her, but yet essential - Omashu lacked, despite the existence of a canalisation network, a steady water supply. She shook her head, drying off the sweat from her forehead. The carriage had delivered gunpowder, likely for some of Skado's experiments. The bucket was filled with water, and thus heavy, but she decided nothing would interrupt her this time, or rather, nothing would make her start anew again. A mere two metres more remained for the bucket to be pulled, however, something caught her attention. To be exact, a small piece of ember hit her arm, slightly scorching a part of it. It hurt, but this wasn't the first though she had. Where did this come from? Her thoughts wandered from the bucket to the direction the cinder had flown from and to where the gunpowder was delivered. The Armoury! As if to prove her right, a small trap door near a house's wall opened, Senqok emerging.
"Kabura! Quick! Take the bucket, take this... mask-thing and get to the armoury immediately! Guess what for!" His voice was commanding and full of concern as he held some kind of mask, made of metal, glass, ceramics and caoutchouc. Kabura rolled her eyes, took the bucket and bolted towards him. Senqok himself already was trying to get the mask of his on while he handed Kabura hers, and afterwards hurried to the well, from where he bent water into the water skin of his. Hurrying to the ordinary-looking building of the armoury, he gasped as at the realisation that it indeed was fully aflame. Doubting he would ever survive it, he entered it in his - supposedly fireproof - uniform, the mask to keep his face and lungs safe from damage and even wearing a helmet. Inside, it was as if he swam in flames. The temperature rose beyond his capabilities of bearing, and so he began fighting the fire, with both water and his trusty sword. Trying to fight the symptoms instead of the cause turned out to be a complete failure, as Senqok realised he ran out of water. Wielding the last droplets of water alongside his sword, he tried to fight his way back out, and almost succeeded - had there not been the burning wooden beam falling down right before him, blocking his way out. On the other side, Kabura stood and spilled her bucket's entire contents on the wooden beam, briefly making it possible for Senqok to escape the flames. Outside, Senqok immediately grasped the bucket and any other vessel he could find on the way, as he hurried to the well. He bent up masses of water, filling each and every of them. When he arrived back at the burning armoury, he began fighting his way through to the few barrels the fire had - thankfully - left untouched - the gunpowder. Kabura had followed him, carrying as many of the vessels as possible, and then repeatedly hurried back to get the rest. As she returned, Senqok wasn't the only one anymore fighting the flames - Noki, Skado and Shizon had joined him, Ranju being on the way. Despite the masses of it, the water did little to stop the fire, not to speak of extinguishing it - other than the small apparatuses Skado and Shizon wielded - and of course Noki's bent earth. The cans with strange levers and attached to them spread a watery substance that seemed to be far more effective than ordinary water, as the fire died down following contact with it. As Ranju dropped some of the substance at the building from above, the fire had lost the fight. Senqok took off the mask of his and, baffled, asked Skado, "Alright, nice. But what in Koh's realm is all this... stuff?"
The grinning engineer too took off his mask and replied, "Gas masks, fire extinguishers and... well, that one's a secret. And highly dangerous if mixed with flour, but that's irrelevant." He took a look at how much they had managed to save by thus swiftly taking action. "I guess our dearest General Wei now owes us more than just an apology. How about... dinner?"
Noki rolled her eyes, sighing, and spoke, "I may be blind, but I still can feel the stupidity in your grin, you know?"
Despite the man's high position and the number of guests, the table was rather empty, or at least emptier than Senqok would've expected. Three bowls full of rice, one full of all kinds of fruits, and a plate covered in meat and fish, another, far smaller one, designated for Ranju, bearing a piece of Tofu. That was more or less all, except of course the - slightly alcoholic - drinks, and a pot containing the gravy for the meal. After all, it seemed General Wei wasn't at all as dissipative as the waterbender had thought. Yet he was grateful at the fact he didn't have to cook for himself as he still was used to from his journey, even though he had been a member of the Alliance for over a month now. As the others too entered the General's extremely secure office - and dining room, it seemed - Senqok followed suit and too seated himself cross-legged on one of the provided cushions. He sat on the table's head end, directly across Wei, and already intended to shovel rice on the plate of his, but the others behaviour stopped him.
"Senqok, since it's your first time dining with all of us, you are the one to... well, pray aloud. It is simply a tradition to pray before a meal, maybe not in the Water Tribe, but certainly here. So, might I ask you to...?" The General's kind voice was what really had stopped him from helping himself with the rice, and thus he followed the orders.
"... oh well, here we go..." he muttered insecure, continuing aloud, "Spirits! Of Ocean, of Moon, of Sun, of Land and of everything! Great Spirits! We must thank you for the gifts you gave us, be it in the form of soil or in the form of water, that made it possible for us to harvest the crops before us, Spirits! We cannot repay your generosity, but we hope you accept this humble prayer of mi- of ours!"
Senqok had closed his eyes during the elaborate prayer he quickly improvised, and as he opened, he had to hurry to still get any of the rice. Everyone, without exception, shovelled whatever they could and would eat onto their plates, even those of whom he didn't expect such an appetite, such as Ranju.
