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|The White Tiger Part 1 - Into Earth|
Book 1: Earth
Previously on The Kyoshi Chronicles
Kyoshi discovered that the Earth State was not trying to rebuild peace between the States but rather expand their own empire.
Kyoshi learnt earthbending from Master Feng and metalbending from her father Garuku. Her father also told her the legend of the 'White Tiger.'
Garuku was captured by Astrid and, on their way to rescue him, Kyoshi recruited the expert archer Gisgo. Also on their travels, Kyoshi has been having frequent strange dreams, and before the Night of No Moon got a vision of being collapsed on a cliff having escaped a previous danger.
What do these visions mean? And will Kyoshi ever reunite safely with her father, or will Omashu end up being her peril? Find out in the penultimate chapter of Book 1: Earth!
Chapter 15: The White Tiger Part 1 - Into Earth
|"I don't know what is likely going to happen up there, but I do know it has been an honour fighting with you men"|
|— Chang to the Gao Lin Batallion|
Kyoshi sat beside Bako, Tori pecking at her feet, the battalion crowding around the table too. Momzen slammed down a piece of paper scribbled with notes, his eyes wild with excitement.
"We've got a plan," he announced.
Since their departure from Monshiton the group had travelled for another two days west out of the Gaan Mountains to the neighbouring Kolau Mountains. They were but a hike away from Omashu; and had only just formulated a plan on how to enter the city.
"Gisgo says the sewer system can lead us directly into the city's palace," Momzen continued in his fervour. Everyone turned to look at the criminal. He had his hat over his face, as usual, and a reed in his mouth.
"I think we can find one on the opposite side to the front gates. There's a blind spot where all three guard posts can't see you" he said, taking over the explanation. "But, Omashu is surrounded entirely by a gorge. And the entrances to the sewers are midway between the ground and the walls of the city."
"Obviously very difficult to get into," Momzen added, taking his turn. "But! We've got chains!" He lifted a coil of chains up and shook it at the audience, before turning to listen to Gisgo again.
"We can use it to make a wire, slide down it and into the sewers. Means only a few of our supplies can be taken, enough to be carried on our backs. Once in, getting to the palace from the back side of the city won't take too long and we can take them by surprise." There was a pause as the battalion took time to absorb the information.
"It all sounds very..." Chang started, trying to put a word to his apprehension. "Daring. But Garuku would do the same for us. We'll leave the animals here then." Kyoshi gasped and stood up, abruptly interfering the conversation.
"No!" she blurted. "Jin Jin has to come." She stared down all the men. Jin Jin and Tori were her only female friends – and she had been through a lot with them. Tori was chained up in the slums of Ba Sing Se, and Jin Jin was locked away in Lake Laogai. For Kyoshi, fighting alongside these powerful, determined women somehow gave her strength; and if they weren't there beside her in Omashu, Kyoshi was certain her performance would not be at its best.
Chang shook his head stiffly, he wanted there to be no hassles, he was nervous enough already, and said, "Sorry, Kyoshi. But it's too difficult."
"No! I'm not going then!" She slumped back down on the log with her arms crossed. Chang's knuckles whitened upon clenching; the Avatar was behaving like a spoilt child.
"You're making this harder than it has to be," he continued sternly.
"Maybe we can sort something out." The words came from Bako, and Kyoshi was shocked. Usually he was always turning down Kyoshi's ideas, but this time he was standing tall and confident with the shirshu beside him.
"Jin Jin has been with us since the beginning. She's been in every fight, and she'll be in this one too." Jin Jin gave a defiant snarl at the soldiers before nuzzling affectionately at the boy's shoulder. Chang shrugged exaggeratedly, eyes ogling out with frustration.
"Then what are we supposed to do?" he groaned. "All of us march up to the gates and ask the guards to let our shirshu in?" Bako smiled at Kyoshi, somehow he knew they were both thinking the same thing; finally it seemed they were on the same page.
"Maybe not all of us."
