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July 18, 2011
Southwards is the eighth chapter of "" and the second episode of the story arc dealing with Iroh's first mission. It's darker than the previous chapter (which was itself pretty dark too) and is thus rated PG-13 for murder, animal cruelty, blood and gore. Cixi will slap you if you don't obey : any user under the age of 13 (which shouldn't happen since this wiki is forbidden to anyone under that age) musn't read this chapter.
The author actually will make the entire series PG-13, as he is tired of writing that. I warn you now, chapters 9, 10 and 11 will also be rated as such for sure.
Also, this is a very very long chapter. Longer than the previous one. Which was long. Anyway, maybe take a whole afternoon for reading it.
The author had this stupid idea to put the reader in Iroh's skin at all costs. Therefore, by the end of your reading, you should feel tired and bored of the first half.
The author had the entire first part in mind even before he released "Inconsistencies". He imagined it after reading the chapter "Broken Promises" in 's fanon " ". The author loved in particular the character of Nanook, Katara and Sokka's grandfather (one of the reasons being he is a very close friend of the artist who made his profile pic). The author would thus like to thank Vulmen for allowing him to borrow his character, to take time to read and correct the moments he was on-screen to check of my interpretation of the character remained true to Vulmen's. He even wrote the lines of Nanook when Iroh asks him where are the Waterbenders. I'll never be able to show him how grateful I am. Thus, as special thanks, Vulmen will be a character who will be killed in chapter 11. Yay !
The author would also like to thank the outstanding, aka TAD, aka Aang, aka Taddles, aka HOLY FREAKING MONKEY, aka The Mad Geniuses, who also took time in her writing schedule to correct all the grammatical errors she could find. It had no use, as I wasn't able to read the corrections, meaning most of the text is the same and full of errors as usual. Fail. Thus, as special thanks, Tad will be a character who suffers from schizophrenia. Yay !
After all this time, your patience earned you your reward. One word, people : Enjoy.
Previously, on Sozin's Blood
He turned in the opposite direction and unleashed the electrical force. It discharged at blinding speed, scarring, tearing and clawing the wall it hit. Thunder hammered Iroh's ears. It was so powerful that it created a forceful hot gale that the Crown Prince had difficulty standing upright.
With one hand she drew from the sea a monstrous wave which engulfed Iroh.
"But why would you kill me? I have done nothing to you! I haven't attacked you a single time!" he spluttered.
"Nothing? Maybe. But your death will enabling me to exact an unexpected revenge on the Fire Nation!" She turned to face the sea. "As it deserves it."
"Listen, I can understand that our actions in the war might look cruel and pointless to you, but believe me, it's only for the greater good." argued Iroh.
"The greater good?!" She slapped him with a water whip. "FIRE NATION HAS TAKEN EVERYTHING FROM ME!!!"
But he was afraid, tired and confused, not knowing what course of actions he had to follow. His emotions mixed with the electricity and his eyes widened as he sensed it escape from his control.
It exploded in his face.
The water witch looked at him in an undecipherable way, drops of water only remaining in her raised hand, while with the other she clutched the blackened hole of her tunic.
She fell slowly on the ground. Iroh got up and knelt at her side. She was watching the night sky and tears slid down her cheeks - tears of what didn't look like pain, but like sorrow.
"My people..." she murmured. "I didn't... I didn't avenge you." She sobbed. "I... failed."
Her gaze became empty and expressionless, and she stopped breathing.
Iroh closed her eyes. "I'm sorry." he moaned. Tears came to his eyes. "I'm so, so sorry."
He wept silently besides her lifeless body.
"You will be Born in fire and experience your first battle as you track, hunt and assassinate all the Waterbenders you can find in these mountains, and you will not leave the South Pole until no one is able to bend from puddles anymore."
Cixi opened her windows and stared at the palace in horror as the never-ending wail echoed under the vault of heavens and the blind blank eye of the Moon. It was the high-pitched scream of an agonizing man, but which had lost all humanity, the bellow of a wounded beast which sees death drawing near, the shriek, the screech of a tortured soul who had lost everything and everyone but life - until now.
Cixi was draped in a long white robe which sensually covered her perfect body. The fabric was flowing behind her, shaping like clouds. Her right shoulder was uncovered and caressed by black strands of hair. She was flying downwards in the amber sky, a goddess among women. The ground was nowhere to be seen. It was when she touched his bare chest that Iroh realized his own presence. They were both gliding in the sky.
"It has to be a dream." he told her.
"Then it is a very sweet dream." She kissed him. "I love you."
"I love you too, but..." He cried. "I fear I might make you unhappy."
She put her head on his breast. "Why do you say that?"
Tears were sliding down his cheeks. "Because I am a monster, Cixi. I murdered an innocent woman." He paused. "Of course, she was trying to kill me, but still... I feel it's our fault if she became evil. I can't explain it; I've never actually seen the War. And as I am now heading for an assassination, I'm afraid that what I will find in the frozen wastes of the South Pole will confirm my fears ... that everything I was taught is false. I can't tell right from wrong anymore." He hugged her in his strong arms. "I am so... confused."
They remained in each other's embrace, floating silently in the endless amber sky.
"The future is a mirage." Cixi finally said. "To ponder on it is useless. But when you will reach your goal, whatever it is, you must trust your heart."
He kissed her on the forehead. "What would I do without you?"
She giggled. "Pretty much nothing."
They both laughed. "I love you."
A decayed hand grasped his ankle, digging its fingernails in his skin. It pulled Iroh in a black chasm, an opening of darkness which had appeared into the sky. He screamed. Cixi tried to grab him, but the hole in the heavens closed before she reached him. "Iroh!"
She woke up. She was in her room, in her house.
He was falling in the dark. Tumbling. Plummeting. Plunging. Sinking. Diving. He suddenly entered an ocean. He had difficulties to keep his head out of the raging water. The night sky was devoid of stars. There was no light.
The black heavens were violently and unexpectedly lit by lightning, revealing the rotten corpse of the water witch floating above the water. White eyes. Decayed skin. Decomposed flesh. A living - so to speak - nightmare.
And they were back in the darkness. An unknown force pulled him under the water, trying to drown him. But it wasn't water anymore. It was thicker. Iroh accidentally swallowed some. It had a metallic taste. Murderer. Three voices whispered in his mind. Murderer.
He spotted a familiar figure through the red veil.
"Father!" he shouted. "Help me!"
But his words were made inaudible by the liquid. Azulon just kept watching him, his brow furrowed, his gaze disdainful as usual, doing nothing.
It was night again. But a new person was soaring above the sea. A stubby arm penetrated the ... fluid, and it caught Iroh by the forearm. The face of the Prince's savior was darkened, but no how small he seemed, he managed to lift Iroh. Iroh gasped as his head exited the ocean. The little person flew further upwards, and the sky wad lit with billions of stars. But suddenly thunder boomed, and the heavens withered. Out of nowhere, lightning struck the midget. Entering his body, it seared his skin, scorched his face, tore him apart. His sideburns and his goatee were singed. His red coat burned. Whatever remained of his charred corpse was hurled in the gloom of space until it disappeared.
"Hayao!" Iroh screamed. "No!" He fell back into the red ocean and plummeted in a tenebrous abyss. "No!"
And he was back in his sweltering body.
The ship was sailing through the cold seas near the South Pole. The waves rushed against its metallic hull. On the southern horizon, tiny icebergs could be spotted, but the crew had so far managed to avoid all polar threats.
Iroh shivered in his fur coat. The temperature had been regularly dropping for all he knew until yesterday night - at which point the mercury of the thermometer had frozen.
The Crown Prince mentally grumbled. Besides the coat, he was also wearing, his armor, three woolen tunics, and a thick shirt. And he was still cold. It was the curse of all the citizens of the Fire Nation. Somehow, their inner metabolism acted as if heat didn't exist - they could walk in full armor for day without breaking a sweat, a feat impossible to anyone else. Their skin was unable to get sunburned, or even just tanned, completely incapable of processing the heat of the solar rays, which was ironic for a people whose benders used the Sun as a source of power.
But when it came to colder climates... they were pathetic. Cold was their natural enemy. In the most extreme cases, receiving a snowball could mean pneumonia. And the effects on their Firebending was ...dramatic.
Shielding his hands from the heat with his Firebending, he blew a fiery breath on his fingers. It was a delicate maneuver. He had to protect his hands from the burning heat of the flames, yet allow enough warmth to impregnate them. In the worst scenario, if he lost control, he could inadvertently forsake all heat from entering his fingers at all, which would be equivalent to exposing them to the absolute zero.
"That's very impressive."
Iroh turned to see Jiuan next to him. He had taken up this annoying habit of sneaking on everyone without a noise. Of course, it would be extremely useful in battle, but it had taken two weeks for Iroh to stop jumping whenever the kleptomaniac appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
"You have no idea how disturbing it is to see your best friend willingly blow fire on his fingers." Jiuan looked at his own hands, wrapped into four layers of clothing. "I wish I could do the same."
"I can breathe flames on your fingers, if you really wish so." Iroh smugly declared. "Shall I proceed?"
"Er, you know what? I'll just let my thumbs being frostbitten."
They silently looked at the slate grey sea for a long minute.
Jiuan coughed. "Iroh, buddy, I was implying you could do some fire magic to warm me."
"It's not magic, it's Firebending!"
"Just bend some flames!"
Beaming, Iroh engulfed his fist in a small inferno. Jiuan extended his digits out of his gloves and, with a sigh of pleasure, reached for the blaze. "You look terrible," he suddenly informed Iroh. "The dark circles under your eyes have never been deeper."
Sadness filled Iroh's golden irises. Sadness... and what looked like self-doubt. "I have been having nightmares, on a more and more regular basis."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Jiuan stared at him with thoughtful eyes. "You will eventually have to tell me what exactly happened on your birthday."
"I know. It's just..." He sighed. "I'm not ready yet."
Jiuan weakly smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "Whatever it is, I'm sure you'll figure it out."
"I hope you're right," Iroh grimly stated.
Oh gosh, Jiuan thought. He racked his brain, trying to find something to take his friend's mind out of whatever was worrying him. He suddenly remembered one of Hayao's sayings. He was perfectly able to picture the dwarf teacher in his mind, sitting cross-legged, drinking a cup of jasmine tea. "When one's mind is troubled, one shall always spend some time on his commitments. This way, one will stop brooding over and over again on the same thing." Imaginary-Hayao sipped from his teacup but spit the beverage out. "Ugh, that imaginary-tea is sour!" "I think you should check on the soldiers," Jiuan told Iroh. "The cold makes them lugubrious."
Iroh appeared to react to that. "I guess they are in the engine room?"
Iroh cracked his knuckles. "Let's put some spirit in them."
A few weeks earlier...
"I don't understand," Cixi said. "Why do you take rookie soldiers with you? Your father offered you seasoned troops."
"I prefer to be sure to have troopers that are not used to obeying someone else. Insubordination is the last thing I need. Besides, if the soldiers were master benders, they would be officers, so their experience won't matter much when confronted to three deadly Waterbending masters."
She kissed him. "Try not to be killed, okay? Otherwise, I'll have to hunt down and kill those Waterbenders myself."
Iroh laughed. "I hope not. For them." They were on the Royal Plaza, illuminated by the gold hues of dawn. A single ship was waiting in the harbor. Save from Iroh and Cixi, the only other person on the docks was Jiuan, who was glaring at them jealously.
The Crown Prince uncomfortably shifted from one foot to another. "I should go now."
"Oh yeah, sure, abandon me quickly like that, I won't mind at all." Cixi rolled her eyes. "Can't you stay a little longer, Captain Iroh Huo, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation?"
"Cixi, my men already are in the ship, and they didn't have the chance to say goodbye to those they love. What would they think if moreover I retarded the departure of our ship?"
Cixi sighed. "Hayao did tell me that good leaders were slaves to their underlings." She swept the air with a regal gesture. "Withdraw now from my presence, Captain Iroh."
He kissed her one last time before getting onto his vessel with Jiuan. Once in the metal boat, they faced the harbor and waved at Cixi. She waved back before leaving.
"Spirits, this armor is heavy," complained Jiuan. "How can you be so comfortable in it?"
"Practice," admitted Iroh. "Father has made me wear one regularly since I'm ten."
They anxiously watched the lined-up troops who were waiting for them. Jiuan grinned. "Ready to brilliantly start or completely ruin your military career?"
Iroh sighed, but he started to perspire heavily. "Any other kind words of encouragement?"
"It's better if you get over with it quickly."
His knees shaking, Iroh unsteadily approached his men. Even more disturbingly, they were all as young as him. Some actually were older than him. And I'm supposed to inspire respect, when I could be their brother? Iroh thought. By Huo, the Spirit of Fire, I'm so glad I chose not to take forty-year-old soldiers!
"Greetings, men." The firm tone of his voice was in complete contrast with the fear which was agitating him. "I am Captain Iroh. You may know I am also your Crown Prince, but here, only my rank remains. You will call me "Sir" or "Captain", but certainly not "Your Highness" or other fancy names." He gave them a warm smile. "The man next to me is Lieutenant Jiuan. Like you and him, this is my first real operation we do for the glory of our nation." These words sound so... empty. "Now I'd like you to present yourselves; tell me more about your past, your skills, your aspirations..." He walked towards the first soldier. "Trooper! What is your name?"
"Private Kazo, sir!"
