Xinqisi, Liuyue 16, Ri Wu 85 (72 ASC)
Thursday, June 16, 2191
It was an ordinary day on the docks in the modest port town of Weihai: cargo to be loaded and unloaded, ships to be ballasted, incoming freight to be sorted and moved to the warehouses, outgoing to be shifted dockside and readied for departure. Lots of heavy lifting on a warm late-spring day: decently paid, honorable work for those hardy enough to do it. Well, a cut above digging ditches in both of those regards, anyway.
As was usually the case in seaport towns, the dockworkers of Weihai were a mixed lot: mostly natives of the Earth Kingdom, but a fair number of men and women from the Water Tribes (primarily the Southern, since Weihai was practically in the southwest corner of the Earth Kingdom), and even an expat Fire National or two scattered around—though those last tended not to make a big deal out of their origins. Like everyone else, they came to this remote corner seeking a better life away from the worst of the war, and as such, they tended to be as welcome as anyone else.
Which was not to say they didn't come in for their fair share of verbal abuse, but verbal abuse was just part of the rough camaraderie of the docks. The Weihai crew was fairly well-knit, as these things went, and although there were occasional rivalries and dislikes, they rarely escalated to violence. During the working day, the freight docks were their own self-contained little world, and while the larger world beyond it might largely be consumed with war, within it, there was too much work to be done to waste time and energy on strife. Instead, there was a certain us-against-the-world ethic in play, which tended to make the dockworkers set aside their own differences in favor of a certain jaundiced disdain for the outside world.
Today, with the weather fine and the workload moderate, morale on the docks was high, the crew singing and chanting together with the rhythms of their tasks. At one of the piers, a gang was in the process of ballasting a junk they'd just unloaded, carrying aboard baskets of stones from a nearby in order to trim the vessel correctly for its return trip to one of the grain ports up north. They were making quick work of it, partly because of their high morale, but largely because they happened to have the biggest and strongest worker on the docks among their number.
She was difficult to miss. At over six chi tall, she towered over most of the other stevedores, and in a community where virtually everyone had black or dark brown hair, hers was the color of sunset, a bright chestnut that was nearly orange. Her name was Hóng Měilíng, but none of her colleagues on the docks called her that; many of them didn't even know her given name. Between her stature, her hair, and her family name, she was inevitably known to everyone else on the docks simply as Dàhóng—"Big Red".
Now, emerging topside after delivering another load of stones to the belly of the junk, Meiling heard the bell of the town clock and, smiling, set her basket aside by the ballast pile.
"You guys will have to take it from here," she said to the colleagues who were loading up their own baskets at the pile. "I have to go get started on lunch."
"It'll take us twice as long to finish this without you," complained the smaller of the men, whose family name was also Hóng and who thus, inevitably, had become known as Little Red. Then, grinning a gap-toothed grin, he went on, "But it's worth it for your cooking."
"Well, I'm glad you think so," said Meiling cheerfully, and she went off to the colorfully tented meal pavilion with its hearth and its long, rickety tables.
By the time the noonday gun sounded from the town hall, she'd just about finished. The first time she'd been tapped to cook lunch for the crew, she'd been slightly daunted by the prospect, given how many and how hungry her co-workers were, but she'd always taken pride in her skill with a wok, and before long she had the routine down. Today, as the workers downed their loads and the runners abandoned their rounds, all converging on the pavilion, she was ready for them.
The midday meal break was always an occasion, but especially so on the days when Meiling was the cook. Everyone looked forward to that, because she brought a flair to the table that nobody else on the crew could match. A couple of the Water Tribesmen could do interesting things with fish, and at least one of the Fire Nation expats didn't embarrass herself, but Meiling cooked in the style of a remote province far to the east, which made her offerings almost unbearably exotic to people accustomed to the plain fare of the southwest coast.
"Delicious as always, Big Red," one of her Water Tribe colleagues declared, banging down his bowl for seconds. "You'll make somebody a good wife one of these days!"
It was a stock line, and Meiling was well accustomed to receiving it by this point. She was ready with a comeback, but before she could fire it off, Little Red burst out laughing and said,
"She's so much bigger and stronger than you are, Taraq, she'd make you a good husband!"
The whole pavilion roared with laughter at that—including Taraq, who allowed once the uproar had died down that Little Red might have a point at that.
They were just finishing up lunch and preparing to get back to work when the Fire Nation showed up.
Well, not the whole Fire Nation. That was presumably occupied elsewhere. Rather more of it than usually appeared in Weihai, at any rate. Although part of the southwestern Earth Kingdom, this area had been under Fire Nation "control" for years now, so it wasn't as if that country's military was unknown in these parts.
