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2 September 2014
I couldn't hear, and I could barely see, but I could taste and smell the smoke from the ceaseless explosions occurring all around me. I could feel the ground rumbling with every ear-piercing boom. My eyes could make out flashes of red and orange, as well as the shadows of helpless workers stampeding past me without even glancing down. There was one exit, and far too many people trying to find it.
The more senses I regained, the more obvious it was that I was going to die. Most of the ceiling on the other side of the factory had caved in, heavy machinery was collapsing and crushing human bones, and the mystically volatile powder was exploding where people least expected it. I wanted to shout "Stay away from the vents!" but I was both too weak and too learned from my father's survival lessons to save someone else before myself. Ironically, I was going to go down just like my father: trapped in a combusting building with absolutely no possibility of escaping.
When the pipe I was chained too began to shake, I knew it was coming. I closed my eyes, bit my lip, and for the first time in my life, I prayed to the spirits my father worshipped. On the off-chance they were listening and gave two shits about my life, it was worth a try.
The pipe vibrated harder and harder, until I heard an awful bursting noise and suddenly a hiss from the hot gas that sprayed into my face. I screamed profusely from a level of pain I had never experienced. I couldn't hear anything else over the sounds of my own crying. For a moment I thought I was on fire, and it took almost a minute for me to realize what had actually happened. When the gas subsided, I timidly looked up to see there was a sizable gap in the pipe, and, with the floor trembling under my feet like an active volcano, I stood cautiously and guided the chain to the opening.
The sprint to the door was a blur, my shoes barely guarding me from the broken glass across the floor and part of my face nearly peeling off from the extreme heat it had undergone. Nevertheless, I was able to force my body at the door, and when the most massive explosion of the event shook the entire factory, I was able to throw myself over a cluster of bodies to where I could finally look up and see the blue sky.
Crowded around me was a mass of injured people, wounded, bleeding, scorched, sobbing. Only a few more workers had managed to escape before the remainder of the structure crumbled, and part of the outer wall fell forward and crushed two guards that never saw it coming. It was a horrifying and gruesome comparison to the burning of my home, the death toll in the factory being far higher but the level emotional significance to me not even close.
As I rose to my feet and got my bearings, I overheard an urgent and distressed conversation amongst guards.
"The prisoners escaped!"
"How? What happened?"
"We don't know! We sent a group to check on the girl, but then we heard an explosion. And it was after the factory started going down!"
"Sir, two of the guards' bodies were undressed from their uniforms!"
"That means they're disguised as us! Split up and search the compound!"
The band dispersed, leaving two to spot me and stare quizzically at my scars and chains.
"Hey, you! Stop where you are!" Just as the pair began to storm over, a dash of green appeared behind them. Nightmare sprung up and kicked both of them into the ground.
"Yes, Nightmare!" I cried. "Good boy!" He dashed over and gladly crunched my chains with his unstoppable jaw, and once again, I was a free woman. I was all too gleeful to jump on his back and make a beeline out of the compound, only needing to send one fire wheel at a woman who tried to stop me.
"All right, buddy," I whispered into Nightmare's ear. "Let's go rip off Jirou's head."
My mongoose dragon licked his chops, and I wondered if somehow he held an equal amount of animosity towards Uma. Then again, to match the level of sheer hatred I had for that despicable garbage who calls himself a man was nearly impossible.
We charged out of Upolu and up the steep dirt path to the Savaii gate, where a single guard jumped to attention.
Nightmare tackled him down with a total of zero shits given and his rapid legs moved faster than ever. I could only imagine the lightning my father could generate as soaring that quickly. After about five minutes of a full-on sprint, however, he did slow gradually. When he came to a complete stop, his head perked up. Growling, he sniffed around the vicinity, digging occasionally into the dirt. Soon, he stopped his sniffing, looked up, pointed his neck, and let out one long breathe before continuing to walk, constantly accelerating until he was once again racing.
Unfortunately, the hunt drew on for hours, an amount of time for which Nightmare obviously couldn't run. I made him walk until he slowed to a crawl, then stopped for a short nap. We couldn't have been too far beyond Jirou, but if I pushed my pet to the point where he collapsed I'd never catch up. The naps got longer and longer and the pace slower, until daylight turned to dusk and dusk to darkness. Knowing Jirou had to have stopped at some point, I prepared Nightmare for one final push under the stars.
"This is it. No more breaks. We're finding them."
In just ten more minutes through grassy plains, we reached a path that curved around a rocky hill, where Nightmare stopped and growled, his attention focused on whatever was on the other side of the hill.
"Shhhh," I pleaded, checking the weapons in my robe and stepping onto the dirt. "Wait here."
