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|Harboring, Part 2|
3 January 2014
I emerged from behind a moss-covered boulder after having changed into the tight black uniform I initially received from the Royal Palace, tied my hair in a bun, and wrapped a scarf around my neck, expecting to catch Jirou peeping, but instead I witnessed a gentleman, boasting a decorative, embellished burgundy and white uniform, complete with slicked-back hair and a monocle. Like that, rugged sexiness had transformed into professional sexiness, and if any of the Sages were fairies, he was going to have one easy time.
When he noticed, he refrained from his classic banter, which he evidently does during 'important' missions. "We can leave our animals here. They won't go anywhere," he suggested, to which I nodded. The stroll to the temple was brief, but Jirou stopped me.
"One more thing, Nalia. You need to make it out alive."
The raised eyebrow I shot him asked, "What?" Really, Jirou? No, I was planning on getting killed! I was actually going to suggest the Sages keep my head above their fireplace as a trophy!
He sensed my confusion. "What I mean is, a suicide mission to kill the Avatar isn't worth it. If you're not alive, the Fire Lord has no reason not to dispose of your sister. You have to survive too, so don't get yourself killed like an idiot."
The thought hadn't crossed my mind, but, for once, I was actually glad Jirou said something. "Okay," I whispered back, cautiously. He had assured me earlier that since the Fire Sages were a religious group they wouldn't be violent, or at least not a threat. Then he was telling me not to get killed. What was even stranger was that he even cared. Surely, he only wanted me to make it out so he could kill me himself. That way-
"Nalia-" I was dragged back into reality when he said my name.
"Nalia, when I go to the front gate, you should climb this column to the second floor and enter through that window. It should be pretty quiet, these giant temples only hold a handful of Sages nowadays."
Jirou had some big hands, so I wasn't particularly comforted as he turned the corner, made his way to the main entrance to the temple, looked at me one last time, nodded, and pounded on the door. He took a step back to wait, and knowing I might not have had much time, I got to work, wrapping my scarf around a bright red column at the corner of the temple and proceeding to ascend to the second floor as instructed. There was no glass on any of the large rectangular windows along the walls of the temple, just ornate golden shutters that were open due to the heat.
I slowly inched my right hand to the edge of the windowsill, but then I froze. Just on the adjacent side of the building, I heard a door swing open before Jirou was greeted by at least two Fire Sages. They couldn't see me and I couldn't see them, but if one of them walked around the corner of the temple, I would have been screwed.
I held my breathe, terrified that a single drop of sweat could fall from my face and compromise my location. I'm sure I looked pretty funny, clinging to a temple column like I was playing Hide-and-Explode.
The door shut and the voices disappeared. Time to make my move. Leaping through the open window brought back memories of sneaking into my house after a late night with a boy, except this time my father didn't catch me. A Fire Sage did. An old, bald, wrinkly, short, frail man with red robes gasped and dropped his watering pail in shock.
"Nalia," I extended my hand and smiled sweetly, "professional assassin and part-time Avatar hunter."
For some reason, he rejected my handshake and instead stuttered at me in raw confusion. Not for long though, because I lunged at him, spun him around, and choked him out with my scarf before he could make the first move. He wasn't dead, but I wanted him to be, so snapping his neck was the best way to kill him without leaving an obvious sign. There was a bed in the room, so I neatly placed his corpse under the covers, shut his eyes, and tucked him in tight. "Sweet dreams."
The smile on my face vanished, and I thought I might vomit over the body. My father taught me how to do many things, and I'm pretty sure covering up a murder was not one of them. Still, I held Ming's life at a higher value than any of these Sages. They were obstacles to me, and if I couldn't avoid them, I'd obliterate them without hesitation. Right, Dad? That's what you'd want me to do... I'm sure of it.
The hallway just outside the small room appeared clear, and I wondered where Jirou and his gracious hosts were. No voices. No footsteps. No shadows. And no sign of a hidden Air Nomad. What concerned me for the first time was the thought of fighting the Avatar, the master of all four elements. Jirou conveniently forgot to mention that taking on what I can assume is the world's most badass child would be part of my task. Anything could have been a clue, especially any signs of non-fire bending, but the temple was enormous and I didn't know where to start.
One thing I didn't need was to hear Jirou's voice, but sure enough, I did, and when I could tell that he and the Sages guiding him were about to enter the corridor, one question entered my mind. How high is this ceiling? It was a trick my father taught me, that sometimes the best place to hide is above those you are avoiding. Why he ever imparted that knowledge on me will always be a mystery, but it came in handy.
By the time Jirou and two escorts sauntered into the narrow, dimly-lit hall, my four limbs were fully extended to both walls, my back against the ceiling, my muscles screaming at me for forcing them to endure such strain. Jirou strode between the two Sages, glancing side to side with his hands folded behind his back and his face expressing the calmest and most professional look I've ever seen. When he happened to peek up at me, he did a double take, then, completely unperturbed, tranquilly pointed out the odd shape of the Sages' shoes, directing their attention to the floor. When one looked back up, he noted an ornate symbol at the end of the hall, and the trio proceeded forward. I was almost in the clear, and that's when I fell.
