Of Shadows and Fire: Chapter Nineteen

Current time: Season 1, Ep. 7 and 8

I think this is one of my favorite chapters. The temple scene was actually one of the first parts I drafted when I started working on OSAF.

Also, it’s still Sunday somewhere on the planet, so technically I’m not late…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Winter Solstice

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kurami was waiting on the deck when Zuko returned, muttering under his breath.

“Did you find him, Hotshot?”

He ignored her at first, turning to Lieutenant Jee.

“We’re leaving in half an hour,” he said. Jee nodded once before leaving. Zuko joined Kurami by the railing, still scowling.

“Hey,” she pressed. “You need to relax. Stress hasn’t gotten us anywhere. We’ll catch up with the Avatar.”

“It’s not just about the Avatar.”

Kurami raised an eyebrow incredulously. “You’ve been ‘Avatar this, Avatar that’ ever since we found him,” she said. “You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine, and my voice does not sound like that.”

She shrugged. “Whatever you say. Hotshot. I’m just trying to help.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Half an hour passed, but Iroh didn’t return.

Kurami turned to Zuko, worried that he would make good on his promise, but instead, she ended up joining him and two soldiers to track down the prince’s wayward uncle.

“Zuko! Over here!” she called, spotting something.

The prince ran over to her and stared at the unnatural pile of rocks.

“Something’s not right here,” he said.

She nodded in agreement. “Rocks don’t move like that by themselves.”

Zuko’s eyes widened before narrowing in anger.

“Earthbenders!” He turned to Kurami. “Do you think–”

She shook her head, already knowing what his question was.

“It’s not the Black Spirits,” she murmured so that the guards wouldn’t hear. “Otherwise, they would’ve left the body, along with their personal mark. This is something else.”

She walked farther off, thankful her tracking skills were still useful. She didn’t have to strain her eyes to see–it was something she’d always associated with her training, but no one else managed to see perfectly in darkness, so she never mentioned it.

“There’s a path leading through there, but we’ll never catch up if we go by foot.” she said, pointing at a spot deeper in the forest.

“There’s another way,” suggested Zuko.

Kurami’s brow furrowed for a second before she realized what he meant, and she barely restrained herself from groaning.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After Zuko ordered the crew to wait for them, he and Kurami took off on a rhino–their only rhino, seeing as the rest had run off on Kyoshi Island.

Of course, getting Kurami on the rhino again was met with no small amount of protest, but she relented when Zuko reminded her of their mission.

They rode through the night, following the barely-there tracks easily, thanks to Kurami.

“So…about those ‘personal marks’ you were talking about,” began Zuko, breaking the silence. “What did you mean?”

Kurami stifled a yawn before answering.

“It’s this, um, thing among the Black Spirits. A marker, I guess, to set…the group apart from others.”

Zuko noticed the pause but didn’t comment, thinking it was just because she was tired.

“Anyway,” she continued, “each assassin of the group develops their own ‘mark’ during the first part of initiation. When they kill someone, they leave it either on the body or somewhere near it.”

“Including you?” he asked, turning his head towards her.

She gave him a wry smile.

“Including me.”

“Will you tell me what it is?”

“Maybe…someday,” she replied, her smile changing into a smirk.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dawn broke, hours later, but they found no sign of Iroh or his captors.

Kurami started dozing off sometime earlier, at the point of not caring if she fell off. She didn’t know she had fallen asleep when she felt someone shaking her shoulder.

“Hm–wha?” she mumbled, still half-asleep. She straightened up, realizing she had been lying across the saddle. Zuko was the one shaking her awake, holding a dirty-looking slipper in his free hand.

“I found Uncle’s slipper,” he said as he remounted.

“I can tell,” she said, wrinkling her nose in disgust.

They eventually found some animal tracks and increased their speed, hoping to find Iroh before sundown. A familiar growl caused them both to look back at the Avatar’s bison, flying through the air.

“The Avatar,” muttered Zuko, pulling on the reins slightly, but then looked back at the prints. He hesitated for a second before continuing on their original path.

Kurami buried her face into his shoulder, thankful he couldn’t see her smile.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“These dangerous hands must be crushed.”

The captain lifted a boulder and prepared to drop it on Iroh’s chained hands. At the last moment, Zuko jumped forward, kicking it out of the way before slamming his foot into the chains, shattering them.

“Excellent form, Prince Zuko,” commented Iroh, getting to his feet.

“You taught me well,” Zuko replied with a smirk. Kurami appeared, knives drawn and a deadly smile on her face.

“Surrender yourselves,” ordered the captain. “It’s five against three. You’re clearly outnumbered.”

“Yes, but you are clearly outmatched,” said Iroh.

The soldiers began to shoot rocks at them. Iroh used his chains to break them as Zuko shot fire at two soldiers. Kurami took on one, kicking him back into another. The captain flung more rocks at them, but they easily dodged them. Zuko countered with simultaneous fire blasts, all of which the captain managed to deflect.

The ground started to shake underneath them as the captain lifted up a huge wall of rock. Before he could bury them with it, Iroh threw his chains around his ankles and pulled, bringing the earthbender down.

