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Heart of the Wounded - Chapter 8

Zuko walked proudly behind the last general into the war room. He had eagerly awaited the day he would be allowed to go in. Being able to do so was proof that he was almost of age. Iroh had always said that he wasn’t missing anything in going to these meetings, but never the less, Zuko wanted to know what was going on. It was his duty.

Zuko sat down on an empty mat that had been provided. He looked down on a map of the world. There were miniature buildings where the cities and towns were. Each had a little hole in the top through which a small flag symbolizing who was in possession of the unit protruded. There were even little rectangles that Zuko realized to be ships ‘floating’ in the water.

“We have spent many years contemplating our attacks. There is a small Earth Kingdom force located in a small village near here. Ordinarily, this would not be a threat. However, when we sent some soldiers in to negotiate a trade pact, they returned dead. This small Earth Kingdom village attacked our troops. We have no choice but to attack.”

Zuko’s brow furrowed. Why would a small Earth Kingdom group attack the Firebenders? It just didn’t seem right. The Fire Nation soldiers tried to play rough. They tried to force the goods, Zuko realized. Wolf had often commented on little things like that. Fine, they attacked, so we have every right to attack back.

“We should send the forty-seventh division to suppress this rebellion,” one of the older soldiers commented.

“Yes, they need proper experience,” another agreed

That would make sense. Get them used to the slaughter, a part of Zuko’s mind that had caught on to Wolf’s attitude said.

“We could do that. But these peasants defeated five high-ranking soldiers. Could the forty-seventh really stand up to that?”

“They could be bait. We lure the eyes of the villagers to one unit, engage in the fight and attack from behind with another.”

Zuko stood. “You can’t do that. You can’t sacrifice an entire unit for such a petty cause. The forty-seventh division is filled with many young men who are willing to die for our Nation. But why should they be sacrificed like animals? And what about the villagers? Many of them probably were against what a few of the men did. What about them? You’ll kill them too, wont you?”

“That’s enough, Prince Zuko,” Ozai’s voice rumbled as he stood. His form was hidden by the flames that surrounded the dais where he had sat. “You have disrespected this meeting by speaking out against a man with more experience on the field than you. The only way you can atone for this is through Agni Kai.”

Zuko looked up defiantly. “If that’s what it takes to let my thoughts be known, I’ll do it.”

“We will wait for sundown. Go to your room, Zuko. Go to the arena ten minutes before the sun sets.”

“Yes, Father.” Zuko left the room with furious movements to obey his father’s command. “I can take any one he throws at me,” he muttered as he stomped down the hall.

A young tea server hurried to move out of the way of the angered prince. He had heard all that had happened. The Fire Lord sure was loud. Entering the room, the young boy heard Ozai mutter, “My own son has started to sound like my cursed brother.” They server hurried to get everything set so that he could leave to inform Jin of what was about to happen.

……………

Wolf and Iroh had been playing a round of Pai Sho. Wolf, more used to the spirit’s game he had picked up, was loosing miserably. While they played, they had been conversing and finally got around to talking about Zuko.

“He doesn’t quite trust you, you know,” Iroh commented, putting a piece down.

“Zuko’s a smart kid. I don’t believe he’d do something that’d get us turned over.” Wolf stopped, shushing Iroh as well. “There’s someone coming very quickly,” he hissed.

Iroh stopped talking and crept to one side of the door. Wolf slunk to the other. Soon, Iroh could hear the hurried steps Wolf referred to. The door was wrenched open and a hooded and cloaked figure burst into the room. Once the second the figure was clear of the door, Wolf pounced. There was a startled yelp as Wolf wrapped his arms around the form; one around the waist including the hands, the other around the mouth.

“Who are you? Who sent you and what do you want?” So that the answers could be heard, he slowly moved his hand away from the figure’s mouth.

“It’s me, Jin. Let go, Wolf,” a girl’s voice said shakily.

“Iroh, close the door, please.” Iroh complied.