"And what do you want from life?"
"To serve my Nation, protect the citizens and spread our holy fire to the world, sir!"
Iroh rolled his eyes. "Your personal aspirations, Private. What do you like in life?"
Kazo hesitated. "I... I like playing the pipa, sir. I even brought my instrument."
Iroh's face lit up. "Really? That's wonderful! I myself am a tsungi hornist!" He beamed at the private. "I hope you'll bestow us with some music."
The soldier shyly smiled. "Y-yes sir!"
And it continued. There were about a dozen soldiers and another dozen engineers, plus a cook. To each of them, he had a kind word. He never repeated again and again the same phrases, making each and every of them feel important, special, and unique.
Finally, there were only three soldiers left.
"Good morning! What's your name?"
The first soldier had a gruff face and unkempt sideburns; he looked one year older than Iroh, and he showed no emotion at all.
"I'm Private Kaneshiro, Sir."
The Crown Prince raised an eyebrow. "Like the philosopher who postulated that emotions were a waste of time when they couldn't influence the events?"
Kaneshiro beamed. "I'm his descendant, Sir."
"Do you live by your ancestor's precepts?"
"Yes, but that doesn't make me emotionless at all. I just try to... get rid of futile feelings such as fear or sadness."
"One may argue that fear isn't pointless. I look forward to talks with you on philosophical topics."
"So do I, Sir."
Kaneshiro's neighbor looked 17 or 18, and he too had a completely blank face. He was neither tall nor small; fat nor skinny; handsome nor ugly. His body had no striking feature such as a big nose or a mole. He was completely average.
"And you, soldier? What is your name?"
The trooper continued to stare at some unknown point before him, having obviously not acknowledged Iroh. The Crown Prince waved a hand before his impassive eyes; he didn't even blink.
"Hello? Can you hear me? Do you feel alright?"
Kaneshiro cleared his throat. "That's 42-Laoshi, Sir. We also call him Laoshis. I know him - them - well; he was in our regiment back at the drilling academy."
Iroh gave him a puzzled look. "42? Them? What are you talking about?"
Kaneshiro scratched his head. "From what I know, he was a happy child in the colonies. But one day, Earthbenders raided his village and killed his entire family before his eyes. He was traumatized."
"To what extent?"
"To the extent he developed what old Mental Doctor Kaizuh calls "Multiple personality disorder". In this case, massive multiple personality disorder."
"Oh, spirits. You don't mean..."
"Yessir. There are exactly 42 different persons in this single body, constantly battling for control of his flesh. When he is in comatose-like state like that, Sir? That means the personae are struggling at the moment we speak."
Both Jiuan and Iroh looked at the still young man in a sympathetic way. "The poor man. Can't he be cured?"
"Ol' Kaizuh took him under his wing for a while, but all he managed to do was to convince the real Laoshi that he wasn't mad at all."
"Can he Firebend?" Jiuan asked.
"Only some of them can, Sir. I've heard about one of his personalities that supposedly can Earthbend, but I believe it's just a rumor. One has vast amounts of knowledge. One has a tendency to froth when nearing a center of spiritual power."
Kaneshiro gulped. "And then of course, there's the Doombringer..."
All the other soldiers shivered.
So much for someone who got rid of fear... Iroh noticed.
"STOP SHAKING LIKE LITTLE GIRLS, SOLDIERS!!"
The Prince - the Captain - was now facing a completely different man. Laoshi had squared his chin and his shoulders, his face was distorted by a permanent scowl and a vein was dangerously palpitating on his left temple.
And he seemed to have gained a powerful baritone voice.
"IS THAT THE PRIDE OF THE FIRE NATION?! IS THAT IT??!?"
"Sir, no, Sir!" answered the terrified troops.
"That one, we call him Sarge, Sir." Kaneshiro told Iroh. "At first I thought he was the stereotypical drilling sergeant..."
"DON'T CHITCHAT WHILE I'M WHISPERING, PRIVATE!! YOU'LL DO FIFTY SETS OF FIFTY PUSH-UPS!!"
"...but he is far too sadist for that. I think he is a Gym Teacher instead. Now that's a cruel and mean profession."
"DO IT NOOOOOOOW!!!!!"
Sarge was now foaming as if he were rabid. All of his powerful muscles were tense. There was an evil red glint in his amber eyes.
"I will tell you a secret," he murmured to the troopers. "You will never know fear on the battlefield. Earthbenders might crush you under boulders, Waterbenders might drown you in the ocean, the Fire Lord himself might set your butt aflame, but your worst nightmare will always, forever and ever, be ME!" He inhaled. "NOW EVERYONE MAKES A HUNDRED PUSH-UPS!!"
"How can we stop him?" Iroh demanded, while wearily eying Sarge, who was kicking the butts of the unfortunate soldiers. "That's annoying."
Kaneshiro took a saucepan out of his bundle. "There's a quick way to remediate to that."
He walked towards the fuming Sarge with his saucepan. There was a loud thud. He then came back towards Iroh and Jiuan, pulling an unconscious Laoshi by his feet. "There."
Save from Kaneshiro, the last soldier had been the only member of the crew to not yield to Sarge's maniacal orders. This one was twenty. His black hair was pulled back in a top-knot. He was mostly good-looking, save from his mouth, which was thicker and lower than normal, reminding Iroh oft a baboon he had once seen in a traveling zoo, but his most conspicuous feature was the hardness in his eyes, sign of an inflexible determination.
"And you soldier? Who are you?"
The stern trooper breathed in. "I know why we're here. What is our mission."
Iroh frowned. No one had explained to the troops the exact goal of their journey.
The soldier stared at him. His eyes were sorrowful. "I have been watching any suspicious move towards the South Pole. Checking any abnormal mission. And when I heard of this expedition, I knew I had found it."
Everyone was silently looking at him now.
"We're going to kill the last Waterbenders, aren't we?"
Iroh contemplatively gazed at him. "Yes. We are."
Tears came down on the young man's cheeks. "A few months ago, my brother, Jiang, died in mysterious circumstances while on a secret mission in the most peculiar lands of the South Pole. Of course, all records were erased, but I knew immediately that the only things in those wild regions able to make an entire battalion disappear were Waterbenders." He was now openly sobbing. "He was everything I had. I enlisted in the Navy only to exact retribution for his murder."
Without showing any kind of shame, he fell onto his knees and wept, desperately wept, expressing the deepest grief most of them had ever seen. No sound other than his laments could be heard under the morning sun.
Iroh kneeled at his side and put his arm around the rising and falling shoulders of the mourning soldier. "I promise you we'll avenge your brother," he whispered with a compassionate voice. "Now, tell me... What is your name?"
The miserable trooper focused his tearful regard on the kind face of the Crown Prince.
The metal door opened with a creaking noise, revealing dark stairs leading to the hot bowels of the ship. Both Jiuan and Iroh sighed with pleasure as hot vapor engulfed them. They stared at the very narrow door. Then each looked at the other's broad build.
One second later, they were stuck in the door frame, each trying to squeeze in first and stop the other's progression.
"Would... you... mind?" Jiuan pulled his friend's top-knot and kicked him in the knee. "I'm not the one who can heat myself up here!"
"I... order you... to let... me... in!" Iroh whispered between his clenched teeth. He stretched his arm to close the way, but Jiuan bit it. The Crown Prince punched him in the belly, but the fast movement finally freed him from the tarnished frame. This caused them to lose all balance. They fell in the dark stairway.
The soldiers were huddling together around a small red fire when a loud CLANG echoed in the metal hall. "What was that?" wondered Kazo out loud.
"Dunno," replied Lee, a soldier with particularly spiky hair. "It sounded like the fall of two heavy Badgermoles to me."
At this moment, their captain, Prince Iroh, and Lieutenant Jiuan entered the room, their hair a little out of place. All the troopers rose simultaneously.
"No, please, sit, I just come here to get a little comfortable," Iroh proclaimed, knowing that he was flushing as he spoke in a very un-army-like way. "Will you allow us to join you?"
His question met a chorus of "Yessir", "Of course, Sir", and other similar martial expressions. Someone handed Iroh a bowl full of what looked like smoked Ocean Kumquats. While he ate from his dish, his regiment kept staring at him, settling in an uncomfortable silence.
Without any warning, Iroh burst in laughter. His troops shared uneasy looks, not knowing what to think of this. What's he doing? Jiuan thought.
"You look..." the Crown Prince managed to articulate while rolling on the floor, "you look like a bunch of fish with your blank eyes and your seafood smell."
The soldiers watched their captain giggling hysterically, not knowing how they were supposed to take his fishy comment, but as Iroh's guffawing reverberated in the hall, filling it with happy snorts and merry chuckling, one by one, each began to smile and bit their lips to refrain the ecstasy that was penetrating their bodies, until, finally, none of them was able to hold back from sniggering and they all cackled out loud, the captain, the lieutenant and the troopers, the sound of their cheerful laughter resonating in the entirety of the Antarctic seas.
All but Yon Rha, who was on the bow of the ship, searching at some unknown mystery, southwards.
Iroh sat back with difficulty, wiping a tear at the corner of his eye. "Respect without love is never complete." Hayao had told him. "Never underestimate the powers of laughter." he had also assured his student. "It always comes in handy; when everyone is tense, they will laugh at anything, even the most lame joke. And then, they will open their hearts to you."
"How do you feel?" the Crown Prince asked them. "What are your thoughts and general feelings so far?"
"Er, cold?" someone said. Everyone laughed again.
"That is no wonder, with such a weak fire." Iroh declared, nodding towards the red flames. "Whose fire is it?"
All laughter died away abruptly. Someone raised a shaking hand. "M-me, Sir."
Fearful and sympathetic gazes concentrated on the unfortunate warrior as Iroh strode slowly in his direction. No other noise than his footsteps could be heard in the belly of the ship.
He stopped before the frightened soldier, a towering mass in the darkness, his face lit red by the fire he seemed to despise.
"You're Private Foping, right?"
Iroh lowered himself to face the private. "Is this red fire your work?"
"Yes, sir. It's the cold, sir."
Iroh raised his hand. Foping closed his eyes. He felt something heavy and warm touch his shoulders. He slowly and carefully opened his eyelids; it was Iroh's fur coat.
"You look terrible, Foping. You shouldn't be feeding a fire with your own chi." The Crown Prince put out the dying flames with one hand and the private couldn't abstain from breathe out with relief.
Iroh spit fire in the blackened barrel and bright flames instantly illuminated the entire hall. Waves of warmth flowed in the ship.
"You mustn't let yourselves be touched by the venomous bite of cold." he forbade them. "Our Firebending is greatly weakened. Stay warm at all costs."
He beamed. "What if we set up Fire Duels, which would enable me to behold your skills?"
Kaneshiro gulped. "You mean, like an Agni Kai, Sir?"
"No, nothing like that." Iroh laughed. "Just friendly challenges which will keep us warm and relax us a tad. Nothing deadly."
"Can the non-bending soldiers participate too, Sir?" a spearman asked.
"Well, everyone should have fun, don't you think? Is there tea around?"
In a very short lapse of time, the totality of Iroh's troops were dueling, save from Iroh, Jiuan and 42-Laoshi, who was cleaning his fingernails.
"Laoshi, why don't you join them?" Jiuan proposed to the schizophrenic man.
Laoshi stared at him in a snobbish way, his nostrils widened in disdain. "To whom are you exactly talking, Sir?"
"Er, to you."
Laoshi tittered condescendingly. "It is very unlikely, Sir, as you have made use of a patronymic that has nothing in common with my denomination."
"Then who are you?"
"That's Nebol, sir." Kaneshiro informed them. "He believes he is a spirited noble, while he's just a pompous brat." Kazo sent a fireball which missed his head by three inches. "Hey, watch it!"
"What a derogatory speech!" Nebol exclaimed. "I am an artist, sir! I have talents that thou cannot imagine! Here, for example, is one of the poems I have recently composed..."
The soldiers all sighed in chorus, with shouts of "Not again!", "Please no!" and one "Can someone hit him on the head?"
"I would be glad to hear a good piece of poetry." Iroh said.
Nebol grinned in an annoyingly superior way. "At least not everyone here belongs to a bunch of bumbling barbaric baboons!" He placed his palm on his head, faking inspiration. "The first volcanoes rose and gave birth/To the daughter of ember and earth/Oceans were parted and clouds were thinned..."
Nebol collapsed suddenly. He then rose back, but his eyes were devoid of expression, and his mouth was open wide.
"Kaneshiro?" Jiuan called.
"No alarm, Sir, he's just switching personalities."
"Oh, true. I had forgotten."
In the weeks they had spent together on the ship, they had got used to their troops, and by now they knew most of the details of their lives and personalities: Kazo was very fond of ancient history and wanted to become an archaeologist when the war would be over; Lee, the last of twelve brothers, had enlisted to escape a life of poverty in peasantry; by contrast, Yoro had only been attracted by the thrill of adventure; Kaneshiro, the pragmatic, was the unofficial leader of the group and the acknowledged expert in Laoshi's quirks.
And then of course, there was Laoshi himself. Themselves. Neither Iroh or Jiuan had had the chance to spot his real personality, the Laoshi persona, but they had by now got used to many of them: Finamor the seducer, brooding since there was no woman on board; Vir, a brute who only liked sake and sport; Gusto, the amazing cook who could prepare amazing dishes out of nothing; not to mention Sarge, the very first they had to bear. One they didn't want to meet at all was the Doombringer, whom everyone seemed to be terrified of.
