Oma tightened her mask. Silence was key. The first rule of her village was this: Never let them know you're coming. Be silent and swift.
She knew what her job was. Scout the area. Kill anyone who got in her way. This was a war, and her village took no prisoners.
Her mask, a red demon's face, kept her identity secret, made her feel invincible. It was her village's way. In wartime, you let no one know who you are. You don't let the enemy recognize you as a future target. So long as she wore the mask, she was safe from reprisal. As long as she hid behind this demon's face, they couldn't touch her.
She was the best at her job. Scouting the area. But that was really just another mask. Because scouting the area really meant, be an assassin. Murder anyone you saw, be it civilian or soldier. Because civilians can become soldiers, and soldiers kill your friends and family.
Shu smeared the war paint over his eyes, the final touch. He left his village, his arrows on his back. The first law of his town: Never leave unprepared. Be ready for an attack at any time.
He knew what he was supposed to do. Patrol the village borders. Keep out any invaders by whatever means necessary. This was a war, and the enemy must be kept out.
His paint, black base with blue stripes and swirls, intimidated the enemy, made him feel powerful. It was tradition where he came from. To imitate the spirits by wearing paint and gain their ability to inspire fear. Wear the face of that spirit whose powers you wished to have. So long as he wore the paint, he was swift as the eagles, invulnerable.
He was one of the best at patrolling the village. He was one of the few who consistently came back from his duty. But patrol the village was just another façade like his paint. His people were on the ropes. Patrol the village meant do you best not to die. Because they won't give you the chance to fight.
Oma was running between the trees, scaling the mountain between her and the enemy. She heard a noise and ducked behind a trunk. Rule two: Don't be seen. Use any available cover.
She unsheathed her two broadswords. She knew what to do. She whipped around the edge, ready to attack.
She made the fatal mistake then to pause before she killed him. And she broke the most important rule of all: Never view the enemy as anything but a thing to be eliminated. They are not people. They are pawns to be crushed. They do not feel, and you do not feel for them.
But the quickness with which he reached for his arrows inspired her respect. The hard way his eyes narrowed, wrinkling his paint, made her heart race. The pride with which he stood in his blue robes stirred her own pride for her village.
So she waited for him to make the first move because she had realized this sentry was a man who had the feeling of compassion. She waited to see if he would show mercy as she was.
Shu had found a clearing in the forest a reasonable distance from his hometown. Halfway between the two enemy villages, on the mountain. The second law: Don't lead the enemy back to the village. Never reveal its location by any means.
He drew his bow out of his quiver. He knew what to do. He had learned that you survived by leaving as little to chance as possible.
The enemy burst into the clearing, swords drawn. As soon as she entered his sight, he reached for an arrow. He notched it to his bowstring. He paused then. Because unlike all the other times he had been attacked, his masked opponent had yet to race forward to slay him. So, probably stupidly, he waited. Because he didn't want the guilt of attacking first on his conscience if this assassin wasn't going to.
He took his opponent in as he waited. The fierce red oni mask with holes for the eyes revealed wary brown eyes. The dusky red robes concealed the body, leaving the sex a mystery for now. A dark hood covered the hair, completing the androgynous look of an assassin. But the killer waited for him, as if reluctant to follow the unspoken rule.
When encountering the enemy, kill him on sight.
He had his own rule to this war. Never strike the first blow. Let them have the blood on their hands. The first blow is constituted by a continued desire to slay. If the opponent pauses and does not follow through with an attack, keep your guard up and wait for them.
"What are you waiting for?" Oma asked, lowering her voice to keep her identity a secret. "Why haven't you struck me down?"
"Because you haven't made any move to attack me."
She realized it then. She didn't even know why their villages had begun to fight. Only that this was the way things were. Bloodshed, fighting, murdering, plundering, killing. It was all she had ever known, all their two villages had known for generations.
She rose then, coming out of her defensive position, and sheathed her blades. Her mind screamed at her to remember all the people who had died, all the generations whose blood had been spilled. But her body wouldn't obey.
Because truth was, she was sick of this. Sick of hiding in the shadows, striking down the enemy from them. She was tired of this cowardly way of fighting. She was tired of murdering. She was weary of fighting for a cause she didn't even know, let alone believe in.
