Jian Chin still lived.
This fact was a source of amazement to him- he'd felt his body break as he struck the cliff side, and it had been damaged further by the massive amount of rock that had fallen on it. No matter how he'd survived, he knew that it was a moot point- he could feel himself being slowly crushed, and his life was ebbing from his body. He might have minutes left, if he was lucky.
The warlord groaned and tried to curse, though nothing came from his mouth but a wet cough and some blood. He was Jian Chin, the greatest warrior in the world! It wasn't supposed to end like this. It just wasn't fair…
It doesn't have to be this way, said a soft voice that seemed to rise from the very stones. I can save you and lead you to glory beyond your wildest imagining. Accept my offer, and Chin the Great will be forgotten- it will be your name that is the standard by which earthbender conquerors are judged!
Jian Chin tried to focus his blurry vision; he thought he saw a figure standing over him, shaped like a man but somehow… more, and yet he couldn't make out any features save for a pair of cold, bright eyes whose colors shifted even as he watched. "Who… you?" he managed to gasp out.
The voice chuckled. A simple spirit who recognizes greatness when it appears. For decades I have waited and watched for a champion to wage the ultimate war and conquer all the mortal nations beneath their boot. I thought that the Fire Lords might do it, and the Fire Nation's General Azun when they failed. They all disappointed me, and so I come to you as you stare across the border of life and death and stand open to my voice. We've met once before, when I shared the body of the girl you knew as Wei Ming. She was nothing more than an untrained commoner when I found her, and I was able to make her one of the most fearsome warriors alive. You I could imbue with the strength of a thousand earthbenders!
"Why should… believe you?"
You're alive, aren't you? The fall alone should have killed you, but I intervened. I can't keep you alive for long, however, unless you allow me to inhabit your flesh as I did with Wei Ming. Then our spirits and wills shall become one, and you will have all the power you need to bring this world to its knees. Are you interested?
Jian Chin gave a broken smile. "Yes," he breathed.
The indistinct figure wavered and was gone. For a moment nothing happened, and then the warlord's body was wracked with agony more intense than anything he could have imagined. He felt as though something was drilling into his skull, shoving aside his thoughts and identity and restructuring them to its own liking. He'd thought he was too damaged to speak above a whisper, but now Jian Chin was screaming at the top of his lungs.
It was over with the same suddenness with which it began. The pain was gone now- Jian Chin felt healthier and stronger than he ever had before. Flexing his muscles, he burst free from the rocks piled atop him and landed on his feet, whole and alive. Power ripped through his body- he felt like he could have moved a mountain, had he been so inclined.
Now even the Avatar cannot stand against you, the voice said in the back of his mind, now sounding very like his own. Jian Chin flexed his arm and knew it to be true. For a moment he considered climbing back up to his fortress and annihilating his would-be-killer, Azula, but another plan was forming in his mind. Having apparently risen from the dead and wielding earthbending that was powerful beyond imagining, it would be child's play for him to raise an army and take Ba Sing Se. Then the Avatar and the Fire Lord- and the Fire Lord's sister- would come straight to him, and he would destroy them all before the eyes of a horrified world.
Jian Chin smiled, and the voice in the back of his head gave its full approval. "Do you have a name, spirit?" the warlord asked conversationally.
Yes. I am called Zhan Zheng. Jian Chin's smile broadened. The name of his new benefactor was one he was well familiar with.
Zhan Zheng. War.
And so the true identity of the Azula Trilogy's Big Bad at last stands revealed – Zhan Zheng, the spirit of war. I'll talk more about him (or her, or it – ZZ is a chaotic being who can't really be pinned down by mortal classifications) in my commentary for the next fic's prologue, but when developing this character I knew I wanted a supernatural evil who would fit into the Avatarverse's cosmology, not simply be a transplanted western-style devil, and who would foil Azula in interesting ways. Now that both its minions in the two completed fics failed, ZZ is ready to take a more direct hand in things, and the world may not be ready for what it has in mind.
Speaking of villains, Jian Chin isn't out of the game yet, and now he's far more dangerous as Zhan Zheng's vessel. Of course, what he thinks he's getting out of the deal isn't necessarily going to be what he's actually getting; neither Azun nor Wei Ming exactly had an equal partnership, and Jian Chin isn't bright enough to pick up on the fact that he just got played, especially with ZZ flattering his ego.
In any event, Path of Fire is now complete, and in many ways it's the Azula Trilogy fic I'm most pleased with; Wei Ming is one of my favorite OCs, and I'm very pleased with what I was able to do with Ty Lee, Long Feng, and of course, Azula herself. The next and final installment of the Trilogy is Soul of Fire, in which the story will be pulled back a bit to see a wider view of what's going on the world, and to bring Aang back into a major role as well. Of course, this is Azula's story at heart, and she's going to have a lot of soul-searching left to do regarding her relationship with her mother, who she is now that she's rather definitively rejected her father's influence, and what her role will be in the conflict to come. For the Spirit of War is on the move, and old enemies will have to come together to make their stand against it. But what hope will they have against a god?
The revised and polished Soul of Fire should be on its way soon!