When Zuko puts the mask on, everything changes.
'This is magnificent-and it is true! It never happened; yet it is still true. What magic art is this?' -- Robin Goodfellow
"Come on, we're talking about a gold piece, here! Let's see some action! Dance!"
Zuko's eyes narrowed as the passerby pulled twin broadswords from the sheath on his back and began swiping the ground beneath Iroh's feet, forcing the old man to dance as he sang the second verse of /The Girls of Ba Sing Se/. By the end of the performance, Zuko was gripping his knees in impotent rage. They were next in line for rulership of the Fire Nation! How dare this Earth Kingdom peasant mock them like this?
But he couldn't do anything about it. Without weapons, it was doubtful that he could defeat the older, armed man without revealing his Firebending abilities. And even if he did manage it, the most it would get him and his uncle was rolled out of town by the local authorities.
He could barely contain his anger as the man laughed loudly and tossed a gold coin into Iroh's hat. What was worse, Iroh seemed to not even notice the humiliation. "What a kind man." He said as he sat back down. Zuko longed to get some measure of payback against the man, but there was nothing he could do as long as he needed to keep his Firebending abilities a secret.
A spot of blue on the side of a mask vendor's wagon caught his eye, and an idea suddenly occurred to him. Prince Zuko was helpless without firebending, yes...
But there was someone else who was not.
Luta was cleaning off one of the tables in the Dancing Badgermole when Shen came stumbling in.
"Oh Gods, Shen, what happened to you?" she asked, rushing to his side. The left side of his face was a massive bruise, and judging by the way he was clutching his arm, that hurt too.
"Some asshole jumped me in the alley," he said, sitting down with a grunt of pain. "He was all over me before I knew what was happening."
"Did he take anything?"
"Just my swords. I didn't even get a good look at him. He came at me out of nowhere. Couldn't even see his face; he had a blue mask on."
"A blue mask?" asked Ping, another regular who had come over to see what was wrong, "It didn't look like this, did it?" He reached inside of his tunic and pulled out a small sheet of paper. When he smoothed it onto the table, they could see it was a wanted poster.
"Yeah, that's him."
"I took this while I was in Fire Nation territory." Ping used to be a spy, before he'd been caught and had his face plastered on wanted posters all over the Fire Nation. "Some bandit called the Blue Spirit. He hit a Fire Nation fortress and freed the Avatar all on his own. Next day, these are on every Notice Board in the Fire Nation."
"A bandit from the Fire Nation? What's he doing here?"
"My guess is, the Fire Nation made things too hot for him back home, so he decided to come here."
Shen and Luta both glared at him.
"What?" he asked, genuinely puzzled, until the awful pun he'd made registered with his mind. "Sorry."
"All I know about him is that if I see him again, I'll make him wish he'd never been born." Shen said, leaning backwards as far as he could.
It was hours later that Luta left the bar, her shift finally over. Shen had long since gone home, supported by a drunken Ping. The drunker Shen had gotten, the more he went on about the Blue Spirit and getting his swords back. Hopefully the poor man would feel better in the morning.
It was a new moon in the sky, and the streets were dark. So she didn't see the men coming up behind her until it was too late.
When she felt the hands around her body she tried to scream, but a hand clamped over her mouth, choking off any sound. She twisted and struggled as she was dragged into a side alley where they couldn't be seen.
There were three...no, four men around her. One of them was behind her, keeping her arms and mouth restrained, while the other three stood at a short distance, rubbing their hands together and undressing her with their eyes. The nearest came forward and leaned in close.
"I've been looking forward to this for a long time, bitch."
She recognized him. He was a patron at the bar. Not a regular, but she'd served him drinks several times. She could smell the liquor on his breath as he reached forward to pull her dress off. /Did I serve that to him? /she wondered pointlessly. She redoubled her struggling, but the one holding her was strong, and she couldn't break free.
Suddenly there was the sound of something hitting the ground, and the two men who had been watching were falling to the ground, screaming. The man in front of her turned to see what was going on and immediately fell backwards, clutching at his throat in a vain attempt to stop the blood flow. A blade shot through the space her would-be rapist had occupied, ending with the point in her restrainer's throat.
Luta looked up at her rescuer's face, and saw only a blue demon mask.
The Blue Spirit wiped his blades on the dead men's tunics, combined them into one and slid them into the sheath on his back. And then, without a word, he leapt onto the wall, climbed onto the roof, and was away.
