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July 9th, 2011
The Runaway is the sixth chapter of A:TLAR.
Behind the Scenes
Theme Song: "Bad Reputation" by Joan Jett. Relevance: This is Sai's first theme song. It summarizes her original nature for Book One, until a certain waterbender (with fury unlike what hell hath) comes along.
The Blind Bandit
Her torso rose upward until her eyes were aligned with the wooden carving mounted on the opposing wall. The matted, greasy black hair that stuck to her scalp hung in front of her sightless eyes. She staunchly refused to bother brushing it away, as there would be no relevance in such a fruitless action. Her legs departed from the mattress and her soles made contact with the ground, restoring her seismic sense of vision. There was no flooring over the soil to ensure that her sense would be as uninhibited as possible. She was aware of the precise location of each and every object in her cramped one-room apartment. The healthy layer of earth that was caked upon her flesh clung to it like stubborn parasites.
She had no concern for her own physical state and visage, nor for the appearance of any men or women that she made contact with. Physicality had never been nor ever would be significant to her. Only the nature of one's spirit has any true relevance in the arena, in life itself. She favored those with strength of both will and skill, that stood their ground like unflinching stone and fought to the bitter end like true fighters. She rarely favored expressions of mercy, no matter the situation. An exception to this rule was how she regarded, well, most of her challengers in the Earth Rumbles.
She had a certain respect for her fellow competitors and did not desire to extinguish their lives without necessity. She strode across the chamber until reaching its entrance, then rested her palm against the rock door to ensure that she had found it properly. She pressed outward, and upon hearing the door's creaking hinges and its subtle crash against the wall outside, Sai walked through. Once she set he feet upon the ground outside, Sai sensed that an immense, out-of-control chariot was charging toward where she was. She was able to precisely determine the chariot's location relative to herself, and so dived to the ground exactly when the vehicle would have supposedly struck her.
The young nobleman that had been escorted by the chariot immediately broke his way out of the vehicle, then knelt in front of his innocent teenaged victim. He pleaded for her to not report this incident to the few law enforcers that remained in the barren community, as he would be denied inheritance if any payments had to be made to keep him out of prison. She demanded five hundred glimmering golden coins as retribution for her concealed pain and suffering. He countered with an offer of merely a single hundred coins.
She responded, "Four hundred would suffice."
"Could one hundred and fifty be acceptable?"
"I will settle for three hundred."
"Perhaps two hundred would be tolerable?"
"Give fifty coins as an addition to that two hundred and I will be content, but for no less."
The youth suspected his victim of manipulating him through their forcible negotiations, but after careful consideration, he dismissed his concerns and surrendered a satchel of coins. The chariot barreled past her, and once she felt that it was outside of her quaint ghost town, Sai stood unharmed and strode off to purchase some breakfast. She meandered through the quaint amalgamation of two-or-so dozen dingy shacks, without intent on finding one particular establishment to dine in. When she had first arrived in this nameless ghost town that lied near the frequently-disputed forest that served as the official boundary between the Fire Nation colonies and the Earth Kingdom's remaining territory, which had been more than five years ago, she had presumed that the Fire Nation would ignore such an insignificant town.
Only after years of studying their militant strategies had she realized that their policy towards communities that were deemed unworthy of their attention consisted of a brutish razing of all buildings that community consisted of. The village was sparsely populated due to the absence of proper law enforcement or social structure. At only one period of time would thousands flock to the barren town. The Earth Rumble circuit was not an officially recognized tournament, but for the numerous citizens of the Earth Kingdom that could not afford traveling to Ba Sing Se and seeing the Earth Kingdom Tournament, Earth Rumble was the perfect alternative for spectators that sought to witness burly men duel smash rocks against each other.
Xin Fu, the town's unofficial leader and the organizer of the Earth Rumble, utilized the profits that were gathered from the massive event and distributed them evenly to support the town until the next tournament. However, she was aware that he obtained substantial personal profit as well, from the gambling ring that he'd set up. Following her reaping of the crops that were sowed by the local agricultural expert, Sai proceeded to the entrance of the Earth Rumble tournament site, passing obstreperous and eager spectators that demanded to be allowed into the audience seating, and subtly shoved through a side doorway that was intentionally designed to appear as if it was part of the walls.
Once she felt him pacing toward her, she exclaimed, "Good to see you again, Xin Fu. How has the wife been treating you?"
She did not bother waving her hand in front of her face at this point, he was more concerned with the question than with her obsolete joke. "You are well aware of how she has been, Sai. Refrain from such tasteless and tactless attempts at humor, please? You're starting to lose your favor from the audience, and from me. I am considering forcing you into retirement."
She gently pressed her hand against the ground, had the soil spread around it like a glove, then finally smashed her fist against her employer's stomach. He winced and dropped to one knee. "You would not even suggest the possibility of my retirement, if you value your organs' ability to function properly. I will fight in this ring until someone decent rides through town and takes me along with them. No one will force me to do anything differently, especially not a spineless old man like yourself."