Still, they rarely had any reason to appear in a place like Weihai, where nothing much ever happened beyond the routine shipment of commodities in which the conquerors were not particularly interested. When Fire Nation soldiers did appear, it was only in small groups, generally on their way from somewhere else to somewhere else again, passing through the port along the way. They tended not to bother the locals, and the locals didn't bother about them.
Today's was no small group. While the stevedores looked on in puzzlement, one of the Fire Nation's big new all-metal warships hove into view in the harbor and made straight for the docks, its forbidding armored prow looking for a moment like they intended to run it right up onto the beach. At the last moment, it sheered off and pulled in parallel to the largest vacant dock, right by the harbormaster's office; sailors were jumping ashore to make mooring lines fast before it had even come to a full stop.
"Pff. Showoffs," muttered someone in the crowd of dockworkers, to a general murmur of agreement. Fire Navy helmsmen were always showboating like that. Their corvettes, which patrolled the coast ostensibly on anti-piracy duty, occasionally stopped off to resupply, and they were all handled with a similar cavalier arrogance. No one had ever seen one of their battlewagons behaving in a similar fashion, though, and in such a large and formidable ship, it was rather unnerving.
On the heels of the sailors with their mooring lines came the soldiers. There had to be a company or more of them, and they weren't lollygagging along on any travel orders. They disembarked in formation, fully equipped and moving with purpose. Before anyone knew what was going on, they had surrounded the port area and locked it down, permitting no one to enter or leave.
"What are they after?" Taraq wondered. "Smugglers? Pirates?"
"Maybe they're here to colonize the place," someone else speculated. "They've been working their way down the coast for years."
"We'd have heard if they'd hit Rukan," Little Red objected, naming the next port to the north.
"What do you think, Big Red?" asked Taraq, but Meiling didn't respond. She was gazing fixedly at the man who had just descended the Fire Nation ship's gangway and was now speaking to the harbormaster.
Tall, thin, in the unarmored uniform of an officer, he had a bearing that she'd found unmistakable even before he turned so that she could see his face. Even at this distance, both in space and in time, she could never have mistaken that—and the murmur that rippled back through the crowd of stevedores, as those closer to the front recognized the officer in turn, confirmed it.
"General Hao! What's the Dragon of the East doing here?"
thirty years ago
Zhangye, Earth Kingdom
The village of Zhangye, nestled in the arid mountains at the eastern edge of the Great Si Wong Desert, was a sleepy place where nothing much had ever happened. Far from the seemingly-eternal war, it passed its days in a peaceful torpor, each much like the last.
But everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.
Well, not the whole Fire Nation. Two dozen Fire Army cavalrymen on komodo rhinos was not exactly an overwhelming assault force, which was presumably how they had managed to penetrate this far into the Earth Kingdom without attracting the kind of notice that would bring out the entire provincial army to repulse the invasion. Still, it was a formidable enough force that the local militia... all four of them... hesitated to confront it directly.
Which is how the hatchet-faced young Fire Army officer came to be standing unchallenged in the village's central square, reading a proclamation that inexplicably authorized him to search the area for... dragons?
"Is he crazy?" someone wondered. "There haven't been dragons in these mountains for generations."
"That," said Lieutenant Hao with a mocking smile, "is what they always say." Then, in a voice like the crack of a whip, he ordered his men to search the village.
They did not do so gently, and when the first of the townspeople had the temerity to object to the wholesale ransacking that followed, the situation turned ugly fast. The militia did what they could, as did a number of trained, or at least game, civilians, but even with a handful of earthbenders, the people of Zhangye could do little to protect themselves and their property from a disciplined and ruthless force of firebenders.
The violence of Lieutenant Hao's men only increased as they failed to find what they were looking for. Despite their viciously efficient searching, their destruction of anything that might reasonably be considered a hiding place, and their shouted taunts and threats, nothing remotely like a dragon appeared.
"Can't you incompetents do anything right?" he demanded generally of whichever of his men happened to be within earshot. "How hard can it be to find a dragon? They're not exactly inconspicuous."
One of his troopers rode down from the hills just outside the town and reined in alongside. "Sir! We've found a dragon's den in the hills yonder," the man pointed back the way he'd come, "but it's been abandoned for years. Possibly decades."
Hao snarled in frustration. "Bah! Old intel. Very well, Sergeant. Form up and prepare to move out. The smoke from even a dungheap like this will eventually draw the attention of the Earth King's army, and we need to be far away from here before they arrive." With a cold, ironic smile, he added, "It wouldn't do for one of the Fire Lord's scouting parties to be cornered this far behind enemy lines, would it?"
"No, sir," the sergeant agreed, and then wheeled and rode off to organize the troops.
