HE HAD NEVER felt a woman so tight. She moulded against him perfectly, as though she were meant for him alone. It was taking all of his self-control not to come inside of her with every roll of his hips.
Grunting, he tilted his hips and thrust into her. She cried out in heady pleasure and pain. He could feel the head of his cock hitting her cervix and he knew that he was so deep that it was probably uncomfortable for her now. Still, she didn't resist.
She had murmured his name so quietly that had anyone else been in the room they would have missed it. But Zuko had heard it and he moaned out, letting his head hang back with the pure pleasure of it. She was more than willing and that seemed to absolve him of all guilt, at least for the time-being.
He guided his hands around her waist and lifted her up onto his lap. Her muscles contract around his length, keeping him deep inside her so that his hot flesh could carve her open. Their foreheads touched for a moment, blood smearing across each other's faces, and his mouth found the pulse on her neck. She let out a throaty growl and reacted in kind while he twitched inside her.
He lowered her onto her back and pulled out with a collective protest before rolling her onto her hands and knees. Their flesh scraped along the floor as he re-entered her from behind; her whimpering cries echoed throughout the chamber. His fingers gathered into her hair and he yanked her head back, arching himself into a different groove. Baser instincts took over, guiding his movements, and he shut his eyes as he enjoyed the sinful pleasure of it all.
When she began to come all around him, his spine slipped and he rested his chin on the ball of her shoulder. He was making sounds, odd, animalistic sounds, but he couldn't help it. She had come all over his cock. She was so warm and wet that with only two more haphazard strokes of his hips he was coming into the tight clenching of her.
He titled his head back and semen burst out of him in almost painful ropes. He hadn't known that he could have so much built up inside him. He was almost certain that he was filling her to the brim. Light-headed, he slipped forward as his vision began to dim. Then everything went dark.
He awoke seconds later to the sound of someone moaning.
Katara was lying on her side, spooning against him with his thickness still buried inside her. His chin was tucked into the crook of her neck and his arm was draped protectively over her waist. She was juddering gently, her muscles still contracting around his shrinking length.
He wasn't going to ask her what was wrong. A part of him wanted to, but he dismissed the thought. He already knew what was wrong. She was betrothed; he was married; they were friends. He didn't need her to vocalise his shame and dishonour. Instead, he took in a shaky breath and she stirred against him.
"You passed out," he murmured sleepily into her hair.
So had he, but he didn't need to admit that.
She slowly sat up, and somehow he couldn't help but morbidly think of how magnificent she looked in that moment. Her hair was snarled and matted with blood; her bottom lip was chapped and bloodied; her eyes were swollen and red-rimmed with tears. She looked like a blood-stained goddess returned from battle.
He sat up with her and looked down at their joined bodies. Their sweat and fluids had combined with the blood, painting them both of them an odd, streaky pink. Without warning, she slipped off him and hissed at the sensation. He held in a moan, flushing a bright pink before looking away. His mouth was set in a thin line of embarrassment.
It wasn't supposed to feel this good. She wasn't supposed to feel this good. It was all supposed to be routine and perfunctory, an act for the guards outside to hear and a truth to tell the inquisition when they interrogated him afterwards. But now everything had become complicated.
"I will not regret this," she whispered.
His stomach clenched painfully. This was all so wrong. The words he wanted to say to comfort her, the heartfelt apologies, wouldn't come. They refused. How could he look at her now and not feel shame?
"Kala has been teaching me how to resist the twins' psionic probing without being obvious about it."
She reached for her discarded tunic and a hiss of pain escaped her lips. His hand instinctively went to her hip, but she shook it off and rolled onto her knees to stand. She limped over to where the rest of her clothes lay and he winced at the sight. There was a thin sliver of blood trickling down her inner right thigh.
How rough had he been with her?
Everything had happened so quickly. Primal instinct had taken over. All he remembered was using her body to gratify his own sexual desires. But right now, after the fact, all he wanted to do was take away her pain. He wanted to beg her for her forgiveness.
"I might have a way to break us all out of here by the full moon," she said.
She began to get dressed and he watched her. His chest and back tightened in pain. He tried to open his mouth to say something, anything, but couldn't. There was nothing he could say, no words to comfort her.
