The Hundred Eyes had the great, black rock evacuated. The Thieves' wives and children scrapped together all they could in their hasty retreat from the rock, aware of the Awakening and the danger it carried. They had been a secluded and protected nation, the Thieves of Gihad; cornered away in the edges of the red Desert, they had preserved more of the Old World in ways not even Acchai, nor the depths of the jungle, could preserve. Kyoshi had been swept beneath the flood and the Library buried; only ruins remained where the air nomads dwelt. But here, in the oasis of the Desert, shielded by the sleeping rock, they had preserved the old ways. The Thieves of Gihad remembered the cry of the Nian, and the voice of the Black Warrior.
And now a slave had come claiming the Awakening, supposed kin of Nondo Mchwa, of the Sun Walker, of the Sheikh's old soldier, Iroh. It was a development that irritated Piandao to every considerable end, for the man seemed hardly of the same blood as the famed firebender. He had the lingering air of a Union man about him which bothered the Thief of Gihad, the thin lips, the rough jaw, the overly-intelligent eyes; all of it, born and bred character of a Union citizen. But there were other aspects that encroached upon these, aspects uniquely and terribly Acchain – thin lips curved into a scowl, white teeth bared like a cornered tiger-stallion; jaw hidden beneath the dark and scruffed edges of that distinctly Acchain beard; and then the overpowering, all-consuming fire in the gold rims of his eyes, ferocious and barbaric. It was a terrible and imposing mix, the intelligence and savagery intertwined, and it made him possibly the most formidable man Piandao was ever likely to meet. This annoyed the Hundred Eyes endlessly, until the slave was able to prove his worth once and for all.
While the black rock was evacuated, the Sahib had the slave's belongings brought before him. There was no protest from the other Thieves; few dared defy an order of the Hundred Eyes, let alone one that affected the Awakening. They laid all of Zuko's claimed items at the feet of the Sahib – his saddlebags (long emptied of food) his saddle and reins, blankets, clothing, boots, his brown leather and red-metal armor, his twin blades, his painstakingly acquired black-panther cloak. The last thing to be tossed to the pile was the white-bladed knife Zuko kept in his boot – the knife his Uncle had given him. The knife that had once belonged to Lu Ten.
The Sheikh gave an excited cry when this item was thrown into the pile. Intrigued, Piandao inspected it; in surprise he found letters engraved in the side, not of Gev or of a Union tongue – but in a barbaric language, one used in the lands of Acchai. Knowing the knife had been a possession of the Sun Walker, the Hundred Eyes swathed the blade with a rag and brought it before Zuko, still kneeling pitifully in the sand.
"This knife. What does it say along the other side, kin of the Dragon?"
Zuko had to tear his eyes away from where he stared at the dreadful, still, grey form of Myobu's body. From were he knelt, Piandao was a tower, a mountain, a man reaching to the heavens. But Zuko only had to see the polished black hilt of the knife, only had to remember his Uncle holding it tightly at the funeral of his murdered son.
"Never give up without a fight."
Lu Ten had told him that, once. Long ago.
Piandao sniffed in mild acceptance and spat on the ground, turning back towards the pile and the face of the black rock. Thieves were gathering all around, crowds, hoards, to see the Awakening; men in rags, Shifters without their blades, bloodbenders marked with their red clothing. Wives swathed in niqabs as Katara and Toph were hidden away, children barefoot and babbling in the Thief's tongue, clinging to their saris.
And passing the form of the kneeling firebender, a man with sin-black eyes. With a blue gem necklace still tied to his wrist.
He half-smiled at the Zuko, mockingly, and drifted in with the rest of the Thieves.
In that moment, a beast was born in Zuko. A terrible, trembling, snarling, wrathful beast.
The Sahib, meanwhile, had acquired a large, round drum, hung with charms and bones and sacred objects, its sides tan and worn. It was an ancient thing, a blessed thing, something their ancestors had kept safe and secret through all wars and raids of the Desert. It was a drum made by the ancestor of the isangoma that had so terrified Sokka in the jungle-swamp. A drum containing the heart of a spirit.
