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|The Winter Solstice|
October 1st, 2011
Behind the Scenes
Theme Song: Iridescent by Linkin Park
Reasoning: I felt that the lyrics of the song connected perfectly with the plot of the chapter. I would suggest really listening to this as you're reading the end of the chapter. I also felt that it represented the regret felt in Sakodi and Ain at the innocent loss of life, and the fact that in order to move forward, Sakodi had to let it go.
The Domain of Artemis
The lumbering, colossal beast plodded down the dirt path, with its cargo resting on its back. On either side of the trail were tree trunks that reached upward as if attempting to grasp the sky, spaciously spread apart from each other. Though the young soldier that loosely held the bison's reins remained in his unconscious state, his elder sister was drawn out of her sleep by the incessant shaking caused by the creature's forward march. She tapped the shoulder belonging to the woman that rested beside her, the newest addition to their rebellious team. Sai reluctantly roused herself out of the drowsiness that had seized control of her.
She slowly turned towards where she thought the touch had come from, and felt around, trying to locate Kyasin. Kyasin quickly grabbed her hand and invited her to walk alongside Appa, so that they could both "see" the other. She jumped off their mount and strolled down the pathway that cleaved through the forest, side by side. Sai remarked, "We will be able to stop soon enough, as there's a village lying ahead. I can sense all of the restless townsfolk pacing around in their huts. There must be something that has them concerned. . ."
Kyasin responded, "No matter what form this threat takes, we shall fulfill our duty to the people of this countryside and eliminate it with efficiency."
In surprise, Sai nearly turned her head towards the speaking woman, before deciding against it. "Surely it would be more effective to divert our path northward and allow these people to handle their own difficulties?"
Kyasin sighed, and her breath was carried through the forest by a powerful gust of wind from behind them. She responded, "How can we expect the public to follow our cause if we are not willing to temporarily divert our path in order to ensure their safety? This revolution, all revolutions are for the greater good of the citizens. Why would they trust us if we did not stand by that?"
Frustrated by the logical argument that she felt incapable of countering, Sai stopped and leaned against the trunk of a nearby coniferous tree. Intending for Kyasin to not hear her, she murmured, "Point taken. . ."
Kyasin pressed her palm to the bison's head and whispered into its ear, "Stop for a minute, okay?" Appa did as he was expected to. She strode over to Sai and gently said, "It was just an argument. . ."
Sai turned away from her and responded, "Yeah. But I do not allow myself to lose anything, especially arguments. I cannot let anyone to perceive a weakness in me, whether it's physical or mental."
"I understand that you're not exactly acquainted with the concept of helping others and working with others, Sai. That you are not used to cooperation is not a weakness, at least in my eyes. Flaws are only rooms in which one can improve themself. I can help you get used to it, I promise. It's only a weakness when you're not strong enough to improve on that flaw; I've talked to you enough to see that your strength exceeds sufficiency in leaps and bounds."
The Lion of the Fire Nation
The ape leapt and bounded from branch to branch, briefly coming to a halt for a few seconds each time, roosting at the tops of whichever tree he had reached at the time in which he required rest. Ahead of him lied the young monk that he had recently summoned to the Astral Swamp, once again disoriented from his passage between the physical realm and the Spirit Realm. He had no method through which he could realize that the larger conflict inside his world's "Border Forest" put him at great peril. Enma had been awaiting the opportunity to properly serve as he was meant to, to preserve the life of the Host, for over a century. He could not stand by any longer, idly observing as the condition of the earth worsened each day.
Enma landed at the monk's side and began to rouse the Host from slumber. He persisted, tapping and touching the young Host's face in a fruitless attempt, eventually resorting to outright shaking the monk's limp body until finally he forfeited. He leaned his head down and muttered into the monk's ear, "I don't know if you can hear me, or if you're even there. But my words have never been of more importance, boy."
Enma looked up and stared at the monk, looking for a response. Seeing none, he leaned down again and continued.
"There is your world. Then there is mine. Both distinctly different yet connected over the planes of the universe in a way that none can understand. What happens in one affects the other. For the length of the war that has plagued your world, I have watched as my world slowly suffered as well. The spirits of my world have largely ignored this, but there will come a breaking point. Eventually the atrocities that have been committed will tip the scale and bring their wrath."
"Heed my words, boy. There will come a day in your future where an unspeakable evil will be carried out. This will evoke the wrath of the Guardian of the Forests. You may be the bridge between our worlds, but I cannot guarantee that you will be safe from his wrath. Be cautious, boy."
Enma stood up and walked away into the swamp, leaving the monk in the same position as if nothing had transpired between them at all.
The Wulong People
The town was tucked in beneath the trees, seeming almost as if it were part of the forest itself than a settlement made by man. The buildings were wooden and had steep roofs to deter snow and the fallen leaves that adorned the ground. Sunlight filtered from the canopy and splattered on the colorful forest floor below. Visible in the distance, a small plume of smoke spiraled above the forest.
With every step Appa took, the earth below shuddered and crackled with the sound of crunching leaves. The people of Shizi village quickly arrived from the village and gathered around the approaching bison. The children yelled out cheers to the four youth while the adults stayed near the gate of the village, wearing grim faces and staring silently on. Sakodi connected eyes with one adult, looking away quickly after feeling something come over him; the feeling of anger and fear. Kyasin seemed to have noticed the glare of the adults as well. Scanning the crowd, she signaled a nearby villager to come to her. Once the person, a young man by the name of Cedomir, had come, she leaped off the bison and walked with him.
"I've noticed that the adults of this settlement are not treating us with the same welcome as are your youth. Is there a reason for this?" Kyasin asked with a glare as they passed through the gate with their followers.