Hao's face was impassive as he stalked across the square to his idle mount, but inside he was boiling. When he got his hands on the informant who had sold him the location of this village, promising that he would find something most gratifying within its boundaries, that man would learn a painful lesson about swindling an officer of the Fire Army.
He had one foot in the stirrup and was about to heave himself onto his komodo rhino's back when a figure suddenly burst out of the half-collapsed building near him and attacked. Taken aback, Hao barely extricated his foot and lunged backward as the person—a girl, the tallest he'd ever seen, with long chestnut hair and furious blue eyes—swung a smith's hammer through the space where his head had just been. The tool made an audible whump of displaced air as it passed; had it connected, it would undoubtedly have smashed his skull like a melon.
Without the element of surprise, though, the girl was no threat to him despite her size and obvious brawn. To judge from her clothes, dirty face, and leather apron, she must be rightful wielder of that hammer, but a blacksmith, however big and angry, was no match for a fully trained Fire Army officer. It was the work of only a few moments for him to avoid a second wild swing, relieve her of her weapon, and beat her to the ground, all of which he did with such arrogant ease that he didn't even bother adding fire to the punishment.
"Sir, are you all right?" his sergeant asked, riding up a trifle belatedly.
"Here we have a girl who thinks herself the next Avatar Kyoshi," Hao replied. "Hah! It is to laugh. Typical Earth peasant—brave, but incompetent."
Then, turning his back contemptuously, he mounted his komodo rhino and gestured overhead. "Form up and move out! We need to be long gone from here by nightfall."
"Bastard," the smith gasped, trying but failing to rise before she'd fully gotten her wind back. "This was our home."
Hao snorted dismissively. "Go and train for twenty or thirty years, girl, and then perhaps you'll be worth my time."
Then, snapping the reins, he rode off. In his dusty wake, the battered smith dragged herself to her feet, knuckling blood from the corner of her mouth, and stared after him with eyes full of fury.
thirty years later
Older, greyer, but still lean and hard, and still moving with the same easy, contemptuous grace, General Hao addressed the gathered dockworkers.
"Your attention," he said, and it escaped no one's notice that he didn't bother adding please. He didn't have do, with his men surrounding the entire area and his battleship looming forebodingly behind him. "I am General Hao Xi of His Candescent Majesty the Fire Lord's Army. I have reason to believe this facility is sheltering a fugitive from Fire Nation justice. In the name of Fire Lord Azulon, I demand this individual's immediate surrender."
When no one spoke up beyond a puzzled, vaguely contentious murmur—What the hell is he on about?—Hao raised his voice to a commanding bellow and declared,
"Hong Meiling! Come forward at once!"
Startled, the dockworkers nearest Meiling glanced at her and instinctively drew back.
"What do they want with you, Big Red?" asked Little Red in a low voice, but Meiling didn't reply.
Instead, her face set in a grim, resigned frown, she pushed her way as gently as she could through the crowd (which wasn't hard, since when most of her erstwhile colleagues noticed her, they got out of the way at once), until she emerged to face the general across a space of perhaps a dozen paces. Immediately, a squad of the Fire Army troopers moved in to surround her as General Hao approached, scrutinizing her carefully.
"So," he said quietly after a few moments' consideration. "It's really true. Thirty years and you haven't aged a day."
"Unlike you," Meiling couldn't stop herself from replying.
The general gave her an ironic smile. "Quite. You know my name, of course," he went on, readying himself for battle. "I am General Hao Xi. Behind my back, my men call me Hao the Slayer."
With that, he tapped a fingertip against the badge pinned to the scarlet sash around his waist. It was a five-pointed star, gold or gold-plated, and on it was engraved the Tongyu character 龍—lóng.
"I've put down seven of your kind so far," he remarked conversationally. "You're getting harder to find! It's taken me years to track you down, but now... you'll be lucky number eight."
Meiling stood silently looking at him for a few moments, her expression unreadable. Then, gesturing dismissively for the Fire Nation soldiers surrounding her to give her some room, she performed a short tàijí quán warmup exercise, finishing up in a ready stance a few paces away from Hao; looked him in the eye; and spoke two words in a flat, emotionless voice:
Hao's assault was instantaneous and furious, an all-out blitz employing the full power of a finely trained firebender at the peak of his form. Despite her peculiar warmup, he expected his quarry, once cornered and attacked, to counter with fire of her own. That was, after all, the point of the exercise, the reason why Fire Army officers had taken to hunting dragons in the first place: to prove the supremacy of their own firebending prowess over the very creatures who, in ancient times, had taught the art to their ancestors.
But this one... didn't. No matter what he did, no matter how he pressed her, Hong Meiling stuck to tàijí quán. She moved like a waterbender, with sweeping circular movements that always seemed to take her just out of harm's way, and counterattacks that more than once threatened to penetrate Hao's guard... but never quite managed it. Without some higher level of aggression, she was never going to do more than hold him off—but she was frustrating him, much as the town where he had failed to find her despite staring her right in the face had, all those years before.