She was fed up with tradition running her life.
Oma reached up and removed her mask.
Shu watched in awe as the unthinkable happened. The enemy removed the mask. And as the demon's face fell away, an angel's appeared.
For beneath the façade was a woman more beautiful than he had ever imagined. Her porcelain skin was free of war paint, pure. Her chocolate brown eyes were serious but clear of hate.
"I won't attack you if you don't attack me," she said in a musical voice.
He put his arrow back in the quiver and put his bow on the ground.
"I'll put my weapons on the ground if you do the same," he announced.
She nodded and placed her sheathed swords on the ground. Then she reached down her leg wrappings and removed several throwing needles. These joined her swords. Then she slid her hands up her pant legs and removed shuriken. These were followed by kunai from her waist. Finally, she sat down and took off her shoes that had spikes in the soles. She tossed them to join their companions and stood, barefoot. She stilled.
"You finished?" he asked dryly.
"Do you want to pat me down to see?" she answered with a raised eyebrow.
Shu was suddenly grateful for his war paint hiding the traitorous blush on his cheeks. He tossed his quiver down to join the weapon pile between them.
"That's it," he said with a smirk.
"The paint. It has to go. I took off my mask and completely disarmed myself. You should trust me enough to do the same."
"I don't have any water," he answered.
"There's a stream about a furlong to east of this clearing."
He nodded and they set off together.
Oma was shocked by the difference in his face after he removed the war paint. It was softer, less intimidating. He had hazel eyes, brown in the shadows but green in the sunlight. His black hair was long for a man, but she reminded herself that his village did seem to find that more acceptable for a man than hers did.
"I'm Oma," she informed him quietly, sitting on the bank.
"I should have killed you."
"Why didn't you?" he asked.
She tried to ignore the pleasure racing through her at the sound of his baritone. "Because I'm tired of fighting. I don't even know why I'm fighting. No one does. We've forgotten why we started this war, just that we can't stop fighting. And I'm sick of fighting for a cause I don't even know."
"We don't know the reason why we're fighting either. We just can't stop it."
"The two of us can stop fighting each other. It's a start," Oma announced.
Shu held his hand out to her, and she took it. She went to stand and slid on the muddy bank. She fell into the water, pulling him down with her. And as the water soaked her through and the stony streambed dug into her back, she knew her world had forever been altered.
Shu slowly pushed himself off of her.
They stared into each other's eyes. His looked blue right now, and hers were probably golden in the sunlight. The world disappeared. He leaned closer.
Their lips touched, and she knew she would never be the same person she had been before this day.
Shu gathered his bow and arrows as she finished strapping her kunai to her waist.
"I'll see you," he lied.
"Tomorrow, by the cave of the badgermoles?" Oma asked.
Surprised, but not upset at the idea, he nodded. He knew the place.
She strapped on her mask, and the angel he had fallen for disappeared. He turned away. The softest rustle of leaves told him she had left, and he began his trek back to his village.
It became a routine. Every day, they met at the same spot. Then they sneaked away to the caves to do things they knew they shouldn't.
The first time the badgermoles had bended their way into their cave, Oma had screamed. Shu had laughed, and soon she joined him as the creatures snuffled closer to them. One licked her, and she moaned in disgust as the slobber dripped off her. He said that she looked pretty covered in drool. She shook her head at that.
The third time the badgermoles interrupted them, the lovers began to wonder if this was more than coincidence. If maybe, just maybe, these creatures were trying to tell them something. They looked into each other's eyes and saw the same question. Is this our destiny? Were we meant to meet, meant to steal away to the caves to meet?
The fifth time, Shu had jokingly imitated their odd movements that shoved the earth around without ever touching it. Oma had laughed and tried it. He repeated the motion, then she did it. Finally, they moved in perfect harmony and moved a boulder ten feet away from its original spot. They looked at each other in shock. They tried again, and the boulder moved again. The lovers realized this was something special, that only they could do.
Their meetings fell into a routine after that. Kiss until the badgermoles arrived, then follow the creatures, imitating their movements. It was Oma who said they should give the techniques they had learned a name. Shu was the one who named it earthbending.