"Shotgun!" Momzen blurted, running over to the creature and embracing its neck tightly. "I know how to ride her better than anyone else – no offense. So if we get into a tight situation, I can easily get us out of it." He took pages from the ground and began scribbling diagrams and notes on them, speaking rapidly with excitement. "So Gisgo will make the wire at the blind spot around the back of the city, while I go in through the main gates with Jin Jin and meet you guys in the sewers." He took a deep breath in, all the while grinning frenziedly.
Kyoshi turned to a doubtful-faced Chang and indifferently said, "Sounds like a plan." Chang huffed, disbelief riddled on his breath.
"Yeah. Okay. A firebender entering the city, I'm sure the Earth State will allow that. It'd be better if one of us went."
"Because they'll let in a fully armoured soldier? Especially one with the Gao Lin emblem on him?" Bako replied equally as sarcastic. Momzen jumped in again, holding a pile of fur Jin Jin had shed from the heat.
"Guys! Relax! I've got it sorted!" Momzen said, then turning away from them to work with the fur. He faced them moments later with the white fur attached to his mouth like a makeshift beard.
"Ta da!" he said, voice muffled. "Mr... Rocky... Lee, at your service. Wanderer of the Earth State, veteran entrepreneur looking to get a good price for my prized shirshu, hoping the big city will give me the bounty I've always dreamed of." There was a prolonged silence, filled with dubious looks and cricket chirps, as Momzen remained in character. A fly buzzed over and onto his nose, the boy remained still, and then it flew off. Suddenly the sound of a hand smacking a forehead sliced through the silence.
"-It's Rocky Lee now-"
"-You don't look like an old man at all!" screamed the irritated soldier. "You look! Like a boy! With fur on his face! And your beard falls to the floor in bits!" Momzen looked down at his shoes, of which were covered in patches of Jin Jin's fur. Chang stepped forward from the group and looked at Kyoshi.
"Look, I understand your concerns. Fighting alongside your friends, yes, it does help. But if Momzen goes to the gates as Rocky Lee both he and Jin Jin will be killed on the spot," Chang explained, dire tones wringing his voice. "This is war now, Kyoshi. Those men at the gates have been prepared to be suspicious and cruel. They'll throw them right off the bridge without a seconds thought." Kyoshi tried to muster a rebuttal.
"But, she's my fr-"
"-I know. I do. So maybe we can fashion a saddle into a harness and send her across the wire," Chang interjected, making sure to finish what he had to say. "If it means that much to you we can try." Kyoshi sighed, Chang always was kind-hearted.
"Thank you." She nodded respectfully at the adult before moving off to saddle up Jin Jin. Bako and Momzen went with some other soldiers in search of materials they could use to make the shirshu's harness. She could hear them chatting, inaudible drabbles, as she scratched the purring Jin Jin's chin.
"That was a close one," Kyoshi whispered into her ear. The shirshu brushed its hefty face on Kyoshi's and Tori flapped onto the girl's shoulder to join in on the affection. Sunlight beamed down on the Avatar's back, and her nose was filled with the smells of animals. Kyoshi loved these two. And she always relished the moments when it was just the three of them – some girl time. Tightening the straps on the saddle, watching Tori tug at the ropes with her beak, Kyoshi thought what it would be like to have a human female companion, and how it would affect the group dynamic. She'd have to be a fighter, and good fun. Not that the two animals weren't; they were great company. It was just a passing thought. And as Chang approached her the thought soon slipped away into the back of her consciousness, fading like a drying cloud.
"Sorry about before," said Chang, scratching the back of his neck. "I got a bit worked up." Kyoshi smiled meekly, her green eyes meeting gently with his brown ones.
"You know," he continued, taking to the other side of Jin Jin's saddle. "I knew you when you were young." Kyoshi looked up at him from across the beast, Jin Jin shuffling on her heavy feet.
"Really?" Chang nodded in reply, smiling as a memory, warm like sweet, morning sun, came to him.
"Yeah. I didn't know you personally, but when I was conscripted into the army I recognised your father. I would always see you two in the corn fields together, and you'd be screaming at him to show you more earthbending tricks." Though the man's voice was gravelly, it was softened somewhat by the fondness and reminiscence that quavered before his lips. "You guys must have a good relationship."