Wolf let go of the girl and she stumbled forward. She turned and removed the hood of the cape. She glared slightly at Wolf to hide her fright.

“I’m sorry about that, Jin. Iroh, can you make us some tea?”

“There’s no time for tea!” Jin exclaimed quickly.

“No time for tea?” Iroh asked, stunned. There was always time for tea.

“I’ve come to tell you something urgent. When I left the Fire Lord’s place, I had one of my conspirators stay behind, to be my eyes and ears and such. Well, just a while ago, I got a message via bird. It said…it said that Zuko spoke up in your favor during a very important meeting. The fire lord was furious and now…Zuko has to do an Agni Kai. The messenger didn’t say against whom, but I can only assume that it’s against the Fire Lord. Zuko can’t fight against his father!” By the time she finished, Jin was frantic and near tears.

“I’m going,” Iroh grunted and opened the door.

“I’m coming with you,” both Jin and Wolf said in unison.

“Wolf, yes. Jin, I ask that you stay here. We will bring Zuko back, I promise.”

“But I want to fight,” Jin mumbled.

“Please Jin. We need to move as fast as possible, and we might have to do things that it’s best you don’t see.”

“You don’t think I can hack it. Fine. Both of you come back with Zuko. I will kill you if you don’t.”

“Ok, let’s go.”

Iroh and Wolf took off at a slow run. The boat ride to the main land seemed to take forever. They tried to pace themselves as much as possible, and it worked for a while, but Iroh slowly was loosing steam. Wolf noticed this and slowed the pace.

“Go on without me. Zuko needs help as soon as possible. I’ll just slow us down,” Iroh gestured Wolf on weakly.

As much as Wolf didn’t want to leave behind his brother, a sense of urgency forced his decision. “I won’t let you down.”

Wolf transformed into his spirit form and broke into a harder run. He had soon left behind the old general. An hour passed before the Fire Lord’s temporary palace came into his view. Wolf veered around to the side entrance he always used. When he came to it, he transformed back and tried to open the secret passage. It was locked. Wolf tried again, just to make sure, but the result was the same. “No!” Wolf worked on trying to jimmy open the door, but it didn’t work.

Iroh appeared in Wolf’s view and the younger sprinted to meet back up with his partner in crime. “The passage is locked,” Wolf panted when he arrived.

“There’s only two other ways in. There is an entrance in the rear, but that is hard to find and better guarded,” Iroh commented between gasps for air.

“Or, we just break in the front.”

“Exactly.”

“Let’s go with reckless. I’ll take out the archers.”

With a small plan forming, the two came to the place. Wolf went faster, making a slight arc around the front wall and managed to climb up to the top by using a side outcropping. By the time Iroh had gotten within firing range of the archers, Wolf was onto the men. In his spirit form, Wolf bit and scratched at the unguarded archers. A couple fled in fright. Wolf jumped down and opened the gate for Iroh. The two hurried into the palace.

……………

The day had passed between the time his father had announced the Agni Kai. Zuko had stretched and prepared as well as he could. He was confident that he could beat almost anyone his father could throw at him. Now, it was time.

Zuko walked into the arena. The arena where all Agni Kai took place was a large room that could easily seat a hundred. The spectators sat on the two longer sides of the arena. Their own little area that was blocked by tall supports and red triangular flags. The other two walls bore a tapestry of the Fire symbol. The fighting arena itself was completely isolated. Around the sides was a black abyss. There were three steps to the platform where the fight was to be held. At the four corners, a large dish of fire burned brightly.

Zuko took off his shirt and knelt with his back to the other side. Someone put the towel around his shoulders. This would be the time to pray to Agni. Zuko found he had nothing to ask for. He was confident he would win.

The signal to start sounded. Zuko stood and turned in one motion. The cloth around his shoulders fell to the ground. He saw his opponent do the same. As the other man emerged from the shadows, Zuko froze. It was the Fire Lord he would have to go against.

