A World Left Behind

“Always attack from the angle your opponent least suspects! Only a fool attacks their foe head-on.” barked Galek as he watched the new recruit train his spear forms.

Galek had lead the 23rd squad of the Haltan Infiltration corps for several years and Joran, this latest trainee, still had a long way to go. “You need a stronger thrust, with more of a follow-thru, you’ll never kill a Linnowan with that weak a strike boy!”

“Aye sir.”

Galek leaned against the trunk of the great tree upon which the corps’ training ground was built. The boy had the strength to wield the iron oak spear and drive it through a Linnowan’s skull, but his technique was still sloppy. Joran had shown great promise in infiltration, he had even stolen from his teammates successfully on a few occasions. He served well as a messenger and spy for now, but he would never be as skilled as Galek knew himself to have been in his past.

“Hmpf, the new stock hardly seems worth your time old man,” a voice called out from the silence of his thoughts.

Joran spun around with a flash and searched the canopy for where the intrusion had come from “Alert master! We are not alone”

The wizened commander simply sighed and held up his hand instructing his student to relax. “You can leave boy, there is nothing to fear here, simply an old friend come to visit.” Galek stepped off from the trunk and took a few steps into the center of the platform, scratching his hands thru his thinning hair. He didn’t bother looking for the voice, but waited until Joran dutifully left without a word before speaking up again. “It’s been 4 years; I imagined that I’d hear from you sooner or later. How have you been Zuko?”

The shadows seemed to suddenly part as the stealthy Exalt walked out into the clearing. He had changed since Galek saw him last. Admittedly, Galek had both eyes when his favorite student had set out on a mission into the world, but the man in front of him now looked far more experienced than these past years could account for. As the two experienced infiltrators circled each other and Galek knew instinctively that he no longer could last moments against the warrior standing before him. In fact, the elder warrior could honestly state that Zuko would consider him a mild distraction at best even when he was at his prime years ago.

“I’ve been well enough I suppose,” stated Zuko, smiling and relaxing his stance, “I dare say the years have been kinder to me than you my old teacher.” He held out his hand to the stern block of a man.

Galek grasped the exalt’s forearm with his hand as they greeted each other as friends. “It’s good to see you Zuko, but what are you doing here? Is Halta in danger? Has your investigation throughout creation actually discovered a new Linnowan threat to our land?”

“Calm down old man, there isn’t much to report; I’m here on more personal matters. I am seeking an audience with the Queen, and while I’m here, there is someone I’d like to introduce you to.”

Suddenly a striking woman stepped out from behind Zuko as he waved his hand. Her piercing yellowed eyes stared straight out from her deep red bangs. Galek could only stare back at her from his remaining eye, he still couldn’t quite figure where she or Zuko had come from, surely that foolish erratic soldier had gained some new tricks since he had left but this was extraordinary. Zuko was typically the buffoon around women, and she was surely beyond his league. Galek was quick to notice the semi-matching rings the two wore and realized what that must mean for Zuko, but his thoughts were cut short as the cute girl wrapped her arms around his neck in a surprisingly strong hug.

“Zuko has told me sooooo much about you!” she squealed into his ear as she squeezed him tighter than he expected and lifted him off the ground. “Zuko told me all about how you trained him, how you taught him about being all sneaky, and-and he even told me-“

“Scarlet, please,” Zuko interrupted “kindly place Galek back on the ground so that I might properly introduce you. Galek, former commander of the 23rd infiltration squad, now chief instructor of the Haltan Corps, and this is Scarlet, my wife and chosen maiden of Luna.”

“She, <gasp> seems quite lively Zuko. It is a pleasure to meet you Scarlet, you’re lovelier than I ever expected him to manage. More to the point, and I’ve never known you to beat around the bush my green-haired student, but what then are you doing here?”

“Galek, unfortunately, my experiences over the past few years have been both incredibly pleasant,” Zuko began with a nod to his wife, mildly annoyed as she hung onto his old friend “and more terrifying than I thought possible. I’ve simply realized that the world my new friends and I inhabit is a different one, which I am quite sorry to say doesn’t really fit with my old assignments. It is however, a world I could use some help in, how would you feel about taking a break from training the latest generation of foolhardy youths and work on a grander scale?”

“Wait for a second Zuko, you can’t really mean to-“

• • •

“-resigning your post as a member of the Haltan corps? Are you insane!?” Queen Chaltra was furious enough at this upstart forcing his way into her court this morning. She had agreed to meet with him as a formality for this boy now represented a serious military asset for her nation. Nevertheless, for him to arrive with such a swagger, and declare his intention to abandon his responsibilities was simply abhorrent.

“Not yet Madam. I am quite aware of what I am saying and what it means. It doesn’t come easily I assure you. However I have-“

Chaltra raised her hand sternly to silence him, she had listened to his formal request to leave his duties and had no interest in being known as the ruler who allowed one of Halta’s greatest assets to disappear into the canopy. This subject had to remain hers, he needed to know his place and remain loyal to her great nation.

“What I understand here, is that you plan to abandon your post, and your people, because you found some red-haired minx to accompany you. Is your homeland so unimportant to you that you would leave us like this?”

Zuko felt a great rage building within as he faced his accuser that had just belittled Scarlet. He looked at her standing by his side and noticed she had chosen to simply stick her tongue out and glower at her queen. Not her most polite moment, Zuko mused, but it had a cute sense of fury. Focusing on the warmth of Scarlet’s affections flowing through the bond they now shared, Zuko calmed himself and simply took a step forward. Allowing his caste mark to flare, Zuko stared at the woman on her throne covered in the regalia that befitted her office.

