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Please don't fear the length of the Prologue, as it will be one of the longest chapters of the series. Consider it the "One-Hour Pilot Special."
I never thought I'd find myself in this situation. Damn it! Blood stains are impossible to get out! And what should I do about this arrow in my chest? My father always taught me to never remove sharp objects from my body in the unlikely event I should ever be impaled, but I'd look like some sort of imbecile walking around like this, wouldn't I? Leave it in or pull it out? Decisions, decisions... Am I dying? I feel as though I should be dead by now.
Pardon me, where are my manners? I should explain how I got in this mess. It's actually quite an interesting tale, a real feel-good story about people trying to kill me over and over again.
Two years prior
"Pull!" On my command, a clay disk soared over me, speeding away. My target fleeting, I ignited a small ball of fire in my right palm, and just as I had done every day of training for years, I hurled it into the air where it collided with a saucer and destroyed it, like it always did. "Pull!" I prepared fire ahead of time for this shot, but nothing ever flew into my line of sight. "Pull," I ordered again.
"We're all out of discs," declared my darling father. "You cleaned me out."
"That's impossible," I said when I turned to him. "I must have bought a hundred last week."
The man simply chuckled and looked at me with his golden eyes. "Yes, and you must have shot a hundred in the past few days. Do you ever take a break anymore? I'm beginning to miss the times I had to drag you out of the house to train!"
"You mean when I was ten?" I didn't want to be short with my dad, but I always got defensive when he brought up the fact that I used to be a lazy little twat. I'm embarrassed by those years when I refused to work hard or practice Firebending. Those memories are humiliating. Nevertheless, I felt bad for my snappy remark. "Pushing me really did pay off. Thanks for that."
"No, no. You did the training. You should take pride in that. Just look how far you've come!"
"Consider me proud," I said half-sarcastically. Sometimes I impressed myself with my abilities, to be frank, but I didn't like fooling myself into thinking that I had done something that everyone else couldn't have too. "I'm going to go down to the creek and fish for tonight's dinner. Sparring when I get back?" I was already half way to the gate of my house when I heard my dad respond. "I'll go get the swords, I guess." He really was the most adorable father in the world, and he was also one of the only things I actually cared about. He gave up his position as General in the Fire Nation military to raise and train me, and I'll always feel indebted to him for that. General Kun, as he was formally referred to, was one of the bravest and boldest men to ever lead a brigade of Fire Nation troops, and I couldn't even count the shitload of the honors he's received, some from the Fire Lord himself. Sozin is a character my father deplored, but that was a sentiment he generally preferred not to share in public. Some people might call him a pussy for never standing up to the royal baboon who leads our nation, but I could see that his ability to sit just feet away from the world's most powerful moron and not bash his head against a wall was a testament to his discipline and patience.
We lived in a secluded house, that is my dad, my sister Ming, and I. Ming couldn't stand the tranquility of our estate. It was only fifteen minutes from the nation's capital but she was far too lazy to get off her ass and make friends in the city. I personally liked the quiet, peaceful setting I was raised in. I suppose my sister viewed the place as loneliness, which is the pain of being alone, whereas I viewed it as solitude, which is the joy of being alone. That seemed to be a common theme with me and my sister- agreeing on what we saw but varying in our interpretations of it. We both concurred that my mom was a bitch before she passed, but I saw that as a blessing. She was a bitch, but bitches get stuff done. Sure, she beat me harder than teenage boys beat their meat after a long day, but look at me now, tougher than a year-old steak. Ming was less tolerant to pain. She was the kind of girl you could cut with a butter knife. Overall I'd say Mom was strict, but effective in parenting. Sometimes I miss her, not like my dad does though.
