The Gentleman of Weapons
Chapter Nineteen: Fall

Or,

A Soldier Dies But Once.

I sit in the darkness, and wait.

There's one candle, trying its best, in spite of the odds.

I sit, and I wait. And I listen.

Nothing yet.

The air is stale, and I try not to breathe too heavily, lest it become unpleasant. The twenty others in the hastily-constructed (and I thanked the Spirits that we had some earthbenders amongst us) cellar make no sign of movement. Whatever they may be thinking, it does not show on their faces.

And-

Is that-

...Ah, yes. The tramp of armoured feet up the path from the shore.

They are coming.

In spite of myself, I am nervous. I have not participated in a protracted battle in almost two years (we lost that one). (Don't think about that.)

I can't think any more because the heavy footfalls of easily two hundred men are puncturing the silence, a sound of rhythmic thunder, hammering down on the island, getting louder and clearer and I look up and around me my warriors (charges) are one by one losing their stoic fašade, and I begin to see an inkling of fear in their eyes. They had been confident, when their Commander had dictated the plan to them. Even when they heard the odds, they had remained in good spirits. Even when I told them that the first wave would likely be at least two hundred, outnumbering us more than two to one, and mostly firebenders. They had been sure of themselves, and their skills.

It's very different when 'two hundred men' is no longer an abstraction, but in fact less than thirty feet away, the constant implacable rhythm of footsteps a threat, and a promise. Blood will flow this day, the footsteps tell everything and everyone. Blood will flow. It's far too late to turn back. One hundred years too late.

I see the fear in each and every eye. Stronger in the youngest, as a rule, but none are exempt, even the grizzled old earthbender. They're all listening to the footfalls, visualising the man marching up into their home and moving closer and closer and then. they.

Stop.

A pause. Someone starts to shake, to my right. Unconsciously, I reach out and place my hand upon their shoulder, just for a second. I don't know who it is- they don't turn to look at me- but they exhale slowly, and seem to calm themselves a little. I like to think I helped, if only by distracting them.

And then the roar of flames is heard. Muffled by the ceiling of earth between us and the world, but there's no masking what is happening.

Zhao told them to expect an ambush- he is not so stupid as to ignore what happened when his men tried to take the Avatar from here- so they are doing what any sensible captain would order them to do. They are burning the village to the ground.

The effect on the Warriors is immediate. Some close their eyes- either in acceptance of what is happening or a vain attempt to block it out. Some move suddenly, as though they meant to leave through a door that wasn't there yet. The earthbender looks over to me, and I shake my head.

Not yet. To move now would be suicide.

We've got a minute to go.

Those sixty seconds stretch, dragging out, the gaps between every thump of my heart seeming to elongate, as my eyes roll around the room, flicking from face to face, committing each to memory.

Thirty seconds left. I stand.


The flames have calmed, a muted crackle instead of a roar.

Twenty seconds. I draw my sword. That seems to be the cue for everyone to ready their weapons.


The tiny room is suddenly filled with blades and steel fans.

Ten seconds. I speak, breaking the silence that has descended upon the group ever since we were sealed in this tomb.


"You all know what you are fighting for. Hold on to it. Good luck, and don't panic."

No time for anything longer, no time to think up anything more elegant. Five seconds. I nod at the earthbender.


He nods back, and we part as much as we can, leaving him sufficient room to move.

Three seconds.


A wall collapses into a staircase, and dull light blares through a hole in the roof.

Two seconds.


I take the first step, readying myself.

One second.


I charge.

And I lead my warriors up into the daylight.

Up into a little slice of Hell.

The smoke is almost a solid presence. The wind is low, so it simply climbs, a growing tower, looming above what was once the village like some barbaric god.

Chaos is laid at his feet.

I have ample fractions of a second to analyse the battlefield before I am distracted by a man trying to skewer me.


The spear is inches from my face, so close I can feel the wind displaced as it lunges, hungry, for my neck.

They have been caught off guard by the ambush. Clearly, they thought that we would be hiding in the woods, not in hastily-constructed cellars beneath the village, and a hundred warriors spat out of the ground had disconcerted them somewhat.


Ashes float down from the smoke, white- and red-hot embers, flakes of ash, like burning snow. It's almost beautiful.