"I assure you, they will treat you with all the respect and welcome that you deserve. It's only because of what you've done and what you stand for that they are distrusting."
"What we've done and what we stand for?" Kyasin repeated. Her eyebrows rose to the top of her hairline and an angry look filled her eyes. "Are any of you aware of what we're trying to do?" Cedomir looked hurt. "Of course we are! We've all heard the stories of how the Avatar Host single-handedly destroyed the South Prison Rig." Kyasin grimaced at the false story, but let it pass. Cedomir continued, "We all know that you're trying to free us. But the adults of this town have essentially lost their identity in this war."
"What do you mean?"
Cedomir gestured around him. "This area was known as the Wulong Forest. When the war started, it simply became known yet another disputed piece of land between the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom. Now it is known as the Border Forest that separates us from our brethren on the other side; those who have been assimilated into the Fire Nation through this bloody conquest. Nevertheless, the people of Shizi still refer to it as the Wulong Forest; we are proud to be known as the people who live beneath its trees.
"Believe me; the people here are ready for an end to this war. But at what cost? What will it take to end a conflict that has been here for generations? The adults here have been so caught up in all this that I believe that your arrival, being such symbols of a freedom that is too far to see, is bringing up such intense doubt that I don't think they'll ever be able to accept that your intentions are true."
"You're telling me that these people don't believe we're here to help them?"
"I'm afraid so," Cedomir responded.
Appa stopped at the largest building in the town, situated at the edge of the main road on the far end of the village. A young male child raced out of the enormous wooden doors and addressed the group.
"The Elders of Shizi request a meeting with the Avatar Host and his acquaintances," he declared in a squeaky voice.
"Thank you, Xinshi," Cedomir said, at which the boy ran off to join the crowd behind them.
Ain, at the reins atop Appa's head, leaped down and helped Miza and Sai exit the saddle. Sakodi leaped over the edge of the saddle and landed awkwardly on the ground. Sai looked back and noticed the slight change in Sakodi's step, but made no note of it. The group, led by Cedomir, climbed a few short steps and entered the building.
The building was awe-inspiring. The wood was rough-cut and showed every aspect of the bark. Sprouts and small branches grew out of the walls. Oil paintings of the forest and the village hung from the larger braches. Ivy grew on the walls and weaved around the branches and paintings. Sakodi took a deep breath of the freshest air he had ever experienced. The place was just a heaven that represented Earth's wonders.
At the back of the room stood a high table. Large branches from the walls weaved in and around each other to form the table. On the right side, the branches arced up to form an arch for entrance to the chairs behind the table. Sakodi noted that not once in the structure had the wood been cut or deformed. It was completely in tune with the earth.
Behind the table sat five older men and women, the elders of the town. Cedomir walked up to the table and bowed low to the ground.
"Great elders of the Wulong people, I bring you the Avatar Host and his accomplices." "Very well Cedomir. You may go," an elder in the middle pronounced. Cedomir stood up and left the room, closing the door behind him. Ain walked forward to within five feet of the high table and asked, "Elders of Shizi, I, along with my friends, thank you for your hospitality."
"Your thanks is acknowledged. We as a whole hope that your journey here has been bearable."
"More than just that. Your town is amazing," Miza responded.
"If I may interrupt without meaning disrespect, may I ask what it is the purpose for which you have summoned us?" Kyasin spoke out, walking up to Ain.
The elder on the far left side, a middle aged man, raised an eyebrow and glared at Kyasin. Ain began to look nervous as a silent moment overtook them. The elder in the middle, now clear that he was the leader, spoke out.
"Very well. We have all heard the tales of your campaign against the occupation. We have summoned you here for your assistance."
"Assistance for what?" Sakodi stated.
"Three days ago," the elder on the right side of the leader began. "We intercepted a Messenger Hawk bound for Hi Jang base, on the shores of Lake Ozin. It was sent by Jiao, a Fire Nation military officer stationed on the Eastern edge of the Wulong Forest, in occupied territory."
"What was the message?" Ain asked.
"The message were the plans for a battle plan known as Operation Phoenix. The plan was set up to decisively end the conflict over our forest, by cutting a swath and burning down every tree that lies in their path. Without the cover of the forest, any village that stands in their way will be conquered easily by Jiao's battalion."
"And what is it you want us to do?" Kyasin wondered.
"We're not asking you to be our soldiers. We're not asking for you to risk your lives for a village that is too buried in its pride and hurt feelings to do anything in this war. We've heard about how you rallied the men and women at the South Prison Rig. We want you to do the same here."
"You want us to rally the villagers?" Sakodi repeated.
"Have you not seen them? Did you not see their barren gaze as you walked into this village? They are capable of fighting, of defending the home they love. But they're unwilling. They've lost hope. And without your help, they'll lose everything."
Beyond his closed eyes, the sound of marching permeated through the still, smoke filled forest air. His nose had grown accustomed to the deep, bitter smell of burning that had accompanied their march throughout the last three days. To him, it was simply a symbol of their mission, the campaign that would stamp his name in Fire Nation history forever.
Another tree fell on the front line, falling to the forest floor with a thud. With reluctance, Jiao opened his eyes and surveyed his surroundings. His elite battalion marched in front of him in five straight lines, a dozen to each. The ground was soft with the grey ashes that fell from the sky like snowflakes. The sky was dark with a black plume of smoke. Jiao looked at the smoke with irritation. Even for the perfect element they all possessed, the smoke was a hindrance that served as a beacon to their operation. If an enemy spotted it, they would be discovered immediately. But what did it matter? Surprise would still be on their side, even if someone suspected.