My typical daily excursion consisted of a short hike to a narrow, sequestered creek on the other side of a rocky hill. It was a relaxing trip, when I wasn't sprinting as part of my physical endurance training, at least. The most challenging part was what I came to call "the gap." If my destination was the premier fishing spot, I had to jump over a deep gorge, unless for some reason I felt like plummeting to my death below. This was not one of those times. The gap was a Hell of a lot scarier when I was a little girl, especially since my father didn't permit me to use Firebending to propel myself over. His reasoning was that I wouldn't always be able to employ my bending abilities due to a special circumstance I had, or have. I'm actually a- now what happened here? I let out a long exhale when my eyes caught the tragic scene of a dog limping at the side of the path, crying out as if it was trying to beg for help. I paused for a second, taken aback, and then the creature collapsed to the dirt. Running over to it, I tried to examine what had happened. My best guess was that the poor animals stumbled from the higher rocky path next to the one we both found ourselves on together. Whatever happened, it could hardly move.
"There, there, little guy," I said as I crouched beside the dog and grasped its neck in my arms. There are two types of pain: pain which makes you stronger and pain that is only suffering- useless. I have no time for such useless things. The animal let out one last whimper before I snapped its neck. "There, no more pain," I whispered aloud after completing the act of mercy.
That was one of the less proud moments of my life, but at least my dad wasn't around to see it. Where was I? After taking a deep breath, pulling myself together, and regaining focus, I made a beeline to the gap. I was just a few paces away when I was struck by a horrible gut-wrenching feeling and stopped in my tracks. I didn't know what, but something wasn't right. I whipped my head around. Nothing was behind me, yet I felt imminent danger. Father always said I had to keep my cool in perilous situations, and there I was freaking out over apparently nothing. Maybe I wasn't threatened, but something adverse was happening. I could feel it.
"Dad!" I couldn't help myself from calling out to him. He was in trouble, I knew it. Without another thought I rushed back up the path to my estate, not sure what I was expecting to see. Would it be on fire? Was there an earthquake I didn't feel? Did the Earth Kingdom invade? I was ready to fight them off if they were.
My house looked undisturbed from the outside, but that awful, nervous feeling wouldn't leave me. I had to-
"Oh hi Nalia." Looking straight up at me was Ming, perfectly calm.
"Is everything alright here?" I demanded.
"Everything's fine," she answered, quizzical. "You don't have any fish..."
"No matter." Our dad appeared behind me with a barrel in his arms. "I found a great deal at the market. "Maybe the reason you weren't able to catch any fish is that the guy I bought this from took got all of them already."
"It's not that I wasn't able to catch any," I retorted, annoyed.
"Oh yeah? What was is then?"
"I- uh..." In the end, I figured the original explanation was better. "Yeah, you got me. I was off my game." The qualm in my gut dissipated, but I still had no idea just what exactly had spooked me.
It's a good thing he had bought dinner in town because I was starved. The single most irritating part of my daily routine, besides schooling, was sitting at the dinner table, taunted and tormented by the delicious food resting in front of me that I wasn't allowed to eat because my dad wasn't finished praying. My sister and I had to wait in silence as he rattled on about being thankful and gracious, or something like that. I never bought into the idea of "prayer," as if anyone was actually listening. The way I see it, there is no solace in these spirits we worshipped so pathetically. I prayed to myself, for myself.
"...and finally, thank you for bringing us together for another meal." Dad looked up when he was done babbling. I respected him for his strong faith because at least he actually believed in something unlike most of the sheep who inhabit our planet. Still, I thought that praying was for people who were too naive to realize that humans were the ones in charge, not some ghosts in a mysterious, far away world. Ming adopted the views of our father, whether it's because she came to same conclusion he did after much thought or she was simply copying his behavior I was never sure. We both idolized the great General Kun, but I tended make life decisions independently whereas Ming's just went whichever way the wind blew her. I loved her nonetheless, and other than my dad, she was the only thing that mattered to me in my life. Maybe that's why I didn't want her wasting her time on her knees, whether or praying or- well, never mind.
"So," said my dad, clearing his throat. "Is school still feeding you pro-war propaganda?"
I sighed. "Why do you keep asking that when the answer will only infuriate you?"
Like always, he slammed his fist on the table, and, like always, Ming flinched in her chair. "Damn it!" he boomed. "The last thing this nation needs is a new generation of blood-thirsty war mongers! This is typical- brainwashing young people so they don't question it when you send them to die in an effort to destroy another people's liberty!" And that, summed up perfectly in that rant, is the primary reason my father can't stand Fire Lord Sozin.