And as with the town, he found himself filled with an overwhelming desire to burn her.
"Come on," he taunted, launching another bolt of fire that failed to connect. "What are you doing? Fighting me like a waterbender in a desert. What kind of nonsense is this?"
Meiling didn't reply. Hao gritted his teeth. "Very well then. Perhaps this will change your tune."
So saying, he dipped a hand into one of the pouches on his uniform, withdrew a small vial, and, on his next sortie, flung its powdered contents into her face. She reeled backward, gagging, as she couldn't avoid breathing in much of the cloud of acrid dust.
"A gift from the Fire Sages," Hao explained as she stumbled and retched. "Once that gets hold of you, you'll have no choice but to show us your true form."
Meiling, eyes streaming, fell to one knee and coughed violently for several seconds, somehow managing to avoid losing her lunch by nothing so much as sheer force of will. For a long moment, once the coughing stopped, she knelt there, face in hands, panting.
Then, slowly, she gathered herself, rose to her feet, and performed a quick recentering exercise, fixing eyes now bloodshot and furious on the general's.
"This is my true form," she snarled, her voice rendered raspy by the powder.
Hao stared at her in disbelief. "Impossible," he murmured.
"But," Meiling went on, "you want to see me as I truly am? Fine."
Silently bidding a last farewell to her life as she had known it, she performed a different warmup—a much more percussive, aggressive, violent one, filled with short, explosive punches and chopping kicks. One that looked very much like the form Hao himself had used throughout. A firebender's warmup.
She finished with feet spread and planted, one fist drawn back, the other hand upraised with palm upward, fingers pointing directly at Hao's chest, and in a voice like thunder, she spoke two sharp words:
And then, ignoring the shocked mutterings of her former friends and colleagues behind her, she beckoned with the fingers of her upraised hand:
Come and get it.
To her annoyance, but not her surprise, General Hao smiled. "Yes," he said, sounding immensely satisfied. "This is how it should truly be, between the likes of you and me!"
Removing his gloves, he put them in the pocket of his uniform tunic, then removed the tunic in turn and handed it to his adjutant. Barechested, he was obviously not the sort of general officer who spent a lot of his time behind a desk, even at his age. His well-defined chest was criscrossed with puckered burn scars, the marks of a long career as an Agni kai duelist.
As before, he made the first move, going immediately and completely on the offensive, but this time Meiling met him head-on.
Her technique was very rusty at first. She'd spent decades hiding the fact that she was a firebender, often in the sort of communal living situations common to people in the laboring trades, and that meant not many opportunities to practice. Besides, she'd buried those skills under layers of other forms and techniques on purpose, and so digging them out of the cedar chest all of a sudden like this was tricky.
On the other hand, the pressure helped in a perverse way. She knew if she didn't get on the ball fast, she was probably going to die. General Hao might be standing on the edge of late middle age, but he'd kept himself as sharp as humanly possible, and he had a lot more experience than she had, despite her markedly greater absolute age.
Meiling recognized that what she was doing now was damage control. Having had to reveal herself as a firebender, she'd already lost the most important battle. However this came out, she would at the very least have to leave town after it was all said and done. Her former colleagues would accept a lot of things, but she was fairly sure discovering that one of their own had been a closeted ashmaker was not among them. Besides, even if she defeated Hao, she would attract others like him as long as she remained here. No, however she sliced it, her life in Weihai was over.
The trick now was making sure her life as a whole wasn't over.
As she fought, something nagged at the back of Meiling's mind—the feeling that the stakes were even higher than that, somehow. It wasn't until the flow of the duel carried her to a position where she could see back the way she came without taking her eyes off of Hao that she realized what it was. The general's men still had the port area surrounded... with all of her friends inside the cordon.
Even if they weren't her friends any more, she suddenly understood that they were all in danger. She'd kept tabs on Hao's career, as best as a civilian living in the Earth Kingdom could monitor the career of a Fire Army officer, and she knew the rumors. That he and his troops had been behind massacres before. That part of his "legend" was that there were surprisingly few witnesses to some of his victories. It was said that on at least one occasion, he had employed his entire company to bring down quarries he later claimed to have slain in single combat... and the only way to get away with that was to make sure there were no witnesses who didn't answer directly to him.
Which meant she had to finish this quickly—before he had time to cheat.
Teeth gritted, eyes narrowed, Meiling doubled her efforts. The old patterns came back to her, long-dormant muscle memories lighting up. She might be rusty, but firebending wasn't just a learned skill to her, the way it was to Hao or any other human firebender (save possibly the Avatar? If there even was an Avatar any more? She wasn't sure how that worked). It was in her blood, her ancestry, her immortal spirit, and with the stakes as high as this, it awoke far faster than it ever would have in someone who had only imprinted it on her mortal flesh and bone.
