A/N: Guys, it's here! It's really here! Merry (or Happy) Christmas to all! Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noël, whatever floats your boat! Please enjoy.
Chapter Seven: Orpheus, Part Two
The woman that had yelled at the two vigilantes was about to say something else but was cut off when a giant arm swung out from the shadows and struck her mercilessly. Shocked, Zuko and Azula watched her fly across the room, slamming into a nearby pillar and falling to the ground, as still and silent as a stone. The other leaders slowly got up in astonishment before turning around and looking into the darkness where their fellow Mistress had been attacked from.
An equally as large leg came out and kicked two chairs out of its way, forcing the Blue Spirit and Crimson Dragon to duck. The chairs crashed into the railing behind them. One of the leading females was struck and fell to the ground, motionless on the stone. Zuko took hold of Azula's arm and backed away from the row of chairs, knowing that being close to whatever in the shadows would end badly. He heard the fight behind them stop, someone apparently telling them that something was going wrong. The loud ambiance of the arena had fallen to near silent, all eyes staring at the scene before them.
A few seconds passed and Zuko saw the glint of dim light again, followed by a loud clank that echoed throughout the entire chamber. He heard something that sounded like pistons and his eyes widened. The attacker had decided to reveal himself.
Stepping out of the shadows, he was humongous. Towering even over the biggest men in the room, he was taller than even Lee. Beefy and muscular, his arms and legs bulged with raw, physical strength. One of his arms was only down the elbow, the forearm and hand completely missing. Scars and burns ran up and down the damaged arm, yet other marks of damaged skin plagued the other more functional parts of his body. The Blue Spirit's black eyes traveled down to his legs, and what they saw made the golden ones behind the mask open more than they ever had. Just below the knee, a metallic prosthetic leg dimly reflected the firelight of the arena, covered in scratches and scorch marks.
The man lowered his hood and Zuko looked up, breath catching in his throat.
A glaring, inverted eye was plastered onto his forehead, staring at the Fire Lord with its menacing gaze. Combustion Man inhaled and sucked in his stomach, tensing and ready to get his revenge...
"Shit." Azula muttered, harshly shoving her brother out of the blast's path and following his movement. The explosion crackled as it traveled across the open air of the arena, before creating a deafening boom as it hit a section of bleachers. The silence that had filled the room before completely vanished, now filled with a rising panic. Men began running to nearby tunnel exits; anywhere away from the scene at the leaders' booths.
The Blue Spirit and Crimson Dragon looked up at Combustion Man from their spot on their floor, seeing him slowly turn their way. He was scowling, but his posture was relaxed. Both siblings knew that he wasn't going to rush this.
Zuko's composure on the outside was that of the fearless Blue Spirit's, but on the inside it was that of a scared child's. His shallow, erratic breaths were shaky, and he was still in shock from the new revelation of the mercenary being alive. He had seen him die; he had seen the metal hand fly into the foggy abyss. And now, he was here, obviously tracking him and Azula and planning to kill them. It definitely wasn't a good thing to worry about, and he had a feeling that this wouldn't be the last of him, no matter how dead the assassin seemed.
The two siblings looked around and saw the leaders that were alive running to one of the exits, only to get caught in a stampede of much larger men.
"Well, the Fire Lord grimly thought, "At least there's only one thing to worry about now."
A steely clank brought him out of his thoughts and he turned back. The assassin in front of them was slowly tensing, eyebrows still downcast. Zuko sheathed his swords, quickly pulled his sister up with him, and ran to the closest object that was sufficient cover; one of the humongous pillars. He rounded the side and pulled Azula close to him, not wanting to give the mercenary an open target.
The explosion completely extirpated the pillar, throwing the two siblings into the air. They landed about fifteen feet away from the now collapsed pillar, grunting in pain from the force of the fall. As the Blue Spirit landed, he felt a searing torment across his upper back and right shoulder. It stung badly, and blandly reminded him of how his face had felt after the Agni Kai with Ozai. He heard pistons move around and shot up, ignoring the agony he felt in his skin. The Crimson Dragon got up without his help this time, running with him towards a stone ledge near the bleachers for cover.
They reached it and slid in front of it, backs hitting the wall. The two tried to catch their breaths as they listened to the man's feet approach them. Azula closed her eyes before opening them and looking at her brother. She looked below his neck and her eyes widened.
