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25 July 2014
The previous night was good for me. I knew engaging Jirou in sex would be something I'd regret for the remainder of my life, however long that would be, but I needed it. A lot of the stress trapped underneath my skin escaped through my sweat and my breaths. The dreamt visit from my father was just as necessary. It refocused me to get the job done, to get all the jobs done. I vowed to spend each morning envisioning myself walking out of the Fire Nation capital city with my sister holding my hand, as free women. I'd take her to where my house once stood, where we would build a memorial to my father, complete with a painting of him and an everlasting blue flame.
I planned on leaving the Fire Nation after that, going somewhere they could never find me. The Air Temples seemed like a smart choice, unless they planned on burning them down a second time during the next great comet just for shits and giggles.
We could live in the Northern Water Tribe, I thought. Is freezing your ass off the going price for safety and freedom nowadays?
Perhaps I could find refuge in the walls of Ba Sing Se. I genuinely pondered this thought for a moment, but then I figured there would be rocks through my window the moment someone suspected me of being a Firebender.
Air Temple it is.
Then a much more pleasant thought entered the realm of the mind. It was an image, a picture of my lean, fit legs crossed at the end of the Fire Nation palace's throne, with my sister sitting to my left and Sozin's head on a pike to my right. The wall of blue flame roaring behind me was reflected in my golden crown, and the only time my lips had to move was when a high ranking Fire Nation official was brought before me and I got to say "imprisonment," "banishment," or "death."
"How'd you sleep?" The overall feeling I had when Jirou interrupted my daydreaming was annoyance. Couldn't he have just stayed inside the tent and left me to enjoy the sunrise by myself?
"Fine, I suppose."
"Have you given any thought to what you'd rather do?" he asked, scratching his head. We had tried to avoid thinking over the possible consequences for our failure at the Fire Sages' temple. Given that we hadn't heard from the Crown, we thought maybe it was done with us. Sozin wasn't one to forget loose ends, so going into hiding was a reasonable plan of action. The question was: would we rather dwell among the wilderness or risk moving into a village under a false alias of a married couple?
"I don't think there's anywhere they won't find us. It's like the trees have ears."
He offered a short grunt as an acknowledgement of my humor and proceeded to chomp down on a piece of fruit. "Would you ever consider leaving the country?"
"Not while Ming is still in their clutches." I sat up on my log and continued poking the burnt out fire pit with a long stick. "Do you think Ming is still..."
Jirou knew I wouldn't be able to finish my question. "Your sister is alive," he said assuredly. "They'd have no reason to kill her. She's probably Long's personal servant or something. She's living a shitty life, but she's alive. Never assume someone to be dead unless you saw them die with your own eyes, like your father."
I opened my mouth to answer, then paused. "I didn't see my father die," I corrected him quietly.
My partner seemed almost astonished by what I said. "What? You didn't watch him die?"
"The last thing I saw was my house burning down with my father still trapped inside." Usually I wasn't one for being open and honest, but I had nothing to lose.
"I don't see what's so funny!" I snapped.
"You mean to tell me that your father, a master Firebender, was trapped in a fire, so you assumed that he died without any proof?"
Finally getting what he was hinting at, I ran out of patience. "My father is dead, Jirou. There's no way-"
"No way what? That an expert could have redirected the heat from the flames and created an opening big enough for him to escape? That happens all the time!"
"He would have found me if he was alive!"
"How? Would he have barged right into the palace and rescued you? Or would he have tracked you all the way here? I'm sure you father was a clever man but no one is that clever."
I wasn't going to entertain any false hopes in my mind. "He's dead, Jirou, period."
My fellow Shepherd didn't get the chance to debate me further. Nightmare's keen senses spotted something in the sky, and he stood abruptly to growl as it swooped closer to drop a long tube on the ground and fly away in the blink of an eye.
Neither of us rushed to get it. We just sat there and looked at it dubiously before we started making lighthearted guesses as to what could be inside. We mused the idea of letters granting our freedom complete with enough gold to get us through the month, or perhaps it was a bottle of the world's deadliest poison, compliment of our ever-so-thoughtful government.
"Are you gonna pick it up?" an uninterested Jirou asked dryly. "Better you than me in case it's an explosive."
Part of me hoped it was an explosive when I reluctantly made the exhausting effort necessary to stand up and walk at least five feet to retrieve our present. I sighed as I bent my knees to reach the small capsule and opened it. I didn't see the roll of parchment pop out, but I felt it hit my feet and again I had to reach all the way down to the ground, which required another heavy sigh.
Like always, the letter bore the traditional Fire Nation seal as well as the insignia of our most secret organization.
"Shepherds," I read aloud, "The village of Upolu is located in the valley of the Upolu Volcano, home to one of the most technologically advanced military weapons factories in the Fire Nation. Since Mayor Wadze was charged with oversight of the factory's production, the laborers have changed dramatically, deliveries to the army have decreased, and suspicious activity has been reported. The Shepherd originally sent to investigate Wadze's actions has disappeared, confirming that he is either an anti-war Earth Kingdom sympathizer or a direct beneficiary of the resistance. Your instructions are to terminate Wadze and destroy the factory."
