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|Agni Kai in the Village|
January 13, 2015
The ringing of the bell signaled the hustle of feet within the hall, and the sound of chatter gradually died down as the sea of adolescent boys parted and ejected themselves. A couple minutes went by, but still the hallway of General Gao's Academy for boys in Ba Sing Se was not completely empty. A student who set himself apart from the rest of his peers already by his amber-colored eyes and not having any family members who were either current or former trustees remained in place, beside the entrance to the courtyard. He had once recognized the closest of the few he called friends in the world by her eye color, which was rare where he came from originally, but common here. Here, it was his that were rare.
This boy by the name of Heidze, leaned against the wall and composed himself as two others of greater though not by much height and age approached him, wearing similar pine shirts with turquoise symbols of the Earth Kingdom capital over the top.
"So, do you have the answers for the test today, or what, punk?" the taller of the two local boys cracked his knuckles together as he questioned the youngest of the three.
"Yeah, Heidze," the other boy near him added. "Do as Csueng says. We paid you good money for this, and now we need you to show us that our gold was worthily spent." Like that of his comrade Csueng, Dung's hair was sleek and shiny, with something in it that smelled too strong. This was in sharp contrast to Heidze's uncombed, messy appearance.
"Look," the shorter, amber-eyed boy called Heidze replied. "I have what you want, and I just showed it to you this morning. You have already seen it, so I don't see why you're making a big fuss about this now. I mean, what's the deal?"
"What's the deal?" Csueng questioned him, wide-eyed. "I'm looking at the supposed test that you gave us, and it looks like crap!"
"I don't understand," said Heidze. "You have the questions and you have the answers. What more do you two need?"
"What he's talking about," Dung blinked his eyes impatiently, "is that the answers are not in the same handwriting as the questions. Why would our teacher write the questions of the test in one style of writing and the answers for his answer key in a different style of writing?"
"This looks like a regular copy of the test," Csueng added. "Not an answer key."
"Because that paper didn't have the answers on it when I stole it," Heidze sighed. "It only had the questions."
"So where did the answers come from, then?" Dung growled. "Did you steal them from somewhere else?"
"No, I wrote them in myself," Heidze disclosed.
"How do we know that your answers are legit?" asked Csueng. "Are you telling us that you looked up each of the answers individually? You couldn't have had time to do that"
"I didn't look them up," said Heidze. "I didn't have to. They weren't that hard. I just did the test last night on my own."
Dung seized Heidze's shirt by the collar. "You twat! These answers are useless. You owe us our money back, and then some."
"You're a thief," snarled Csueng. "Even if some of these are correct, you do realize we'll all be suspended if we get the exact same wrong answers as you, right?"
"They're all correct," said Heidze. "Trust me. Like I said. the test isn't that hard."
"Hah, are you trying to tell us that you're smarter than you look?" Csueng asked with mock-amusement. "Maybe you're right. Perhaps you're too smart for us, actually. Last month you conned us on the so-called cactus juice you gave us which turned out to be nothing more than lemonade with phony jennamite crystals mixed in. Those girls from Madame Mulan's Academy laughed their heads off when Dung and I tried to share that with them."
"Hah," Heidze laughed in mild reminiscent amusement, probably not at an ideal time for him, as the larger boys were infuriated by his smirk. "You can't blame me for conning you closer to when we first met, guys. I've been doing that to a lot of people when I first meet them. But trust me, these answers are legit. If I gave you fake answers now, I'd jeopardize my chance for repeat business. Wouldn't I?"
At the call of a teacher reminding the three boys to go to where their next scheduled classes were, Dung returned Heidze's collar to him and he and Csueng had no choice but to go to back where they belonged.
A cluster of men in Fire Nation uniform gathered around the dueling masters, whispers going back and forth like wildfire. None of the younger men, many of whom were younger, taller and their muscles more toned than the two grizzled war veterans facing each other, would dare interfere with these older men's business. They had been the talk of legends since the days when great firebenders hunted dragons for glory, and Prince Iroh and Han Shui had been among the last of their past generation to do so. Both of these men had killed dragons. That was something none of the soldiers that served under them could even dream about doing. The exploits of Iroh and those before him had been the talk of stories they remembered from their childhood, but these were living lessons.
"What should we do?" a rounded, baby-faced lieutenant said in a hushed whisper to the officer beside him.
"Nothing we can do but watch, Grif" Lu Ten answered the man. "The Dragon of the West is our commanding officer, but it is a terrible infraction of our code of honor to break up an Agni Kai once it's started."
"It hasn't started yet, though, has it?"
Lu Ten gritted his teeth and took a bold step forward. "Father, please, there must be another way," Lu Ten began, worried. "Think of our siege on Ba Sing Se, and what all of us have come here for."
"Do not intervene," Iroh jabbed back, more serious and stern than he normally would have been when speaking with his son. "This engagement for myself and Han Shui alone."
