Special Early Release: The final chapter. Zuko rides out to meet his fleeing family. What is to become of them? What is to become of Qilaq? What pale misery will shine under the light of the Full Moon?
I switched the titles of the last two chapters because I thought it more appropriate, considering the subject matter.
Hope you've enjoyed the ride. See ya in the tragi-comedies.
Peace be with you.
Chapter 25: Drown the Moon
The night was still a cradled babe and Mother Moon's lullaby was reaching the peak of her heavenly crescendo. The shadows around the single torch hanging in the hall cavorted around the light's orange edge.
It was a dull sensation, but Qilaq could feel a crick forming in his neck. "Don't suppose you could maybe loosen these rocks?" he asked the silent young woman that stood watch over him. Her head tilted to the side and the rocky band around the Bloodbender's head slipped off and back into the wall, allowing him to roll his head and stretch his neck.
"Don't suppose you could maybe explain why you did it?"
"What's to explain? This is a prison," Qilaq said.
"And so they deserved death?" she said raising her voice in anger.
"Well, I can assume you don't think they did. You saved me, and I'm a mass murderer. However, they were criminals, likely murder's as well."
"The guard's too?" Toph said, her anger starting to boil over.
"Sheltering criminals? No, they didn't deserve it, I guess. I just got carried away."
"'Carried away?' I can't wait 'till Aang sucks you dry."
Toph ignored the double entendre. "Anyway, I don't buy it."
"My reasons? To tell you the truth, I was only here for one man: Ozai."
Toph choked on a gulp of air as she absorbed that horrid name, that horrid thought, the thought that Ozai, that monster of monsters, was here and now…
He was dead.
"I couldn't do it, though. It's her fault, really."
"Me?" he asked with his artful smile drawn.
"You're the Waterbender that helped Azula, the one that killed the Kiyoshi girls. You're the one who… wait, Ozai's still… where is he!" The dark cell quaked.
"Azula's probably taking him far away, now. Or maybe they'll lie low here in the Fire Nation. I don't kno-!" The wall snatched Qilaq's head back again and the blind Earthbender rushed out of the room in a flash of green and beige, her black locks trailing her like a short cape.
Once again, Qilaq was alone, held fast in the torchlight, the fuzzy corners of the shadows wavering like the surface of a windswept pond. There was a supple white glow from the portal above him.
"The night is still young."
He heard slow, deliberate footfalls echo out in the hall. A massive muscular silhouette darkened the rock encrusted Bloodbender's island of light beneath its shadow.
"Well, look who it is: Mr. Brick," Qilaq chuckled.
"Clever. Had I crushed you under that 'brick' of street back in Xidezhen, your wit would have been sorely missed."
"I think I would have been the sorer in that situation."
"This time, I would barely have to waggle a toe to crush the life from you," Qilaq sensed the rocky cone surrounding him constrict, "and there's nothing you can do about it."
A bead of cold sweat slid down the helpless man's coffee cheek. "It looks that way," he quavered with a smile.
The rock on Qilaq's forehead loosened then slid down and squeezed back together, blinding him and nearly crushing his head. He numbly sensed the rock around his body loosen, then it fell away, though his hands and feet were now tightly bound together in shackles of stone. Footsteps thumped toward him and the rock-blinded man felt weightless as he was lifted into the air and slung over the shoulder of the Earthbending colossus.
Ozai wheezed and groped at a craggy outcropping as he limped across the rocky landscape some distance from the base of the dormant volcano, its verdant, tree-furred skin hued grey under the full moon light.
"We have to move faster," Azula called to her stumbling father as she took him by the hand and dragged him through the well lit night.
"I am sorry," the aged man apologized in a gruff voice. "I haven't moved much over the years. My legs are rather atrophied, as is the rest of me."
"We can't slow down or they'll catch us."
"Who will catch us? You're frightening friend killed every man in that horrible place."
"He's not my friend."
"He may have killed the entire city as well with such a power."
"It wouldn't be beneath him."
"And in any case, who would be a match for you, my daughter?"