My heart beat like a drum as I tip-toed up the hill. I could tell a campfire was set on the other side, and I knew that sleeping beside it was the monster who had tried to kill me. He was about to try again, as I was to him. And I knew that this time, we weren't both making it out alive.
A figure shot up from the other side of the rocks, and suddenly I ducked to avoid two orange blasts. When he mounted himself on the high ground, Jirou was relentless with quick jabs, each one sending a lethal burst my way. I blocked all but the last with concise movements of my wrist, until I was knocked off my feet. Still just a shadow in the darkness, Jirou kicked down a line of fire that could've cut me in half if I didn't roll to my left at the last second.
I jumped up to block more attacks.
"You. Should. Be. Dead!" Jirou roared in between shots.
I raised a wall of blue fire between my assailant and myself, then pushed it in his direction.
"I'm not finished quite yet!"
He propelled himself over the wall and sent down a spiral of embers.
My once-ally scoffed. "What are you gonna do? Kill me? Then what? How do you save your sister from there?"
At that moment, we simultaneously fired strong blasts from our fists, and they collided into a cloud of smoke that blocked my eyesight.
"You need me just as much as I needed you!" I hollered into the darkness. "You know you can't finish these missions without me!"
Suddenly, I felt Jirou's arm reach around my throat, and I coughed and gagged as he choked me. I pressed my palms against his arm, and his skin sizzled as I seared it.
He let out a ferocious cry and sent me flying back. What I saw next, I had no way of predicting.
Unexpectedly, Jirou calmed himself. He entered a wide stance. Breathing in and out, he moved his right arm in a circle, then his left, then his right, then his left. Blue sparks set off from his fingertips, and these sparks turned into lines of electricity.
Without warning, Jirou lashed out, and I barely evaded the deadly bolt of lightning that crashed into a rock behind me. Undeterred, he prepared to attack again.
"Jirou wait!" I pulled a parchment from my robes. "You need these blueprints!"
He stopped, at least willing to hear where I was going.
"They're for the weapon Wadze was designing," I continued, holding the paper out in front of me. "Destroy this and you fail this mission. Go ahead and kiss your dreams of seeing your wife goodbye."
Amazingly, he stood down, and I crept towards him for what seemed like an hour, dripping sweat and almost fainting. During that time, I thought about what he said. I did need him to free Ming, and really needed me just as much.
He held out his hand to accept the blueprint, but when I got close, I torched it.
"Listen!" I slapped his face and kneed him in the stomach. As he fell, I grabbed his collar. "Listen to me!"
When he struggled, I struck him again.
"You don't want to kill me! I'm the only thing you've got!"
"I had orders. The Crown wanted you gone after your performance at the temple."
"So say you killed me! Report back to them! Say you finished me off! And then you'll still have my help in the missions, and together we'll both see our family!"
I could tell he was giving serious consideration to my plea.
"We were friends, Jirou! We've been through Hell and back together! We shared intimate moments! You don't want to throw that all away right now! Kill me, and how long is it before they come for you? When that day comes, when we need to turn on the Crown, when we need take our destiny into our own hands to save the ones we love, we can do it together! We need each other Jirou. I want to save my sister. You want to be with your wife. And I know we both want to see Sozin dead!"
When I was finished, I showed the ultimate sign of trust and vulnerability by letting go. I took a few steps back and paused.
Jirou remained on the ground for a long time, but when he stood up, he didn't have his fists clenched. Instead, he spoke back, and I could tell from his voice that tears were gathering in his eyes.
"I do need you Nalia, but we can't do this together. I can't risk that."
He must have been joking. You tried to kill me, I thought, and you can't risk being with me? Still, I had to appease him. "So what can we do? What can we do so we're united when Sozin is trying to tear us apart?"
He cleared his throat. "I was given two additional tasks besides terminating you. One is to gather information from some military base. That's no problem for me. The other is... I- I can't."
"You can't say it?"
"No, it's- I have to kill the chief of the Sun Warriors."
"Who is that?"
"The Sun Warriors are an ancient civilization of Firebenders. The greatest Firebenders whoever lived. They understand what Firebending is really about. My grandfather raised me with stories of their ways of peace, and even though I've spread so far from the values I grew up with, I could never harm the only people on this planet that aren't trying to use bending for evil. I've had to test myself before, but never like this."
There was a long time during which neither of us spoke. We stood feet apart from each other in silence. I knew what he was asking. He wanted me to take on the mission for him. From what he told me of the Sun Warriors, my father would approve of them, and he would certainly be disgraced if I did such a horrible act against them, but what choice did I have? I had never heard of this group and the alternative was execution at the hands of the man I was convincing to spare me.
"I'll do it."
- In the original draft of this chapter, the "confrontation" referred to in the title was between Nalia and her father in the form of a vision. The squabble with Jirou was set to take place in the following chapter.
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