Inexorably, she started gaining the upper hand. Once she found her groove, Meiling was both stronger and faster than the general, her flame hotter, her defense more complete. Whirling through a counter that split and dispersed his attack, she punched out a stream of yellow-white flame that caught him in his follow-through and nearly knocked him from his feet, searing a bright red line across his cheek.
Under the strict rules of Agni kai dueling as practiced in the Fire Lord's court, the bout should have been over with General Hao the loser. He hadn't laid a flame on her yet, and she'd not only burned him, but burned his face, the most carefully guarded part of any duelist's body. The only way she could more comprehensively have beaten him under court protocol would have been to take one of his eyes.
Meiling was under no illusions that he was playing by court rules, so she didn't let up. Rocked by the concussion of the blast that had burned him, stung by the injury itself, and shocked at the sudden ramping up of his opponent's fury, the general staggered, and Meiling pressed the attack. She had to eliminate him—practically if not mortally—before he had a chance to order his men into the action.
She hadn't accounted for the possibility that they would have planned for this contingency in advance, but evidently they had. Seeing their master on the back foot and struggling, the Fire Army troops didn't wait for a signal. Instead, they tightened their cordon and took the offensive. The group that had surrounded Meiling at the beginning of the incident came after her, supporting the general, and the others, to her horror, turned on the witnesses.
The twin distraction disrupted her rhythm just enough for Hao to recover. Bellowing for his men to help him bring her down, he planted himself and unleashed a torrent of flame. Such a broad-fronted assault would normally have been a waste of effort—its very size made it too easy to avoid—but with the troopers closing in and bracketing her with supporting fire, Meiling had nowhere to go. The only thing she could do was hunker down, arms crossed before her face, and take it.
Such was the strength of her qi and the sureness of her root that she could hold the fire at bay—just—with sheer force of will for a time, but she was trapped in the middle of the conflagration, like a rock in a river. Even over the roar of the flames streaming all around her, she could hear Hao laughing in triumph. He knew he had her, and she had to concede he was almost certainly right. Eventually either her energy or her concentration would fail, and then... well, and then her body would burn just as well as any other.
This isn't how I figured to end, Meiling thought. But then, I didn't begin like anybody expected either, did I?
Xinqier, Liuyue 20, Zhuo Guang 36 (46 BSC)
Tuesday, June 20, 2073
Hóngdăo (Red Island), Fire Nation Archipelago
Anyone approaching Hóngdăo on this day would have noticed something was up immediately. Not only was the beachside village that represented the only human settlement on this particular tiny volcanic island deserted, the pair of dragons who lived on the volcano itself were both out of their lair at once, circling the peak like restless seabirds—most atypical behavior.
Outside that lair, the populace of Hóngdăo village had gathered at a respectful distance from the entrance to the cave, waiting in anxious silence. At the cave mouth itself, a dozen men in the robes of Fire Sages surrounded a bed of glowing-hot coals, all that remained of a bonfire that had burned throughout the night.
Upon that bed of coals lay an egg, the red mottling on its mostly-green shell faintly glowing from the heat. Every now and then, the egg twitched, drawing a low gasp from the crowd each time. The Fire Sages watched it carefully, their hands folded in meditative posture, keeping up a continuous low murmur of a chant.
Suddenly, with a sound like a pickaxe cleaving slate, the egg's shell cracked. The crowd murmured, shifting, but maintained its distance. The Fire Sages remained impassive, only a slight rise in the pitch of their chant betraying any excitement. The dragons, hearing both, swooped down and hovered nearby, watching the scene with keen interest, as the egg—their egg, their firstborn child—shifted and jerked, cracking further.
At last, an agonizing time later, the shell finally split and fell away, and this time the gasp that issued from the onlookers was in no way hushed. It was a sound of pure, unalloyed shock, and it emanated from the Fire Sages and the dragons as well, not just the ordinary townsfolk.
Sitting there amid the shards of what had indisuptably been a dragon's egg... was a human child, a little girl with fair skin and sunset-red hair. Under ordinary circumstances, the onlookers would have guessed her to be perhaps three or four years old—big for her age, if the former, but not unfeasibly so. Certainly no newborn human infant could hold her head up and look around her with such obvious interest in her clear blue eyes, nor, after a moment's consideration, clamber unsteadily to her feet and turn around, searching the area for her parents.