The soldiers were buried in the rocks, but they were alive, judging from the groans that they could hear.

Zuko placed a hand on his uncle’s shoulder.

“Now would you please put on some clothes?”

Kurami chuckled, wisely averting her eyes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

With Iroh in tow, Zuko and Kurami journeyed back to where they spotted the Avatar’s bison, following the lead they had from yesterday.

“Hopefully, they’re still there,” said Kurami. Zuko nodded once in agreement.

They were on the rhino again. She had refrained from protesting this time; even though it wasn’t her favorite mode of transportation, it was still quicker than going on foot.

They entered a small village that looked like it had seen better days. Some buildings were half-destroyed, and debris littered the ground. Dismounting, the pair of teenagers approached one of the larger buildings.

Just then, a man exited, rubbing a hand over his face. He nearly walked right into the prince, gasping when he noticed them.

“Having trouble sleeping?” asked Kurami as Zuko shoved him back through the door.

“Seen the Avatar lately?” added Zuko.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kurami massaged her temples, fighting back a pounding headache. She hadn’t slept much apart from her nap on the rhino, but sleep deprivation wasn’t the only cause of her migraine. The other, larger reason stood not that far from her, scanning the skies with his telescope.

“Sailing into Fire Nation waters…of all the foolish things you’ve done in your sixteen years, Prince Zuko, this is the most foolish!” scolded Iroh.

“I have no choice, Uncle,” argued Zuko.

“Have you completely forgotten that the Fire Lord banished you? What if you’re caught?”

Zuko finally looked up from the telescope.

“I’m chasing the Avatar! My father will understand why I’m returning home.”

“You give him too much credit. My brother is not the understanding type!”

The prince turned back to the telescope and finally spotted Appa flying through the air.

“There they are. Helmsman! Full steam ahead!”

A catapult is raised onto the deck. Kurami silently raised an eyebrow at it.

When did that get there? she wondered. These ships are more well-equipped than I thought.

“Uh, really, Prince Zuko, couldn’t you shoot them down with something more fragrant?” commented Iroh. Zuko ignored him, lighting the projectile with a short blast of fire.

“On my mark!” he ordered. “Fire!”

The bison managed to avoid the fireball, but suddenly they were faced with a much bigger problem.

“A blockade,” said Zuko.

“Technically you are still in Earth Kingdom waters,” Iroh stated. “Turn back now and they cannot arrest you!”

“He’s not turning around!” the prince exclaimed, still ignoring them.

Please, Prince Zuko! If the Fire Nation captures you, there’s nothing I can do!” persuaded Iroh. “Do not follow the Avatar.”

“I agree with him, Hotshot,” Kurami cut in. “This is a bad idea.”

When Zuko glanced back and met Kurami’s worried eyes, she knew he had already made his decision and looked away. He lowered his gaze as well, murmuring a soft apology to Iroh before ordering the crew to run the blockade.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This is it. I’m going to die on the Solstice. I’m not even sixteen yet, and I’m going to die, lamented Kurami mentally as fireballs rained down around them. One came too close, causing the ship to rock. Kurami stumbled, trying to regain her balance.

“Prince Zuko! One of the engines is damaged! We must stop and make repairs!” one of the crew yelled. Zuko turned on him with a dangerous glint in his golden eyes, one Kurami had begun to call his ‘Avatar-related determination’ face.

“Do not stop this ship,” he practically snarled.

They managed to make it to the blockade, but their problems weren’t over yet.

“We’re on a collision course!” exclaimed Iroh.

“We can make it,” said Zuko confidently.

Suddenly, the ships in the blockade stopped, allowing them to pass through. Kurami’s brow furrowed in confusion, but it quickly disappeared when she spotted the cause.

Zhao was on one of the ships. He locked eyes with Zuko and smirked, silently watching them pass.

Kurami’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Zuko’s hands clenched, gripping the railing tightly.

“What’s he up to, Uncle?” he demanded. “Why didn’t Zhao arrest me?”

“Because he wants to follow you. He knows you’ll lead him to the prize you’re both after: the Avatar,” said Iroh.

“If Zhao wants to follow a trail of smoke,” the prince stated, “then that’s exactly what I’ll let him do.”

Turning away from the railing, he beckoned Kurami to follow him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Keep heading north,” said Zuko as the smaller ship slid into the water. “Zhao will follow the smoke trail, while I use it as a cover.”

Iroh grunted, stroking his beard in doubt.

The vessel detached from the ship, and Zuko directed it towards where the Avatar was heading.

“I still think this is a bad idea, Hotshot,” Kurami remarked. “Especially since it’s almost sundown.”

“I still have you, don’t I?” he asked.

The shadowbender raised a single eyebrow.

“Are you saying that you need me?”

Zuko paused for less than a second before responding.

“Maybe. Just don’t let it get to your head.”

“Of course not.”

They kept silent for the rest of the journey, though Kurami didn’t bother hiding the smile that danced on her lips.

They stopped on a crescent-shaped island, where a great temple stood.

“Stay on the boat. I’ll be back soon,” said Zuko.

“As if. You dragged me here, so I’m coming with you.”

Zuko sighed, knowing they were too pressed for time to argue.

