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December 27th, 2011
I'm flying, truly flying. My own glider lies under the moon peach tree where I left it, but somehow I stay in the air, soaring with the birds and sky bison as Air Nomads below continue with their daily work. My hair, long and dark brown, flutters back in the playful breeze. Everything is peaceful and tranquil, just as it always has been, just as it always will be. But a foul taste enters my mouth, making me gag. As I choke whatever was keeping me in the air vanishes, and I fall from the sky towards my home, the Eastern Air Temple. I scream for the other nomads to help me, but they're gone too. I can do nothing but watch as the ground speeds into my view.
My eyes flash open and immediately tear up from the thick smoke entering my room. My mouth is filled with the taste of fire, and no matter how many times I gag I can't get rid of it. Why is there fire? We're always careful to put out fires at the Eastern Air Temple. For a moment panic overwhelms me. I sink to the floor and get into a meditative position, shutting my eyes and briefly praying to the spirits for guidance. Those seconds are enough to calm me as I jump to my feet, using Airbending to give me a boost. With several sweeps of my arms, I clear the smoke in front of me to make a path towards the door. Before I even touch the handle, the door slams open and my friend, Wei, runs in. Her pale skin has been darkened by soot, except for where her tears have made pale tracks on her face. Before she speaks I know that something is wrong, that this is not a normal fire.
"The Fire Nation is attacking. Come on Via, we need to escape."
The Fire Nation, why? What have we done to them? Why are they attacking us? These questions bubble up to my lips, but just as I begin to release them Wei speaks again in a hurried whisper.
"Shh! They're close, we need to go now. Don't speak or Airbend, stay close to the ground." She tugs on my hand and hurries to the door with me in tow. As she passes the threshold she turns one last time to give a word of advice. For the first time I hear the screams, shrill and piercing, as they are carried away by the wind.
"Don't look back."
We run down the stairs of the tower that was my home, I follow Wei to wherever we're going. The sounds and sights of fighting surround us now. In the distance, the roar of a single dragon sends chills down my spine; but I barely feel them. I am already shaking in fear. Older monks and Airbenders do their best to defend themselves and the children trying to escape from the Fire Nation soldiers. Few of them last long, if the fire doesn't get them the smoke does. Body after body falls, most burned past recognition. I'm crawling now, hoping no one spots me through the smoke and struggling to follow Wei. When the body of the baker, Yan, falls in front of me horribly burnt an disfigured, I can no more hold back my scream than I can the bile that rises in my throat as the stench of burned flesh enters my nostrils. The soldier hears my scream and spots me, sending a blast of fire my way. I instinctively make a shield of air and get to my feet to run. Wei follows me, refusing to separate from me, even if it increases the chance of her death.
"Run to the Sky Bison stables!" Wei screams in my ears as fire balls narrowly miss us. Even with its doors just yards away, it may as well be miles for the chance we have of making it there without dying. As a fire whip strikes my leg, I fall, and the soldier approaches to finish both Wei and I off. Before so much as a spark can form in the soldier's hands, Wei fights back with a shriek. The soldier is whirled around in a tornado of winds, until he falls to the ground. Wei helps me to my feet and I limp the short distance to the stables as Wei opens the doors, closing them as soon as I get inside. The soldier, recovered from his dizziness, sets the doors aflame, and the fire quickly spreads through the dry hay that litters the floor. I climb on a sky bison, and look around for Wei. She appears as the stable doors turn to ash with a final blast of fire, gripping tightly to a glider. Sending a slice of air to the approaching soldier, Wei jumps on the sky bison; touching the soft fur just as I pat the sky bison's head and yell "Yip, yip." The sky bison thrusts its body towards the open side of the stable, and my stomach tingles with the happiness I always have when I fly on a sky bison.
Despite Wei's previous advice, I have to look back at my home one last time. Nomads are flooding the stable and attempting climbing onto sky bison, but most sky bison are being burned alive by the soldiers, the nomads that were lucky enough to at least get on them suffering the same fate. Only one sky bison manages to take off, but its passengers are thrown off as the sky bison turns sharply to avoid a blast of fire. As the sky bison Wei and I ride rises up farther in the sky, I notice for the first time the comet in the sky. It's outshone by the burning temple.
