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|The Last Stand|
The Last Stand is the twenty-seventh chapter of
Previously in A Tale of Rebels
Anyang arrives at the Southern Air Temple Archipelago, and is taken in by a band of traditionalist dissidents who mean to overthrow Dalit, to which Anyang agrees.
Yi Ming's forces arrive before the Fire Nation Capital. After the first assault is fended off, and a landing attempt prevented, Yi Ming has the defences shelled before his forces attack anew.
Chapter 27: The Last Stand
The caldera wall was a rock in the surge, Yi Ming's troops the waves. Slowly they came, so slow they seemed an easy target. And Zoruka had fallen for it, just as any commander upon the caldera walls and its towers had. They had flung rocks, burning ones, yes, but rocks nonetheless, and fireballs and icicles, and arrows and bolts too, but even so, the distance was so far the earthbenders had enough time to prepare. And when they had prepared, the projectiles they had flung and shot would come flying right back. And as for the icicles and fireballs, chunks of rock would come all the same, for most of them were stopped with such. It had seemed so easy – in relation to harsh reality – when they had spotted the slowly advancing troops. Zoruka had thought to just bathe them in fireballs and wildfire and arrows, and had had gathered hope again, before the first volley had been flung and shot. She had not thought it possible before, but apparently, even caldera walls weren't safe from breaches, let alone the towers atop. If the foes' numbers dwindled, then because some would fall asleep marching and be trampled. Zoruka had realised as much.
"Notch, draw, loose?" asked Shizon sarcastically, more out of shock of realisation than as to kid her. He moved to her, to watch the movements through the arrowslit. Part of their own tower was gone and replaced with a monstrous boulder, but that had only shocked people, not killed anyone.
"We don't have the ammunition... " answered Zoruka. For once, she seemed hopeless, as indicated by her widened eyes and her slightly dropped jaw. She faced Shizon, who still was in shock from the strike, briefly, shaking her head, and then stared out of the arrowslit again. "There's only one reasonable thing to do."
"We must make it known." stated Shizon, handing Zoruka a piece of paper to write her order on, which he then had reduplicated and sent to the other commanders. Zoruka herself stared at the advancing host of enemies, she couldn't help but stare. While she did know that all attempts to stop, let alone even defeat them were futile in their current position, she somehow felt the urge of jumping down to them and go kill Yi Ming. Anger, and the defiance of defeat added up, and made her not only look away ever so briefly, but even rise. She was about to leap from her tower, when Shizon approached her from behind, and informed her, "The letters are sent. We ought to be going now."
"Right." Though reluctantly, Zoruka followed him and her officers down the steps. Then, when the tower's garrison had gathered at its base, they opened a hatchway, and climbed down a ladder, one after another. By then, the other towers would be emptying as well, all evacuating into the tunnels they had dug prior to the battle. One after another, they climbed down the first shaft, which was only a few metres deep, before ending in a room of multiple shafts, which lead down another few dozens of metres.
"Never in Koh's bloody realm am I ever going down there." commented Shizon, doubtful in his acrophobia.
"Thank the spirits you're not in Koh's realm then." answered Zoruka, paralysing Shizon with a few precise punches as she spoke, and carrying him on her back, strapping him on like a knapsack. For neither was it all too pleasant, for Shizon feared not only heights, but also did his back scrape against the wall, whereas Zoruka had to carry more than twice her weight. Upon arriving on the shaft's end, they were in a corridor, one that ran straight for a kilometre or more, and was in complete darkness. Zoruka dumped Shizon on the floor and ran to lead the party, for her fire was surely the brightest.
"What in Koh's realm were we thinking?" realised Zoruka. In the shifting shadows of her own blue flame, she looked like the stuff of nightmares, either that, or the ideal assassin, inconspicuous but deadly. "Trying to flee from earthbenders in a tunnel... In a bloody tunnel. They only need to stamp their feet to the ground and we're crushed. Damn, we're bloody stupid... "
The chuckle that followed echoed and echoed and echoed, and sent a shiver down every one's spine. A soldier walking next to Shizon leaned to him and whispered, "And you shagged her?"