The two dragons glanced at each other in puzzlement for a moment, each clearly hoping the other knew what was going on. Then, with a mutual sort of draconic shrug, they both approached, ducking their heads and gently nuzzling the child—who, clearly recognizing them, delightedly tried her best to embrace them both. This didn't really work, since either one's head was bigger than her entire body, but it was the thought that counted.
Around the bed of coals—the heat of which seemed not to be bothering the little girl at all—the Fire Sages stared, thunderstruck by what they were witnessing. There were ancient legends of this kind of thing having happened, long ago in the mythic ages before the line of Avatars, but not one of the Sages had ever believed they were literally true—that the children of dragons had sometimes hatched bearing the spirits of their ancestors, but the forms of men and women.
"Ryūjin no yōkai," the chief Fire Sage whispered, his astonished eyes wide, and he and his fellows dropped almost as one to their knees, bowing their heads in reverence before this impossible miracle.
Long-buried, the memory lit up Hong Meiling's mind like a sunrise. For the first time in decades, she cast off a forgetfulness she had all but willed upon herself and fully remembered who she was. She was not simply a hard-working woman of the land. She was the natural-born daughter of dragons.
Ryūjin no yōkai, the Sages had called her: in the old speech of the Fire Nation, dragon-man spirit, or monster, depending on the kenning one chose for yōkai. The dragon who walks like a mortal woman. At the core of her being burned the flame of dragonkind itself, undying, eternal, beyond this puny, petty man's power to extinguish.
Like hell I'm going out this way, she thought, and fueled by her determination not to give in, that flame roared up into a pure inferno.
For just an instant, Hao thought he had won. The firefront his opponent had somehow been holding at bay quivered, then collapsed, and he stepped up his assault. At last, the cursèd woman's will had broken, and now, whoever, whatever she was, she would burn. The flickering thought crossed his mind that it was a pity about the dockworkers, in the end; they could be witnessing his triumph, if they weren't so busy being eliminated by his men.
And then, something happened that he had no mental frame of reference for comprehending. It felt as though something had seized hold of his stream of fire from the other end, pulling it fiercely inward. Taking it from him, for some unfathomable purpose. Gasping, he cut it off and stumbled back, his hands stinging, a dull ache in his chest, as though something had grabbed hold of his heart and pulled.
The shell of flame surrounding his quarry quivered, then seemed to condense, brightening as it did so; then it exploded, blazing up into a column of fire that coruscated with all the colors of the rainbow. General Hao stared at it in blank amazement: the True Flame, the sight of which he had been denied all his life in spite of the diligence and ruthlessness of his pursuit.
Out of that flame rose a great serpentine shape, its glittering green scales and bristling sunset-orange mane shedding sparks and rivulets of rainbow fire. Up from its back rose a majestic pair of wings that unfurled with the roar of unreefing sails. Beneath it, the column of flame dissipated, revealing only a scorched spot on the ground where, a moment before, the woman Hong Meiling had crouched awaiting her fiery death.
Now the dragon Hong Meiling lowered her horned head and fixed Hao Xi with shining blue eyes, their color and intensity unchanged from those of her human form. Though she didn't speak—couldn't speak, in her present form—the message those eyes conveyed was clear enough:
Time to die, little man.
"Never mind the civilians!" Hao screamed to his troops. "Kill the dragon!"
Only then did he realized that his men were too busy to help him, because—completely unnoticed by the general in his preoccupation and his arrogance—they had their hands full with the witnesses. Unlike the hapless villagers and passers-by they had wiped out on previous occasions, these had not chosen to go gentle into that good night when the Fire Army soldiers turned on them. With everything at their disposal—clubs, crowbars, their fists and feet, ballast stones, even the lunch pavilion utensils—the tough, work-hardened, fiercely individualistic dockworkers of Weihai were exercising their fundamental right to self-preservation with extreme prejudice... and they were winning.
The general had no time to reflect on this unexpected turn of events, however, as from the next second onward he was far too busy trying not to die.
Meiling's first thought was to prevent him from escaping. It wouldn't do for him to flee into his ship, thinking that its armor would protect him. To disabuse him of that notion, the first thing she did was rake the dock where it was moored with flame, setting it alight; the second was to heat the side of the vessel itself cherry-red and let the cold waters of the harbor do the rest. Within minutes the ship was sinking, settling onto its side in the slime of the harbor, its upperworks ablaze, while the crew jumped overboard in panic and swam not for shore, but in a bid to get as far away as possible.
For a few chaotic minutes she seemed to be everywhere—swooping down to pluck Fire Army troopers out of the general melee wherever they seemed to be getting the upper hand over her erstwhile comrades, then flinging them down again; catching them in the open as they tried to flee and either burning them down where they stood or smashing them like dolls with her tail; snatching them from what they thought were defensible positions and hurling them into the sea. She gave them no quarter, for the scattered bodies of her friends who had come off the worse gave silent testimony to the fact that they deserved none.