Zuko was made to stay still between two rough, but uncomfortable-looking sandbenders. Zuko, however, was lost in the rapid developments of the night, adn too busy plotting his vengeance on the black-eyed man to attempt an escape. Piandao seemed to know this, as he was want to know such things, being of the Hundred Eyes; he strapped on the old drum, the drum made by the isangoma, the drum containing the heart of a spirit. The Thieves had gathered to the base of the rock to hear the drum sound, to witness the Awakening, and Zuko was astounded at their numbers. They were a sea of people swathed in dirt-colored clothe, thousands strong even without counting the women and children; they seemed a single people, a form, the movements in the midst like blood running through the veins of some great, formidable body. Zuko had never seen so many people before, not even at the yearly festivals in Balda Haram when the shops closed, and the gates of the city opened to gypsies, and all people gathered for games and fireworks and fights. Awed by the multitude that lay nestled and hidden on the edge of the red desert, Zuko did not even hear when Piandao began to play the drum.
The people, however, had their eyes fixed on the Sahib. His pace began slow, his eyes closed, testing for the sound of the heart in the drum. He was beckoning the spirit awake, moving it to rise and fall and stir the soul of the Black Warrior. Zuko looked up in time to see him catch the scent, the feel of the spirit of the drum, and to let it overtake him. Zuko saw it as though the Sahib was being submerged, delving deep underwater into the dangerous currents of the world beyond the veil.
Sokka, still groggy, still hung over, crept from the fur-lined bed. The fire had died down to a cold smolder, and the room was freezing again. He wanted Suki's warm, golden body back beside him beneath the sheets, wanted her to distract him from the horrible ache in his skull.
Suki was still seated before the scattered Reading.
"...Suki..." Sokka said again, taking himself down to the floor. He must have noticed there was something off, something not right with the posture of the Kyoshi-Shaman. He crept hesitantly to her side and found her staring, wide-eyed, at the message in the Reading.
"Suki, what is it?" Sokka breathed, touched her arm. The Kyoshi-Shaman made absolutely no reaction to his advance; nothing but to slowly, so painfully slowly, lift her eyes from the Reading; completely still, save for the movement of her head, she turned just as slowly to face the Prince.
There were circles under her eyes, dark and desperate circles, red lines of tears on her cheek. And the empty, fated look in her eyes made Sokka feel the way he had during the caravan, when the bloodbender controlled him - numb, and cold, with the life being torn slowly from his body.
"Sokka," her voice was cracking. "Sokka... it's a mirror, Sokka... it's all..."
Then her eyes rolled back into her head.
The spirit of the drum had possessed Piandao.
He cried out, opened his eyes wide, stared in the direction of the black rock, slammed the drum. He turned and twisted and moved like a sand-cat, like some wild thing, fluid and powerful and deadly. His footsteps were heavy, rhythmic in the sand, leaving deep imprints in circles, footprints trailing out around him. The heavy drum strapped around his waist sang beneath his hands, the echoes of mountains, of the dark deeps of the oceans that the Desert people never saw. And when he opened his mouth, a voice came out that was too raw and deep to belong to him, even a man as powerful as the Sahib; it echoed and roared like the chasm of the Void, like the songs played before Time.
"Jaya shiva shankara Sheh-shan-ka-sheh-kara Jaya shiva shankara Sheh-shan-ka-sheh-kara
Hara-bom', Hara-bom' Bom'-Bom'-Bolo Hara-bom', Hara-bom' Bom'-Bom' Bolo
Dim-y, dim-y, dim-y
And suddenly, in a swift and terrible motion, Piandao swung the drum around and drew Iroh's knife, cutting a long gash into his palm.
Blood dripped onto the sand. Zuko caught the only glimpse of the eyes of the Sahib; they were white as snow, rolled into the back of his head.
There was no sound in the Desert. Not even the vultures seemed brave enough to call, not eve the youngest children dared to breathe. No babe wept, no voice lifted above the silence. Piandao had his bloody hand suspended above his head, white eyes like snow, like ghosts, and his body was shaking violently, wracked with the callings of the Spirit World. Zuko tore his eyes again from the Sahib, looked again at Myobu's body. His tongue was hanging from his mouth, eyes half-opened and glazed, fur coat grey as ash, as stone, as death itself.
Slick lines of red were beginning to trail, gently, down the black skin of Piandao's wrist.
The Sahib uttered a terrible shriek that made Zuko's ears ring, and slammed his bloody palm onto the drum.
There was a shout, a shriek, a terrific cry from the Void. The Spirit burst from the drum at Piandao's waist, blinding, white-hot, a streak of lightning in Zuko's silent, terrified eyes; a streak of pure cosmic energy and truth. It leapt from the leather and wood and crashed into the face of the black rock, scattering as it did so, the shattered glimmer of a million stars.