It took a while for Kyoshi to reply. Her eyes were lost in a daydream. She could practically see the corn fields before her, and smell the dusty soil and the grain. The leather of the saddle almost felt like her father's rough hands, and she clenched it further as the sensations intensified.
"We do," she mumbled, tasting the fresh Gao Lin air as she spoke. Chang moved down to the end of the saddle and strapped a buckle around Jin Jin's legs, all the while nodding as if her reply cemented something in him.
"When I get back home, I want my relationship with my son to be like yours' and Garuku's." Chang looked up at Kyoshi, eyes shimmering with the onset of tears. But he was a brawny man. He shut them tight, squeezed them back in and tugged the saddle tight.
"We'll leave as soon as the harness is fixed." He nodded stiffly at Kyoshi, who repeated the formal gesture back, then left to work on some other task. Kyoshi smiled. A tingling sensation heated her cheeks. It was nice to have an adult look out for her again. Something about it made all problems and worries disappear; something warm. It was people like Chang that made the world a better place, and Kyoshi would be forever grateful for the things he did for her.
Jin Jin growled quietly as the battalion walked, bent over to get through the scrub, around the face of the gorge. The shirshu was not comfortable in the harness, but if it meant she'd be able to fight alongside the girl in the green dress she would keep it on forever.
"I know it's not the best," Kyoshi said, hushed almost instantly by a nearby soldier. She continued quieter. "But once we get inside Omashu we can take it off." The shirshu let out a quivering moan, as if to tell the girl she was understanding – or maybe even to give some loving words. Jin Jin adored Kyoshi, but for some reason whenever she tried to express her feelings the girl would never quite understand it to its entirety.
The sound of crunching bark echoed in everyone's hearts, a battle cry of sorts, as Gisgo slammed in a peg, tying the chain through the loop and tugging it to test the strength.
"It should be steady," he whispered to the crowd, tying the other end of the chain to an arrow.
"What if the chain isn't long enough?" Chang queried, doubt continuing to overcome him. Gisgo gave back his usual, mischievous grin.
"Then we march up to the front gates." Some soldiers stirred quietly in laughter; it was somehow a remedy to their growing worry and nauseating anticipation. Bako looked at Kyoshi to see how she was faring. She was tightening a strap on Jin Jin's faux harness, and it seemed she was okay. Maybe inside she was wrought with nervousness, but on first glance it looked like she had finally come to terms with the weight of the situation. They were fugitives, she was the Avatar, and with only twelve or so men they were attempting a break in into an enemy city where the Dai Li and Earth State army would be waiting for them. It was an immense weight to take on. But somehow she was doing okay. Not excellent. But definitely coping. She looked up, noticed Bako staring at her and raised her eyebrows as if to say 'This is actually happening. It's unbelievable.' He nodded back, smiling too at the incongruity of it all. Stuck in their moment, the two did not notice Gisgo take aim.
His arrow was pulled back in the tightening bow, a slow creaking sound sliding through the air, the tension rising on everyone's breath. Winking he lowered the bow ever so slightly downwards then let go. The arrow hurtled down into the gorge, the chain whipping past people's legs like a furious viper. Everyone watched as it soared majestically, a graceful eagle, until it slammed into the rock. The force almost pulled the peg out from the tree, and the chain, thankfully, was taught. Gisgo stepped forward with a spear over the chain, ready to slide down.
Stopping him, though, was Kyoshi who said, "Stop. You're not going first." Gisgo sneered at her, unimpressed.
"Once you're down you could pull out the arrow and leave us here, start a new life in Omashu." Kyoshi did not want to take any risks. And though she had given him her trust before, he was a criminal and therefore had to be questioned, especially at this dire moment.
"Oh, come on," he spluttered, scrunching up his face. "Me? I'm on your side."
"She's right," Momzen added, stepping forward to the wire. "I'll go first." Chang nodded his approval and Gisgo rolled his eyes, sulking over to a stump to sit on.
"Fine. Lousy kids thinking I'm good for nothing," the thug muttered under his breath.