His battalion kept marching through the forest, cutting down each and every tree that was in their path. From his position, the fires from his elite men and women still burned with rage and power. Jiao was proud of his battalion. They had been trained by the best. They killed quickly and with efficiency. Jiao, after all, had taught them. Sadism was a distraction from their ultimate goal of supremacy.
Jiao walked ahead of the men and women in front of him and moved to the front. He watched as one of the soldiers walked quickly away from the tight group and launched a quick, tightly packed fireball. On contact with the tree, it exploded and blasted through the bark. The tree groaned and fell to the ground. Jiao allowed himself a smile. They were the best. Almost as perfect as himself, who had been trained by his own parents in the guidelines of perfection. Some would view them as strict, but to Jiao they were only what parents should be trying to achieve. Perfection. Living perfection.
For that reason, they had sent him to the best military academy the Fire Nation could provide. Under their watchful eyes, Jiao had become what he was today. The pride of his parents. The perfect warrior. The Lion of the Fire Nation.
Wrath of the Beast
Sakodi and the others followed Kyasin as she barged out the front door and stood on the threshold, staring out at the town. Sakodi expected Kyasin to begin talking, but she remained silent. She simply stared out at the town and the forest, a hard glare in her eyes. Before long, a lone villager noticed her standing there and stood near the entrance of the building, waiting.
Others started to notice and gathered around Kyasin. Sakodi watched in awe that in mere minutes, Kyasin had the entire village around her, simply waiting for a meaning for her silence. Kyasin surveyed the crowd. Satisfied, she began.
"I know what you've come to think of us. I know how in the War that has harmed so many, you've been harmed most of all. You haven't been attacked, or captured, or killed. You haven't lost your homes or families to the Fire Nation. You haven't been swept in under their ruthless rule and made to become one of them. No, none of that. You've been forgotten. You say that you are the Wulong People; the guardians of the forest. Are you?"
The sudden end to Kyasin's speech echoed out throughout the crowd. The younger ones looked confused and looked to the adults. Their looks of confusion quickly turned to growing anger.
"Well?" Kyasin yelled out.
"Of course we are!" a lone villager near the front called.
Sakodi's mouth dropped open, along with every one of the Elders standing behind him in the doorway. The villagers gathered around stared at Kyasin, confused.
"Kyasin, what are you..." Sakodi began.
Kyasin ran to the edge of the platform and jerked her arms towards a tree growing near the perimeter of the village. With one, fluid motion, water seeped out of the cracks of the bark to Kyasin. The tree groaned and began to splinter. A few seconds later, the trunk snapped near the base and began to fall. Sakodi eyes followed the tree as it fell to the ground and crashed through the meeting hall. Sakodi, the Elders, and the rest of their team scattered, leaving Kyasin alone on the steps with the wreckage of the once beautiful building behind her. Leaves from the fallen tree fell lazily through the air around them. The villagers gasped and began to murmur at the sudden destruction wrought by Kyasin. Kyasin, noticing the dissent, allowed a small smile.
Kyasin walked through the door of the ruined meeting hall and emerged a moment later with a beautiful painting. It depicted an overhead view of the orange and red forest, deep in the arms of autumn. The villagers glared at Kyasin, daring her to make a move. With one free arm, she removed the water from a skin attached to her hip and sliced the painting in half. The villagers screamed in outrage. The Elders, Sakodi, Ain and Miza simply looked on in disbelief.
"Do you think that the safety of the trees will hide you from the world forever? However safe you may think you are, the world is all around you, no matter how deep you hide in your little forest." Kyasin pointed upwards towards a thick, black plume of smoke visible through the canopy. "If you want proof, just take a look right there. I've just proven that you're not invisible to destruction. Now it's coming for you. And what are you going to do about it?"
The crowd was silent. Minutes passed with no disturbance. Suddenly a lone middle aged man near the front walked to a house and picked up an axe. Others followed, gathering axes and knives and anything else they could use as a weapon. Within ten minutes, the entirety of the village was armed. Kyasin smiled widely, surveying the crowd. "Be at the south gate in a half hour. Today you will be again known as the Wulong People. As the Guardians of the Forest."
The battalion moved slowly onward through the increasingly dense forest. The trees here were thick and close together, prohibiting quick progress through the Border Forest. Jiao's eyes peered into the forest, for any hint of the civilization that supposedly lived within the safety of the trees. His eyes widened and he ordered an immediate stop to the march.
Jiao walked past the silent, stiff men and women to the front of the line. Not ten feet from him stood a rough, worn wooden sign. Shizi Jiao allowed himself to smile, this being an occurrence whose rarity had increased over the years. He walked up to the sign and reached to the token holding the cloak around his neck. Inscribed on the steel was a Fire Nation insignia in red. Jiao unhooked the cloak and threw it to the ground, holding the token in his right hand. He walked slowly to the sign, breathing deeply with every step. Upon reaching the sign, he took the token and pressed it to the wood.
A hissing sound sizzled from the sign as Jiao focused heat through the token and to the wood. After the token had been in contact with the sign for almost a minute, he removed it. Burnt upon the wood was the Fire Nation insignia, right in the middle of the town name. Jiao signaled for the battalion to continue as the insignia spread across the sign and consumed it.
From the moment the Host slowly dissipated and left the Spirit Realm, Enma knew he hadn't done enough. And so with great regret unbecoming of an all-powerful Guardian, he returned to the Astral Swamp and sat upon his favorite tree; a great oak taken from Earth long before the conflict had begun. He had hoped it would help with what was to come, but now it was futile. Nothing could stop him from entering the Physical Realm now. Not after what had been done.