Fury spilled down his face in the form of perspiration. Each droplet burst into steam as it crashed against the ground, allowing the rage to be released by a diminutive amount at a time. He gestured for her to follow his steps down a flight of stairs, which led her own special booth that was designed so that she could observe the fighting styles of her potential opponents before going into the ring. She crouched on the front row seat and pressed both of her palms against the ground to ensure that she had a clear vision of the upcoming events. After several tedious hours of unimpressive fights, Xin Fu called her up to his sky box to describe the two benders that she would compete against to retain her title for the sixth year in a row.
"We've got two contenders for you to deal with, Sai. The first one is known as Wild Man. Feel free to put this rabid bastard down. He thinks that pandering to the traditionally popular bloodlust angle will earn him support, but in light of the recent casualties this region has suffered at the hands of the Fire Nation, the modern competitive nature has been embraced by the public instead, and thus no one will mourn for some bastard that's killing purely for gaining extra popularity."
Xin Fu sighed before continuing his speech. "There is no way I will allow you to kill our second challenger, though. He's easily the biggest name that Earth Rumble has ever attracted. He calls himself the Boulder, was formerly a significant fighter in the big leagues of Ba Sing Se, but he was banned from the official tournament for the abuse of performance-enhancing chemicals. Desperate for a new gig, he contacted me. And he is why you need to retire, Sai. Earth Rumble needs a new face."
She cut into his lecture, gently stating, "You're right, Xin. You want me to think that you're just looking out for your own ass, but I know what's going on in that senile mind of yours. You want me to have a better life, and you know that I'm not going to get that in this scrapheap of a town. I'm not going to get anything else out of this work. I can just drift out of this town and find some group to tag along with. Whether they've got some pointless cause or not shouldn't matter, right? At least I'll have access to shelter, food, and company. Hell, maybe I'll even get a shag out of it. So, even if you don't want to acknowledge any of your thoughts, I want to thank you for that, Xin. Time for me to wipe the floor with a couple of men that are twice my age and give this town my final salutations."
Sai patiently crossed the rock platform that served as the Earth Rumble stage, remaining on the far edge as was her traditional combat position. As though they were set in concrete, her feet ground into the platform. Patiently remaining in her rigid combat stance, she did not allow a single muscle to move from its place until she finally felt the vibrations channeled through the rock by the heavy, wide footsteps of her foe. He dug his hands into the ground as he charged, creating rock gauntlets to augment his fists. She slid her foot forward and fired a medium-sized boulder straight at Wild Man's gut, then hinge-stepped out of his path. Wild Man was flung backward by the boulder's momentum, then he crashed against the unforgiving ground before finally attempting to lift himself after a second of gritting his teeth and cringing over the cracked ribs within his body.
His legs had been fastened to the platform at the knees down by a cocoon of stone. Pushing against the rock in an attempt to free himself, he lifted his head with sheer gleaming from his eyes. Sai calmly and carefully crafted a small rock-blade, then smoothed out its rough edges before finally launching it straight into her opposer's chest, who promptly collapsed from the shock that his wound induced. Not bothering to leave the ring before facing the final challenger, Sai simply returned to her side of the platform. A wave of tremors suddenly shot forth from the center of the arena as a muscle-laden man landed on his feet after leaping from the audience's seats.
He boisterously proclaimed, "The almighty Boulder shall conquer whomever is in the Boulder's path! But the Boulder shall not overwhelm his enemy without knowing their face. Show yourself, "the Runaway!"
Sai brushed the tangled black hair out her face and lifted her head, staring in the general direction that she detected the deafening voice from. With an arrogant smile, she shouted, "I am grateful that I cannot return the favor, as I am certain you look as obnoxious as you sound."
Concealed behind her back, her hands flexed and twisted, manipulating the earth around her competitor. "Though the Boulder is enraged at your insult, he is also conflicted over the concept of fighting one with a handicap. . ."
Her senses of patience and mercy had all but dissipated in that moment. "A handicap?" she bellowed as stone constricted around all four of the Boulder's limbs, then pulled him down into a bear-crawl position. She clenched both of her fists, causing the rock around his arms to apply immense pressure until both of his elbows were broken. "There's a handicap for you," she quipped. The crippled bruiser howled in pain. Xin Fu climbed onto the platform and stomped down, shattering the shell of stone that trapped the Boulder in his position. He heaved the Boulder over his shoulder and delivered him to the infirmary down the hall from one of the arena's entrances, then returned to face the audience and ask, "Can anyone surmount the living legend that is the Runaway, or shall our champion remain undefeated for the sixth year in a row?"
She overheard a soft voice calling out from one of the front rows of seats. Surely a volunteer would not be foolish enough to aggravate her as the former attackers had. She would simply play around with them, then harmlessly incapacitate and leave with her much-deserved belt. Sai remained in her vigilant stance, prepared for a strike from any direction. She felt a male, slightly shorter than herself, gently striding toward her. He put his hands on her shoulders and said, "I have no intention of fighting you. But I think you would serve as a wonderful earthbending teacher for me. I need to learn, and you're definitely the most skilled earthbender that I can contact for now."
