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|Trial by Fire|
-1 (Blood & Steel)
Friday, November 4, 2016
"Euryale, are you sleeping?!" Phorcys roared furiously, reaching to the passenger seat to shake her awake.
"I wasn't trying to get out of duty!" she protested. "It's just that it'll take a while to get there, so I thought I'd try to get back into the Spirit World."
His grip tightened around the steering wheel. "Honey, we've been over this, we can't drop the case just 'cause you dreamed that an eaglefox—"
"Wolfdove," she corrected.
"That some kind of birddog told you to!"
"I was in the Spirit World," she insisted, sounding hurt, "Whether you believe me or not."
Sighing irritably, Phorcys scratched his temple. "Okay, look: I wouldn't know anything about that. But even your mother says it's unlikely. You didn't get in just now, did you?"
"Well, no, but—"
"Then just forget it!" he yelled, waving dismissively. "I need you to have your head in the game! We're about to go up against some very dangerous people in the heart of their own turf, I need to know that I can count on you to watch my back!"
"...Of course you can," Euryale whispered softly.
"Good," he said with an air of finality, "Now, Inspector Matsu is looking into the gas explosion at Club Voland for us. She says she hasn't found any bodies yet, but there's a lot of rubble to sift through, and they could have easily fallen into the sea. Or, Spirits, the Monsoons could've thrown them in."
As he spoke, Euryale looked out the window to see that they were passing over a suspension bridge, the contorted black shapes of smog-spewing factories looming over the squat shacks of the nearby slums.
"If the guy whose boat was stolen leads us to our Other Fire Lord," he continued, "We'll have a break in the case and someone who can testify against the Red Monsoons. 2 birds, 1 stone. Then you can worry about your spirit lessons."
They coasted to a stop outside of a nondescript sheet metal shack that took up a whole block, and once they went inside, Phorcys told Euryale to keep an eye on the car from the grimy windows. The floor of the building seemed to have been hewn out of the asphalt, and the ceiling bore hooks upon hooks sporting various tools and vehicle parts. Her father noticed a bell lying on the counter, but had to ring it several times before a brown-eyed man hefting a large hammer over his head materialized from the back room.
After a stern look from the officers, the man slowly put the hammer down behind the shelf, removing his flatcap briefly to run his hand through his coarse, gray hair.
"Sorry," he wheezed, dusting his hands on the leather overalls he wore over his gray uniform, before reaching out towards them, "But I'm a nonbending shop owner who's already been robbed once. I have to be careful. You understand, right?"
"I do," Phorcys said as he shook his hand, "In fact, that's actually what we're here about."
"We appreciate you taking the time to answer our questions," Euryale added as she shook next.
"Are you going to return my stolen property to me?" the man asked hopefully, yellowed smile collapsing quickly as they exchanged glances.
"We're very sorry," the detective said, "But we don't know where most of the parts are, and the rest is in an evidence locker. We'll return what we can once the investigation is over, but it will most likely just be scrap metal."
"O—oh," he stuttered awkwardly, before a terse, "Whattaya want, then?"
"We were wondering what you could tell us about the robbery," the detective answered.
"Not much," he said with a shrug, "I heard a noise in the middle of the night, came down from my apartment upstairs, had some fireballs shot at me, so I ran like the dickens. When I came in the next morning, I found my lock melted, and a whole speed boat was missing, as well as the registers, the safe, some tools, and some car parts. I figure the thieves must've had a truck to haul all of that, and I did see some tire marks headed out to the old abandoned steel mill."
"How do you know that's where they were going?" Euryale asked.
"Not much else out that way," he said with a shrug. "There's a junk yard, but they're practically the same property."
"Who oversees the junk yard?" Phorcys asked.
"Nobody," the man answered, raising an incredulous brow, "Who's gonna care who steals from a dump? Now, no offense, but can we wrap this up soon? People here don't trust the boars—I mean the cops. You're...kinda scarin' away my business."
Euryale leaned against the counter, squinting dangerously into the man's eyes. He backed away nervously, avoiding eye contact as she asked, "And why wouldn't they trust the cops, hm?"
"Leave it, Euryale," her father said, stepping towards the door, "We have everything we needed. Thank you for your time, Sir."
Euryale reluctantly followed, albeit making the "I'm watching you" gesture. He saw through the window that she was continuing to do so even as she climbed into the squad car.