"Azula!" screamed a voice in the distance. A great green basilisk scurried effortlessly over the terrain and reared to a halt before the two escaping prisoners. Zuko, his crimson and black regalia stripped off leaving a simple black muscle shirt and blood red slacks, settled his mount and jumped down from the twenty foot lizard. Naoki followed suit in his scarlet armor and stoic, three-eyed helmet.
Zuko narrowed his eyes with disgust for this unwanted family reunion. "You're little jailbreak's over. You're going right back into a cell and a lot of chains."
"No, we're not," said Azula evenly.
"Naoki, grab him."
The Fire Lord's guard nodded and silently strode toward Ozai. With a determined grimace, Azula let her father's hand go and walked toward the approaching armored Firebender. Naoki hesitated.
The former Fire Nation princess drew herself up as best she could and spoke, trying to keep her voice from cracking. "Zuko, why are you doing this?"
"I'm not playing your mind games, Azula."
"You just locked us away. How could you do that?" It was no use. She couldn't keep her voice from breaking.
"Easily. All I ever had to do was touch my face to find reason to lock him up. And you, little sister, wasn't it you who celebrated becoming an only child by trying to blow me off the side of a cliff!"
"You betrayed me first."
"And so you shot me with lightning?"
"I wouldn't have k…"
"What? You wouldn't have killed me?
"Oh, please. I'm not so naïve, anymore. Killing just comes naturally to you, like everything else. What's the matter? Afraid I might beat you this time?"
"Zuko, back then, when I attacked you, I was…
"I was sad! You left me. You left dad. What's worse, you fought against us.
"Yes and I don't regret that."
"But… we're your family."
"What family? Psychotic, vicious, murderous… You know what? It doesn't matter. Say what you want, but know that you aren't fooling anyone. Nothing you say is worth anything, anymore."
"Stand aside, princess," ordered Naoki, mustering all the authority he could.
"No." Azula's voice was so blunt it almost caused Naoki to stagger backward. He hesitated again.
Zuko did not. The Fire Lord leapt left and brought his foot down in a wide arc that slashed a blade of fire glancing past his guard and toward his estranged little sister. She dodged through the air and rolled into a low squat, narrowly escaping being roasted alive. She stood and prepared herself for another attack, but Zuko wasn't in a fighting stance. He fell to a knee with his hand covering his scarred eye, wincing and growling intensely.
Azula was confused and her brother's howl actually filled her with concern before he screamed and let fly a wild wave of flame at her. She dodged again, but had to deflect the edge of the blast in midair as it passed her. Her recovery was not as smooth as the first time. When she scuttled back into a defensive stance Zuko gave her a look that singed her resolve. His right eye shone with a fiery rage behind it but his left eye… had glazed and was half rolled back into his head.
"This is all your fault!" Zuko screamed. "All of this! These crazy murderers running around blowing people up for no reason! It's because of you two that this kind of madness was born into them! Your twisted lives brought this on the world and now my people have to suffer it! Now I have to suffer it!"
The bearded master Firebender snorted a puff of flame and then began to rotate his arms, fingers pointed. Electricity filled the warm night air and sparks jumped off of the Fire Lords fingers. Azula took a firm stance before her brother sent a bolt of lightning thundering toward her. The searing bolt of blue light scorched the moonlit pall in a flash and entered into Azula. It writhed in her for a long second, boiling in her stomach, then shot out her other hand. She let the bolt crash harmlessly across the deserted stony plain.
Her knees were rubber, but the resolute woman managed to stay on her feet and drink in the astonished gazes of the men around her. "See, Zuko?" she panted. "I don't want to kill you. I just want to be free. We just want to be free. Please."
"No. No, damn it, no!" Zuko yelled and he locked his frenzied eye on Ozai. The furious Fire Lord swept his arms again and gathered the jagged blue fires of the heavens to his fingertips. Azula dashed to get between her father and the simmering deathblow about to be 'leashed on him by his son. She stumbled.
Zuko drew back his fingers and all the power streamed into them before he shot at his father with howling fury. As the energy vaporized the air and snaked toward its target, Azula snatched it from the air and brought it into her womb. The electricity crawled around inside her, trying to escape. She couldn't get it out. She couldn't let it out through her leg and into the ground. It wouldn't go down. Her pained gaze rose to Zuko. Killing him may be the only way to get him to stop. It may be the only way her father and her could be free.