Only when that work was concluded did she turn her full attention back to General Hao.
To his credit—although it could be argued he had little choice by that point—the general stood and fought. For a few moments, it even looked like he might hold his own, possibly even win. As furious as she was, Meiling's fire never quite seemed able to reach him, while his, though it could do her little harm in any one moment, began slowly to chip away at her defenses. She tried him from different angles, in different ways, but his boast of having killed seven dragons was not entirely a lie. He did have both training and experience in fighting her kind, and she had none in fighting as a dragon. Both of those factors were beginning to tell.
Furious, frustrated, she doubled her efforts, then doubled them again, mystified that she seemed to be getting nowhere...
... when it suddenly occurred to her that her fury and frustration were the problem. Her qi was in knots, not flowing freely at all; it was bottlenecked by the emotional turmoil, by her rage and her lust for the blood of this man, however loathsome he was, and to get anything out of it at all, she had to force it—which only made the problem worse.
She'd had this problem during her tàijí quán training. Her anger and despair over the burning of Zhangye had still been so fresh, it had intruded at the worst times, tying her up in her own emotions. Now, for the first time in decades, she could hear the patient voice of old Master Tsien in her mind.
"Living for the sake of hatred is not living, Meiling. One should live for the sake of love, or not at all."
Love. For what? Everything I've ever loved is dead, she thought bitterly—but then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw something. Turning her head slightly, she focused on the movement.
The survivors of the dock crew were gathered by the trashed remains of the lunch pavilion. Some of them were tending the wounded, but the others... what were they doing? Taraq was there, and Little Red—thank the spirits, they had made it somehow—and the rest... they were gesticulating wildly, shouting with their hands cupped around their mouths, fighting to make themselves heard over the roar of the fires burning all around. For a moment she assumed they were cursing her, telling her to begone, blaming her for the terror and devastation this day had brought down on their heads.
It was Taraq's voice that finally reached her. "Go on, Big Red!" the Water Tribesman boomed in a voice his father had taught him to reach distant hunting partners across the ice. "You can do this!"
"Make that son of a bitch pay!" Little Red screeched. "I'll never forgive you if you die!"
She was so surprised she took one of Hao's flares full in the face, but the shock of pain only recentered her mind.
That'll do, thought Meiling, and her flame blazed white as her hatred dissolved and the knots in her qi unwound. Little Red's instructions notwithstanding, she now understood that this wasn't about making the general pay; it was about teaching him.
Precisely what he chose to learn was up to him.
Hao didn't know enough to recognize what had changed in his opponent, only that something had. Her fire went white and her tactics suddenly changed; she ceased hurling herself headlong against him and started running him down instead, coming at him from all directions, using her aerial agility and her knowledge of the area as much as her firepower. There was literally nowhere he could run, and wherever he tried, she was there.
At last, exhausted and haggard, he stumbled, breaking his own root, and his next attempt at an attack produced nothing but an empty air-punch. An instant later she was upon him, landing with a crash and pinning him to the ground between the clawed toes of one forepaw. He struggled, cursing, but her claws were driven deep into the ground all around him. He might as well have been trapped under an iron cage.
For a moment, Meiling just stood there, looking down at him, her eyes inscrutable. Hao glared up at her, trying to summon some semblance of his military bearing even under these conditions, but the terror in his own eyes gave him away.
"Well? Go on!" he snarled hoarsely. "Finish it!"
Meiling ignored him. Instead, she shifted her grip so that his lower body was free and lowered her head. For one horrific moment he thought she intended to bite him in half.
Instead, she very delicately seized the dragon-slayer badge on his sash in her teeth, then reared her head back, tearing the fabric and leaving a streamer of red silk fluttering from her mouth. With a look of distaste that would have been almost comical under other circumstances, she plucked it away with the foreclaw of her free paw, leaving just the gold of the badge glinting between two of her teeth, and tossed the scrap of fabric aside.
Only then did she seem to notice Hao himself. She regarded him for another long moment, her eyes boring into his, and even though he himself had demanded that she finish the duel, he felt panic rise within him.
The dragon shifted her grip again, extracting her middle claw from the ground, and raised it so that its point loomed over his face. The color drained from his cheeks as he forced himself not to look away...
With a very faint draconic smirk, Meiling wreathed the claw in flame, then gave him a single sharp rap in the center of the forehead with its point. The general's body went limp, his eyes rolling up until just the whites were showing, a curl of smoke rising from the point of impact.
With ponderous grace, Meiling prised the rest of her claws from the earth and turned. The port was in shambles, fires still burning, and the knot of her surviving friends stood huddled by the pavilion, staring in astonishment. As she turned her eyes to them, they drew back slightly, and her heart sank, though she wasn't surprised. They had supported her in the battle—on some level, they were still her friends—but they feared her, all the same. A dragon might be more acceptable to their hearts than an ashmaker, but it was still a frightful thing to behold.