He stood up and gathered his discarded clothes from the floor, pulling on his trousers in a perfunctory stupor. Grunting as he bent over, he closed his eyes and tried to control his breathing. Even with his eyes closed, he could still picture Katara standing naked before him, painted with their blood and now his semen.
He had just fastened his belt when Katara turned around and took a step towards him. She held out his swords. Wordlessly, he took them, making sure not to make eye contact. The guilt of tasting her, of enjoying her, had registered on his face like a banner of shame and he could no longer avoid his disgrace.
"I'm sorry, Katara."
He lifted his chin to meet her gaze and he was struck with how soft her eyes were, how kind and far from judging. His shame rose even higher. Swallowing the painful lump in his throat, he turned away. He had to.
"I know, Zuko, but we had to do this. We had no other choice." She placed a small hand on his shoulder and offered him a tired smile. "I don't regret what you've done for me. You've kept me safe. You've kept me alive."
"Right," he muttered, looking anywhere but at her.
He didn't understand her kindness. He deserved to be punished for what he did. He deserved to be hated like he hated himself. How could she smile at him? Was this the divine face of forgiveness?
"So what's this plan of yours?" he asked, and she dropped her hand.
"First we're going to have to give the Truth-Seers something—one of the secret locations they have you interrogating me about."
"How about the location of my—the Fire Lord's—underground bunker?" She nodded at the suggestion but then he suddenly frowned. "How are we going to convince them that this wasn't an act? How are we going to merge fantasy with reality and make them believe it?"
"I'll show you how," she said. "And after that we need to start discussing a way to get out of here."
He sat down on the table and listened as Katara instructed him on how to protect himself against the twins. He would follow her words and do whatever it took to keep her safe. At the very least, he owed her that.
ZUKO AWOKE WITH a start in bed a few hours later. He didn't even remember coming back to his room let alone leaving the interrogation cell.
He ran a hand through his fringe and his fingertips touched cool metal. He was still wearing his mask—the half-grinning silver monstrosity that continuously mocked what little progress he had made since leaving behind the mask of the Blue Spirit. With just one order he had shattered his integrity, violated a woman he respected and quite possibly severed the friendships of people he held more dearly than family.
How could Aang ever forgive him? How could he forgive himself?
I will not regret this, Katara had whispered, to him or to herself. But could he believe her? Did she really absolve him of all sins? Could she possibly forget what he had done to her, regardless of whether his hand was forced?
"Assassin," a guard called from outside his door. "The Truth-Seers are here. They wish to speak with you."
Zuko's hands curled into fists. Of course they'd be here right now. It was the most inopportune time for him to meet them, what with thoughts of Katara and his own guilty conscience troubling his soul. So with a calming breath, he emptied his mind of all thoughts, storing memories in the well of his subconscious like Katara had instructed him. He wouldn't let the twins defeat him like this.
He had barely spoken the words to permit the Truth-Seers entrance when they quietly glided into the room. Brother and sister waltzed inside with unbridled confidence, their elegant movements belying their sightless eyes.
Zuko couldn't help but tense at their appearance. His right hand dropped instinctively to retrieve the hidden shurikens from his sleeve, fingering the blades as though they were his life-line. But neither twin seemed to notice nor care for his unease.
Yang led Yin to the bench to sit and Zuko quietly studied their appearances. The siblings wore matching Fifth Column vestments. They both shared similar features—narrow, almost beautiful faces—and carried themselves with a supreme arrogance befitting the noble-born. Yin especially stood out with her long hair and unnerving smile. At times Zuko found himself oddly reminded of his sister's hauteur.
Out of the two, Yin was definitely the most gifted Seer and probably the most dangerous; however, Yang was not without his means of intimidation. His presence alone radiated raw power. Despite his somewhat slender build, Yang's graceful frame seemed to burst with precise strength and lethal quickness. He looked to be as skilled in physical combat as he was with raping someone's mind. Zuko hoped he wouldn't find out any time soon.
Collecting his thoughts, Zuko took his fingers off the shurikens. He did not wish to arouse their suspicion, although he suspected they already knew he was armed and dangerous. Not as dangerous as them, of course. Still, the twins did not speak, and because of that Zuko could not relax.
He peered warily through the still-open door into the hallway beyond, looking to see who might be lurking in the shadows, who might be listening. At that moment Yin reached over to take her brother's hand, cocking her head slightly to one side as though listening to some far away conversation. But Zuko knew the truth. She was tuning into the sound of his breathing and the beating of his heart, and soon she would be invading his mind, picking it apart until he had surrendered everything.
