Chapter 7
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The Air Elemental





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Assault on Whale Tail Island

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Poisoned Fire

Otan has a series of shocking revelations on his way to the Fire Nation Capital.


It had been several days since the utter destruction of the Seahounds on Whale Tail Island. Lahn and his men had decimated the main force to a man while the Shadow Painters had dealt with Hako and the rest of them. Otan and Zisa had been given rooms of their own for the trip back and a messenger hawk was sent to confirm a rendezvous point with Jiran.

Otan stood outside of Zisa's door. He had been waiting there for nearly twenty minutes, trying to decide whether he should knock or not. Zisa hadn't said a word to him since they had gotten back on Ghef's ship and it seemed as though she had gone through great lengths to avoid him whenever Otan came near. He knew that she probably wanted nothing to do with him since he had deceived her and his mind reeled with all manner of unpleasant fantasies about the things she might say to him or what she might do. Otan's initial instinct was to just leave her be and stay on the Ghef's ship when she was reunited with her family, and yet something had forced him to leave his cramped cabin and force his legs down the corridor to Zisa's room.

Taking in a deep breath, he knocked.

There was no answer.

"Zisa," he said, "Zisa? Are you there?"

As stupidity and anger overwhelmed him, he found himself banging his head against the metal bulkhead several times. No response.

"Listen!" he said, "I know you probably hate me now because I lied to you about being a soldier and a Firebender, but I had no choice! The Firebenders attacked us! I thought that you would turn me in if you knew, so-so I lied, okay?"

Still no response. "Look, just give me a chance to apologize to your face! That's all I'm asking! You can do whatever you want after that-I'll even let you kick me off the ship into the water and I'll never bother you again."

Otan slumped against the bulkhead door until he was on his knees. "Why won't you even open the door?" he screamed, his voice rising, "You can't just stay in there forever, you know! You have to come out of there eventually!"

"Who are you talking to, Otan?" someone tapped him on the shoulder.

"Gah!" Otan felt as though he must have leapt ten feet in the air.

It was Zisa. "Were you waiting for me or something?"

"Don't-don't sneak up on me like that," said Otan, "Ever!"

Zisa put her hands on her hips. "I've been worried sick about you," she said, "You've been avoiding me ever since we got on the ship! After-after what happened on Whale Tail Island and we landed in the hills, you had this look on your face. It was like you were in a completely different place-and you were crying. And then I never saw your face after that, even after I looked all over the ship for you."

"I-I cried?" Otan said, "No I didn't."

Zisa rolled her eyes. "Of course not, Hako must have splashed you in the face right before we-we escaped." She trailed off.

A silence past between the two of them as their heads were filled with the vision of what the Shadow Painters' destructive power had one to the Seahounds and how it had blasted away an entire section of the island.

"So," said Otan after a few moments, "does this mean-"

"A ship!" a Fire Nation soldier came barreling down the hallway towards the two of them, "Merchant ship off the starboard bow! Come quickly!"

Zisa clapped her hands together, "That could be mom and dad!" she cried and followed after the soldier with Otan in tow, instantly lost in her excitement.

When they arrived on deck, Zisa ran at breakneck speed into her parents' arms. Otan watched them from the entrance, momentarily forgotten like transitory breeze with a hint of a smile creeping over his face as he witnessed the family's shared joy.

He thought momentarily of his own family; little more now that vague shadows left on the walls of his past; his mother's and father's faces obscured by a shroud of mystery that he could not penetrate-had not been able to penetrate since the night nine years ago.

An Avatar Lost

Yemi informed Otan that there would be a change of plans; they would not be departing immediately for the Southern Air Temple and the Avatar. Instead, Ghef had decided to escort Zisa and her family back to their home in the Fire Nation Capital. Lahn also mentioned that the would need to re-supply as they had sustained heavy losses during the battle with the Waterbenders. Otan knew instantly that something about the situation regarding the Avatar had changed and from he knew of the General, the man would never have gone out of his way to show kindness to Jiran and his family unless there had been some ulterior motive for doing so.

Later on, Otan learned from Dr. Zedo that Seippa had broken her shackles escaped from the hold several nights ago. Otan fought down a smile; Meili must have gotten tired of waiting up for him. So much the better, he thought, she would be able to get the Avatar out of the Southern Temple before Ghef and the Fire Nation figured out he was missing. The voyage seemed to pass with unnatural swiftness as the two vessels sailed towards the Fire Capital. For now, Lahn had said, Ghef had decided that it was best for everyone if Otan maintained his guise as part of the Fire Nation military while Zisa remained on her family's ship for much of the voyage.

After several days, they finally came within sight of the Fire Nation Capital. Otan was alone on the deck of Ghef's ship, peering at the main landmass of the Fire Nation in the early morning light. To the side of the ship, he could see Jiran's vessel lagging slightly behind.

