Chapter 1- The Killer
In the dungeons buried hundreds of floors beneath, the darkness was at its peak, but in Zuko's mind, an intricate map guided him through with ease. Zuko ran his hand along the damp stone walls, and made mental count of the left and right turns. Turning when necessary, and crouching low to feel the unlevel staircase that descended down even deeper. He had only hoped that when his elite guards followed, they would not slip on these unseen dangers, though they had torchlight.
Zuko slipped down the stairway with unmatched stealth. Two left turns, and one right. He began to hear voices, the passage ahead aglow with the flickering orange of an illuminated room. Across from the room was another corridor, which according to Morzo, his consultant, had four to six guards stationed at the next turn.
These guards were Zuko's mission. It was his duty to exterminate them.
Slowly, he stepped towards the growing light, and stopped to hear the casual talk of the dungeon guards. Pressing his back against the walls, he waited, finally approximating a total of nine different voices, several more than he expected. Nevertheless even an entire army would not stand against him. He pulled his hood forward, covering his face, and with a quick sprint, rounded the corner.
Sweeping low, he tripped the first four men. With one hand, he thrust a blade into the stomach of a panicked guard, and with the other he twisted the man's arm in a dislocated position.
"Stop!" A swordsman yelled his knuckles white from gripping the hilt of his blade. "Only a fool would not recognize you." The soldier slashed his blade through the air, as if in warning, and lunged forward. But Zuko was quick, he spun around with such velocity, that his elbow smashed against the man's face, breaking his nose and pushing the bridge into his head.
A rancid smell hung in the air. Bloodied bodies lay strewn upon the floor, and in the farthest cell back, he could barely make out the silhouette of a crouched figure. The dim torchlight did little to comfort the prisoner, his legs pulled up tightly against his chest, and his breathe to cold to care about the fighting. The man's unruly dark hair matched his haggard expression, and for a moment, Zuko glimpsed the intricate whale-boned jewelry that identified the prisoner as a member of the Water Tribe. Morzo's advice had served him well, yet again. Pressing his hand against the latch, Zuko confirmed that the cell was indeed welded shut. He gave a low whistle that resonated in the silence of the passageways. Spilling around the corner, two members of his elite guard surged in.
"Twenty-seven minutes exactly," Zuko smirked.
"Not another minute, My Lord," His guards confirmed obediently, "Please return safely."
The flickering torches licked the walls and coated the darkness with an orange hint as the two elites heated the iron bars with enhanced heat. The Water Tribe man wailed weakly, and turned his head in the opposite direction. Finally, the screeching sound of obstinate iron creaked slightly, allowing entry to the prisoner's rescuers. However, Zuko did not wait to see the liberating process of the prisoner. He tucked his spare blade back into its sheath and plunged back into the underground labyrinth.
Within minutes, the entire circuitries of palace guards would be alerted if they knew of the commotion below. From underneath, the cell guards would make a desperate attempt to warn the dungeon guard regiment, who would then turn and sounded the alarm, alerting the guards stationed at the palace above. The Noble's guards would be doubled, surrounding his chamber like an impenetrable wall. If Zuko and his men were not within a mile's distance by the time a legion was sent to pursue them, then the night would end in much bloodshed. So, Zuko had to dismember the limbs of every guard cell guard. He moved with speed and efficiency, striking out the soldiers five at a time. His prescence was like the wind, rushing through and sweeping away all in its path. Nobody would know what hit them. The guard at the castle door jumped out.
"I know a bender when I see one," He jabbed. "Let me see the color of your eyes!"
It sent Zuko shrills of pleasure to hear the cracking of the soldier's skull as the hilt of his dagger pushed against it. An instant death, just the way he liked it. Nobody would suspect the crown prince of the Fire Nation to be a criminal, constantly doing his father's dirty work. Disposing of uncooperative nobles and sabotaging the plans of foreign war lords. He stayed on track, heading east towards the side entrance and while he neared it, several of his elites joined him. Just this morning, Zuko was seen in a palanquin ride around the royal city. At night, several hours of riding brought him to the dungeons stationed just beneath a small palace bordering Earth Kingdom and Air Nomad territory.
Zuko slipped through the courtyard, the cool night air cutting against his skin. The earthy soil molded into the soles of his boots, leaving behind distinct tracks. It mattered not though; his mission was complete even under the time allotted. In his wake, a trail of bloodied, dead, and unconscious guards lay crumpled. Such were the casualties of his missions.
It was a good game. Those who had suspicions were quickly disposed of. Only the elite guards and a select few including his cousin and father knew of his double-sided nature.