Momzen swiped up the spear in his hands and swung it over the cable, lowering his body to see the feel of his weight on the wire. Arms still above his head he moved the spear along the wire and looked down the gorge. Warm air gushed up into his face and the pit seemed emptied of sound, as if it were a sombre, slumbering beast with a belly ready for the swallowing. Its depth was breathtaking, beautiful almost. The boy looked over to the sewer opening where the chain would take him to. It was going to be a long ride, and dread, a mass of heavy iron, weighed down in the lowest reaches of his stomach. If there was a gust or his hands slipped he'd fall to his death, certainly. But he had to put on a brave face in front of the soldiers and Kyoshi. They were composing themselves professionally, so he had to as well. He nodded at Kyoshi, whose eyes suddenly curved upwards into a worried expression.
"Be careful," she said gently, before nodding back. Momzen smiled then turned to again face the city walls. Taking a few steps back he lunged outwards and, grip locked tight on the spear, he swung along the wire.
Hot, hefty air pounded his lungs and his heart beat a thousand times a second, drumming his muscles with blood and vigour. A gaping smile spread across his face and with all his might he let out a roar so loud his throat became hoarse. The clinking of the chain rang in his ears, an uplifting, empowering sound, and soon he slammed his feet onto solid earth. Kyoshi was heard cackling with joy.
But now he had to focus. He peered up at the fencing atop the wall. There was nobody there. Silently he slipped down onto the platform and kicked in the meshing, looking up again just in case. He waved to the others to start coming in then made his way up the sewer.
Bako went next, keeping silent as he swung so as to avoid being noticed, and then some soldiers. Gisgo followed and then Jin Jin was strapped onto the chain. The atmosphere was tense. If Jin Jin was too heavy the wire would break and there'd be no way for the rest of the battalion to enter. Somehow the shirshu understood this and she dug her claws into the crisp dirt as men attempted to shuffle her closer to the edge of the cliff. She didn't want to ruin the plan, but too didn't want to leave Kyoshi on her own.
The Avatar stroked the fretting beast and climbed onto the saddle, Tori chirruping comfortingly on her shoulder.
"Avatar Kyoshi you should get down," a soldier said once he tightened a strap on the harness. Kyoshi shook her head.
"I can't. She needs me. She can't go down on her own." Jin Jin moaned croakily, tones of fear breaking her calls.
"The weight of the two of you will be too much for the wire. You'll fall, and everything will be ruined," Chang interjected sternly. He looked Kyoshi in the eyes and pleaded with his. Kyoshi knew he was right, but she could not, she could never, abandon a friend. She could sense Jin Jin's apprehension, it was slowly paralysing the poor beast, and therefore she was certain the shirshu needed her to go with her.
"You have to trust me," Kyoshi said softly to Chang who then proceeded to sigh understandingly and nod.
"Okay. I trust you." He took Jin Jin's reins and led her to the cliff edge. A gentle breeze ran over Kyoshi's face as she stared into the abyss then out at Omashu. A heavy, burning emotion sank in her heart but at the same time it felt right. She was facing destiny head on and was finally not afraid or unready. She felt like a true Avatar.
"Come on, girl," Kyoshi muttered, keeping her eyes locked on the city walls. Jin Jin teetered at the edge of the gorge, whining nervously, before leaping forward. Kyoshi felt their combined weight drop and take on the chain as they hurtled, hanging, through the air. The weightlessness was sickening as terror bore its way into her body like a thirsty leech, the poor shirshu kicking her legs about in hope to find a spot of solid land. The chain could be heard straining as they travelled along it. Kyoshi, choking on her own fear, clung to Jin Jin's saddle, certain the wire would snap and they would plummet and perish.
Once they collided into the wall, a solid thud, security, like a warm ray of sunshine, came to the three of them, Kyoshi, Jin Jin and Tori, and Momzen and Bako unclipped the harness from the chain.
"You're still alive!" Momzen joked, lunging onto his shirshu friend and hugging its long snout. Jin Jin huffed lovingly, relieved to still be alive, nuzzling up against Momzen's face before Chang and the rest of the battalion swung over.