Zuko placed the mask in a hole in a tree, taking care to remember where he'd put it. He would need it again before long. That accomplished, he returned to where Iroh was warming his hands by the fire.
"And where did you go last night, Prince Zuko?" his uncle asked as he walked into the cave. Day was breaking over the treetops, filling the cave with a soft glow.
"Out. About. Nowhere, really."
Iroh's face broke out in a knowing grin. "Has someone met a nice lady friend?"
"I don't really want to talk about it." Zuko said, laying down on the floor and pulling a blanket over himself.
Iroh grinned and began making his morning tea. It was good to see his nephew doing something besides moping about.
It wasn't long before the small city was fairly flooded with reports of the Blue Spirit terrorizing the populace. A donut merchant and his wife had a day's stock stolen from them in broad daylight as they brought them into the shop. A wealthy merchant had a box full of money stolen right out of his arms as he rode into town in a wagon. There'd been no accounts of him seriously hurting anybody, though, and no accounts at all of him killing anybody, not since he had saved Luta that first night.
She hadn't told anyone about that. She wasn't sure anyone would believe her, and in any case it wasn't like anyone could do anything about it. They'd tried to rape her, and the Blue Spirit had killed them. Story ends.
She poured another cup for Shen, who was ranting about the Blue Spirit once more. He had a small group around him, all of whom were nodding in agreement. Ping was by his side, although he was considerably more sober. Shen had been trying to rally up a group of people to chase down and capture the Blue Spirit. He said they were going out tomorrow night to put an end to this once and for all. Luta didn't think they'd have much luck; one thing all tales of the Blue Spirit agreed on was that you never saw him until it was too late.
Zuko sat in the cave he and Iroh occupied, relaxing. His muscles ached slightly, but otherwise, he hadn't felt this good in ages. He'd forgotten how good it felt to be the Blue Spirit. He just put the mask on, and he could feel a change come over him. Zuko was weak, and flawed, and helpless without his firebending, but the Blue Spirit was...perfect. Mysterious, silent, invincible.
Iroh came in, and looked at the new assortment of luxuries with stern disapproval. "I see you've done some shopping. But where did you get the money?"
"Do you like your new tea pot?" Zuko asked, trying to avoid the question.
"To be honest," Iroh said with a sigh, "I've always found the best tea tastes delicious whether it's poured from a porcelain pot or a tin cup."
Luta looked up from the bar as someone new walked in. She hadn't seen him around before. She walked over to get his order.
"Some wine, please."
"Sorry, kiddo, I think you're a bit young for that. I can get you some nice tea, though." The newcomer fixed her with a steely glare and she relented. "Alright, alright, as long as you've got the coin."
She poured out a glass of wine and brought it back to his table. He took it and flipped her a coin without saying a word. He drank it sullenly, as if saying that all he wanted was to be left alone.
Unfortunately, leaving people alone was not a skill she was famous for. She pulled up a chair and sat on the other side of the table. He glanced at her, but didn't say a word.
"So...do you want to talk about it?"
"Talk about what?"
"Whatever it is that's making you so damn depressing."
He glared at her for a few moments more before sighing and setting his half-empty glass down. "I'm travelling with my uncle and we had an...argument. I just needed to get away."
"What sort of argument?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Ok, then...what would you like to talk about? Where did you get that scar?"
"It's a burn mark. I don't want to talk about that, either."
"Oh, I get it. Fire Nation, huh? There's lots of folks around here in the same boat as you. The war's displaced a lot of people."
"I believe I said I don't want to talk about it."
"Fine, be that way. What do you think about the Blue Spirit?"
"You mean that guy on all the wanted posters with the blue mask? He's a criminal and with any luck he'll be brought to justice soon."
"I don't know...I mean, he's a thief, but I've never heard of him actually hurting anyone. And the other night he saved my life."
"Oh? What happened?"
"I'd rather not talk about it." Luta said, imitating him perfectly. He grinned slightly at that, but immediately remembered himself and set his face in a scowl once more. Taking this as a good sign, Luta extended one hand. "My name's Luta." The boy shook it hesitantly.
"Nice to meet you, Lee. So, what are you doing in to-"
She was cut off by the sound of a large explosion outside. The bar's patrons all turned towards the source of the sound. When Luta looked back, Lee had vanished.