I turn my head, avoiding the weapon, and my sword splits the haft of his spear, before relieving him of several fingers. He doesn't go down until I flick my blade as I rush past him, tearing his throat open.

But these men are professionals, holding together, and holding fast in the centre of the road.

A Warrior goes down in front of me.


Aflame but not quite dead yet, screaming in pain as her skin flays and peels away and blackens even as she is falling.

No time to stop. All I can do is disembowel the man who did it, and run on again.

Seventeen seconds have passed, and the shock of our ambush is fading fast.

I twist, ignoring a clumsy sword strike- it lands on my shoulder-blade, but lacks power, and the armour takes the blow easily. Almost absently I remove the man's right leg at the knee.

And I stop. The brawl swirls around me like a red storm, but for two halves of a second I stop still, and wait.


Above, beyond the thick, warm smoke, the slate-grey sky hangs limp like a dead thing. The air is polluted with smoke and fire and screams and dancing embers, and below on the ground the battle swirls. Warriors move like water amongst the armoured shapes, evading and countering and fighting and dying. The Fire Nation have learned to show these fighters no mercy now.

Where is it" I know it must be beginning now.

Where"

There.

I run towards where the firebenders are gathering around their Captain (I must have missed him giving the order, either that or he had it set up already as a contingency plan in case of ambush), massing their strength away from the main battle- towards the shore- ready to counter-attack. Not if I have anything to do with it.


I run, ducking and weaving and barging my way through the scrum, never stopping, my blade flying, seeking out the red-clad warriors, not caring if I struck them down or not. No time to stop. I force myself to run on, no matter what. No matter who might have needed my help. Every second is vital.

In a normal situation, I would have ducked behind the ruins of a house, taken a less obvious route. Through the battlefield is dangerous, and leaves me exposed.

Plus, they know I'm coming.

This isn't a normal situation, though. I want to be noticed. It will draw undue attention to one point (me). Disrupt and distract is the idea.


Every man trying to kill me is one man not trying to kill anyone else.

Provided, of course, that I can take it.


I can take it. I have to take it; otherwise I am of no use after all.

A man rushes directly for me, blade raised overhead.


Helmet long gone, hair escaped from his topknot, eyes wide, mouth screaming mindlessly, he charges.

I half-crouch, knocking the man's knees out and letting momentum fling him over my shoulder; don't stop, keep moving, got to move faster, Piandao.

Finally, I am almost close enough.


Close enough to see the Captain turn to face me, hurling orders at his men and flames at the few Warriors that had seen the counter-attack forming. Even as I run (too slow, Piandao, you're supposed to be fast, aren't you") he hammers a blow down upon one girl, fists enclosed with red flame, black smoke punctuating the lash of his fists. Three crushing blows- stomach twice, then right temple- and she goes down.


She doesn't move again.

Close enough, Piandao.

I leap. I spring towards the Captain, using a large rock as a start-off point, and land directly in front of the man.

If the Captain is surprised by my sudden appearance, he makes no sign, simply gathering the flames around his hands once again and aiming a blow directly for my torso.

A blow smashes into my chest, a hammer made of white-hot steel.

The only reaction I allow myself is for my forced grin to get a little tighter.


Is that it" Is that all you're going to give me, Captain"

I see panic slip into his eyes, and he swings again. This time, I don't allow him to touch me, snatching his flame-enclosed forearm- it's like grasping hot coals-(the trick is not that it doesn't hurt, the trick is not minding that it hurts) and wrenching his arm at an unnatural angle.


Yes, I suspected as much. It's not quite the same when you're not fighting a teenage girl, is it, Captain" A little less intimidating, aren't you"

I'm almost disgusted. I disarm him, and twist past him as he drops to his knees, finding myself in the middle of the knot of soldiers that would have formed the core of the counter-offensive.

And walk right into a blast of flame that knocks me backwards and sends me tumbling to the floor and oh Agni I forgot how much that hurts-


Get up. You yet live.


Blindly, I scrabble in the mud and the blood, looking for purchase on the ground.


I'm injured. No longer actually on fire- rolling on the ground helped. Burn on left shoulder. Arm still works.


I'll live.


Oh" What's this my left hand has closed around"

It's another sword.

Impulsively, I snatch it as I propel myself upwards, catching the man above me unawares. It costs him.

Now they begin to pay attention to me. I play it up, rolling the twin blades in my hands as menacingly as I know how. I even strike a pose.