"Zuko," she said in between breaths, "Your shoulder... It's-"
"I'm okay, Azula," he painfully lied, "We need to focus on getting out of here. We can't fight him now."
"Yes we can," she argued, "No one's here except him. We can use our bending and kill him before he kills us."
He looked at her for a moment before sighing and giving up. "Fine. But while we fight him, one of us needs to find an exit. If things go bad we need to know how to get out of here."
She nodded and peeked out from behind the cover, trying to gauge were he was. One look told her that he was about fifteen feet away. It wouldn't take long for him to reach them. She drew back into cover and looked at her brother, getting his attention.
"He's close," she muttered, "I'll lure him down onto the fighting level. Hide and attack when I've got his full attention."
Zuko shook his head, "No, it's too dangerous. You've never fought him before- I have. Besides, your bending is more powerful than mine, and I think he's after me more than anything. I'll cause more of a distraction than you will. When his back is turned, hit him with everything you got. That might slow him down enough for us to get out of here."
"What do you mean he's-"
"I'll explain later." he assured solidly, squeezing her shoulder firmly. He waited, listening to the metallic steps of the attacker.
The clanking got uncomfortably close, so Zuko leaped out from under cover and narrowly dodged a calculated explosion that hit another section of the bleachers. The Blue Spirit sprinted towards the railing like there was no tomorrow, jumping just before reaching it. He felt the heat of a distant explosion whisper across his body and sting his shoulder. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw another one of the pillars get demolished by the immense amount of fiery energy. He landed onto the Agni Kai stage and rolled, gritting his teeth as a throbbing pain rattled through his legs and exploded in his shoulder. Zuko quickly turned around, preparing himself.
Scowling, Combustion Man stood next to the railing, looking at the figure that he was going to kill.
He vaulted over the railing and hit the ground without rolling, not showing any pain or damage. Zuko scowled as his heart quickened with fear. The Blue Spirit raised up his hands and got into a stance, exhaling the terror out. After a beat, he punched out a powerful burst of fire, his shoulder violently protesting. The Fire Lord tried to ignore the warm liquid slowly trickling down his arm.
The assassin started walking towards his target and batted the fire away with his only arm, not even blinking. The figure clad in black shot off a large wall of fire and started running, getting some distance between him and the large man. A small explosion boomed close behind him and he stopped, fully facing the assassin.
Zuko glanced upwards and saw his sister slowly sneaking out from her cover and standing still at the railing. He looked back down at Combustion Man and bent some more fire at him, this time aiming at his legs. The combustionbender dodged the hot attack and sent another explosion the Blue Spirit's way. The firebender watched the transparent line travel towards him in slow motion, knowing that it was too fast for him to dodge it. Panicking, he sent a heavy plume of warm fire directly towards the blazing hot beam. As it traveled out of his hand, he thought he saw a flash of green...
The force of the explosion sent Zuko crashing into the wall twenty feet behind him. He hit the ground mask first and felt the injury across his upper back and shoulder sear in painful distress. Blood leaked out of the wound freely now, and stung it mercilessly. Slowly, he brought his head up, eyes blurring as they watched the mercenary slowly trek his way towards him. He moved his arms up and tried to push upwards off of the ground, but his biceps felt as if they were made out of molten lead.
"Zuko!" he faintly heard Azula shriek. She sounded like she did during Sozin's Comet...
"No..." Zuko barely thought. He knew that she was having another episode, and that she would be distracted; not as strong as she normally was. He listened to what sounded like he sister hitting the arena floor and rolling, before his vision left him completely, his head sagging and his consciousness shutting down.
Azula's distinct blue fire harshly rip through the air and strike Combustion Man in the back, causing him to grunt and stop approaching the Blue Spirit. The giant turned around and faced her, tensing and shooting an explosion her way.
The Crimson Dragon danced around the blistering line and shot an angry blast of azure flames at the assassin. He tried to bend it away but she followed through immediately, relentlessly striking him with everything she had. After fifteen seconds of completely decimating the area where the mercenary was, she stopped to catch her breath, observing her destruction. There was a column of smoke directly in front of her, and she heard some sizzling. After a moment, the gray smog cleared and the insane teenager ground her teeth together violently, barely holding in a scream of rage. The giant stood still and tall, a few burns and scratches on his exposed skin, but nothing that looked like it had done any real damage.