She went outside with everybody else to see what was going on. A group of bandits had broken through the city wall, riding atop two platforms of stone that slid along the ground, propelled by an Earthbender in the front. Night had long since fallen, but they carried torches by which to see. The leader leapt off his platform and drew his sword, pointing it at the assembled crowd.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, do not be alarmed! We are here only for your valuables and money. Cooperate and you will not be harmed. Resist, and we'll be forced to start cutting some heads off, and nobody wants that."
She watched with the rest of them as the bandits got off of their platform and began going from door to door, ordering the inhabitants to bring out anything valuable. Necklaces were snatched from necks, drawers were rummaged, and whole businesses pillaged. They'd come around to the Dancing Badgermole before too long, and then they would take all the wine and drinks and then there would be nothing to serve the customers. Something drew her eyes upwards, to the rooftops, and her heart leapt up into her throat as she caught sight of who was standing up there.
It was the Blue Spirit.
Zuko, having taken advantage of the distraction the explosion provided to escape, counted the bandits carefully. There were twenty of them, and at least two of them were powerful Earthbenders. Those were some tough odds. They would pick this entire side of town clean before the police even realized what was happening, and then escape on their slabs of rock.
Without even realizing it, he found himself trying to come up with ways to defeat them. Discovering this surprised him; he was a thief just like they were, and given the chance these townspeople would treat him no more kindly than they would treat these bandits. But then he looked around him, and saw all these people, and the looks on their faces as everything they had was taken away from them.
He knew how that felt.
He surreptiously slipped away from the crowd and ducked into an alley where nobody could see him. He reached into his robe and pulled out the Mask. He knew Zuko couldn't hope to defeat all the bandits...
But perhaps the Blue Spirit could.
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and pressed the mask over his face.
Luta gasped as the Blue Spirit leapt off the roof, a line of spectral blue flame running along the edge of each of his twin blades. He took the nearest two bandits by surprise, lopping an arm off each. They fell to the ground, screaming and clutching at their stumps. The rest of the bandits turned to face the source of the screams, and found themselves face to face with a man in a blue demon mask, holding two swords in a ready stance. For an instant, nobody moved.
Then one of the Earthbenders dropped down into solid stance, stomped the ground with a foot, and the ground underneath the Blue Spirit shot upwards into the air.
The Spirit leapt off the top of the newly formed spire, and danced to the side of a fast-approaching column of earth the other Earthbender had sent flying towards him. He ran along the ground, approaching a trio of bandits that were between him and the Earthbenders. The one in the middle was armed with a spear, but the two on either side held swords. He leapt in the air, and the point of the spear raised to catch him as he fell. He knocked it aside with a sweep of one blade, then turned his attention towards the two swordmen. He parried their swings, then twisted the blades aside. He ran his blade down theirs' length, pushing past the guard to cut at their wrists. The one on his left grimaced, but the other dropped his sword with a curse, clutching at his wrist. With one sword now free, the Spirit brought it over to cut the other swordsman's throat before he could break free.
The spearman took a few steps backwards, then thrust the spear at him once more. The Blue Spirit sidestepped towards the wounded swordman, bringing one blade down on the wounded man's neck as he did.
What happened next would later become a matter of contention among those gathered. It happened so quickly that there was considerable doubt as to the exact sequence of events. But Luta knew what she saw, and what she saw was this: The Blue Spirit thrust one blade into the spearman's chest and let it go. He brought the other blade up on the hands holding the spear and pushed it upwards, out of the wielder's suddenly-limp hands. He caught it out of the air, and threw it. It went in right between the nearest Earthbender's eyes and came out the other side. The Spirit pulled his sword out of the dead bandit's chest before the body could so much as hit the ground.
The other Earthbender screamed in rage and pulled an enormous boulder out of the earth, and sent it flying toward the Blue Spirit. The Spirit ran forward and slid down on his back. The boulder passed within centimetres of the mask as it flew by, but an instant later the Spirit was on his feet, unscathed, and began running towards the Earthbender, each sword trailing behind it a line of spectral blue flame.
The bandit made a series of strong motions, and several smaller pieces of earth dislodged themselves from the ground and flew towards him. The Spirit dodged to the side and deflected two more with the flat of his blades, continuing forward.
He kept moving forward, deflecting more and more earth, and the Earthbender began to get more and more frantic. Finally, as the Spirit closed in the Earthbender erected a wall to keep them seperate.
Unfortunately for him, he didn't raise it high enough. He died as the Spirit leapt over the wall and brought both blades crashing down, cutting huge ruts across his chest.