"So we've got everything?" Chang said as everyone made their way into the sewer, away from any possible sight from above. "Food. Water. Armour and spare weapons." The soldiers mumbled 'yes' as Gisgo led the march, Chang by his side.
The sewer was almost entirely black, and it was as if such blackness was the source of the cold temperatures that soaked everyone's bodies. With each blink flecks of light would dapple over one's vision and upon opening again they would have to focus on something distant to orientate themselves. Like galloping cavalry the sound of rushing water, pungent with the stench of sewage, thundered all around them; you couldn't even hear yourself breathe. Every dark corner, its distance incomprehensible, was filled with the surging echoes and was colder in temperature than the last spot.
As they travelled deeper and deeper, the darkness enveloping them more, it was cemented in their minds that there would be no return. Even returning to the opening at the walls, there would be no way of swinging up the gradient of the wire. Maybe they were marching to their deaths, slowly giving themselves up to a cold darkness. It sure seemed like it.
Kyoshi gnawed on her bottom lip. She had to keep those thoughts out of her head, at least for now. If anything good were to come from this, she had to stay focused and positive. She slowed her breathing and watched her steps, counting them between each slab of rock. It wasn't long, or perhaps it was – Kyoshi's distraction must have been efficient, before Chang stopped his men. He was standing next to a ladder, wide enough for only one person, and a grim expression was painted across his face.
"This should be close enough, taking us up to the front of the palace," he addressed, the battalion listening intently. "Momzen and Bako, you two take Kyoshi to find her father, while the rest of us will take on the armies waiting for us." The two boys looked at each other and nodded, they'd have to work together well to get the objective done safely.
"I haven't got much of speech prepared," Chang continued. "Or no words of inspiration. But with the Avatar here and with us that should be inspiration enough. I don't know what is likely going to happen up there, but I do know it has been an honour fighting with you men. For Gao Lin!"
The soldiers returned the call with just as much heart, "For Gao Lin!" and swung their packs over their shoulders.
At this point everyone seemed to move fast, time had sped up. Fluidly things went past Kyoshi as her heart pounded in her head. Either she was falling out from the nerves, or her focus was heightened to an indescribable level. Without even noticing her legs move she climbed the ladder, eyes locked on the backside of Chang, waiting for the angry face of a Dai Li agent to appear at the opening. The sun poured onto her wide eyes, muscles still warm and uncontrollable. As if connected to Chang by some spectral cord she was led around the corner of a sandstone building, battle cries and ringing slices instantly filling her ears. The man looked back at her kindly and shone her a comforting smile, as if he knew she was overcome by some intense, irrepressible battle trance and that his smile would calm her somehow.
Suddenly a sword burst through Chang's back and hot blood spat onto Kyoshi's face. He collapsed onto the floor as Kyoshi choked on her strangled breaths. A hand snatched her green dress and pulled her back around the corner. Her vision began to blur as the booming sounds of war buzzed through her entire being. Chang was dead; his whitening corpse in plain sight. The hands that held her spun her around. She could see Momzen's worried face before her, his orange eyes darting around, watching someone. He then slapped Kyoshi across the face, her ears popping from the pain.
"Kyoshi! Snap out of it!" he yelled. The Avatar, now feeling the cold air on her skin, sound now distinguishable, shook her head.
"Sorry. Sorry," she muttered, swallowing down the oncoming grief, looking up again at Momzen.
"Get her on Jin Jin and up to the palace!" came the voice of Bako. Momzen peered over Kyoshi's shoulder to look at him then nodded.
"Bako?" Kyoshi said, still dazed, starting to turn around.
"Don't," Momzen interjected, grabbing her shoulders to make her face him. Tears were brimming in his eyes, he was obviously panicking. Immediately Kyoshi knew what was happening. Momzen was watching Bako kill people. And it was making him distraught. Kyoshi nodded, not daring to turn around and see the hellish act unfold behind her. Momzen lifted Kyoshi onto Jin Jin and smacked her side.