Before she had time to think anymore, Naoki grabbed her hand and the lightning charged into him, rolling around and stewing his body in his armor. The steaming, scarlet form crumpled into a heap on the ground. The dark in the wake of the flash faded. The moon brightened the night. The smell of sparks and roasted meat wafted through the air.
No one had any words except…
"Zuko!" Aang yelled as he swooped down on the family of Firebenders. None of them responded. Upon landing, he snapped his glider-staff shut and surveyed the grizzly scene: the cowering, haggard old Ozai; Zuko fallen to his hands and knees, cursing Naoki's foolhardy protection of him; Azula, too, stunned stock still, her gaze locked on the smoking body next to her and an abysmal pain clenched 'round her heart. Aang shook his head and placed his hand on Azula's shoulder. The woman started and turned to the young Avatar, then collapsed to her knees, clutching at his robes.
"No, please," she wept. "I don't want to go back and I don't want my dad to go back. Don't lock us up again. We won't do anything. We just want to be free. Please, A… Avatar."
"I saw what happened," Aang said quietly. "I'm ashamed I wasn't fast enough to stop it. You realize I can't rightly let someone as dangerous as you run free."
"No, please. Just… just… you can take my bending away!"
Everyone was stunned, not just by who was speaking those words but by how genuine they sounded.
"If you take away my bending, I won't be dangerous anymore. Then you can let me and my father go. We won't be a threat anymore."
"Don't trust her, Aang," Zuko seethed, holding back tears himself. "She's just playing you, like she plays everybody."
"You know I can't just take you at your word, Azula," Aang said calmly. "You know I can't just let you go." Azula broke her pleading gaze from the Avatar's and clenched at his robes and cried into them. "So I'll go with you."
"What?" was the response from all the Firebenders present, with varying inflections.
Aang smiled warmly. "I've been giving a lot of thought to how I can best help people. Sure, I could run around and make sure everyone's behaving all the time, like some kind of all-powerful babysitter, but what good does it really do if all I ever do is loom over the world, scaring it into submission. Then it hit me. The best way to help the world is to help the people and what's the best way to help people?"
He looked down at Azula, who was staring at him with wide, bloodshot eyes, and continued. "It's to help people. People that need the help. Help people one on one, face to face. That's really making a difference. Well, there may be a few times that call for a little Avatar action," he laughed, "but that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to help you. Now, hold still, Azula, and relax."
"D-Does it hurt?" the teary woman quavered.
Aang looked over to Ozai, who started and realized he was the only person alive who had ever had his bending taken from him. "No," he said to his daughter. "No, it doesn't hurt, though you may feel a little… drained afterward."
Aang couldn't help but stifle a laugh. "Just let it happen and all will be well."
The flat stones, green grass, soft earth, awe-struck men, serene sky, and glowing moon all watched as brilliant blue effulgence walled against an ardent flame orange. It illuminated Aang and Azula with a monochromatic luster and then the bright blue swallowed up the orange and the spiritual smell of warm myrrh and cedar covered the land in the wake of the light.
Azula dropped to the ground utterly spent. She felt naked, all her power gone.
"Aang!" called a voice from behind them. It was Katara, riding toward him with Sokka, Toph, Mai and a complement of mounted guards galloping close behind. When Mai saw her husband prostrate and the smoldering body in front of him, she couldn't help but gasp.
"Uhh…" Sokka gaped. "What just happened?"
"Everything's peachy. No trouble," Aang said with a bright, boyish smile.
"'Trouble?' Ozai and Azula are sitting iright there/i."
"It's fine, Sokka. Azula and Ozai surrendered."
"Huh," grunted Toph, not too surprised that Aang had sorted it all out before they could even get there. He was the Avatar after all. "Well, that's one problem solved, but we've still got another one waiting."
"An Avatar problem?"
"I really should have thought this through," worried Da Tan as he and his brother made their way through a narrow stone corridor.
"You did, Da Tan," answered Bai Tan. "You thought it through beautifully."
"But he's insane. He has no regard for life."
"Yes, and a hatred for Firebenders, you said."
"I still think he's too dangerous. Sure he might kill all the Fire Royals, but he could turn on us just like that."