Nearing the end of the garden, she approached an ancient looking man with hair as white as winter snow. Zuko could not respect a nobleman who would not retire his soldiers at a comfortable age. However, if he failed to strike this guard, then the entire estate would be aroused. He gently struck the old soldier in the back, and pushed him gently against the brush.
The first time he had killed a man, was by accident. It was a vivid memory he wished not to remember, but it remained close to his consciousness, resurfacing every so often. It was how his talent had been exposed, eleven years ago in his father's court. He had only been a child shy of eight years. A round-faced nobleman had visited, his beady orange flecked eyes pressed into the pasty texture of his face. He was utterly despicable. The way he flirted with the palace maids, grinning at them and cornering the younger female servants just to taunt them with teasing touches when he thought nobody was looking. When the nobleman began to inspect Zuko curiously, he had grown uncomfortable.
"Such a handsome little boy," he'd said. "Come closer; let me see your eyes."
Zuko had not yet known he was a bender, some benders had talent that stayed dormant for years, but with the right sequential triggers, the masked power would bloom eventually. When the nobleman's grubby fingers tilted Zuko's chin up, Zuko's hands flamed, pressing the fire from his palm onto the melting flesh of the repulsive being. Women all around screamed in horror as the marred body lay lifeless on the red tiles of the palace. It was disfigured beyond recognition, and many of the passing spectators stopped dead in the tracks, stunned by the young boy's demonstrated murder.
"The crown prince, a bender?" nobles of the court would whisper. Even if he was the son of a King, on normal conditions he would be banished. In the Fire Nation, benders were shunned in the cities and lived ghettos surrounded by walls. But, Fire Lord Ozai was clever. He saw the potential in harboring his bender son, and raised him as the prince he was meant to be. Day after day he trained, controlling his elemental fire. Men were never the same around him, and although his prescience was tolerated, it was not warmly welcomed. They never looked directly into his pure gold eyes, and stared away when he approached. Only those with pure eyes were benders. Common folk had multicolored irises, some were orange with red and blue flecks, and still others grey with pinkish tints. But crown prince Zuko's eyes were the color of melted gold, pools of amber reflecting in the sunlight without the slightest trace of another hue.
His cousin, Lu Ten was the only one who sought out his company. His father, General Iroh had died in a great war years before.
"I don't know what came over me. An inner fire seemed to burst forth, pushing its way into the center of my fists." Zuko said.
"What happened Zuko?"
"His presence was alarming, I felt uncomfortable so I struck him. But when I did so, I felt my entire body being heated, and flames erupted."
Lu Ten nodded his head eagerly in understanding, Zuko's bending talent had not pushed apart their friendship, and Lu Ten did everything in his power to aid Zuko in the art of patience and self-control. Zuko's cousin was three years older at the time. Lu ten was eleven and he was wise beyond his years. He knew to be cautions of Zuko's untamed eruptions, but it only furthered his curiosity.
Soon, Lu Ten had an entire training schedule planned. Rules were set forth to control the young bender's power. Zuko was never allowed to practice on him, of course, and was only allowed to use his fire bending on dummies they stuffed with grass or prisoners whose deaths had already been finalized.
He practiced with newfound rigor every day. He learned the extent of his unmatched speed and explosive force. He learned how to control the intensity of his fire, and the distinct differences between a killing blow, and a maiming one. He learned how to disarm the highest trained soldiers within seconds, and how to fight with a variety of weapons. He was fast, focused, and able to beat a man with one hand tied behind his back. The bending increased his physical strength tenfold, surpassing any normal mortal. Such was the magnitude of his raw power.
In time, his self-control improved, and she began to train with soldiers sent forth to spar with him on the training fields. Six or eight at a time, fully armed with spears, and glistening red war armor. His practices sent growing men crawling away with exhaustion, scars, and countless bruises and cuts. Knocking them down with his bare hands and dodging the spears meant to impale him. He would swiftly approach them from behind, and knock them from under their feet before they even knew where he had moved next. Sometimes, court members would come to inspect his practices. When he turned their way, they coughed lightly and turned in the opposite direction. However, Fire Lord Sozin had made no attempt to cease his young son's training. He would be by far useful if his bending was controlled. Now, on his father's training grounds nobody could criticize the vicinity of his control.
His thoughts wandered carelessly, though he was focused on the task at hand. A thin shadow flickered in the darkness. Zuko gripped his knife and slipped behind the unknowing figure. He stepped out of the darkness and locked his broad arms around the cloaked assailant and pressed his blade against the quivering neck. Unless he had no feeling in his arms, he knew that his victim was a woman. Within the instant it took for him to gather his thoughts, she had disarmed him, pressing his very own blade below his chin. His heart raced within his chest, beating wildly out of rhythm. She too was a bender, no doubt. He took hold of her wrist, overpowering with sheer strength and turned to face her.