“I’m sorry, your majesty, but perhaps you misheard or were not paying proper attention when I introduced Scarlet, MY WIFE!” Zuko glared at the woman to whom he had owed his allegiance. The royal guards began to shift nervously and look towards their captain for guidance. Silence permeated the room as several hands tensed over swords.

“You forget yourself child! You sit here in her presence and dare raise your voice! GUARDS!” ordered high captain Sorleth as he reached to draw his own sword.

Ten men grasped for the swords at their sides and began to lunge towards the Night Caste. With blinding flash of light and no small amount of flourish Zuko bent backwards onto his hands, spinning clockwise on the palm of his left hand and allowing Essence to flow thru him. By the time he finished a single rotation Zuko smiled at the confused faces on his would-be assailants and curled tightly in a ball to roll forward and stand back on his feet, transferring the new weight to his hands. With a clash and clatter Zuko dropped the weapons of the guards on the floor which only moments ago had been in their scabbards.

“I believe you meant to use these against me,” Zuko laughed as a smoldering golden flame began to wreathe his form, obscuring his features. “Sorry for the spectacle my lady, but I didn’t wish to engage in outright hostilities with your guards at this point”

Sorleth was stunned at how his and his men’s weapons ended up in Zuko’s hands in but a moment, but looked to the queen for guidance as his men all remained frozen and confused.

Chaltra gave a bemused smile and waved the guards off, “you have made your point, Kota. This should only serve to explain precisely why I cannot let you leave you homeland, you are a weapon we intend to use. I will… withdraw my statement about the girl—your wife.”

Zuko continued to stare down the guards as they backed away. Scarlet placed her hand in his and squeezed it gently to calm him. With a deep breath, Zuko began what he had tried to say before.

“I am a chosen of the Unconquered Sun and with such a position comes a great deal of responsibility and duty. Unfortunately, and I’m not happy about it, this means I must stand in defense of far more than simply Halta. Already I have experienced conflict and machinations on a scale grander than I could have ever thought before I left my homeland those years ago. I come here today to tell you that I can no longer answer to your rule, my queen. I will forever be a friend to Halta, and still love my birthplace, but if I must stand in defense of all creation as often as I have, I can’t be a part of the Haltan corps. I must end my oath to serve under the rule and orders of this nation. I would like to have your blessing Lady Chaltra, especially since I would like to return to visit, but the simple fact is that I will be leaving Halta, and I may no longer serve.”

Chaltra considered her options and thought on her recent meetings concerning the war with the Linowans. She could hardly imagine losing a resource as valuable as this, especially with how much the Bull of the North had managed. However, she also understood the truth behind Zuko’s words, and of the oppressive nature of the responsibility he felt himself burdened with.

“Very well, Zuko Kota, I do hereby give you leave from your duty to the Haltan corps, for you have served admirably. You will remain, however, a friend of Halta and one of her citizens. I expect you to continue in your defense of this nation from afar and your commitment to upholding our ideals.”

“That should not be a problem. Should you have need of me, send word to Nexus and it will make its way to me and my circle eventually. I cannot promise my immediate response, but I am grateful and shall assist Halta when I can. As a side note, I would like to ask a simple favor. Scarlet and I have been married, and I wish for her to be recognized as such by all of my countrymen.”

“That shall not be a problem, and I give you my blessing to continue your visit to Halta and to leave when you see fit. Farewell Kota, may you always be in shade and never may a mask be at your back.”

Zuko bowed and then had to sheepishly smile and raise his finger for one final point “My Queen, er, Lady Chaltra, there is one final matter I must ask your favor on.”

“You try my patience, Zuko Kota, but as a friend of Halta I shall hear your request.”

“In my travels I have learned of the great deal of strife that wounds all of creation, and thus I have a need for many allies and associates to-“

“and you have us as your ally, but you shall not command our army!” the Queen cut him off, annoyed at the possibility of what he might request. The boy was overstepping.

“I wish merely that my status be fully understood to the people, as that could help to drive some fear into the Linnowans. Also, that any citizens of Halta who wish to follow me be allowed to do so, provided they have completed their required military service of course. I do not wish to steal any soldiers from Halta, merely that those who wish to assist myself and my compatriots in rebuilding and saving all of Creation may do so.”

“Fine, fine, but I want your assurance that you will do whatever you can to protect those people as though they were on haltan soil. I will not have my subjects cast aside in some young Solar’s fruitless wars,” Chaltra demanded. She certainly wasn’t pleased at this option, but it would allow her to perhaps keep tabs on the boy’s actions while he was outside her realm and that could prove an invaluable asset.

“Oh, absolutely!” chimed in Scarlet suddenly “Zuko takes the best care of everyone around him. He may play the rogue, but he cares deeply for our homeland and its entire people. Now, if we have your leave, Zuko and I must be going back there is much to be done. Farewell your majesty.”

Zuko had barely time to bow alongside Scarlet’s elegant curtsy before a wave of the Queen’s hand and Scarlet’s strong pull had him out of the room in seconds. He could sense something was amiss in Scarlet. She was worried, but he had no idea what had caused it.

“We must return back to the workshop,” Scarlet explained as she hurried him out to the outskirts of the city. “Something is wrong, I don’t know what but I sense problems coming our way. Something in the Wyld…”

Never one to doubt her word, Zuko simply nodded and sped off thru the trees after his nimble bride. As they silently sped towards their new home, Zuko couldn’t help but worry about what awaited them when they reached the workshop, but still hopeful that Galek and others might come there soon as well. It would be good to spar against his old master again, and to see the Cult gain a valuable instructor.

A World Left Behind

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