She escorted her potential associates out of the arena and through the dirt roads of her impoverished town. Quick to ensure that she was not tagging along with the wrong group, Sai asked whether they had a fast method of transport and if they had a particular destination in mind. A woman, a year or two older than herself, had stepped forward and explained their intentions of inciting a rebellion in order to end the war with the Fire Nation. "Should the Fire Nation achieve absolute rule over the kingdom, the state of lawlessness that I'm so enthusiastically fond of would cease to exist in any corner of the continent. I'll support the three of you as best I can. I'm afraid that you cannot crash at my apartment, though. I grant you all the best of luck with finding a suitable motel in this trash heap."
Life on Hold Once More
Sleep momentarily drew his body into a tranquil state, just as satisfaction had temporarily claimed Aang's face as its property. Despite the tragedy of Omashu's fate that loomed over his head like a messenger hawk does over its prey, contentment had been able to infiltrate the boy's mind. With a newfound ally under their wings, his optimism had begun to swell. A peculiar sensation began to crawl over his body, and yet he remained comfortable, complying with the swamp-root tendrils as they constricted around his body and stole him. The subconscious realm of the spirits had once again become his place of residence. When his eyelids crept open, a sudden rush of every sensation came to his attention. The pungent stench of rotting plant life had flooded his nostrils, serving as a sort of smelling salt to bring him into a state of awareness in regards to his surroundings.
Ain arose from the ground, realizing that he had been delivered to the banks of a dense swamp. Fog snaked between the trees that surrounded him, and from within the clouds of fog that hung above him came forth an ape clad in white fur. It stared at him in an inquisitive manner, remarking, "So this is its current vessel. I would have expected someone taller. . ." It momentarily dismissed him and bit into an applear that it had torn from a nearby branch, before finally addressing him directly. "Lost, perplexed, unsure of where to go. Would this describe how you feel? Do not be alarmed. That is simply the nature of certain aspects of the human mind. Memory and dream are hazy, out of focus and difficult to comprehend, especially for someone that has just been introduced to the realm, as I predict that you have. Did the Avatar inform you whatsoever on the qualities of our realm?"
Ain turned his head every which way to examine the compacted trees and repulsive waters of his location, and after a few moments he remarked, "This place looks like nothing like the world that the Avatar pulls me into."
The ape sighed and brushed some hair out of his face. "This marsh is nowhere near the area that the Avatar resides in, boy. The Spirit Realm is a vast world divided into numerous varied environments, and here in the center is the bridge between all of those subworlds, the Astral Swamp, otherwise known as the Dream Realm. You've descended into my own personal residence, boy. I am Enma, the Guardian of Dreams. My counterpart resides beneath the murky waters of the swamp. He is responsible for your summoning. And I am your reluctant escort to his lair."
Ain pulled himself onto his feet with a gnarled branch that had been stripped of the fruit it bore by Enma. He curiously asked, "What does your counterpart serve as?"
Enma looked directly into Ain's eyes, and in a solemn manner he stated, "Koh is the deliverer of nightmares, the harbinger of events to come, the master of fear, and. . . He is the thief of emotions and faces. You must conceal your emotions with a static appearance, efface any form of feelings from your expression in order to protect yourself from his hunger. Koh feeds on the emotions of humans. He will do anything to incite any sort of emotional reaction, even if it hinders you, despite the fact that his duty is to ensure your victory, just as mine is. I apologize in advance for my brother's insatiable appetite."
He morosely gestured for Ain to follow his lead through the trees. Eventually, Ain reached the shores of a lake which appeared to just extend downward without reaching any soil. Enma explained that Koh dwelt in a grotto at the bottom of said lake. Ain glanced at him, blinking in a disbelieving manner, questioning the necessity of his meeting Koh. Enma responded that Koh would not permit his release from the realm if he did not meet with the spirit. Ain reluctantly nodded and plunged into the opaque surface of the lake.
A hurricane of visions assaulted his psyche. He witnessed waterbenders and firebenders clashing on the walls surrounding a fortress carved out of ice, and himself hovering over the chaos with the searing light of the Avatar bursting forth from his veins. Scenes of battle and violence flashed for mere moments before his eyes, but were then replaced by new scenes of soldiers marching into battle. All of these visions were juxtaposed in front of a single image of fire in the sky with pulsating light illuminating each and every scene. The words, "Tell me where he is!" cracked in his ears like a thunderclap. And past the cloudy water that he persisted to swim further and further into, there was a shape scuttling out of a gaping hole in the lake's bottom.