Enma closed his eyes and listened. Only the sounds of the eternal swamp pounded against his fur covered ears. After minutes of listening to this almost peaceful setting, he was almost hopeful that he was wrong. No, impossible. He was a spirit. He was never wrong, even if he wanted to be. Enma sighed mournfully. Within minutes, he would know.
"Why so downcast, brother?" a voice spoke, pounding Enma's eardrums. Enma opened his eyes and stared blankly into the oni face of Koh.
"Why must you degrade me with questions to which you already know the answer?"
Koh grinned wickedly and scuttled around Enma, wrapping his long, black centipede body around him like a cobra. "Come now brother? Must we already be so hostile with each other?" Koh chuckled. "Why are you here?" Enma asked. Koh stopped in his tracks, his body still. "Must there be a reason? Can I not simply come to visit?"
"You continue to degrade me with your questions, Koh."
Koh scowled at Enma and uncoiled himself. "Fine. I came to see when the fireworks would start." Enma sighed and shook his head at his brother. "Why do you take such delight in his fury?"
"Come now, even you have admitted your feelings about him. He is such a stuck up spirit; it's finally time that he feels the full pain of the human's mistakes, just like the rest of us."
"But what is the purpose of such fury if it will only bring more pain?" They were interrupted by a colossal shriek that seemed to echo through every fiber of the air around them. Koh and Enma looked to the source of the scream in time to witness an enormous beam of light bursting into the clouds, making them scatter. Koh chuckled darkly as the clouds began to reform.
"And it seems that I'm just in time," Koh remarked. Enma closed his eyes, feeling deep worry for the Host and the people of the desecrated forest.
"He's a different person now, Enma. The Host will be able to combat the threat."
Enma only sighed.
The leaves crackled noisily under the feet of his brigade. Jiao grimaced at the noise; it was as if whatever he did there would be something to give their position away. He had thought that stopping the destruction of the forest before reaching the village would help, but this only made things worse. As the brigade arrived at the village threshold, all Jiao could do was wait for the alarm. But there was none.
No alarms, screams, yells. No bells signaling the onset of war upon them. Nothing. The gates were wide open, with no guard or patrol present. Jiao was almost flabbergasted as his brigade literally walked into the town with no resistance. Jiao followed them from the back, sharing in their confusion as his troops began to search the town. Within minutes, it became apparent that the town was completely deserted.
Jiao walked through the streets of the small town, silent as his troops lazed about, unsure of what to do. There was no sign of a mass evacuation or desertion. All the doors were closed, everything was in place. The footsteps were old and dry, and there was no sign of any mass movement that had recently occurred.
"Sir?" an officer that had approached Jiao asked.
"What?" Jiao snapped.
"What are your orders?"
Jiao opened his mouth to speak, but his mind was blank. For the first time in his military career, he didn't have an order to give. Everything had been done for them. The forest was burned, the village taken, the villagers gone. The situation was almost perfect.
The rumbling above them signaled the onset of the soldiers within the town. Sai closed her unseeing eyes and concentrated, focusing on the men and women entering the town. Sixty-one; sixty soldiers, along with one who seemed to be the commander. They were outnumbered. Sai reassured herself that it was no matter. They had surprise on their side.
Sai waited until she was sure that every soldier was within the confines of the town. When that moment came after what seemed to be an eternity, she sent a slight shudder through the floor of the tunnels they had made. The villagers murmured in acknowledgment. Sai felt a hand grip her shoulder.
"They're ready. Send them up," Sakodi whispered, even though those up above could not hear. Sai nodded in response and spread her hands wide, arms shuddering. The wet ground beneath them began to shake. Dust came down in plumes from the ceiling, stinging Sai's unseeing eyes. When the shaking reached its peak, Sai jerked her arms upward.
The shaking had started only moments ago when Jiao was suddenly surrounded by villagers. They had come from under the ground, brandishing makeshift, amateur weapons. His brigade, the proud men and women he had trained were in disarray from the ambush. A young man with a ponytail led the assault from the North, brandishing a jawbone machete.
Within seconds Jiao's brigade had regrouped and were on the offensive, pushing the villagers back into the forest from where they had come. Jiao grinned, filled with pride towards his prodigies, and joined in the attack. He thrust his fist forward towards a middle aged man wielding a rake. The fire washed over his body like a torrent of water. He fell to the ground, dead within seconds.
The brigade was fighting tooth and nail against the savages. Villagers fell left and right, covered in ruthless burns. Jiao barely recognized that he was fighting. To him it was only another victory, brought about by his perfect soldiers. As they pushed further into the forest, a young girl came towards him. She was dressed in the common attire of the Southern Peak Tribe, and was unarmed. The girl ran towards her, arms extended towards the trees. As she ran, water rushed out of the tree and followed her in a long stream, killing the trees in the process. Jiao smiled wickedly and prepared himself, ready in an elite pose for firebending masters. The girl stopped short twenty yards in front of him and thrust her arms forward. The water froze into spears and rushed towards Jiao. Jiao closed his eyes and breathed deeply through his nose, letting the smoke filled air overtake his lungs. He opened his eyes in a flash and threw his arms forward. A wall of fire erupted from his palms and rushed towards the spears. The spears flew through and melted instantly, leaving nothing but steam. The Water Tribe girl appeared unfazed and counterattacked with a water drill.
Jiao's eyes widened at the enormity of the attack and dodged out of the way with inches to spare. As he landed, he slid his foot on the ground and sent a blade of fire towards the girl. She rolled out of the way and spun, taking water out of the grass around her. When she was towards Jiao again, she thrust her hand towards Jiao, sending four ice claws at him.
Jiao attacked with four pinpoint fire blasts, melting the claws in mid air. He brought his hands close to his chest, breathing deeply, and threw out his fist, sending a charged fire blast. The girl smiled and spun in circles, gathering water from the little trees left around her. Within seconds, she had an enormous orb of water in her arms.