When the mental invasion happened, it happened quickly. It started off as a pinch and then a searing hot pain as Yin effortlessly sliced into his mind. Yang joined her shortly thereafter and the pain lessened somewhat, overtaken by a new sensation. Cold, misty tendrils searched through his mind like fingers not so delicately sifting through the files of his memories.
Tell me your secrets, Yin's voice whispered inside Zuko's mind. Did you ravage the waterbender?
A brief image of Katara crying as he thrust into her flitted through his mind, followed by the added memory of her confessing the location of the Fire Lord's bunker. The memories were being extracted without his consent, but he didn't try to stop them or take the memories back. He would let them have their answers. He would let them violate his mind.
Did you enjoy her, Assassin?
Yang laughed cruelly, his grip tightening on his sister's hand, and Zuko's reply was a burst of anger and disgust that no words could convey. Suddenly their laughter stopped and the siblings withdrew from his mind. Yin turned towards Yang, a content and smug expression on her face.
"He did as he was instructed, Brother." Her sightless eyes bored into Zuko's now and he felt ill. "He claimed her, broke her and managed to get an answer: the whereabouts of Fire Lord Zuko's bunker."
Yang gave a curt nod, removing his hand from his sister's. "It's almost time to question her ourselves, wouldn't you say?"
Yin flicked her tongue along her incisor and grinned wolfishly. "Soon, Brother. Kage-san seems to be rather successful with his extraction methods. I think he could get us information on the whereabouts of the Avatar, if he was given more time with the girl. This waterbender seems to truly respond to him. Wouldn't you agree?"
Yang closed his eyes and Zuko felt a sudden tug at the back of his mind. A memory rose to the surface, of Katara clawing at his back out as he slid in and out of her, and he couldn't find the ability to snatch it back before it escaped the well of his mind. Yang smirked, snorting derisively before opening his eyes.
"I agree, Sister. The assassin has become the perfect interrogator."
Yin placed her hand on her brother's knee and pushed herself up to her feet. She slowly strode over to where Zuko sat. Startled, he drew back. His fingers were already gripping the metal shurikens again, instinct taking over.
Yin smiled, as if sensing his unease, and reached out with her hands to touch his mask.
"We have another task for you, Interrogator." Her voice was soft and soothing, like a velvety purr. "Something far more important than extracting the Avatar's location."
He could feel her fingers slide off his mask and angle towards his temples, and his eyelids began to droop close. Yin's voice droned on in his subconscious, her words losing all meaning and clarity. Suddenly he felt light, like he was floating, and he was more relaxed than he had been in a long time. But something wasn't right. He was losing all control.
Katara had taught him how to ward the Truth-Seers against delving further into that metaphorical well of his memories, from seeing all that there was to see, but warding could not keep out what was already there. It could not prevent him from confronting his own haunted past.
Soon everything had become twisted, the wrong colours, as though something had gone askew with his eyes. His memories and his mind became inverted, shifting into something entirely different. Surreal.
It was as though he was looking into a mirror with an infinite number of mirrors inside. Each reflection was a different part of himself, all with their own voices. Part of him wanted to make love to Katara again. Part of him wanted to save her from himself. Part of him wanted to end it all. There were so many parts of him now that his was a mind splintered into many glittering shards—and they were all screaming.
ZUKO'S SOFT FOOTFALLS echoed in hallway after empty hallway as he made his way down to the interrogation floor. At odd intervals he passed pairs of scowling guards in Fifth Column uniform, and he absently wondered if they ever tired of staring at the blank stone walls in the course of their duties. It was not likely since they were trained to be insensitive to that sort of thing; however, the moment the assassin came into view, their scowls immediately vanished and their backs straightened.
Not bothering to acknowledge them, he carried on down the stairs to the end of the hall where Katara was being kept. He idly knuckled a shuriken from finger to finger as he approached the two Fifth Columnists standing guard on either side of the cell door. They drew themselves upright at his approach and warily eyed the blade in his hand before stepping aside to permit him entrance.
Slipping the shuriken back up his sleeve, Zuko let himself inside the room and closed the door behind him. Katara was seated in the only chair in the room with her hands tied behind her back. He immediately took the waterskin hidden underneath his shirt and placed it on the table before walking behind the waterbender and undoing her bonds. She rubbed the circulation back into her wrists before reaching across the table to grab the waterskin. Uncorking it, she tipped it back to her lips and greedily drank.