The buildings and bazaars got thinner and sparser as the officers journeyed to a twisted, towering structure that seemed untouched by the afternoon sun. As the department store clerk had mentioned, it was mostly a barren field, with a literal pile of garbage leering down at their car, as high as a small apartment building. There were even some train tracks leading to the pile, terminating in a twisted mess of decommissioned cars.
"That man was telling the truth," Euryale said, twisting around in her seat but not seeing a single soul, let alone a fence or guard tower, "Nobody takes care of this place."
"The sad reality of urban decay," her father commented. "Factories buy abandoned locations like this, only to neglect them and use them as dumping grounds for anything they're too cheap to repurpose. We know for a fact that the Triads sometimes make use of places like this. They can even find supplies. You'd be surprised what people throw away."
He pointed to a deflated object atop a pile that appeared to be an antique Fire Nation War Balloon, before adding, "It's also a great place for a body dump."
After studying it, Euryale nervously turned back to him. "We're not gonna have to search through the garbage, are we?"
"Let's see what we find in the mill before we worry about that," he answered.
As they drove up to it, they could see that the mill was an irregular series of smoke stacks and towers, with all manner of stairways, pipes, and just odd bits of steel connecting them. There had once been a fence, but it had rusted and fallen, the officers' boots crunching against the barbed wire half-buried in the blackened dirt. Once their feet began clacking against steel floor, Phorcys retracted the sole of his shoe and stomped.
"Lots of jagged bits of metal. Probably too dangerous to go on without these." With that, he withdrew his flashlight from his belt and clicked it on.
Euryale did the same, but asked, "Won't anyone using this place know we're here?
"Probably," Phorcys answered, their beams slicing through the artificial darkness to reveal rusted pipes, discarded saw blades, and other nasty bits. "But what other choice do we have?"
When a banging echoed above them, Euryale quickly jerked her light up, exposing a labyrinth of stairs, walkways, and just the crisscrossing steel beams supporting the vaulted roof.
"I don't sense anything," Phorcys said calmly, "It might just be the noises made by any collapsing steel mill."
"Might?" Euryale squeaked as they trudged onward around a rusted-out turbine bigger than a bus. Turning, they saw a shaft of light illuminating the next hallway, or more specifically the pile of crunched-up steel beams from where part of the roof collapsed, the stillness of the pile suggesting this happened ages ago.
Hearing something clopping along behind them, the cadet whirled around, her beam sending an elephant rat scurrying into a hole in the wall, squeaking in terror. A steel tunnel bored through the building behind her so far that her flashlight couldn't illuminate the far end.
"Uh-oh," Phorcys said.
"What?" Euryale hissed, whirling around. "What is 'uh-oh'?!" He shielded his eyes with his hand until she finally lowered the beam.
"Feel this," he said, motioning for her to come hold her hand to a wire stretched along the wall, as he had done.
"...It's tingling," she said, "What does that mean?"
"It means the power's on," he replied.
"So...someone's in here," she concluded, before pointing her flashlight back up to the ceiling as another loud clanging reverberated through the empty halls.
"Follow me," her father said, "Keep your light just in front of your feet and your seismic sense at the ready."
They trudged deeper into the steep shadows, moving down a hallway that seemed to stretch on forever. As they did so, the occasional clanging was joined by a low rumble that growled incessantly. Eventually, they noticed a shimmering, pale blue glow shining against the far wall of this industrial dragon den. They pressed their backs flat against the wall, Phorcys peeking out before they moved into another open chamber of rusted turbines.
The draconic roaring came from a particular turbine, the least rusted, which spun madly in its dilapidated frame, the arcs of energy coming off of it being the source of the glow. Most of the energy surged along the axel, where it was collected into wires that twisted off into various halls, powering the ceiling lights hidden deep within the building, dimly flickering in the dust that choked the air.
Seeing that there was enough light to navigate by, the officers clicked off their flashlights and stowed them away. Without warning, an arc from the turbine passed far too close for comfort, forcing the officers to press themselves flat against the floor as it snaked and wound its way up to a crosswalk above.
The detective's curse was drowned out by the agitated groaning and lingering clangs of the turbine slowing to a stop, spitting out its last feeble sparks as the lights shut off 1 by 1. The only light that remained was the pulsing ball of lightning spreading out along the walkway as Euryale fumbled with the flashlight at her waist.
"Forget it!" her father yelled. "Back behind the turbine, HURRY!"
They shot up, Euryale's heel screeching across the slick floor. Her father grabbed her hand and pushed his heels against the ground, forming a wave that pushed them forwards. Once they passed the turbine, his cable whirred away blindly, before thudding against an unseen wall.