She extended her arms towards her feet. She "walked" on the water, ascending steadily as she froze the water into a ramp. The charged fire blast met the ramp and incinerated it, leaving the girl flying through the air. As she descended, she moved her arms through the air. Water from the leaves around her gathered to her hands. When she was twenty feet above the ground, she stabbed her hands towards Jiao, sending a wave of ice spears.
Jiao almost laughed at the pathetic attack and sent a fire wall to stop it. As the fire wall melted the spears and disintegrated, the girl came in the cloud of steam that followed. With an ice spear in her hand and an orb of water in another, she fell towards Jiao with fury in her eyes. Jiao gasped and sent a weak fire blast. He cursed himself for his weakness as the girl easily blocked it and landed less than two feet away from him.
The girl ran towards him and kicked him at his chest. Jiao screamed with the impact and fell backwards, landing hard on the ground. The girl quickly froze his hands and legs to the ground with the remaining water and stood over him, spear in hand. Jiao's eyes widened as the spear neared his chest. He looked around at his brigade, but they were all engaged in combat with the savages. Jiao stared defiantly at his victor, determined until the end.
Suddenly a blazing white light exploded from a few miles away. As the girl and everyone else shielded their eyes, Jiao tried feebly to break free of his restraints, but to no avail. A moment later, an agonizing roar split the air, and for the first time in his life he felt a twinge of fear in his heart. The light finally dissipated. The fighting had stopped. Everyone was looking to the south, where the light had originated.
The trees in the distance swayed slightly, almost as with the wind. Slowly, a movement became visible through the leaves. Soldiers and villagers alike began to walk backward as the thing came closer. With a final, earsplitting crash, the thing emerged on the west edge of the forest. The villagers and soldiers stood still, frozen with fear. The creature was reptilian in appearance, six legged and enormous, towering at least twenty feet above the group assembled in fear below it. It was a pure, almost translucent white, with a few irregular black spots here and there. From a thick, powerful neck strut its face; horrible and large, it had six eyes, all bloodshot and filled with rage. A large, jutting scar, freshly bleeding, stretched from its right eye to its hip.
The creature stood on its back two legs and bellowed a guttural roar, piercing the air with its haunting scream. From its mouth, a white beam of light shone and blasted into the heavens. The villagers and soldiers scattered at the sound, all heading for the safety of the forest. The creature rushed forward at an impossible rate and began its attack.
With one arm, it lunged at the people with unnatural strength. The lucky ones died immediately while others flew for miles through the forest to crash against a tree with a sickening crunch. One brave Fire Nation soldier attacked the beast with a fireball, with no effect. The creature turned on the spot and lowered itself to the soldier's level.
The soldier was frozen in place, staring into the face of the beast. Its breath washed over him, almost knocking him over with the force of the breathing. The beast opened its mouth wide and roared at the soldier. Everyone watched, shocked, as the man disintegrated into nothing as the light washed over him. The beast, satisfied when there was nothing left, turned back to the villagers.
Sakodi ran towards the beast as it restarted its rampage, killing soldiers and villagers left and right. Thinking quickly, he intercepted the beast as it ran west to chase the retreating people. He jumped and grasped at the creature's back left leg. The creature, noticing Sakodi, spun to grab him. Sakodi scrambled like a monkey up to the creature's body and to its face.
He raised his machete and readied to strike into one of the creature's eyes. The creature ran with blinding speed into the forest and disappeared in a flash of light, taking Sakodi with him.
In the darkness that swirled all around him, he heard the screams as they fought for all they were, all they represented. Slowly, ever slowly, the darkness cleared and he understood where he was. He stood in an arctic setting, covered by an iridescent white blanket of snow. The sun shone overhead through dark, grey clouds, from which small snowflakes drifted lazily to Earth. The sound of the ocean roared above it all, bringing with it the promise of life beyond this blank expanse. A Fire Nation ship stood firmly at the edge of the coastline, anchor and bow tip down. Around it, a group of Fire Nation soldiers and what looked like...were they Southern Peak? Were they the same men that long ago had left the tribe to fight for what seemed to be a lost cause. And at the head of the warriors, leading the defense, was...
Weaving, jumping, almost dancing through the cloud of war was Hakido, wielding a bone spear in one hand, a jagged dagger in the other. Sakodi could only watch, entranced, as his long lost father cut through the troops like a knife through hot butter. The soldiers fell before his awesome might, only vainly trying to resist his pull as they left the earth through his power.
Sakodi tried to walk forward, but found himself stuck to the ground where he was. He could only watch as a soldier snuck behind Hakido and sliced his sword across his father's back.
"I can't say that I didn't warn him," a voice spoke out.
Sakodi opened his eyes slowly, his head aching with pain. His mind flowed with split images of the dream, though they slowly faded as the seconds passed. When he finally had the energy to rise, he found himself confronted by an ape covered in white fur, sitting next to the base of a large tree.
"I tried, but he wouldn't listen," the ape insisted, as if he himself didn't believe it.
Sakodi blinked, bewildered at the sight of this creature speaking. "Where am I?"
The ape sighed and stood up, walking towards Sakodi. He extended a furry hand and helped him stand.
"You are in the Spirit Realm, boy. Pulled here by Hei Bai, the Guardian of Forests." "The spirit who attacked us?"
"Indeed," the ape responded.
"How did I get here?"
"I take it you know what the Host is?"
"You mean Ain?"