It's all smoke and mirrors, really. I can fight with two blades, certainly, but it's a Water Tribe technique, usually with two different weapons entirely- club and machete is the classic combination- and the blades are much shorter. Twin long swords is just silly.

Looks impressive, though. To the layman.


They shrink back, and toward one another, wary. Just for a second. Then the first charges, flanked by two more.

I hurl my borrowed sword, and it embeds itself in the first man's head. As he falls, I'm already charging, cutting down his two comrades, and finally, finally, it seems I've delayed these men long enough, because I can sense a presence at my back and the Kyoshi Warriors suddenly leap into the fray.

The rest of the battle doesn't last long. The men that remain are outnumbered, outflanked, and leaderless. Some fall. The rest flee, back towards the bay.

We let them leave. We have a plan to attend to.

Unfortunately, that was the easy part.

I invest a moment in surveying the aftermath of the first round of combat.

Not great, to be frank. From a tactical point of view (from any point of view) we lost too many in that battle. Thirty-five percent casualties, at least half of them dead, half of the wounded unlikely to live long enough to heal. Our healers emerge from their cellar where they had waited out the first wave, and carry those that are still alive down into the dark for whatever treatment they can offer. The remaining Warriors move around with great purpose and bustle, masking the movements of the healers as best they can without getting underfoot.

After all, we are being observed.

In moments, we are ready. A nod to the Commander (she's trying to keep the weight off her left leg. Not a good sign) and they are off.

Into the woods, and towards the mountain. It looks as if they are fleeing, and leaving me behind to face the second wave alone.

Misdirection and surprise. Those are the strengths of the Kyoshi Warriors. Their talents are wasted in a drawn out fight (as we saw, I glumly thought, as I noted the flashes of green and white amongst the red corpses that littered the street)...

Where was I" Oh yes. They aren't suited to protracted combat- lightly armed and lightly armoured, if that first wave had survived long enough to counter-attack we would have been slaughtered- so our plan played to their strengths the most out of all of us.

The idea for this stage is that the Warriors appear to flee, apparently leaving me to deal with the second wave alone.

This was Pakku's idea.

I am aware of my reputation. I am aware that there is a certain tendency to... exaggerate my capabilities. Pakku thought that we could use that to make it seem like I was going to fight the entire second wave alone.

Yes, I did fight and defeat one hundred firebenders. No, it was not in straight combat. We did not gather in a field, one hundred firebenders lined up on one side and me on the other.

This is what escapes those that have heard of me. Have you ever seen my home" It's half fortress, half maze. Many Fire Nation mansions are, actually (the nobility are notorious for their entirely justified paranoia), but mine in particular. It's one of the things that attracted me to the place.

I kept an eye on the sea. I thought I might have a minute before the second wave hit the island.

This plan lived or died based upon Zhao being utterly predictable. We were lucky in that regard.

What I know of Admiral Zhao is that he appears to be a pupil of the old school of Fire Nation warfare (which is ironic, really, considering). The school of thought that dominates his strategy is that there is a level of raw power that no planning can hope to thwart (a school of thought that Jeong-Jeong, during his long campaign in the South, did a great deal to discredit). I disagreed, personally. We shall see.

A whistle in the upper atmosphere broke my thoughts.

Bombardment"

Really"

I suppose even the Admiral must buy into the myth, then. Honestly, what does he expect me to do" Split the flaming boulders in two with my sword"

I was moderately confident as I dived back into the cellar that I had begun this battle in, and nodded at the earthbender who was still holding his place seconds before the first boulder slammed into the ground.

This is /CRASH/ why we /CRASH/ left /CRASH CRASH CRASH/ the earthbenders in the cellars. They /CRASH CRASH CRASH plunk/ should be able to keep the integrity of the cellars in case of bombardment.

I watched a bead of sweat roll down the man's forehead as he fought to keep the roof above our heads solid, but he managed it, and I silently prayed that the others were having equal success.

Presently, the bombardment ceased.

Ah. The second wave had arrived on the shore. If he's going by the handbook, there will probably be fewer firebenders in this wave.

Had that really only been one minute" It seemed longer.

Another wave.

I'm standing in the middle of the street, apparently paying them no heed.

I had found an apple. It was a nice touch, and besides, I was hungry.