But, as they watched their soldiers sparring, they realized they had actually never got close to them. In their journey in hostile seas which became colder every day, Iroh had let an enemy he hadn't thought of take over: boredom. They all had been too busy to accomplish their duties then head back to their warm cabin as swiftly as they could, stuck in a basic routine: obey, work, get warm, get food, get some sleep.
And now, all this activity, the simple fact of being, living together, it was better than two tons of White Dragon tea: Iroh felt like he had inhaled for the first time in weeks.
Kaneshiro arrived, smiling, and stopped before Jiuan. "I challenge you to a Fire Duel."
Iroh cleared his throat. "Actually, it wouldn't be fair, since Jiuan isn't a Firebender."
"Oh." The puzzled soldier bowed. "I'm sorry, Sir."
"Nah, it's okay. The captain is right: It wouldn't be fair if you alone attacked me." Jiuan rose and yelled: "Hey, troops! I challenge all of you!"
Iroh choked on his cup of tea. "Jiuan, they're thirteen (plus the engineers). You can't do this!"
"You're afraid they might accidentally kill me?"
"I'm afraid you might hurt them too much."
Jiuan winked. He sat in the middle of the room, while the twelve troopers (Laoshi remaining in his comatose state) surrounded him.
Iroh closed his eyes while drinking his tea - Jasmine. They don't stand a chance.
Kazo kicked the air without warning, and a purposely weak fireball roared to life and raced towards Jiuan. A second before it hit him, the kleptomaniac disappeared.
Uneasily, Kazo checked his surroundings. The lieutenant was nowhere to be seen. All he could see were his companions, who looked as mystified as him, and Captain Iroh, who was tranquilly sipping his tea.
Out of nowhere, Jiuan appeared from behind and turned the helmet on the private's head, effectively blinding him. The Firebenders in the group fired at him, but Jiuan was already gone.
More than one soldier started to sweat. A few seconds before, they were holding back their chi, frightened at the idea they might inadvertently wound their superior. At present, they were wondering if they would be able to fend him off. Laughter echoed in the ceiling. The troopers jumped and a few of them sent fireballs upwards.
Emerging from the shadows Jiuan tackled Foping from behind. And he was gone.
Moved by prehistoric survival instincts, the soldiers gathered in a solid cluster. All of them now were consumed by fear.
Jiuan was suddenly before Wazimeiwazi, one of the spearmen, holding the latter's lance. He broke it by a quick thrust on his knee.
"Don't damage the materials!" protested Iroh. "We will need all of them once we arrive at the South Pole."
Jiuan rolled his eyes and kicked the barrel in which burnt the Crown Prince's flames. The metal hall was quickly plunged into complete darkness. Iroh waited for all the thuds, the thumps, the smacks and the bangs to die out before lighting another fire. It revealed Jiuan standing among the unconscious bodies of their soldiers.
"There, happy, now?" the kleptomaniac told his friend. "I knocked them all out without splitting another spear."
"You had to put out the lights to do so." Iroh retorted disapprovingly. Behind him, Kazo, still blinded by his own helmet, hit a wall and fainted. "You're rusty."
"Aw, come on!"
"That... that was amazing!" exclaimed an awakened Lee, while his friends all woke up.
"No, I do that regularly." Jiuan shrugged. "There's just one thing I don't understand..." He took out of his pockets a dozen of leathery objects. "Why would you guys take your wallets to the South Pole?"
"You are so skilled, sir!" Foping turned to face Iroh. "I can't imagine what you are capable of, Sir!"
"Oh, nothing really." the Crown Prince told them, blushing slightly. "Just...regular Firebending."
"Aw, don't be modest!" Jiuan put his arm around Iroh's broad shoulders. "He's a master. He'll make a demonstration for you."
"I'm not sure it's..." The Prince's reply was silenced by the cheers of his men. He sighed. "Okay, I'll do it. I prefer to warn you: I haven't practiced in a while."
Jiuan grinned. "Children, don't try this at home."
Approximately 3.4 seconds later, the flanks of the boat were black with soot, the ceiling had partially molten and all of Iroh's soldiers were once again inert.
"See? I knocked them out without destroying a thing, with fire, which, I'd like to add, has far more destructive potential than your hand tricks."
"It took you longer than usual to vanquish them."
"You're just jealous."
Joys of a very long, very boring sea journey, part 1: Out of boredom, the soldiers had decided to try to make Kaneshiro laugh at a joke. Kaneshiro still wasn't a master in the control of certain emotions, but he took enormous pride in his ability to ignore jokes. This was regarded as a superhuman ability. And as with all persons afflicted with such astonishing powers, mere mortals tried to break him. In some ways it was similar to a practice of a parallel universe, where, on some lone island which used to control the world, people from everywhere else desperately twist and distort their faces in humorous manners in order to amuse the guards protecting the queen from the people - although some have said they actually were protecting the people from the queen, but that's another story. The point is, never since the glorious beginnings of those guards on this anonymous lonely island in a random parallel universe, never a single soldier laughed. Or cackled. Or guffawed. Or showed any sign of mirth whatsoever.
And it was the same with Kaneshiro.
"Oh, have you heard that one?" inquired Foping. "It's the story of the two madmen."
Kaneshiro sighed. "It's always with two madmen."
"Don't interrupt me. So, one day, there's a madman, who is painting his ceiling."
"What kind of mental illness does he have?"
"Schizophrenia? Obsessional behavior? Hysteria?"
"I said, don't interrupt. So, a second madman arrives..."
"Wait a minute, if they're madmen, shouldn't they be sequestrated in Doctor Kaizuh's hospital?"
"I'm going to ignore that. So, a second madman arrives and tells him..."
"That, or they are in the army, but if it was the case they wouldn't have the time to paint ceilings. Why would anyone let a madman paint a ceiling anyway?"
"*sigh* ... and tells him ..."
"Oh, are they Earth Kingdom madmen?"
"....... Will you let me finish?"
"Okay, okay, no need to be annoying."
"So, the second madman arrives and tells him : "Hey, buddy, hold onto the brush, I'm taking the ladder!" "
"We are not amused."
The door that led to the steering wheel opened with a creak, revealing Iroh with several scrolls under his arm.
"Navigators, could you all come here? I need to tell you something about our course."
While Wazimeiwazi left the room, Iroh unrolled the scrolls. They were maps of the Southern Seas. One was detailing the sea currents. On another, he had scribbled numbers - hours.
"You know we're going to attack the Water Tribe stronghold there." he explained, putting his finger on a blue square with the Water Tribe Symbol. "But our new destination" - Iroh's finger slid northwards on the map. - "is here. When we'll be there, you'll stop the engines and call me."
The pilots exchanged glances. "But why there, Sir? It's the middle of nowhere! We won't even be able to see the Southern Water Tribe from this spot!"
Iroh smiled. "Just trust me on this, will you?"
"Aye aye, sir." But they looked unconvinced.
"The Messenger Hawks are coming!" shouted a soldier on the deck.
Sure enough, a dozen of red birds were gliding downwards, preparing to land on the ship. Iroh grinned. Most of them were his. Normally, soldiers had to wait for a stop at a Fire Nation port to send news to their families. But Iroh had brought on board twelve birds from the Royal Palace, and he had let his troops borrow them from him ever since they had left Fire Nation waters.
One bird left the flock and perched on Iroh's forearm.
"Hey Hawkie. What's up?" The Crown Prince petted the bird of prey's feathers before opening the tube that was attached to his back. It contained four rolled messages.
The first one was from his mother:
My dear Iroh,
I hope you will receive this message before you reach the South Pole. From what your father told me, there is nothing more beautiful and enchanting in the world than a sunset above those icy oceans, with the golden light of twilight illuminating the translucent shapes of the wandering icebergs. I hope you will be lucky enough to see it before the battle.
I can't see why you wouldn't be worthy of Cixi's love. There is no such thing as worth or honor in love. If it existed, I wouldn't love your father, who isn't the most caring of men and certainly has many sins staining his soul. But I love him. And I know he loves me. Cixi loves you and you love her. As long as you continue to behave with her like you always did, as long as you continue to show her you're in love with her, everything will be fine.
I'm happy to tell you that I was able to leave my bed this morning. I even walked a few minutes in the garden. It is quite sad: with the winter, all my flowers are dead, and we never have snow to enjoy. You know I've been wanting to go to the mountain for years, but your father is opposed to it. I'm sure you'll see plenty of snow where you are going.
Your brother is well and happy.
I'm expecting the moment we'll see each other again, my son,
Iroh felt warm inside, like his mother had sent him a little flame into these cold, desolate lands. He didn't know what to think, however, of Ilah's belief that Azulon loved her. It might have been presumptuous, to say the least.
The second letter was from Cixi:
I hope you are well. I'm not going to tell you how pathetic I am without you; I can't find a single thing to do, nor a single friend. You have no idea how I admire free women like your mother, who can live separated for so long from the man she loves, and yet remain so strong. Though in your mother's case, I suspect the difficult task of motherhood keeps her from mourning too much. Your brother is quite lively!
I find myself more and more in their company. After a recent incident, I realized that my family isn't who I'm related to, but who I choose to love. And Ilah - I mean the Fire Lady - is being a real mother to me. More motherhood to her I'm afraid ...
My relationship with Ozai is strange. At times I see him as a brother; at other moments I envision him as my son. Saying that I'm not worried about you would also be a lie. It's not that I don't trust you - I know you're one of the best Firebenders in the world. I think I'm just panicking as I love you too much - though I don't think you can love someone too much. I will have to learn to deal with that.
Say hello to Jiuan from me. I didn't have the time to write him a letter, and besides I don't want to encourage him in the way he has chosen. The three of us will have to talk once you'll be back. As you will be back. Otherwise, I'll end my days immediately to kick your butt in retaliation in the Spirit World.
Again, Iroh, I love you like I love no one else and I know you love me the same way,
I miss you,
It rather was good news. Iroh stayed curious about that "recent incident" that had made her so close with his family. Not that he didn't like it; he loved it. But he still was intrigued.
It was evident they'd have to discuss soon with Jiuan about that issue. It was rather urgent.
That last sentence, about her being sure that he loved her as much as she loved him, worried him. Did that mean Ilah had told her about his doubts on his worth? He sighed. You could trust mothers for telling everyone your secrets.
What troubled him in the whole letter was that overall subconscious theme of maternal feelings. That could mean she was thinking to marriage. But he didn't want to engage before being sure he wouldn't make her unhappy or bitter.
He took the third letter.
As always, I received your letter with infinite pleasure. I thank you for inquiring about my health, and I am happy to say I have never been better. Your departure, student, makes me quite sad, but it also gives me some spare time for myself. I took a week on Ember Island with my daughters and my lovely spouse. There is nothing sweeter in the world to see that your children are faring wonderfully without you. It's also painful, as you feel useless. I have that same feeling with you, student. You are a man now. Anyway, I think that I will recommend Lo and Li as Firebending tutors when I retire.
I quite understand your dilemma, student. I can't give you the answer, as it already is inside of you. My only advice will be trust your heart, and know that no one else but you is responsible of your actions.
Be sure however that questioning this mission cannot come without questioning the purpose of this war. You can't doubt one and abide the other.
As last words, student, I'll ask you to use logic. See what good this mission could bring, and what bad it can do.
Wishing you, student, good heath and good thinking,
PS: Divine Whirlwind in D7. You lose your Scarlet Dragon.
"What?" exclaimed Iroh. "Oh, really Hayao?" He walked back to the steering wheel. In a corner of the room sat a big Pai Sho table, with tiles positioned, as if a game waereongoing. Iroh moved the Divine Whirlwind according to the letter's instructions. That new move was endangering all of his strategy. He sat and concocted a new plan.
"Sir?" called the pilot. "There is still a letter for you."
"It's probably from my grandmother." dismissed Iroh. "I'll read it later."
"I don't think so, Sir. There's the Fire Lord seal on it."
"What?" Iroh grabbed the scroll. It was indeed adorned with the unmistakable five-pronged flame.
I can't believe it! he thought, bewildered. Father actually wrote to me! He finally answered my letters! And, from the look of it, he even joined the documents I asked for! But there is still that letter! He wouldn't write a letter only because he sent documents, right? That would be unnecessary! And he only does things of the most absolute necessity! He sadly sounded like if he was trying to convince himself. Maybe he's even asking how I am!
He almost tore the scroll apart while opening it and read it avidly.
Be sure to find with this letter all the documentation on the Southern Water Tribe and his chieftain you asked for. Be certain of returning those files shortly, keeping in mind that they are classified and should not fall in foreign hands at any cost.
Zhou Fa, fifteenth secretary to His Royal Highness, Fire Lord Azulon.
Joys of a very long, very boring sea journey, part 2: Someone knocked at the door.
"Come in!" ordered Iroh, completely focused on the map laying before him. His eyes were puffy.
A teacup was put on the table. Someone lightly coughed.
Iroh raised his eyes from the map of the sea currents. Laoshi was standing before him in the most unmanly way. His anxious amber irises were beholding the Crown Prince's face with...
Was that love?
"Yes, Laoshi? How can I help you?"
"Oh, Sir, it's more how I can help you." the soldier declared, a few octaves too high. "How can I please you? And it's Yin by the way."
Iroh frowned. "What?"
