Azula did not like this place. She did not like it at all.
If asked, she would say it was the way the mist clung to the ground, stubbornly holding on to the land- it could hide any number of dangers. She would say it was the canyon walls, tall and foreboding (and she swore, once or twice, that she saw movement high on the sides of the walls)- they blocked out the sun, denying her Agni's warmth. She might even say it was the smell- this river was an open sewer, and made no effort to disguise that fact.
It was none of those things, though. She just didn't like it.
That was ridiculous, though. Frivolous, and childish.
We ditched the boat at what I estimated to be mid-morning. My arms were getting tired, rowing against the current, and it seemed impolite to ask Zuko to row.
Azula destroyed the boat, after I asked her nicely. She seemed to be looking for a good reason to refuse, but couldn't find one in time.
Honestly. There's attempting to undermine my agenda, and then there's just childishness.
Wait. She is a child.
I suppose that's acceptable, then.
I led the way, setting as brisk a pace as I thought we would be able to maintain. I had to stop myself moving any faster- although Spring was long since upon us, the damp mist and the tall cliffs blocking the sun made the canyon deathly cold. I resorted to swinging my arms periodically in a not quite vain effort to warm myself up. The Lady Ursa, being the entirely civilian member of the group (the children were at least trained, although that only counts so far, but nevertheless they were in fighting shape) was simply concentrating on walking, and the siblings were of course firebenders, and so less susceptible to the cold than the rest of us mortals.
That might be the one thing I have consistently envied about firebenders. Well, that and the ability to get a campfire started first time.
They trudged along the bank of the river, they grey sand beneath their feet damp and gritty, sticking to Azula's shoes in small clumps, defying her covert attempts to remove it. It was revolting.
The final straw came when she stepped on a concealed hole- the burrow of some small animal, most likely- and her foot disappeared into the ground.
"Was there some pressing reason why we had to come this way" she asked as she attempted to pull herself out of the damp sand, stubbornly ignoring Zuko's proffered hand.
Master Piandao stopped, and half-turned.
"I know it's not exactly the most pleasant of locations, Princess, but it does have several advantages. It's the fastest point for me to get to Kyoshi Island,"
That isn't even close to being true. If I wanted to be as fast as I could, I would have had us land back at Ho Sang, where I had left my eelhound (and I shall have to pick him up soon, or the bill for the stable will be ridiculous). It's further, but I would have my eelhound, which would have made up the distance and then some.
"And also the most convenient for your guide to meet us."
Another lie. That would be a point ten miles north. Close to Ho Sang, actually.
"It also has the advantage of being a place that the Fire Nation never patrols."
That, at least, is true.
"And why is that" Azula asked, as she grudgingly took Zuko's hand, pulling herself out of the sand. It felt like a defeat, somehow.
I'd really hoped this wouldn't come up.
"There's nothing down here," I tried. "Just a sewer, and some rocks."
"And," said Azula, pointedly, "an undetectable passage directly below Omashu."
"Yes. That too." Damn. Damn damn damn.
We started walking again.
He still hadn't answered her question. Zuko and Ursa were beginning to look confused. Normally, Azula might have been pleased at this, but now she barely noticed. For some reason, she was starting to be worried about whatever Master Piandao might say.
Except he wasn't saying it. So she asked again.
"So why do they not patrol down here"
He didn't turn around, but she could see him exhale heavily.
"They rely on the local fauna to act as a deterrent."
"What" Zuko interjected, after a moment.
I shrugged, and turned around as it became apparent that no one else was moving.
"This area is home to canyon crawlers and the like. Since such beasts aren't found in the Fire Nation, the soldiers are naturally terrified of them, and assume them to be perfect monsters to guard this crevasse. The canyon crawler is, by and large, a fantastically lazy beast. They don't go anywhere without the assurance of a meal, and they almost always prefer carrion to anything that might fight back. The only thing to worry about is their sense of smell, so we shall have to leave the canyon before we eat again. And that is about the most discomfort we shall be put through down here. With any luck."
