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|Shien Kai, Pt. 2- The Duel|
Chapter 13: Shien Kai, Pt. 2- The Duel
The Earth King took a step toward Zuko. "And what, exactly, is that?"
Zuko smirked. "It is an old custom that, thanks to my ancestor's beliefs, was buried in our archives. However, I think it'll serve as a perfect solution to our problem."
Yuan Chong was intrigued. "How so?"
"It literally means 'Burning Earth duel'. It was made for combat between Fire and Earthbenders. One-on-one, no interference. The winner walks away, and so does the army of the loser. It will keep casualties to a minimum: one." He punctuated that last statement with an almost feral grin.
The old king stroked his beard; the boy was practically handing him the Fire Nation. "Sire," Ri Wu interrupted his thought process. "We have a numerical advantage, and we could gain victory. But I also know that you are more than capable of defeating this child."
Yuan Chong nodded. "Less Earth Kingdom lives will be lost." He turned back to the Fire Lord only to find him in deliberation with General Iroh and a girl.
"Fire Lord Zuko, I do not suggest needlessly throwing your life away." Iroh's brow was furrowed as he advised his nephew. "We may yet be able to win the day."
Mai glared at him. "Yes, Zuko, listen to reason. If you die, the Fire Nation will be expected to honor the pact! We can—!"
Zuko shook his head. "I will not risk Fire Nation lives if there is a better solution. I will fight, and I will win."
Mai wrapped her arms around him. "Don't be stupid! Have Iroh fight as your champion if this is the route you want to go."
He heard concern in her voice; she could not mask all of it. But he had made his choice. "As much as I know Uncle would defeat Yuan Chong, it has to be me. How can I expect my people to follow me otherwise?" He stared at both of them. "This is my choice, and my word is law."
Iroh bowed. "Very well, you know that I will abide by your decision." He smiled sadly.
"I know, Uncle."
Mai glared at him. "If you get yourself killed, I'll drag you out of the Spirit World and kill you myself." Tears very nearly edged their way to her eyes, but she held them back.
Zuko shuddered as he realized she might actually do that if he died. "Don't worry; I'll be fine."
Pathik sighed as the two sides came to a head and clashed. It was fortunate, but not necessary, that there were pools of water at the edge of the stairs. Pakku and several other Waterbenders knocked onrushing guards aside before they could even muster an attack, and Pathik looked on with pride as several initiates fought with power and skill.
His feelings were tempered by the simple fact that General Ching stood at the top of the steps, awaiting either victory or defeat.
Zuko and Yuan Chong both removed all armor and garments from their upper body in preparation. Zuko inhaled and exhaled rhythmically.
"The rules?" The Earth King asked.
"No outside interference, and if the other party surrenders, it is at the discretion of the victor to show mercy. And only bending or hand-to-hand combat may be used; no weapons allowed."
"Simple enough..." Yuan Chong stood idly, as if waiting for a friend to arrive. "Whenever you are ready, Fire Lord."
Zuko began with a form sure to put him in the right mindset. He began a dance.
Ri Wu sneered as the young Fire Lord began stepping toward his king with no discernible pattern to his movements. At least that was what it looked like from the onset, but the general noticed the pattern. It was an attack. Some spectators, civilians, had come to watch.
Those foolish enough to stay. Ri Wu thought. However, something was off. Some of the people seemed to disrespect the whole occasion. He noticed one wearing a mandrill mask, another wearing the mask of a blue faced demon, still another wearing a female tragedian's mask. Not to mention some of the other strange faces. He brushed the distraction aside as the boy let a massive fire blast fly.
Zuko ended the Dancing Dragon form, letting loose a torrent of flame with a double fisted strike. Yuan Chong raised an earth shield to block, and it held. Barely. Cracks formed, and the wall was broken by another double fisted blast.
The Earth King abandoned defense and began launching rock after rock, each one the size of a full grown platypus bear. Zuko whipped his arms around quickly, generating lightning. The rocks closest to him burst apart as bolts of sheer power ripped through them. Zuko followed up by propelling himself forward with Firebending and flipping around to launch a blast with his feet.
Yuan Chong expanded his earth gauntlet into an arm shield and knocked the blast aside as he charged forward. He raised a large rock slab and sent it at the young Firebender, and Zuko was forced to jump out of the way. As he landed, the Earth King encased everything but his head in a mound of earth.
Yuan Chong stopped and relaxed his posture. "Is that all the Fire Nation can muster? I'm unimpressed."
Pakku took the water from the reflecting pools nearby and brought it to bear, taking dozens of soldiers out of the fight with one strike. Meanwhile, Pathik calmly and deftly avoided any and all attacks aimed at him. He noticed that General Ching had a cadre of guards surrounding him, and he knew that ending him would end the fight.