“Father, you’re my opponent?” Zuko asked, fearing the answer.

“Someone has to teach you a lesson. It might as well be your old man,” Ozai said in his calm voice.

“I can’t fight you Father.”

“I have no problem fighting against you. You should treat me as you would any other opponent.”

“I can’t. I will not fight you.” Zuko knelt all the way to the ground and lowered his forehead to touch it.

“You are a weak, disgraceful, coward. You very defiance shames me! Stand and fight, or I shall beat you.”

“I will not fight you.”

Ozai snapped. With a monstrous roar, he unleashed a furious fireball at his son. The first one just barely grazed past Zuko. Zuko felt the intense heat of the flames, but remained frozen where he was.

With a bestial snarl, Ozai unleashed another one. The first had been a warning, saying that he would not hesitate to hurt his son. This one wasn’t. The ball hit Zuko in the side of the head.

Zuko cried out from the searing pain. Falling back, his hand reached up to brush the embers away from his skin.

The Fire Lord didn’t stop there. He pressed the attack, adding several spurts of flame.

Zuko looked up just in time to see this and avoid them reflexively.

Ozai ceased action. “Will you fight me now, Zuko? Will you fight to restore your honor?”

Zuko’s breath was coming in with ragged gasps. The whole left side of his face still felt like it was burning. “I cannot.”

“Then to put an end to your shamefulness, I will kill you.”

Zuko’s hand dropped to his side. He glanced down at the floor. Wolf was right, he thought. Everything he said was right. But, still, I cannot fight him. Zuko looked back to his father. He was determined and his eyes shone with an almost daring brilliance.

The doors flung open. “Sir! My Lord! There are…” an archer, supporting an abused right arm called.

Ozai released the large blast of fire. At the same time, the archer was tackled from behind. A snarling, blood covered black wolf stood on the man’s back. Wolf barely had time to register the fire blast, and know it was too late.

“Zuko!” Iroh called. He had rushed into the room right behind the messenger. He hurried to intercept the large fireball. He was just in time to knock Zuko down away from the blast and take a firm stance when the blast arrived. Using his left arm, he created an air current to deflect the flame.

Iroh stood to face Ozai. The old man’s arm was singed badly, but he still held it up to defend. Wolf bounded up to the arena’s platform to check on Zuko. The blast had been so large, that even Iroh’s push didn’t get Zuko far enough away. As Wolf approached, Zuko passed out. Wolf turned his attention to the Fire Lord, snarling.

“Well, well, well. What do we have here?” Ozai mused. “My dear brother Iroh, and the little mutt Moltov?”

Wolf braced himself for a spring. Iroh put his hand out. “Stay by Zuko.” Wolf relaxed slightly.

“What an obedient dog you have, Iroh.”

Wolf growled, but remained where he was.

“I’ll make a deal with you Iroh. You are the only one I will ever make an offer to. Kill the wolf and my troublesome son, and I’ll let you come back.”

“That is quite an honor. I will have to decline.”

“Very well. I will kill you first.” Ozai leapt into combat. Iroh sprang to meet him, but was only able to defended against an onslaught of fireballs. Suddenly, a blue lightning bolt streaked across the stage, putting a momentary hold to the fight.

“Do you need my help, Father?” a young woman asked.

Iroh backed up to where Wolf was. “We shouldn’t try this one. Let us go.”

Wolf nodded. Iroh picked Zuko up. Wolf turned quickly to extinguish a flame sent in their direction. Iroh placed the unconscious prince on the wolf’s back and they ran for the entrance where they came in. An entrance that was blocked by the another wall of Fire Nation soldiers.

“Keep going!” Iroh ordered and stopped.

Wolf obeyed. Iroh sent a large fireball into the midst of the group of soldiers. It hit the ground, clearing warriors out of the way and raising a cloud of dust so that the trio could slip away undetected.

……………

……………

Chapter 8 – END

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