They're almost within incineration distance when I look up- some are straining to break formation, but the order has not been given yet- and (mainly because I doubt I'm going to get a chance like this again soon) give them a jaunty little wave.

"Good morning."

Then I set off for the woods at a sprint, flames lapping at my heels.

Undergrowth lashes at my shins as I sprint through the shadows of the trees, making a straight line for the mountain. Behind me, it was like a storm had been unleashed, thundering and crashing bearing down on me.

I was faster. I could perhaps have lost them entirely, given time, but that would have defeated the purpose.

To my left, I almost saw a tree with three shallow cuts gashed into the bark.

Three-elephant-eel...

I scanned the trees in front of me, suddenly worried. To my relief, I saw nothing.

Two-elephant-eel...

The sounds of the second wave crashing after me were loud, but easily ten seconds behind me. Adequate.

One-elephant-eel...

I leap, sailing over what looked like a thick and heavy patch of foliage, and almost landed on a worried looking young man.

One of the volunteers from the refugees. I nodded briefly at him, and kept moving, finally diving into my tunnel just as the second wave hit the concealed stockade.

It's dark, down here. I keep one hand trailing along the wall as I make my way back towards the village.

I don't hear the battle very well, and I don't listen particularly hard. So I cannot tell if the second wave fell into the trap- if they were surprised by the concealed ditch (ten feet deep most of the way), or the angled stakes, pointing outward towards the invaders like a forest of spears. I don't know if they were caught off guard by the men behind this obstacle. I don't even know if they found the remaining Kyoshi Warriors dropping out of the trees above them particularly unexpected.

I hope everything is going to plan. But I do not intend to find out. Not until everything is said and done. No unnecessary distractions.

The side of the tunnel was rough under my fingertips- we had run the earthbenders we had ragged over the past four days, so they had no time to make everything smooth. This tunnel would probably collapse within a couple of days, or next time it rained heavily over the woods.

I saw, after two dark minutes, a faint light at the end of the tunnel, and nodded. Presently, I emerged into one of the cellars beneath the town. It was identical to the one I had started the battle in- same dimensions, same small candle sitting on a three-legged stool- but this one, instead of housing Kyoshi Warriors, was filled with men of the Southern Water Tribe.

Their Chief's Second was there, and he spared me a nod, and a neutral glance.

"So far, so good," I informed him, and began checking my armour down. It had held up well, so far.

My shoulder was another matter, though. After careful inspection, it seemed as though I could use it without damaging the area further. It hurt like hell, and already the skin that had been beneath the armoured plating when it took the blow was swelling and rubbing against the metal, but I would live, and more importantly right now, I could still fight at (almost) full effectiveness.

Suddenly, it seemed the atmosphere in the tiny cellar changed. A man looked up, the way he cocked his head combining with his his helmet to make him seem almost animal, and I thought for a mad second that he was going to sniff the air. Then I remembered we were in a cellar. Another twitched slightly, and more half-turned to the back wall, which, now I remembered it, was facing the sea.

And then I heard the marching. Several seconds after everyone else, it would seem.

The third wave. Generally the same proportion as the second wave- maybe one-tenth firebenders- in this situation. If the second wave was successful- which, as far as could be ascertained from the prow of the Coiling Dragon, it was- then the third would be simply used to mop up any further resistance, and reduce friendly casualties through judicious application of overwhelming force.

It's a basic strategy, which has helped it become standardised. Of course, everyone forgets that the point of basic strategies is to give you something to complicate later.

Zhao is, in the school of tactics, and exceptionally poor student. He's supposed to be cunning, but that didn't bother me. Cunning is something intrinsic and instinctive as much as anything else, and in Zhao's case, as in so many others, it did not come with the patience and attention span required to sit down all day and deal with the placement of men and materiel, the drawing up of duty rosters, the care of supply lines, and the hundred other things that would make your cunning idea a tactical reality.

In fact, intrinsic cunning wasn't even required for a successful tactician- just look at Chin the Conqueror. In the flesh, he was said to be physically and mentally underwhelming. He was solid, and unimaginative. His reflexes were poor. He was a particularly un-savvy politician. But his tactics and strategies were enough to make even the most hardened of tacticians break down in tears. They were almost works of art in themselves.