Puzzled, I turned the parchment over to reveal a map from the rural village Jirou and I had robbed to Upolu.
"How do they keep finding us?" I shrieked in disbelief. "The trees must have eyes!"
Jirou chuckled. "Would you be surprised if they did? Sozin has eyes and ears everywhere. He hears whispers and songs from all over the world. There is no corner you can hide from him."
As pleasant as that thought was, I had more important things to turn my attention to. "So I guess this means we're still Shepherds."
"It means we're still alive," retorted Jirou. "Good news." Can't beat that logic.
I was still doubtful. "But we failed at the temple..."
"Failed to what?" he snorted. "Find an Avatar that wasn't there?"
Again, he had a point. He also had a gigantic, ugly man-eating beast that was ready for a long ride. My own pet looked like he could stretch his legs as well, so we set off, just two morning riders planning how they could most efficiently destroy an entire weapons factory. Nothing unusual.
We spent the first couple hours thinking to ourselves, but it was clear that neither of us were coming up with anything useful. "It will probably be metal, so we can't burn it down," I noted. "What kind of weapons could they be manufacturing anyway? And why does he want us to destroy the factory? If we kill Wadze, the factory becomes a good thing again, doesn't it?"
"It doesn't matter," responded Jirou plainly. "We have our orders, and for now, we have our heads."
"Yes we do," I agreed. Studying the map, I realized we were originally closer to Upolu than we thought, which was certainly a welcome discovery.
Jirou yawned. "Let me see the map."
I just glared at him and rolled my eyes. "You didn't even say please." With that, I smiled and had Nightmare walk just a few paces quicker, pulling ahead of my partner and his giant beast. Not to be outdone, he had Uma speed up as well, and before I knew it, two mature, professional murderers were in a heated race that made us look like children.
I'm sure you can imagine how awkward it was when we ran into a colossal and daunting metal gate guarding a long, narrow path through a hillside, complete with two uniformed guards on either side and a few more watching over from hills just above us.
"This is the Savaii Gate," announced one spearmen loudly. "Beyond here is the town of Upolu. State your business."
Quick! Rapid-fire bullshit! "My brother and I are traveling to see our sick mother." I paused, expecting to be granted entrance immediately.
The soldier looked skeptical. "On your mongoose dragon and your... er...?"
Jirou coughed. "It's called a bhoarse."
Unsatisfied, he questioned us further. "That was quite a jovial way to charge in for people coming to visit their ailing mother," he noted dubiously, gripping his spear a bit harder. I could see from the corners of my eyes the guards on the hills were tensing up.
"May we pass, Sir?" interjected my partner. "We have some medicine we believe will help our mother."
The head guard looked at another and then walked towards Jirou. "I'm going to need to examine that medicine. Are either of you benders."
"I am, she isn't," answered Jirou as he handed the guard a small jar of random spices we stole. It was almost humorous the lie we were trying to pull off.
Unimpressed, the sentry examined the jar and waved over one of his partners. "So you two are riding into town on your mongoose dragon and your, uh, bhoarse, to heal your mother with cooking ingredients?"
If it wasn't blatantly obvious that things were about to get ugly, the guard's next statement couldn't have made it any clearer.
"Well let me tell you something, Shepherds, we ain't no sheep."
A quick right jab sent a fireball speeding at Jirou, who not only blocked it with ease but sent a wave of flames to his left, burning an incoming arrow to a crisp and doing the same its archer.
The sharp tip of the spear trying to kiss me triggered a basic lesson from my father on weaponry. Don't waste too much time on the weapon itself. It can't think, so it's not dangerous. Deflect it quickly and focus on its beholder. I did just that. With my left forearm I knocked the spear of my sight and sent a line of blue into my assailant's chest.
"Blue fire!" I heard coming from behind me.
"Yeah, how would you like to eat some?" I leapt off Nightmare and spun in the air to send blue embers flying from a roundhouse kick, but when I turned I was too late to stop the chain from wrapping around my ankle and pulling me into the dirt. The wind knocked out of me, I glanced up only to be clubbed over the head.
The dimly-lit room was spinning when I came to, and a shadowy figure appeared to be moving from left to right until his face shifted from fuzzy and unidentifiable to one that wasn't very intimidating at all. He was a slim man with a mustache unfit for his facial structure. It was odd, and I would have laughed if it wasn't immediately clear that I had been captured and could have been moments away from losing my life.
I was in a modest holding cell, loosely bound to a wooden chair, the funny looking guard blocking my way. "You should move if you know what's good for you," I warned without hesitation, igniting a tiny blue flame in my palm.
The weasel brushed off my threat with a chuckle and gestured towards two barrels. "Are you sure you want to do that?"
"What's in the barrels?" I spat.
"Have you heard of blasting jelly? It's highly explosive, and they're here to make sure you don't go anywhere."
- Upolu and Savaii are both islands in Samoa.
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
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