"Fire!" a man yelled just as they were pulled behind the enormous structure.
They huddled behind it, cowering, as lightning surged through the building, crisscrossing and coursing through the beams around them, the twisted industrial shadows growing into fierce giants. The air itself exploded again and again, brilliant blue sparks showering down on them as they were deafened by the sounds.
It all ended as quickly as it began. Euryale opened her mouth, but couldn't hear herself over the ringing in her ears. Her father tugged on her arm again and they took off running. Bursts of orange and red exploded around her again and again, but still she heard only the ringing. The flashes illuminated Phorcys as he tore a strip of wall away, but there was no light on the other side.
The officers backed into the darkness, the steel plate levitating in front of them, glowing red as it absorbed the jets of flame and sparkling blue as it was struck by lightning. The seismic sense was little help, as with each ring of her ears, the beams and walls twisted together into a knot. After a sharp pain in her heel and a warm flow, Euryale almost heard herself curse, before sliding her sole shut again with her foot, rendering her blind save for the disconcerting light show of their shield.
"...They'll...ere soon!" Her father was yelling at the top of his lungs, but she was only just beginning to hear as the ringing died down. "Can you...me?! Eur...! Try to...it off!"
She shook her head wildly, which seemed to have no effect other than causing a throbbing she was just noticing in her temples to build. Phorcys pulled her along and they stumbled blindly through the hall it became apparent they were in as they kept banging against the enclosed walls. Soon their feet were tangled in something uncharacteristically soft, forcing them to stop to try to cut themselves free.
A wave of fire swept over the gobs of garbage and under their impromptu shield, their greaves searing against their calves. They stumbled back, the hovering shield clattering to the floor as more silent jets of fire sped toward them. Twisting, thrusting her fists out, Euryale peeled an arc of metal plates from the wall, blocking the shots.
She peered past the blazing metal, seeing that the red cloaked figures were twisting their arms, causing the fire to follow suit. Squeezing her fists, she crumpled the plates and punched out, causing them to soar and precisely strike down the gangsters. But with every attacker they knocked down, 2 more would surge over them.
As the sideways fire tornado whirled towards them, Phorcys stepped past her, ducking low and thrusting his fist out. With an agonized groan, the floor buckled, rising in malformed spikes that broke the worst of the fire current, causing the rest to harmlessly sail past them, ruffling Euryale's hair.
Unfortunately, their fortification soon began glowing, the metalbenders running just in time to avoid the worst as it exploded, a shower of shrapnel pinging off of their armor and fire whooshing around them
"Finally, my hearing is back!" Euryale exclaimed.
"That's great, but we're at a disadvantage here!" her father replied. "Unless we can get out into the light, we're done!"
"I have an idea!" Euryale shouted. Turning to jog backwards, she thrust her fist out as the Agni Kais surged over the broken floor. The concrete under them burst, throwing a cloud of debris into the air that choked the gangsters and the lights held aloft in their fists. As the fire burned low, the beams were unable to pierce the gloom and their attacks shot out wildly, exploding harmlessly against the floor and ceiling.
"Good thinking!" her partner complimented, before grabbing her and steering her down a turn. As they thundered along, it became apparent from the shrinking echo that they were approaching a wall. Phorcys punched out, causing it to bulge and burst, light flooding over them. Unfortunately, as they were just about to pass through, the sagging floor collapsed underneath them, causing them to plummet.
The officers shot cords out to prevent from impaling themselves on the jagged, rusted metals below, and with a punch, Phorcys caused a wedge-shaped piece of steel to slide out above them. The falling pipes and beams clanged against it, scraping harmlessly over them before landing with a crash in the basement. As soon as they were able, they pulled themselves up and clambered out of the building.
Unfortunately, they had lost valuable time. No sooner did they reach the outside than the Agni Kais rocketed over the gap. The officers tore towards their car, punching over their shoulders. Boulders burst from the ground, flying at their attackers, who retaliated with punching jets and arching kicks of fire.
The officers blinked rapidly to clear the glare from their eyes as they adjusted to the light with agonizing slowness, most of their attacks falling wildly off the mark. The Agni Kais had a slightly easier time adjusting, and were able to burst the few boulders that were on a collision course with them, before managing to land a few lucky hits on the officers. Fortunately, their armor would hold off against the heat, at least for a time, but the acrid stench of burnt hair was beginning to bother them.