"Welcome!" suddenly shot through the water, striking Ain with the force of an avalanche. A grotesque centipede's stare drilled into his skull, as it recognized the falseness of his hollow, blank face. Its clicking mandibles melted into luscious red lips as its face contorted into that of a pale woman's. It looked at him with a pleading expression, lip quivering and eyes glassy as the windows of an Earth Kingdom noble's mansion. But he defiantly met its gaze with the same empty expression from before. He would not succumb to the machinations of the stealer of faces. Recognizing its failure to trap him with its simple maneuver, the spirit's face shifted once more, into a fearsome oni's appearance, complete with jagged teeth jutting from its jaws.
Continuing to be unable to incite a reaction, the creature yielded and chose to properly communicate, rather than merely manipulate the monk. "This swamp shall be your home for the time being, host. The Avatar declared you unfit to serve as his ambassador to earth. I shall be the true judge of your worth, however. Your companions must be patient and allow your supposed fever to take its course. But be wary, my mind is a balanced scale. I hold no grudge against the actions of foolish predecessors, on both your part and that of the Avatar's."
The Launcher of Ships
The young monk writhed in on the bedspread in his rumpled tunic, like a helpless and ill newborn that was swaddled in sheets. The tribal siblings and their newfound ally silently observed their comrade's condition. It was concurred that he would be better off by waiting out the fever, although the lack of any medical professional's presence in the town certainly influenced their decision. Sakodi calmly remarked, "We have no other option. The only proper medical officials in this entire region reside back in Omashu."
Sai turned to him and asked, "Couldn't we attempt to bring him to the city? It's the least he deserves."
The morose siblings responded simultaneously whilst walking out of the bedroom, "The Kingdom has lost Omashu, Sai, and we have nowhere else to go from such an isolated area." The trio departed from the squat, dingy wooden building; she recognized that the tribal siblings were unsure of what to do with themselves in such an empty community.
Sai offered to accompany the siblings and guide them around the ghost town, adding on that though there was not much to see on the surface, her surrogate home-town had a fantastic atmosphere for those with the right frame of mind. "I can tell you two anything that you need to know about our residents. I can teach you whom to avoid, whom to approach for various services of. . .various natures, and who will or will not skin you without a second thought."
With a sardonic attitude, Sakodi asked, "Shouldn't the latter also be the former?" She replied, "Not necessarily," and merely left it at that. Sai considered stirring the minds of her newly acquired company, but decided that they weren't the sort of naive rubes that she could take advantage of. Both came off as though they were capable of keeping themselves out of trouble. That was enough justification for them to have earned her respect, as far as she cared. She described the social divisions that the Enforcers had attempted to build in the town by altering the districts in varied trivial ways, to the siblings that hung on her words like young eelhounds hang on branches with their teeth. Sai's monologue continued as the sun continued its ascension, as she explained how the districts' statuses remained undisturbed.
Despite the "valiant" efforts of the dogged Enforcers, the lawlessness of the ghost town tenaciously continued to be irreparable. The town was riddled with any and every sort of criminal activity that fit in such a small patch of land. And she was not only content with the state of her home, but positively satisfied. She remarked to the siblings, "A girl like me can take advantage of a place like this in oh so many gratifying and pragmatic ways. Welcome to the place that I like to call my own. Welcome, my recently acquired comrades, to the nameless town with only one name that I've given it: Paradise."
She spread her arms wide and gestured to the filth-ridden slums that the majority of the town consisted of, and the various experts in various fields of expertise, all without even directly facing a single person. "Without the wealth that Xin Fu has earned, thanks to my talents, and spent to support these people, this wouldn't even be called a ghost town. Everyone would have drifted away years ago. As far as I'm concerned, I've done these people a favour."
She felt the surprised glances of her followers dig into her skin, attempting to peer at her motivations and meanings. Sai utterly avoided these efforts, never addressing them directly and persevering to continue her lengthy anecdotes about life in the ghost town without distraction. And yet the hard-edged warrior of the south pushed right back at this woman that reveled in crime and anarchy. "How can you possibly claim that allowing these people to remain in such conditions is a positive? Surely they would be better off had this town scattered to the edges of the Earth Kingdom, and they were instead residing in some city that enforces the laws?" Sai burst into boisterous laughter, stumbling to find her footing before finally leaning against a wall for stability. The scrawny, scantily-clad woman that had been slanted against the wall took her leave once the earthbender slammed her hand against the wall, as a rock-bulge had jutted into the other woman's back at that moment. Once she had sufficiently caught her breath, Sai wandered away from the siblings and responded to Sakodi's piercing question.
"You say that as if their condition is even in my peripheral vision, Sakodi. If I was concerned for the well-being of the people in this town, that would take away from my efforts at self-preservation. I might even. ." she shuddered at the sheer thought of it, ". .act charitable. Charity is not an aspect of life that my book follows." Kyasin rushed forward and kept her feet in step with Sai's, resting one of her hands on the charming ruffian's shoulder in the process. She commented, "Perhaps you're onto something with that, Sai. At least, those beliefs definitely provide an advantage for someone in your position. I doubt that I could turn my back on my duties as a leader, but I don't necessarily think that the binding laws of the kingdom must be omnipresent."
