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As Otan flees towards the Eastern Air Temple with Meili and Seippa, things are not well in the Fire Nation as Lahn's secret plot comes to fruition and Zisa challenges General Ghef to Agni Kai.
Seippa weaved through the streams of smoke billowing from an oncoming volcano as she soared through the night sky. Otan sat at the base of her neck, holding the reins. Seippa let out a long groan, prompting him to massage her neck. "Yeah, I'm glad to see you too, old girl," He said softly.
Behind him, Meili sat in the middle of the saddle, glaring at his back. "What about that girl you left behind at the Fire Capital?" She said, "What was her name, Zisi?" It was the first thing she had spoken since they had left the Fire Nation.
"Zisa," Otan said, not turning around.
"Who's going to protect her now?" Meili pressed, "Now that you're gone, they'll know for sure that you're guilty and she'll be the one to pay the price for it."
"If she keeps quiet, then she'll be safe," said Otan.
Meili smiled grimly. "If that girl's anything like I was at her age, she's not going to let this thing go until she sees it through to the end with or without someone to help her."
"She's a Firebender," said Otan, "Firebenders are born to fight. Airbenders aren't."
"To me you're sounding less like an Airbender and more like Yemi," said Meili.
Otan stiffened. "I left because now that Sozin and the Fire Nation are out for Airbender blood and we need to be prepared before he acts!" he shouted, "I didn't turn my back on my own people!"
"No," said Meili, glancing back at the Fire Capital, "You turned your back on those who needed you most."
Otan said nothing in answer. As far as he was concerned, the conversation was over. He could barely bring himself to remember the parting conversation between himself and Zisa. Why hadn't she understood that he was only trying to protect her?
"So what are you going to do now?" asked Otan.
"Heading to the Eastern Temple," Said Meili, "We need to prepare for the Fire Nation."
"You're not going to fight them?" Otan said incredulously, "The Fire Nation has every possible advantage!"
Meili nodded. "Well what else can we do? With the Avatar gone, we're the only ones who can save ourselves-we're on our own! The Fire Nation won't stop hunting us until they find the Avatar or destroy us all, sooner or later, us Airbenders are going to have to stand up and fight."
Otan shook his head. "You haven't seen what the Shadow Painters can do," he said.
"Yes," Meili said quietly, "I have. Nine years ago. I saw them destroy your village in a single flash of light. And if someone doesn't do something, there will be more villages just like that one-villages filled with frozen shadows. Like it or not you are an Air Nomad, Otan, one of the best I've ever known. I've never once seen you waver from the Airbender way, but if the Fire Nation conquers the world, history won't remember how non-violent or detached you were form the world if there is no longer anyone who honors those things."
A Fifteen-Year-Old Girl
There was a knock on the door to General Ghef's study. The old man hated to be interrupted. "Open it," he barked to the guard on the other side of the door. The partition slid open to admit the merchant's daughter, Zisa. He didn't even have to look up to see the rage barely contained by her form.
"You, know," he said, coughing into a red handkerchief, "It's customary to bow before a decorated general and war veteran."
The girl just stood in the doorway, shaking for several moments until she spoke. "I challenge you to Agni Kai," she said, "At noon. Today."
The General could barely contain himself. "I'm a very busy man," he said between wheezing guffaws, "I'm afraid I don't have time for jokes. If you'd like, I can have my guards escort you back to your family's estate. I'm sure they don't want their daughter being kidnapped by pirates again."
The girl slammed her palms down on Ghef's desk, causing him to splatter ink all over a document he had been writing. "This isn't a game," she said, "As a citizen of the Fire Nation, I may invoke the right of Agni Kai upon whomever I chose."
"That you do, girl," said Ghef as he regained his composure, "But I'm afraid that it would be a rather one-sided fight. One general challengers those who are of equal skill."
Zisa gave him a wry twist of a smile. "You're a crippled old man and I'm a fifteen-year-old girl. I think I can handle those odds, what about you, General?"
The General thought for a moment, then nodded. "What are your terms?"
"If I win," said Zisa, "Then the Shadow Painters go public. Everyone Fire Nation will know what you've been doing for the past nine years."
"Very well," Ghef said, "But remember, this will be a fight to the death."
Zisa's eyes narrowed. "It's Agni Kai." She said.
The Shadow Painters
Several days had passed by the time Lahn arrived at the Shadow Painters' base and training ground, located in a remote and ungoverned area of the Earth Kingdom, on the edge of the vast desert lying in the center of the continent. A flash of white followed by a mushroom cloud billowed out far to the east, towards the rising sun. The work that they did here was far too dangerous and too visible to be done in Fire Nation territory and so the Shadow Painters had covertly paid for Earth Kingdom contractors, architects and laborers to build them a suitable and defensible headquarters out here in the wastes.
When sentry situated on a rocky outlook at the far end of the blackened v-shaped valley where the entrance was located say Lahn approaching, he sent down the messenger bird immediately.
Lahn received the messenger bird and the blank scroll it carried, writing out the pass code in the special ink he had brought with him and promptly returned the bird to its master. Had he gotten the code wrong or used any other kind of ink, the Shadow Painter Elite in his lead armor would have annihilated him on the spot, as he had to many unfortunate travelers or would-be explorers who came to the valley.
It really was an elegant system-Lahn had thought of it himself. The lead armor worn by the Elites had been his idea as well. Ironic, since the purpose of the armor had not been so much to keep others safe the poison fire that they emitted but rather to help contain the creatures within the armor. It was a pity that Ghef thought of them that way, that the Elites were a failed experiment and had become something less than human. Then again, the general had never had Lahn's vision-because to Lahn, the Elites represented the next stage in Firebending evolution.