“Fine, but stay close.”

They entered the temple, sneaking through the corridors. Suddenly, they heard an explosion from somewhere in the distance. Sharing a look, they rushed towards it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It took them several minutes before they found themselves near a great set of doors. The Avatar was hiding behind a column as his friends held down what Kurami guessed to be Fire Sages.

“Aang! Now’s your chance!” Katara was yelling.

Zuko snuck up on Aang and grabbed his arms, pinning them behind his back. He stepped out from the shadow of the column, dragging the Avatar with him.

“The Avatar’s coming with me!”

In the confusion, the Fire Sages overcame their captors, switching their positions.

“Close the doors, quickly!” Zuko ordered as the Sages chained their prisoners to one of the other columns. Kurami followed as the prince continued to pull Aang towards the stairs.

Aang managed to break free, using an air blast to send both Zuko and Kurami down the stairs. Kurami grunted as she landed on the prince, rolling off him as she regained her bearings. Zuko raced back up the stairs. Kurami went to follow him, but suddenly, a hand clamped over her mouth, stifling her screams.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Why did you help the Avatar?” Zuko demanded.

“It was once the Sages’ duty,” replied the Sage. “It is still our duty.”

Clap. Clap. Clap.

“What a moving and heartfelt performance,” drawled Zhao as he emerged from the shadows, followed by several guards. “I’m certain the Fire Lord will understand when you explain why you betrayed him.”

Zuko glared as the Head Sage approached, bowing to Zhao.

“Commander Zhao.”

“And Prince Zuko,” said Zhao, turning to him. “It was a noble effort, but your little smokescreen didn’t work.”

The guards moved forward, restraining the prince.

“Two traitors in one day–the Fire Lord will be pleased.”

“You’re too late, Zhao! The Avatar’s inside and the doors are sealed.”

“No matter, because sooner or later…he has to come out.”

Zhao smirked as he continued.

“In the meantime, however, I believe I have something that belongs to you?”

Two more guards appeared, dragging a struggling figure between them. Zuko felt the blood drain from his face and launched himself at Zhao, but his captors held fast.

A hand was clamped over Kurami’s mouth, silencing any sounds from her mouth. Her arms were pinned behind her, but she never stopped struggling as they dragged her forward.

“She’s very unruly, for a slave,” Zhao commented.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” replied Zuko with a thin sense of calm. “I have told her to fight back on occasion.”

“Is that so?” he asked. “A wise choice, since you wouldn’t want anything…bad to happen to her, would you?”

Zuko exhaled before looking towards her.

“Kira,” he ordered coldly. “Stop struggling.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kurami stopped without any hesitation, falling back into the charade with an ease that was drilled into her. All tension drained from her body, and she regarded the commander with nothing but fear in her eyes.

In her periphery, she could see the Water Tribe siblings watching in confusion and prayed that they would keep their mouths shut.

The smirk on Zhao’s face didn’t waver–in fact, it widened. He ordered the guards to chain the teenagers to the other pillar before focusing on his other prey.

“When those doors open,” ordered Zhao, “unleash all your firepower!”

The doors began to glow with a great white light and started to open. The light grew brighter, forcing them to look away, then faded. Glowing eyes regarded them from the darkness. Kurami felt a shiver run down her spine at the sight.

“Ready…fire!” Zhao shouted.

He and his guards shot a huge blast of fire at their target, but the flames circled the figure, revealing it to be a ghostly blue man dressed in red robes.

“Avatar Roku,” she heard one of the Sages murmur in awe.

Avatar Roku took control of the flames, blasting them forward. The guards were thrown back, and the chains binding them to the pillar melted. Zuko broke free with a grunt, grabbing Kurami’s hand as they ran for the stairs, not looking back.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

They didn’t stop until they made it back to their boat, gasping for air. They quickly left the shore, watching as the temple was destroyed from the inside.

“Remind me…never to do that…again,” she gasped between breaths.

Zuko just nodded, too tired to talk, and watched as the Avatar and his friends fled.

They made it back to the ship as night finally darkened the sky. Iroh met them on the deck and raised an eyebrow at the obviously exhausted teenagers, advising them to retreat to their rooms.

She stopped in front her door and leaned against it.

“I’m gonna get some sleep. You should too–you look more exhausted than I am.”

Zuko opened his mouth, but she raised a hand.

“Go to bed, Hotshot. We can keep chasing the Avatar later.”

“That wasn’t what I was going to say,” he said. “Are you going to be okay?”

Kurami was startled by the question, but she nodded.

“Yeah, I am.” She smiled.

“Night, Hotshot.”

He responded with a smaller smile, his face softening slightly.

“Goodnight, Kurami.”

“Now go,” she insisted jokingly. “You’re obviously getting delirious.”

She entered her room and dropped her knives on the floor, not bothering to put them in their usual place, and fell asleep the instant her head hit her pillow.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Zuko sat heavily on his cot after he pried his armor off, running the day’s events through his head. He couldn’t explain the emotions he felt when he saw Kurami held captive by those guards, when Zhao threatened her.

He shook his head. He knew Kurami could protect herself–there was no reason to worry about her.

So why did he?

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