The Lady Ursa still looks disapproving. Zuko looks ruffled, still. Azula is, of course, inscrutable.
"It would have been polite to let us know this, Master." Ursa does 'admonishing' well.
"I realise that, my Lady. But I was in something of a hurry. I will bear this in mind for next time."
And then we were off again. Good.
I really don't want to have to spend the night down here.
Azula seethed, privately.
That had been a golden opportunity. For half an instant, Master Piandao had been on the back foot, had been caught out. But he had recovered, and reassured Mother and Zuko as to his intentions.
Azula had no one to blame but herself, really. Even though Zuko had butted in. She hadn't been forward enough when she had the chance.
She consoled herself with the thought that she would have another chance. And besides, Zuko and Mother still seemed slightly put off by the whole business.
Maybe she could work with that, if not now, then in the days ahead.
Although they were apparently meeting a 'guide'. Problematic, but really, she had expected something along those lines. She could deal with that.
They kept walking.
We were getting close.
Azula had long since lost track of how long they had been walking- the thin mist that clung implacably to the edges of her vision added an almost dreamlike quality to the drudgery of repetition. Follow the river as it gently curved and weaved. Watch the bend in the canyon. As you go around the bend, watch for the next one. Repeat. On and on in an unending cycle until she was almost certain she had fallen asleep hours ago and then-
And then there was the city. A great, terrifying pillar, rising up from the ground (and she supposed that was literally true), dashing the mist against itself. Even from a hundred feet away she still had to crane her neck to even see where the buildings began.
Piandao never slowed. Never even turned his head upwards. Just kept following the river.
Oh well. Keep moving, then.
So close I can taste it, now. We've got the weather for it, too- overcast, but not about to rain. Rain would spoil the impact somewhat. Well, a little drizzle might not hurt.
This idea leaves a sour taste in my mouth. But that cannot be helped, I fear.
Too late to turn around now.
Azula wondered, for a moment, why the ground was growing steadily more uneven as they walked. The damp grey sand was becoming studded with rock, more and more frequent with every step until they were climbing an erratic hill of stones.
Why was there a mass of debris at the bottom of the canyon"
It must have come from the city. A construction project" Not likely. Earthbenders would never be so wasteful of the stone.
And then she almost slipped, the loose stones beneath her feet giving way, and she barely managed to leap back to stable footing in time.
The shifting of the stone had revealed something. Mottled yellow, and smooth.
Azula noted, from some detached corner of her brain, that it looked an awful lot like a fragment of skull.
Well that explained where the rubble had come from, at least.
And here we go. Azula has uncovered something.
There's not an awful lot left, on the surface. Unless you were looking, and knew what to look for, it would be easy to mistake this for just a pile of rock. Canyon Crawlers don't leave much that's recognisable.
But if you dig a little, or, say, start to pay attention, you start to notice things. The shape of some of the rocks. The fact that they aren't stones at all. And that is exactly what they have started to do.
There is no dawn of comprehension on the Lady Ursa's face. There's not much of anything that would show. I would hardly think she fails to recognise this, though.
Azula- Azula is interesting. She looks more revolted than anything else, like she had just seen something that offended the senses- and she could, if she dug deep enough, I am sure- but little more. Hmm.
It is Zuko, though, that I am really concerned with here. He is the reason for this detour, after all.
I could talk with him for days, present the most convincing arguments I could think of, bring forward evidence, statistics, anything I wished for, but nothing could be more convincing for him than an example. I needed to show him what victory looked like.
Is it what you imagined, Prince" In all the tales of glory, did you ever stop to think of the people who never made it home" Of the people caught in the crossfire"
I didn't. Not until I saw what victory meant.
And this is what is ugly about this plan. I'm turning the massacre into a demonstration. Using the dead to manipulate a boy. It smacks of dishonour.