The field commander could hear the sound of hidden machinery as a square doorway opened up in the rock at the narrow end of the desert valley, and a dozen Elites rushed to greet him, the only visible part of them being their flaming red eyes glowing within their lead helmets.
"Greetings, my brothers and sisters" said Lahn, "Brave warriors of the Fire Nation!"
"Does the General know you're here, my lord?" said the foremost of the Elites, his voice like crackling embers.
Lahn shook his head, "I'm afraid our esteemed General has his hands full planning an assault on the Eastern Air Temple and trying to intercept a runaway Airbender. How are all you?"
The Elites looked skyward, "The comet approaches, sir," he said, "We can feel ourselves growing stronger every day."
Lahn grinned, "That's just what I wanted to hear. I take you've made all of the preparations?"
The other nodded. "Yes, sir" he said, "Follow me, my brother."
Lahn and the other Shadow Painters proceeded down a darkened corridor. No light was necessary, as the faint glow showing between the chinks in the Elites' armor provided sufficient light for Lahn to navigate as they wound their way deeper into the mountainside into the complex beneath. Eventually, they came to the place where it had all begun. They called it the mandala chamber. It was a vast, circular room, lit by a ring of torches around its circumference and domed out at the ceiling where a circular shaft had been dug leading up to the surface and the air above. A square trench had been dug out of the trench touching the circular walls of the chamber, filled with churning water that bubbled up from a natural underground spring. By bringing all four elements into play at a single location, the Shadow Painters had managed to create a small center of spiritual power, which, while not as powerful as a naturally occurring center, would suit their purposes.
Stopping at the square slab in the center of the room, Lahn removed his armor and helmet and his shirt and let one of the Elites burn a series of seven points at different locations along his torso and head. These were the seven Chakras, places of power along the human body which facilitated the Bending arts in certain individuals though the natural flows of Chi within their bodies.
Five years ago it was thought that an individual could only access a set amount of Chi that they had been born with and that remained fairly constant within them throughout their lives. However, creatures like Badgermoles and Dragons could Bend naturally and with much greater proficiency, which was understandable given their size, and yet they were able to instinctively use Bending techniques that required humans years to master. The solution; such creatures must have had access to proportionally greater Chi than their size suggested. Five years ago, General Ghef had tested this theory on Lahn's brother, with results that neither of the three men could have possibly imagined. Laying face up on the stone slab, Lahn brought himself into a state of extreme calm and began to prepare himself for what was to come. His brother had said that the original process had been the most painful experience in his life-not just physically, but mentally as well. And five years ago they had used ordinary Firebenders who had only the faintest idea of what they were getting into. Lahn could only imagine how much more intense his own suffering would be as he closed his eyes, watching as the seven Elites took their places around him, each focusing their power on a particular Chakra. Little by little, he began to feel the warmth of power spreading outward throughout his entire body, and he smiled.
The two of them met in the front courtyard of the General's estate. The sun baked the stone patio beneath their feet while a few tropical shrubs watched from the border.
Ghef stood across from her on the far side of the arena, looking more old and frail than he had indoors. "it's not too late, you know," he said to her, "You can still give this up and go back home."
"Not a chance," she said.
Ghef nodded. The two of them bowed, and before Zisa even had time to get into her stance, the General was practically on top of her, moving with speed that she would never have thought possible for such an old man. Gouts of flame spread from his palms, just barely missing Zisa's face, but the girl was quick as well and retaliated with flames of her own that sprouted up in the wake of her heels. The General hadn't been expecting that and barely missed getting singed across his chest.
Zisa pressed the attack, adding a series of high-kicks and a few well-timed strikes with her hands, sending concentrated streaks of flame across the battlefield directly at Ghef's face, catching him across the crown of his head.
The General was doubled over, panting, but trying hard not to show it. Zisa knew that she had to be careful. What the general lacked in stamina and raw vitality, he made up for in technique, speed and most of all, experience. Even so, Zisa was confident she could bring about a decisive victory if she waited for him to tire.
She went about it with a series of clever feints and maneuvers; getting in close and pulling away, forcing the general to do most of the work, leading him back and forth across the field. And yet, the more she fought, the more she got the feeling that something was wrong, although as to exactly what it was she couldn't quite tell. All of the General's movements had become gradually smaller and more precise, coming in short, quick bursts rather than Zisa' broad, sweeping movements. The size of the fire that he generated had decreased as well, and yet, even though she dodged his visible flames, she still felt as though she were being burned in places. That was when the first wave of nausea hit her, causing her to double over.
On the other side of the arena, the General spoke to her. "What you're feeling are the initial effects of the Shadow Painters' secret technique. Next you'll experience vomiting, headaches and high fever. If you surrender, I can help you before any permanent damage is done to your body."
"Never," said Zisa, gathering strength for her next attack. In a rush, she dived at the old man sending a wave of fire in his direction, but her attack flew wildly off the mark as she stumbled to the ground. Again, she got up, launching another attack, again and again. Each time she grew weaker, more disoriented and confused. She knew that if she didn't end the fight soon, it would mean an end to her. Already it felt like her insides were on fire.
Suddenly, she had an idea. It was desperate, but she had nothing left to try-nothing left to lose. Drawing upon the poisoned fire radiating throughout her body, she redirected the energy into a single thrust of her arm, sending out a broadening sweep of blue flame that grew brighter and hotter as it flowed towards the General, who was caught completely unprepared.
For a moment, the outcome seemed certain, but the attack wasn't enough, and at the last possible moment, Ghef turned the attack aside.
"No," said Zisa, tears running down her cheeks. She had lost. Her vision began to blur as the General approached her. In moments, what little strength Zisa had left emptied form her body and the last thing she remembered was falling-falling into darkness.
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