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29 September 2015
I slept that night in the lifeboat, the dark green scales pressed up against my skin as cold as my heart felt.
Though cold-blooded, neither Nightmare nor myself needed to cuddle for warmth. The burning ship provided that- despite the distance I had created. Above my eyes that refused to close even slightly for hours, a thousand bright stars were painted across the black canvas of night, staring me down as if they were the spirits themselves, judging me... It was another gorgeous wonder that my world had to offer- a world that was going down in flames. Despite the majesty of the sky, I knew that if I were to sit upright and turn my head to the left I'd bare witness to a catastrophe- I didn't cause it, but I let it happen.
And I wasn't ashamed. The screams that were forever etched into my mind were those of men on a mission to assist in the destruction of homes and families, to kill innocent people defending their own land while taking pleasure in it. What was most important, and this did bring me great pride, was the knowledge that the first person to be entirely engulfed in flames the moment an explosion touched his cabin was the man who had deceived me throughout our tumultuous relationship, attempted to kill me in one of the most gruesome ways imaginable, and would single-handedly conquer a city for himself by killing his own family.
Of course, there would be survivors. At least I thought there would be. All I really cared about was ensuring that Captain Jirou was not among them. But after the work I had put in to sealing his demise, I knew that when the rescue ships salvaged all the life they could from the wreckage, they would at most find the scorched remains of the Shepherd.
I did wonder if it was even possible for rescue ships to approach the doomed vessel, given the fact that the waters were clearly treacherous. However, so many mines were detonated that I wasn't sure any were left. All I could really do was hope that if there were, my humble rowboat would be able to sneak by.
The screams were like a clock. Every fifteen minutes that went by carried less despair from the direction of the shipwreck, and I my body would not allow itself to sleep until I only heard the deafening silence of a victory on the battlefield.
When dawn finally struck I was already awake and paddling through the wreckage. I couldn't help but examine the floating bodies I occasionally bumped into with my craft. I saw no recognizable faces, not Flevus, not Alzer or Ryon, not Jirou. That was for the best, I suppose.
There was an ominous quiet as I, the ghost of death, rowed through the carnage. Even the minute waves crashing against the dark sand of Kun Island gave me chills.
Pain shot through my leg when it splashed into the cold water, numbing it quickly enough that I didn't feel the head of one of my victims as the face rolled over and grazed my calf. It wasn't until I happened to look down that I experienced the shock of staring into Ryon's dead eyes. I gasped, shuddered, but pressed forward, assisting Nightmare out of the small boat and up the shore.
The sand bore hundreds footprints placed since the last high tide, so there must have been people who rushed to the beach to investigate the carnage, yet no effort to clean the mess that had been made at that point in time. It was still early, and I imagined the leaders of the community were still wondering what to do next.
It was curious that the Water Tribes had managed to place mines in front of Fire Nation territory, but they wouldn't see me complaining. My guess was the officials of Kun Island were able to send out a warning, but hadn't yet had time or a way to deactivate or remove the explosives. It really didn't matter. The Water Tribes had no idea just how much they had helped the deadliest Firebender on the Earth.
It was the first time in my entire life that I had walked on sand, and I hated it. How could anyone be comfortable walking on such loose ground that shifted with every movement? I didn't get the appeal.
I looked back on the carnage for the last time. You may wonder if I felt remorse, shame for killing all of those people... I don't. Time would have killed them all anyway. Time will kill us all.
My eyes scanned the bleak skyline of the Fire Nation settlement. It looked so unnatural, like a metal giant stood on the shoulders of nature herself. There were likely paintings of what the island was before in some gallery. I never understood why man would paint nature when he could simply go outside and stand in it until then. Man paints nature before it's destroyed by people like Sozin.
I strode forward without another glance back at the realm of misery, the tide of lost souls. Just a simple walk up to beach conjured the image of a Fire Nation leaving its dark past in favor of a bright new future. Nothing was ever going to bring back the lives of those sailors, but it was in my power to make sure that ship wasn't destroyed in vain. I would make use of my time in the Earth Kingdom colonies for myself and for the greater good.
Nightmare tensed suddenly and directed my attention to a small figure on the sand just ahead of us. It was an animal, circular and slowly making it's way to the water's edge. Ming would've known what it was called, her favorite subject being the natural sciences. It had flippers that pushed it through the sand and a tiny head all covered by a shell. Regardless of its official classification, Nightmare was calling it 'dinner.' The thing was heavy but not hard to pick up- it didn't even try to escape- but what I noticed as I carried it along was that it left behind a hole filled with what would make a snack a meal: eggs.
I firmly stuck my leg out to block Nightmare from diving into the hole after the innocent unborn offspring, and I instead reached down to cup them from the sand to my bag. They were so helpless, but no more so than I.
Uphill from where we beached was a dense wall of thick trees and shrubs, but I can see the roofs of buildings peering over them from behind. I had a decision to make: to camp out on the beach or search for shelter in whatever kind of town laid behind the trees. It would be suspicious for a woman and her strange beast to be seen roaming the island just after the ship went down, I thought, but what's more suspicious then being found the next morning at the exact scene of the crime?