The comet renews the soldier's strength, and the sky bison that lost its passengers is brought down, while powerful blasts of fire just barely come up too short to reach us. I look over at Wei to see her face buried in the sky bison's fur, muffling her sobs. I see the hundreds of bodies littering the Temple's ground, and do the same.
I tug on my warm fur coat as I yell goodbye to my parents. I'm already late, and the sun is already starting to set by the time I dash out of my house. Once outside I slow to pace deemed suitable for a young Northern Water Tribe lady to walk. I can imagine the lecture I would get if my mother heard I was running in public. Arika is already waiting for me by the canal, our usual place to meet. She's impatient as always, tapping her foot as she calls for me to hurry up. I'm disappointed to see that her twin brother, Aiko, has gone on ahead to the festival. I finally make it to Arika, who starts walking towards the festival as soon as I reach her side.
"What took you so long? We're going to be late if we don't hurry up. Aiko's already gone on ahead."
I think back to the time I spent carefully styling my hair; a poor excuse.
"Sorry, you know how my parents can be. They reminded me of my curfew at least a hundred times before they let me leave!"
Arika, as always, forgives me instantly. Or maybe she doesn't so much forgive as she goes on talking like she's already forgotten what she asked me.
"Well anyway, I am so excited for tonight. Did you know the comet is only seen once every hundred years? Just think, we'll probably never see it again in our whole life! Did you hear that Kae's parents wouldn't let her come? They think the festival isn't suitable for a young lady to attend, especially with so few chaperones. But obviously, if my dad didn't think it was safe, the festival wouldn't be happening. Some people just don't..."
I smile as Arika chatters on. She saves most of her words for when she speaks to me. Naturally, as the chief's daughter she has to act proper at all of the events. While she walks to them though, she can do as she pleases. Not that Arika's uncivilized, she can just be a little strong willed sometimes. We make it to the courtyard where the festival will be held. Pale blue and cream colored paper lanterns have been strung all around the courtyard. Elaborate ice sculptures are on display all around the courtyard. The surrounding buildings sparkle in the fading light. A heavenly aroma wafts from the tables set up with platters of meat. Everything is breathtaking, most of all the figure of Aiko.
He's lighting the last of the lanterns with an imported spark rock. I barely notice Arika's goodbye as she goes to sit on the platform with her father, because at the same moment Aiko sees me and smiles. Even an iceberg would melt at Aiko's warm smile. He walks up to me and I struggle to control myself.
"Hey Kaori, fancy meeting you here."
He may be the chief's son, but in the many walks we have taken together I often forget that. Nothing in his speech suggests that, one day, Aiko will be in charge of the Northern Water Tribe and the Southern Colonies. Of course, Aiko's good at hiding things, including the fact that, in just a matter of days, he will ask my father for my hand in marriage. When he told me that on our last walk, I could barely contain my excitement. Even now I still have the urge to tell everyone Aiko and I's secret.
"Hello Aiko. Good luck tonight, I heard you where performing in the Waterbending demonstration tonight before the comet comes."
Aiko nods solemnly, acting in his best behavior as the courtyard is flooded with people. I can still see his tiny smile as he talks as proper as he can, his tone almost mockingly polite.
"Thank you Kaori, I hope you enjoy it. I regret to say I must go now, my master wishes for me to meet with him before the performance."
With a tiny bow and eyes filled with unheard laughter, Aiko turns and walks away, but not before slipping something into my gloved hands. It's a miniature flower of ice that sparkles before melting away. A smile on my face, I walk to find a good seat.
As I expected, the Waterbending performance is wonderful, and Aiko even manages to sneak away afterwards and find me. In a building's shadow no one can see us, and I lean against him as the first trace of the comet appears in the sky.
"Aiko, isn't it beautiful?"
Aiko glances at me, his hand reaching to find mine as the sky lights up with the comet's splendor.
"Not as beautiful as you."
It's a beautiful night.