"So long as they die."
"And now, with the Avatar here, he's the only force capable of pushing through this coup. That is, if he's as powerful as you say."
"He's plenty powerful."
Bai Tan stomped and the rock wall at the end of the cave slid down, revealing a closet sized gap. He lifted his torch and illuminated a slouched blue figure at the back of the room, a band of rock still tight around its dreadlocked head. It rose slowly and crumbled stone dropped in front of it.
"How did you break that rock?" Da Tan said on the verge of yelling.
Qilaq turned, still blinded by the stone band around his head, and dusted himself off. "Erosion. A little blood. A little time." The stones flew back up at the Earthbender's gesture and clamped Qilaq's arms behind his back.
Bai Tan sighed. "Release him, Da Tan."
"No. I won't give him the chance. I should just crush him."
"He's not going to kill us, not when he hears what we have planed, what we can help him accomplish." The rocks binding Qilaq dropped away. "The death of the Fire Lord. The death of the royal family. The royal advisors, the generals, dead. Imagine it.
"Chaos," Qilaq said with his artful smile.
"Yes, and the Fire Nation will burn itself to ashes."
"The War being over, that's not enough for you?"
"Ha! The War never ended. We may not be fighting outright anymore, but there is still evil in the world, evil that deserves to be punished. Don't you agree?"
"Tell me," Qilaq said with a gesture towards his own face, "do they hurt? The burns?"
Da Tan's eyes narrowed, then he cracked a smile and constricted the rock around Qilaq's head. The swarthy man winced and laughed weakly.
"So, you'll help us?"
"Given the choice between 'kill a bunch of Fire Nation scum' and 'have my head crushed like a melon' I… well, you're smart. What do you think?" Bai Tan, to his brother's visible disapproval, willed the band of rock from their new allies face. Da Tan went tense. Qilaq just smiled. "Well, let's finish this."
They traversed the empty streets and came to a large, odoriferous warehouse at the edge of the capital city crater. As they approached, Qilaq took in the scent of hard packed rice, freshly scythed wheat, crisp cabbage and ground cinnamon all mingled with the stink of sweat moistened soil. Inside were grimy, musty men and a few women standing shoulder to shoulder before a raised platform that the two Earthbenders and the Bloodbender stepped up on. Da Tan stood between his brother and Qilaq, just in case.
The towering Bai Tan wasted no time addressing the chittering congregation of half mad, all dirty, rogue Firebenders. "Today, we topple this flaccid regime. Today, we shatter their feeble yoke strung round our necks and end this conflict. We are Kagutsuchi and, from the ashes of their holocaust, we shall rise." A cheer went up and filled the room like the stench of sweat. "So, are you ready to fight with us?"
"Yep." Qilaq answered softly. He shivered and splattered the colossal man next to him into fluid. The sanguine mass splashed toward Bai Tan and just before contact, froze into a storm of razor sharp shards. The shivers slashed a thousand gashes in the Fire Nation royal advisor. He sputtered and cupped his hands, trying in vain to keep his blood from pouring out of him. Shock and the crushing atmosphere on his exposed lungs silenced him. His malicious intent, his soul, departed and let his corpse fall to the ground with a wet splat.
The crowd froze in shock. A few retching sounds rose from the mob along with a low murmur, the sound of horrified sheep lined before the slaughter blade, buzzed as Qilaq loomed over them.
"After a hundred years of bloody world war, there is finally a modicum of peace and all you can think to do is find another reason, another enemy, to fight and kill. These are your own people: friends and neighbors and administrators that only want to live the same as you. I don't care what excuse you have to justify your actions. Had you given in to their will and chosen peace, the Fire Lord and the Avatar would have welcomed you back with open arms and warm hearts. But, as you can plainly see, I am not so forgiving."
"Alright, I understand why you left him, Toph, and I know its not your fault that he's gone."
"Hey, I'm just as confused as you, Muscles. I didn't think there were other Earthbenders kicking around the Fire Nation."
"Right, but why are we looking for this guy now, of all the times?" Sokka asked looking up at the Moon, which was still hovering languidly above the horizon as Aang, Toph, Katara and him made their way through the city streets searching for the Bloodbender called Qilaq.
