We had failed. All our machinations, all our schemes, useless. The final bastion of the Earth Kingdom had fallen.
We're in trouble.
Why didn't we listen to Bumi" He said he wouldn't be able to hold out forever. But nooo, we knew better, we thought we had to have a final symbol of resistance. We were idiots.
Sure, it had been a grand battle, but in the end, the outcome had been inevitable. The Fire Nation could not be denied.
I, of course, had only really been of any use once the battle was already lost, a whole quarter of the city gone, slid into the abyss by sappers, hundreds dead. We never should have fought.
So here I was, breathing as lightly as I could, hiding in a broom cupboard in the first house I had dived into while the soldiers scoured the city, looking for me. It had been four hours since Bumi had surrendered, and I was the only priority target still unaccounted for.
It took twelve hours to escape the city, ducking into alleyways, hiding in semi-wrecked houses, skulking away from patrols. I have never been naturally stealthy. I'm too tall.
I do, however, have a good sense of balance, and this came in handy more than once when I came to the unstable and very dangerous ground that was what remained of one quarter of the city. The patrols hadn't headed over that way yet, and wouldn't until they could stabilise the ground. And so I sat amongst the rubble, admiring the wide, jagged slope that lead down into the canyon.
It was almost beautiful in it's devastation. The jagged crags of rock, the piles of rubble forming an uneven but inexorable slide into the abyss, the setting sun washing everything a burnt orange. It was so quiet, so still. A shocked pause while the city tried to understand what had happened here.
And think, this had been streets, shops, homes, not two days ago.
I think I slept, then. In any case, it was morning before I set out on the next and most dangerous part of my escape.
Climbing down to the canyon floor.
The journey was slow, dangerous, and very tiring, and it brought back unpleasant memories of a visit to a temple in the south. I rested whenever I got the opportunity, lying back on some outcrop or other. I had had the foresight to take with me as much food as I could carry, and I ate at around midday. I had with me, of course, a napkin; which I spread across a stone, and my chopsticks, so I was able to maintain some semblance of civilisation on my six feet of rock shelf halfway down into the mist.
Did you know I used to have a butler"
Never mind. It's not important right now.
So there I was, climbing down the pillar of stone that for so long had reassured me of Omashu's invincibility. Now it was just a hindrance. It is the way of things, I suppose. I'm not a natural climber, and I don't have much of a head for heights, but I managed to overcome these two problems by virtue of the fact that I didn't have much of a choice. So, long after the sun had set, I found myself on the canyon floor, among the wreckage of a district of Omashu.
It was... grim, to say the least. The mist curled around everything, thick and grey, but I could see enough. The ground beneath me was rubble from the city, most of it pulverised and unrecognisable, but every so often as I made my way through the fog I could see what had to have been a wall, or someone's door, or debris from inside a house. I think I saw a chair.
Lots of bodies, too. Most were buried, or crushed, nothing but smashed flesh and powdered bones now. But, again, some were recognisable, barely. It made the bile rise in my throat to see the outcome of the Fire Nation's greatest victory in ten years, just as it had so long ago. I forced myself to focus. I wasn't here to weep over the wreckage, I was here to escape to fight another day.
I sat on one of the flatter pieces of debris- probably used to be a wall- and caught my breath.
People don't come down here into the canyon, not if they can help it. The mists conceal all manner of... unpleasant things, and there's nothing down here worth the risk. Just a dirty river, which the city uses to get rid of its sewage.
But that means the Fire Nation won't be following me. At least not for a while.
I picked my way through the rubble. It was silent, and cloying. Fitting, for a mausoleum.
Miraculously, I came across a basket. There were a couple of completely unharmed apples in it.
Well, I'm not one to let food go to waste. I picked one up, and polished it on my sleeve.
Suddenly, there was a noise up ahead. Pocketing the apple, I crept through the mist. The sound was... organic, mixed with a series of crunches and cracks. Suddenly, I saw moving shapes in the mist, huge and low, each larger than ostrich-horses.
Canyon crawlers. Nice.
There are three of them, feeding on the dead, picking them out of the rubble. It's the closest anyone here is going to get to a burial. Logically, I should leave them.
Except they're in my way. I have to get to the river, otherwise I could be lost for hours, hours I don't want to waste.
Long heads swivel, looking up from their meal.