"You wouldn't believe the things I saw when I was sent to the Earth Kingdom campaign! Disgusting! I remember so well taking the oath of a soldier when I was eighteen, during peacetime. Every day I wish I could go back and slap myself in the face." Ming and I remained mostly quiet during these tirades, Ming because she was too timid to say anything and I because I frankly didn't see anything so abhorrent about the war.
"My teacher said when her husband was deployed to the colonies, he received a personal letter from the Fire Lord saying how heroic and brave he was for joining the cause of spreading the nation's greatness," When Ming said this, I shot her a look that screamed Don't start him!
Our dad scoffed. "I believe that the letter was written by Sozin about as much as I believe that the army is 'spreading our greatness.' Spirits, when are people in this damn nation going to wake up?"
The other thing about the war that enraged him was the overwhelming amount of public support.
"I swear," he continued. "People back here who are fine with or just don't care about the atrocities we're committing would completely change their minds if they had to see it all for themselves, or even had something done to them! If anyone here experienced the same kind of tragedy we're inflicting on others, they'd join the anti-war movement in a heartbeat."
There was merit to his statement. I always avoided the consequences of war in my thoughts. Luckily, none of it was my concern.
Forty minutes later, just as dinner was wrapping up, I caught my dad staring at me as if he was pondering some huge question. "What?" I inquired, annoyed.
"You know," he said slowly. "I think it's time for some training."
"Right," I nodded. "Today's swords and darts so-"
"No, not with any of those toys. We're going to go up that hill, and I will teach you about the greatest weapon of all time."
"Can I come too?" asked Ming in her traditional sweet voice.
"Maybe someday when the time is right." My sister didn't like the answer she received, but she accepted it and cleared her place at the table. With that, my father and I were off on what would be the last time we ever trained together.
There was a gentle breeze as we made our way up the steep, grassy hill by our estate, and my father bent down to pick a lone fire lily from the ground. He looked at it, smiled, and continued his climb without another word. I had a strange feeling that he was having some sort of moment, so I stayed a few paces behind him. When he reached the top of the hill, his sandals at the very edge of a breathtaking cliff, I stopped walking to give him space. I had only been to the exact spot where he stood then once, when I was a little girl, and I can still remember the way I could see miles of rolling hills, so peaceful and undisturbed. It had to be one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the Fire Nation. For a moment, I let my father stand alone. His maroon robes dancing with the wind. He slowly picked at the fire lily, releasing one pedal at a time to be swiftly carried away by the current.
"Nalia, do you know why I don't honor your mother on the anniversary of her death or our wedding?" he asked, his face still looking down on the tranquil valley below.
I shook my head even though he couldn't see me. "No," I replied.
"I remember her today, on the date I proposed," he sniffed. "Because that's when it all began, and I'd rather celebrate beginnings than mourn over endings."
"Oh Dad," I uttered softly. "That's so sweet of you."
"I remember getting down on one knee right where I stand now and sliding that golden ring on her finger like it was yesterday, and I can still remember exactly the way that one tear came down her face when she said 'yes.'"
I'm never one to get emotional over gushy stories, but my father had an exceptional talent with speaking from and to the heart. His subordinates in the military never knew his soft side. All they ever saw was the formidable General Kun who could have smashed their skull like it was a stale cracker. I consider myself lucky to have been able to know the real Kun.
"Is the weapon you wanted to show me... love?" I asked.
He turned and laughed in my face. "Ha! No, not even close." Figures. He took a few steps closer to me, and soon I realized a hug wasn't what he was raising his arms for. He swung at me with a solid left curve, and instantly my mind switched fighting mode. After years upon years of training, I instinctively thrusted up my right forearm to deflect the blow. Most people would probably try a straight punch to the face with their left fist after that, but I knew better. Battle had become a science after being raised with daily practice under my father. I had to go for the unanticipated move, the knee to the groin. My right knee shot out as quick as lightning, but I stopped it a split-second before it made contact, just like my dad would've done if his initial strike had gotten to close.