Apparently Chin had been something of an architect in his younger days, and he applied that precision to the battlefield. A cunning man might try that, but without the will to sit down and work on the dull minutiae, they will never get it to work.

This is all very interesting, but there's no time to muse on it any more because the third wave is here and it's time to move move move up and at 'em, boys, as my old Sergeant used to say.

Damnit.

This is no good.

We've gone too far too fast, and now we're spreading apart, diffusing across the battlefield. It won't be long before their greater numbers start to pull us down.

The ones in the wood will not survive that. Assuming they survived the second wave, of course.

I back up, my sword arm engaged in deflecting three swordsmen at once, my feet dancing backwards upon the churned and uneven ground, my free arm gripping the haft of a spear that had until seconds ago been lunging for my gut. Now the weapon was locked between the crook of my left arm and my side, but the man himself was free, and it was only a matter of time before he remembered to let go of his weapon and draw his sword and then I might actually be in a little trouble.

This cannot last long. I have to take the initiative.

I make my move. Twisting sharply at the waist, I wrench the trapped spear out of the man's hands, smashing the hilt into the wrists of one swordsman, sending his blade tumbling, but I'm impeded by my armour so I can't get away in time when one of the other swordsmen lunges straight for my heart and I'm moving backwards far, far too slowly and-

Suddenly, the man stops short, and collapses to his knees. A blue-clad figure appears behind the man, knocking him to the ground, and I use the distraction to cut the other two swordsmen down. Turning to my right, it becomes apparent that the spearman is gone.

I turn back to the man who assisted me. Chief Hakoda.

I spare him a nod, and he replies in kind. Noting my eyes suddenly locked over his shoulder, he turns and his club smashes the jaw of a firebender, even as I deflect a spear that had been meant for his back.

That was how the battle was, for a minute or two. His boomerang prevented a firebender from incinerating me even as my blade covered him as he threw. I relieved a man of his head while the Chief's club smashed the teeth of a man aiming for my back. There was a rhythm to it, almost.

But we had to stay mobile. When fighting a vastly numerically superior force, mobility is the only way to stay alive. You had to take the opportunities you could if you wanted to survive to take more later. So we moved, drawn ever deeper into the mass of the Fire Nation ranks, and it was not long before we were cut off from the rest of the tribesmen.

"Damnit," I heard the chief mutter, as he wrenched his machete from the head of a soldier, viscera flying. "This is no good." I couldn't reply immediately- an enterprising soldier had made his way through the charred ruins of a house, away from his fellows, and had blindsided me.

"Indeed," I spat out, when I could. I looked up.

The Chief was no longer there.

Damnit.

He's a little way away, cutting a path, barrelling through the ranks, heading for...something. I can't see what. But he's moving too quickly, not finishing his enemies, and they're starting to get up again behind him.

We can't have that.

I raced after him, smashing into the already beleaguered men, my sword lashing out, unfurling around me, ending men left and right as I charged to catch up to chief Hakoda.

If we had seen a man fight like this in the Fire Nation, we would say he had a death wish. What in Agni's name is he doing"

Suddenly, he sprang, leaping up and alighting on a large boulder that had once decorated the side of the road.

Oh, I see. Clever, but reckless. And it would have been nice to know what he planned earlier.

"Men of the South!" he bellowed, kicking at a man reaching up to him even as his voice boomed across the battlefield. "To me, men of the South!"

It does not take long.

The Chief and I survive- at the cost of another dent to my armour, a long bruise on the back of my left leg, a second (thankfully minor) burn on my forearm, to complement the one on my shoulder, and a long gash on the back of my hand (nothing that will stop me, or slow me down. Just pain). The Chief looks similarly dishevelled, and I am mildly disconcerted to note that he is bleeding heavily from one side, from a spear lunge he hadn't evaded quite in time.

But we were both alive, and as such were keeping the enemy busy when the Southern tribesmen crashed into them like a wave, led by Hakoda's tall Second.

By my reckoning we were at even numbers now, but the soldiers were tired and harried and had lost any initiative they might have had, and it was scant moments before someone screamed 'Retreat!' and within seconds that retreat had become a rout as they fled for the shore.

This time, we followed them.

They fled, blindly charging for the shore. Some didn't make it, cut down by the men of the South. I walked, merely observing. There was something distasteful about this, I thought. I was unnerved, slightly, by what I could see of the tribesmen- real, primal hate was etched onto every face, and they pulled down and butchered the men they caught with frightening satisfaction, something I did not remember from my time in battle against them.