A sound from the merchant ship caught his attention. Otan watched Zisa emerge on deck in a red silk dressing gown, yawning.

Feeling slightly mischievous, Otan sent a soft breeze her way, tousling her hair.

"Hey," she called at him, "It took me an hour to do my hair this morning!"

"Good morning to you, too," Otan called back.

"Mind if I come up?" she said.

As an answer, Otan unfolded his glider staff, leapt off the railing and plucked the girl off of her feet, winding back over to the general's ship.

"You can let go now," Otan said.

Zisa smiled. "I don't think I want to," she said, and kissed him.

Otan kissed her back. "So," he said, "I guess this means you're not angry about me being an Airbender?"

Zisa stepped away from him, leaning against the ship's railing. "No," she admitted, "Maybe I would have been before Whale Tail Island, but-"

Otan clasped her hands in his. "But what?" he said.

"For my entire life," she began, "I always believed that the Fire Nation was in the right-that it was us against the world. But now, I'm not so sure anymore, after seeing what General Ghef did."

"If the Shadow Painters hadn't come along when they had, I don't know what would have happened," said Otan. "As far as I'm concerned, the only thing that matters was that I found you and that you were safe."

Zisa wrenched her hands away from him. "How can you say that?" she said, "Those men may have been pirates, but they didn't deserve what happened to them! The Fire Nation I knew wouldn't attack innocent Airbenders and they wouldn't just destroy people like their lives meant nothing!"

Otan sighed, looking into the girl's eyes. "Listen," he said, "When I was six years old, I remember seeing an explosion just like the one on the island-right in the middle of my village."

"The Shadow Painters," Zisa whispered.

Otan nodded. "Yes," he said, "I know now that Ghef was the one responsible for the destruction of my village. But, being an Airbender, I was taught that things like revenge didn't matter-you just had to let these things go. Taking it out on people like Ghef won't change anything that's already happened."

"I'm not talking about what's already happened," said Zisa, "I'm talking about what's going to happen! If I just sat by and let my country's military do these terrible things, then I wouldn't be able live with myself! The rest of the Fire Nation needs to know what's going on outside of its borders!"

"I'm afraid it doesn't," came Lahn's voice as he and monk Yemi approached, "You see, the Shadow Painters are a top-secret branch of the military-which means that they don't officially exist. Therefore, the General and I can't just let you walk into the Fire Capital and tell people about our little project."

"Believe me," said Yemi, "You don't want Ghef as an enemy. It'll be better if you just forget everything you saw on that island."

Zisa clenched her fists. "I can't do that," she said.

Otan put a hand on her shoulder. "Zisa,"

"Let go of me," the girl cried, "If you cared at all about the Fire Nation, then you would know that what you're doing is wrong!"

Lahn's mouth twisted into a smirk. "Just don't try anything stupid," he said, "stupid mistakes have a habit of biting back where it hurts the most."

It took nearly all of Otan's strength to keep Zisa from lunging at the field commander. "He's right, Zisa," said the Airbender, "You don't know what he'll do to you or your family. Come on, I'm going to take you back over now."

Yemi nodded. "Otan speaks wisely indeed, young lady. Listen to him."

Otan shot the monk a glare before unfolding his glider staff.

Zisa went below deck without so much as a glance in Otan's direction, leaving Otan alone on the deck of the merchant ship. Or so he thought. Glancing in the direction of the fast-approaching landmass that made up the main bulk of the Fire Nation territory, he could see a small, but quickly growing speck appear out of a cluster of rocks near the horizon.

An Airbender. On a glider staff. Meili. It was Meili!

"It's good to see you again," Otan said when the little woman landed on the merchant ship. "A lot's happened."

"You can say that again," said Meili with her usual scowl, "I've got some bad news."

Otan nodded. "Yemi's betrayed us to the Fire Nation," he said, "That's how they knew we'd be flying over the Atoll."

Meili shook her head with a sigh. "Doesn't surprise me," she said, "Yemi never had much backbone. What else?"

Otan shifted his weight. "Well," he said, "I kind of promised to help the Fire Nation bring in the Avatar."

"That's another thing," said Meili, "After me and Seippa got away I went straight to the Southern Temple before coming here-the Avatar's gone!"

The Nomad Questions

Had the circumstances been different, Otan would have been amazed by the spectacles of the Fire Nation Capital, from the massive harbor to the sprawling city nestled amid the caldera of a long-dormant volcano. Everywhere he looked, everyone seemed to be filled with passion and life, from the children to their parents; all of the citizens of the Fire Nation awakening to a newfound age of prosperity and plenty. And yet, try as he might, he could not ignore Zisa, always at his side while they made their way past the busy streets to her family's home in the countryside. She walked with her head slightly bowed wherever they went, knowing all too well what the cost of her people's happiness.