The thud of me dropping to the floor was followed by two gasps, one furious grunt, and then the distinct sound of a cracking spine. By the time I got to my feet, Jirou had already slammed the second Sage against the wall, thrown him to the ground, and stomped on his head with enough force to shatter the skull. He took a deep breath, and the face he shot me read very clearly I don't have time to strangle you right now. That will have to wait.
It wouldn't have been ten minutes and I had already fucked up the mission, or did I? I made our jobs a lot more difficult, certainly, but at least Jirou became free to move around and search as he pleased.
"There's already a dead one in this room," I stated quietly, gesturing at the door next to me. My partner sighed and nodded, and with my help dragged the two bodies and stowed them under the bed my victim was "sleeping" in. The best thing about human beings is that they stack so nicely.
Without conversing, the two of us darted back out into the hallway and ran until we were confronted with a staircase and another pair of voices. Simultaneously, we both raised a finger to our lips, telling the other to keep it shut.
"Should we be of them?" asked one with urgency. I saw Jirou mouth "shit," as we were obviously the "them."
"No," assured the other. "We have him safe and secured in the Prayer Chamber on the ground floor.
My ears perked up like a dog's, and I glanced at Jirou to make sure he heard the same thing I did. The little fucker is here after all.
Standing between me and my freedom were two Fire Sages walking up a flight of stairs I wanted to go down, so their lives became worthless to me in a heartbeat. Withdrawing my knife, I raced down the steps, and the lethal training of my father kicked in automatically like the instinct of a wild predator. I soared from one landing to the next and slid my blade into the trachea of my first target, a move my father insisted was one of the fastest ways to kill. Ignoring the blood spattered across my face, I shifted to my next enemy. This man, who will henceforth be referred to as "The Bearded One with No Chance in Hell," was much less hesitant than the other Sages I had killed. Instead of freezing in horror, he attacked.
With a flame sparking in his palm, he brought around his right arm to strike. Please, this is Sparring 101. I knocked his wrist upward, deflecting his spray of fire, and kicked out his left ankle to knock him off balance before flinging him over the staircase railing. From that position, the fool got his throat slit, and he was ended. He didn't even have time to cry.
Jirou appeared beside me, examining the bloodshed. For the first time, the man who always seemed in control looked truly, genuinely uncomfortable. Then it hit me. That was the first time he really watched me take a life, and I could tell immediately that he didn't like it. I smiled my devious little smile. You're not the only trained killer... Sweetheart.
The victory was short lived, and my fellow assassin and I sprinted down the remaining stairs. Upon kicking open a wooden door, we came across and grandiose hall of breathtaking paintings, beautiful depictions of dragons, Firebenders, worshipers, and spirits. The maroon and gold columns seemed to stretch all the way up to the sun until they were stopped by a flat ceiling bearing a scene of a Lion Turtle granting early humans the ability to bend fire to their whim. Yards in front of me stood a strong, enormous oak door with a single red flame colored at the center and two Sages working together to bend it. I had never witnessed a more spectacular work of art in my lifetime, and the thought of checking for adversaries eluded me entirely.
"We're in the main hall." Leave it to Jirou to interrupt the moment. "Looks like it's empty, for now."
"Did the Sages show you the Prayer Chamber?" I inquired, now re-focusing on the task at hand.
My partner nodded affirmatively. "I think it was this way." There were no voices or footsteps in earshot, but we weren't about to take our time.
"We need to shoot fire into the mouths of the dragons!" Jirou ordered, and we did. Two streams, one orange, one blue, fed the statues on the door. The concept of unlocking anything with fire seemed ridiculous, but I was proven wrong when the door subsequently swung open. I could just imagine it, an Airbender meditating within a circle of candles, like a sitting duck just waiting to be dead.
Well, I was right about the candles part. Unfortunately, I figured out who the threats the Sages were referring to really were and that the "em" meant "them" and not "him." I painfully brought my eyes to my right and saw that Jirou was just as devastated as I was to see Uma and Nightmare tied to a poll.
Both of us paused, jaws dropping, astonished to see our beasts in captivity, until a conversation approached behind us.
"We found them outside, and since it was about to rain, we brought them in. But they were so hostile we got suspicious, so they're tied up in here. We- What the- Who are you?!"
The Fire Sages must have had laughably poor communication, as the two men who appeared in the Prayer Chamber were just as boggled as all the others to see the Shepherds in their home. One of them, the one who must have been speaking, looked even younger than Jirou, and the other could've been 400. Well, as they say, age before beauty.