"My name's Yin, not Laoshi."
A terrible doubt entered the Crown Prince's mind. "Are you... you know..."
"No, I don't know."
Iroh gulped. "Are you ... a girl?"
Yin gasped with horror. "Now how evil and rude was that!"
"Yes, I know, it's ridi..."
"Of course I am!"
"Oh." Aw spirits, why this kind of stuff keeps happening to me? "Of course. It's obvious, you evidently possess-" He took a look at Laoshi's hairy ankles. "-feminine attributes!"
Yin sniffed. "Aww, that is so nice to say Captain Iroh! Can I clean your room?"
"Er... Sure you can."
While Iroh tried to concentrate back on his map of the tides of the South Pole, Yin began to merrily dust and tidy the cabin, all the while singing: "Soooomeday, my Priiiince will cooooome, Sooooooooomeday, I wiiiiill find looooove."
Iroh felt cold sweat running down his spine. "Erm, Yin, could you please stop singing? I'm trying to plan our invasion of the South Pole."
Yin unexpectedly cried. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Sir, I was trying to please you, but as with everything I do, I screwed it up completely! WAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!" Her wails broke a window. "WAAAAAAAAA!!!"
"Hmm, okay..." He cautiously stretched his arm and patted her - his - shoulder. "There there. I'm not mad at you."
She - he - it - suddenly hugged him, her (his) golden eyes filled with stars. "That's what I always loved with you, Captain Iroh. You are so nice... and so understanding! That's why I - I... I love you."
"WHAT?" Iroh despairingly attempted to escape her embrace, but she was holding on him like a Viper Mantis grips its husband - before devouring it. "Lao... I mean, Ma'am, would you be kind enough to release me?"
"I will never let you go, Iroh dear!" sobbed Yin. "We'll be together forever and ever." His/her face lit up. "It rhymes! That surely means something!"
Iroh violently head-butted her and fled under his desk.
"Come back here, Irohlicious! I need you!"
"I need you to leave!" he yelled. Great, she sounds like Chan... With impressive strength, she lifted the table and threw it in a corner. Her clutches seized Iroh's shoulder.
"My sweetie," she exclaimed, blinking repeatedly in a supposedly glamorous way. Iroh could see her face very clearly. Apparently, Laoshi hadn't shaved this morning and had recently eaten pickled fish. "Now, you're mine." She curled her slimy lips and leaned toward Iroh.
"NO!" He struggled, but Yin's hold was harder than steel. I'm sorry Cixi. he thought. I assure you it is not done willingly. He childishly strived to protect his lips by crossing his forearms.
But the dreaded kiss never came. Iroh slowly opened his eyelids. Laoshi's face was expressionless. Iroh snapped his fingers, but her blank eyes didn't blink. Froth was accumulating on the corners of his mouth.
"Phew. My lucky day."
And of course that's when Laoshi sprung back to life.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY ARMS, SOLDIER?" yelled Sarge. "IT AIN'T MANLY! YOU'LL MAKE FOUR HUNDRED PUSH-UPS!!!!"
At this moment, Iroh caught sight of a crystal box Kaneshiro had offered him earlier. On it was written : "In case of emergency, break the glass."
Iroh broke the glass.
Inside the box, covered with bumps and holes. as if someone had used it regularly to hit someone else's head, was a saucepan.
"From my estimations, we're going to reach the South Pole in a couple of days, sir," the pilot told Jiuan, "unless the weather suddenly changes, but there is not a single cloud in the sky."
"Thank you. I shall inform Captain Iroh." The kleptomaniac began to open the metal door, letting the freezing air of these polar regions enter the cabin.
Jiuan looked at the helmsman, whose face was whitened by the specter of doubt. "Yes?"
"I'm sorry to bother you with that, Sir, but why would Fire Lord Azulon give to his son only one ship and a handful of troops to defeat several master benders?"
Jiuan shut the door. "Do you want me to be honest with you or to narrate you a reassuring lie?"
The steersman swallowed. "The truth, sir."
"Fine. You don't really count. Fire Lord Azulon expects his son to be able to deal with those Waterbenders alone, and you - we - just are the possible back-up. By giving him one boat and fourteen soldiers, he ensures Ir- Captain Iroh will not rely too much on his troopers."
"But then why giving him any soldiers at all?"
"Fire Lord Azulon likes to make things difficult, not impossible."
"And I suspect that either he cares about his son, or, which is more likely, that Fire Lady Ilah threatened to make his life impossible if he didn't."
"So we're just for decoration, Sir?" questioned Wazimeiwazi, who was this day in charge of communications. "We're of no use?"
"No, because you forget there might be other threats that Waterbending sorcerers in those vile regions. The indigenous barbarians for one. They're experts in fighting Firebenders. And from what I've heard, their chieftain is tricky and resourceful."
He noticed their faces were painted with the sickly yellowish hues of fear and discouragement.
"Er, but again," he added swiftly, "they'll have to fight Captain Iroh first. No worries."
They didn't look convinced, but Jiuan quickly exited the place. Why had I to be the one they asked that? he cursed. I never had any military training! I have no clue on how to make them feel better... All of a sudden, he slipped on the deck and his butt violently met the metal floor. Upon examination, it transpired that the entire ship was covered with a thick rime.
Grumbling and swearing, Jiuan slowly got up and wearily stepped towards the stairs - whose descent he already dreaded.
From a corner, flames shot and almost fried him.
"AAAAAAAHHH!!!" he screamed, one octave too high to sound manly.
"Oh, holy freaking monkey!" Kazo bowed before Jiuan. "I apologize, Sir! It will not happen again!"
"Private Kazo, what have I done to you that decided you to murder me?" Jiuan asked. "I know I can be annoying, but that's the first time someone actually tries to terminate me! I should make a wish..."
"I would never try to kill you, Sir! I just received orders from Captain Iroh to melt all of the ice, Sir, and I hadn't seen you, Sir!"
"Yeah, sure, stop a bit with all the "Sir," okay? Do you know where I can find Iro- Captain Iroh?"
Kazo's face lit. "The Captain, Sir? He is training on the main deck, Sir. He... he is incredible, Sir!"
"Thank you, Kazo. Now continue your melting."
"Aye aye, Sir!"
Kazo had done a good job. After their short talk, the ship was nothing but clean, unfrozen, steaming sizzling metal. Of course, Jiuan's boots' soles started to smell burnt leather, but the warmth penetrating his feet wasn't disagreeable. He climbed down the hot stairs and found himself near a gathering on the main deck.
"What are you all doing here?" he queried.
"We're watching Captain Iroh, Sir," answered Lee. "He's doing things I've never seen before!"
Despite the dreadful cold, Iroh was standing bare-chested in the middle of the ship. The ice had melted around him in a ten-foot radius, a testimony to his intense training. A few charred dummies lay at his feet. Poor dummies, thought Jiuan.
At the moment, Iroh was doing strange circular moves unlike the normal rigid Firebending stances. Suddenly, electricity crackled and sparked and two tendrils of lightning appeared, attached to his fingers, following his flowing movements. They hissed, like bound venomous rat-vipers, longing to be released and wreak havoc on the world. Iroh patiently guided them, apparently more to reassure himself than to generate some more bolts. He then directed his fingers skyward and released the tension in his muscles.
Bellowing a roar of victory mixed with rumbling thunder, the deadly lightning was unleashed and seemed to tear the vault of heavens like the claws of a predator before disappearing.
The assembled troops clapped with enthusiasm, while only one word formed in Jiuan's mind:
The soldiers soon returned to their assignments, allowing him to approach his Firebending friend.
Iroh shot another lightning bolt and stomped. "Huh! I hate it!"
"What?" asked Jiuan. "What are you talking about?"
"That lightning generation!" complained the Crown Prince. "That's more like lightning frustration!"
"I don't understand. You're doing it pretty fast..."
"Fast? Are you kidding me? I generate it in seven seconds!"
"That's what I just said, but never mind."
"My father generates it in five seconds! Fire Lord Sozin generated it in four seconds!"
"You actually can generate it. You're one out of two Firebenders in the entire world! I didn't even know it was possible!"
"That is not the problem! Look!"
With incredible ease, he began to generate lightning at lightning speed - one, two, three, four bolts of electricity harnessed and freed in the heavens.
"Do you see the ease with which I can summon it here?"
Jiuan scratched his head. "You're... kinda contradicting yourself with what you said previously..."
"I mean that now, here, as I train, I can create it perfectly! My technique is perfect!"
With a sigh, he lowered his shoulders. "But on the battlefield, during a real duel...I'm incapable of doing it."
"How can you know it? You never participated in the War!"
Iroh blushed. "Er..."
Images flashed in his mind. A woman with blue eyes and a mad sadistic grin on her face, whacking him with a water tendril. The giant blue shape of a tsunami. A yell of despair: "THE FIRE NATION HAS TAKEN EVERYTHING FROM ME!" Her face lit by the twilight sun. And that lightning, that lightning which refused to come.
Without exploding at his face.
He left his wandering brooding to fix his gaze on Jiuan's worried face.
"Does that mean you actually battled someone?"
The Crown Prince closed his eyes. "For my birthday, my father set up a test, to see if I was skilled enough to join the War. A boat left me on an island. And I was soon joined by someone else..."
The icy gales were lightly swinging the ship, rocking him on the dark seas of the Pole. They howled in the steel corridors.
"We dueled for several hours, neither of us truly taking the advantage on the other. And finally, as the sun set, I killed her."
The funny thing with silence is that, when it is present, it is more deafening than the loudest noise you can think of. You can actually sense it weight down on your neck.
"And?" demanded Jiuan.
Something twinkled at the corner of Iroh's eye. A tear?
"The truth is... I could have killed her far earlier. I wanted to bring her back alive. But despite all my efforts...she forced me to kill her. I murdered her. And in spite of the fact she kept trying to end me as well, I can't help but feel guilty... Because, from some things she mentioned... I think it is our fault if she was so evil..."
"Hey, why would it be my fault?"
Iroh rolled his eyes. "The Fire Nation's fault, stupid!"
"But... isn't she evil by nature? As a woman from another nation? A barbarian?"
"That's what we're taught. But we don't know if it's true." He sighed. "I am so confused. I can't tell the difference between right and wrong anymore. And whatever option I choose, I am persuaded I'll do something bad."
"What do you mean?"
"If you think about it, do you really believe randomly invading people and killing some of them sounds good?"
"We do it for the greater good. I do admit it's not the most virtuous of actions, but if we don't, wouldn't they murder us eventually?" retorted Jiuan.
"You don't know what it is to end someone's life!"
"No, I don't. I won't pretend otherwise."
"I can't imagine myself killing again. But I can't forget either that if I deny the use of this mission, I'm insulting and betraying all of our soldiers who battle for us... and those who can't do it anymore."
He looked at the small silhouette perched on the tip of the hull, knowing that its dark brown eyes were looking for the South Pole.
"Look at Yon Rha. If I don't go and punish those who killed his brother, it's like I'm making the murder legit! Doing nothing is equal to supporting the killers! It is siding against my father, stabbing him in the back! And I don't even know what my father wants from me!"
Out of rage and pain, he roared, and a torrent of flames exited his mouth.
"This entire mission is messed up! We're in the middle of winter, the time when Waterbenders are at their most powerful! Everyone is expecting me to kill three master benders; at first my father promised me the best soldiers, then I couldn't count on any, and finally I am allowed fourteen soldiers. Fourteen! I don't know if my father is trying to give me a sporting chance or if he's attempting to kill me by sending me there in such conditions!" His fists burned with intense fire. With a punch he set aflame what remained of the training dummy.
"But I'm still doomed to succeed." The flames flickered and died. "I can't lose. I can't turn around. I have no choice; I must do it... and win." He cried. "I'm a monster."
Jiuan looked shocked. "Of course you're not!"
"I am. I've been pondering this for months. If I turn against the Fire Lord, my father, and take the side of his enemies, who always tried to end us, I'm a monster. If I sit and do nothing, I'm a shame and an insult for those who act, I damage my father's name, I'm a monster. If I still attack those persons, if I kill them as I believe they might be innocent, I'm a monster!" He collapsed and wept on the metal deck. Jiuan looked around to check if anyone was overhearing. Fortunately, it wasn't the case.
He kneeled at the Crown Prince's side. "Iroh, don't say that... You know it isn't true."
"It is!" argued Iroh. "At least if I am not, I am an hypocrite! I've come to doubt everything! Everything! How can I be a good son if I think whatever my father does is wrong? How can I be a leader if I doubt our cause?" He breathed. "How could I ever love Cixi the way she deserves it, if I don't even know who I am?" Tears sparkled in his eyes.
"It's always Cixi." noticed Jiuan.
"Of course it's always Cixi. She's my life!" He hid his head in his arms. "I am so afraid of accidentally hurting her. I love her, but sometimes I'm wondering if she wouldn't be happier with another man... If she found someone else with whom she will live a more fulfilling life, I'd let her go, even if it would break my heart."
Jiuan was a bit stunned, to say the least. Spirits, why has the Universe taken such a sadistic interest in my person? Why does it regularly give me the opportunity to break their relationship and turn the events in my favor? How easy it would have been for him to say: "Sure, it is better for now that you two stop dating... for now, of course." He really wanted it. He craved for Cixi. Alas, it reminded him of a very similar situation last summer. Do you remember what you thought at the time? he asked himself. You were just like Iroh: you preferred to see her with another man if she was happier. And you made them go back together. And they never were happier than now. Now, you have the proof that Iroh loves her as much as you do.