I long ago gave up the dream of being an honourable man, though.
Azula wrinkled her nose.
This was... distasteful. But she had long since reconciled with the fact that some sacrifices would have to be made, and, well, better for the enemy to make them than the Fire Nation, when all was said and done.
Of course, no one could say that the deaths of civilians was ever defensible, but then the ruler of the city should have surrendered when given the chance.
Looking over, it occurred to her that perhaps Zuko might have benefited from learning some of these lessons earlier. He looked...
Say it. Come on, Zuko. Say it. You know you want to. I can see the question scrambling up your throat, not going anywhere near your brain. Say it. Say it say it say itsayitsaitsay it-
"...What happened here"
Thank you, Zuko. I couldn't have asked for a better straight man.
"This was the market district of Omashu. Until the Fire Nation attacked, of course. Now it's just a mass grave. Sappers dug into the rock walls, and planted hundreds upon hundreds of charges beneath the city. And they detonated them, leading to... this."
It was quite the opening gambit.
I still remember the shudder, some days (some nights, too). I was standing on the parapet, peering down at the city. Bumi and I were watching the great mobile bridges the Fire Nation were arraying against the city, to try to cross the ravine. They wouldn't work. We were ready for them.
The Fire Nation generals are typically all too eager to use their new toys, and often have a poor grasp of when they would be appropriate.
I remember almost chucking as I watched the awkward contraptions extend across the canyon.
And then the world shifted.
The entire city bucked, throwing us off balance, and by the time I righted myself I could see a huge cloud of dust billowing up from one side of the canyon, and could do nothing but watch transfixed as a whole quarter of the city just... crumpled, slipping grinding sliding it's way into oblivion.
The bridges extended, unopposed.
Bumi looked like a man destroyed.
The destruction of the entire market district"
Azula shook her head. Such a plan seemed nothing short of... wasteful. Certainly it was effective- the results spoke for themselves- but the collateral damage was really unnecessary and somewhat... inelegant. Not to mention it killed a great many people, many of whom had skills- carpentry, farming, what have you- that would have proved useful to the Fire Nation. If the Earth Kingdom nobility (and she used the term loosely) had been exterminated with the fall of the city, that might have been a less lamentable loss.
Brute force had never appealed to her, anyway.
I wonder, looking at their reactions, how much they have really been told about what has been happening. For Zuko, judging by his reaction, it hasn't been much. Azula" More, maybe, but she still seems affected by it.
The Lady Ursa... she must have known, before, about the particulars- after all, Ozai knew, and I think I knew the man well enough to know that he would keep his wife informed- he trusted her with as much as we would allow him to tell her- but I don't think she really thought about it too much. Well, now she doesn't have much of a choice.
So much the better for me, I suppose.
I let them stew in the silence and the cold for a minute or two. But no longer.
"My Lady, we should be moving on."
The Lady Ursa looks up, sharply, then nods, once.
"Yes. Indeed we should."
I think the mood has been set well enough. They're thinking, anyway. Challenging a few long-held misconceptions. Good enough for now, as long as they're thinking.
And what will you do, Piandao, if the Prince thinks about it, and comes to the conclusion that the war is worth it" That his great-grandfather's cause is worth the pain" After all, his uncle certainly came to that conclusion, and his father did, until we convinced him otherwise. What will you do then"
He stumbled. Just for a second, but Azula was certain that Master Piandao tripped.
It's an unpleasant question.
I'm trying to influence the Prince's decision. Of course I am. It is vital that he be convinced that the War needs to end. Preferably before Summer's End, but we have contingency plans for that not being the case. But by the time he is Fire Lord, he must have the desire to end the war.
If he doesn't, though" What will I do"
Logic dictates that the Prince should suffer some terrible accident. And that is not happening for any number of reasons.
For one, it would put Azula in line for the throne, and she is …unconvinced that we mean her no harm. To say the least.