As a show of gratitude to Otan and the Shadow Painters, Jiran had invited Ghef, Lahn and Otan as well as a great deal of business friends and some government officials to their home for a banquet that very evening. Three tables were set out, a table on a raised platform in the center for Jiran and the more important dignitaries and two on either side set perpendicular to the first. As an Airbender and a vegetarian, Otan had to decline most of the food he was offered, as a large part of the Fire Nation diet consisted of meat. Although not wanting to appear, impolite, Otan took a sip of his tea, wondering why no-one else at the table had done so.

"Ah," said Jiran, clapping Otan on the back, "it's good to see that I'm not the only one who enjoys the fire-jasmine blend!"

Several seconds later, Otan found out why as he had the distinct sensation that his entire head was about to melt over his shoulders. It was all he could do to keep from leaping up and screaming his burning throat out.

"Tell me, General," said a woman sitting across from General Ghef, "After fighting against the Air Nation, would you say that they're as barbaric as they are in the stories we hear so much?"

Ghef coughed into his napkin. "Oh, I'd hardly call them barbaric," he said, "spineless cowards would be closer to the truth. They rarely attack directly, they prefer guerrilla hit-and-run tactics over a direct assault."

Otan straightened on his mat, but said nothing. Zisa put her hand on his arm.

"So," the woman continued, "I take it that they're not a threat."

Ghef raised his eyebrows. "Oh, certainly, they're a threat," he said, "Our scouts estimate their numbers to be comparable to that of the Fire Nation or the Water Tribes, of course, they are a nomadic people and so it very well be much more than that."

At that point, all other conversations had stopped and all eyes were drawn towards the General.

"What's their military like?" asked one man with enormous whiskers, "Since their nomads, they must be highly mobile."

Ghef nodded. "Indeed," he coughed, "When I was a much younger man we foiled a plot by Airbenders to assassinate Avatar Roku who were using a small nearby lake as a base."

"He's lying," Zisa whispered to Otan, but he barely heard her.

"Even now," the General continued, "after the Fire Nation generously offered their protection to the new Avatar, they met our generosity with mistrust and hid the Avatar away. No doubt they seek to turn him against us and him as a weapon against not only the Fire Nation, but the others as well."

Otan felt a pit open up in his stomach as everything began to fall into place. He realized why Ghef had decided to continue on to the Fire Capital rather than go to the Southern Air Temple and why he had decided to make a public appearance at Jiran's banquet. It was a perfect opportunity to fuel the suspicion and fear about the Air Nomads and gain public support for whatever action he had in mind.

"What does our Firelord intend to do about the Air Nation threat?" said another guest "Are we going to war?"

"Rest assured," said Ghef, smiling, "I have spoken our beloved Fire Lord himself earlier today and he has assured me that the Airbender threat will be eliminated-with extreme prejudice. In fact," he said, glancing in Otan's direction, "We've hot on the trail of uncovering an Air Nation spy ring right here in the capital."

With that the entire room erupted into an inferno of zealous outbursts and questions while Jiran tried in vain to restore order.

Clenching his fists, Otan stood up and left the table, Zisa following after him into the darkened corridor leading from the dining hall.

"Otan," said Zisa as she came alongside him, "Everything Ghef said in there about the Airbenders was a lie and you know it. You can't believe that everyone in the Fire Nation is that gullible."

Otan pounded his head against the wall panels. "No, it's not that," he said, "I've been so stupid! I should have seen it coming!" "What are talking about?" said Zisa.

"Don't you see?" said Otan, "now that the Avatar's gone, he has no use for us anymore! The only reason he didn't give me away was because he needed me and Yemi to get the Avatar for him, and the only thing keeping me here was you!" he gripped the girl's shoulders, "I have to leave-now!"

"Otan, you're scaring me. What do you mean you have to leave?"

"I know too much," said Otan, "Didn't you hear what he said about the spy ring? He's going to use me and Yemi to help fuel the public outcry! That's why we came straight to the Fire Capital."

Zisa shook her head. "No, as far as everyone else is concerned, you're a Firebender-you can use your lightning, can't you? Besides, my father knows some very influential people-he can vouch for you."

"All of those men and women are influential people," said Otan, "And if I stay any longer it'll only put you and your family in more danger, just like at the Atoll. With me out of the way, they won't have anything on you."

Zisa glared at him. "So, you're just going to run away, is that it?" she said, "Is that the Airbender way, to run away from everything?"

Otan pulled her into an embrace. "I'm sorry things couldn't have gone differently," he said, "But there's nothing either of us can do about this," As she drew away, he could see the tears on her face in the darkness. "Forget about me-about the Shadow Painters, forget about everything."

With that, he left her, not even so much as glancing back at her as he ran into the darkness, afraid that if he looked back he might not be able to run anymore if he did.

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