They've got my scent anyway. Too late now, here they come-
I twist on one foot, drawing my sword from my back as the first one charges, turning the momentum from the swivel into a sideways blow that severs the beast's left front leg at the knee. It gives a hideous cry and slumps to the ground, legs kicking, stump spraying dark green blood everywhere, but a lunge between the eyes finishes it.
The second was pouncing, but I was already away, and it's leap was wild, uncoordinated. A casual flick toward it's open mouth separated it's lower jaw from the rest of it, and a second strike into one eye was enough to put it down for good but then the second one was leaping and there wasn't time to move so I just reassured myself of my footing, braced myself, and lunged.
Damn. I liked this shirt too. Canyon crawler blood never comes out.
I wrenched my sword free of the carcass, and set about cleaning it on my ruined shirt. Canyon crawlers. Huh. Been a long while since I fought them- must have been twelve years, at least. Can't help but think that there's something I've forgotten about them.
Shapes moved in the fog, and a scuttling explosion jogged my memory.
Canyon crawlers typically group in swarms of twenty-five to fifty.
In seconds, the fog spewed out dozens of black shapes, long jaws snapping excitedly. Then they saw me, but more importantly they smelled the crawler blood on me, and they slowed. Confused, wary. It couldn't last for long.
I've faced down odds like this before. Before, however, I was fresh, fed, twelve years younger, and, most importantly of all, I was secure in the knowledge that the most dangerous swordsmaster in the entire Northern Earth Kingdom was just one crevasse over. Now, well, I had none of those advantages.
Suffice to say, this has not been one of my better days.
Facing down enormous odds, with sub-optimal terrain, I did what any self-respecting warrior would have done.
I turned tail and fled.
I've always been fast. When I was in the Fire Nation Boys Camp, a tender ten years old, I remember clearly the pride I felt when they told me I was a natural cross-country runner. You don't forget something like that, and one should never underestimate the power of praise like that on children as twitchy and insecure as I was. There are very few men indeed that can match me over rough terrain.
I wasn't running from men.
The canyon crawlers were right at home in the rubble, and I knew I had a matter of seconds before they overtook me. I needed high ground.
There was a roar in my ears and a rush in the air and a feeling I hadn't felt in a long time- fear. Genuine, adrenaline-pulsing fear for my life, the rush of knowing that there's only me and my wits and my sword separating me from a painful death.
Quite the rush.
A shape loomed out of the fog, and I scrabbled up to it, seeing that it was a crude tower of rubble. Hardly ideal, but there's an idiom about ports and storms that fits here. I scrambled, climbing high, balancing on the rough point until I could hack down at anything trying to get at me. I am not going to be eaten today.
Let's see what you've got.
They charged forward, swarming around the base of my column, and one bold one scrambled up onto the backs of his comrades and leapt up for my head. I quickly relieved him of his. But that was the signal, it seemed, and the beasts were suddenly frenzied, surging up, and my sword was singing in my hand but it wasn't going to be enough, and sure enough the rock beneath my feet was beginning to give, and I was slipping slipping falling
A true warrior is never constrained by other's perceptions. A true warrior also knows stable footing when he sees it.
The backs of these monsters were definitely not stable footing. See above, regarding that idiom about ports and storms.
The 'ground' beneath my feet was a seething mass of stiff black hair that cut into my shoes and slashed at my ankles, but I kept moving, adrenaline lending me wings, leaping from back to back and springing off a snapping jaw to land flawlessly on another pile of rubble, this one substantially tougher.
So I'd bought a little time. That didn't solve the fundamental problem of-
Huh" What's going on"
Instead of following me, the canyon crawlers are looking skittish, wary. I thought for a second I might have confused them with my little trick, but no. This was something else. Something much, much worse.
The noise was the worst part. A kind of high pitched hissing, loud and pervasive and impossible to pin down. It got the crawlers completely spooked, and from my position on my rubble I thought I could see a shape moving in the fog. Or maybe I couldn't.
Suddenly, a crawler broke, fleeing from the rest into the mist.
I waited with bated breath, waited for the sudden screech that would pin down my newest worst enemy.
Nothing. It sounded like that one had made it out.
Emboldened my their comrade's success, the rest of the canyon crawlers began to move, scuttling away as a group.
And that's when it struck. There was no roar, no warning. Just suddenly this huge, huge shape burst from the shadows, all grey fur and scales and claws and a huge diamond head snapping forward and biting down a crawler in one gulp before turning it's attention to the rest.