And you must accept it:
She doesn't love you.
"I absolutely forbid you to say that," he shouted. I hate you, Universe. "How could you hurt her? You'd commit suicide if she asked so. I mean, did you see how much she loves you? You are insanely cute together! As long as you love her as much as you do now, everything will be fine. You have nothing to fear."
He paused for a few seconds, searching the right words. "As for the problem of the mission... I guess that you don't really have the choice, do you? You have to do it. And even if what you did was actually wrong, you wouldn't be blamed for that."
"Well, yes, you would in fact. But it doesn't matter, because you will know that you are not responsible, that you couldn't do otherwise and that even if it is bad - and again, I'm sure it isn't - it will be what will eventually bring a great good."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I am."
Iroh sniffed. "You're an awesome friend, you know that?"
"Yes, I know." You have no idea of the depth of my friendship's awesomeness.
"Who am I to have such a great friend like you?"
"Hey, I should be the one asking that!" He laughed and put a hand on the Crown Prince's shoulder. "Do you feel better now?"
"Yes, a bit. Thanks to you," he uttered with a weak voice.
"Don't thank me. That's what friends are for: Helping you in tough moments."
Iroh snuffled. "Actually, there's one thing you could do that would make me feel even better."
"Really? I'd be happy to help even more!"
The Prince weakly smiled.
"Could you... could you give me my wallet back?"
With an horrible rusty rasping, quite akin to fingernails scratching a blackboard, the chains unraveled and the anchor of the ship sunk in the blues, greys, and white of the sea. The engines had been cut, but plumes of smoke still escaped from the funnels, as the furnaces needed to remain hot.
"You might be wondering why I asked we stop in this particular location." declared Iroh. The entire crew was assembled before him, shaking slightly.
Iroh observed them for a few minutes. "Private Lee, what signs do the Water Tribe use to foresee the coming of a Fire Nation ship?"
"Black snow, Sir. The smoke of our vessels heat up the clouds enough to make them snow, and soot mixes with ice."
His superior warmly smiled. "Exactly. That way, no one can sneak on the Water Tribes. Now, do you know what - or who - will be our greatest challenges, aside from the Waterbenders?"
"The cold, I guess. We won't survive outside in the middle of the night. Breaking the walls of the city will be hard too."
"That is completely correct. Very good, Lee." The soldier couldn't help but smile proudly. It was all about that, contemplated Iroh. To make the troops feel strong and good by complimenting them and hiding his doubts behind a mask of confidence. "If we attack under the afternoon sun, we won't have to worry too much about the cold. However I do admit piercing through those walls will be hard, especially if the Waterbenders keep building it back." He paused. "But those won't be the main threats."
He took from under his coat a scroll, stamped with the black seal of Fire Nation Intelligence, and read it out loud.
"Chief Nanook (WT, S; Nb; Ldr; Mltry)
Leader of the warriors of the Southern Water Tribe. Charismatic. Strong-willed. Patriotic. Master strategist. Led extremely daring attacks against the Fire Nation. His people have unshakable faith in him, despite the loss of all Southern Waterbenders. Would die if it meant saving his tribe.
After a severe injury in his back and one of his legs, delivered by the Southern Raiders, he is unable to fight properly, if not at all. However, he makes great use of deadly complex traps to balance his handicap. Suspected to be slightly paranoid. Thought to have surrounded the area around his city with hundreds of traps. We sent two of our agents to check. They never came back.
Approximate dangerousness level: alone, without preparation: 1 ; on his lands: 4 to 5
Approximate value: 6"
Iroh rolled back the classified document. "You've just heard it: a frontal attack on the Southern Water Tribe would be suicidal. We'd be hacked in pieces in seconds before we even got close to the walls. The only solution would be a bombardment of the vicinity to get rid of all snares. It would be costly, we might not have enough projectiles, and we aren't sure it will destroy all the traps. But that's the sole thing we can do."
"Unless, of course, we actually manage to sneak on the city."
Yoro raised a hand. "But, Sir, you just told us it was impossible."
"It's impossible because of the black snow." Iroh beamed further. "It's a simple use of logic, really. If you want to reach the Southern Water Tribe without being noticed, you must suppress the black snow. If you want to suppress the black snow, you must not produce smoke. If you wish to not produce smoke..."
"... we have to cut off the engines!" understood Jiuan.
"But how are we going to move?" asked Foping.
Iroh unfolded a map. "The spot we are on is not random at all. In fact, as you can see," - he pointed a line on the plan - "it is here our course meets a very particular sea current. That tide curves to the south-west before turning to the south-east a few miles from the coast. It ends in a small secluded bay just west of the Southern Water Tribe. So, we are going to be gently pushed to our destination by the ocean itself. It will be much slower than with the motors, but we'll remain completely unnoticed. If we weigh anchor in twenty minutes, according to my calculations, we'll arrive at this bay in five days, by nightfall. The night factor is extremely important, as by this time it is so cold outside not a tribesman will be wandering in this area. I'll need two Firebenders at the hull all the time to melt potential icebergs. They will go at the same speed than us and follow the same trajectory, but you never know. Questions?"
The crew shook their heads.
The boat floated indeed in the bay just as the sun set, exactly five days after Iroh's speech. It was a half-circle, with a few feet-large beaches of dark grey rock and high, imposing cliffs of ice. At their left - which was the east, as they were facing the south - snow arched in a massive prominence.
"Beyond that hill is the Water Tribe City," warned Iroh. "I presume that the traps will have been spread after that point." He had to speak loudly; a powerful wind, harbinger of a forthcoming blizzard, was baying in their little cove.
"How are we going to avoid them, Sir?" shouted Kaneshiro.
Iroh smiled. "I have studied the terrain; the ice you can see is nothing but the end of an inlandsis."
"A what, Sir?"
"That is the autochthonous term to describe the extremely thick ice sheet that covers a frozen continent, like this one. Anyway, the point is, it is of an enormous size here. The ice is at its highest at the summit of that hill; after that, it smoothly decreases in size until it reaches the Southern Water Tribe city, where it is only seven feet high. I propose you this plan:" He beamed, amused by their expectant faces. "We will melt our way through the ice to the city and build an underground path of ice. We will thus keep away from the traps and be sure to completely surprise our enemies. We don't have to work too fast; we must exit the tunnel as the sun rises, giving our Firebenders the solar advantage. Our slow pace will not tire us too much. At dawn, the engineers must also start back the motors of the ship, in case we have to retreat quickly."
"But can't we get lost under there, Sir? Isn't there a risk that we deviate and pierce the wall between us and the ocean? Or that we leave the passage outside of the city?"
"Very good remark, Private. We'll walk on the rocky ground and start from a particular spot I've chosen; there, the city will be in front of us if we walk eastwards. The use of a compass will prevent us from drowning into the sea. As for the length, we will use our spears. Each is more or less six feet long. Once in the tunnel, we'll use the lances as rulers. Each time we dig six more feet, we'll puncture the ice with the blade of the spears and use the holes as a scale. That way we'll always know how long is our gallery. I have calculated that from the spot I've chosen, the city is roughly 1.5 miles away, so we will know we'll be under it after we've made 1,368 holes."
Suddenly Iroh breathed on the portion of ice behind him, and fire escaped from his mouth and hands. When the flames and the vapor dissipated, they had carved an opening at least seven feet long.
The Crown Prince turned to his men. "What are you waiting for?"
"Stop," ordered Iroh. "One hour of sleep for everybody. Good job."
It was the third time they had halted to get an hour of rest. They had advanced quickly through the ice, but it was extremely hard work. The haze produced when they melted the inlandsis blinded them and took longer to dissipate the farther they got into the frost. In the worst cases, it refroze on the walls, and they had to do it all over again. The rock ground was either so wet everyone slipped on it or, if the flames had burned for too long on it, was so hot their boots began to emit smoke. The cold, the moisture, and the wind which howled in the tunnel were unbearable and made their Firebending much weaker. A small part of the Firebenders regularly went back to their start to check if the gallery hadn't closed back.
Of all of them, the only one who never seemed to be exhausted was Yon Rha, who dutifully destroyed the frozen water without uttering a word, his entire body betraying his cool determination. I wish I had tens of soldiers like him, thought Iroh. The soldier's personal vendetta against Waterbenders was at times the only thing keeping him from fleeing. He didn't want to see the look in Yon Rha's eyes if he turned back. He had to bring justice. Jiuan and his spearmen had it easy. They just made holes and measured the distance travelled, but like all of the soldiers, the fabric of their uniforms was soaked. They carried several barrels in which fire burnt directly from Iroh's chi. It was the price to pay if they didn't want the Waterbenders to fight a batch of half-dead men.
All the soldiers huddled up around the blazing infernos and fell asleep almost immediately. Only Iroh stayed awake, feeding the fires. Minutes passed as quickly as old Snailsloths. Iroh sighed. Boredom really was a strong enemy for a soldier. As he contemplated the flames, his thoughts drifted away, and, half-dreaming, he saw Cixi before him. She was kissing him, and he untied her topknot and kissed her naked shoulder, and she...
He suddenly woke up as a light hand touched his shoulder. Jiuan's face was sympathetically watching him.
"The fires!" exclaimed Iroh. He quickly got up, but their flames were still as lively as ever.
"Don't worry. I saw you were dozing, so I woke up Foping." Behind the blaze, the private waved. Jiuan kneeled at his side and showed with an open arm the long tunnel they had patiently dug. "So far, so good," he told Iroh.
"I know; we even have extra time on the schedule. But it seemed so much easier on the paper..."
"It's always like that. But the plan is working wonders so far. I would have never believed mathematics could be that important. If I had known earlier, I would have paid more attention in class."
Iroh lightly laughed. That accidental nap had been excellent for him; he felt much less exhausted.
Jiuan coughed. "Are you..." He was whispering, obviously because he didn't want Foping to hear what he was uttering. "Are you done with your confusion and doubts?"
Iroh straightened. "Don't talk about that. If I begin to ruminate again about that, I'll flee in desperation from this tunnel. Or I'll be so distracted when we attack the Water Tribe that they will easily kill me." He grinned evilly. "And you'll be the one who will have to face Cixi and tell her I'm dead."
The kleptomaniac shivered, frightened. "Never mind." He observed the glittering blue-white surface of the ice, which was shimmering and shining like thousands of diamonds had been encrusted in it. "It's weird to say, but all this frozen water looks beautiful."
"Too bad the Waterbenders are about to use it to try to kill us," Foping grimly said.
At those words, memories started to flash in Iroh's mind: The sea, frozen. Everything freezing around him, the trees transformed into pillars of ice. The rumbling roar of the avalanche. And the ice, the ice which crept on him, and she raised her spear to end him, her face lit by the colors of twilight and he... he...
The Crown Prince blinked. "Yes?"
"You seemed away for a second."
"I was? I wasn't."
Jiuan looked for a pleasant topic to discuss about, but Foping beat him to it. "Sir? Isn't it still risky to attack Waterbenders through a tunnel of ice? Couldn't they easily wipe us away?"
"That's why I'm counting on the fact they aren't expecting a sneak attack. Besides, we have no proof they are in the city. Sure, it would be much simpler for us, but if they escaped the Southern Raiders' wave of attacks a decade ago, that means they must have left it at some point. Besides, the garrison which disappeared had ventured into the continent, but they still could have rallied the Water Tribe stronghold, as it is easier this way to attack." He shrugged. "Frankly, I don't know."
"Where did you have the idea of this assault?" asked Jiuan. "It is so... unusual."
"Isn't it a bit..." Foping blushed. "...cowardly?"
Iroh grinned. "I got it from Hayao. He told me that they would never expect the Fire Nation to attack in a different way that a brutal offensive. So I looked for un-Fire Nation-like stratagems and thought differently." He took a scroll from his backpack. "I made a lot of research on the Air Nomads. They would never attack people, but when they had no other choice but battle, they fought quicker-clever, and never made use of violence."
"The Air what now?"
"Erm. Wake up the troops. It's time to go."
As Foping awoke his comrades, Jiuan came at the right of Iroh, who was standing in front of the ice, where they had stopped working an hour ago.
"The Howl began again," he randomly told him.
Iroh stiffened. "Yeah. So I've heard." Sweat slid down his forehead.
"Don't you know what it is? You live where it happens."
Iroh started to play with his fingers. "I have no idea. In fact, until you told me, I didn't know it had started back."
"But how could you not..."
"Trust me, when I'm asleep, Sozin's Comet could thunder above my head, I wouldn't wake up." he assured his friend, obviously looking uncomfortable.
"And you really have no idea..."
"We all know the truth: It's the air that howls in the corridors. Nothing else. It's not my fault if the simple-minded believe that it's something supernatural."
"But it really does sound like a m..."
"Kaneshiro!" called Iroh. "Switch Laoshi on a Firebender!"
After painful experiences, they had discovered that if they lightly hit Laoshi on the temples with the saucepan, he wouldn't faint but change personality.
"How dare thou injure my person like this?"
"Now what'chya doin' with that chaucepan, sonnie..."
"Oh, no, not Id!"
"That would be now we'd need Sarge..." sighed Jiuan.
Laoshi blinked glamorously. "Iroh! My true love!!"
"ARGH!" screamed Iroh. "Hit her again, hit her again!"