The tunnel turned the whisper into a shout. Had her chuckle already sent shivers down his spine, her laugh made Shizon shudder as a whole. The tunnel made the sweetest sound cold. "Don't try denying it! You've got the scars to prove it!" answered Zoruka. Had she intended to sound playful, she indeed sounded more imperative than ever before. It made even herself shudder. While Shizon slightly blushed at the mention, she turned briefly and inquired, "Did I just say that?"
The echo was her answer. The echo, and the shadows cast by the bluish light. She decided merely use orange flames, and continued the rest of the walk in silence. Minutes passed as they walked through the arched tunnel, and everyone attempted to find an activity to do without communication, but everyone failed. After ten minutes, they had reached the other end of the tunnel, with more shafts leading upwards, and thus they ascended. For minutes, they climbed ladders, and when they had steps before themselves again, they were sweating and breathing heavily. Atop the tower at last, they found themselves faced with a view that would've been beautiful had it not been enemies advancing in perfect order, and had the sun not set on them figuratively as well. Yi Ming's host had begun to form a ring, one which slowly closed around the inner caldera. Slowly, the rows atop the caldera wall were filled again, and slowly, everyone recovered from the climbing. After a minute of recovery, Zoruka remembered why they had to use tunnels.
"Give the order to ignite— " she had jumped up to utter the order, but then it was already executed, as streams of fire descended upon the city, and were joined by the sickly greenish flames of wildfire. It had not been upon her order.
Green and orange and yellow and blue and red and violet flames consumed all, but mostly green and red. Dragon fire of all colours rained down upon the massive host and the city it had attempted to advance through, accompanied by the beasts' riders' fire, which, naturally, was far less effective. These two, however, were both bested by a slick greenish liquid that had kept one of the states of the Fire Nation alive for almost two centuries. Wildfire, and oil where the former was not present in sufficient masses, were what burnt the army, not dragons and their riders. Relief washed over Zoruka's face as she heard the signals for the enemy to retreat, though only the horns' blows were faint through the roaring flames. Wait... she thought at noticing a fault in the dragonriders' attack, No. That's too soon. Dammit, too soon!
"What is it?" Shizon noticed the change in her expression. When she looked, he was staring, still somewhat bewildered, at the dragons and the green flames.
"It's too soon. Too bloody soon." she blurted out, not thinking to explain. She then realised he wouldn't understand it, and added, "The plan was to first ignite the outermost ring first! Then the innermost, then always outwards. THE INNER ONES WERE IGNITED TOO BLOODY SOON!"
Shizon had shrunk into the ground when Zoruka had shouted. As she turned away, he didn't resume his previous stance, but rather kept it in fear she might spin around and shout again. "But they're retreating, that's... good?"
He braced himself for another shout, but was saved from it. "If it only were a true retreat and not luring us out... " she sighed, shaking her head. "These so-called saviours just doomed us."
"I wouldn't be too sure." Shizon, laying his hand upon her shoulder.
She looked into his eyes with a somewhat hopeless yet ever defiant gaze, and spun away, shifting into her fighting stance as a habit when the horn was sounded. Her expression changed to an infuriated one almost instantly as well. "WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS!? WHO GAVE THIS BLOODY ORDER!?"
"Direct order from His Majesty the Fire Lord, ma'am." replied an officer almost instantly and as calmly as one could ever be in the presence of an infuriated royal and bending prodigy.
Clenching her fists, she turned around, and her face looked as though she would explode any moment. When Shizon saw heat haze rising from her nose and mouth, and the fire daggers forming at her hands almost vanishing from sight as they turned a light blue, he decided to intervene. "Uh, Zoruka... " She turned to him, though only her head. He decided to stand his ground. "Calm down. Save your fury for the battle."
"No. Fury makes one blind." She replied after exhaling heavily. She indeed eased up, went to the merlons, climbed on them, and motioned for Shizon to follow. He closed his eyes and climbed up as well. "You want to die today?" she inquired, staring down at him, who was sitting with his legs hanging and eyes closed.