"Ahh," said my father enthusiastically when he saw my knee less than an inch away from his manhood. "Interesting approach." He then pushed me back with a light palm strike to my chest before releasing a rapid kick aimed at my side. Once again, I was completely prepared to block. I dropped my inner arm, in this case my left, to my waist in case of a low kick, and raised my right arm to the left side of my face in preparation of a high kick. "This is too easy, Gramps," I teased. "Got anything knew?"
He stroked his chin for a second as if he actually had to think about which move he wanted to try next. "Aha!" he declared sarcastically. "Shit," I muttered when I saw him perform a spin-jump. With his back turned to me in mid-air, he unleashed his leg straight at my core. The flying back-kick. My only option was to absorb the attack by kicking both legs behind me, slanting my body and forcing his leg to go a little extra distance. This allowed me to catch his foot. I was certain that I had him beat, but he responded by swinging his right arm around, a blade of flames extending form his fingers. "Whoa!" I dove left to avoid the fire which nearly scorched the tip of my hair.
"Careful now," I warned.
"Careful with what?" Now facing me and no more than two feet away, he sent a quick fireball aimed at my face, which I blocked with a shield formed by my two forearms. With the smoke resulting from the attack as a cover, I swung both palms and attempted to box his ears in a wide clapping motion. I didn't expect him to catch both of my hands. No matter. I pushed his arms to the side and went in for the head butt, this time stopping so that a piece of paper could barely slide between our two foreheads.
"Now that's what I call self-control," exclaimed my dad, impressed. "Alright, this is over."
"That was fun," I admitted, "but what was the point of it?"
"Like I just said, the self-control you displayed was perfect. You know your own strength, and you're in complete control over your own body. That discipline and deliberateness proves to me that you're ready."
"Awesome. Ready for what?"
"No way," I stuttered. I had only heard rumors about the legendary Firebenders who could shoot a bolt of lightning from their fingers. According to a few teachers, only the most skilled Firebending masters could generate electricity from their own chi. "You can shoot lightning." The way I said that came across as more of a statement than a question.
"I was taught by none other than Avatar Roku. I was his first successful student. He tried to instruct Sozin, but the then-Prince couldn't quite get the hang of it. He lacked the discipline."
"Why does that not surprise me?"
My father chuckled. "Well he's quite embarrassed by it actually. He has everyone convinced that he can, in fact, shoot lightning. Liar. Another reason to hate him, I guess."
"Whatever just show me!"
"Right." I followed him back to the edge of the hill, where he took a wide stance and brought his fists to his sides and extended only his index and middle fingers. "You see," he explained as he went through the motions, "lightning generation requires a Firebender to separate his or her positive and negative energy, yin and yang." His arms moved in circular motions as he took deep breaths. Strings of electricity followed his fingers, and I couldn't take my eyes off of them. "To do this, one must have a complete peace of mind. You should know, separating the two energies isn't easy, but you'll know when you do it because the yin and yang will pull within you, trying to rejoin. When they finally collide together again," he suddenly pointed one arm outward, and lightning soared from his body into the sky where it cracked and roared. "You have cold-blooded fire."
"That was incredible!" I exclaimed, at a loss for any other words.
"Come where I'm standing now," he instructed. "Take a wide stance- wider- good. Now, make those same motions with your arms. No, more like this... much better. Alright, now I want you to close your eyes and completely clear your mind. No thoughts, no emotions." I did as I was told. "Breathe in and out. In and out. In and out." His voice was soothing. "Now as you continue to move your arms, I want you to feel the positive and negative energy flowing to different sides of your body." This part is the hardest, and I don't expect you to get it tonight. This exercise is all about practicing the basics of it. It is a skill you'll have to perfect over time with many attempts and many failures."
He watched me in silence for twenty minutes, repeating the same steps, breathing the same way, trying to focus on separating my yin and yang. Finally, he spoke. "That's enough for now. Why don't we retire back home?" I nodded and began walking away, but I saw him look over the cliff once more, as if he thought he'd never be able to do it again.
He looked back at me slowly. "Sorry. I'm coming."