"Sokka, if we wait, he may get away," answered Katara. "The trail will go cold."
"And if we find him now, what then? I'll tell you what, he'll pop us like balloons."
"I'm not going to let that happen."
"It's over here," Aang said running toward the nearby warehouse. "This is where the old guy said he saw someone in blue."
Aang stopped short of the door and the others almost fell over him in their attempt to stop. "Sokka, look," he said pointing to the ground in front of the door.
Sokka crouched down to get a closer look at the spotty trail of goop that led to the crater wall. They were footprints.
Sokka said no more. They all knew what it was. As Aang opened the door the stench rushed out and clouded around them. The young Avatar stepped inside against the stench. It felt like he was walking through a huge puddle covering the entire floor.
Toph covered her nose to shield herself from the cornucopian fragrance, basted in… "What is that? That smell? Is that…"
Aang kindled a flame in his hand and illuminated the cavernous room. "Toph… never in my life have I so envied your lack of sight."
"That bad, huh?" The blind Earthbender felt Katara fall behind her. The woman's breathing was getting faster and faster. Both Sokka and her clamored fervently, tripping over themselves, to get away.
The four of them regained their composure far from the traumatic scene. Aang looked to the trail of bloody footprints.
Sokka noticed his friends determined look. It was a bad sign. Maybe not for Aang, but for somebody. "I'm telling you, if we wait a few hours the sun will rise and he won't be able to Bloodbend anymore. That's when we should get him. We need to wait."
"I'm not going to give him a chance to hurt more people." Blue wings snapped out of Aang's staff. "I can find him faster on my own."
"No, Aang," said Katara with an emphatic shake of her head. "We aren't going to let you face this evil on your own. At least I need to be there so I can keep him from Bloodbending."
"Don't worry, Katara. I'm the Avatar." With that, Aang smiled and confidently glided away into the twilight sky.
"But…" Katara thought about what the Bloodbender had said to her. Dread filled her spirit. "Are you not made of water?"
The Moon sank into the unknowable horizon, into the ocean beyond while Qilaq sat cross-legged on a small platform of ice floating on the warm Fire Nation Sea. His arm wouldn't stop shaking no matter how hard he squeezed it. It wasn't pain, it was just uncontrollable motion. He was still numb.
His holy blood mark rubbed off on his leathery fingers when he touched his bruised forehead, so he split open the tip of his pointer digit and drew a fresh symbol where the other one had worn away. He thought about his dad and how he used to smear that mark on his forehead, then Qilaq's, then he'd smile. The past few months' events played back in his mind. Nuan and Lim were still home, safe. Then he thought about the night's events. Azula's sharp featured face with trembling gold drops set within it.
"At least she'll be happy with her dad. If they don't hunt her, again. Ah, speak of the beast." Aang gently landed on the other side of Qilaq's glacial raft. "The Avatar, I presume."
The young bald boy snapped the wings on his staff closed and planted it on the ice with a hollow thud. "It's over," he sad sternly. "Come with me."
"What's over? And no," Qilaq responded facetiously.
"You've done enough killing."
"Oh, I don't know. There are still a lot of evildoers out there. I could probably kill 'till I'm dead and still not be done."
"I'm not going to let you do this anymore. You need to be put away."
"And you would be the one to do that, now, wouldn't you? Tell me, Avatar, how can you propose to fix everything by just putting all the bad guys away? How can you affect any significant change without ever… doing anything final?"
"I restored balance to the world by taking away Ozai's Firebending years ago. I can do the same with you."
Qilaq's brow flicked. "And what does that solve. Am I not still evil? Am I not still a threat? Do you really think that taking away my bending will make the world a safer place."
"No! Robbing me or the Fire Lord or anybody of their power over the elements just makes them less powerful, but no less of a threat. Do you really think I need my bending to kill you, to kill anybody? No, subduing someone does not stamp out their evil. You can't subdue someone's spirit. Someone's will."
"I CAN," said the Avatar in what sounded like a thousand whispers at once.
Qilaq laughed to cover up his nervousness. "That's what I hear. I'd like to see you try it on me," sneered the Bloodbender as he felt the Moon's kiss waning, sinking away.
