Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar. Nor do I own the rights to this idea either, because half of it was inspired byWolf Moonhawk's story, and the rest was spawned from my underpriveleged, underpaid mind while working at a minimum wage job. Gee, don't you just love Unions?
AN: Please, read and review. And just for reference sake: This takes place immediately after The Seige of the North, Part II. I may be making brief references to those episodes throughout the fic, so if you haven't seen it...don't yell at me for spoiling things for you. Also, next week I have finals, so I'll just let you guys simmer with this chapter for a while, and I'll update whenever I can...most likely, my next update will be on the 23rd.
Shades of Chaos
The First Shadow:
Hope was not even considered- the little raft stood no chance against the raging gales and driving rain of the storm. The already battered pieces of wood and steel began to screech in protest against the violent sea, growing louder and louder until with a final crack, the makeshift vessel shattered. It's passengers were thrown to the mercy of the tempest, holding on to the splintered remains of the mast for dear life as they, too, were tossed idly between mammoth waves like toys.
It was impossible to tell how long the sea continued it's ruthless abuse, but slowly, surely, the younger of the soaked figures felt sand grinding against his legs. He kicked down, and felt something solid resist the touch of his toes.
"Uncle!" he spluttered, trying at once to cry out and empty his mouth of seawater. "Land!"
The old man glanced up at him in surprise- most likely, the message had not even been understood. But he smiled nonetheless- a weak smile, intended to restore even the slightest trace of Hope to his nephew. Another wave drove them further, and another- the boy no longer had to kick to feel the firm sand beneath his feet. His uncle now felt it, too. He looked around, almost desperately, but the brutal waves were still too high over his head, obscuring everything but the boy's face. He tightened his grip on his nephew's wrist, just in time before both of them were hurled against the course shallows of a beach. The violent waves ground them mercilessly into the rocky shore, threatening to drown both in sea brine. The boy was the first to regain his feet against the fierce pull,and he wasted no time in grabbing his uncle and dragging him out of reach of the surf.
The old man staggered after his nephew, following him further inshore. "We need to find shelter," he said, his old eyes scanning the rocky terrain.
"I already saw something," the boy said, pointing at a mass of stones. There seemed to be a crevice at their base, just large enough for a man to crawl through.
"Well done, Prince Zuko," the old man coughed, hope quickening his pace. Perhaps it was larger than it looked; perhaps it was a cave. Though it didn't matter. Even a meager shelter would be enough, if it could house a fire. And that could well be the difference between life and death. The old man, the Retired General Iroh, Dragon of the West, glanced warmly up at his nephew as Zuko helped him ascend the slick gravel slope around the crevice. At very least, a good fire will keep him alive, he thought.
"Go ahead, Uncle," the boy said, his voice raised to be heard over the howling winds. "I'll be right after you."
Iroh opened his mouth to protest, turning to his nephew, but his foot hit a patch of mud, and the earth beneath him gave way. He slid down, into the crevice, expecting to hit the back wall, but he continued, unhindered except for a few of the larger stones that lay scattered around him. Zuko scrambled haphazardly after him, shouting hoarsely for his uncle.
There was no reply.
After what seemed to be ages, the ground leveled. Zuko was now shrouded in absolute darkness, but he refused to turn back, expelling it somewhat with a spark of flame. Long, eerie shadows lurched across the floor of what appeared to be a cave. He didn't pay it much attention: his focus was on Iroh, who lay motionless on the ground a few feet away.
"Uncle!" was all Zuko could manage to say as he dove at the old man, horror and fear coursing through his mind, hoping against hope against a fate that he didn't dare name.
A subtle rise and fall of the old man's chest proved that he was alive and breathing, but a cruel bruise marred the side of his scull, edged with a small cut.
"Uncle?" the young man said quietly, trying to keep the tension from his voice. "Can you hear me?" Iroh groaned, but did not move. His nephew knelt at his side, tearing off a clean section of his otherwise muddy shirt, wrapping it around the wound. Iroh shuddered, though he didn't wake, and for the first time since he entered the cave, Zuko realized that he was freezing- he had been soaked to the bone, and the air around him was frigid.
He summoned a large orb of flame for warmth, laying it by his uncle, and the entire cavern was illuminated. The cave was large, and perfectly round, as though a sphere had been carved from the earth. In the center hung a massive spider's web, every strand as wide as a man's forearm, and shone silver, sending sparks of light across the stone walls, though the bottom and center of the web remained in shadow. Zuko tentatively stepped closer, nearly entranced by the glittering web, and suddenly leapt back in horror.
"Dear Agnii..." he muttered, coming closer. He conjured another flame, and the added light revealed the truth of the web.
It was no spider's creation, and the threads were neither silver, nor silk. They were steel chains, inhumanly thick, tethered to a dozen stone loops that had been carved into the cave wall. The chains converged at the center, wrapping around a distorted figure.