Hedging my bets on an inn or at the very least a broom closet waiting for me, I cautioned Nightmare to wait for me on the uninhabited side of the jungle until I signaled him with a whistle- something he had become quite adept at.
I managed my way through the thicket of shrubbery, occasionally recoiling from the thorns that stabbed into my legs, drawing just a few drops of blood. After my fourth entanglement with vines and branches, I caved and lit a small blue flame in my palm for guidance. Gradually, I made my way to a clearance in which I was just a few yards away from a stable. Immediately recognizing the animals sleeping inside the fence as ostrich-horses, I paused and contemplated the sad state of Earth Kingdom-native animals under the domestication of Fire Nation colonies. It's certainly something my father would abhor- at least that's what I always believed and went to the island to confirm.
In an attempt to avoid causing any commotion with the ostrich-horses, I turned my heels to head away from the stable.
Shock ripped from my jaw to my spine, and I grunted in pain when I collapsed on the ground, my knees absorbing the brunt of the fall. A dark figure that had just struck me with his fist hustled over me and reached down, but I screamed and clenched my teeth into his forearm. He recoiled only to deliver such a powerful kick to my face that I flopped on my back, the rising sun spinning in the sky until everything faded into darkness.
The first thing I felt was... I thought I was dead... until my senses began to trickle and eventually pour back into my brain. My head was in agonizing pain, which distracted me for a brief moment from my inability to see. I panicked. I was certain my eyes were open but I couldn't see anything. Lunging forward only made me aware of the chains the bound me to a metal chair.
With a ferocious scream I forced a blue jet of fire to burst from my throat, and the light gave me a brief glimpse of a table and the same figure who apprehended me sitting calmly on the other side. The relief that I was not blind evaporated quickly, however, when he spoke.
"Attempt to Firebend again and you will be executed," he stated flatly.
I panted with rage. "Who are you?"
"You should know the answer to that question," he responded coolly. "We do not identify as individuals, but as part of a greater cause. Spokes on a wheel."
"We..." I wanted to rip his head off. "You're a Shepherd!"
He took a moment to reply. "Is it still appropriate to refer to you as one of us? You have just put one of our most skilled agents at the bottom of the sea."
"I had no choice!" I spat. "You tried to have me killed."
"The crown tried to have you killed, and our job is to follow orders. Clearly Jirou did not."
"He tried. I guess he wasn't as skilled of an agent as you thought."
The man, who must have been in his 50s, grunted what was perhaps supposed to be a laugh. "I suppose not. When that ship went up in flames, we had assumed the messenger hawk never delivered our warning, but when I saw you wash up on that beach with that mongoose-dragon it became clear there was some... interference."
"Where. Is. Nightmare?" I demanded.
"That thing you call a pet is in our custody and will be returned to you when you are released, after you accept your next mission."
"Mission? You're out of your mind! I thought I made it clear when I blew Jirou a mile high I wasn't doing this shit anymore!"
"You would prefer to be executed... along with your sister?"
I was enraged. My patience for doing the dirty work of those spineless cowards had run out months ago. It was time I declared my freedom from them! But what choice did I have? At that moment, I was fuming, my veins seconds away from bursting... but I knew I had to surrender.
"Why would you even want me? If you've already tried to kill me why not just finish the job now?"
I heard a grunt. "That would be letting you off too easy. By terminating your partner you created a debt that you must repay. If Jirou is no longer available to complete his mission in Taku then someone must take his place. Who better than the woman who created this... inconvenience."
"Ha! I will be much more than an inconvenience when I'm through with you! Why not let me out of these chains and at least give me the dignity of a fair fight!"
"You are not a competitor in a game! You are a beast to be tamed!" A flash of light gave my eyes just enough light to see the narrow flames whip at my face close enough that its embers skimmed my jaw, and the man who nearly scorched my cheek became even more stern.
"It would be a shame to mar such a pretty face as a result of your disobedience, and an even bigger travesty to waste such a good palace servant by feeding her to the dogs!"
I had had enough. "Threaten my sister again and you'll wish I was just a pack of dogs!"
I heard his chair slide back as he stood abruptly. "When will you understand you have no choice in these matters! This battle is not something you can win! There are no two sides! You have already lost everything and you will never regain your freedom! There is no other side waiting for you after you become victorious! The only other side for you is death, and taking your next breath is the most victorious thing you will ever do!"
My mouth was open, my jaw was quivering, but the vexed breaths coming from my throat would never form words. I could feel, but I could not think. Even screaming was beyond my mental capabilities.
I collapsed in my chair, seething, letting every fatal word of the man's tirade sinking in, each sentence as though drawing blood. There was always a finish line, in my mind. I would work, and fight, and toil until one day it would all be over. But the Shepherd was right. There was no waking up from this nightmare.
I took a deep breath, my mind finally catching up with my fate. For a brief moment, I tried to feel- feel anything- but it was a futile attempt. I felt nothing. As though I didn't even have a soul, just an empty carcass waiting to rot...
"So," I panted, sitting upright and calming myself. "What's my mission?"
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
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