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After clearing things up in the Fire Nation, General Ghef travels to the Shadow Painters' base where he has a surprise confrontation with Lahn. At the Eastern Air Temple, Otan is shocked by the appearance of a long-forgotten acquaintance.
A Crippled Old Man
Zisa hadn't expected to awake after the Agni Kai, much less with the mottled, humorless face of the General peering down at her from her bedside.
Zisa glared up at him. As she tried to rise, she felt her head swim and every part of her body groaned in protest.
"Don't try to get up," He coughed, "Even small doses of Fire Poison can leave a person disabled for weeks."
"What about the Agni Kai? How come you didn't kill me?" said the girl.
The general wheeze out a laugh. "Technically, you were dead. I had to jumpstart your heart almost immediately with some lightning to bring you back."
"I don't understand. Why bring me back."
"I'm a crippled old man," said Ghef, "You're a fifteen-year-old girl."
Zisa nodded, glancing around the unfamiliar room.
"You're in my apartments. I couldn't bring you home to your parents' house still breathing. It was Agni Kai, after all."
"So, I'm dead," Said Zisa.
"Victim of an Airbender attack," said Ghef. "Your parents held a lovely funeral. Cremation."
"Don't think for a minute that this will keep me quiet," said Zisa.
"I don't," said General Ghef, "But hopefully it will make you more careful in your new life."
"I'm not going anywhere," said Zisa, "As long as there are people like you and the Shadow Painters in the Fire Nation, I'll never stop fighting."
Ghef nodded, glancing out the window into the streets below. "I used to think that way once, nine years ago," he said, "But the Fire Nation we were fighting for doesn't exist anymore, if it ever did. I won't let you throw your life away searching for it."
"What you're saying is that it's too late for the Fire Nation, then?" said Zisa.
"For the Fire Nation, yes," said Ghef, "I'm afraid our Fire Lord has begun to take our people down a path that it will not be able to return from for a long time to come, and all I can do anymore is help it through the worst as best I can." He met Zisa's gaze, "However, for Firebenders, there may still be hope, which is why I am about to show you one of the few known Firebender healing techniques."
Zisa was instantly suspicious, although when the General saw the distrust in her face, he laughed. "Relax. This isn't a trick, girl, " he said, "You don't think that after a decade experimenting with Fire Poison that I wouldn't have a way to remove it as well, did you?"
Zisa shook her head. "How come you never used it on yourself?"
Ghef coughed into his red handkerchief, "I'm afraid it is the nature of the technique," he said, "While I was able to remove most of the Fire Poison from your body earlier, the poison continues to plague the body long after the initial burns wear off, and it will continue to spread until it kills you unless the infected tissue is destroyed. This technique involves careful and concentrated Firebending to get rid of the poisoned tissue. In my case, The poison in my own body has become so pervasive from repeated exposure that I can't use the technique on my own body without killing myself."
"I'm sorry," said Zisa.
The General scowled. "No, you're not." He said, "And if you knew about some of the things I've done in the past, you wouldn't have even shown false sympathy. This way, maybe I'll be able to earn a little of that false sympathy."
Zisa gulped in a breath. "Will it hurt?"
The General nodded. "Yes."
"Couldn't you have done this when I was still asleep?"
"Well," said the General, "No. Since it involves Firebending inside someone else's body it requires as much concentration on the part of both the Firebender and the patient, although since we're both Firebenders this should be a lot easier."
Zisa grimaced. "Do it."
"Very well," said Ghef, "Now just relax, breathe as I do, the most important part is synchronizing our breathing."
Zisa did as she was told, and little by little, she began to feel tiny pinpricks of heat flaring up inside of her, growing steadily hotter and hotter.
When it was done, the girl had passed out from exhaustion, although the next time she awoke she would be feeling much stronger than she had before. Ghef watched the rise and fall of her chest and listened to her breathing for a time, and then glanced out at the sky beyond the window, where the comet was barely visible in the burn of the morning light. He rose, steeling himself for what was to come-for the inevitable battle with the Airbenders. Whether either side was prepared or not, each knew what was coming, and that destiny could no longer be denied.
It was war and now everyone was a combatant-everyone had to chose a side. Ghef had done the girl a favor that he would almost certainly never done for any other opponent he had faced in the past. The people of the Fire Nation wouldn't be so lenient. They would cry out for justice; they would want to put a face to the faceless Air Nation who had plotted against them and had even coerced the Fire Nation's most privileged citizens to their cause-they would demand that someone pay. Ghef would be more than happy to provide them that someone.
"Find the Monk," He said to one of his guards.