They found the glowing crystals together one day as they rested in a dark cavern one day. Shu kissed Oma lightly in the dark, and the room had blazed with light. They continued to experiment with the strange rocks until they realized the crystals responded to love. Inspired, the two quickly agreed that to keep their secret meetings safe, they would earthbend tunnels. Make a maze beneath the mountain that they would navigate with their love.
The badgermoles stopped coming then. But Oma and Shu continued bending their labyrinth. Their meetings became regular, like clockwork. Gradually, they moved supplies into the main room of their tunnel system, the room where they first found the crystals. Her brushes, his war paint, her weapons, his flint. This place was becoming their home away from home where their love flourished.
Then came that horrible day.
Oma had run breathless that day through the tunnels. She could barely believe it. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Pregnant. With Shu's baby. She was happy that it was his, but heartbroken that her child would never be able to know his father the way he should, to have his father there to talk to every day.
She needed to tell Shu the news. So she sat in the room, the crystals shining around her. She waited, as she had the first day they met when she had made her grave mistake, or so she had thought at the time.
Oma waited for hours. Shu was never late. He never left her waiting like this. He would never leave her here without at least a note apologizing for the change in schedule. She began to worry then. Wonder where he was. Had something happened to him? Was he hurt? Was his family hurt? What was keeping him on this important day?
She finally lost her patience and went to find him.
Oma found his body at the entrance of his half of the tunnel labyrinth. A poisoned dagger in his back. Shu's hazel eyes were closed, and she knew they would never open again.
And just like their first kiss, she knew she would never be the same again. Because her heart was breaking, and it felt like fire was burning through her veins and down her cheeks.
Shu wasn't there to wipe those tears with his cool hands though. He was lying dead, killed by her village on his way to see her.
The badgermoles snuffled up behind her as she screamed with rage. Boulders burst from the ground, flying through the air by her might.
Oma ran then, to the top of the mountain. She could see both villages, on the two mountaintops on either side of her. Crying for her dead lover, for her child who would never meet his father no matter what she did, she used the power of her earthbending. She released all the sorrow in an explosive shifting of the hills, creating more mountains, towers of rock, and leveling other hills. Every kiss, every breath she had breathed with Shu, everything from their time together, she threw into her bending. The earth quaked with the strength of her love for him.
Oma wanted to destroy everyone. Her people though they be, they had murdered her lover. His village was equally to blame. They could have ended the fight, done better at protecting each other.
But she couldn't bring herself to destroy the villages. She remembered what she had said to Shu. "It's a start." Remembered the question in their eyes after the badgermoles. Is this our destiny?
So she spared them as she had spared her lover at their first meeting. Returned the land to its original appearance. Let the tremors of her bending subside. She sat down then and waited. As the moon rose above her, the first trickles of the opposing villages' people found her. When the flow of people subsided, she bended a platform for herself.
She told them her story then of how she came to love Shu. . Told them of their discovery of this technique, earthbending. Of how she had become disgusted with the war between their villages.
"I'll bet none of you even know why you're fighting anymore!" she challenged the crowd. "Do any of you remember why we're enemies? How this war started?"
And in the silence that reigned after her questions, the villagers realized she was right. No one knew. With that knowledge, they forgot all the rules and laws of their war and looked at each other. They saw then that the other side they had hated for generations was merely made up of normal people. With families and loved ones like themselves.
"I declare this war to be over. May we enter a new era of peace together!" Oma announced. She felt a rush of heat through her belly then and knew that she was losing the baby.
She knew too that with the baby she and Shu had created, she would lose her life. So with her final bit of strength, she created the foundation for a city on the dividing mountain.
Then, exhausted, Oma collapsed never to wake again.
But the two villages united to build a city over the caves the lovers had met in. In the memory of the two warriors who brought peace to the land through their love, the villagers named their new city Omashu. The people learned how to earthbend by imitating the badgermoles as Oma had described. Then they moved the two lovers' bodies into the caves where they had built their lives together. In the center room, they earthbended two sepulchers and laid their remains to rest in them. On the walls of the room, they carved the sad story of the separated lovers Oma and Shu. They added a line on the story and coffins.
"Love is brightest in the dark."