This time, when Laoshi opened his eyes, there was no sign of madness in them, or there were so many that you couldn't catch sight of them. They were ardent, burning with the cold fires of determination and pride. From him irradiated tremendous charisma and intelligence. He noticed Iroh, his eyes widened a bit, and the most evil, wicked, sadistic smile the Crown Prince had ever seen came adorn the madman's face.
Kaneshiro gasped, horrified.
Thud. Thud. THUD!
"Will Vir do, Sir?"
The prince beheld Laoshi's body, which now was moving like if he was a hulking beast. "Sure. He won't attack us, right?"
"Vir? Attack? Only if you annoy him, Sir. But since you ask him to smash things, he'll be very happy to help. I hope."
"Very well. Vir, do you hear me?"
"I want you to make a tunnel from here."
"Yes, you'll follow my instructions. Will you do it?"
"Groumpf." The beastly man stomped to the end of the gallery.
"Not with your hands! With your Firebending!"
Iroh and Jiuan looked as their soldiers busied like bees in their underground passage and melted the ice, each flame reducing the distance between them and the Water Tribe city.
"My grandfather Sozin created the tradition to say that a man from the Fire Nation is never truly born before his first battle. That it's the blood, the tears and the sweat that are his cradle. In battle, a child becomes a man. It's almost a rite of passage."
"The Birth of Fire," concluded Jiuan.
"Am I ready for it? Are we?"
"There's only one way to find out my friend."
Jiuan scowled when he violently made the 1,368th hole. "That's it. We're here."
"Unless I'm wrong," Iroh told him.
"You won't be. I trust you. We all trust you here."
"Gee, thank you for adding me additional pressure, Jiuan. I really need it."
"Sir?" inquired Wazimeiwazi. "How are we going to know if the sun is rising or not?"
Silently, Iroh ignited his finger, then pushed it in the icy ceiling. Steam hissed. When he pulled it back, a tiny circular opening holed the ice, and through it could be seen the dark blue of a sky just before dawn.
"At least we're not inside an igloo," declared Kaneshiro.
Iroh was focused entirely on the heavens, which were getting clearer.
"Soon." He breathed. "Very soon."
Beyond the horizon, a fire was lit in the sky. Red, orange, yellow spread on the celestial fabric like ink on dry paper. The darkness, pierced by weapons of light, hissed and slowly retreated to the west, before fleeing to the other side of the Earth. Finally, the Solar Disk crossed the eastern gate and rose with majesty in the morning sky.
Near the steering wheel the pilot closed his spyglass. "Dawn." He called one of his subordinates. "Light the engines."
"Dawn," said Iroh.
A small inferno appeared in his hand.
A woman came out from the main igloo. She yawned and smiled. It was another beautiful, peaceful day; she had so many things to do.
She was in her early thirties and was beautiful. Her dark brown hair was tightly kept in a bun, save from her hair loopies which dangled in the morning breeze. Her eyes were the color of the sea and the sky, and she wore a blue choker around her neck.
Suddenly, she froze. A very light plume of smoke was rising from the west. A twin brother to the ones made by the funnels of the ships which had taken Hama. But... it couldn't be. They constantly had a warrior at the watchtower these days to prevent a night attack. And there was no black snow! If it was the Fire Nation, it would have snowed with soot already, and the ground was flawlessly white!
Perhaps, after all these years, faraway embers had entered the rusty furnace and the Shipwreck was smoking again?
The ice around her collapsed. Protecting her eyes from potential shards, she leaned against the wall of a house. She was blinded anyway by vapor.
A strong hand grabbed her by the throat and lifted her, strangling her. "Where are the Waterbenders?" asked a gruff voice.
She didn't understand what was happening. Who were these people? How had they entered the city without being noticed and killed by her husband's traps?
The man slammed her against the wall. "I said, where are the Waterbenders?"
"There are no Waterbenders left," she managed to say, barely breathing. "The Fire Nation took them all away."
"You're lying!" roared the man. "We know there are still free Waterbenders in the South Pole! They..." He sobbed. "They killed my brother!"
"Quiet, Yon Rha." intimated a calmer voice. The gruff-voiced man released her and she collapsed on the ground. The mist dissipated, and she was able to see her assailants. The one who had been strangling her was baboon-faced, and his eyes were filled with pain and rage. The one who had just talked was more handsome and a little shorter. He seemed very serene, and when he kneeled before her, she noticed his amber eyes.
She almost screamed.
"We don't want to hurt you or your people." he told her; he obviously was the officer in charge. "If you give us the information we want, we'll leave quickly and quietly. But if you don't cooperate, I promise you that there will be no city left tonight. I repeat my comrade's question: where are the Waterbenders?"
She spat in his face. The man who had strangled her - Yon Rha - kicked her, but she still starred at the officer with ostensible disdain.
"Do we kill her, Sir?" someone asked.
The officer wiped the saliva from his face. "No. Tie her with ropes. We will use her as a hostage if we have to. She might be useful to us."
As a soldier bound her, she yelled: "Nanook! Nanook! The Fire Nation is here!"
"Shut up!" The soldier tried to punch her, but she kicked him in the groin and escaped.
A man of the same age, trying to open the curtain at the entrance of the main house, tore it apart and threw a spear at Iroh, but he merely dodged.
"Attack! We're under attack!" the man bellowed. He was a stentor. The woman reached him, and he pushed her in the igloo. "To arms!"
All the doors of the other houses exploded, and in mere seconds the area around Iroh's troops was crowded with warriors clad in blue.
"Damnit!" swore Jiuan, who was on his knees after being kicked in a very painful place. "So much for a stealthy mission!"
And they jumped into combat.
Jiuan used the terrain to his advantage, sliding on the ice to increase his natural speed. He appeared seemingly out of nowhere, just taking the weapons and knocking the tribesmen out. Several warriors were concentrating only on him, throwing at him their lances, but Jiuan easily avoided them, jumped on the top of a nearby igloo, and leaped down, kicking their faces and breaking a few noses. A few feet to his left, Laoshi, still in Vir mode, was happily slapping the tribesmen with so much force they all flew backwards to be buried into the snow and knocking hostile heads together.
Yon Rha... was out for blood. He viciously attacked the Southern Water Tribe warriors, killing them, viciously disfiguring them with his flames, impaling them with their own blades. The snow was dripping red around him.
But the most outstanding sight, of course, was Iroh. He Firebent with incredible speed; his movements were blurred. A perpetual inferno revolved around him, like a miniature sun. Dozens of enemies were attacking him; in a minute they were all pushed backwards and in the igloos, but Iroh's forces were outnumbered: there were at the very least a hundred of combatants in the Water Tribe; of the Fire Nation soldiers were sixteen, and they were losing. This fight had to end quickly, or they would all be slaughtered.
Iroh had been waiting for the Waterbenders; but so far no water had behaved in a bizarre way. He intentionally was waiting for any sign of them, but when he saw Kazo's shoulder burst with blood, he knew he had to act quickly.
He caught sight of the chief - Nanook - who was at the far side of the battlefield, protected by four strong warriors.
After a severe injury in his back and on one of his legs, delivered by the Southern Raiders, he is unable to fight properly, if not at all.
Iroh smiled. He knew what to do.
With a strong kick to the head, he got rid of the tribesman who was assailing him and started to run. He was playing fair with them: they didn't have any bending, so he didn't use any. It wasn't like he needed it. He grabbed another warrior and shoved him in the snow.
The chieftain's main bodyguard was almost killed by one of his men who had been thrown and noticed this strong Fire Nation soldier who was closing on them at dangerous speed. "Protect your chief! Strike down this man!"
Iroh suddenly found himself the focus of a hundred glares.
"Hi" he told them.
All the warriors roared at once and charged.
With a quick spin of the arm, Iroh set all the incoming weapons alight, reducing them to ashes. As time was running out, he chose to use Firebending, albeit in a non-lethal way. Punching the air, he burned the arm of a warrior, ignited the air, sent a stream of flame to another's foreleg, and set aflame the boots of a third. Under the heat, the ice melted, and the Water Tribe warrior's legs sunk into the frozen water, effectively putting out the fire and preventing a grievous pain, but trapping him.
"Throw all of your weapons at him!" barked someone.
And it was what they did. A hundred of blades were hurled at the Crown Prince. I could just lie on the ground, avoid them, and watch as they kill one another.
His legs swiveled, his arms were raised, his chi shined.
He summoned a wall of fire, several feet high, and exhaled. It exploded in an enormous circle of fire, a growing blazing disk which incinerated all the weapons before stopping at an inch from the tribesmen's faces.
As Iroh was creating his wall of fire, someone - the very same person who had ordered his people to launch all available weapons at Iroh actually - tossed two balls of shiny black metal. The Crown Prince caught sight of them as they reached his flames.
His eyes widened.
Hayao had shown some to him, kept as souvenirs from the War. They were either filled with boom-powder or blasting jelly, but the result was the same.
With a quick thrust, Iroh propelled them upwards and protected himself with a shield of fire.
The bombs detonated. Fortunately, Iroh had pushed them in the sky, and they just destroyed the roofs of all the nearby houses. Unfortunately, they killed an innocent polar wasp-mosquito which was passing by.
A warrior attempted to knock down the Crown Prince with a club, but Iroh grabbed the weapon instead and used it against its master.
A horde of tribesmen rushed on Iroh, but he leapt with Firebending and began to run on the walls of the igloos. Several times people tried to kill him, yet he was only focused on the four warriors and their chief. His feet hammered the ice, slightly melting it each time there was contact. A boomerang closed on him, but he cartwheeled in the air and landed on the opposite wall. The bodyguards threw pikes at him, but he dodged, spun, and sent the fireball he had been charging for so long with his feet.
It exploded on the ground, carving a crevasse which expanded rapidly. Still descending, Iroh kicked one of the four soldiers in the back, and the man fell into the hole. He Firebent a ball of flames on the second - flames so powerful that the unlucky soldier was pushed backwards - and punched the third in the face, making him unconscious. The fourth attempted to protect his chief with a skin shield, but Iroh breathed fire on it, destroying it, and punched him harshly in the gut. The last warrior thus fell on his knees, writhing in pain. A fast kick, and he met his first companion in the crevasse.
Only the chief - Nanook – remained, holding a whale's tooth scimitar in his right hand. He had clear blue eyes, light brown skin, and some kind of huge wild topknot, which Iroh knew was called a warrior's wolf tail, and his face was adorned with one of the most intense display of hatred and rage Iroh had ever seen.
"Don't even think about using Firebending against me, Fire Nation scum," he uttered through gritted teeth, opening his left palm to reveal a sphere of boom-powder. "The slightest flame will send both of us to our graves."
"I won't have to resort to Firebending," retorted Iroh. He kicked the chieftain in the leg he knew was weak; the chief cried in pain and collapsed on the ground. Iroh put his foot on his back, causing some more whines, and yelled: "It's over! I will end your chief's life if you don't stop the battle!"
All fighting suddenly ceased. The warriors made way to Iroh's men, who assembled around their captain. A few were wounded, but all were alive. Thank you, spirits of fire. thought Iroh.
"We took over an igloo and used it as a fort," whispered Jiuan. "We wouldn't have survived otherwise. Three wounded, no dead. We hurt a lot of them but didn't kill many."
"If you tell me now where the Waterbenders are, we'll leave immediately," said Iroh, "and no one will be hurt, but persist in your silence, and this city and its inhabitants will be razed!"
"With what?" asked, behind the warriors, the woman that had spat on his face. "With sixteen soldiers?"
At this moment, Iroh's next phase of his plan sprung into motion. It began to snow.
Iroh smiled as the Water Tribe citizens all gasped with fear. Of course, they can't know this is only produced by one ship.
"I think you all know what that means," he declared. "The Southern Raiders are coming. Now, I beg you, tell me where the Waterbenders are."
Someone laughed under his foot. The chieftain, who obviously was in great pain, chuckled bitterly. "Who are you?"
"I'm Prince Iroh of the Fire Nation, son of Fire Lord Azulon and heir to the throne."
The hatred of all the present barbarians increased, if possible.
"Well, Prince Iroh, you are a fool if you want to make me believe a whole fleet is coming with just one plume of smoke." He nodded to the line of black ashes rising at the west. "There is only one ship, certainly not enough to destroy an entire city."
"Perhaps. But if I'm not back in one hour, that ship will warn the Southern Fleet. And they will wipe you out." It was a lie of course. He had never ordered anything like that. "But I don't think I'll need it." He pushed a little more on the chief's back, sensing the pain building up. "Now, tell me, if you treasure your life... Where. Are. The. Waterbenders?" Please, he thought. Please. Answer. I don't want to kill you. I'm not sure I'll be able to do it.
Nanook tried to get up, but Iroh shoved his head in the snow.
Resting on his shaking hands, the chief turned enough to look up on Iroh. "Congratulations, cold-blooded murderer," he snapped, his forehead covered with sweat. He strained heavily as he tried to sit upright, clearly in pain; his back was trembling convulsively. "You want to know where they are? Which ones, the ones suffering in solitude? The ones carted off to the Fire Nation swine never to feel the arms of their loved ones again?" He spat at Iroh's shoes. "Just kill me. I won't sell out my brothers to you."
Iroh remained frozen in his position, flabbergasted, fully conscious of the hundreds of warriors ready to hack them to pieces.
