The spirit first came into being more than a century ago.
True, in some sense it had existed long before that- existed for as long as the will to quarrel amongst themselves had existed among mortals, which was to say from the beginning. Yet once the powers that the spirit now embodied had been in the dominion of another, and had lain without a master for millennia after that other had been imprisoned. But that had cchanged when Fire Lord Sozin had given the order that the Air Nomads were to be destroyed in order to prevent the rise of a new Avatar, and the world had shifted permanently. And because the Spirit World and the mortal world reflected one another, that shift had sent shockwaves across them both. In the aftermath of that cataclysm a new power of chaos arose- Zhan Zheng, spirit of war, spirit of the War.
For a century it hung on the fringes of the two worlds, basking in the chaos and destruction that fueled its essence. But then the unthinkable happened- the Avatar, incarnate guardian of the balance and thus the spirit's natural enemy- returned from obscurity and vanquished Fire Lord Ozai utterly. To mortals those events took months, but from a spirit's timeless perception they happened almost in an eyeblink. For the first time in its existence, Zhan Zheng knew fear.
Spirits embodied the powers at work in the mortal world, and even as the Moon Spirit might be crippled by the loss of the celestial body to which she was bound, or a nature spirit broken by the devastation of its territory, the advent of peace threatened an ending to the incarnation of War. It knew that in order to preserve its own existence and power it had to act, and quickly - and thankfully, the foolish mortals seemed all too eager to assist.
It ensnared a delusional Fire Nation general named Azun, convincing him with visions that it was Agni, spiritual embodiment of the Sun. Azun would have begun the war anew, but he was foiled by the Avatar, and by another, a mortal Zhan Zheng had instructed him to seek out, the one who was closer to the spirit's heart than any other mortal alive. It tried to turn her to its cause and failed, but it was patient, and knew that her time would come.
During the last days of the War, it had claimed the soul of a girl in Ba Sing Se who had been made into a hollowed out puppet for the city's controlling power, the Dai Li. She was filled with hate and rage, and after Azun's failure it decided that through her it could force the world back towards war, for it had remade her into a singularly lethal warrior who could slay the world's leaders and leave the nations open for chaos to return. She led it to Long Feng, head of the Dai Li, but the earthbender proved too cold-blooded to make an effective pawn. Zhan Zheng was not sad when the girl Wei Ming killed him. Though it had been Long Feng who had most directly ruined her life, some of Zhan Zheng's interest for another mortal bled over into her, and Wei Ming became obsessed with destroying her.
Again the fascinating mortal proved triumphant, driving the spirit from its pawn's body with searing lightning. But she then provided it with the key to victory- an ambitious warlord hovering on the edge between life and death. Zhan Zheng dwelt in the space between worlds, where its enemies would have great difficulty striking at it, but a drawback of this state was that it was difficult to commune with mortals save for those who were already open to spiritual forces - the spiritually attuned, the mad, and the dying had all proven susceptible, and Jian Chin was no exception. It was easy to trick the warlord into allowing Zhan Zheng to possess his body in return for healing.
Like all spirits, Zhan Zheng possessed great power, and it could use this power to enhance the abilities of his mortal pawns. To Wei Ming, come from the dark pits of Lake Laogai, it was able to bestow the ability to call shadows and disappear, in addition to turning an untrained peasant into one of the deadliest warriors alive. With the warlord Jian Chin the effects were much more dramatic, his already potent combat skills and earthbending enhanced a hundredfold, and his brutish mind aided by a far greater intellect.
To travel to Ba Sing Se, capital of the largest nation in the world, and shatter it was the spirit's goal now, one that Jian Chin in his foolish drive for glory proved most pliable. But there remained two faces that haunted Zhan Zheng's mind, mortals that could not be ignored. One was the Avatar, vessel of his immortal enemy. The other was a girl who was powerful, cunning, and ruthless, born of the bloodline to which he owed his very existence. She was the conqueror of Ba Sing Se, she was so very nearly the slayer of the Avatar, she, not her fool brother, was the true inheritor of Fire Lord Sozin - so closely did she align with Zhan Zheng's own nature that she might have been made for it. In the end, the spirit vowed, she would be made to come to it, and it would cast off Jian Chin like the refuse that he was and claim her as its link with the mortal world.
For together, Zhan Zheng knew, they could do anything.
And if she refused, then Princess Azula, like the Avatar and all others who thought they could build a lasting peace among mortals, would soon learn the utter magnitude of her folly.
Welcome, everyone, to Soul of Fire, third and final installment of my Azula Trilogy! This prologue gives us a brief rundown of the Trilogy's past events, while also giving us greater insight into our ultimate villain. As I mentioned previously, I knew that I didn't just want to make my spirit villain into a western-style devil, and I also didn't want to create a cosmic force of evil so powerful it made the Fire Nation's villainy irrelevant, thereby undermining the show's conflict. And so I gave Zhan Zheng an origin directly making it a by-product of the Air Nomad genocide, a spirit aspected directly to the Hundred Year War itself and who desires above all to see that war continue indefinitely. That means that the final foe Azula will have to face in the Trilogy is the embodiment of her and her family's sins, come by to roost in a very real and terrifying way. ZZ isn't just some abstract demonic force, it's tied intimately to the Fire Nation and to Azula's own actions and heritage. A fitting opponent for a redemption quest! Incidentally, this also ties in to why I think Zhan Zheng's possession ability works differently from the spirits in Korra; as a human-made evil, ZZ has an easier time inhabiting human hosts than most spirits would.
Characterization wise, I drew on several inspirations for ZZ – it takes some cues from Sang-drax and the Serpents from The Death Gate Cycle, still others from Ruin of Mistborn, and a little bit from Lord Foul the Despiser of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, another evil god who acts as a foil to a less-than-heroic protagonist. Within the Avatarverse cosmology, ZZ was created well before Vaatu showed up in "Beginnings" but embodies similar principles (in a spiritual sense, you might even call ZZ the offspring of Sozin and Vaatu, not that they ever directly interacted that we know of); I dropped some references to Vaatu in the revised prologue, and intend to do so at a few more points as well. The other main change I made to the prologue was to switch pronouns from "he" to "it"; ZZ may present as male (or female) to humans at different times, but in its own thoughts, it doesn't perceive itself as having a gender.
In any case, that's the prologue out of the way; next time, we'll be checking in with Azula's recovery and see how ZZ's possession is affecting Jian Chin. The final act has begun!