"Yes. As he is the Host, he has the ability to be pulled into, or by his own will, into the Spirit Realm. Non-host humans, such as yourself, can only be pulled during a solstice or an equinox." "Why did Hei Bai pull me here?" The ape shrugged. "His own reasons, I presume. Perhaps to talk, to fight, to compromise...Who am I to know the reasoning of a spirit blinded by rage? However, I feel inclined to point out that you must leave the Spirit Realm before the season ends. In the interest of your own safety, do you wish for me to escort you to Hei Bai's Realm?"
Sakodi pondered this for a moment.
"I will proceed on my own," Sakodi replied. "As you wish," the ape sighed.
Jiao walked slowly with the remains of his once proud brigade. Only an hour before they had been the pride of the Fire Nation, ready to take their country into the next phase of supremacy. Now, having been beaten by simple peasants and a spirit summoned by the Avatar Host, they were nothing. The hawk had been sent to the Firelord, and Jiao could only wait for whatever his fate might become.
As they arrived at the nearby base, they walked in silence among the questioning soldiers. One look from Jiao told them that severe punishment awaited any question as to the success of their mission. Jiao, once the 24 remaining soldiers of his 60 men brigade had been sent to their barracks, locked himself in his quarters, immersed in the depths of his failure.
A week later, a messenger tentatively knocked on the door of his quarters. Jiao stood up from his bed and opened the door the force of an explosion.
Regaining composure, he inquired, "What?"
"Message from the FireLord," the young man said, shaking slightly. Jiao snatched the scroll from the man's hand and slammed the door in his face. Jiao moved to sit down on his bed and opened the scroll, scanning it quickly.
Upon receiving word of the decimation of your troops by the Spirit summoned by the Avatar Host, I have reevaluated the purpose of your troops. You are to take the remainder of your brigade and devote your resources to the capture of the Host.
No more second chances, Jiao. Do not fail me.
Jiao threw the scroll to the floor. The Avatar Host...the same one who had single-handedly destroyed the Southern Prison Rig. And now, with more than half of my prized brigade gone because of him...what am I to do? How am I to fight against an enemy that can summon invincible spirits and the power of the four elements? Not even the prospect of death at the Southern Peak girl had caused the doubt he felt within himself...
Kyasin and Ain walked silently through the forest, thinking on the day's events. Since the rapid retreat of the soldiers, the task of retrieving the dead of not only the villagers, but the abandoned bodies of the soldiers had been thrust upon them. This proved to be more difficult as more and more corpses were found miles away from where the Spirit had attacked them. Some were found to be only slightly recoverable, especially so when one villager was found in pieces at the base of a tree he had impacted.
As the two silent youth walked, a villager passed them, dragging the body of a soldier. It was disturbingly apparent from the way his body flopped everywhere that his bones had been crushed. The left side of his face was nothing but raw flesh, too tender to even bleed. His left leg hung from an unnatural angle, apparently only holding onto the rest of the body by a thin sinew of muscle. Ain turned away from the grotesque sight, only speaking when the sound of the dragging body had passed.
"Why must so much death and destruction be necessary to maintain peace?" Ain asked, almost about to lose his stomach.
"It's only a part of the war we must wage if we are to free these people," Kyasin simply responded.
"But why must it be necessary? Why must you..." Ain stopped himself. Kyasin stopped in her tracks and stared at Ain.
"Why must I what?" she asked, a dangerous tone to her voice.
"I watched you during the battle; how you fought. I watched as your brutality, your fierceness as you fought the commander. You were ready to kill him on the spot. No hesitation, no second thoughts, no mercy. It was almost...natural for you."
"And is that a problem?"
"I was only questioning why you must use so much violence to achieve peace."
"What other alternative is there, Ain? Detain them? Talk with them?" Kyasin almost laughed at the thought. "They'll just reject it. Our only choice is to destroy them before they destroy us."
Ain hesitated for a moment or two, but then he shook his head, choosing to walk on rather than to risk a resuscitation of their earlier arguments.
Was it the way that the swamp seemed to move out of his way? The way every twig, every leaf seemed to disappear as he set his foot down? Or the way that every creature he encountered bowed its head, almost in reverence to what he was about to do. Was it a warning? A sign of respect? A sign that they had no faith in the success of his endeavor? One could only wonder.
As Sakodi traveled through the swamp towards the domain of Hei Bai, his mind began to wonder. So here I am, walking towards the lair of a beast who single-handedly massacred dozens of people...Is it courage...stupidity? An overwhelming lust to prove myself as a warrior and leader, in the eyes of everyone around him? At the first thought of proving himself, Sokana came to mind. She, who had trained him herself in the arts of her people, had selflessly assimilated him into the ranks of her own. Would she think this worthy of a true warrior, as a warrior of Kyoshi? That is, if he made it back in the first place. But what is this to me? Is this a chance to prove to myself that I'm capable, or only to appear worthy to his peers, to Kyasin.
Kyasin. The leader of the Jai Revolutionaries. She who had single-handedly destroyed the Prison Rig and inspired the prisoners to riot. What was he to her? To Sokana? To...
I had vowed to him that with my dying breath I would protect the members of my village. What would he think of this? Would he view it as an honorable attempt that will save countless lives? Or the foolhardy actions of one that will cause more untold suffering? If only he was here, like a real father should be...
No. Sakodi scolded himself. He's where he should be...fighting for the freedom of others, like a real warrior should be. Like I should be. Like everyone around me is. Like Ain. Sakodi smiled to himself as he walked. What an amazing young man. To have the burden that he has thrust upon his shoulders...would I have been able to do the same? Would I have been able to take upon myself the sins of the world and atone for them? "No, you wouldn't."
Sakodi jumped at the sudden break in his train of thought. Looking around, he found that he had wandered into a bamboo forest. The trees appeared sickly and wilted. Dead leaves scattered the ground, black and sullen. He had, with no prior knowledge, come to an open field in the forest. Across from him on the far end stood a young girl.