"I haven't much time with you today," Zuko said, speaking in perfect Southern Water Tribe dialect. "I have a meeting with Kenzo to inform him of the location of Fire Lord Zuko's bunker."
Katara choked on the water and began sputtering, which quickly evolved into a coughing fit. Once done, she sat up and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. Capillaries had burst just beneath the skin of her cheeks, colouring them a dark rose.
"I'm f-fine," she coughed out, before quickly changing the topic. "I spoke with Ouji earlier this morning and he said he left the journals he'd stolen in here somewhere—behind a lose chunk of masonry." She set down the waterskin and glanced about the room. "He said it was some kind of hidden compartment."
She got up and began examining the bare stone walls while Zuko inspected the room with his own keen eyes, pacing towards the other side of the chamber. After a minute of searching, he spied a chunk of stone slightly darker than the rest and bent down to inspect. Squatting on his haunches, he put a hand to the rough surface and traced the raised edges before placing his fingers in the middle and pressing inwards. There was a soft click and the sound of grinding rock as the stone opened to reveal a small compartment.
"Here it is."
"What's that?" She peered over his shoulder as he unfurled a scroll.
"It looks like a map of the prison." He quickly pored over the map and his mouth tightened. "And maybe something else."
"A way off this island?"
"I'm not sure." He paused, following his finger along a lined route. "But this looks like a secret entrance to an underground tunnel just below the prison itself that leads under the hills. It looks like there are two entrances. One of them might lead out to the sea." He glanced and met her eyes. "This could be our way out of here."
"Or it could lead to some bone-crushing trap," she said dryly, before kneeling beside him and retrieving a dusty journal. "Let's see if this mentions anything."
As she began to skim through the journal, Zuko stood up and placed the scroll on the table where there was more light. Spreading it out across so that it was flat, he began to study the map more intently.
"Do you see anything about Hama?"
"No, not yet." She turned another page. "I wish we had more time to go over this."
"Take it with you, then."
"I can't. They'll search me once they put me back in my cell." She lifted the journal and offered it to him. "You take it."
He shook his head and began to roll up the scroll. "A journal that size would stick out, and I've already had a hard enough time concealing that."
He pointed at the waterskin on the table and she offered him a sheepish grin.
"Right. Thanks for this, by the way."
He nodded. "I should get going to Kenzo's office now." He tucked the scroll it into his belt. "I'll take the map with me. It's much easier to conceal."
"I'll get Ouji to come back for this after dinner." She held up the thick journal. "I'll look over it and see if it mentions anything about Hama's escape."
While she continued to read, Zuko picked up the waterskin and carefully placed it inside his shirt. Leaning back against the table, he began to think. Even though they were making progress with their escape plan, he couldn't shake the feeling that everything was slipping away from him.
"I was interrogated by the twins."
Katara suddenly spun around, the journal forgotten in her hands. "Oh?" She swallowed hard. "Did they—did they suspect anything?"
"No, but they want me to 'interrogate' you again for Aa—for the Avatar's whereabouts."
"I see." She nodded calmly. "Is that it?"
He pushed himself off the table. "They'll probably talk to you soon, maybe even today. Tomorrow I'm supposed to—" He made futile hand gestures before lowering his head in embarrassment. "Yeah."
"It's all right, Zuko. I understand."
She offered him a small smile and his hands started to shake. She was comforting him again. This wasn't how things were supposed to turn out.
With an angry snarl, he spun around and kicked the wooden chair behind him. "No, it's not all right, Katara! I came here to protect you. Not like this!" He raised a gloved hand to his face and sighed. "Not like this."
Moments later, he felt her thin arms circle his waist. He lowered his hand to see Katara's eyes closed and her cheek resting against his chest. After everything he had done to her, why was she so quick to forgive him, to comfort him?
"You risked your life to come after me." Her hold on him tightened. "You're still risking it. And no matter what they make you do, you'll always be my friend."
She lifted her chin and looked up him, eyes shining. His thumbs went to her cheeks, wiping away her tears, and she smiled once more before tucking her head back into his chest. This time his arms circled her and they embraced this way for little more than a moment before parting.