The Grand Lotus gestured toward the entourage when one of the Firebending initiates caught his eye. "Mako!"
The man nodded as he and a Waterbender gave all they had to strike at the line, scattering it.
Ching put his hands behind his back and waited.
Yuan Chong paced in front of the trapped Fire Lord. "Did you really think that your power could match mine? I have been planning this for years! Not even your father could have beaten me." Zuko noticed him wince when he made a sharp gesture.
I will beat him; I have to. Zuko tried in vain to break free from his prison, but received no gift for his exertions.
"Since you did attempt to end the War, I will make your death swift," He pulled up a small rock that the old king elongated into a spike. "And painless." He fired.
In that moment, Zuko's world slowed down. He thought of his family, his friends, and his people. The list of names and faces who were counting on him to win this battle flashed before him. But one stood out; the one for which that box so carefully hidden was for. Mai. I won't fail her. Not now; not ever! The wisdom and power of the dragons flowed through him, long denied by his nature. The rainbow flame, its meaning was finally and completely known to him. And he broke free.
Zuko yelled a battle cry as he disintegrated his prison and the oncoming projectile. He noticed that everyone, including the Earth King, was staring at him in disbelief. He looked down at his hands and saw what was so surprising. A blue fire, burning so hot that it was almost white, rose from his hands.
"Die!" Yuan Chong thrust an earth slab forward, but Zuko punched through it.
"You're mine." The young Fire Lord lunged at his opponent, launching fireball after fireball.
The old king took his attacks in stride, dodging most of them and blocking the others with his heavy arm shield. He brought up a small, thin pillar which turned out to be the handle for a massive earthen mace. He swung the weapon sideways at Zuko, who was able to disintegrate it with a double fisted blast. However, that maneuver was a feint, and Zuko rocketed into the air as Yuan Chong's shielded arm, now harboring spikes, swung back at him.
When Zuko landed, he quickly charged a blast with one hand while disintegrating an attack from the king with another. The result was a colossal fire blast that ripped through the rock wall Yuan Chong had put up and knocked him back several feet. Zuko smiled at the thought of victory until the Earthbender stood among the flames with only a few minor burns.
Sokka, Piandao, and Toph rode the small scout vessel into the port, and Sokka expelled the breath he'd been holding as they'd passed Yuan Chong's fleet. For some reason, they had been allowed to pass. It was only after they'd arrived that Sokka saw the truth. Zuko was dueling the Earth King, and he was losing.
"Fire Lord Zuko is attempting to earn the loyalty of his people, and it is only beneficial if he wins." Piandao mused. "He may very well have overstepped his bounds, reached his limit."
"Let's hope not..." Toph replied.
Sokka drew in a breath; he knew if he said the wrong thing now or if it came out the wrong way, he would lose a friend. "Toph, I know that now might not be the best time...."
"Now might be the only time." Piandao said with a twinkle in his eye.
"But what's going on?"
Toph turned away. "What are you talking about, Sokka?"
"Well, for starters, there's the fact that you randomly decided to help me and Piandao, then you save me—."
"So, I'm not supposed to save you?" She blew her hair out of her eyes. Come on, Sokka, just let it go!
He held up his hands. "Okay, granted. But your displays of affection and emotion," He stroked his chin, half wishing that he had his 'Wang Fire' beard to lighten the mood. "Are out of character for you. What's the deal, Toph?"
She winced inwardly. Just tell him! "Sokka...." Say it. Say "I have a crush on you!" She closed her eyes. "Oh, spirits, Sokka! Why couldn't you just leave it alone?!" She stormed off in the direction of Aang and Katara.
Sokka raised an eyebrow. "Uh....what just happened?"
Piandao chuckled. "She has a crush on you."
"I know that! But why'd she—?"
"Because she thinks that you're going to avoid her now that you know."
"But I would never...."
"Sokka, she's twelve. Even if she is one of the most powerful Earthbenders on the planet, she's still a little girl." The swordmaster put a reassuring hand on Sokka's shoulder. "Go talk to her."
Sokka nodded, his mouth formed into a thin line.
Pathik, flanked by two of the Order's best Earthbenders, walked toward Ching. The guru sighed; he wished Bumi were still able to be by his side in this fight. The general launched multiple rocks, all of which were diffused and destroyed by the two female Earthbenders.
Ching soon ceased his attacks and returned to his waiting position, and Pathik waved them away. "Leave us; this is the time for diplomacy." They bowed and returned to the fray.