"Well said, Dragon of the West," Han Shui allowed his lips to curl as he whipped his arms and hands about in a harmonious, circular motion.
"Never fear," Iroh turned back to face his only child for one last, brief moment. "Nothing about our mission has or will change today." The Crown Prince then looked back to his opponent.
"So, from when you fought your beast, did you remember what dragon fire was like? If not, let me give you a little reminder!" With that, Han Shui, the Dragon of Water thrust both his arms out and shot an unyielding burst of flame which caused several of the surrounding troops to hustle farther back from the battle than they had already stood, having underestimated what a safe distance to keep would be.
The same lieutenant that had addressed Lu Ten earlier was among these troops. "We must do something..."
"Pah!" scoffed one of the troops behind him. "The Dragon of the West's exploits are legendary. Do you really expect the other guy has a chance?"
Lieutenant Grif was not convinced. "Prince Lu Ten, you have to stop this somehow."
"No," Lu Ten shook his head. "I trust his judgement."
"As your general or your father?"
It appeared at first glance that the Dragon of the West would be engulfed in the flame for sure, but the experienced General Iroh bent his back in an upside-down arch, a flexible maneuver that would appear impossible for a man of his size and body type, let alone his age. Gasps came from the men clutching spears all around him in their red helmets, as well as from the skull-masked firebenders as they saw General Iroh evade the blast and subsequently proceed to do a backwards somersault and exhale deeply, literally conjuring fire from his own breath! Impressive as the maneuver was, Han Shui was too far away at the time to be hit by the new fire, and he leapt in the air and shifted gears, punching two quick bursts of flame which emanated from his fists and shot toward the ground beneath the Dragon of the West's feet.
Iroh took notice of Han Shui's change in tactics and was able to adapt himself well in advance, sidestepping to dodge the new bursts of flame and bringing his foot around to kick a right-side up arc of fire in a flat, horizontal motion across the ground. Han Shui had evaded this attack before it was even close to reaching him, and used the time that he was given to concentrate his energies, bringing about something greater. For a moment, eyes shut, the Dragon of Water focused with the utmost intensity. The surrounding soldiers had begun to marvel at how foolish he had been to neglect his guard, but once the sparks begun flashing around his arms and upper body, his intentions became clear. Through his pointed fingertips emerged something that can only be attained by the most masterful of firebending masters. Lightning. It cut through the air, straight toward the Dragon of the West. With no time to dodge, the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation merely relented and allowed the lightning bolt to penetrate his arm, entering into his body.
Lu Ten's body paralyzed itself in place. "No, it can't be!" Shock and horror fell upon the young prince and the other troops as they witnessed their leader's inevitable demise.
"Yes," declared Han Shui, hair on edges, his face twisted and maniacal. "It looks like you're not so infallible, after all!"
General Iroh did not stop moving, however, as he had not succumbed to the lightning. Rather, he pointed his opposing arm into the air behind him and shot another streak of lightning into the sky. No, it was the same streak. In an unheard of move, he had actually redirected generated lightning.
"What?" uttered a shocked Han Shui. "Im-impossible..."
"What was that?" Ratana whirled her head around to look in the direction of a deafening sound that she had just heard. Having not felt anything nearby, she had not expected any opponents or large weapons in the vicinity.
"It was a bolt of lightning," her partner Hanbao informed her. "But there's no storm."
"Then we must be vigilant," said Ratana. "We're facing some of the worst kind of firebenders today."
"They're not close to us, though," said Hanbao. "In fact, they don't even seem to be targeting us today."
"Whatever's distracting them, I don't think they'll allow themselves to be distracted by it for much longer."
"Did you see that?"
"Fire and lightning themselves refuse to harm him."
"He's no mere bender."
"He's no mere human!"
After Iroh purged his body of lightning and released Han Shui's bolt into the sky, all the Dragon of the West's troops who were present whispered to each other about what they had just witnessed. The former Southern Raider Commander's venture to expose his opponent as flawed had backfired, and his pedestal was higher from the ground than ever. The men were now growing eager to get back to the Outer Wall, with their respected commander.
Han Shui did not have long to recover, for as soon as Iroh had recovered, the Dragon of the West took advantage of the moment and punched a gargantuan sphere of flame rolling toward him. Before the Dragon of Water could react, the ball of fire had engulfed him fully, and he was on the ground, screaming in agony, his body now fully-immersed in fire.
"It is over," Iroh declared finally. "Return the items to their rightful owners. Give back their belongings. Han Shui, it's a pity that in all the time you spent battling waterbenders, you never learned more from those you fought. You've always been fully concerned with your own skills and never taken those of your opponent into account. Stand down and let me diffuse some of that fire from your body."
"Get away from me!" Han Shui barely managed to utter, his skin crackling. Though his situation was more and more lost, the Dragon of Water would not surrender his defiant spirit, even if that was all he had left.
- General Gao and Madame Mulan are a reference to a food dish and a Disney character, respectively.
For the collective works of the author, go here.