I watch as the children run from tent to shabby tent, laughing. I'm glad they found some fun; there isn't much to laugh at. In the distance, a Fire Nation flag flutters, reminding me and everyone else what has been stolen. A month ago the Fire Nation took my village from me and everyone else who lived there. I had heard rumors of Fire Nation colonies, but I hadn't thought about what it meant. When the Fire Nation attacked, every Earthbender, including me, ran to hold them off, while the rest of the village escaped. Besides me, the Earthbenders never came back, all of them were imprisoned. Everyone lost someone, me included. I lost my older sister, Mei.
I stand, moving to get more wood for the fire. I tell a villager what I'm doing and where I'm going before I walk into the woods. Even through the trees I can still see the Fire Nation flag. Seeing it just waving in the wind, oblivious to all the anger and sadness it has caused, sends wave of anger through me. I forget the firewood, instead starting to run towards my old village. The Fire Nation had no right to take my village, and maybe for now they've gotten away with it. But I won't allow them to take my sister too; I'm going to save her. It's the least I can do after everything Mei has done for me.
I slow down to walk through the forest. I don't want to arrive before night, or I'll quickly be discovered by soldiers. I don't mind spending time here anyway. The forest reminds me of happier times, spent playing in the forest as a child. Mei sometimes came with me, to look for wild plants to add to our dinner. Because of this I know all of the names of the plants I see as I walk. Perhaps more importantly, I know what not to eat.
It's almost dark by the time I arrive, right on schedule. I sneak into the colony with ease; the Fire Nation hadn't bothered to put up guards. What idiots. Moving nimbly through the shadows of nearby buildings, I make my way to the newly constructed prison, made entirely of wood. Stilts lift the prison high off the ground. There's no way up except to climb the stilts, an entirely plausible feat for someone who has spent their life climbing trees like me. It takes me a little while, but I eventually reach the platform the prison rests on. The prison guards have even carelessly left the door open. Walking into the prison and to the cells, I'm surprised the Earthbenders haven't escaped yet. There are hardly any guards, the few there are sleeping. I walk past the cells until I find Mei.
"Mei, Mei wake up." I whisper as quietly as I can.
"What are you doing here Emi? Get out while you can." Mei responded, her eyes widening with shock.
"What do you mean?"
"A comet's coming tonight. The guards' Firebending will be at their peak. Leave!"
Mei's last word comes out too loud, and a messenger hawk wakes up and screeches, waking the guards. They approach me fire whips at the ready. I sink to the ground in surrender. Through a crack in the poorly made wall I can see the comet streak across the sky, as I'm thrown into the cell.
I'm standing at the base of victory. At least, that's what General Zhen is telling me.
"Tonight we stand at the base of victory. Tonight we fight for our nation. Tonight we eliminate the weak so the strong can flourish!" General Zhen shouts.
I cheer with the rest until we are told to be quiet. Without another word we begin our march up to the Eastern Air Temple. In the steepest parts of the mountain ropes have already been hung for us to climb up. Excitement is buzzing through my veins. This will be my first real battle, my first chance to earn my honor. I'm still surprised that I'm already getting a chance to serve my nation, even though I just got out of training camp. We've all been told about the message Fire Lord Sozin was given from the spirits, telling him to eliminate the Air Nomads. After all, how can a flower grow to its potential with weeds holding it back? Tonight we'll fight the Airbenders, and with the comet the spirits are sending us we'll win.
I reach the top of the mountain and wait for the command to attack. Before I have time to get nervous, it comes. Several messenger hawks fly in the air from different directions, their caws drowned out by the sound of our boots running towards the temple. In solid formation we shoot fire at the Eastern Air Temple until the first of the Airbenders start to come out. I prepare to fight, but the first scream stops me.
It's a girl's scream, a child's scream. I look into the smoke, and my fears are correct. All of the Airbenders are girls; many of them are scared children. Surely there must have been some mistake, but even General Zhen is striking down children like they're fully grown deadly fighters. I am supposed to do the same. To not do so would require leaving the Fire Nation Army, and no one who does that lives. I blast fire towards one of the older-looking children, not looking to see if the fire hits its mark before sending another blast. Screams that I know are partly my fault torment my ears. I will never forget the sound. Even as the comet comes in view, filling me with power, I cannot fully appreciate the once in a lifetime sensation. I am not a soldier. I am not a proud Firebender. I am a murderer.
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