Her deranged mind was reeling, tittering on the edge of pure irrationality. But, her eyes soon found her brother, and the sickening pounding that filled her mind softened, eased by her concern for Zuko's safety.
She shifted her attention back onto Combustion Man, scowling and gathering cold fire into her fingertips.
Before she could gather enough to do any real damage, the assassin quickly fired an explosion at her. The teenager abandoned her lightening and hit the ground, feeling the immense heat of the blast warm her back. She got up and was about to prepare more lightening but was stopped once the entire cavern shook and threw her to the arena floor.
Azula looked behind and saw that he had hit a third column, destabilizing the entire sewer system. Chunks of the ceiling started to solidly hail down from their highland home, striking dangerously close to where the three intruders all were. The humongous man watched the room fall apart in disinterest before turning away from the vigilante and walking over to the barely conscious Fire Lord. The girl watched him go before coming up with a plan. She stood up and silently got in a lighteningbending stance, going through all of the proper movements. Hands buzzing with energy, she aimed for his head, hoping to mess up the third eye.
The blue electricity traveled towards his cranium quickly before violently diverting, making a beeline for his left leg. It hit the prosthetic limb and she heard him yell in surprised pain, the cold fire doing more damage for longer than expected. The giant hit the floor, looking unconscious.
She watched the strange spectacle for a bemused moment before jumping out of her skin when a large piece of ceiling crashed down right next to her. The girl's mind was rushed back into the situation she was in, and she started sprinting towards her brother. She reached him and hefted him up off of the ground, struggling with his weight. Under normal circumstances, she would have been able to lift him, but she had been in chains for over a year, with little to no chance to exercise. Even if she had, she still probably would have had trouble. He was growing, and becoming heavier.
With a grunt of exertion, she lifted him over her shoulder and began to run towards a room where the fighters must have entered the arena floor. Luckily for her, it was still firelit, and looked like it had a way out. The Crimson Dragon made her way through the wide corridor, looking for any exit that would get her brother to safety. Every time that the building shook in its near collapse, the sister winced.
Her keen eyes searched and her legs pumped with blood as she ran. She stopped when she saw a vague shadow of a familiar, benevolent object that would make escape possible. A ladder stood close to a side wall, leading upwards into a circle of darkness. Shining in the firelight, a sign read: Emergency Exit!
The sibling darted forward and grabbed a hold on the ladder with one hand, the other making sure Zuko didn't fall off her shoulder. Swiftly, she raised her foot up and attempted to take a step, but her try was shattered by the weight that was attached to her shoulder. She grit her teeth and struggled, foot slowly rising until it hit the second rung. Azula could have cheered, but a loud crash that vibrated her teeth prevent the girl from doing so.
Slowly but surely, she climbed. The teenager felt a burning in her thighs and legs, but she opted to ignore it, pushing through the pain with all of her might. Even Toph would have been proud. After a minute of climbing, a bone shaking wave shook through Azula and nearly threw her off the ladder, but she hung on, feeling some skin under her left glove painfully give way. She felt blood sink along her arm and down towards her torso, not having any breath to scream or groan due to the traumatic exertion. The Crimson Dragon haltingly climbed in woeful agony for what seemed like eternity, before her head bumped up against a hatch of some kind. With great difficulty, she carefully leaned her back against the circular wall and reached her hand up, wincing in pain as she twisted to the left.
She heard a click and pushed up, feeling the trapdoor give way. It opened up completely and she reached forward, gripping the ladder's rungs once more. She heaved upwards with her abdominal muscles and tried with all of her might to step up onto the street above. Something in her thigh tensed and she felt like somebody had shot fire into her leg. Azula groaned in pain before leaning back again, breathing heavily, rain heavily plodding down onto her mask.
The teenager started to fade away, moaning as her vision darkened. The last thing she heard were heavy footfalls getting closer and closer...
Lao paced with remarkable agility, considering her age. She was filled with worry, as Lee had left to go find the two children. He had said that he ran into them while delivering the weapons, and that he had a very bad feeling about them going into the Underworld's headquarters. Her grandson hadn't returned since, and she could swear that she was earning a new wrinkle every second.