And the other reason would be that I would have to murder a sixteen year old boy, and I hope that that is a depth to which I will not sink.
We have standards, you know, in the depths. I have known murderers and rapists who would slit your throat for suggesting they rob an old widow. Ten- hell, two years ago I would never have understood that.
Two years ago, I was just a foot soldier in Bumi's war.
I never thought I would miss that. But it was simple.
There was a lot of rubble.
It seemed to be making Zuko thoughtful.
That couldn't be good.
My sword is in my hand before I even know what's happening.
Azula's eyes flicked up.
Something was moving in the mist. A dark shape.
A very, very large shape.
This couldn't be good.
Zuko had seen it. His hand rested on the swords at his back, his eyes were wide.
Mother had nothing to defend herself with. Azula took half a step sideways, towards her, her eyes trained on the circling mass of shadow in the wreckage.
The hissing was getting louder.
Zuko opened his mouth.
"On my mark, I need you all to run. Keep following the river. Approximately half a mile away you will see a man on the opposite bank. If the man has a lot of untidy white hair, you can trust him. He will be your guide. If it's anyone else, get as far away from them as fast as you can and keep following the river until you come to a cave. That will lead you up into the mountains, and I will send word for someone to find you. But don't move until I say so. Alright"
No one says anything. Smart.
The silence accentuates the hissing, spitting noise, cutting over every other sound, interfering with any attempt to listen for the beast's footfalls.
I keep my eyes locked on the beast as it circles closer. It's getting clearer now.
Not yet. Come on, come on.I don't have all day.
Not yet. Not until I can see the yellow of its eyes.
The noise was bearing down on her, drilling through her ears and suddenly she could see the creature, the fog rolling off it like water and it was huge, a mass of grey fur and dull scales and a long, long neck and suddenly everything went silent.
I leap, angling myself to deflect and misdirect the lunge of that huge neck. As the beast snaps forward, my sword flicks out, the sheer pressure of the creature's strike knocking me aside, but it was enough- huge jaws closed on nothing, and the monster noticed me.
Better me than the others.
As my charges begin to (finally) move, I keep myself between them and the viper-rat. Keep myself in view.
The creature hunches, muscles bunching in preparation to leap.
There's a pillar behind me, and three paces to my right. A gully to my left, and a small pile of rock directly in between me and the monster.
Nothing useful immediately, but-
As the creature lunges, I roll aside, and swing, carving a shallow gash in it's front left leg. More to aggravate it than anything else, but I don't see the tail whipping around until it's too late and-
I pick myself up. Maybe broke a rib. Back's going to have some nice bruises tomorrow.
-It's pouncing again, and the only way out is-
-And land on the creature's back. The monster bucks and thrashes and I grab a handful of stiff grey hair and hold on as long as I can...
Now. The viper-rat's back coils and ripples as it leaps again, and I take that momentum and borrow it and I leap, hurling myself into the air and landing on the rough pillar of stone.
My ankles do not care for it.
This is no good (beast turning far, far too quickly to look at me). I've got it's attention (thundering up to my seat, it rears up) but I've got to do a lot better. It can take punishment (leap backwards as it comes crashing down, smashing the pillar into nothing), but one good hit on me and I'm dead (land on uneven ground, stumble backwards for five steps. It hurts. A lot). This won't-
Now I can see it clearly, I notice something.
The beast is missing three claws on one paw.
"But- we can't just leave him!"
Azula grimaced, but didn't look back.
"Yes. We can. And that is exactly what we are doing."
Zuko didn't like that. Azula didn't even have to look at him to know that Zuko didn't like that.
Next he was going to say 'we can't just leave him!'.
"We can't just leave him!"
Azula gritted her teeth. Yes, yes they could just leave him, because if they just left him it would get rid of him, and if they were rid of him then maybe, just maybe, they could start to take control of their own lives again.
"He'll be fine. Come on, we've got to move."
Mother was slowing. This didn't look good.