Katara stepped away first and wiped at her tear-stained cheeks. She walked over to the secret compartment and picked up the journal to place it back inside, but then abruptly stopped. The book was still open in her hand and she waved the other hand excitedly.
"Come here! There's something written about the Painted Lady."
"What is it?"
"I'm not sure. The ink's faded." She traced her finger over the worn page. "It says something about a royal burial chamber and—" She glanced up at him with wide eyes. "And a volcano?"
He blinked, nonplussed. "A volcano?"
"There's an emblem here." She pointed at the page. "It looks somewhat familiar. Take a look."
Zuko leaned over and followed Katara's finger to the illustration. The image of the emblem itself was faded but he could make out enough of the intricate lines and symbols to know that it didn't represent the Sun Warrior Kingdom but the Fire Nation—and it was royalty.
"What kind of prisoner was this Painted Lady?" Katara asked.
"I don't know, but I'm going to find out." He stood up. "If it's a royal burial chamber, then there might be something there we can use or maybe even an underground passage to the ocean."
"Might be?" She closed the journal and put it back inside the compartment, locking the stone into pace. "What about this volcano?"
"Underwater volcanoes are not uncommon, and it explains the desert climate of this particular island."
"Great, but I don't like the idea of you travelling underground passages that might lead into a volcano." Worry was etched across her face. "You could get hurt."
"I'll be careful." He waved his hand in a dismissive manner. "The Sun Warrior Kingdom was notorious for hiding things. Who's to say that some hidden passage underneath the city wasn't the key to Hama's escape?"
"Who's to say it wasn't?" Katara worried her bottom lip with her teeth. "Look, why don't we wait until I read the rest of this journal or for Ouji to steal us some more maps? Or take Ouji with you. He knows this place better than you."
He shook his head. "We don't have the luxury of time here. I need to scout the area myself. I can't wait for possible fortune to fall into our laps. Besides, I need to investigate the Truth-Seers' ship and see if it's still out there. It may be our only means to get off this island."
Katara let out a defeated sigh and shook her head. "Okay, but you better be careful."
"I will." He placed a hand on her shoulder. "You stay safe, and be on your guard."
He would find the answers they sought, and he would get them off this accursed island.
ZUKO SURVEYED THE land from his perch on the stone tower. A pale light flickered in the distance out at sea. Perhaps it was a ship docked at the harbour. Though his sight was often commented on being borderline unnatural, he couldn't see in the dark. But then he wasn't out here to make an escape for the ocean. He was here to test how accurate the map was.
The old map highlighted a secret passage just outside the prison walls not far from where he stood. The grounds of the prison itself, however, were built atop the ancient city of Ka'shi and were currently being patrolled by Fifth Column guards. In order to avoid detection, he would have to time his movements just right.
Drawing in a deep breath, he made his way down the tower and waited as the courtyard fell silent. The moon was more than three-quarters full in the night sky, and soft shafts of moonlight sliced through the darkness of the ruined court from crumbling embrasures in the high walls. The compound, however, was not as desolate as it looked. The furtive sounds of small creatures scrambling across the sand and rubble could be faintly heard in the distance.
A scrabbling sound accompanied with the soft thud of boots on stone caught Zuko's attention and he quietly withdrew into the shadows, waiting patiently as a small squad of guards marched past. Zuko had studied the patrols from his precarious perch for more than an hour, carefully timing their sweeps in order to calculate the best time to make his way over the wall and to the underground passage. The guards were as routine as they were predictable, and when they finally passed by, he launched himself over the prison wall and into the vast darkness, plunging through the eternal night.
His footfalls fell silent and heavy on the sand. The endless black gale that shrieked up the dusty streets of the valley welcomed his return to the desert with a barrage of gusts so powerful that he was almost rocked off his feet. Gathering his footing, he ran towards the location he had studied on the map only hours earlier. He was glad to have his hood and mask as a dark cloud of sand blasted him from side to side in its never-relenting assault. It would have been easier if he had found access to the underground city from inside the prison itself. However, when he had tried the secret passage, it was blocked off from a cave-in that had most likely occurred a hundred years ago.
Counting his paces, he cautiously continued onwards, hoping that the entrance was where the map said it would be. It was far too hazardous to light a flame lest the guards sighted it, so he had to travel blindly. Though the lit torches lining the wall from the prison and the moon above offered some light, it was hard to place markers in endless desert sand.