A viper-rat. One of the biggest land predators in the world. They only feed once a month or so, but when they do, they eat a lot. I guess the carrion (bodies, civilian bodies) brought it out. In moments, seven canyon crawlers lay dead, and the rest fled.
I am a cautious man, by nature and lack of nurture. I try to avoid making rash judgements. But I can say, without a single moment's hesitation, that I am in serious trouble. I had only seen a viper-rat once before, on that expedition twelve years ago we had actually been hunting one, and we had ended up trapping it with a landslide and then I got taught how to use a bow. I wasn't exactly a master first time, but we had a lot of arrows and I had a big target.
No such luxuries today.
I couldn't run. No point. The beast was busy eating the canyon crawlers it had killed, but it knew where I was, and could easily outrun me. And it would soon finish it's meal. I did not want to end up a second course.
Let's see. What do I know about viper-rats" Well, their venom is strong enough to knock an ostrich-horse dead with a few drops (the swordsmaster I had trained with in the Northern Earth Kingdom had poisoned her arrowheads with the stuff, that was why we had hunted one in the first place. Strange woman. When she was convinced that she didn't have anything more to teach me about killing men, she insisted I learn to kill animals, so we went and set up camp right in the middle of the Great Divide for three months. Very educational), they're faster than a man over distances of up to three miles, their hides are scaled underneath the coarse hair that grows in patches, and they have very poor eyesight, but make up for it with a phenomenal sense of smell and hearing. Also, they're very smart, rivalling messenger hawks in that regard.
So I have no advantages whatsoever. Excellent. I did think that my life was a little too easy at the moment.
I sheathed my sword, at least for now. Okay. Plan of action"
Run away, as fast as I can. Now, while the thing's still eating.
I kept my eye on the grey bulk as it merrily crunched the carcasses of the canyon crawlers, and took a cautious step down from the rubble.
So far, so good. Now, which way do you think the river is"
Ah yes. Over there. North-west of where I am now, if memory serves.
A prayer to Agni on my tongue, I burst forward and ran.
For a few breathless seconds, all I could hear was the rush of blood in my ears, drowning out even my footsteps. Then a scuffle, as huge claws raked up the ground, and a roar like a thousand saws at the bottom of a very deep well, and the chase was on.
I ran in dead, controlled, silence, all energy devoted to simply running as fast as I possibly could, ignoring the thunder that was chasing me. This couldn't last long. My running had startled it, but within seconds it would be upon me.
I looked up. Seconds would be enough.
Five strides away there was another small outcrop of rock, arranged in several rough piles. Without hesitation, I leapt as soon as I could, dodging evisceration by scant moments and landing on the rock. As I sprang down on the other side, I wondered exactly how much time I had gained.
Not much. But -
There was the river! I wasn't going to die, possibly!
I stumbled, fell.
The claws came down, one huge paw slamming into my back, crushing me into the dirt, the unbearable weight of the monster grinding me into the ground.
Pain. How I've missed you. But no time for reunions now.
As soon as I had fallen, I had pulled my sword into my hand, but it was dropped now, and I scrabbled blindly for it. Come on, come on, where are you"
My hand was empty, and I would soon be-
The beast knocked me sideways, slamming me into a rock, leaving me winded and dazed as it moved in for the kill. Out of options, out of time, I backed up blindly, until my fist closed around a loose stone.
Perfect. Now wait... wait...
The beast reared back to lunge, and I threw the stone right into it's yellow eye.
The cry of pain it shrieked made me wince, but I was already away, running towards the glint of silver that was my sword, and I rolled under a wild swing and then I was up and standing and my blade was in my hand and I planted my feet and swung.
Two clawed fingers were severed, and I ran for the river as the beast hissed in pain. Run run run leap-
-Hit the brown river. I'm a bad swimmer, but I'm safe. Behind me, the monster snorts. Impotent rage.
The smell of the ...river masks my scent, but that comes with it's own drawbacks. Namely, the fact that there is... river in my eyes and river in my ears and the stench of river is in my clothes and my hair and oh Agni why do you do these things to me"
There is an idiom you might have heard of that refers to dire straits. When one is in dire straits, they can be said to be up a certain creek without a paddle. Well, I'm swimming in that creek. And I have no paddle.
Look on the bright side, I thought, as I swam away from the confused predator. Perhaps this is my nadir. This one day can be said to be one of the worst of my life, can it not" So it only follows that maybe things will get better soon"
Things... didn't get better. For nearly two years, things did not get better at all.