I hate school, I hate this stupid uniform I have to wear, and I hate almost everyone I have to deal with while I'm there. Every morning is the same for me. I painfully dress myself in the same school-mandated attire, muttering cuss words the whole way. Then I trudge out of my room to see Ming giddily skipping down the hallway. Sometimes it's like we're not even looking at the same world.
"Why does Dad make us walk to school?" I wasn't really asking anyone, but Ming decided to answer anyway.
"This way we get to see everything! This place is beautiful."
"How about this: why don't you not talk?" I became particularly moody when passing through the market. The market: a group of shady, smelly, rotten people who care about nothing but themselves. That about sums it up.
"Good morning, Nalia!" A familiar figure jumped out from behind a stand to open up his cloak, revealing a plethora of jewelry and other accessories.
"Go. Away. Lee."
"But can't I interest you in a-"
"What about a-"
"Go fuck yourself."
"That's no way to spea-"
"Do I look like I give a single fuck?" He shut up after that. I deplored Lee, though I had to give him credit for being persistent. He'd stop at nothing to make some fast money. That man loved gold more than sharks love blood.
I usually spent my hours in school envisioning different methods of violently murdering my teachers in ironic ways. Today I fantasized that Mr. Kwon, who was constantly spitting to "clear his throat" was chained to a table where all of his students would go spit in his mouth until he drowned in saliva. After learning about how the people of the Southern Water Tribe were savages who needed to be educated by our glorious military, I was sent to lunch. The most interesting feature of the cafeteria was undoubtedly the barred windows. This place is a prison, I always thought to myself. I sat with the same group of girls every day. Bitches. All of them. Sometimes I'd just stare furiously into their soul as they ate.
"Hey Nalia." Ta Lin was my best friend, if you could call her that. I suppose she was nice, but I still could only tolerate so much of her.
"How goes it?" I asked despite not being able to care less about how her day was.
"Look, Chao is making those faces at you again."
"Ugh," I turned around in my chair to see my ex- I'm not sure if you could call him a boyfriend. "He thinks he's the shit because he used to fuck me," I said to her. "Even worse, he thinks everything's about sex. It's not. Everything's about sex except sex. Sex is about power."
"So..." started Ta Lin curiously, "everything is about power?"
I nodded. Yes, you dumb cunt. Next time please don't waste my time by trying to wrap your minuscule mind around such complex ideas like the transitive property. I sighed. She was a dumb cunt, but I would never call her that to her face, not because I value her feelings but rather because her father was mine's superior in the army, and if that man's precious daughter was upset at me, he could make my life Hell. Friends can make the worst enemies, especially if their dumb cunts.
"You know what?" I stood up. "I'm gonna go teach Chao a lesson." With the other girls' cheering me on, I marched to the table where Chao and his jock friends sat. "Sorry," I said. "Am I interrupting your circle jerk?"
"When are you going to take that stick out of your ass?" asked Chao. He looked at his friends. "She's always jealous because she's not a bender."
What he said was partially true. It did bother me that I couldn't display my bending abilities in front of anyone due to my... condition. "I can kick your ass with one arm, bending or no bending." When I spat this line, Chao's friends began making fun of him. I took satisfaction in that, and his face turned bright red.
"Listen," he said angrily as he lunged up and grabbed my arm.
"Oh you better let go of me. That's a warning not a plea."
"Is it now? Well I'm gonna-"
"Warned ya." I pinched the pressure points on his wrist, and he seethed in pain. "You should enjoy your food." With that, I flipped him onto the table where his face landed in his tray.
"What did you learn in school today?" I asked Ming on our walk home as we approached our estate.
"We learned about bugs," she reported contently.
"Bugs," I muttered. "Dad would say they're trying to keep you stupid so you don't question the government's authority."
"The Grizzly Wasp was my favorite."
"Oh yeah? What does it do?"
"It's named the Grizzly Wasp because it's defensive of its family. It usually minds its own business and rarely ever harms other creatures, but if a member of its family is attacked, it shows no remorse in stinging with its lethal poison."
I have to admit, I was both taken back and impressed with the Grizzly Wasp. "Sounds like my kind of bug."