"Get to the palace! We'll see you up there later!" Momzen shouted, his voice fading as Jin Jin began sprinting across the battlefield. Everything was happening so fast. Chang died just moments ago, and Kyoshi, looking across the battlefield for a safe route, tried to hold onto the picture of his face. She could only see the back of his head, the last she saw of him, and the smile he gave her before that.
I want my relationship with my son to be like yours' and Garuku's. Those words whispered through the frenzied air and a single, dewy tear teetered at the edge of Kyoshi's eye. That would never happen. His son would never get to see his father again. He would never get to go on camping trips with him. Never let his father hold his grandchild. Never embrace him ever again. It was something Kyoshi could not at all comprehend, and something she did not want to someday have to comprehend; at least not for a long time.
Kyoshi, something hard now snapping inside her, took a tight hold of the reigns and stared up at the palace, brow furrowed. From where they were there were no steps, just slide-like structures with big stone boxes in them; the mail system. Kyoshi had heard about it.
"Go!" she shouted, tugging at the reins, leading Jin Jin over to a box. Earth State soldiers charged at the two, delusional in thinking they could defeat the shirshu. Jin Jin whipped her paralysing tongue at them, while Kyoshi, one hand still manning the reign, raised chunks of earth from the ground and flung it at them. Once arriving at the slide Jin Jin stepped in. The box was barely big enough for the animal to fit all four legs in but they managed. Kyoshi knelt in the saddle, tensing her stomach to remain balanced, Jin Jin remained taught too. She raised her arms, keeping them limp, and then, feeling the mass of the stone box and her and Jin Jin's combined weight tug against her biceps, swiped her arms down and backwards. The box began up the system, hot air rushing past her face, chestnut locks flapping behind her shoulders. As the two ascended the gravity acting on them increased. Kyoshi kept her body flexed, continuing to circle her throbbing arms to propel the box upwards.
A roaring sounded from behind. Quickly taking a peek behind her Kyoshi could see Astrid at the base of the mail system. A terrifying mass of crimson fire cascaded from her fists as she, also in a mail box, charged forward. Kyoshi groaned as she put more effort into her bending, a bid to speed herself up the system.
Tori flapped manically in the sky, jumping onto the heads of the Dai Li to scratch at their faces or disorientate them from their fighting. Bako locked swords with an axe-wielding soldier. He stared into the man's eyes before pushing outwards with his two swords. Quickly he ducked down, avoiding a fired earthen slab, letting it crash onto the axe-bearing soldier. Still with his body lowered he spun around and sliced a gash in the legs of an oncoming enemy. Blinking to refocus, he saw Astrid's accomplices, Mitinari and Naote, fighting battalion men in the distance. He told himself to avoid them; they were difficult enemies and he needed to take down as many easy ones as possible.
Momzen punched out a fireball. It rammed into a Dai Li agent and sent him toppling onto another. His eyes flitted around to find another enemy, a target. Suddenly a heavy stone slammed into his back. He rolled over the gravelly floor, breaking his fall with his hands, and nimbly got back to his feet. Kneeling now he pressed a hand to the floor and leant on it, kicking out spires of orange flames from both his feet. It sent the soldiers back collapsing over each other's feet and Momzen got up to make to a clearer spot.
This was a war. And both boys, not proud of hurting men, felt more and more powerful with each hit they made and each hit they took. It was as if bruises were fuel, and an attack was an exercise. It somehow made them healthy, it made them whole. It made them better people. Maybe it was because they were fighting for something, so perhaps the enemies felt the same way. Nevertheless the sweat, the sun, the noise; all of it was a dangerous, empowering force.
"Boys! Garuku!" Gisgo screamed while letting go of an arrow. It flew into the chest of an earthbender who dropped to the floor, his own attack crumbling on top of him. Bako looked at Momzen. The firebender was in a squabble with a soldier. The soldier punched up Momzen's arm, directing the fire into the sky. But Momzen kicked the man down and punched out an orange burst to send him flying across the ground. Bako ran over to him, dodging attacks made to him from others.