The chains bound nearly every inch of it's body, it's wrists tied together far over it's head, held tight by the center most links of the tangled web, and the rest of the body hung limply below. It had been forced into a kneeling position, though it's knees were suspended a hand's breadth off the ground.
Though the figure was human, it's shape was oddly blurred- it's gender, the color of the skin, the shape of the nose and mouth, all were impossible to distinguish, and every feature seemed to evade the eye with the most minuscule movements. Only the eyes were stationary- these were a cloudy black that pleaded silently as the mouth below them struggled to move.
"Rrreeee...reelleeaasssss...Mmmeeee..." the figure rasped. The eyes moved sluggishly to meet Zuko's, and again it spoke, this time clearer: "Release me..."
"Who are you?" Zuko asked, every fiber of his body tensed for danger. "Who did this to you? And why?"
"Please..." the word was broken by a coughing fit. As soon as the convulsions subsided, the prisoner spoke again, despite the trickle of blood that escaped the corner of the weary mouth. "Release me..."
Zuko hesitated, but caution finally gave way to pity, and he approached.
"Hold still," he commanded redundantly, gripping the nearest of the chains. He pulled at it testing the strength of the links, and formed a flare in his palm.
Hours passed as Zuko worked, slowly melting away the steel. Only two strands of the tangled web remained now- the innermost threads, those which bound the prisoner's neck and wrists, which had been previously unreachable. Meanwhile, against the wall of the cavern, Iroh woke with a groan.
"Prince Zuko?" he asked wearily, looking around for his nephew.
"I'm right here, Uncle," the young man said, never pausing from his work. Iroh sat up and squinted through the darkness of the cave.
"Prince Zuko?" he asked again. "What are you doing?" Slowly he approached, still unsteady from the violence of the storm and the throbbing in his temples.
"I'm almost finished," Zuko said. He gave the chains a yank, and the melted steel gave way, dropping with a clatter to the stone around the figure's knees. It's head dropped with the weight, shaking its shaggy head as it tried to throw off the chain. Meanwhile Zuko worked at melting through the final bonds that held the prisoner's wrists.
"What is this?" Iroh asked, weaving his fingers through the severed chains, untangling them from the prisoner's bruised neck.
"I'm not sure," Zuko grunted, snapping his hand back. The links nearest his fingers were glowing white-hot, as he burned at them, and a few drops of the molten steel began to creep dangerously close to him. The bonds fell away, finally revealing the prisoner's face.
Iroh paled. He heard a clank as the last chain broke.
Zuko wiped his brow and knelt beside his uncle, reaching forward to help the old man untangle the forlorn figure.
"This man needs-"
"This is no man," Iroh said gravely.
"It is a Spirit."
"Uncle-" he had no chance to finish before he was interrupted by a thunderous sound. The noise was horrific, loud and fierce and unearthly, until it finally formed into words.
"Freedom!" The sound shook the cavern. Zuko and Iroh were thrown back, as the figure between them began to writhe and convulse, it's odd skin turning ominously black, its body growing ever larger as it ripped off the remnants of the chains, hurling them aside. "AAAAIIIII AAAAHHHHMMMM FFFFFRRRREEEEEEEE!" The creature- the Spirit- turned, it's huge, horrible crimson eyes sweeping through the cavern, until they finally landed on Zuko. The young man retreated a step, then raised his hands defiantly, preparing himself for a fight to the death. The Spirit bellowed again- and vanished.
"Prince Zuko!" Iroh cried, rushing toward his nephew. "Are you all right?" Zuko feverishly searched the darkness before he spoke.
"I'm fine-nghurah!" he jerked in surprise as something powerful wrapped around his shoulders from behind, dragging him down.
"Thank you!" A high, childish voice split the cold air of the cave, only adding to the confusion. Zuko tore himself from the steely grip, forming a small fireball in his fist as he turned to see his attacker. Or rather, to see a child, younger than the Avatar, whose pale hair and eyes seemed to glisten in the dim light. "You have no idea how much I needed that, dear."
"Prince Zuko-" Iroh began again.
"What?" Zuko demanded of the child, trying to make sense of what he had just seen. "Where did you come from?"
"What do you think?" the child asked with a grin. The Exiled Prince felt himself grow angry with her blatant insolence, but he chose to conserve his energy for the Spirit, if it chose to return.
"If I had any idea, I wouldn't have asked!" he snapped. "Are you from around here?" the child shook her head laughingly. "A nearby island, then? Is there a way off this forsaken rock?"
"On foot? No," the girl said with grating friendliness.
"Then where did you come from?" Another infuriating grin. The girl pointed over his shoulder, and Zuko angrily spun on his heels to see what was so funny. Her insolent finger was thrust directly into the heart of the empty pile of chains.
"Prince Zuko," Iroh said again, finally uninterrupted. "She's the Spirit."
The Prince's oath echoed through the cavern, followed by the Spirit's soft laughter.