The Fire Elemental
It was late at night when General Ghef approached and his escort approached the hidden base of the Shadow Painters. Now that he had dealt with all of the loose ends in the Fire Nation Capital, he could finally concentrate all of his efforts on the attack on the Airbenders. The Fire Nation astrologers had informed him that the comet would be brushing through the atmosphere in only a few days' time, and so the hunt for the Avatar would have to be postponed while the Fire Lord, Ghef and two additional generals chosen by Sozin himself would lead a four-pronged attack on the Air Temples.
Ghef had always been struck by the irony that a comet would help the Fire Nation win the war, as he had always understood that comets were composed mostly of frozen water and earth-not fire. Yet Fire Nation astrologers had claimed that when the satellite passed through the air, it traveled so fast that it would ignite, generating a secondary source of heat and light in addition to the sun-more power for Firebenders to draw from.
As he and his escort approached the V-shaped valley, he knew almost immediately that something was wrong. His suspicions were confirmed when he saw that the hidden entrance had been left open. Had their been an attack? Had the guards gotten careless? He left two men outside to secure the perimeter in case of a back attack and took the rest with him into the facility. There had been no signs of struggle, and yet all of the Shadow Painters with their lead armor that had been stationed there were nowhere to be seen.
Finally, the old general arrived at the bottom level of the complex, where he could see a distant light burning at the end of the corridor leading to the mandala chamber. "Get ready," he warned his men as they entered the chamber. Scattered throughout the chamber were pieces of clothing and armor that must have belonged to at least a half a dozen men and women. And yet the occupants of the armor were nowhere to be found. The General stood for a moment in the center of the room, watching the torches flicker around the edge. The torches.
Before he could react, the torches suddenly flared to life, jumping off of their brazier forming a wall of solid flames that cut Ghef off from his men. In the center of the room, the fire began to coalesce into a tangible form. Lahn. The young man stood in the center of the room in full uniform, yet where his hands and head showed through, his flesh seemed to give off a subtle glow.
"Hello, General," said Lahn, "You've missed the party."
Ghef coughed. "What-what is the meaning of this, Lahn? What's happened here?"
Lahn spread his arms. "The next stage of Firebender evolution." He said, "As of right now, I possess the collective Chi energy of almost two-dozen of your so-called "failures"."
"This-this isn't natural," said Ghef, "What have you done to yourself, Lahn? You've become an abomination-just like what happened to your brother!"
Lahn's eyes flared, the skin around them burning off and reforming again as the young man's face twisted. "Don't you dare talk about my brother, old man!" he snarled, "You left him to die! I was the one who brought him back-together we brought the rest of your abominations back!"
The old General was confused. "But, how can this be? After the others just-just half-disintegrated! You're still able to maintain human form!"
Lahn laughed. "That and much more, General," he said, "There are many secrets that await those who care to look into the Spirit World. Unlike you. You thought you were so clever to come up with your poison fire technique, but look what it's done to you! You're barely fifty and you've lost all of your strength along with your hair, you're nothing more than a living fossil!"
"If we had more time to perform more research, we may have eventually perfected it as a form!"
"Shut up!" The flames surrounded the two men intensified, "Do you have any idea what my brother and those other Firebenders went through for the sake of your form? When I brought my brother back from the Spirit World, he said that every waking moment was torture for him! He felt like he was being burned alive every second of his miserable life here in this dungeon! He said the one thing that kept him going was his desire for power-power to ensure your destruction! And now that I've made his Chi my own, I plan to fulfill that desire."
With that, Lahn's figure began to lose definition. The air around the General began to burn his lungs and flesh as the wall of white fire enveloped him.
A Familiar Face
Otan had been having the same dream since the night he and Meili had left the Fire Nation Capital. In it, he was standing alone on a hilltop, a breeze whistling around him. On the peak of the hill was a well, and the well spoke to him, telling him to climb down into it, but Otan refused. The voice taunted him, threatened him, and before long the sky and earth grew red with fire and erupted all around as though it were the end of the world. Then he would awake, sweating.
"What do you think it means?" Otan said after discussing the dream with Meili one evening after they had gotten clear of the Fire Nation. Meili shrugged, poking at the cooking fire between them with a stick while the pot of vegetable stew simmered above. "I don't think it matters." She said, "What does matter is warning the Air Temples about the Fire Nation."
Otan nodded. He knew where the conversation would go after that. He knew that Meili would do whatever it took to protect her fellow Airbenders from the Fire Nation, although Otan wasn't sure that even Meili's strength would be enough without the Avatar, but didn't say anything.