"No." he replied, suddenly somewhat fearful. "I don't want to lose y- "
"Then open your bloody eyes. You'll need them to land correctly." She slapped him, which made him open his eyes, and leapt off the tower. Not only did she leap head first, but also did she shoot flames as light a blue as it got, almost invisible ones in fact, from her fists to propel her through the air. Shizon breathed heavily and pushed himself down from the merlon, and instantly stretched his body, almost instantly shooting fire from his fists as well. For an instant he had closed his eyes, and for an instant he had been afraid he would die. The latter still remained, although the fear was more vivid now, but with his eyes opened he could see he still hadn't died yet. I'M FLYING! his mind cried out, I'M BLOODY FLYING! I'M TOTALLY GOING TO DIE BUT IT'LL BE WORTH IT! Below, the soldiers climbed from the towers and out of the trenches to descend from the caldera wall upon their foe, who was retreating, bathed in flames that melt all, from flesh to rock. Ahead, the dragons either chased the host, or attempted to feast upon the charred remains of those whom they already had slain. Above, only one thing was, aside from the setting sun. Above, a speck of black flew, propelled by monstrous flames flickering blue and yellow, red and orange. Above was only Zoruka. She raced across the skies, and soon had reached the outer caldera wall, where she descended upon the – orderly – retreating army of foes. Like a meteor, she crashed into them from above with fire and nought else around her. As he was immersed in the sight of the explosion Zoruka caused upon impact, someone overtook him above. At first confused, Shizon saw it was Kanyzon. Below, their own army had become a beast. Without order, they advanced, without remorse, they slaughtered the enemy's stragglers, and without fear, they advanced. We're winning. thought Shizon as he realised how fast the enemy retreated, how demoralised they were. The price is high, but we're winning. By the time he had finished his thoughts, he had arrived at the site Zoruka had struck. Like a meteor, she had left a crater. She was, burnt, bruised and beaten, in its centre, but still alive. She stood there, shouting at Kanyzon.
"So I got your attention now, finally! You fucking son of a bitch, what were you thinking? You're going to have us all killed!" she shouted after having slapped the Fire Lord.
"What is the meaning of this!? What are you talikg about, you ungrateful cunt!?" Kanyzon didn't hold back either.
"The dragonriders didn't ruin our defence plan enough, right? You just had to ruin even more, if even possible!" Zoruka's burns were of the heaviest kind, in fact, her arms barely had any actual skin left on them. "Yi Ming may have retreated, but our advance gives him an excellent opportunity, and advantage even!"
"We can rain fire on him and his host! How in Koh's bloody realm do you think he could possibly best us!?" Kanyzon was infuriated yet Shizon thought to have noticed a slight fear for Zoruka as well. That's clever of you. "And even if he's got some beasts as well, we'll easily slaughter them!"
That isn't. thought Shizon at the presumption. Zoruka thought likewise. "Spirits, how did you even get that far?" She sighed angrily. "Our advantage is his advantage! He's got morale and discipline and numbers, we've only got morale and only because of dragonriders! With them gone, our morale is gone and we're bloody gone!"
"He can't possible kill dragons. Not even firebenders can do that." Kanyzon's perception was clouded by his wrath.
"Come and see!" She led him to the northern rim of her crater, beyond which lay the camps and the reserve of Yi Ming's host. She motioned to the latter.
"Infantry?" Kanyzon seemed to feel twitted.
"Artillery." corrected him Zoruka, finally calmed down. The only answer she received was Kanyzon palming his face as he realised.
As Kanyzon despaired on his own stupidity in his wrath, Zoruka turned to face Shizon, "You may kill me now. I no way will I allow Yi Ming to lay his filthy hands upon me."
Shizon was taken aback by the request. The first word that formed in his mind was no, but he decided to verse it otherwise. "If you couldn't kill yourself, how do you expect me to do it?"
"I thought this battle was never going to end, let alone we'd end up winning!" shouted Senqok as he paused to catch his breath. The decision he deemed unwise immediately afterwards, for it left him breathless.
"I wouldn't be too sure about that... " countered Ranju, who had accompanied them since the advance had begun. "Let me have a quick look around, and I'll tell you."
"Do that." answered Kabura in Senqok's stead as he leaned on a wall behind which fires burnt hot as any form of fiery damnation mankind could have thought of. In fact, the entire city burnt, but the wildfire had exploded upon ignition rather than merely catching fire, which the accompanying oil had done. The result was a complete and utter destruction of the lower city and a demoralisation of Yi Ming's army.
"Alright, let's go. We need to catch up." stated Senqok, and Kabura complied. After the next row of houses, they would ascend the caldera wall again, and resume their original positions. These dragons could kill off Yi Ming's entire army, he realised with a smirk, Let's hope they'll do it.