The girl had pure, dazzling white hair with black streaks. Her eyes were the deepest green Sakodi had ever seen. She wore a brilliant white robe with grass masterfully woven into the design, as if it were part of the dress itself. Sakodi noted that she was the beautiful person he had ever seen. Her very skin seemed to glow, except for a large, bleeding gash under her right eye...
"Hei Bai." The girl giggled, delighted. "I knew you could figure it out. I had high hopes for you, and you proved them. As you'd hoped, of course."
Sakodi was bewildered.
"What do you mean, "as I'd hoped'"?
"Come now, Sakodi..." Sakodi was shocked at the use of his name. "Do you think I would allow you here in my domain without first screening your intentions. After the show of your courage in the Physical Realm, I decided to test you. Had you failed, you would have wandered in the swamp for eternity."
Sakodi gulped, hoping she wouldn't notice. "So what is it that you want with me?" he called out.
The girl walked away from him and disappeared into the forest. A split second later, footsteps echoed from behind him, crunching on the leaves. He felt someone's warm breath come up to his neck.
"What do you think?"
Sakodi turned around to face the girl. In her place, she found a young woman his age, even more dazzling than before. Sakodi's heart fluttered at the initial shock of seeing her, though he pushed this inside for fear of making a mistake. He took a few tentative steps away, prepared for the reaction he expected.
"I came here to question your attack on my friends and brethren," Sakodi stated.
The woman's pupils changed in an instant from green to black. Her teeth mutated into that of the Hei Bai's creature form. With a flash of light she appeared in front of Sakodi, inches from his face.
"You dare to question my right as the Guardian of the Forests!" she roared.
Sakodi gulped, his heart beating rapidly at the horrific sight.
"I am not here to question your right. Only your reason for doing so. ." Sakodi managed to say without breaking down.
The woman exhaled wisps of light energy onto Sakodi, stinging his face.
"Well said," she uttered, in a quieter tone. With another flash of light, a toddler with shock white hair appeared. "It is my role as the Guardian to watch over the forests of the Physical Realm. Over the course of the war, I have patiently endured the destruction of my keepsakes, slowly watching as my own world decayed around me." The man waved around him, gesturing to the dying forest. "But what happened recently was enough. The damage to my own realm had become so tainted and rotten, and the wrongs committed even began to affect me." Sakodi glanced at the bleeding cut on Hei Bai's head.
"A single act, carried out by a single man whose goal was only destruction, became the point that retribution had to be taken. Had you not intervened, I would have killed everyone residing within the Wulong Forest. I suppose I should be grateful that further bloodshed was avoided," the child laughed. Sakodi nervously chuckled, unsure of how to respond.
"And so, after you intervened, I was curious. What mortal would dare to attack me? One that was overcome by courage? Fear? Stupidity? Who would know, except for the mortal himself? And so, here you are. Now that I know your intentions, shall we begin?"
Sakodi was dumbfounded. He had blindly wandered into Hei Bai's domain, with no goal whatsoever. "I don't understand what you mean."
"As I said before, I screened your thoughts. You wish to prove yourself, don't you?"
"Yes," Sakodi said, unsure.
"Then how do you wish to prove yourself? Surely you don't think that you can talk me out of continuing my retribution?" the child laughed again. "No, but..."
"But what? I have no reason to listen to a mortal's words, particularly one who has almost no faith in the presence of spirits. What reason do I have to stay here? I could simply leave you here and return to the Physical Realm. It would be a simple measure to return and lay waste to those who survive within the forest..."
"No!" Sakodi yelled, more sternly than he expected.
Hei Bai raised his child form's eyebrows.
"And what do you propose to do to stop me?" he whispered.
"I challenge you to a duel for the fate of my friends. And for the safety of those residing in the forest." The spirit bit his lip, smiling evilly. In another flash of light, a man in his early twenties took his place. Two small daggers were strung to his hip. Sakodi found that at the flash, his machete appeared in his hands, along with a boomerang attached to his hip.
"Very well. I accept, but only on my terms. We will fight until the one of us yields to the other. Out of respect for your honor and your intentions, I will fight in this human form. Should you win, I will take you back to the Physical Realm and grant the safety of those in the forest, as long as the value of nature is better upheld by society. Should I win however, you will remain here unless you find your own way to escape while I return to the Physical Realm to finish my...business. Do we have an accord?" Hei Bai reached out his hand.
Sakodi took it without hesitation. Hei Bai immediately pulled out his daggers and lunged towards Sakodi. Sakodi jumped backwards and felt a tip of one of the daggers graze his stomach. He doubled over and grabbed his stomach, but found no blood, no mark whatsoever. Only the pain of what would have been the wound was present. Sakodi swallowed hard and stood, swerving to avoid another attack.
Hei Bai continued his frenzied attack, sending one dagger after another whilst trying to cut Sakodi. Sakodi retreated into the trees, occasionally parrying a blow with his machete. Hei Bai threw one dagger high in the air, using his free hand to scale up a tree with unnatural speed. As the dagger came down, he leaped from the trunk and caught it, falling towards Sakodi.
Sakodi dove out of the way, only to have the other dagger pierce his shoulder. Sakodi held back a scream and dove again as Hei Bai spun and unleashed a light attack inches from where Sakodi just was. Hei Bai forced Sakodi on the defensive, attacking again and again with beams of light. Sakodi rolled in a frenzy, trying to avoid the light while the pain from his shoulder grew more intense.