Zuko had stopped entirely, and was starting to turn around. He was going to go back to help.
"Zuko, no." Machinations aside, there was no way she was going to let him get himself killed by some giant monster. Not after all this.
There was really only one way around this.
"Zuko, stay with Mother."
She couldn't believe she was about to do this.
This is no good.
I'm bleeding from a cut over the eye- chunk of flying rock nearly took my eye out, and would have if I hadn't turned with the blow- I'm bruised, I may have broken a rib or two, my ankles hurt, and I'm getting tired. Also my hair is in my eyes.
And in return" Well, I have certainly trimmed the hair on the beast's flanks. And that's all I can really say with any certainty.
It's times like these that I really wish I were a renowned spear master. Or bow master. Or anything with a range longer than three feet, essentially.
In other news, I have at least made it angry. This is not necessarily a good thing.
Azula was good at rationalising. So, why was she rushing to the aid of the man who was- at his most favourable- a thorn in her side, and a complicating factor in any plans she would ever make, and at worst a man out to manipulate her and her family for his own ends, which almost certainly were not compatible with hers"
Well, for one thing, if she didn't do it, Zuko would, and Zuko in harm's way was something she didn't want.
For another thing...
That was about it, actually.
I hear running.
I should not be hearing running.
I am trying to stay out of sight behind a partially destroyed wall. The idea is that since I appear to be hiding, the viper-rat may try and sneak up on me, and so be caught off guard long enough for me to jump out and stab it in the eyes. Risky, I know, but it's all I've got right now.
Except I hear running.
And I should not be hearing running.
And the breathing that has been creeping up on me from the other side of the wall is disturbed, and I can hear a massive diamond head lifting, intrigued by whoever is running.
This is an opportunity for me, and very bad for whoever is doing the running.
There they were. It was. No sign of Master Piandao.
Maybe she was too late.
The creature's head jerked around from the rubble it was investigating with frightening speed, and Azula began to wonder if this had been such a good idea after all.
No time for regrets, though.
And the beast was whirling around so fast it was nothing but a grey blur and it was bounding closing the space between her and it with horrific speed and she couldn't move and this was-
A flutter of sliver, spiralling through the air, and the beast screamed and jerked it's head back, shaking and thrashing, trying to dislodge a dark shape on its back.
Azula inhaled. Her feet scraped the dirt, finding proper footing.
And she launched a stream of flame directly at the monster's neck.
I dropped my sword.
I dropped my sword.
This looks bad. I can't hold on much-
There's a sudden spike in the temperature of the air. The world is tinted blue for a second.
And the viper-rat goes insane.
The creature felt that, of that Azula was certain. It was bucking and thrashing and in places actually on fire and all Azula could think was wow.
Normally, she would have hated to be reduced to such incoherence, but the adrenaline was fizzing through her brain, and later she would forgive herself her monosyllables.
A dark shape hurtled through the air, rolling and twisting in midair until Master Piandao landed on his feet, wide eyed and frantic.
"What are you doing"
It's all I can think to ask, and I shouldn't have even done that because she's stopping to answer.
Azula was shoved roughly to the side as the beast fell upon them, and span backwards, inches away from the viper-rat's claws.
Master Piandao was not so fortunate. The huge diamond head had knocked him into the air, and he slammed with terrible force into a rough outcrop of rubble.
He didn't get a chance to move before the monster was upon him.
Ow ow ow doesn't matter pain's just a distraction got to get up got to
Pressure on my chest can't breathe huge paw crushing down onto my ribs what's that creaking sound"
Got to- spots in front of my eyes- got to-
Azula didn't hesitate for an instant.
She didn't know what it was- perhaps she felt she owed him for getting her out of the way, perhaps it was the fact that for now they both had to beat this thing, perhaps it was just the adrenaline influencing her- and perhaps it didn't matter.
Perhaps she just wanted to kill something.