Her brother rushed forward until he was merely a few paces behind the two women. Beneath the knotted raven-black hair that hung in front of her face, Sai smirked. She had obviously captured the intrigue of these two foreigners, and they did come off as a fascinating pair, but the proper question was whether either could earn her attention, and if so, which would it be?
. . .
The siblings had taken off to consume an afternoon meal and partake in their own separate pleasures. A geckosloth trapped in the vise incessant sleep, Sai lounged in a hammock that was hung between two stone columns. Carrying an unbranded and thus presumably black-market sword, a pedestrian was approached by a scoundrel that bore a mischievous glint in her eyes. However, their interaction was interrupted by the town's only permanent residents that bore shaven scalps, emerald-tinted chestplates and no tattoos. The Enforcers accosted the woman, seizing her contraband blade and bending her arms behind her back. One of the two mechanically uttered, "First offense: black market dealings."
Whilst forcing the woman onto her hands and knees, the second Enforcer followed his partner's words with, "Second offense: selling one's body." In unison, the two zealots-of-law declared the final charge against the woman, as the first Enforcer pressed the barrel of her rifle against the woman's back. "Third and most grievous offense: being deeply indebted to your only source of protection in this decadent den of sin and scum."
The first Enforcer pressed down on the trigger of her rifle, which shot a metal round through her victim's spine, as the brute's counterpart dragged the body away, departing briskly whilst muttering, "Justice is done." Sai  had carefully concealed herself prior to the woman's crippling, concerned for her own safety and notoriety. There was no sense in putting her own life on the chopping block to preserve the lives of others. Ever since the Enforcers had scavenged Earth military armor and a Fire Nation firearm from a battle site, confronting the sick bullies had become instant suicide. She had no fondness for sacrifice or martyrdom, nor wasteful endeavors of any sort. Her feelings whiplashed against her sense of pride. To be a coward was worse than death. Was pragmatically protecting her own life at the expense of others simply good sense, or a weakness? She strode through the streets in pursuit of cheap food and thrills to relieve the stress.
The vagabond of seventeen years roamed the dirt streets whilst drenched in the silhouettes of the buildings in a town without name. Sai tore a route through the surge of pedestrians that had been left over from yesterday's post-tournament exodus. She sought the tavern that her companions had designated as the site in which they would reunite following their departing with the intent of checking on the monk's condition. Curiosity stung the young scoundrel's mind, with its toxins pumping through her thought process, leaving Sai to speculate on the nature of her soon-to-be pupil.
But all of that speculation was unnecessary and therefore of no use. The tribal siblings were more than enough to satiate her curiosity for now. The hard-skinned soldier that seemed to hold contempt for her fondness toward a lifestyle that lied beyond the rigid concepts of law and order, and the free-spirited chieftess that sounded drawn to her criminal charms, were a tantalizing pair of temptations for her attention. They carried an aura of power, reliability, charisma, and dedication. They were the first batch of self-styled rebels that could do some proper damage to the Fire empire and a fitting group to latch onto. The benefits of traveling across the kingdom and beating down Fire Nation ass, coupled with the auxiliary prevention of utter conquest, which would considerably dampen her chaotic fun, were purely irresistible and delectable armacatnip.
Sai kicked down the doors of the most-frequent and largest local tavern, pointing her face away from any patrons that attempted communication. Every resident of this suddenly-unappetizing town had been rendered irrelevant, no matter how close she had been to them beforehand. She announced, "I, the greatest earthbender that you lot will ever see, have officially ascended past the meager offerings of this town. I bid you all a permanent farewell." Her companions' vibrations blended in with those of the others, but Kyasin's clear, joyful voice was unmistakable. The trio of skilled warriors set themselves down at a nearby table, and called for three glasses of mild sake. Their period of relaxation would diminish soon enough, thus leaving the trio with the innate desire to take advantage of their remaining hours in the town.
Ain arose from his resting place that consisted of a mat of moss, that served as a mattress, and a pile of stones as a makeshift pillow. The waiting period that he'd been trapped within, as the face stealer placed him on the scales of unbiased analysis, had been arduous and strenuous beyond all expectations. However, the third and definitive day of evaluation was upon him at last. He was growing weary of the seemingly endless marshland-scenery that surrounded him, as he'd been forbidden to pass the boundaries of the Astral Swamp and enter one of the other planes within the Spirit Realm. He experienced the same methodical sequence of preparations as he had in the first two days, starting with Enma providing sustenance that had been obtained from the local flora.
Ain was then escorted to the lake that concealed Koh's lair, a grotto with vegetation clinging to the soil around it, around the cavern small fish would disappear if they passed by whilst the spirit was in their vicinity. From the depths of the lake emerged the grotesque and fearsome centipede, with a body that stretched for several meters and sharp mandibles that could pierce an iron warship's exterior. Within this malevolent spirit's grasp were the threads of his life and fate. Its mandibles disassembled, with pieces disappearing from view altogether; its flesh smoothed into human skin, and tufts of hair began to sprout from its head, eventually forming a fully grown-out moustache. The face of a middle-aged man returned Ain's expressionless gaze, bearing a far calmer attitude than the spirit had worn in previous encounters.