Fifteen years is a long time, though. The Southern Water Tribe has been through a great deal in those fifteen years.

If I still had a plan, this might have made me less confident in it- that kind of concentrated hatred would have poisoned any peace talks. Lucky for us, then, that the plan will not be required, I thought, sourly.

I do not know how many despaired when they came upon the wreckage of their landing craft. Certainly it cannot be as many that did when the surf itself rose and attacked, lashing and drowning and smashing bones. When Pakku walked out of the sea and joined his sister tribe in destroying the invaders.

I did not look. But when it was all over the ships of the Water Tribes emerged from the sea bed, bobbing up, buoyed by the waterbenders and their waxing power.

Pakku nodded at me, and I returned the gesture, climbing into one of the smaller, faster boats- although any of them would be fast by Fire Nation standards.

Now comes the hard part.

There is no fourth wave in the standard model for Fire Nation Seaborne Invasion. If three are insufficient, then increase the numbers involved. Anything else is up to personal interpretation.

Zhao's interpretation is something along the lines of 'my coracle is full of eels'.

Never mind. It's just a joke I heard once.

We were propelled across the choppy waters of the bay by the waterbenders, moving faster than any normal ship could. Our move here was simple. Swarm two ships. They have already lost many men this day. Sink two ships, and the rest may begin to feel it is not worth it. Perhaps we shall cause a mutiny. Perhaps they shall flee, convinced we can keep this up all day.

Misdirection. All tactics when faced with a numerically superior foe begin with misdirection.

None of the ships were accompanied by smaller boats that could have engaged us one-on-one, and such a tactic would have been suicide in any case against waterbenders, so the only weapon they have right now is-


A whistle, and I see a line of black smoke, barely visible against the deep grey clouds.

Bombardment.

I'm almost impressed by how quickly they manned the trebuchets.

I keep my eyes on the burning rocks as they fall, past the apex of their journey. Behind me, I hear Pakku grunt with exertion, and the boat leaps forward, fairly skipping over the surface of the waves now, and I grasp the sides of the boat and the boulders are falling now, right above us, and and and

One smashes the water beside us, the water bucking and flying, and the boat flips, sending me tumbling down into the dark water-


.

.

.

I cannot move cannot breathe can do nothing


.

.

.

My eyes are closed I feel nothing but the water pushing in on me and my armour dragging me down into the depths and it hurts


.

.

.

Rather anticlimactic really


.

.

.

I open my eyes for the last time


.

.

.

A gigantic, golden, slitted orb stares back.

Any port in a storm.

I like that saying.

You know, I'm not sure that this was such a great idea.

I had scrabbled, frantic for anything that could save me from the water, and the being that Agni had sent me was the Unagi. So I snatched at the first thing I could, and what I grabbed was one of the long whipping barbels of the beast.

This is looking bad. We're about to break surface.

Oh Agni I am going to die.

I can't hold on I can't hold on I can't hold on. The whisker slips through my fingers, wrenched away by the rushing wind, and I'm slipping away there's nothing I can do but

-I draw my sword. It's almost impossible in midair, but I do it because I have no other choice-

LUNGE.

-The blade tastes flesh and bites deep. All I can do is hold on-

-And not look down-

It's oddly beautiful up here.

I have managed, after a lot of pain and near misses, to climb up to the nape of the Unagi's neck.

I would say five seconds have passed since the beast broke the surface.

But it's beautiful up here, where the clouds break in slits and thin shafts of sunlight break through, and the air is still, and I see the refractions of the rainbow in every droplet of water suspended in the air, and the smell of blood is fainter than below.

I feel the roar almost before I hear it, rumbling up through the body of the Unagi even as the beast rears. It has noticed the invaders.

Well. That's not too bad.

With a jolt, the beast rushes and everything changes, the air blurring with speed as we rush headlong toward the Coiling Dragon.

A mad thought seeps into my head.


Go on.

No.


Go on. You know you want to.

...No.


When are you ever going to get another chance"

...Fine.

Labouredly, I stand, my left hand hanging onto the fin on the Unagi's head. With the other, I draw my sword and flourish it, dragging it against the wind resistance, letting the brief snatches of sunlight catch on it, and finally pointing it at the Coiling Dragon. Against all odds, I felt a grin tug at my face.