Either way, she was leaping, running, inhaling deep, reaching deep into the core that marked her as one of Agni's chosen, and unleashing a blast of flame at the monster's exposed flanks.
The viper-rat screeched, a horrible keening noise, and scrabbled to meet her.
This time, there would be no distractions.
blink blink inhale why does it hurt to breathe" That's not normal.
The animal charged, hissing and spitting, but Azula had it's measure, now, and it was simple to sidestep, evade, and counter with a lash of fire as the thing thundered past.
Really, it was just a matter of timing,
What's this, then"
Guess what I fou-und.
This was tiring.
Azula huffed in frustration. It seemed that the thick scales of the viper-rat afforded it some measure of resistance to fire.
And here she was, with no resistance to giant venomous monsters.
This hardly seemed fair.
This ends NOW.
The beast paused, wary now, and Azula held her ground, staring down the beast.
You could have broken the silence with the drop of a pin.
Piandao broke it with a blood-curdling howl instead.
Come on, beastie! Let's see the colour of your insides!
Azula was flabbergasted. Not that she'd ever admit it, of course.
But really, the man ought to be unable to walk, let alone-
Well, right now he appeared to be climbing the hindquarters of the viper-rat. He'd stabbed his sword into it as a kind of impromptu climbing spike.
Well, it seemed to be working.
What's this" Blood"
Azula found herself reduced to a spectator as Piandao clambered over the back of the creature, merrily hacking away at whatever he could reach, refusing to be thrown off through what appeared to be more tenacity than any regard for the laws of physics, until he reached the neck.
Haha! I need a new pair of boots anyway!
And perhaps a matching bag!
And he lunged down, right into the nape of the beast's neck. But it still wasn't enough.
So Azula did what she could.
And launched a fireball straight into the monster's gaping maw.
Piandao had time to jump clear, but Azula wasn't sure he was all there right now. Either way, he didn't take it.
But the monster was dead.
Oh, my head hurts.
Oh look, the viper-rat is dead. Well, that's a plus. And Azula seems to be alive as well, and in possession of all her limbs.
He was swaying in the breeze.
"Hmm" He looked up. "Ah, Princess Azula. You are unharmed"
"Good. You did well. Shall- shall we be getting on"
"I think that may be advisable, yes."
He didn't seem entirely right in the head. It was almost as if he had recently been concussed, or something.
Oh. Right. He had.
Well, that explained that.
The Lady Ursa seems a little out of sorts.
"Spirits, man, you're covered in blood!"
I looked down.
"Yes. I am. Some of it's not mine, you know."
And so we moved on.
As the sun set, I felt clearer in the head. Finally.
And it was time to part ways.
The guide sent was a young man, the manservant of the friend of the Order the Lady Ursa and family were to stay with.
"She calls herself Aunt Wu." I had informed the Lady. "She's sharp, but don't be surprised if she tries to read your palm. I find it's best to humour her."
"You don't have time for the supernatural, Master" the Lady asked. I have the feeling she may be laughing at me, although I cannot fathom why.
"I am more impressed with the way the woman manages to phrase her predictions to be either uselessly vague, or entirely self-fulfilling. But she's a good person, and she's out of the way. You will not be disturbed there."
"And then what, Master" she asked, pointedly.
"I shall return to you as quickly as I may, and then I shall advise you as best I can."
The conversation had petered out after Azula's eavesdropping became too conspicuous for me not to react to.
But now it was time to hand them over to the young man.
I nodded to him.
"I leave them in your hands... what's your name, son" I hate calling people that, but it tends to set the tone of conversation rather well.
"Lee, Master." Of course. It's always Lee.
"Well, Lee, I trust them to you. Good luck."
With that, they moved off, walking into the tunnel that would lead them into the highlands.
But not before I had a final word.
"Lee," I told him, quiet enough to require privacy, but loud enough to be overheard by anyone listening in, "don't let them make you fight any lizards. It'll do your head no good."