"Momzen! We've got to go!" Instantly Momzen obeyed, dissipating his attack into nothing and beginning to the mail system. They hopped into a stone box, Bako at the front and Momzen at the back.
"You might want to hold on," Momzen giggled nervously. Always trying to put a joke in wherever possible. Bako crouched into the box and held onto the rim while Momzen blasted a jet of fire from his palms. They continued in solemn silence, seeing Astrid catching up to Kyoshi.
The stone box flew off from the system. Jin Jin roared at the soldiers below as Kyoshi, her focus completely locked on the roof of the palace, continued to direct the box. It crashed, as the Avatar had hoped, onto the roof and she and Jin Jin tumbled over the decorated tiles.
Kyoshi sniffed up the dusty air then said to Jin Jin, "Let's go." Jin Jin cackled out a raspy reply as they scrambled to their feet and made their way up the steep palace façade.
"Stop!" shouted Astrid from behind. "This ends now!" Kyoshi flicked around and glared at the girl. Astrid's golden head piece glistened in the sun and her wild, blue eyes shuddered in their sockets. Kyoshi almost felt sick making direct eye contact with her.
"You're a firebender, Astrid," spat Kyoshi, strands of sweaty hair falling over her face. "You're a traitor!" Astrid chuckled to herself, crossing her arms casually.
"No, Avatar. You. Are the traitor." Astrid jumped into the sky and swung her right leg downwards. A rolling wave of fire came from her foot and zoomed towards Kyoshi. Kyoshi jumped out of the way then bowled, somewhat without control, over the tiles into a valley of the roof. Astrid towered from above, prim body silhouetted by the blaring sun.
"You can end this!" Kyoshi shouted. She clenched her fingers and swiped some tiles toward Astrid. Astrid easily skidded left and avoided the attack, punching out a ball of fire as a counter. Kyoshi raised a wall of stone from the roof. The fire hit it and fizzled around the sides, burning the surrounding air. Kyoshi leant back, tightened her gut then, without touching the wall, lifted it off the roof and pushed it over to Astrid. Again the firebender nimbly avoided the attack. Most of it, at least. Part of it collided against her ankle and toppled her over. Kyoshi could have sworn she heard fear on the girl's voice as she fell down. Astrid rolled down the roof and Kyoshi got out from the valley and stood at a higher point, frowning at her enemy.
"Why are you doing this? The Earth State is the enemy! Your home is the Fire State, fight for them!" Astrid smiled boldly.
"Ha! The Fire State? They're nothing but savages who can't manage their own politics. I, I am better. I was meant for greatness. I was meant to defeat the Avatar!" Jin Jin beared her sharp fangs at the enemy while Kyoshi locked eyes with Astrid whose face was contorted with an unnerving mixture of fury and joy. The firebender flicked her left arm and a bolt of lightning crackled next to her. It looped in a circle then extended towards Kyoshi. At that moment Kyoshi was still. A steel ball had formed in her stomach. She had done this all before, been with Astrid on this roof and seen her conjure lightning. Before Kyoshi could take a defensive stance Jin Jin leapt from the tiles and shot her tongue out. It only just scraped Astrid's side and the girl immediately thudded to the tiles and rolled down and off the roof. Kyoshi looked at Jin Jin, the Avatar could only hear her own heart thud against her ribcage. What was going on? She had definitely done that somewhere, sometime ago. Surely.
"Thanks," she muttered, before turning around and continuing hastily up the palace roof.
As soon as Bako and Momzen reached the top of the system Bako jumped out and began with the guards. Swords met, clanging across the city, while Momzen used his fire to counter the attacks of the earthbenders. Each boy knew to corner the guards to the mail system, and when the opportunity was right they would kick the men down the system.
"Nice," Bako said, beaming at his friend.
"They should thank us, really," Momzen grinned. "Going up was fun. But going down, now that'd be a ride." Bako laughed.
"Maybe some other time." Momzen nodded and then the two made their way around the palace, hoping somehow that they'd find the dungeons amid a colossal palace and get to Garuku. Both of them were tantalised by the praise Kyoshi would give them if they were successful. If they weren't though, it wasn't even going to be a thought.