When he counted the last step, he turned around and studied his surroundings. How was he supposed to locate the entrance? There was only sand below his feet. Was he expected to dig through it? Maybe he should have taken that Water Tribe boy with him like Katara had suggested.
Frustrated, Zuko was about to drop to his knees and dig when the sandstorm suddenly shifted. He raised a hand to shield his eyes and waited for the storm to pass. When it did, the wind had swept away the sand covering a small alcove to his right. He immediately ran underneath it for shelter and to hide himself from the patrol that was about to circle back.
Pulling out the scroll, he began to unfurl the map to study it once more. The entrance had to be here. Was it really underneath all that sand? How would he clear it in time before the next patrol came by? He couldn't rely on another sandstorm to conceal him, so he calculated the distance and direction once more before turning around. And that was when it slowly registered: the alcove was the entrance!
Zuko slipped off his gloves and began to feel the rock wall with his bare hands. He was searching for a panel or a hinge, anything that could resemble an opening. His adroit fingers eventually found a seam along the side at least five feet in height. It was a door. With no handle or latch, he braced his stance and began to push with all his might. The door, however, was solid and completely resistant. He couldn't budge it in the slightest, no matter how hard he pushed.
Pulling back, he rested his shoulder against the stone and caught his breath. His muscles were aching hot with exertion. He turned around and glanced up at the top of the door, moving his fingers over the rough stone. The rock above the door was different, smoother than the rest, but still raised. It felt as though there were a series of symbols carved in the stone, but it was too dark for him to decipher anything and it was too dangerous for him to light a flame in the open.
After feeling around some more, he found a circular stone that resembled a button and pressed it. There was a clicking sound, like a latch disengaging. He tried his hand at the door again and, with a little resistance, it finally pushed opened. A blast of stale air hit him in the face and he coughed.
Putting his gloves back on, Zuko deliberately stepped inside, oblivious to the black curtains of cobwebs that danced and writhed on top of his head. He shut the stone door behind him, leaving it a quarter of the way open should he have to return the same way. The maddening howl of the endless sandstorms raging outside was replaced with another sound, like air being funnelled through a draft, and he wondered exactly where this underground tunnel led.
He bended a ball of flame in his palm and held it aloft to study the entranceway. The opening was low and narrow, but as he progressed along, the path widened into a more spacious passage. The walls that lined the way were smooth and hard, harder than normal stone. He brought the light closer to inspect and was able to make out intricate symbols etched in what looked to be a semi-metallic surface.
The arcane and intricate stonework reminded him of the temple of the Western Sun Kingdom, but at the same time it was also different. Very different.
This wasn't just some tunnel, not some escape tunnel anyway. It was more like a long corridor that connected to other rooms, and it appeared to have been built long before the Fire Nation settled on the island. In fact, by the looks of things, it appeared as though the city of Ka'shi was built atop another infinitely older structure, one rich in metals, or perhaps on top of another city.
A foetid odour hung in the air, and he wrinkled his nose. Whatever the original purpose this city served, he didn't know, for now it only seemed to house darkness and foul winds emitting from some unknown, unplumbed abyss.
He continued down the dark path until he reached a set of stairs descending into what felt like a cavern or a deep tomb. He circled downwards for a few minutes until the stairs levelled out and reached ground. The room opened out into a cavern with impossibly high ceilings and hanging stalactites that dripped water.
Shadows cast from the fire onto the rough walls seemed as though they were separate, living entities; inky pools of midnight that curled and flowed from wall to wall as he moved. The whispering darkness slithered like a dragon in and about the needle-like spires that hung from above, threatening to swallow him whole until the cavern opened up into an even larger space with a naturally formed archway and a network of criss-crossing passages that rose above a gaping chasm below.
Zuko's feet faltered on the path and a loose stone fell off the precipice into the black pit below. After a minute, when he didn't hear the stone land, his stomach dropped out. Katara had been right to tell him to be careful. The underbelly of the city was like a jutting bulwark of stone that seemed to thrust out from a wall above a vast, lightless chasm. However, not everything was pitch-black. From the unfathomable metres below came a soft, orange glow, lighting the cavern with eerie colours.
The chasm itself appeared to be a venting shaft from the volcano deep beneath the ocean's floor. Unlike the smaller shafts that lined the rest of the underground passages, this one had broken off, creating the deep crater. Above the near-bottomless pit but below the turrets and haunting spires was an archway or a bridge that boldly leaned out over the horrifying precipice.
