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Peace, and how to get there
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Journey and Return



Written by

Madam Subclause


Madam Subclause

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Downhill all the way

Peace, and how to get there

And the sky was burning, And the furies sound
And the earth was churning, And we hid from the light
And went down in the ground, And went down in the ground

"Boss! Boss! We broke through!"

The ecstatic yell came from a man emerging from the deepest pit. He hared across the lake bed to the bucket line, where Zhao and Jee were working. "We hit an underground river course. It's got a stream in it, but you could walk along it, easy," he breathlessly relayed to Zhao.

On the other side of the salt flat, Mongke, shot a look of purest rage towards them. Zhao spared him a glance, then asked the runner, "Have you disguised the opening?"

"Yes. We got a big lump of rock salt which sits right across it."

"Alright. Post a watch overnight, make sure no Earthbender patrols are coming up the river course. Then we'll send out scouts. And keep a four man guard up top. Just in case."

The sky blushed in the east. "What is it they say about a red sky in the morning? Air Nomads warning?" muttered Zhao, looking pensive.

Jee snorted. "Superstitious much? Well, so long as no one's warning the Earthbenders..." He stopped dead as the blush turned to blood and fire, the clouds fleeing ragged across the sky before it. And there it was. The comet was visible like a second sun over the dawn horizon.

Every man stopped, looked up in wonder. Every Firebender felt the rush of energy. And then, in the west, reflecting its light, someone spotted the strange ships hanging in mid air. Someone shouted, "What in Sozin's name?"; another, "The comet!"; another, "Victory!" Fireballs erupted from every corner of the plateau, cascading into the reddened sky.

Ren only grumbled, "Burns will be up."

Jee looked at Zhao. He thought that in his face he could see every proclamation of victory, every vainglorious plan turned to ash and bitterness. "I thought you would be overjoyed. One way or another, this will be over."

Zhao said nothing, only stared at the oncoming fleet.

A knot of officers, including Mongke, was forming. "They can't be more than a few miles away."

"At this elevation, more like twenty," chipped in Shen.

"There are ladders in place, down the tunnel? The supplies are ready?" was the only thing Zhao offered.

A column of fire erupted from the lead ship. Ozai was up there...

"Yes. And the men have been drilling striking the camp." This was from Chang. He was looking from Mongke to Zhao, wondering who was in charge.

"Very good," replied Zhao. "We're not drilling now. Give the order." He turned at the lack of action. "NOW!" Men scurried away to do his bidding. Mongke was looking like thunder.

And then the fire stopped, and the ship lurched away. A cone of light left it as it crashed into the stone pillars, the sound arriving a few seconds later.

Fire and smoke erupted over the landscape and lightning streaked across the sky. It was impossible to tell what was happening, except that it was a battle of epic proportions.

And then the sky was burning, as the entire fleet sent down a curtain of fire. The camp seemed to take a step back as one.

Zhao turned, ramrod straight. "Get on with it! They will be on us faster than you think!" Suddenly, as burning debris rained down, the camp seemed aware of the danger it was in, and moved with a will.

The camp was in uproar. All around men were rushing, striking tents, gathering supplies, putting out fires from falling ash and rocks, but they could not work fast enough, and the camp was catching alight. Jee cast a glance behind him, saw pillars of stone fall and pillars of fire rise. Two streaks of red fled across the sky. He ran after Zhao, who propped himself on his crutch before gathering his chi. Then, with a downward sweep of his arm, the fires nearest him were extinguished. He repeated the action, and suddenly there was only the smoke of dying embers, and not a flame in the camp.

"Wow," Jee exclaimed, "Did you do.." He stopped as Zhao turned to him with a look of shock. Jee felt it through his feet first; a vibration which became a sound like the whole world ringing. A shaft of first blue and then red light shot into the sky. All the frantic activity in the camp ceased. The light and sound grew, and grew until it filled the world. Men fell to their knees, praying, begging for mercy. At first, the red light grew, seemed to consume the blue, but then, with the ringing becoming deafening, the blue overtook the red entirely, and purifying light pierced the clouds.

Not a man looked away. Every one of them seemed to know that something momentous had just occurred.

"What does it mean?" said Chang.

There was complete silence in the camp.

Zhao spoke first. "It means the war is over. And we lost." He bowed his head.