They ate their stew in silence, then extinguished the fire with some quick Airbending and went off to sleep.
However, before Otan was able to start dreaming, he was rudely awakened by the little hook-nosed woman. "Otan," she said, "Seippa's gone!" Otan sat bolt upright. "Not again! Not after Sulfurcrab Atoll!"
"Don't worry," said Meili, "She woke me up when she flew off to the north, we can track her with our glider staves, come on."
Otan was way ahead of her, soaring into the air as soon as she had unfolded her own staff. A small dark patch obscured the northern horizon. Otan knew instantly that the patch was Seippa and sped onward towards the runaway Sky Bison.
The chase lasted only a few minutes, as Seippa quickly set down on a smallish hilltop amid a cluster of rocky peaks and stood there, waiting for the other two to catch up. Otan's eyes widened as he neared the hill. "This-this is the same hill from my dream," he said, "Look, there's the well I was telling you about!"
Meili scowled. "We don't have time for this," she said, "We need to get to the Eastern Air Temple. We can't waste time looking at old wells."
"Long time no see, grounder," came a voice from the darkness of the well.
"That voice," said Otan.
All at once, a whirlwind of dust and air shot out from the depths of the well, spiraling into the sky. Seippa fell into a defensive crouch while Meili and Otan brought up their staffs, preparing for an attack.
Instead of an attack, the miniature cyclone began to coalesce; the tiny dust particles gathering up and solidifying into a vaguely human form. Otan lowered his staff. "Fen?"
The mass of swirling air came to rest on the ground before the two Airbenders and the Sky Bison, clothes and flesh being spun together as though out of nothing until Fen stood there, grinning back at the two of them. "In the flesh," he said, "well, sort of."
"But how did you survive?" Meili said, "We saw you fall during the battle at the Atoll!"
"Yeah, about that," said Fen, "I'm afraid that was a necessary subterfuge so that I could keep watch over the grounder, here."
Otan's eyes narrowed. "You mean to tell me that you've been following me around the whole time since then? Where were you back on Whale Tail Island or when the Seahounds attacked?"
"Well, you and your girlfriend seemed to be doing pretty well for yourselves, so I just sat back and watched you do your thing. And to be fair, I've been watching you ever since twelve years ago."
A spark of understanding appeared in Meili's eyes. "You!" she cried out, "You were that spirit I saw outside of the village," she glanced at Otan, "You were the one that brought me Otan."
Fen nodded. "Yep. This grounder here's destined for great things, let me tell you. And for the record, I'm an Elemental, not a spirit-big difference there."
"So can you help us?" said Meili, "The Fire Nation's about to launch an all-out attack on the Air Nation. We're going to need all of the help we can get."
Fen hung his head. "Can't help you there," he said, "But the grounder can."
"Why me?" said Otan.
Fen hopped up on the rim of the well, "Follow me and I'll show you."
Meili gripped Otan's arm. "If you can't help us, then there's no point in our being here. We're leaving, Otan."
Otan didn't move. "I'm sorry, Auntie," he said, "you and Seippa are going to have to go on without me."
"You can't possibly be listening to this spirit?" said Meili.
"Elemental." Fen corrected.
Otan shook his head. "This is something I've been thinking about since we left the Fire Nation." He said, "Sister Meili, I can't help the Air Nomads. The only one who could have helped us is the Avatar, and now he's gone-I don't know, maybe he was the smart one-but what the Air Nomads need right now is a fighter-but everything I've been taught as an Airbender has been against that. Look what happened at the Atoll-I should have used my power to protect everyone, but instead I just froze up. Later on, someone I cared about needed me to be there with her, but instead I ran. Every time, I thought that I was doing what an Airbender would do, but now I know that I was just hiding from the fact that I was a coward."
"Maybe were are a coward," said Meili, "Maybe you were a coward all of those times before, but if you come with me now, then you have a chance to redeem your honor and maybe make a difference in this war."
The four of them stood there for a long moment, then Otan turned away. "I'm sorry," he said.
Meili said nothing to him, not so much as a parting word. The last words Otan heard her speak were a soft "yip-yip" to Seippa as she reeled away into the night, Seippa crying out for her lifelong companion and friend.
When the two had finally flown out of sight, Otan felt Fen's hand on his shoulder, a breath of wind ruffling his robes. "Come on, grounder," said the Elemental, "I've got something to show you." With that, Fen did a backflip into the open well and vanished from sight. Otan waited a moment longer before peering down into the black depths, and then jumped into oblivion.
For the collective works of the author, go here.