A terrible, sudden tremor went through the earth, crushing every Thief face-down to the sand, even bloody Piandao. It was felt in the Northern wastes, in the cities of the Union, felt beneath Azula's feet as she closed the door on her dying Uncle. Felt by the isangoma in the jungle-swamp, who laughed and laughed and laughed.
The ground was moving. Zuko had been forced to the sand from the first tremor, and the tremors that Slowly, for the effort of raising so huge a form from beneath the earth must have been unfathomable, Gui Xian reared his head above the Desert sand.
He was a mountain. He was so massive he blocked out the sun from the distant horizon, and all the oasis was cast in his shadow, the water spilling out free beneath him, unbarred by his huge form. But he was filthy. Having slept five centuries beneath the crimson sands of the desert, Gui Xian, the Black Warrior, the great Lion-Turtle, would look nothing less than a red-dusted piece of shit if he hadn't been half a mile high. His skin was dried and wrinkled like the bark of some warped, ancient tree; his huge black shell, the Thieves' rock, being studded and churned and carved into so many varying shapes and designs, suddenly began to creep vines and whispers. From the moment his huge, lion-like head rose from beneath the sand, dusted red, fangs hanging over his great lip, eyes like full moons, the vines were creeping. Things began to curl and grow upon the black surface of his shell, red and green and yellow things, brown things still coated with sand; his legs, still rooted in the red earth, looked made of thousands upon thousands of miles of leather. Tough, gnarled leather that was making the red sand spring to life with fresh, startling grass, emerald on ruby-red, jewels growing from the earth. Life was springing from the earth around the Awakened Gui Xian. Life was forever turning, waiting, in the moonlit eyes of the Black Warrior, eyes that had seen the Beginning, had seen the Void, had seen the world of whispers before there were Men.
These eyes looked at Zuko. They had been meant to look at Zuko, in this moment; the same way they had been meant to look upon another soul, a softer soul, centuries before. The same way they would be meant for the next doomed and troubled man. It was and is and would be; such a thing was inescapable, for to Gui Xian, there was no time, and there was no End.
"I am Awakened. You are a Guide of the Avatar."
Zuko was dead with fear. And for the first time he realized you really could die from fear.
But the lion-turtle, Gui Xian, was raising his great, mountain-sized paws from beneath the desert, the sand lifting, flying upwards, falling down around the Black Warrior's leather skin like an earthen waterfall. His claws surfaced like comets, shinning in the new sunlight, long and thick as a hundred grown oak-trees. Sharper than a diamond-edged blade. When he spoke, his voice echoed the same way Myobu's had when he stood upon the hexagon, with memories from an earth before Time. With power and emptiness.
"Destiny is a road that leads in all directions... its end is hidden... shapeable... moveable... but inescapable. There is no light in the Void. It was made for those who would Uphold...
Zuko felt the energy in his body rise, go towards the Lion-Turtle's descending claw like a moth to flame, drawn to the timeless spirit within the shell. There was a heavy, old, intoxicating smell in the air - a smell like ages, like the Earth itself. The smell that had driven Myobu crazy, the smell that now immobilized Zuko as the huge, gleaming claw descended toward him.
"You must Uphold."
His sharp, massive claw hovered above Zuko, but did not touch him.
Memories of light, reaching into the sky. Of a soul being conquered. Being claimed and changed and broken.
Lessons unlearned. A heart twisted.
Gui Xian had, at last, understood it.
"...Yet even Destiny is an illusion."
The touch never came. Zuko shivered in the darkness beneath the shadow of the massive spirit, a spirit older than even the world beyond the Veil, a foundation of the Earth, a creature with roots in the depths. Zuko quivered in fear and awe and was not ashamed of it - he knew when something beautiful and terrible and ancient was presented to him, something altogether magical. The Black Warrior hesitated at the reverence of the firebender, and the sudden realization in the foolishness of his past. An old, wise mortal had once whispered the thing in Gui Xian's ear, had astounded the ancient Lion-Turtle with such simplicity.
"No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path."
He lowered his clawed paw to the earth, and never touched Zuko. Gui Xian was destined, then, to never again touch a mortal with his shining claw - save for one, ages and ages after from the time he stood facing the firebender in the midst of Acchai, in the red Desert, surrounded by the Thieves of Gihad.
"Be freed from illusion."
Grass curled around Zuko's knees, sped past him across the red earth as he looked up, silenced with terror, towards the Black Warrior.