After a minute someone busted through the door. The old woman turned around to find Lee with Kuzon and Rize hung over each large shoulder. He dropped them down onto the wooden floor as gently as he could, rushing to the forge.
"Spirits, what happened?!" she anxiously queried, horrified at how lifeless they seemed. The lavabender did not respond; he instead quickly bent some molten material out of the forge and separated into two hot blobs. He expertly extended the two masses and cooled them swifter than he had ever done before, forming two crude stone beds. He bent down and picked them up, setting them down on each table. He made sure to lay the male down on his stomach, and the female on her back. The giant then inhaled deeply to gather his slow mind. He needed to explain as quickly as possible.
"Found h-er in s-service hatch. Car-rying K-Kuzon. People t-old me th-at hea-headquarters was at-tacked by H-H'li" he explained.
Her eyes widened in terror, "H'li is in the city? Why?!"
Lee shook his head, his way of saying he had no idea. The grandmother's brown eyes traveled down to Zuko's shoulder and back, and she winced at the gruesome sight. She rushed to get medical supplies and came back shortly after, swiftly shooing her grandson out of the way.
"I'm going to work on him, he needs it the most. See what's wrong with the girl." she commanded firmly, tone mother-like.
The metalbender nodded and turned to work on Azula. The old woman looked at the teenager's horrible injuries, trying to figure out what to do with him. His right shoulder and upper back were completely burned; not to mention bleeding profusely. The burned off skin was a dark, eerie red, and she guessed it had to do with the assassin's well known explosions. There were small but visible pieces of stone shrapnel embedded in the damaged tissues and muscles. She decided to first use her steel tweezers to get out the pieces of rock in his body. In her hurry to prevent further blood loss, the old grandma sometimes touched the injury with a bit of the device. Even the gentlest of brushes would elicit a physical response from his body, it either tensing or him groaning. When she was sure she had gotten all of it out, she applied burn salve to the wound, knowing that as it dried, it would help clot the blood.
She then took medical bindings and wrapped the injury up snugly, making sure no spot was missed. Once she was sure he was stable, she checked for further injuries but surprisingly found little, other than a few minor lacerations and bruises. She changed him out of his outfit and left him in simple, baggy trousers. The Blue Spirit mask was set aside near the doorway, ominously glaring at no one in particular. Lao walked over to where Lee was checking on Rize, apparently having little success.
"Have you figured out why she's unconscious?" she asked, still staring at the now undressed girl, in her normal pink-red robes.
Lee silently showed his grandmother her left hand and the woman's body shuddered in sympathy. Various parts of her fingers were skinless, while her entire palm was hot pink and raw looking. Dried blood ran down her arm and disappeared into the sleeves.
Lao stared at this a bit more before ordering, "Lee, please pick up Kuzon and carry him to my bed. He needs a soft mattress, not a stone one."
He nodded once more and dutifully picked the young man up as the old woman added, "Be sure to lay him on his stomach, grandson."
Zuko was carried into the dark hallway, completely unconscious. The firebender sighed and looked back at the girl, feeling a pity she hadn't felt for anyone but Lee in years. She wiped off the blood that had traveled all the way to her chest using water and gauze. The woman then did her best to disinfect the hand wound and wrap it up in bindings. She sincerely hoped that the teenager wasn't left handed. Suddenly, as she observing the child's face, she saw a small twitch in the upper eyebrow.
After a few more twitches, Azula shot up from the stone bed, shouting, "No!"
She realized that she wasn't climbing the ladder anymore and looked around, dazed. The princess noticed Lao and looked around, realizing that she was in Lee's shop. Looking down, she also came to notice that he left hand was wrapped up in medical bindings. She tried to move it around in its thick bandaging, but only felt harsh stinging from the minimal movement.
Azula turned to the old woman standing at the bedside, eyes asking questions Lao couldn't answer right away.
"Lee found you and your friend in a service hatch, and brought you back here. You're going to be alright." she gently assured, laying a hand on the girl's shoulder.
Reminded of who she was carrying up the ladder, her heart clenched. "Where is he?!"
Lao smiled sadly, "He's in my bed, resting. You two are lucky Lee found you as quick as he did. Otherwise, Kuzon might have died from blood loss."