Nero stood inside the great hall of the palace. His golden robe was plated with armour on the chest and shoulder areas. It proudly bore the Earth State insignia and shimmered in the green light like an arrogant peacock. Next to Nero in a throne sat a bulkier, fatter man. He had a medium length beard, snowy like the caps of the mountains in the north, wiry like long pins. He too was wearing his own Earth State armour and possessed a confident air to himself.
"Do you hear that, Baishu?" Nero began, elegant voice reverberating off the enormous painted pillars, listening intently to the battle outside. "That is the sound of an easy victory." The man in the throne, Baishu apparently, cackled grossly, spit hawking out in hideous patters.
"Good. I don't want too much damage," the man replied. "Omashu is great city so-"
"Was a great city," Nero interposed. Baishu glared at him. "Don't give me that. You're the only General of Five to have a major city to himself, count yourself lucky it's still standing." The two were interrupted by the sound of footsteps. To their pleasure it was the Avatar. Her green dress billowed slightly around her knees and her pointed, golden boots sounded like marbles on a tin roof as she walked. Her face was blanked with a powerful seriousness, not one emotion or sign of weakness showing, yet somehow it showed everything.
Kyoshi tried to keep contained. Why did she decide to come here? She could have made her way into the dungeons unnoticed and just retrieved her father and be over with it. But no. Some conviction had possessed her, and it led her here; just as something led her up the ladder from the sewers into battle. Maybe she was ready. Maybe she was the Avatar. She was the Avatar. And Nero was before her, the one thing she hated in the world, and could be faced as an equal. Kyoshi was certain this was what she had to do, at least just one punch and then go.
"I wasn't expecting this," Nero smiled. "It's been a long time, hasn't it?" Kyoshi didn't reply. He did not deserve her taunts. Nero kept poised, his hands behind his back in a formal manner.
"Last time I saw you we were both in Lake Laogai, settling some disputes," he continued, a sick smile still pressed on his lips. "If that had gone through we wouldn't be here now. We'd own half the world and more. You'd have an empire." Baishu chuckled, protruding gut wobbling. "I heard you've been on quite a journey. Seen the serpent at the Eastern Lake, defeated the Si Wong, you've even learnt earthbending! Very impressive!" Kyoshi did not reply still. Hoping the silence would break him, shatter his insides. Ignoring a bully always ruined them, Kyoshi just had to persevere.
"Do you miss your father?" Suddenly Kyoshi's face scrunched up furiously. He had broken her instead, and as hot blood surged up her arm she lifted a slab from the palace floor and launched it at the horrible man. Nero jumped forward and punched it with his fist. It smashed, dust billowing outwards away from him, and settled over at Kyoshi's feet. Nero smiled, raising an eyebrow cheekily, and Baishu got up.
"My floor!" he boomed.
"Who are you?" Kyoshi spat, anger, a thousand knives, still carving up the back of her body. Baishu crossed his arms and frowned at the stupid Avatar.
"I'm General Baishu; ruler of Omashu, a General of Five and descendant of the White Tiger! And you, Avatar, are grossly overconfident!" Kyoshi pushed out her chest and raised her voice.
"I'm the Avatar!" Her enraged voice echoed down the atrium.
"Kyoshi, please. You've got two of the world's best earthbenders against you," Nero laughed, treating her as if she was still the naïve child he met her as.
"Don't talk to me like that! I'm not a kid anymore," Kyoshi snapped as she shook her head. "And I'm definitely not your puppet! You can't trick me!" Nero's face fell unamused. His hands came from behind his back, a sign he was going to start fighting, and Baishu stood straight to present his intimidating size.
"Well then. You're outmatched and outnumbered," said Nero bluntly. "It's over before it's even begun."
Suddenly the ceiling exploded, taking down with it some of the side wall. Dust rained down on the three confused opponents as a figure stood at the gaping hole. Kyoshi had seen this before, just like her squabble before with Astrid. It was in a dream, a prophecy it seemed. The figure came in through the dust and took their position next to Kyoshi, holding up their hands for the battle that was to come.
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