In a moderate and understated tone, the face stealer uttered, "After examining the past experiences of you and your companions, that have occurred over the last several weeks, I have a conclusive decision in regards to your worth."
Ain's thin eyebrows raised abruptly in curious surprise. He wondered, how did the spirit feel in regards to his defiance against the Avatar's orders? Had it been disgusted by Kyasin's willingness to murder wantonly for the sake of achieving her revolution?
"The tribal chieftess that accompanies you is a fine candidate to lead the charge against the encroaching Fire Nation, but she requires a figurehead, a symbol of hope that can be utilized to rally the commoners. As a carrier of the Avatar's immense power, that seeks to avoid participating in the combat that will be involved, you're a fitting being to serve that role. As well as I may perceive, you've not committed any acts that outrightly defy your duties as the Avatar Host. I am unsure whether the Avatar was simply mistaken or acting out of an ulterior motive, but I will be cautious and wary when dealing with it now, Host-monk. You have been deemed worthy of carrying the Host's responsibilities. I wish you success in your efforts to end this senseless war. Farewell."
An abrupt surge of joy overwhelmed Ain temporarily, resulting in the spirit swiftly turning to face him again. However, the ambush failed as Ain just as quickly concealed his emotions behind a blank face. Disappointment swept away the human face that Koh had been wearing, and the spirit coiled back into his lonely place of rest beneath the lake. Ain had the time to bid a brief farewell to Enma before collapsing, as the energy within his body went through a drastic transition back to the physical realm.
She tossed aside the sheets that smothered her body, then sprung forth from her mattress and hastily tugged on her clothing. It was a necessity to abandon this apartment as soon as possible, as everything within it had been vacated of any significance in the last few hours. Enthusiasm had infested every corner of her mind, spread through her bloodstream. As she dashed for the apartment's doorway, a small messenger-boy appeared seemingly out of nowhere, an obstacle in her pathway. Tempted to shove him off of his feet, she restrained herself, halting abruptly and asking for him to speak.
"Xin Fu seeks to have a private rendezvous with you," he explained. "He will be waiting patiently in the abandoned warehouse that lies on the outskirts of town."
She bluntly thanked the message-boy and paced through the alleyways, intending to have her companions waiting there as well, in the situation that a sudden escape would be necessary. It had seemed that the Enforcers were missing her by merely a few minutes these days. She could no longer afford the risks of residing in the same community as those foreboding zealots; that she could have her leg shot out or be thrown into a dingy cell were possibilities that she must avoid. The monk had been awakened, thus relieving her of any lingering ties to the town. A departure was more than just necessary for her new companions; it was vital for her survival. Patiently awaiting her arrival in the confines of the hollow warehouse was a visibly-exasperated Xin Fu. He approached with intent and purpose, despite the tired lagging of his limbs. He leaned toward her and whispered, "Your friends have concealed themselves at the back entrance." Her former business partner's eyes finally betrayed the longevity of his life and age, after years of retaining their youthful shine.
She lightly pushed him away and angrily asked, "What have you been keeping from me, old-timer?"
He smirked briefly at his friend, then sighed in relief. "They won't even make a scratch on that filthy skin of yours, just like those ringers I've been betting on. . ."
Her fists and teeth clenched in outrage. "You hired fools like the Boulder and the Titan as ringers. . ? You tried to get me to lose!"
He calmly responded, "Your bitterness is within reason, but you're not seeing my own purpose. This town's destruction is inescapable, Sai. I will be forgotten along with it. You're well aware of this, but you're too stubborn to leave. Now the paths out of this region are far less secure, and the Enforcers are biting at your heels."
She stared at him in pure disbelief. "I will not flee like a coward again, Xin."
"I must ensure that you're out of harm's way, Sai. My entire life will be a waste if you die with this village and I."
She turned away from him in frustration. "One infuriatingly protective father was awful enough for me, Xin. Just leave me alone, and you'll possibly live longer."
The Enforcers smashed through the front doors and declared, "Neither of you will depart from this building with a pulse. The only consolation for their crimes that scum like you can provide. . .are their lives."
Sai wrenched a hefty rock from the ground and launched it toward the speaking Enforcer's partner, whose ribcage was crushed on impact. The fallen man's counterpart aimed her rifle and fired, the rounded piece of metal cleanly piercing Xin Fu's skull through the forehead. Sakodi pushed open the warehouse's back doors and called to Sai, "It is in your best interests to not stay here!"
The remaining Enforcer struggled to load another round into her firearm, as she dashed after her prey. Once she noticed the monk and waterbender that her target was following through the doorway, she exclaimed, "There's a fat bounty out on your friends as well, Runaway. I might show some mercy if you surrender them."