Their luck turned from bad to worse as they reached the car to find it ablaze, a line of gangsters standing in front of it. Poised in pro-bending style stances, jets of flame danced maniacally on their knuckles. The officers skidded to a stop, raising their own fists, a glance over their back confirming that their pursuers had caught up and joined the formation of their comrades. They were surrounded, the smoldering amber eyes of grizzled, scarred men and women scorching them from all directions. Phorcys quickly whirled so that he and his daughter could stand back-to-back.
"Looks like we're going to have to make a stand here," he began, "You have any more plans?"
"I was hoping you had another wily trick you learned from years on the beat," she responded.
"There is no need for violence yet," a gruff voice echoed from the building's entrance. "You've made it this far, so I figure you deserve an audience with me."
Dingy brown boots appeared from the gloom, the familiar red duster popular with the Agni Kais exposed as the man moved into the light. Taking the ceasefire to survey her surroundings, Euryale noticed that most of these particular gangsters bore cloaks that were dirty and ragged, gashed and scorched in places.
Their leader was no exception. His duster was so badly damaged that it barely held together, so covered in scorch marks that as it fluttered in the breeze, he himself seemed to be ablaze, the black spots bulging like puffs of smoke. Under this, he sported black fatigues accentuated by gray scarves.
Euryale and her father were solidly built, but this man was enormous, easily a head taller than either of them, his thick torso and shoulders an impenetrable wall. An unusual physique for the normally slender Fire Nationers. She shifted her foot towards him ever so slightly, but as his gang broke ranks for him, he stepped forward and was on her in a flash, the fiercest set of amber eyes yet glaring down into her own.
She leaned back and twisted, aiming an elbow strike at his head, which he deftly swatted aside. Foreseeing the uppercut towards his stomach, he grabbed her fist with her free hand, which sizzled as flames erupted from his palm and heated her armor. Between this and him twisting her arm, she gasped as she was thrown to the ground. Her eyes watered and she gave a shuddering gasp, but he stepped on her back so she was unable to retaliate.
When Phorcys reared his fist threateningly, he let go and slowly stepped back, his hands raised in a defensive gesture that felt rather insincere given the smirk that never left his face.
"We're still just talking," the mysterious man said, "I just didn't want your daughter to jump to the false conclusion that she could react faster than me. She might've gotten hurt."
A snicker traveled through the ring around them. The detective cautiously watched them, bending down to inspect his daughter's reddening fingers. For her part, she used her undamaged arm to push herself into a squat, cheeks burning with shame that she couldn't hold back the tears streaming down her face.
"First degree burns," the man drawled, "Painful, but not debilitating. As I said, I am not here to fight you."
"Could've fooled me!" Euryale spat defiantly.
He grinned down at her, exposing sharp and stained teeth, set inside of a head that seemed to belong more to a lion turtle than to a human being. A grizzled mane of white hair flowed across his head and shoulders, rugged bangs dipping to his eyes, though as he tossed his head, she saw that it was secured into 3 rough warrior's tails at the back.
"I remind you," he said, Euryale's blood surging hot under her skin at the amusement in his voice, "That you attacked me. I merely defended myself."
"Is that what you call assaulting an officer?" Euryale asked in a cold whisper. "Or illegally squatting in private property? Or robbing a store?"
"Or attacking the water savages down at the bay?" he asked in mockingly high-pitched mimicry of her. "Or murdering a couple in Little Fire Nation?"
"So you admit it?" she hissed, rising to her feet to stare him down. For his part, Phorcys oriented himself so he could watch this man, but at any moment whirl to cover his daughter's back.
"Sure," he chuckled, sliding his hands into his coat pockets, "Why not? You won't live to tell anyone anyway."
"So you've been keeping tabs on us," Detective Rakshashi finally interjected.
"Yes, thank you, Admiral Obvious. Of course, I didn't expect you so soon. I didn't hear that you'd checked out the robbery until after I'd already seen your car from the window." He pointed up at a dark, dirty window in the mill high above them.
"Then I take it that you are the man who wants to be the Other Fire Lord?" the detective asked.
"I am the Other Fire Lord," the mystery man said firmly, "Which makes me the only Fire Lord who matters."
"Who are you?" Euryale asked. "What's your motive?"
"Ha! Get a look at this dame!" he practically shrieked with laughter, pointing at her, causing her to draw back her fist.
"Relax, Dumpling," he sneered. "When you get so defensive, it just makes you look weak." With the roaring of her pulse in her ears and the grinding of her teeth, she barely heard when he added, "I'm just saying, I like your direct approach. The name's Gevurah. But even if you do somehow survive this, that won't help you nail me."
"We'll see about that," Phorcys said.