"I've heard of a woman, not from this part of the kingdom, who is too a powerful bender."
He would have to learn who she was, if he wanted to know how to dispose of her properly. Benders were powerful humans, and were not sacrificed as cannon fodder in a war, especially if they were under the command of a foreign king or nobleman.
"You're a Waterbender," he said.
"Your eyesight is commendable. "She replied.
Zuko smirked, "I could have spotted the purest blue eyes within a mile's distance." His common sense told him to kill her, for if she was here on this very night, it was almost certain that she was working for a king of one of the Joined Water Tribes. But, somehow his conscience told him to hold back.
"What is a waterbender doing in Earth Kingdom and Air Nomad lands?"
Her languid and relaxed persona was admirable in the face of a powerful bender, "Tell me your reason, and I'll tell you mine."
"I will be telling nothing tonight," Zuko replied, gritting his teeth. "I'll use force if necessary."
She gave him a daring smile, "Do you think you possibly could?" She faked to her left, and dodged quickly behind a tree to her right. She was fast, but so was Zuko. She was wasting his time, merely playing with him. Her slurred motions were effortless, and she made no sign of alerting the guards. Did this make her an ally? Or was she solely acting for her own interests? Perhaps she had come to fetch the prisoner and claim the glory for herself, but very few knew of the prisoner's presence here on the border territories. She was unlike any other assassin he had ever seen before. The girl seemed in full control of herself, painstakingly aware of her surroundings, but most of all she didn't release the vibes of a killer he had felt so many times before.
She was barely dodging his grasp. His fingertips would brush against the silky blue hem of her dress, but she would quickly twist her body and slip through his fingers like water. Her azure eyes and perfectly tanned skin marked her as a woman from the Water Tribes. The multiple milky colored bone necklaces that adored her neck clinked together as their place slowed. The piercings in each of her ears sparkled dully, and soon they found themselves panting with exhaustion.
Her body language told him everything. She had no intention of fighting, though what here real motives were, Zuko had yet to find out. She stepped into the rays of moonlight, and its waxy light did wonders to heighten her exotic features.
"I trust you," she said all too easily.
Zuko took advantage of her lowered guard, and directed his kick to land directly behind the nape of her neck. Her knees gave in, and she fell unconscious. The least he could do spare her life. He looked down at her, and on closer inspection, realized that she was younger than he had realized. He was nineteen, and she seemed around seventeen.
What a strange girl, Zuko found himself thinking. Perhaps Lu Ten would know to think of it. He rolled his shoulders, massaging the warm feeling back into them and continued along. His elites would be waiting up front for his arrival.
For hours they rode relentlessly. The rescued Water Tribe man was strapped to a horse, as he was too weak to support himself. They layered blankets over his shivering body, and without proper treatment, he would soon be killed by the cold. Zuko ordered his men to make camp, hastily building a fire to warm the rescued prisoner.
"We must arrive back at the Royal City before dawn, or our absence will lead to unnecessary suspicions. His elite guard agreed, and prepared themselves to leave at a moment's notice.
Perhaps it was a mistake to leave her alive. Zuko contemplated wearily. She seemed to know who I was, yet she did not fear me. Although, his conscience chastised him for thinking such thoughts. She was a woman, a bender no less and she trusted him. Then again, he reconsidered. Her decision to trust him would not have been called upon so easily if she were to see the way he killed. If Fire Lord Ozai were to hear of this, surely Zuko would be punished. Interaction with a foreign bender was strictly against conduct.
Zuko exhaled, relieving the frustration from his tired boy. For now, his only mission was to return the Water Tribe man to the Fire Palace safely, and an hour before the sun arose, he did exactly that.
Author's Note: It's been a while since I've updated anything on Fanfiction hasn't it? Anyways, I just finished reading this utterly A-M-A-Z-I-N-G story, and while I was reading it, the thought occurred to me that it would make wonderful Zutara fanfiction! So, of course, I was inspired by the story and decided to write my own, adding many Avatar touches to it. If you haven't already figured it out, this is set in an AU (Alternate Universe) and yes, there will be some Zutara fluff. Though I'm not sure if it's going to be rated M. Anyways, if you have ANY questions whatsoever PLEASE PLEASE ask me so I can clarify the story. All constructive criticism and ideas are warmly welcomed! Best Regards,