The princess rotated her body ninety degrees and her feet touched the ground. She attempted to stand up, but felt a burning, flaming pain in her mid-thigh, feeling as if she had a gash there. Azula stumbled and would have hit the hard, wooden floor face first if Lao hadn't caught her.
"What's wrong?" the lady asked, "Why can't you stand up?"
The teenager shrugged and attempted to throw off the grandmother, wanting to see her brother.
"Rize." her voice rang out, now dangerously calm.
"Get off of me, peasant." Azula ordered in a threatening tone, yellow eyes piercing brown. She was done playing nice with these people.
A sour look on her face, Lao decided to negotiate. "If you explain what exactly happened tonight and we figure out what's wrong with your leg, I will help you see your friend. Please, try and be patient."
Azula thought about this for a moment and crossing her arms indignantly. She sat back down on the stone bed and thought of where to begin.
"We made it into the abandoned building and saw Lee give these men his weapons. We got him to go home and entered the hidden tunnel. Kuzon and I made it to the headquarters and sneaked through. We took out the Mistresses' bodyguards and were about to take them out too, but that's when H'li attacked. He killed two of them, and the rest were killed by a stampede. My friend got burned when we were hiding behind a pillar that H'li exploded. He fell unconscious and I tried to fight H'li, but nothing worked. I think that he had exploded so many pillars that the entire arena started to give way."
She continued, "As it began to collapse, I picked up Kuzon and ran into a nearby corridor. There, I found a ladder and got up to the top, but I was so exhausted I couldn't manage to get us out of there. That may have been when your grandson came."
"What happened to H'li?" Lao fearfully inquired.
"...I don't know. I doubt he's alive." Azula answered, a shameful amount of worry filling her gut.
"Well," the grandmother said after a moment, "You were very strong and brave to carry your friend out of there all on your own. I'm proud of you for doing that."
Azula looked away, trying to hide the bashful redness that came across her face. She didn't want anyone to be proud of her anymore.
"Did anything happen to your leg while you were down there?" the old woman asked.
"While I was climbing, it felt like something gave out and started burning in my thigh." the princess answered, looked down at the sore area.
"Hm," Lao mused, "You probably tore a muscle. I'll get some ice to reduce the swelling."
She left the room for a minute and returned with a chunk of frozen water wrapped in bindings. "Where is it most swollen and painful?"
The teenager pointed at the underside of her right thigh and Lao gently set the ice in that spot, taking the bindings and tying them together on the opposite side of the muscle. She offered the princess her shoulder and Azula hesitantly hooked her arm around the old woman's neck, hissing in pain as she stepped on the injured extremity. The girl hopped onto her left leg and let herself be guided by the old woman to the room where Zuko was in.
They entered the room and Azula internally sighed when she saw the peaceful look on his sleeping face. Her eyes traveled to the large amount of bandages on his upper back and right shoulder. She remembered the gruesome sight, and honestly had no idea how he could still bend fire or even move without yelling back there. His mouth was stupidly parted open, and she could see a tiny bit of drool seeping out of it. The princess rolled her eyes in mild disgust before a rare smile came to her lips. She would never admit it to anyone in her lifetime, but despite her disappointment in his periodic idiocy, she had always found it cute when he had made a mistake or said something dumb. Lost in her thoughts, Azula did not notice Lao reach over and pull out a simple wooden chair for her to sit in.
"I'll leave you two alone," the old woman giggled softly, guiding the girl into the chair.
Azula tersely waited until the lady gently shut the door behind her to relax, sighing and watching Zuko's relaxed form. They both had almost died tonight, and they probably would have if it wasn't for Zuko being H'li's main priority.
Her mind wondered what kind of stupid action her brother could have done to get the assassin's attention, but she knew that the giant wasn't after him over a contract. The combustionbender seemed less calm than the myths had described him, always scowling. Whenever he looked at her brother, he looked even angrier. She expected it was some kind of plotted revenge, but she could never tell at this point.
Yellow eyes slowly traveled down his back and stopped at a faded, star-shaped scar coloring the middle of his back. The same icy, clouded feeling that had permeated her stomach in the Forbidden Valley clawed at her now, knowing that she was the reason he had that scar. She knew that if he was laying down on his back, there would be an identical scar, only bigger, and more defined. Hesitantly, she hunched her back forward and took his hand, feeling rough callouses along his thumb and palm. Her finger gently rubbed them as her eyes tired and she yawned. Azula fell asleep holding his hand, dreaming about things that could never be.