Sakodi finally stood. He began to run through the forest, hoping to escape the wrathful spirit behind him. In a flash of light behind him, Hei Bai disappeared. Sakodi looked behind him, confused at the spirit's disappearance. As he turned his head around, Hei Bai appeared, daggers outstretched towards him. Sakodi dove to the ground in a heap and collided with Hei Bai, knocking him down as well.
Hei Bai's daggers and Sakodi's machete tumbled to the ground, leaving them unarmed. They rolled in a tussled heap and each tried to stand, only to be held down while the other as they tried to reach their weapons. Hei Bai grabbed Sakodi's throat and threw him to the forest floor, sending shockwaves of pain through his back.
Hei Bai reached for one of his daggers as Sakodi struggled to free himself. Although he couldn't feel the effects of strangulation, the force of Hei Bai's grasp was still present, crushing his neck. Hei Bai finally grabbed a dagger and plunged it into Sakodi's heart. Sakodi screamed as the full force of the pain hit him. Hei Bai stood up and freed Sakodi while walking to grab his other dagger.
Sakodi curled in a ball, overcome by the pain pulsing through his body. Hei Bai reached down to grab his other dagger. Sakodi reached down to his hip and grabbed the boomerang. As Hei Bai stood back up, Sakodi threw the boomerang with all his strength. Hei Bai walked slowly back to him as the boomerang arced through the air.
"I should've expected this, I suppose. After all, you are a mortal." He raised his daggers, ready for the kill. At that moment, the boomerang swung back and passed through Hei Bai's neck. Hei Bai stood there for a moment, still frozen as he readied for a kill. Sakodi watched as the spirit exploded in a burst of light, sending a shockwave through the ruined forest.
Suddenly, the pain was gone. The wound in his shoulder, his stomach, and what would have been a fatal blow to the heart. It was all gone. Sakodi stood up slowly, anticipating more from the Spirit. The leaves rustled behind him with the sound of heavy footsteps. Sakodi grabbed his machete and turned around, poised for an attack. He lowered his weapon, confused to find an enormous panda bear instead of a frenzied spirit.
"Well played, mortal," a voice sounded in his head. Sakodi realized that the panda was the true form of Hei Bai, come to acknowledge his apparent victory. Sakodi bowed in respect.
"You fought well," Sakodi politely replied. "And you as well. I can no longer say that a mortal has never bested me. You have won the duel fairly. You have my promise of safety upon the inhabitants of the Wulong Forest. Return to the Physical Realm, Sakodi of the Southern Peak. You fight as a real warrior, as your father would. Go now."
Hei Bai opened his mouth, unleashed a small beam of light that hit Sakodi at his heart. Sakodi began to glow in an iridescent blue, and in a sudden flash he was gone.
Sakodi returned to the Southern edge of the Wulong Forest, where would come to be known as the "Great Razing" had begun. The ash had stopped falling from the burnt trees now, leaving the ground covered in a thick, almost snow-like blanket. The air stunk of fire, and wisps of smoke still curled in large plumes towards the night sky.
As he walked through the destroyed forest, he reflected upon his experiences. Is this what it had to come too to make me realize? Did it have to take the wrath of a Spirit Guardian and so many needless lives lost to finally make me believe? Sakodi mourned as he passed the remains of an villager that had been burned beyond recognition.
Maybe it was necessary, Hei Bai's voice spoke in his head.
Sakodi stopped when he heard this.
"How could any of this be necessary!" he screamed to the heavens, hoping for an answer. "Why did you have to take innocent lives to atone for my own disbelief? Death is never necessary! It never should be! So why, I ask you? Why did it have to happen?"
Never necessary, no. But as a part of life? As part of a never ending circle that binds all of us together through life, through death? Yes, I'm afraid so. While the outcome of this journey made you accept the presence of spirits, and of spirituality, you are missing the big picture. You're missing the real reason this had to happen.
"What else could there be, Hei Bai! This was punishment towards me! All those people died because of me, because of my doubt! All of this happened because I didn't believe."
But what did you not believe in, Sakodi?
Sakodi searched his mind for an answer, but could find none.
Hope. Hope, Sakodi. The sacrifices are heavy, yes. You, along with those oppressed in this conflict have endured so much. You've struggled, you've fought. I as well, have suffered, watching what I love slowly die at the hands of the oppressors. I feel your pain, Sakodi. I feel it even now as you walk through the ashes of the Wulong. But knowing now, with the power that you, the Host, your sister bring, I know that the sacrifices made now are all towards the betterment of life. To putting an end to this conflict.
Even now, the commander of the soldiers who attacked you, Jiao, sits alone, fearing for his own life because of what happened here today. He is under the impression that the Avatar Host summoned me. For the first time in the course of the War, the Fire Nation is afraid. And for the first time, the beleaguered citizens of the Earth Kingdom can feel hope again.
Yes, the sacrifices are a burden to the soul. Each death is mourned in the hearts of many, but in the light of the possibility of freedom; glorious freedom that none in this conquered land have tasted in a lifetime? Maybe it's only for the better.
Sakodi pondered this for a moment, his eyes lowered to the floor while he thought. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted an irregularity, a splotch of color in the wasteland of ash. He walked over slowly and picked it up. It was a simple acorn, completely free of any burns or ash.
You give people hope, Sakodi.
A single tear flowed from Sakodi's eye, tracing its way down to his nose before dropping to the ash covered ground. Sakodi knelt down and brushed the ground where the tear had hit, revealing a solitary patch of the greenest grass Sakodi had ever seen. Sakodi dug into it with his fingers and dug a small hole. He planted the acorn inside, taking care to make it look as if nothing had been disturbed.
He stood and walked towards the village as the morning sun began to rise. Looking back, he saw a single green sprout, inching towards the sky. A newborn in the wild domain of the Wulong people.
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|