At the ridge of the caldera wall, the stragglers ponded somewhat, which made an excellent feast for the bloodthirsty Liberation Alliance and Fire Nation soldiers. There was something odd about them, Senqok realised, They never put up a fight...
"What is it?" Kabura had noticed his shift of expression at the thought while he watched as yet another straggler was butchered. Something about the look in his eyes... he thought before answering.
"I just noticed the stragglers never put up a fight... it seems odd." he stated as they began to climb, taking a more direct and steeper route than most soldiers.
"I don't know... Have you seen their looks? They look as though they've accepted their end." Kabura seemed not to have a definite answer as well.
"Really? So many? I'm not sure, but I don't think any of them panicked when we approached." Senqok spun his thought further. Above, three firebenders sore through the skies not unlike meteors, but Senqok failed to notice. "Most people panic when— "
A sudden explosion pulled him from his thoughts, a sudden explosion and the burnt corpses of earthbenders being flung through the air by the explosion. "Whoa." both spoke in unison, never interrupting their climb.
Then, they had reached the trenches atop the caldera wall, which were being manned again. The dragons sore above, awaiting their comrades' arrival to descend upon the enemy host. Ranju still scouted from above, but seemed unwilling to land again. Ahead lay the remnant of Yi Ming's host. I thought we'd defeated them... Well, many fled, so that'd be them. I guess. thought Senqok, oblivious to the upcoming. A single roar was enough to signal the dragons' attack, as they had gathered, but in that very moment the entire army of Yi Ming's charged forward. Are they mad? Well, easier for us.
"You. Bloody. What." was all Kabura could utter, her eyes widening. She had noticed it before Senqok did, but he too noticed it soon enough as well.
"This can't be happening." he commented, knowing the opposite, and drawing his sword. Whether it were enormous rock shards or ordinary Earth Empire artillery projectiles mattered little, what did, however, was that all of sudden, the dragons crashed into the ground, dying. Within a split second, the newly won morale of the allied troops dwindled.
"What in Koh's bloody realm are you doing?" inquired a suddenly slightly hysterical Kabura, waving her arms around.
"Never going to surrender... " spoke Senqok gravely, preparing to jump out of the trench to fight the advancing foe.
"Wait." That halted him, and made him turn to face her, just as she had wanted. "I'm sorry." And with that, she struck him plain in the face, knocking him out. "But I want to live." she added as an explanation.
He looked up in the sky. The one airbender up there, who could only have been Ranju, was shot down. She fell into the enemy host's midst, likely being captured, given she was still alive. No, I mustn't think like that. She is alive. Skado was unsure which was more probable, not that it mattered to him in that particular situation.
"Wait, what just hit the ground?" Noki, of course, was last to notice. "Something big and far away."
"Dragons." The fact that their army was dissolving before his eyes he left unsaid. "It were the dragons that ignited the wildfire."
"Oh." was all she spoke. She's understood. That's... good. thought Skado bitterly. "Is Yi Ming's army advancing again?"
"Yes." affirmed her Skado.
"I don't want to become Yi Ming's prisoner. I don't want to be a prisoner, I don't want to forced to do anything, please... " Noki wasn't one for whining, and she wasn't whining then, rather, she was begging for something to occur, wishing for something she knew which wouldn't happen.
"And even if... we could break out, I mean, the two of us... " Skado offered an optimistic outlook, but Noki merely shook her head in disapproval. After half a minute of utter silence between the two of them, Skado sighed and shouted, frustrated, "Then let us die, alright!"
"Rather than being Yi Ming's prisoner, yes! We shall never surrender!" shot Noki back, her eyes tearing up.
"Oh, so you'd rather rot on the battlefield than live on and at least attempt breaking out with me! Good to know!" Skado knew he should've stopped, but the words blurted out.
"That's not what I meant... " Noki was close to crying by then, but Skado kept going.
"But that's what everyone would understand!" he shouted, his words piercing Noki's heart like arrows. "Not that it mattered now... "
As to prove him right, two dozens of Earth Empire soldiers surrounded them, their leader, a major, demanding their immediate surrender. Noki, however, decided to attack, to let her deeds speak for her, which made the major, then infuriated, change his mind. "Kill the bloody bitch!" he had shouted.