"Well, I guess... enjoy your meal!" The starting shot was fired by Senqok, then the massacre with chopsticks began. Half an hour passed without much conversation aside some gossip, until everyone had finished and emptied their respective drinks. Then, during the slowly arising conversation, the elderly General leaned to his right, to his daughter, and whispered something into her ear. Nodding, she immediately stood up, and went off, and that almost simultaneously to her father's action. After a minute or two, they returned, Wei holding a teapot and Noki carrying teacups. After having filled and distributed the cups, the two sat down again, and by simply clearing his throat, Wei silenced all conversations.
"Since the day of your final test, and thus, the end of your training and full and complete admission into the Four Nations' Liberation Alliance, a league dedicated to fighting Tyranny in all its forms, I believe you ought to learn of our organisation's origins - all of you. You ought to learn, well, a brief history of the war, of the war against Yi Ming's reign." His voice was serene and somewhat solemn, yet it had a hint of sadness in it as well.
"It all began about one hundred years ago, when a talented peasants' son rose through the ranks of the Earth Kingdom- er, Kingdom of Ba Sing Se's army, also likely aiding himself with a general's funding, thus corruption. However, a hundred years ago, at the age of twenty-four, that lad had come to be a general himself, and commanded Ba Sing Se's forces in the south. Back then, for Ba Sing Se, that meant the area around Serpent's Pass. There were three other kingdoms on the Earth Continent back then, which were in a temporary alliance against Ba Sing Se - the Kingdom of Taku, risen through its immense commercial influence, the Kingdom of Gaoling, risen through numerous intrigues, and, last but not least, the Kingdom of Omashu, risen through military power. Those three launched a common campaign against Ba Sing Se, and planned to break through from the south, via Serpent's Pass - that, and with the use of the - numerously - superior naval forces. Their forces' numbers went into the millions for sure, while Yi Ming only had a few hundred thousand soldiers and a few dozens of ships under his command, and that only because his superior had died and nobody else but him was seen fit for the post. So, the Three Kingdoms gathered their armies and navies and then struck. Within three days, Yi Ming's forces achieved victory, and within a week, the Three Kingdoms' forces were completely annihilated. Yi Ming had suffered little to no losses, and for that, he was to be rewarded greatly, but he thought of the reward he received as unfit. Thus, he quickly deposed the King of Ba Sing Se and crowned himself to be the new king. Seizing command over all forces of Ba Sing Se, he then personally lead the armies of his to victory against Taku and annihilated their forces and leadership, even the lower nobles, afterwards announcing himself as the new King of Taku. Keep in mind, he annihilated a Kingdom that occupied a fifth of the Earth Continent within one and a half year. Then, after a few border clashes with the two remaining Kingdoms, he decided to launch the next campaign. The Kingdom of Gaoling - by the way, the one of the Four Kingdoms with the least inhabitants - defended itself for an entire five years, but then it fell. There, he repeated the procedure of Taku, and, like before, became the new King of the fallen Kingdom. However, we Southerners never really were subjugated, and also this time, Ba Sing Se became more dependent on the - once again - conquered South than the other way 'round, since the South has a greater population and greater resources and better farmland and all... Anyway, one Kingdom remained. The few who had escaped the purges after the previous Kingdoms' falls had found themselves in the Kingdom of Omashu again. And Gaoling resisted long enough for the King and half of his army to flee to his last ally. This was a challenge not even Yi Ming wanted to face alone, since even the slightest defeat could've triggered rebellions in the reconquered lands, therefore, he managed to make an alliance with the most underestimated people of the Earth Continent. The - for most of the war independent - Sandbender Tribes. With them constantly raiding the eastern parts of the Omashuan Kingdom, it constantly wasted its resources on the annoying 'Pirates of the Desert', and thus was severely weakened, even though it took years. During those years, the conquered lands were completely assimilated and completely incorporated, at least most of them, which gave Yi Ming access to more soldiers than any ruler had in the two-hundred years prior. But the worst thing was the naval build-up, which only was possible with the expertise the roustabouts of Taku - Yi Ming built the greatest, most powerful and most effective navy of all time - a ruler of the Earth People, of all people... Anyway, trailing off. So, thirty years after his great Battle at Serpents' Pass, Yi Ming started his greatest and bloodiest campaign yet. That was around the time I was born. The Sandbenders united for the strike and took the most decertified areas in the east of our Kingdom within the first month, while Yi Ming's troops landed on Fusang Peninsula, y'know, that huge peninsula in the South-west, which is almost completely under our control. From there, he and his troops began their ten years-long pillaging, murdering and raping throughout the lands. From all sides, that is, outside Omashu, the enemy could attack - Yi Ming's soldiers strolled around all throughout the remaining Kingdom, and slowly took our army's power. After eight years, there was only one untouched settlement of ours left, Omashu, and so he gathered his troops and formed two fortified rings around the city, and thus, the Siege of Omashu began. At first, the remaining - and gathered - soldiers of our Kingdom could still hold the siege lines at some distance, only during the last three months of the two year-long siege the lines were visible from the palace. And then it came, the greatest bloodshed of the whole war. The Wedding of Omashu. It lasted from sunrise, when Yi Ming's troops stormed the city, to sunset, when those troops seemed too tired to keep raping and murdering. Yi Ming killed my father before my eyes. He raped and abducted my sister - before my eyes. I myself, back then a ten-year-old boy, could flee the city through the canalisation. That day, Yi Ming proclaimed himself the King of Omashu as well, and afterwards decided that those four titles were to be united - he declared himself Emperor of Earth. Officially, he meant the Earth People or the Continent. Actually, he meant the planet. That day, of the previously one million and two-hundred thousand inhabitants of Omashu, quite exactly one million found their deaths - one couldn't walk anywhere without seeing dead bodies. Those atrocities outraged scholars, nobles and other high-class persons all throughout the Earth Empire. That was the only mistake Yi Ming made - he forgot to eliminate the enemies in his own realm, and the more it expanded, the greater the number of internal enemies of his became."