"Sometimes I think of you as our family's Grizzly Wasp," she said adoringly.
I didn't respond because I was fixated on a perturbing sight. Outside of my house were two Komodo Rhinos, wagging their tails menacingly. "What are they doing here?" I gasped, grabbing Ming's arm to stop her from walking. "Wait behind that tree," I ordered. Without pausing to examine what was happening, I ran to my precious home.
"Stop!" ordered a man atop his rhinoceros. He sported a full Fire National military uniform, his face hidden by the skull mask. He and the soldier on the other rhino each extended one palm towards me and pulled their other arm back, making a fist, prepared to attack. My heart skipped a beat. I glanced to the right, where I saw a Dragon moose-pulled carriage completely empty. That could only mean that its passengers were inside my house.
"What's going on?" I demanded.
A third voice came from my doorway. "Chan," he called, "Boss says to let her in." A tall soldier with the same uniform looked at me and gestured for me to walk towards him.
"Get in the house!" ordered Chan.
With no choice, I stepped into my own home, sure to keep my composure. Inside, my heart sank. Seeing my father on the ground, bruised, with a soldier standing above him was unbearable. "Dad!" I shrieked. "Who the fuck are you?" I roared. "Get the fuck out of my house!"
"Nalia, please!" cried my father. "Don't make this worse than it is."
A familiar voice laughed. "Yes, Nalia. You should listen to your father." Into the hall ambled War Minister Long, Ta Lin's father. "Why are you here?" I asked, trying to hold back the tears.
"What? A good friend can't pay a visit? I was just checking in on your dear father, the famed General Kun. Looks like he's still up to his old, treacherous ways."
"Sir..." Another solider entered the scene from upstairs, carrying some box. "I found the plans in a safe behind Kun's bed."
I couldn't believe what was happening. "Plan's for what?"
Long glared at me. "Will you ever shut up, child?! Hasn't anyone taught you manners?" I wanted to snap back at him, but a look in my father's eye told me it was a bad idea.
"Surely you knew about your father's anti-patriotism and opposition to our nation's great conquest, but I take it that his treason catches you by surprise?"
"My father has committed no treason," I insisted.
The former general muttered under his breath "Yes... I have."
"What? Dad? What did-"
"Enough, Nalia," he ordered. "Long, she didn't do anything wrong. Don't punish her for my crimes."
"I don't need to," remarked the War Minister. "She's got quite the record herself, a record of being a dirty Mau Xanh that is! How dare you practice such witchcraft!"
Mau Xanh was a derogatory term for a blue Firebender, which apparently was my defining feature. Anyone who possessed the skill of bending blue fire was declared a witch by our ignorant government. My dad always said it was because the Fire Lord felt threatened by benders more powerful than he, so he needed an excuse to eradicate people like myself. "Guilty as charged," I answered. I didn't need to see the look on my father's face to know he was furious at me for saying that.
"We found this one hiding behind a tree." I wanted to cry when I heard a soldier say that. "Ming!" I screamed. I was helpless as some monster dragged her in and threw her on the ground next to my dad.
"Don't hurt her!" I pleaded. "I'll do anything!"
"Well I have everything I need here," said Long. "I guess I can decide what to do with you and your sister later." He motioned at his men. "Take them into custody and burn this place down."
"No!" I cried. "Dad! Let go of me!" My voice was hoarse. "Let go! Dad! Get the fuck off me!" My yelling was to no avail, but that didn't stop me until a soldier wrapped a towel around my mouth. Ming and I were shoved into the back of a royal Fire Nation carriage. My sister was sobbing next to me, and I burst into tears when I saw the door to my house close, with my dad still inside. "No!" I tried to shout through my bindings. I couldn't watch the men light my home on fire. I couldn't witness the murder of my father.
The carriage pulled away, but to me it felt like everything was frozen, as if time had stopped. I couldn't bring myself to think of what had just happened. All I could do was feel the heat coming from the bonfire engulfing my house, and my beloved dad.
- The term "Mau Xanh" comes from the Vietnamese word for "blue."
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
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