Zuko saw the purpose of Gui Xian within his own eyes, within the blinding moons of his gaze. He knew the beast was retreating, was regretting, was doubting even in himself, the most ancient of spirits left upon the raw earth.
He was taking back what he had given.
The Lion-Turtle moved away towards the sea, feet like thunder on the Desert. A long time passed as he drifted away, towering, still a mountain when he had reached several miles from the oasis; the barren spot was now soaked with muddy sand as the underground spring loosed, mixed with the bleeding desert. Sahib Piandao had recovered from the possession of the drum-spirit, from the affect of Gui Xian's shadow. He looked at Zuko first, the young firebender near a foot shorter than his great height, a mtwana, a slave as he knew him. He was crouched on the earth, staring after the trail of grass and life that the Lion-Turtle had left in his wake.
There was fire in his eyes. The Black Warrior had spoken to him. Piandao looked on him and felt his black skin go pale, his veins run with ice. He had known great men, fierce men, men who could make men quail at the thought of their approach; but something knew was taking shape inside the firebender.
Something altogether wonderful, and altogether wretched.
There was a beast in him.
It was the old, doddering Sheikh that spoke first. Whether he was too old, too thick, or too brave to be as affected at GUi Xian's Awakening as the rest of them, he nonetheless began to jabber on as soon as the Lion-Turtle was a hill on the horizon. Piandao, confused, but ever-aware of his Sheikh, tore his eyes away from the crouched form of Zuko to listen to the man speak. His voice was rushed and excited in his barbarian tongue, but the Sahib knew what he spoke. Taking the long, white knife from Zuko's pile of belonging, he approached the crouching firebender.
Zuko stared at the grass beneath him, which had grown out of the presence of the Awakened Lion-Turtle. He let his fingers drift through it, clench into the sand beneath it, pull out a few blades of green. He was reminded of the lush, green lawns of Al-Abhad. Reminded how much Acchai had become a part of him. How much she had become a part of him.
"The Sheikh speaks to you. He says you are welcome to our clan... and that the Thieves of Gihad will be your allies, as long as our blood runs red," he handed the heir of Agni his Uncle's blade, Lu Ten's blade, and he did it without constraint, without prejudice. Did it like Zuko was a Thief himself.
Zuko did not look at the Sahib. He took the knife and stood, still feeling the shadow of Gui Xian over him, feeling as though he had dodged a great, horrific doom. Feeling the lack of weight at his wrist so strongly that he did not even speak to Piandao, but turned and strode past him, his Uncle's knife in hand. Silently, carefully, barefoot and bare-chested and a slave, he weaved his way through the crowd of bowing men, prostrating themselves before the retreating figure of Gui Xian. He made his way clear into their midst, to a man who's sin black eyes were facing the ground.
He didn't hesitate. He'd almost forgotten what such a thing felt like.
The kneeling man's throat was open, white blade sliding in and out so smoothly the Thief hardly even made a sound. Then, there was only the muffled gargling, the blood pooling out onto the sand.
Zuko stooped to the man's wrist, the man with sin-black eyes, and took back what belonged to him. Katara's necklace was ragged now, but the gem was still gleaming blue and clear, the untainted carving of the blue rose.
Mortals... are fools...
Zuko whipped around. Myobu was standing uncertainly in the midst of the green lawn that had followed after the Black Warrior, his legs shaking, trembling like an old dog as he struggled to support himself. It sent another rush through Zuko, a rush of pleasure coupled with the rush of slitting the black-eyed man's throat. He felt like his head was going to spin.
"You must be marked," Piandao's voice brought him down, as he tied the blue-gem necklace to his wrist again.
Zuko looked at him suspiciously, but there was something so akin in the eyes of the Thief - something so familiar. Like remembering lotus petals, and raids on old cities beneath a burning sky.
Piandao took his shirt in hand and tore it open with a violent motion, revealing his brown-skinned torso and upper arm. Scrawled across his barren chest, and partly over his great shoulder, ran the frightening and terrific image of a peacock-lion, teeth bared, with a brilliant red eye in each of its many feathers. The mark of the Sahib Timur, the Hundred Eyes.
It was Lee who saw him. Lee, the boy had been posted as a watchman because he could not be dealt with anywhere else; the boy who tried to shoot arrows and got iron in a soldier's ass, the boy who tripped and set a dozen tents on fire. The poor, neglected brother of an increasingly furious Sen Su, cursed with a strong nobility, but a weak heart.
