The man sat hunched in the corner of his prison cell, face obscured by unkempt hair that had once been glossy black but was now beginning to run grey. Once the man's body had been powerfully built and he had a well-earned reputation as one of the greatest warriors in the world. Now he was pitifully out of shape, leading his guards to remark on one occasion that surely here was the only man in the world to gain weight on prison food. Once he had been the most powerful bender alive. Now his element had been denied to him by some strange, unknown power called forth by the boy Avatar.
Once he had been Fire Lord Ozai, called the Phoenix King, poised to conquer the known world and rule it as a god-emperor. Now he was broken, powerless, a prisoner of the son he despised. Ozai retained just enough dark humor to appreciate the full irony of his situation- apart from continually baiting Zuko with the whereabouts of the boy's mother (how should he know? He'd told the woman to get out- he never said to where), it was the only enjoyment he was able to find in his captivity.
While still Fire Lord, he had heard from the Governor of New Ozai that the captive King Bumi actually enjoyed his imprisonment, seeing it as an opportunity to exercise his nimble mind without distractions. Ozai himself just took it as yet another proof that the ancient earthbender was completely insane.
A guard came to bring Ozai his dinner as the sun slipped past the horizon. The prison food was bland mush, but the deposed Fire Lord ate it greedily anyway, if only to deny Zuko the satisfaction of seeing him go hungry. When he was through the guard took the bowl and left again, returning to his post near the entrance. No guards were posted directly outside of Ozai's cell- as far as the prison staff was concerned, a firebender with no firebending was a joke, rather than a threat. Ozai, for his part, was inclined to agree with them, and cursed the Avatar again for his predicament.
Night had fallen now, and the only light in the cell was a thin sliver of pale moonlight. Then it too vanished behind a cloud, and Ozai realized that he was no longer alone.
A figure stood in the corner of the cell, wrapped in a cloak that seemed to shift from black to dark purple to midnight blue. Shadows trailed from the figure, making it difficult to pick out from the darkness without effort. A hood covered most of the figure's face, but from the shape of what was visible, Ozai guessed that his visitor was a woman.
"Who are you and how did you get in here?" he snarled at the shadows. "Can't a man suffer in peace?"
"You don't need to suffer at all, Great King," the visitor said in a soft, melodious- and distinctly feminine- voice. "I am here to offer you salvation."
"Can you turn back time and restore my powers?" Ozai asked. "Or perhaps give me new powers to match the Avatar without the crutch of the Comet? If not, then there's nothing you can offer that I am interested in buying."
The woman stepped forward and lowered her hood. Ozai stared at her, amazed. She was beautiful, true, but also young- barely older than his daughter, in fact. And yet there was something about her that disturbed him – perhaps it was her skin, which was white as a sheet of paper, white as bone – white as death, a part of his mind whispered. Or perhaps it was her eyes that sparked the Phoenix King's unease, for rather than the gold, blue, and green eyes common among the people of the four nations, they were a deep violet. "There are forces at work in this world, Ozai," she said. "This state of peace cannot endure, and soon the Avatar himself shall fall. I offer you the chance to lead that effort, to usher in a new age upon this world. Do you accept?"
"I am not interested in prattling mysticism!" Ozai snarled. "You are here to torment me by offering me what I most desire and you can't produce. Now get out! I may not have bending any longer, but I think I could still break a fragile little thing like you with my hands alone."
"Fragile?" the girl murmured, a strange smile on her lips. "So you have made your choice. A pity- I came here to find a conqueror and found a broken down wretch wallowing in self-pity. I guess I must look elsewhere for the champion I seek." Her strange eyes focused on the deposed Fire Lord. "And yet, perhaps not such a pity at all. For you are not the one I hate above all others, but I have long desired to have you at my mercy, and now I have my excuse. I suppose you're going to tell the guards all about me now. They probably won't believe you- after all, who could get into this cell without opening the door or window?- but then again, they just might. And I'm afraid I can't have that."
In an instant a long-bladed knife was in her hand. Ozai barely had time to register his danger before this strange visitor lunged forward and he felt the sharp point open his throat. Then… nothing.
When the guards found Ozai's body hours later, they were truly mystified. The Phoenix King had clearly been killed by a knife, but he hadn't had such a weapon himself, and it was no longer in the cell. That meant it must have been an outside attacker, but the bars on the windows and doors were still in place, and the Warden himself had the only key.
Still in a state of bafflement, the guards sent a messenger to the palace to inform Fire Lord Zuko of what had transpired and sent the body off to the Fire Sages to prepare for cremation, leaving nothing behind in the cell but shadows.
The second volume of the Azula Trilogy starts with a bang. Yes, I killed off Ozai in the prologue. Why? Because honestly, I don't find Ozai himself at all interesting – the most compelling thing about him is the effect (almost always negative) he has on people around him, and in a prison cell he's not going to have much opportunity for that (the comics had him still scheming from captivity, but while show Ozai could be clever when he wanted to, I'd never really gotten the impression he was that cunning). Certainly, I don't think Zuko was going to let Azula within a hundred yards of their father, limiting his usefulness for my purposes. So instead of dealing with Ozai himself, exploring his legacy struck me as the more profitable course of action.
We also meet a new major character here. Unlike Heart of Fire, which was mostly Azun's show, Path of Fire has three major antagonists, two OCs and one canon character. Our mysterious visitor in the prologue is one of these, and I have to admit she's one of my favorite OCs – but at this stage she's supposed to be mysterious, so we'll have to wait before I can talk about her any more.
In any case, next update is the first chapter, where we'll be seeing Ozai's funeral, and catching up with Azula herself…