If you're going to do something suicidal and stupid, it might as well be done with a little panache.

That's a big boat. The phrase 'wonder what he's compensating for' flits through my head, entirely unbidden, and I get the feeling that that's the reaction everyone has when they see the Coiling Dragon.

Of course, I'm seeing it from a superior vantage point to most.

The Unagi is rearing above the foredeck, looming over the men frantically trying to reload the trebuchets in time. There's no chance for them, and I feel the muscles beneath me bunch as the mighty neck prepares to smash down upon them.

Oh no. Oh please no.

It's like the air has turned to tar. I can feel myself slip, ever so slightly, as the mighty head begins to plummet, but I can do nothing to correct my footing, or get a better grip, and before I know it I'm twisting, slipping

falling

andit'-

ow.

i'm dragging myself up on my hands and knees and

AGH

my wrist is on fire and it hurts to breathe and i'm gasping for air like i'm drowning and i can hear something that sounds like like like

Running. Towards me. Away from me. Crashing. Screaming.

Rise.

And i'm getting up as quickly as i can too quickly my head is spinning and i slump and stumble and nearly fall and then i see the beast and everything is a nightmare.

they don't stand a chance. fire lashes at the sides of the monster but the unagi doesn't care -doesn't even seem to notice- just keeps snatching men from the deck and swallowing them whole and somone on another ship must have given the order because now projectiles are hurled broadside from other ships -but suddenly the unagi vanishes- leaving the coiling dragon to take the boulders -each one smashing through the foredeck with a clang and a screech of tortured steel- and suddenly the unagi is on the other side of the ship bursting out of the water with a scream and a cry and it's angry now -and the water is rising rising bubbling all around the ship- and it rises high behind the mighty beast ready to smash down upon the vessel with all the force of Agni's vengeance and one thought punctures me like a pin.

There is no way I am leaving this ship alive.

So. What do I do"

I clean up.

I make damn sure that Admiral Zhao goes down with his ship, like any good Captain.

I wobble slightly as I take my first step. The ship bucks and curves in the water and I see the Unagi is almost ready.

There's no blood left in my veins. Fire has long since swept it away, and this burning screaming pain is all I have left but I block it out and turn to the aft of the ship and run

behind me, the tidal wave smashes down upon the ship.

I slip. I fall.

I get up again.

The lifeboats. Got to get to the lifeboats.

I can still kill Zhao. I still have my

half my sword.

The world recedes for a second, as I stare dumbly at the blade, snapped clear in two.

When did that happen"

Must have been... when I fell.

Oh Agni I am tired. I just want to lie down and I never want to move again.

The moment passes.

I still have an Admiral to end.

There is chaos at the lifeboats. The Unagi continues its attack on the foredeck, sending wave after wave pounding down onto the ship, rocking and hammering at the once mighty vessel. Every man with half a clue is trying to scramble for the lifeboats.

And there I find Zhao, screaming with rage, shoving men aside, trying to be the first to board. Few seem interested in what he wants, though.

I stagger forward. No one in the crowded mess of armoured bodies seems to notice me yet. Not until I wrench a man aside (my wrist screams. I ignore it) and shove and slip my way to the Admiral.

"Zhao," I slur, once I am behind him. All around me, men are drawing back. Good. Gives me room to work.

The Admiral turns, and the blood runs from his face.

"YOU!"

Conversation over, he swings blindly, fire streaming from his fingertips, but the deck bucks again, rising up, shifting five feet to the right, and slamming back lower than before. I block his strike with my stricken forearm (should not have done that).

This is not a battle.

I slice his throat open in one swift movement, using the blade edge that remains on my sword, and kick him to the deck with the last of my strength. I could be defeated by a strong breeze now.

No one moves. No one moves to fight me. No one moves for the lifeboats. I have paralysed every man on the aft deck.

Well that's no good. They'll all die if they don't evacuate now.

I take an experimental step.

No one moves.

There is one thing left I can do. If I am stopping these men from trying to save themselves, then I must be removed.

I stumble sideways, propelling myself to the side of the deck.

Without a pause, without even bothering to take a breath (what good would it do"), I allow myself to tumble over the side.

And it's like ice and the water rushes to meet me-