By the Seven Hells, what do I do now? He had to find a solution quickly, or they would be murdered on the spot.
From the corner of his eye, he saw a woman spying on them at the second floor of a neighbouring building. With a roar, he fired a stream of flames which destroyed the house. The woman fell on a heap of snow.
"Take her!" ordered Iroh.
Vir and Wazimeiwazi grabbed her by the shoulders and brought her to him.
"Tell me where the Waterbenders are," he called the Water Tribe people, "or I kill her."
Of course, he had no intention of doing so, but they didn't have to know that.
He put a threatening finger on her throat. He could feel the blood rushing very fast in her body, moved by terror.
"On the count of three..."
Nobody moved. They were petrified.
No one moved. Nanook closed his eyes.
Iroh felt a pearl of sweat leaving a watery trail on his neck. They wouldn't answer! Would he kill her? No! What was he going to do? What was he going to do?
A young man emerged from the crowd, tears in his eyes, and ran towards her. He was subdued by Iroh's men.
"I beg you!" implored the young man. "Don't kill her! Kill me instead!"
At this point, Iroh was feeling so uncomfortable he almost broke in tears too.
"I need to know where the Waterbenders are," he said, hoping no one paid attention to his shaking voice.
The young man's eyes went from his wife to Nanook and to his wife again. "They're not here." he finally confessed. "They're in their own stronghold in the mountains at the south of here. If you leave through the South Gate and walk in a straight line, you can't miss it."
"Thank you," Iroh sincerely told him. He turned to his men. "Kazo, can you walk?" he whispered.
"Y-yes, Sir." The private had put his hand on his wounded shoulder to stop the hemorrhage.
"Take the tunnel to the ship and send a black ribbon message to the Southern Raiders. Tell them that a maximum of troops should be sent to the mountain range to the south of the Water Tribe city. I also absolutely forbid them to attack the city. Is that clear?"
"How do I come back to you after that, Sir?"
"You won't. Stay on the ship and try to find someone who can heal that lesion. And rest."
"It's an order, Private."
He turned to Nanook. "You'll let us evacuate our wounded through the tunnel we dug. You are going to let us get out of the city without following us. We'll take the woman with us. If you don't obey, she'll die. If you swallow your pride and don't interfere, we'll free her. Is that clear?"
"Yes," groaned the chief.
"Good." They watched as Kazo ran to the tunnel and sunk into it. After a few minutes had passed, the fifteen men dragged the sobbing woman and exited the city.
Nanook tried to get up but fell back with a moan. His beautiful wife, teary-eyed, rushed at his side. He put a hand on her right cheek, and she put her own on his, openly crying now. "I was so worried about you," she admitted.
He smiled. "I'm fine. Don't worry, Kanna. That jerk just hurt my old battle scars, but he didn't wound me." He turned to his men with a stern look on his face. "That was the worst defense I have ever seen. They were clearly outnumbered, but they murdered some of us, and we killed none of them." He managed to sit, albeit with difficulty. "I will assume it was because we were surprised and unexpectedly to wake up early." He bared his teeth. "But I don't want that to ever happen again."
"Yes, Nanook." answered the chorus of warriors.
He drank some water Kanna had brought to him. "Maluk, take twenty men, cross the western plains, and determine how many men there are on this ship and how well-armed it is. If you can, try to sink it. Kares, as soon as Aatami's wife is back, destroy that tunnel. I want it reduced to rubble. Horuk, send one of your sons on the hidden roads to warn the Waterbenders. After, prepare fifty men to a journey in the tundra. We're going to stand with our brethren."
Resting on Kanna, he got up. They looked at the Southern Gate, and the little silhouette, still far away, who was running towards them.
"Why do you want to battle again?" she asked. "They'll never make it through your traps. And look." She pointed to the south, where dark clouds were gathering. "They're going to get caught in that blizzard."
"I know, Kanna." He kissed her. "But you're never too careful. Just in case, I want you to evacuate the city with the other women, the children, the elderly, and the sickly."
She beamed when Aatami raced through the gate to hug his beloved.
"Your plan worked, I guess."
"What do you mean?"
"All those skirmishes and attacks on the ships... It did bring here an important man. The Crown Prince, nothing less."
"Yes. By poking the snake in places it never expected, I did force it to come see by itself."
He grinned sadistically.
"And I intend to cut its head."
"I hate this country!" complained Jiuan. "It's so cold!"
The clouds were obscuring the sun, putting them in an early night. A blizzard was raging, harassing them with snow. The skull masks of their helmets had frozen and were now impossible to remove. Their clothes were as hard and fragile as glass. Iroh silently led. He felt horrible. The feeling he was doing something wrong kept stalking him. The distress and horror of this man who thought he would kill his wife haunted him. I can't do it. I must do it. I can't. I have no choice. Think to the mission first. Can you go home and announce to Father you failed?
That's what I think too. Just finish this mission. Then you'll go and tell Father you don't want to be in the army.
I can't do that either.
You can. You will. So far you didn't kill anyone. Perhaps you can capture them, like the Fire Nation did with the other Waterbenders?
Great idea! But... if I can't?
Don't think about it. Your duty now is to make everyone survive that blizzard.
"Okay, that's enough. We'll camp here!" he shouted. "It is pointless to try to move! Make the tents!"
The amazing thing with exhausted half-frozen soldiers is that they always manage to find supplementary energy if it allows them to be less exhausted and less frozen. In one minute, the tents had been built. In two minutes, everyone was inside. Iroh had put in each tent a Firebender and a non-bender. Kaneshiro ended with Laoshi, Yon Rha with Wazimeiwazi, and of course Iroh was the one who had to babysit Jiuan.
"Aaaaaaaaah!" exclaimed Jiuan when he entered in the warm tent. "A real fire in a suspended vat! How good! Iroh, I have komodo chicken. It's been a busy day for you. Do you want..."
But Iroh was already lost in a sleep filled with nightmares.
When he woke up, the first thing Iroh saw was black. Darkness. Wet darkness. He couldn't move a muscle, as something very heavy was weighting on each square inch of his body.
"What'chappenin?" muffled Jiuan, far beyond the wall of darkness. " 'roh? What'chappenin?"
"Dunno." anchwered - answered - the Crown Prince. "Waitachec."
His fist blazed and burned a hole in the darkness, which, from the sizzling sound, sounded like the fabric of the tent. He felt something very cold dripping on his hand.
Streams of fire departed his feet, palms and mouth, incinerating everything. Two seconds later, he and Jiuan stood in a blackened rectangle, in a seemingly endless snowfield.
Jiuan spat snow. "What happened?"
"I haven't the slightest idea." admitted Iroh.
"Where are the others?"
There were no other tents; they had been replaced with piles of snow. "Stay back," warned Iroh. He put his shaking hands on the nearest mass of snow, which evaporated to reveal a soaked tent. It opened.
"IROH MY LOVE!"
A saucepan struck Laoshi's head. "Good morning Captain Iroh."
"What happened to the tents?"
"Yesterday's blizzard buried them in the snow. We should move on."
They abandoned the camp, walking immediately, eating leftovers as Iroh wanted to keep the true food for their meal before their attack on the Waterbenders' stronghold.
The last meal for some of them.
I must not break down. Not now. Iroh repeated to himself, but his morale was crumbling. I found another enemy to the soldier: Depression. He grimly grinned. When everything isn't going your way ... It's so hard to remain confident.
It's not an opponent to soldiers, whispered a little voice in his mind, but to leaders.
I wonder if Father feels lonely sometimes.
No. He's too strong for that.
Mom and Hayao would say that depression isn't a sign of weakness.
But Father would think so. And he'd ensure he'd never drift towards such dangerous waters.
I wonder if Father loves me.
I don't know. But he won't if I don't do this.
He didn't want to think to what was coming. He only focused on the immediate present. One step after the other. One step after the other. Left. Right. Left. Right. It was so difficult. He repelled from his mind everything linked to what he was about to do, but it crept on the borders of his soul, dark storm clouds, threatening to unleash their might and wash him away.
If he had the choice, he would have left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Right.
He had to do it.
He didn't have another choice.
Laoshi was merrily cavorting before the others. He had woken up as Tad, a happy person, who had one obsession.
"BLUE PEBBLES!" Tad exclaimed with joy. Quickly he ran and hugged the tiny azure rocks.
"Tad is one of the automatic personas." Kaneshiro told Jiuan matter-of-factly.
"What do you mean?"
"He automatically appears in certain situations. If Sarge or Nebol or anybody else sees a blue pebble, BAM, they switch to Tad. Thanks goodness, blue pebbles aren't that common."
"Others like that?" Jiuan, like everybody else, was tiring, and had renounced to verbs.
"Er, there's Frothy Mouth Guy. If 42-Laoshi gets in a spiritual place or near a spiritual person, BAM, he's Frothy Mouth Guy."
"And what does this one do?"
"He just ... foams. And enters hysteria."
"Lao... Tad! Stay closer!" ordered Iroh, dark circles under his eyes, his face unshaved.
"BLUE PEBBLE!" shouted Tad. As he ran towards the innocent pebble, the ground opened under him, a hole filled with blades, daggers and knives.
Tad's eyes widened - with joy. "I'M COMING, PEBBLE!" he shouted, oblivious to the danger.
A strong hand grabbed his collar and pulled him back. Iroh actually pulled so hard that he almost threw Tad away.
The schizophrenic was teary-eyed. "My... pebble..."
The Crown Prince kneeled before the trap. "Chief Nanook... That must be his work..." he articulated with a worn out voice.
"I can't! I won't!"
Foping and Kaneshiro melted the ice on a long range, uncovering at least ten feet of blades in all directions - but one. "I don't think we have a choice." Jiuan pointed to the path which trailed among the patches of weapons. "We must go there."
"..e F... .a.io. ..s t..e. .v...t..ng ..o. me."
"It's a trap. It has to be. Chief Nanook would never leave such an opening. It's a trap." warned Iroh. He put a hand on his aching head.
".he F.r. .atio. h.s t.ken .v.ryth.ng f.om me."
"But what else can we do?" Jiuan asked him. "We can't melt all the blades! Either we follow that track, or we return to the ship!"
"THE FIRE NATION HAS TAKEN EVERYTHING FROM ME!"
"SHUT UP!" roared Iroh. "SHUT UP!"
All his soldiers were observing him as if he was an untamed beast. He felt his spirits sink. Before us, certain death for sure. Behind us, life, but disdain and hatred for me. I don't have the choice. I must go forward. I have to. I don't have the choice.
But they do.
"Listen, everyone," he shouted with his old, tired voice. "I will continue. But I won't force any of you to accompany me. You can all go. I will go to wherever those Waterbenders are, or at least I'll try to. But go. Really. I won't hold any grudge towards you. I'll write a paper which will certify you didn't desert and abandon me, so you won't have any problem once you're home."
"I won't leave you, Iroh," Jiuan declared. "I didn't come here because of a quest for glory or patriotism but to watch the back of my friend."
"Why would we leave, Captain?" asked Kaneshiro. "We all came here, we all enlisted in the army to serve our country, not to flee whenever there's a problem. We don't fear hardship. We don't fear death if it has a purpose. We're ready to affront both and we're ready to be with you." He turned to his companions. "Don't we?"
His question was met with twelve silent approbations. Iroh felt a knot form in his throat. "Thank you. You have no idea of what it means to me. I'll try to be worthy of you."
They followed the snow trail. Iroh was leading, shooting continuous streams of fire from his palms to reveal the blades. After an hour of walking, they entered a small snow plain not far from the mountains, where there was not a single trap.
"Damnit. Now we're in for the real deal." he announced. "Wherever and whatever it is. Keep moving."
They kept moving, and yet no doom-laden ingenious trick befell on them.
"Perhaps the trap is that there is no trap?" Jiuan hoped. "Like, they knew we'd think 'Oh, holy hippocow, if there's a clear path, that means there's trap at the end. Better go back to the Fire Nation.', making all of this a hoax?"
"No, I don't think that Nanook is the kind of person to take such a risk," muttered Iroh. "If we didn't die, that means he wants us to loosen our guard and become overconfident." His foot got caught in a string, triggering the rising of ice spears. He quickly blew fire, thawing them. "See?"
"We must not panic. Don't panic." repeated Jiuan. "What do we do?"
"Just like before," replied Iroh. "Long-range fire." He sent from his left hand a river of fire which touched the ground six feet farther, burning a few more wires and uncovering pikes and flying daggers which irregularly littered the land. A few times, fragile snow crumbled to reveal apparently bottomless pits.
"Troops, don't step where I didn't set foot," he ordered. They wearily crossed the hostile landscape, observing with some pleasure stilettos regularly hitting a slap of rock when they weren't even close.
Iroh's mood was getting better with each trap rendered ineffective. I'm going to do it. I actually am going to do it. We actually will prevail.
"There's one thing that bothers me, Captain Flamethrower," Jiuan told him. "Who else would like to kill the Waterbenders?"
He looked at his kleptomaniac friend curiously. "No one but us. Everyone else would like to protect them I guess."
"That Nanook is quite intelligent, right?"
"Then isn't it strange that all traps can be so easily disabled by Firebending?"
SCHTAK! A cord smoldered, a spring sprung. Iroh pushed Jiuan in the snow and shouted, "EVERYONE FLEES!"
Lances had been propelled in a straight line, aimed in their exact direction. But thanks to Iroh's warning, almost everyone had had the time to hide in time.