She considered her options for a few moments longer, then settled herself and drew a deep breath, reaching out for the flames as she did so. As if drawn by the inrush of air, they pulled away from their fuel, and she breathed them in, consuming them, adding them to her internal pyre. Smoke still drifted up from the wreckage, and the port was still a near-total loss, but at least the fires wouldn't spread into town.
Gathering herself, she took to the air, flew a slow circle of farewell over her friends, and then headed northeast. As she did, she left a sparkling stream of true flame in her wake, to shimmer and dissipate in the afternoon breeze over the ruins of the port... her final gift and goodbye to Weihai.
Her mind all but blank with a mixture of shock, grief, and other emotions she could never consciously catalog, Meiling flew until she could no longer bear it, two nights and days, the flat plains of the Earth Kingdom unrolling endlessly behind her. When at last she had to give in and return to the ground, she had reached the mountains east of Ba Sing Se, the colossal city's walls barely visible as a smudge on the western horizon. Spotting a likely cave in the dying daylight, she swooped in, turned around, and lay down, not entirely knowing nor caring what the world would look like when she woke.
Xiqitian, Liyue 19, Ri Wu 85 (72 ASC)
Sunday, June 19, 2191
Meiling woke to find her body damp with morning dew, aching, stiff... and human again, still dressed in the scorched and torn remains of her dockworker's clothes. Groaning, she dragged herself into something like a lotus position and tried to gather her wits.
Gradually, she became aware that there was something hard and metallic in her mouth, digging into her gums and pressing down disagreeably on her tongue. Coughing, she worked it free—it was an odd, pointed shape, and wedged in there rather painfully now that she'd noticed it—then pulled it out.
General Hao's golden dragon-slayer badge glinted at her in the feeble early-morning sunshine.
"Huh," she mused, wiping the spit from the badge with the tattered hem of her shirt. Regarding it again, she chuckled. "Lucky I didn't swallow it," she mused, then stuck it absently in her trouser pocket for lack of any better idea.
Sighing, she got to her feet and set about looking for a way down the mountain, now that she could no longer fly.
Once she reached its base, she considered going to Ba Sing Se and trying to lose herself in its vast anonymity, but the idea didn't appeal. Even if the Fire Nation didn't come looking for her there, their army was almost certain to march on the city sometime. However many generations of Fire Lord it took, one of them was bound to make it this far east one day, even if it took until the next Sozin's Comet. Meiling had no desire to be around for that, even as a firebender in her own right.
Instead, she struck out to the east. She knew nothing about this area—for all she knew, she was headed into a trackless wasteland—but she didn't particularly care. In the event, it turned out to be yet still more farms, and within another day's walk she had come to a hilly woodland. At a crossroads she met a farmer on his way to market and asked him for some information about where the roads led.
As he ran down the options—the local market town, the farming hamlet he came from, the City—she noticed there was one he didn't touch on.
"What about that trail?" she asked, pointing to an unsigned path that branched off the highway just past the crossroads.
"Nothing you ought to interest yourself in," the farmer told her. "That leads to the Cave of No Return."
Meiling arched an eyebrow. "The 'Cave of No Return'? What's that?"
"Just what it sounds like," said the farmer stolidly. "People go in and they don't come back. Never seen or heard from again. Some say it leads to the Spirit World, if you believe in that kind of thing. Anywise, you don't want to be going there."
"Huh. Actually, that sounds like exactly what I'm looking for right now," said Meiling, and with a cheerful wave of thanks, she headed off down the trail.
The farmer watched her go, then continued on his way, muttering to himself about crazy foreigners.
General Hao Xi, the vaunted "Dragon of the East", was forced to retire from the Fire Army after losing his entire command in an unauthorized raid on the port village of Weihai. Because of his record up to that date and his previous friendly relations with the Fire Lord, he was not otherwise punished for the incident, but reports of how he had met his downfall spread rapidly, destroying any standing he might otherwise have had as a retired general officer. He spent the remainder of his life searching the Earth Kingdom incognito, often in the all-too-genuine guise of an itinerant beggar, consumed by an obsessive need to find his last quarry and avenge himself upon her.
He never did, and died in 97 ASC somewhere to the east of Ba Sing Se, a broken man. His last words went unrecorded; his final resting place is forgotten.
Hong Meiling disappeared exploring the Cave of No Return and, as of the 140th year of the Chun Tai era, has never been seen in Dìqiú again.
"Ryūjin no Yōkai" - A Gallian Gothic Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins and Philip Jeremy Moyer
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