"You helped free Ozai. You've been with Azula." Qilaq's eye twitched almost imperceptibly. "You've seen the healing power of time. People can come to terms with themselves and the world around them. Peace is possible."
"No, Avatar. I will not Yield. I will do what needs to be done. I will level the scale as quick as I can. I will stamp out evil! I will… wash it away." Qilaq rose to his full height and looked down on the Avatar. Tears rolled down the man's stoic, swarthy face. "I hope you learn from this." There was silence and then…
"Don't tell her." The man's cobalt eye twitched. Aang went to a defensive stance, but before he could call on his Avatar powers, he hesitated.
Qilaq screamed a fearful knell. Blood poured out of his fingertips, his nose, his mouth, his eyes like tears, every pore on his body oozed and then he threw down his arms and exploded, splattering blood all over the pristine white ice sheet and the Avatar himself.
Aang remained stone still until he felt the ice beneath his feet begin to crack and melt apart. It jarred him enough that he noticed the warm wetness on him and hurriedly cleaned the splatter off with a gust of air. Still in shock, he flew off to go and do some good.
The night was over, the damage done, and as the sun lifted itself over the curve of the world, all earthy traces of Qilaq melted into the bosom of the ocean, chasing after the drown Moon.
Azula didn't know what happened to Qilaq and she didn't care. So long as he was out of her life, she was content. Thinking about him caused her guts to clench and bubble. Her father and her arrived in Xidezhen with a casually disguised Avatar escorting them on their way. It wasn't quite how she remembered it, even though it had only been a few weeks since she last set foot in the town. Perhaps it wasn't that the town was different. Rather, she was different. She had no more bending ability. She still had a mean right cross and a quick roundhouse, but fire was beyond her now. It was one of the many foreign forces of the world. Being powerless actually wasn't that bad; being normal actually felt very liberating.
Her dad called her "little princess" once and she snapped at him not to call her that. He agreed and hung his head despondently. Azula regretted the attack, but she justified herself. She wasn't a princess anymore, nor was she "little."
The Avatar was solemn and hadn't spoken much since they had started on their trip, though Azula had a feeling that would change in the near future.
She walked past a familiar hairdresser's salon, through a throng of people who had forgotten her face, and stopped in front of a familiar two-story stone house. Qilaq had mentioned that he didn't actually heal the proprietor and that he was likely dead by now. The thought filled Azula with grief, but that sadness melted away when she heard the sound of boyish laughter coming from inside.
With her spindly, white hand, she opened the door.
Under the soft song of turtledoves, Nuan sits and stares at a slender little sapling budding all alone in a wide clearing. Plenty of dry, Earth Kingdom sunlight poured down on it, though the source in question was still hiding in the trees.
Someone comes through the brush. "How's it, Nuan?
"Hey, Lim. Didn't find him? I did."
"He came back!"
"For a little, then he left…"
"So, did he say when he was coming back."
"No, he just asked me to check on a little tree he planted. It's doing fine. It's got plenty of sunshine and plenty of room to grow."
"Yeah, he told me about that, right before he left with…"
"So, you don't know when he's getting back, huh?"
"Honestly, I hope it's soon, so I can slap some sense into him… with a rock."
"Lim, did I ever tell you how amazing all this is?"
"This. Four years and you guys turned a black-glass wasteland back into a forest again. It just didn't seem possible. I was here when the ground still stank like charcoal. I gave up on this place."
"Yeah, jerk… But you and Qilaq stayed and… and made the land live again."
"Eh, yeah. Well, most of these trees were alive before they made up this forest. We pulled some from all over the Earth Kingdom. From there, it was just a lot of tilling and transplanting. And a lot of sweat from a lot of guys."
"Just that easy, huh?"
"Never said that. Well, easy for me, but, you know…"
"Yes. You are all that is man."
"That's damn right."
Then the sun, like a nip flushed farmer, leaned over the edge of the great green ring of trees, leaves as emeralds letting needle points of light though with glass song as their voice, that swathed the ocean dipped sky smattered with cauliflower wisps that slid along, unsure what shape to take, settling on none.
Nuan smiled at her friend of many years then at the fragile little sapling alone in the earth, watching as every peep the wind delighted its leaves to dance. Give it time and it will grow.