"I doubt that we'll be able to find a diplomatic solution, Grand Lotus Pathik. I doubt that very much."
The old man smiled. "Can we not simply attempt to reach a peaceful settlement?" He gestured out at the battle below. "We have the advantage, as you can see."
"It doesn't matter. When Yuan Chong wins—."
Pathik held up a hand. "If he wins..."
"When, when he wins, he will take the city back. Not even the secretive Order of the White Lotus can hold him back for long."
The Grand Lotus sighed. "Then I suppose the fighting must continue..."
Ching thrust his hand out to launch a rock slab. "You've got that—!" Pathik swatted his hand away, redirecting the strike. "Right?"
He moved to throw a rock with his other hand, but the old man simply knocked that aside as well. Before the general could hardly think, much less react, the guru jabbed his chest with two fingers and pushed palm forward with the same hand.
General Ching felt numbness come over his entire body, and he collapsed. He strained to turn his head, seeing Pathik with a smug smile on his face.
"Remember, age and treachery beats youth and skill every time."
Zuko's eyes widened as Yuan Chong stepped out of the flames, his mouth twisted in an ugly sneer. "I am not a child to be burned by your fire! Too many have burned already because of your nation!"
"And only one more has to burn." Zuko charged another blast, but this time, the Earth King submerged himself in the earth and came up behind him.
Zuko back-kicked a fire blast, but Yuan Chong caught his foot and twisted it. The young Firebender, instead of fighting and getting his foot pulled off, spun with the Earth King's pull and kicked him in the face with his other foot covered in the powerful blue-white fire. The hiss from Yuan Chong almost matched that of the burning flesh on his cheek, but the pain merely made him fight harder.
He let go of Zuko's foot but punched him in the stomach right as he landed. The strike sent him two feet backward, and he doubled over. The Earth King grinned as stretched Zuko's arms apart and held him slightly above the ground with two pillars of earth.
"Good luck blasting your way out of this," he said as he extended the fingers on his gauntlets into claws.
Zuko muttered something almost intelligible.
"What was that?" Yuan Chong leaned in as he brought his hand forward for the final blow.
"You didn't get my feet..." Zuko replied weakly. Before anyone could react, he pulled his feet up and planted them in his opponent's gut, blasting him backward with a massive fire ball.
Yuan Chong struggled to stand, but he felt a burning pain deep in his midsection and realized that the impossible had happened. He had been defeated.
Ri Wu was taken aback by the child's victory. Yuan Chong, his mentor, his ruler, was kneeling in the dirt with a smoking hole in his stomach. "No!"
He went to strike down the ingrate while he was still trapped, but found that he couldn't move. It was only then that he noticed the masked figures moving in a line toward his king.
Yuan Chong felt only fire, he hardly even noticed the fact that everyone stood frozen, with the exception of the train of masked figures, led by the one with the tragedian's mask. Realization dawned on him, and it made him furious.
"You promised me victory!" He nearly collapsed from the pain, but his anger kept him going. "You assured me of this! Why have you turned your back on me now?!"
"You have something I want." They spoke with one voice. The figures just stood there for a second, but they soon began to change.
Aang and Iroh saw it before anyone else. The line of masked figures morphed into a giant centipede-like creature with the tragedian's mask, the Noh mask.
"Koh..." Aang said, his heart skipping beats.
"What?" Iroh stood still. He knew that monster; he'd seen it before.
"The face stealer..." Aang replied. He could hear Yuan Chong's fury.
"I was supposed to cripple the Fire Nation!" With those last words, his face froze in a mask of pain and rage. Or, at least, that's what it appeared to be to everyone but Aang and Iroh. They saw clearly. His face was gone.
Koh turned to Aang and smiled wickedly. "Just a little souvenir; after all, I did travel all the way from the Spirit World."
Everyone began to move again, clutching their heads in pain. "How did you get here? It's not even close to the Solstice." Aang brandished his staff, sure to keep his face impassive.
Koh laughed. "I am an ancient spirit. I know all of the back doors..."
Zuko's eyes widened. "The shrine!"
Koh almost turned, but changed his mind. "Yes, it was so nice of your people to build me a shrine, one that I could use as a door to enter this plane at any time."
Aang swallowed. "You have what you came for; now leave."
"Oh, but I'm not quite done shopping yet..." The being smiled as he whirled on Katara, whose face froze, to everyone else's eyes, in an expression of fear. But Aang saw, her face was gone too. Koh's laughter echoed throughout the plaza as he slithered his way back to the shrine.
Ri Wu ran up to his master's side. "I will not fail you! We will end the Fire Nation!" He turned to his soldiers. "Attack."
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