A sudden movement to his right caught his attention, and he grabbed the Earthbender's corpse and held it up in front of him as a shield. Three arrows sunk deep into the body as a trio of archers released their bowstrings. The Spirit threw the corpse aside, then began racing towards them. He zig-zagged along the ground, constantly changing directions. As he got closer, he began leaping about at random intervals, making it all but impossible to predict where he would be next. Arrows whizzed through the air, but not a one found their mark. And when the Blue Spirit reached them, they were cut down in seconds.
The rest of the bandits charged the Spirit, brandishing swords and clubs and other deadly weapons. Luta lost sight of what was happening. All she could see was the men moving about, and two lines of blue fire. And then the men began falling to the ground, one by one, until the only one standing was the Blue Spirit, surrounded by a ring of the dead and dying.
The bandit leader, now bereft of men, set his face into a scowl of concentration and advanced on the Blue-Masked warrior.
In his defence, he lasted longer than any of his men had. He held off the Spirit for almost ten seconds, parrying and thrusting. But eventually the Spirit slipped under his guard and buried both blades in his gut.
He wiped both blades on the leader's clothing, and slid them together into the sheath. Then he turned to face the assembled crowd. For a moment, both sides simply stared at each other...
Then Shen screamed "Get him!", and the mob surged forward.
There is something to be said for mob mentality. There were enough people assembled to have easily overrun the bandits, yet nobody had made a move against them. Nobody had wanted to be the first to die. But when some idiot starts it, they didn't even stop to think about charging someone they'd just seen kill twenty men.
None of them, that is, except for Luta. She raced forward, but it was to grab Shen by the tunic and turn him around.
"What are you doing?" she screamed at him. "That man just saved us all!"
"Yeah, and he did it with my swords," Shen retorted. "He's as big a danger to us as those men were, and if we're lucky we can put an end to both today."
"You're wrong!" Luta shouted, smacking him in the chest. "He saved us all tonight, and he saved me in the alley, and this is how you repay him?"
"You aren't making any sense, Luta. Ping, take her home. I've got a blue ghost to catch."
And with that he strode off in pursuit, leaving her with Ping. Ping took her arm, not harshly, but not gently either, and began leading her down the road towards her house.
As they walked, Luta cried out the whole story to him, of the men and the alley, of the masked figure saving her from them, and then-even though he'd been there-the bandits and Shen calling for the Spirit's head. Ping, for his part, kept his usual stolid silence, only nodding at the correct times to show that he was listening.
"It's not fair," she sobbed as he led her up to her doorstep. "He was glorious tonight. And what does he get for it? Hunted and hated. He saves lives, but what does that matter when Shen wants his swords back?"
"No matter what else he may be, Luta, he is a thief." Ping declared, breaking silence for the first time. "And for that the people will hate him. Certainly, he did not take that much, especially when compared with the men he killed tonight. And he only hurt those who are hurting others. But to those he took from, he will forever be a demon in man's skin, and nothing you can say or he can do will change that. Goodnight, Luta." He said as he opened her door for her. "Try to get some sleep. I will bring some news in the morning."
And sleep she did. When she was awakened in the morning by a knock on her door, she was not at all surprised to learn that the Blue Spirit had given them the slip once more.
"We chased him through the streets, across rooftops and through houses for hours, until the sun was peeking over the horizon. So many times we thought we'd finally cornered him, but he always found a way to slip through. And not once did he speak. I was inches from him once, and I saw him take a foot to the gut, but never once did he say a word or cry out. I'm starting to think that Shen's right; maybe he is a demon disguised as a man. Why doesn't he speak?"
Luta stood in silence. She didn't know the answer to that question either.
Zuko was exhausted. All night those damned peasants had chased him through the streets, doing their very best to capture or kill him. It had taken him until daybreak to shake them off. But he had managed it eventually, and he felt amazing. He knew he couldn't go back to a life of thievery-not after seeing it from their perspective like that. But he had done some good today, and beaten almost unbeatable odds to do so.
The time of the thief was over. He placed the mask within the roots of the tree as he had so many times in the past few days, but this time he was not coming back to retrieve it. Let someone else find it, and use it. Or perhaps someone would find it and come up with some new chapter about the Death of the Blue Spirit, and the story would continue.
And then he walked away, leaving the mask to lie within the tangle of roots. It sat, propped up against the side of its ropy prison, grinning to all the world, as though inviting someone to come along and pick it up.