Though daunting as the scene was, the bowels of this forgotten city didn't seem frail or precarious in any sense. Its massive pier of molten rock was like the bones of the world—a thick spar rooted so securely in the chasm wall that nothing short of the gods themselves could tear it loose. Though this was hardly a comforting thought when standing directly above the subterranean furnace.
Zuko enlarged the flame in his palm and glanced around the massive room before letting out a frustrated sigh. The underground network was far larger, intricate and vastly more dangerous than he had predicted. He had only a few days to reconnoitre the various crevices and caves that tunnelled the underground city and he could never be sure if one of these passages would lead to the ocean or to his end.
Picking the path directly in front of him, he made his way towards what he hoped was a route to the sea. As he advanced farther, the ceiling lowered and the air grew thick. The heat was becoming unbearable now and his feet crunched underneath an ashy snow. He stopped, crouching low in the thick embrace of sulphur and ash that crept upwards from the yawning mouth of the chasm.
He tried hard not to draw breath, despite the fact that he panted for air. His skin burned as if liquid fire had been poured over his body and the scar on his left eye began to tingle with nostalgia. To stay where he was invited nothing less than a slow, agonising death, but the vapours clung to his limbs like soft grey hands, impeding his every movement.
He took a breath through his mask, which filtered some of the poisonous gas, and forced himself to turn back and take a higher route out. Needles of hot pain filled his throat and his vision swam. Disoriented, he climbed higher, unable to remember the path he had original came from. As he wandered farther away from the chasm, his vision began to clear and the sound of running water whispered in his ear. He briefly entertained the notion that he had gone mad and was hearing things, but as he climbed higher, the noise intensified.
Jumping from one path onto the next one higher up, he followed the sound until he discovered a winding pathway that led into an entirely different cavern. The temperature was decidedly cooler here and far removed from the scorching furnace he had been standing above only moments earlier.
As he walked towards the sound of rushing water, the cave suddenly opened up to reveal a deep pool with a series of fresh water springs spilling into it. It looked to be a retaining pool of sorts. With a fresh water spring running so close to a volcano, he wondered how this island didn't have hot springs. Maybe it once did. However, the water in the pool was cool and definitely wasn't sea water by the smell of it. Somehow the springs ran separate from the volcano shafts, giving the island pure, cool drinking water.
Zuko raised the flame in his palm high above the pool where he could see another set of ascending stairs behind it. He made his way across the cavern floor, which was littered with ancient pottery and large pails that must have been used to carry the water above. There was no doubt that this was where the city retrieved its fresh water. The stairs must have been the exit back out onto the desert.
He took two steps at time, climbing until he surfaced into a narrow passageway partially blocked with broken columns. He manoeuvred his way around the crumbling stones and entered a large hall. Taking off his mask and hood, he inhaled the stale but sulphur-free air. He glanced up and saw several ornate sconces hanging on the walls and he lit them all with a flick of his wrist.
With the added light, he could see that the majority of the room had caved in, including a door that possibly led directly over top of the chasm. The room itself was large and spacious, like a dining hall, and looked as though it had once been poshly decorated, long ago. But upon closer inspection, Zuko realised he had been wrong to suspect it was some grand hall or atrium. Instead, it appeared to be a mausoleum.
It was the royal burial chamber he had been looking for.
Tucking his mask and hood into his belt, he began to perambulate around the room. The tiles beneath his feet, which had likely once been a rose-coloured marble, were now cracked and split, carpeted with gritty sand let in from the open shafts from above. Though this was definitely a burial chamber, he couldn't spy any sarcophagi resting inside.
He then spotted a narrow opening and squeezed through after extinguishing the flame. In the middle of the much smaller room was a single slab of what looked to be metal mixed with the same rose-coloured marble. He circled the rectangular rock with interest, feeling a warm breeze waft in from above. There was a familiar, intricate symbol carved into the marble—the same design Katara had shown him in the journal, except here it wasn't nearly as faded.
The emblem itself was the same size as his hand and he placed his palm to it. There was no date below it, just the kanji of a family name, and Zuko felt his heart plummet into his stomach. Dropping to his knees, he traced gloved fingers along the name carved into the stone and sucked in a hitching breath.