A shell of stone clenched around her legs, preventing further movements. As she followed Sakodi and Ain through the back entrance, Sai called out to her bitter enemy, "I doubt the Fire Nation will show you such mercy when they finally raze this village to the ground."
Once they were all outside of the warehouse, Sakodi turned to Sai and attempted to coerce her to climb on, as Ain and Miza had already done. Kyasin ordered him to get Appa readied for flight, then turned to Sai and put her hands on the rogue's shoulder. Despite her first instincts, Sai faced Kyasin as she was addressed, a mark of respect that only Xin had experienced before her.
"Listen Sai, this is the only method by which we can traverse the land between here and the border. He cannot fly through the dense woodlands, so you'll still be able to walk comfortably, as you prefer to do. But for now, you'll have to put your faith in our pilot," she gestured to her brother, ". . And you'll have to put your faith in me. I won't let you fall off, I swear."
Sai could feel the heat being generated by the waterbender's body. She hesitated for the briefest instant, but then put her arm around Kyasin, in order to remain steady, and scaled the bison. Her abilities of sight vanished instantaneously, but she felt as though she would be safe. . .
The warship surged up the raging rapids of the Fialbi river, gliding on the current that originated from the vast ocean lying beyond the kingdom's southern coastline. The fog, that had submerged the ship for nearly 70 hours before dispersing, no longer prevented them from seeing further than a few meters in front of the ship. They had finally been permitted to enter the river's mouth. The exiles, one wizened after decades with experiences of every variation, one defaced in an act of senseless cruelty, scanned the riverbed for even a minor notification that there was civilization nearby. Unless their destination had been demolished in the wake of the most recent border conflict, the sought-after town in question should've already been reached.
Zotu had permitted optimism to penetrate his thoughts, upon his acquisition of the location of an informant. And now, he required reassurance that this positive attitude was not a preemptive error of judgment. His haggard advisor and recently reclaimed uncle had remained silent whilst his nephew observed this fissures in the water and foam of the Fialbi. The temple that he had resided in for the last two decades was claimed by the Fire Nation Military's Commander Jiao, and subsequently torn down, following the decree that had been made by Ozai almost immediately following his coronation. He would not rely on Iroh for comfort tonight, it would be insensitive, considering his own emotional state. Zotu inhaled sharply, and as he sighed, a tuft of fire was released through his mouth during the exhalation.
His uncle briefly turned towards him as if to make some remark, but then his neck sharply rotated back towards the front of the ship. He peered in a flimsy attempt to witness what had spiked Indo's interest. In the distance, the outline of a dock and numerous buildings began to be visible. Zotu refrained from attempting to smile, seeking to avoid any facial pain. However, he did turn to his uncle and wrapped an arm around the elder man's body.
In a manner of understated satisfaction and relief, Indo whispered into his comrade's ear, "We will obtain the information that you seek after all. Even though it will merely be one stone in the lengthy path that will eventually lead us to our fates and our goals, this one step is vital to the journey. Without the first step, there can be no subsequent successes. Rest, Zotu. In the morning, we shall find the informant."
Though the rest of his crewmen had retired hours ago, the young man strained to remain alert as he slid the blade of his katana against a grinding wheel. This was an utterly vital preparation for whatever experience may lie ahead with the informant, although Indo likely would dismiss his caution as paranoia.
. . .
He shot like a specialized Fire Nation bullet through the village's streets, navigating a route through the bustling crowd with exact and minute calculations. Iroh slowly and carefully followed suit, allowing others to pass by him out of common courtesy, then continuing to trace the path through the village that Zotu left behind. Both wore cloaks with drawn hoods in order to prevent someone from recognizing their distinct visages.
"The inn could not possibly be much farther by this point," Zotu muttered. Lo and behold, there before him stood an inn of several stories. He viciously shoved his way into the building and strode up the flights of stairs without any granted allowance from the innkeeper. Upon reaching the designated floor, he rapped his knuckles against each door that he passed, pausing briefly to listen for a response before moving on. After approximately ten minutes of stalking the hallway, there was a response at last. He kicked in the door on command, then slammed it shut behind him and ordered the scrawny man to sit down.
"I was sitting down previously," he remarked, "but now I think that I want to stand." With a smug smirk plastered on his lips, the informant slid the stool he'd been sitting on over to Zotu. At that moment, Indo gladly took the stool for himself and rested his back against the thin wall.
Zuko snapped at the middle-aged man, demanding his complete and uninterrupted attention. "Now, do what I paid you for. Don't lollygag, don't attempt to incite my wrath, because you'll regret such a mistake for the rest of those few seconds of your life as you bleed on this floor." He paused, closing his eyes in attempt to briefly meditate and keep his senses cooled, as Iroh had been teaching him. Then he returned to staring intently at the informant, his rage nearly incited once more by the lingering smirk. "I. . .I believe that my memories were somehow tampered with. When I was younger, I was mostly brought up by my mother, until she. . .vanished. But now only faint traces of those experiences can be recalled from the recesses of my mind. And you claimed to know how someone could alter the mind like that."