Mozi, a spearman, was nailed to the ground, his blood dying the snow. He had been lucky; the weapon had only perforated his left ribs.
Lee, on the other hand, hadn't been that fortunate.
He was dead. A lance in the heart. Another in the head.
Iroh... Iroh slowly approached the dismantled body and kneeled in the blood and put his fingers on the broken face to close the eyes but where were the eyes now death had been so swift to come.
The Crown Prince's irises were shining with the inferno of rage. He was crying. He got up, breathing heavily and rose his blood-stained fist to the north - to the Southern Water Tribe city.
"HE HAD COME HERE TO BE FREED FROM HIS POOR LIFE!" he roared. "THE ARMY WAS HIS GATEWAY TO FREEDOM! HE WASN'T TWENTY! AND YOU KILLED HIM! YOU KILLED HIM, NANOOK! BEFORE I LEAVE THE POLE, I SWEAR, I WILL TEAR YOUR BODY APART, AND YOUR PEOPLE WILL DROWN IN YOUR BLOOD!"
He turned to his remaining men, who all instinctively took a step backwards.
"Take Mozi to a safe place. I'll burn the body."
He took a Firebending stance and summoned a very powerful flame, to which he fed his anger, his sorrow, his grief, his feeling of failure.
"I'm sorry Lee," he whispered as the body withered and blackened. "I'm so sorry." The fire hissed in the frozen moor.
"There!" Jiuan pointed to the south. Several megaliths formed a small grotto in the middle of the ice plains. They dragged Mozi in it, who became weaker by the minute. Drops of blood left a frail ruby trail in the white snow.
"Very well, put Mozi on the ground. Kaneshiro, light a fire. Wazimeiwazi, give me your towel," ordered Jiuan.
The private slightly blushed. "I don't have one, Sir."
"What? But the towel is the most useful item in existence! I would have torn it to make some bandages. Yon Rha, give me yours."
While hacking Yon Rha's towel in pieces, Jiuan thanked the spirits for having thought to learn the basics of medicine from Hayao before leaving. Please, please, may the lung not be pierced.
"I need strong men to pull the spear out of Mozi's breast. As soon as you'll have taken it, he'll begin to lose blood rapidly. The others will help me strap up his wound."
They took the spear out of his body. Amongst the shower of blood, Jiuan looked and saw.
Outside the cave, everyone else was anxious. Either they looked for Iroh, or they whispered sadly with each other. All but...
"BONES!" shouted Tad happily.
He turned around the cavern, excited. "Bones! Bones! Lovely bones!"
"Where did you see bones, Tad?" asked Kaneshiro. "Can you show me?"
"Sure!" twittered Tad. He took his friend to the opposite of the grotto's entrance and grabbed a giant femur. "There! You see? A lovely bone!" Tad hugged the femur. "I love you, lovely bones!"
Kaneshiro was stunned. "Guys," he called, "you gotta see this."
The other soldiers ran and stopped dead.
"Oh shoot," swore Yon Rha.
"Why, why always us?" lamented Wazimeiwazi.
The ancient ivory ribs of an enormous animal laid broken in the snow, shattered by strong teeth.
"I really, really hope that whatever killed that animal isn't going to show up," prayed Yoro.
Karma is, as mentioned previously, sadistic and playful. If its ethereal ears hear such an utterance as "I really, really hope that whatever killed that animal isn't going to show up," then it will shout with pleasure and ensure that what the uttering person uttered and feared (in this case "whatever killed that animal") is going to happen/arrive in the next second.
A creature roared behind the hills. A roar that came from something really bad, really big, and really hungry.
Wazimeiwazi glared at Yoro. "Couldn't you just shut up?"
Mounds of white fur crossed the hills. Their heavy paws entered deep in the snow. Strong legs bore a powerful ursine body. Their head was bear-like too, but their square jaw was definitely feline. A long tail wagged for balance.
"What the heck is that?" yelled Yoro.
"Polar Leopards," said Yon Rha. "The ultimate predator in these regions."
"How do you know that?"
"I made a bit of research before enlisting."
"They must have smelled Mozi's blood's scent." Kaneshiro frowned thoughtfully. "What should we do? Run?"
"No, we must barricade ourselves in the grotto and protect Mozi."
"C'mon Tad!" shouted Kaneshiro. "Let's go!"
Laoshi smiled. "That is very kind of you to worry about my well-being. Persons valuable like you are so hard to come now." He beamed further. "Do you like tea?"
"Damnit!" swore Laoshi. "Reyortsed."
They retreated to the cave and made the entrance collapse with their Firebending.
"What's happening?" demanded Jiuan, his face covered with red drops.
Enormous fangs tried to chew through the rock.
"Mozi's loss of blood has attracted predators, Sir. Big ones. We're doomed."
A feral punch on the walls provoked a miniature earthquake; claws screeched against stone Jiuan put a hand on his eyes. "No. It can't be. There's always a solution. We'll figure something."
"I'm sure you will," Laoshi told him. "You're an intelligent young man."
Jiuan curled his lips in a moue. "Who's that?"
"It's Laoshi as Reyortsed, Sir." explained Kaneshiro. "He's mad."
"Yes, I knew that already."
"No... I mean he suffers from schizophrenia."
"You're repeating yourself Kaneshiro."
"I mean that particular persona is mad, Sir."
There would have been a long silence, hadn't the Polar Leopards been patiently destroying everything.
"You mean that this madman has one of his personas who is mad himself?"
"This is crazy!"
"I think that word might hurt his feelings. How about 'insane'?"
"How many personalities does this one have?"
"Oh, only two, Sir. Now he's all calm and serene. But if I dare untie his topknot..."
"Well, he'll have all the powers and homicidal tendencies of the Doombringer, but without the intellect or the intent of killing us. Us necessarily. He's like an evil Sarge."
"Unleash him on those beasts now! He's our only chance!"
"Aye aye Sir. Everyone goes to the other side of the cave please."
Kaneshiro slowly caught the ribbon holding Laoshi's hair back. He pulled it. It got in his hands.
As strands of brown hair fell on the sides of the side of his face, Laoshi straightened as tension invaded his muscles. He clenched his fists and scowled. "Who is ready to be destroyed?" he announced wickedly.
"I personally am not." answered Kaneshiro. "But out there, there are plenty of Polar Leopards who want nothing less but fight you."
Reyortsed cracked his knuckles.
The northern portion of the cave exploded. The predators stopped growling, astonished.
"JERKS!" yelled the mad madman. "JERKS! ALL JERKS! YOU'RE GONNA SEE WHAT I DO TO JERKS, TO ALL JERKS, YOU BUNCH OF JERKS!"
The men averted their eyes from the following deflagration.
"When he'll be done with them, how will we put him back to normal?" inquired Jiuan.
"Well, either we tie back his topknot, or we use the old saucepan trick."
"And if we can't reach him in time?"
"Well, if he..."
"...if he has nothing left to destroy, he'll go look for some other stuff to burn."
"Which means us, right?"
"... TEAR YOU, FLAY YOU, DISEMBOWEL YOU, SLAUGHTER YOU ALL!"
The Polar Leopards were no fools. When a few of them were killed in seconds, some were intelligent enough to flee. A few howled, calling to someone - or something.
Reyortsed sent a fireball straight through one of the beasts' heart and killed another with a quick dagger of flame between the eyes. He leapt above the animal's corpse and launched a stream of fire to another member of the pack.
Behind Jiuan, someone moaned.
"Daang, Mozi." he cursed. A quick look at the wound was enough to alarm him. "Someone helps me to cease the hemorrhage!"
"COME HERE YOU FURRY CRITTERS!" bawled the rabid Reyortsed. "TASTE MY FLAMES!"
The ground quaked. All of the remaining alive predators - preys in this case - ran far from the Firebender and his new opponent.
His brethren had called for him. And he had answered them.
He was eight feet tall, a Polar Leopard like the others. His scars testified of the great battles he'd been in. The fact he was alive proved he had won them all. His fur shined with a metallic glow. He was the alpha male.
"A BIG CUB ALL FOR MYSELF!" bellowed Reyortsed. "COME IF YOU THINK YOU'RE TOUGH ENOUGH!"
With a thrust of the paw, the alpha male threw him against the cave, knocking him down. He then headed for the intoxicating smell of blood which had aroused him.
"Don't even think about it."
Being an animal, the beast of course didn't understand a word, but it still turned to face this new enemy.
Iroh was there. His face was dirtied with soot, blood and tears. He looked exhausted - and full of hatred.
"I am too tired for that. I'm fed up with all those seemingly endless obstacles between me and my goal."
The monster roared and tried to tear the Crown Prince with its one-foot long claws, but with one hand he prevented the laceration by catching one of the keratin blades. With the other hand, he incinerated the paw. The Polar Leopard wailed, his cry as strong as thunder.
"I have no patience left." Iroh ignited his index and middle fingers from each hand and plunged under the creature. He cut the nerves of each leg. The beast collapsed; Iroh escaped crushing by a calculated roll in the ice.
"One of my men was lightly injured." The animal tried to charge, but he dodged its unbalanced body. "One of my men is deeply wounded." He violently slapped its muzzle when it tried to bite. "And one of my men is dead."
With a roar of triumph, the alpha male grabbed Iroh's arm between its canines, lifting him.
"And you think I am going to let some furry fiend kill the others?"
He wrapped his entire arm in flames and made explode the yellow teeth of the beast, breaking its maw in the process.
Iroh stood up. "I've been too far." He grabbed the monster's black nose. "I've lost too much!" Smoke spiraled from the creature's snout; it yelped.
The furious, mad, amber irises of the Crown Prince met the terrified yellow eyes. "And I will not allow anything else to obstruct my path again."
Fire perforated the Polar Leopard's skull.
Iroh turned to the cave. Broken burnt boulders were everywhere; Laoshi's unconscious body lay on the ground; the other troopers were looking at him in an awkward way, both fearful and respectful; and Jiuan, his face covered with blood and adorned by an expression of pain, held Mozi's body.
They climbed the rocky mountains of the South Pole, avoiding numerous times boulders triggered by traps. Yoro had his forearm sliced opened by a spear launched by a mechanism built out of bones, and Iroh had to burn the laceration to close and disinfect it. Fortunately, they finally reached their destination. It was there, just before them. Iroh contemplated it on the very edge of the mountain. Had he made one more step, he would have plummeted to his death.
"Are you ready?" asked Jiuan. "How do you feel?"
"I'm not feeling anything," Iroh confessed. "Right now, I don't want to feel. But I will do it. I have no choice. I will do it."
Jiuan remained silent, not knowing what to say. "Our skirmish in the Water Tribe doesn't really count. It was so short. There will be your Birth of Fire."
"Where I will be reborn. Either as a better man. Or a worse person."
Jiuan put a hand on his shoulder. "Whatever you become, I'll be at your side and help you. Always."
Iroh raised an eyebrow. "Even if I become a worse person?"
"Especially then. Who otherwise would have the guts to kick your butt to put you back on the right path? With the exception of Cixi, I mean," the kleptomaniac quickly added.
Iroh smirked. "Cixi."
Jiuan sighed. "Cixi."
"Thank you, my friend. For never leaving me in the darkest times."
"It is you I must thank. For being my friend."
They stood silently on the cliff. It descended into the snow far below, the grey rock blending with the white ice, before the latter curved upwards, a defiant finger, challenging the heavens. The ice rose, descended, bent in columns, balconies and elegant undulations. Its blue and white hues spiraled in frozen waves and sculpted half-moons in the walls. All of this curled and coiled, twisted and arched, before soaring skyward, forming the lone shape of the Ice Citadel.
To be continued in Sozin's Blood - Chapter 9 : Birth of Fire
- The nightmare of Iroh is partly prophetic. Especially the Hayao part.
- Iroh's phrase "It's not magic, it's Firebending!" is a reference to a very similar sentence someone utters in "The Boy in the Iceberg".
- I chose to give Iroh the last name "Huo" (which means "Fire" in Chinese) in a reference to real-world members of royal families who forsake their titles and take surnames when joining the army. Naming the Spirit of Fire "Huo" is a reference to TAD's fanon, (which I highly encourage to read), where there is a similar character. Other DAA references can be found in the beginning of the poem Nebol recites, or Jiuan's use of the curse word "Daang".
- You may notice that Iroh begins at the bottom of the army, being a captain, when Azula was akin to Generals at age 14. That issue will be discussed in a chapter of Book 2.
- Naming Yon Rha's brother "Jiang" is a reference to the Bos' fanon " ".
- The skeleton Laoshis found is actually belonging to a Sky Bison from the Southern Air Temple, named Aela. It fled, injured, and was killed by the Polar Leopards when she landed in the South Pole, agonizing. It was the Sky Bison belonging to Jinju.
- Before anyone asks, yes, the persona of Laoshi Iroh almost met in the tunnel, with the most evil, vile, sadistic and wicked smile he'd ever seen was the Doombringer. And yes, I'll give the Doombringer more screen time. Wait for next chap.
- The Ice Citadel is a reference to ATLAR, even though we didn't see it yet.
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|Sozin's Blood Chapters|
|Book 1: Sparks|
|The Second Prince - A Typical Day - The Twenty-First Day of the Eighth Month - To Live - The Beach, Part 1 - The Beach, Part 2 - Inconsistencies - Interlude : Cixi Alone - Southwards|