The elder snarled at his unwanted guests. "Assassins! That's who!" With a leap, he shot two lines of fire from his knuckles that joined to form a fatal wave of flames. Jirou swiftly diverted the attack, and, having remained unscathed, I countered with a spinning wheel of blue embers.
The old man blocked my attack handily, producing an awe-struck face "Blue fire? You're a Mau Xanh!" At first he was amazed by what he saw, but he quickly refocused With hatred beaming from his pupils, the Sage kicked out a thin orange line at my knees, but I jumped it and responded with a blast so powerful it could have knocked his skeleton out of his skin. The remains of his body were expelled from the room.
"Nalia!" Jirou called. "Don't kill the other one!" I glanced at him, and he had already freed Nightmare and Uma from their bindings. I hopped on my mongoose dragon and blocked a fireball from the younger sage before Jirou clocked him in the side of the head and, with one arm, hoisted him by the shirt onto Uma's back beside him. The three of us, Jirou, myself, and our prisoner, bolted out of the chamber and dashed through the temple until we hit the main gate. There were no more altercations on the way out into the pouring rain, and we stopped by the cliff we visited earlier, where Jirou yanked the young Fire Sage off Uma and pinned him to the ground.
"Where is the Avatar!" he demanded, his voice rivaling that of the severe thunderstorm.
"The what?" He looked sincerely terrified, but clearly not terrified enough. Taking a deep breathe, I crouched beside his head and glared unsympathetically into his eyes.
"Look," I taunted softly, "there are a lot of really bad things things we can do to you, and you don't want that. Just tell us where you're hiding the Avatar, and your death will be a quick one."
His voice cracked. "The Avatar?" he croaked. "I don't know what you're talking about?"
"Is that so?" His legs were squirming, but Jirou had him down, and I looked back at the temple to make sure he didn't have any friends on the way. It's possible that Jirou and I killed the only people to even know there were intruders, but it wouldn't be long before someone noticed a body or two. With a shortage of time in mind, I flashed my bloody knife before the Sage.
"Do you know what this is?" I inquired menacingly.
He gulped and replied shakily, "a knife."
"No, no, no. Not that." I took one finger and stroked the blade, picking up a line of blood. Smiling, I wiped the Sage's face, only for it to be washed off by the rain. "This. Blood."
I've never seen someone more horrified.
"It's the blood of the other Sages, just to clarify. Now, unless you want to end up like them, you'll tell us," I went from calm, cool, and collected, to screaming, "exactly where to find the Avatar!"
He managed to pull himself together for a moment. "The Avatar is probably dead like all the other Airbenders!"
"Liar!" Ignoring his whimper, I grasped his left hand it waved it in front of his face. "You like your fingers? Tell us where he is!" I had not been paying attention to Jirou, who remained surprising quiet during this interrogation.
When the Sage said nothing, he gave me no choice. I brought his hand to the ground in front of me and did what I had to do. The knife cut through his hand like it was cake, and his cries of immense pain and agony probably would have bothered me in a normal setting.
"Shut up!" barked Jirou, who kept him pinned to the ground despite his squirming.
"Your other hand is next if you don't speak up!" I promised.
"Wait! Please listen," he begged. "It's true that one of the Sages, Kaja, denied that the Avatar was killed in the genocide, but none of us ever knew where he was or even if he was really alive!"
"Where is Kaja?"
"You... you killed him in the Prayer Chamber." The man had tears in his eyes, but the only sadness I got out of it was the possibility that the man with the most knowledge on the Avatar's whereabouts was dead. I stood up, furious, and Jirou got to his feet as well.
I could feel my eye twitch as the realization hit me. The realization that I wouldn't find the Avatar, that I wouldn't kill him, that I wouldn't be freed, and that I wouldn't save Ming was crippling. That's when any bit of sanity I had left fled my mind. I swooped down and pushed the Sage to the edge of the cliff.
"You have one last chance! Where is the Avatar? Tell me or you'll die, right here, right now!"
There was a hand placed on my shoulder, and I heard Jirou say, "Nalia, wait. We need him alive."
I aggressively shrugged Jirou off and pushed the Sage even closer to his death. "Five seconds!" My lips trembled, and a tear rolled from my face and hit his. "Four! Three! Two!"
"I don't know!" he sobbed. "Please! I swear to the Spirits!"
"Swear to me!" With that, he plunged down the side of the mountain.
Jirou roared. "No! Nalia! What did you do? We needed him!"
He was right, but it was too late. The Sage was plummeting down a rocky hillside to the unforgiving ocean below. If I was a Waterbender, I could've saved him. If I was an Earthbender, I could've saved him. If I was an Airbender, I could've saved him. But my element is fire, and fire only brings death. So why not defy the rain and send a spiraling comet of blue flames to the body before it crashed, so that I could be the one that killed him and not the sea.
Sorry, Dad. The girl you raised me to be is long dead.
- Yes, that last part was directly stolen from Batman.
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
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