"You ever been to Ba Sing Se, kid?"
His frustrations steadily beginning to rise, Zuko commanded, "Relevance!"
The informant tapped the handle of the blade that was fastened to the wall behind him, as a responsive threat. "I'm getting there, I'm getting there. Don't get your cloak in a twist. Now, the police force of the capital city is a group known as the Dai Li; I served on the force for twenty-five years. And about fifteen years back, a new leader for the Dai Li was exported from some political office. And with him came a whole new specialized subdivision for the Dai Li."
Curiosity began to pique within Zuko's mind. "How exactly did this new division serve the police force?"
"Believe it or not, they were surgeons. And I know what you're thinking. 'How in hell could surgeons provide support for a police force?' I thought the same thing. . .but then I saw them in action."
His patience wearing thin as the threadbare clothing that the informant was adorned in, Zuko grasped the man's throat in his right hand. "Get to the point, unless you'd prefer that this tender throat of yours was pierced by my blade." He released the informant and strode back to his side of the room. "Please, continue."
The ex-DL officer stared begrudgingly back at his unruly, scarred client, rubbing his throat. "So. . . One day, there was some thickhead trying to get a riot going in the streets, but when I arrested him, rather than simply toss him in a cell like the process usually goes, I was ordered to take him to the surgeons. That's when I realized their purpose. Whilst he was under a mild anesthetic, they cut open a hole in his skull and poked around in the gray matter with their tools. I'm sure there's some fancy name for the procedure, but that's irrelevant to you, right?"
He uttered the last words with bitter aggression, as the last traces of his smirk disappeared from his face. "And when they released him two days later, he started a campaign to promote a law that would grant the Dai Li more control over the districts. They completely altered his thought process. Over the rest of my time on the force, I saw lots of people have their thoughts screwed with in all sorts of ways. These surgeons could very likely tamper with someone's memories as well. My job never was the same after that guy took over. . ."
Zuko silently blinked in disbelief for several moments. Fear pumped through his bloodstream in amounts that he had not experienced since the scarring. "Bra-. . Brainwashers?" He stammered for a few moments more, but then regained his composure once Iroh gave him a comforting glance. "Are there any leads that you can provide, so that we can follow up on this?"
The informant bluntly replied, "Nope, this is the end of the road, kid. Pay up."
Zuko looked down and furrowed his brow, then met the older man's gaze with an accusatory, piercing glare. "Wait. . . You willingly worked alongside people that forced others to think how they wanted them to? What the hell is wrong with you?"
The informant stood up in defiance and declared, "I never condoned what they did to those poor people, but being an officer for the Dai Li was a well-paying, safe career. I had to stay on for my own sake, until I reached the mandatory retirement age."
"So to you, money matters more than the free will of others?" Zotu's temper finally erupted; he quickly strode towards the weasel and disoriented him with a strong hook punch to the face, then drew his katana from the sheathe on his back. The informant retrieved his own blade from the wall display and blocked his slash, then sidestepped towards Indo. Zotu blasted the wind out of his foe with a left thrust punch to the gut, then wrenched the ninjato from his hand. Zotu passed the blade to Indo and shoved the informant against a wall with his free hand, while gently pressing his katana against the pathetic man's throat with his other hand.
"You do not deserve the coin that the offices of Ba Sing Se provided you with, let alone the right to survive. You're just a parasitic mutt, scrounging through the trash of the fortunate so that you can eat the left-over scraps of their labors without contributing anything. Now, I will ask you one last time. Are there any leads that I can follow up on? Don't you dare tell me that the trail will go cold."
The informant spat in his face, and reflexively Zotu slid the edge of his sword against the mutt's throat, watching as the body collapsed to the floor with blood slowly trickling down its chest. Zotu briefly examined his glove to ensure that it hadn't been damaged when he grabbed the mutt's ninjato. He then crouched down and patted the numerous pocket's on the weasel's clothing, eventually finding a small metal badge in his front left pocket. Indo rose from his seat and followed Zotu into the hallway, the two pacing at a deliberate rate as they slid their hoods back over their heads.
"Expect to be confronted about what happened in there later, nephew, but first, do you think that trinket will aid is passing on to the second step in our journey?"
"Indeed it will, uncle. This marks our friend as an associate of the Brimstone Quarters, an infamous band of privateers that operates out of the Ozin lake in the north."
"Is that not the same lake that our river leads to, Zotu?"
"No. . .it is indeed where we shall be carried by the river's current. Fortune has smiled on us today, Indo."
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|Fanon: The Undesirable Destiny - Fanon:The Journey Begins - Fanon: Hell Hath No Fury - Fanon:Revolution 1 - Fanon:The Mad Genius - Fanon:The Runaway - Fanon:The Winter Solstice|