Wei made a pause to himself drink some of the tea, as he had witnessed the guests of his obviously appreciating the brewage's flavour. After he had taken a sip, he continued.
"That was the right climate for me to rise. At the age of ten, I had basic education of a nobleman, and a nobleman from Ba Sing Se itself adopted me. As I turned fifteen, Yi Ming offered me a high governmental post, to become the Steward of some Province, which I kindly denied. I took the various Imperial Examinations nonetheless, and passed all of them with the highest grades possible. Over time, I socialised with masses of nobles dissatisfied with Yi Ming's rule, and so we began to meet from time to time. What began in simple meetings lead to the founding of an organisation dedicated to bring Yi Ming down at any cost. Soon, when Yi Ming's relations with the - now deceased - Liang Dynasty of the Fire Nation, and the Northern Water Tribe, nobles from those nations too joined us, and soon, we saw that as such an organisation, one of commanders, had little chance of succeeding. We needed troops, and thus, we began recruiting. Back then our organisation was still secret, known only to its members. To others, it was some kind of weird club, like the 5-7-5 Society, in case you know them. Once we started recruiting - which, since we all were nobles, often was forced voluntariness - it all changed. Over time, we could grasp control over an entire province of the Earth Empire, without a single battle, might I add. We are a de facto government, actually... But the day of battle will come, no doubt. The day of the final face-off, the day of settling the scores between my family and Yi Ming will come..."
Wei had ended his speech and poured himself more tea. Just then he remembered a few small details he had left out.
"I almost forgot... You want to know why Yi Ming, well, took my sister to be a wife of his? Two reasons: first of all, he has a fanatic need of giving his descendants noble ancestry. And secondly, well, he think he can become immortal through constant, uh, reproduction. Those two I noticed when he offered me a post in his government for the thousandth time..."
Noki rose an eyebrow, saying, "There's another detail you've forgotten, remember?"
"Oh, right! I know it seems a little huge bit gross, an elder like me with a young daughter like Noki here, I know all of you have wondered why when you first met us two, right? Admit it. It seems gross. Well, the reason is that it took some time for me to get married, or rather, to have a successful marriage. Actually, her mother was a really rebellious noblewoman who'd joined the Alliance of mine. She was almost thirty years younger than me, but that didn't hinder her to fall in love with me - I too wonder why she did it - and, well, she decided we had to marry. Oh, also was she the one who made our movement radicalise that drastically. It really was a sad thing that she died during chi-"
The word Wei attempted to speak was 'childbirth', but he failed, as tearless sobs stopped him from speaking. Apparently it still was - and would always be - an uneasy issue. The guests of his looked at one another, and then stood up, except Noki, who started comforting her father. As soon as his daughter caught hold of him, Wei spoke again, to the leaving comrades. "However, something of her survived. Her - Noki's - personality is completely the same as hers was..."
Noki smiled and stood up, holding her hand out for her father to grab on, who did so, but then lost his strength and fell to the floor, only to barely be caught by Noki again. The five who intended to leave stopped, somewhat shocked. Then, the General's now weak voice spoke to no one in particular.
"... please, do me a favour. In case my strength was to leave me in my dotage... end Yi Ming for spirit's sake, just end him..."
Notes and Trivia
- The chapter's title is derived from Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time
- The Alliance's underground hideout and alike are likely influenced by the Russian novel Metro 2033 (and some of the related works), which the author currently reads.
- The Grand Secretary of the Earth Empire's (Zoruka's) office is meant to be an earlier version of Long Feng's office, and the agents of the Secretariat being the Dai Li's predecessor.
- The history of the fragmented Earth Kingdom becoming the Earth Empire was inspired by several occurrences in Chinese history, and diverse happenings in the Holy Roman Empire's and the German Confederation's history, in the en leading to the formation of the German Empire.
For the collective works of the author, go here.