Zuko opened his eyes, gasping for air. The first thing he noticed was how... colorful everything was. His eyes took in the scenery of bright green plains of grass that flew in the soft breeze. Olive trees rarely dotted the landscape, some short enough to be considered shrubbery, and others that were easily taller than the maximum altitude Fire Nation airships could reach. Strange creatures of all shapes and sizes peacefully flew around, some stopping to stare before continuing on their way. The temperature was absolutely perfect, and something felt very homely about wherever he was.
A warm gust of air ruffled the Fire Lord's clothes and he looked around. The last thing he remembered was slamming into a wall, and hearing Azula shout his name. He wondered if he was dead.
Suddenly, he turned and saw an old man traversing a hillside. His eyes widened and he ran towards the man.
"Excuse me!" he called, "Sir!"
The elder stopped his pilgrimage and turned around, and Zuko's breath caught in his throat. Uncle Iroh stood there, with a pot of tea, a joyful smile on his face. Realizing that his uncle was here with him, his heart started beating painfully quick, assuming that the worst had happened to the both of them.
"Uncle..." his eyes were wide in astonishment.
"Hello, nephew. Lovely weather we are having, isn't it?" Iroh's gentle smile did little to cease the Fire Lord's worries.
"Where are we?! Are we... Dead?" Zuko's eyes had begun to fill with tears. He wouldn't be able to make the funeral...
His uncle chuckled and replied, "No, no. Not dead. We are in the Spirit World, Zuko. And although I cannot stay here permanently, I suspect that my time will come soon."
The scarred teenager tried to ignore the statement and inquired, "Is Azula okay?"
"She's fine," the Dragon of the West replied, "She defeated H'li and carried you out, you know. You both are sleeping at Lao's house right now. But you two will need to leave North Chung-Ling soon."
"We were planning on moving on after that anyway," Zuko told his uncle, bemused at his statement.
"I know that," Iroh retorted, "But you two must travel to a place not known by many. The Bhanti Tribe."
"What is the Bhanti Tribe?" the Fire Lord queried, "And why there?"
"The Bhanti Tribe is an indigenous group of people that settled into the Fire Nation during the time of the first Avatar. The reason you and Azula must go there is this. Your sister is going through turmoil, much like you were while we were living as refugees in Ba Sing Se. She has not shown it, but believe me, she is. The longer she holds back the sickness, the more damaging it will be once her body gives out. This is not like yours; she cannot just wait for it to be over, she will have to be healed. The Bhanti Tribe is the only one closest that can help her." the old man stated firmly.
Zuko listened in understanding, before asking, "Uncle, where is the Tribe?"
"That is something that no one knows. You must find it yourself. Look inside, and the light shall guide you." his uncle sagely told.
Before his nephew could ask what he meant, the tea-loving old man vanished in miniscule, golden particles. They slowly floated up and disappeared into the baby blue of the sky. The young man sighed in exasperation and looked around to find a way out of the Spirit World. He took one step before all he saw was green light flowing into his eyes.
He was floating up, up, up...
Zuko's eyes slowly opened, flashing green before returning to their normal white and yellow. His mouth was dry, and his cheek was resting on a wet spot. He exhaled as he realized it was his own drool. The Fire Lord realized he was on his stomach and tried to get up, but recoiled down to safety as his shoulder and back seared in pain. Just then, he remembered the pain he felt in those areas after being thrown into the air from that explosion.
The scarred male's eyes widened as they realized something was touching his hand. With difficulty, he crooked his head back to see what it was, and what he saw surprised him.
Azula's head was resting on the edge of the bed, her hand gripping his. He looked at her for a moment before moving his head back to its original place. His fingers moved around and explored her hand. It was at that moment that his fingers brushed over her fingernails. He had never noticed it while they had searched for their mother, but she had clipped away her sharp, dangerous talons. They felt normal, and Zuko was comfortable that he wouldn't get cut if he held it a little bit longer.
He smiled, closing his eyes and trying to enjoy the moment until morning.