"Uh-huh. Kill them." He turned, warrior tails swaying with his tattered coat as he walked away.
Euryale did not even wait for him to finish his sentence. Roaring incoherently, she raised her hands, erecting a stone pillar on either side of herself. The stone caught the blasts of the Agni Kais and cracked, at which point she thrust her hands out to either side, causing the broken chunks of rock to shoot out, nailing the Triad members in their chests and knocking them over.
Her father jammed his fingers into the ground and twisted, entombing the gangsters in rock cylinders that bound them from head to toe. Euryale only had eyes for Gevurah. Stepping forward with her left leg, she stomped down viciously with her right, sending a trail of spikes towards him.
Without even turning around, he swept his hand back, releasing a wave of fire that shattered the rocks and knocked her to the ground. Fueled by rage, she spun on her back, legs whirling out to send broken chunks of stone whirling around in a twister. Meanwhile, Phorcys stomped, raising a rock wall to cut off the Other Fire Lord's escape.
With flaming swats, Gevurah destroyed the boulders that would have struck him down. "I guess I have no choice," he sighed as the powder whizzed past him harmlessly. Just when a boulder was heading for his ankles, which were quickly sinking into the dirt courtesy of the detective's next stomp, bright light flared from his feet, launching him into the air.
He flipped while airborne, kicking out with a vicious crescent of fire set to crash down on the officers. As they rolled out of the way, they lost precious seconds, at which point Gevurah spread his fingers wide, bursts of flame from their tips raining down to shatter the bindings on his comrades.
When he struck the ground, the flames from his feet flared up in front of him, and he added his own fire breath to it, spreading his hands to bathe the officers in a cloud of flame. They tried to back up, but the Agni Kais were now on their feet, making waving motions with their arms and causing the fire to swirl around the duo.
The officers coughed, holding their throats as they gagged on the hot air.
"The car!" Phorcys gagged. "Bring it around!"
"What?!" Euryale gasped in confusion as the flames pressed in all around them. When she saw her father reaching out to the shadow of the car, which rocked as if menaced by an unseen wind, she understood.
Joining him, they managed to pull the car from its foundations, at which point it plowed into several gangsters as it tumbled end over end towards Gevurah. He ceased his attack and turned, punching 2 flaming jets into the side of the vehicle. The opposing forces caused it to spin wildly, hurling it into the air, where it rained hot glass and bits of steel down on the combatants.
Euryale charged forward, but was stopped when Phorcys grabbed her shoulder. "We can't win right now!" he called. "We need to come back with reinforcements!"
Reluctantly, she followed him, the duo raising an earth wave to toss away the Agni Kais blocking them off. The Agni Kais shot after them, until Gevurah called to leave them and get to the cars. As she ran, Euryale cast a glance over her shoulder, seeing that the gangsters who were hit by the car still weren't getting up. She was no Healer, but judging from the caved in states of their chests and skulls, as well as the darkening soil underneath them, she knew that they would never get up again.
The boiling blood coursing through her veins was replaced by icy water as they reached the garbage mountain. Once behind it, she helped her father set up what remained of an old 2-person pump car, basically little more than a rusty base with some wheels on it. Once they got it onto the track, they moved their hands as if spinning an invisible crank, using their bending to turn the wheels.
Sparks soared behind them and the wheels squealed in dismayed protest, but they slowly built up speed, and soon they were whizzing down the tracks, back to the industrial sector.
"Should we have hidden the car better?" Euryale asked.
Her father shook his head. "Wouldn't have mattered. They were way more prepared than we expected. Anyway, the car's not a problem, I've paid enough rent on it to cover the replacement costs, and we should be able to get a new one within the week."
"In that case, do you mind if I sit down?" Euryale asked, rubbing her head and stomach. "I feel a little...a little...."
Phorcys tried to block out the noises as she dropped to her hands and knees, releasing the contents of her stomach along the tracks.
"Motion sickness?" he asked.
"No," she said softly, shaking her head. The image of the crumpled Agni Kais burned into her eyes every time she closed them. "I...I killed them...."
They lost a bit of speed as Phorcys put a comforting hand on her daughter's shoulder. "You didn't do anything wrong. You said it yourself, they were attacking us. It was self-defense. Sometimes, these things just happen."
"Right," she groaned, unconvinced.
"They don't seem to be following us," he noted, looking back. "Probably looking for a new hide out."
"Right," Euryale said again. Her eyes burned, her lids finally losing their valiant battle with their own weight. She stared down the image scorched into her retinas, unable to look away.
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