"Don't do anything stupid just now." whispered Skado into Noki's ear as he took her and held his dagger to her throat. Suddenly, his body jerked as a quarrel was loosened on him, piercing the boiled leather at his lower back and the uniform beneath, even the skin, but stopping then. The dagger, however, he kept in place. "Major! Is it major... ? I do believe so. Sir! Do you realise who that is?"
The major remained silent, but words were exchanged amongst his soldiers.
"General Noki, sole child of General Wei, the late leader of the Liberation Alliance!" he shouted, the soldiers listening up suddenly. "Now, you try to kill me again, and I take her with me." he stated, whispering to Noki once again, "Same goes for you."
"Take them captive." was the only order the major uttered, and the soldiers parted the two, leading them away from each other. As they passed each other, he shot a few words more, "It's all we could've hoped for." Even so, he thought he could find a slight trace of a smile in her expression.
"What in Koh's bloody realm happened here, seriously, I mean... WHAT!?" Luna had joined Zoruka, Kanyzon and Shizon. "And how are you still alive, dammit?"
"I wish I wasn't." Zoruka's voice sounded gruff then, likely some of her flames had found their way into her nose and down the air tube.
"That's not exactly a nice thing to say... " found Shizon, "If you have to die, take me with you. Please." No matter from what viewpoint one imagined that statement, it sounded odd.
Zoruka sighed. "I just don't want Yi Ming to capture me again... to capture us." Her tone indicated sadness, and that she was indeed. "I don't want to go through all this... "
"Easy, you don't get captured." proposed Luna, earning frowns from the others present. "What? We can still flee."
Somehow, the man who then had finished his climb up the caldera wall had heard the last words, and responded. "No, that option is most likely ruled out by now." the ancient voice of his sounded. His white hair and beard, his wrinkled and scarred face with his emerald eyes, his armour of greens and black and gold, his escort of several dozen soldiers were enough to make sure who he was.
"What." was all Luna could muster to speak.
"Exactly." For his age and position, Yi Ming could boast quite a sense of humour. "Your Excellence, Luna, if I am not mistaken, there is no need for complications today. You may leave this war to those it concerns."
"I'd rather not. It concerns my brother and his associates, therefore it concerns me. And as, to me, surrender is not an option, I shall not stand here idly." she declined his offer to leave unharmed. With a non-verbal scream, she charged at the Emperor with drawn jaw blades, taking him somewhat by surprise. However, none of his guards defended him, rather, he did it himself. He stomped the ground once to erect an earth pillar to shoot Luna up, and then stomped the ground again to make the pillar a stake which impaled Luna upon impact. Her unarticulated sounds, sobs not uncommon amongst them, henceforth accompanied the conversation.
"I offer the same to you, Your Majesties." Yi Ming and his guards were as calm as to be expected, whereas the others were petrified by the sight. "Either surrender, or— " he motioned to Luna, whose death would take at least half an hour longer, " —the stake awaits." When he saw they were still fixed on the sight of their ally or even friend, he added, "You will be treated as befits your rank. You will lack nought but freedom."
A single tear escaped her eye and rolled down her cheek as Zoruka turned away from the gruesome sight and dropped to her knees before Yi Ming, holding out her hands together to have them bound together. As she rose again in chains, Shizon raced to embrace her, and both of them could've wept into each other's shoulders, but somehow didn't. Shizon too was bound, leaving only Kanyzon.
"Don't think I'll give up easily." stated Kanyzon, displaying a certain grim determination.
"You think Zoruka gave up easily? You think she willingly returned to my captivity after I used her like a tool?" Yi Ming knew what he had done was wrong. Even at his age, he still learnt. "No. You're merely a fool who means to save his arse, who's too vain for a bit of humbling."
With that, he left, leaving Kanyzon surrounded by earthbending guards and agents. He grasped the purpose of it, but too late – as he shifted into his fighting stance, rock gloves were just about to bind him. Thus, the sun set on the Fire Nation and the Liberation Alliance both.
Notes and Trivia
- This chapter's publishing's delay was brought to you by:
- Bethesda, and in particular the fourth instalment of their The Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion,
- And Paradox Interactive with their Crusader Kings II. Please send complaints to these. And to whoever discovered the phenomenon known as writer's block.
For the collective works of the author, go here.