Lee sat atop the valley's highest dune and watched the horizon dismally. He was carving the figure of a platypus-bear out of a chunk of wood some sympathetic soldier had given him, but the boy was dreary and bored with the task. The sun was low and red, and the day had been as uneventful and routine as the many days previous; Jeong-Jeong's ruthless training, Hakoda's encouragement, everyone repeating exercises and pitted against each other in mock fights and duels and ambushes. It was an Acchain training technique to randomly assign different soldiers to fight, or groups of soldiers to gang up on a single, or for two regiments to duel - anything that would force them to struggle and sweat and survive, train them for the wild conditions of battle. It was exhausting work, and the soldiers themselves could notice very little improvement - even though they were swiftly becoming a terrible and lethal fighting force.
It was Lee who saw him. A singular black speck on the horizon that grew to a black wave, a speck followed by the Shifters and soldiers of the Thieves of Gihad, with the Hundred Eyes at his side. A singular black speck that became his Lord of Agni, bare-chested and grinning, riding atop a white camel.
"Aya! AYA!" the boy began to shout, wildly, insanely, throwing down the half-carved platypus-bear. Leaping atop the sand dune, he waved his arms frantically towards his Lord, still yelling, "Aya! Aya! Here! Here! The Lord!"
The army, at first, ignored him. But then other men began to notice the figure, the wave, and excitement ran through the army. It took Jeong-Jeong's bold, commanding roar to make everyone stay still until their Lord arrived. Only lee continued to run around, excited, searching or Sen Su. Sen Su however, had purposefully hidden himself in some obscure corner of the army, where no one could see his shame.
Zuko took his time, approached the army at an easy pace, kept his aim towards the General and the Chieftan. They waited for him to descend the dunes, halt the following Thieves, get down from him camel beside Piandao. Myobu, still weak but gaining strength, walked slowly up beside the Hundred Eyes, who put a hand behind his ears and scratched. Hakoda looked at the two of them, at the legions of Thieves that followed, and back to Zuko. There was real, true awe in his eyes now, not the kind he had before paid him due only to whispers of destiny; now the Chieftan knew, knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this man was destined to unite the war-lands.
Suddenly the earth erupted on the outskirts of the army. Sandbenders exploded from the ground in their pinnacles of sand and rock, spiraling up like geysers from the deep springs, Shifters with them, blades drawn. The army reacted instantly into battle stance, drew bows, lit their hands to flame - but a shout from Zuko, from Piandao, from Jeong-Jeong, stopped the bloodshed before it could commence. No bender attacked, no muscle moved, as soon as the cry went up.
The moment, itself, was endless. The Thieves glared at the army, and the Acchain warriors glared back. Sandbenders with cloaked dust around their feet, moving in silent spirals, faced firebender who's fists were wrapped with flame; Acchain archers with bows loaded and taught, pointed arrows between the eyes of Shifters with gleaming blades running down beneath their hands, long as a man's forearm. Yet no one moved, the wind moving cloaks like silent banners, like whispers, declarations of war and friendship, moving dust slowly across the barren ground of Acchai.
Lord Zuko, grinning, standing like a bridge between two peoples, the dust drifting by him, the white camel at his side. The deep, black eyes of Sahib Timur; the calm, intelligent blue of Hakoda's; and the raw ferocity of General Jeong-Jeong's gaze, all meeting for a brief, pulse-pounding moment.
And the fire-filled, golden eyes of Zuko.
The Mark was still freshly-tattooed, curling over his shoulder and half across his scarred chest, the marks of Foxes' teeth, of blades, of clubs, and the talons of Wan Shi Tong. The Mark of a curling, Crimson Dragon, its wide mouth opened and bared, wreathed in red flame.
Almost exactly the same Mark they had given his Uncle.
Zuko spoke to confirm everyone's suspicions. To erase all doubt that had existed in the hearts of the warriors, and especially in the heart of Sen Su.
"I'd say we're long overdue for a visit to Lord Mongke."
Jeong-Jeong threw back his head and laughed. He laughed, and laughed, and laughed. Laughed until Zuko could see the red roof of his mouth, the white cap of each tooth.
He did not laugh because of the absurdity of Zuko's success. He did not laugh because of the surrounding Thieves. He did not even laugh at the awkward way Zuko had strutted into camp upon his camel, nor the disdain with which Piandao looked at him.
He laughed because his time was up.
He laughed because the Foxes had finally come.