The blood red sky became blue again as the comet passed.

The rations had stopped, and the Earthbenders were seen leaving via the ramp in the eastern cliff. A hasty council had been convened, but this time every man in the camp wanted in. They sat along the salt terraces, sweating and squabbling. Zhao was delivering his prognosis on their chances.

"Coupled with the terrain, which is dangerous, with little or nothing in the way of resources, and the fact that on reaching the coast there are no settlements for many miles in either direction, I would advise against mobilising the camp for a march directly south through the ravine to Wulong. Instead I suggest we take the ramp up the east side of the ravine. The Earthbenders have blocked it, but once we get through I estimate that we hit the coast in six to eight days. Then we just need to find a settlement or a garrison...."

He was drowned out by protests. "Why don't we go home!?"

"How do you plan on getting us there? You think there will be a handy flotilla of boats to help us cross the strait? Last I recall, I left my fleet at the North Pole." Mongke looked up sharply at this comment. "The Earth Kingdom will be quickly consolidating, so we're bound to run into a garrison well before we get too far. And alright, they're not pleased to see us, but we'll have some arms, so we'll be able to negotiate terms regarding repatriation, and the garrison can accept our surrender.."

More consternation. "Surrender?" "Never!"

"Fools! Imbeciles!! Why are you here?" Jee had never seen Zhao so angry. "You are prisoners already! The war is over, we lost. So wake up!"

"Excuse me?" said Mongke, realising he was losing the momentum.

"As you wish, Colonel." Zhao stood, his face black with anger. "As I have learned to my considerable cost, a good commanding officer should listen to his advisers. If you are not capable of that, then I suggest we stop this charade immediately."

"You want to have a go then, Zhao?" said Mongke dangerously, getting in his face. "You think you still got it in you?"

Zhao looked down his nose at the other man. "You have no idea, Mongke. Yes, please. Let's have a go, shall we?"

There was no time for formalities. Both men stripped off their outer garments; Mongke stripping to the waist before pacing out the distance, Zhao more modestly retaining his tunic, tightening the bindings on his knee.

Mongke struck first, a fierce comet which it seemed Zhao could have no hope of dodging, only cutting. But he did not even move, the flames engulfing him. Suddenly Jee wondered, sickened, if Zhao retained a death wish, and this was his way out. But the flames passed over him, leaving him unmoved, unharmed.

And... there. What was that, clinging to his hands, licking up his arms? A flame, but almost invisible. He drew one arm up before himself, as if guarding it with his body, then flicked out his hand, from which flew... nothing.

"Is that the best...?" Mongke started. Then, "Hey." Then he screamed. "Get it off, GedidOFFF!"

Near invisible flames clung to him, creeping over his body. Frantically he tried to pat them out, but just as they looked like they were spreading over his entire body, they winked out. He glowered at Zhao, who stood silent, an eyebrow raised. "I'm going to KILL YOU!" He let fly a barrage of fireballs, arcing to meet at the point where Zhao stood.

Zhao made the merest of gestures, closing his hand, and they blinked out like snuffed candles. The hand opened again, and a sun blazed within its span. Mongke gulped.

"I believe this is yours," said Zhao, flicking his wrist again. Mongke screamed and fell to his knees as a slow wave of liquid fire rolled over him. Zhao made another gesture, a slight downward motion of the hand, and the wave parted, leaving Mongke quaking, his hair and clothes smouldering.

Zhao was picking up his threadbare coat. "I would consider it a favour if we could call it a day at that, Colonel. We are working to deadlines, after all." He turned his back to Mongke and walked towards Jee and the other officers. He made three uneven paces before the fireball came. He was more than ready; sidestepping, launching it straight back at Mongke, who threw himself into a frantic roll to escape. Too close to the edge, too late he tried to check the roll. A hand was flung out as the rest of him disappeared over the edge, then it too vanished.

Zhao stood, coat hanging, eyes downcast. Slowly Jee walked up to him, handed him his crutch.

"He could have been an asset to us," said Zhao.

Jee shrugged. "I don't know. It was probably a cost worth paying."

Zhao glanced sidelong at him."You're not the one carrying the tab." He turned his attention to include the rest of the clique gathering around him. "Gentlemen. Shall we pretend for a moment we're being paid to act like officers and prepare to make way?" he said acidly, before ratcheting his way into the throng.

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