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|Four Against the Flood|
Chapter 11: Four Against the Flood
Piandao saw the smoke; they were coming. He stood facing toward the magnificent waterfall vista, a place that calmed him. He would need that calm now more than ever. As Sokka and Toph sat beside him, he regretted that they would have to see who he really was. They had arrived.
General Zhiang Li directed his warriors to their positions, where they would exit and attack. Gow busied himself practicing his strikes, whipping his hammers around at high velocities.
"General." The voice startled him. He turned to see a man with long, jet black hair and green eyes staring at him, probing his inner being. The veteran general was visibly unnerved, and that made the other man smile.
Zhiang shook his head. "Quiet, Zihark! I am meditating..."
"You will hear what I have to say." The man's hand fell to his pure white jian sword as the officer whirled on him.
"You do not presume to lecture me! Now leave my presence; everything must be precise."
Zihark bowed deeply, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "As you command, General."
Piandao opened his eyes. He turned to his young allies. "Before we move to the port, I will ask you both once. Will you stand with me?"
Sokka bowed, sword pointed downward. "I will fight alongside you," His expression became grave, "no matter what."
Toph sauntered over. "With me around, it'll be too easy!" She grinned.
The smoke was thick enough to see now. "Then we'll fight together."
Fat came over the hill bearing a scroll. "Master...I have completed your request."
Piandao smiled and took the scroll. "Good, good. Our fight just got easier."
Yun sat on the floor of his quarters compressing each individual plate of his chest piece. His new earth armor needed to be strong. He needed absolute concentration. He looked up, slightly irritated when he heard a knock on his door, but that feeling melted away when he felt who was outside. He opened the door to find Ty Lee standing there with Mai.
"What's up, guys?"
Ty Lee smiled, and he knew what she wouldn't say out loud. I did it; I told her. Yun grinned in response.
"So, what's going on?" He asked.
"Well, Mai's bored, as usual, so we were going for a walk around the Capitol. Wanna come?"
Yun raised an eyebrow and looked at Mai. "Won't that make you kind of a third wheel?"
The noblewoman shrugged in response. "Zuko's meeting us, so...no."
"Okay! Just let me put my project away."
Mai turned to face Ty Lee. "Go on ahead; I need to speak to Yun."
Ty Lee cocked her head but did as she was asked.
Yun braced himself for the inevitable berating he would receive for whatever he did.
Yun stopped messing with his chest piece. "What?"
"You've met my expectations."
Yun smirked. "Is that almost a compliment?"
She leaned against the entryway. "Almost."
"I'll take it," he replied with a grin.
"Just...be a good guy, Yun. She really cares about you."
He nodded. "I know; I love her, Mai. I can't promise that I'll be perfect, but I'll do my best."
"I suppose that's all I can ask."
Gow watched as Shu Jing grew nearer, but out of the corner of his eye also watched Zihark. General Zhiang Li sat cross-legged, preparing himself mentally.
"I don't like it..."
Zhiang opened one eye. "How many more innumerable complaints will you have, Gow?"
The 'innumerable' line threw him. "Uh...."The tank general waved his hand contemptuously. "Nevermind. What is it now?"
Gow nodded toward Zihark. "He's scaring the men. All he does is sit there with his sword!"
The warrior was suddenly silenced by the presence of a white blade at his throat. "Are you aware that you are speaking to the best swordmaster in the entire world?" He sheathed his blade, allowing Gow to breathe. "Piandao. Is. Mine. I will prove my claim, regardless of doubters."
Zhiang breathed out, calming himself. "We'll see. Did you join our King's army just to take on an aging swordsman?"
Zihark frowned. "No, I responded to Yuan Chong's call for hired hands. It is fate that led me to Shu Jing, a fate I am more than prepared to accept."
Yun breathed in the fresh air of the market, but he couldn't help but remember what was to come. Why shouldn't we enjoy the calm before the storm? He smiled as Ty Lee and Mai talked, and he also took in the market itself. It was a melting pot of vendors, and Yun took it all in.
They reached the restaurant where they would meet Zuko, and Ty Lee looked back at Yun. "Come on, slowpoke!" Her grin, one of pure joy, grew, and Yun noticed a small flash. She glanced at something before going inside. He turned briefly and saw what she had glanced at, and it gave him an idea.
When he entered the establishment, a server ushered him to a private room. As he walked in, everyone turned to look at him, and he noticed that Suki and Haru were also there.
"Where'd you go?" Ty Lee asked.
Yun shrugged as he sat down beside her. "I had to take care of something."
"Something? That's very mysterious," she replied before giggling.
Zuko stood as Yun sat. "I thought, as the Fire Lord, I would treat my honored guests to lunch at one of our capital's highest rated restaurants. Enjoy all that the Iron Dragon has to offer as a treat, a gift from the Royal Family."
"Is this one of those meals like a prisoner has right before his execution?" Haru asked, only half-jokingly.
Zuko said nothing as the gharial hog was brought out.
"Uh...Zuko?" Ty Lee waved her hand in front of his face.
He shook himself out of his thoughts. "I'm sorry. You've all given so much..." He looked at each of them. "You've lost fathers, mentors, and friends. We all have. Now I'm asking you to give something one more time."
Yun stood. "My home is here, and I will defend it."
Ty Lee half smiled, but her heartbeat sped up ever so slightly.
Piandao stood at the port where he could see the ships offshore. It was time. He glanced at Fat and nodded; the butler's only reply was a grin. Sokka and Toph stood several feet back, both of their faces filled with concern.
"Are you ready?"
They both nodded.
"You do realize that I might not be able to protect you..."
Another nod. "We made this choice master, and we're prepared to stand by it."
"I hope so..." He replied as smaller landing boats were launched out. "Because here they come."
Zhiang Li and Gow stared at the unassuming old man who stood before them, with two children as backup. "This'll be too easy..." Gow stated.
"Do not assume anything yet."
The swordmaster drew his blade as they stepped out of the boat. "If you want my advice, turn back now." No emotion could be read in his expression, it was matter-of-fact, and that unnerved Zhiang.
"Stand aside; we only wish to destroy the port."
"If I thought that the port was really all you were after, I would have given it to you. But I know differently. This island is home to many innocent people, people you would destroy simply because of the nation they come from."
The tank general's eyes widened. "No one in the Fire Nation is innocent! I did not here their cries for reform while the world suffered!" He waved the first of the men forward. "I will not leave one man, woman, or child alive on this rock!"
Piandao closed his eyes. "So be it."
As the first several in the line surged forward, Piandao whipped his sword around like lightning. Each man went down, clutching at his throat. Piandao opened his eyes and began a whirlwind of strikes and blows against the onrushing enemy, who had no earth to bend yet and were in a funnel. Zhiang and Gow backed away as another landing boat hit the dock and more troops poured out.
Sokka grimaced. "You ready, Toph?"
She nodded grimly. "Aye, aye, Captain..." Sokka noted that there were tears in her eyes.
"Time to go to work..."
Zihark looked on from his boat, eager to land. Piandao was so close, yet if another took him down....
The younger blademaster shook his head. After such an open display of speed, skill, and power, no mere soldier would do the deed. It would be him.
Sokka found himself moving from thought to instinct as soldiers poured onto the dock. The three of them had a good position, but it would soon be overrun. He moved his sword like a pure extension of his own body, and man after man fell. I've become a killer.... The thought was wiped away for the moment when he saw the faces of his friends and family in his mind. They were the reason he stood here; he would not fall. And that was not good for anybody that stood in his way.
Toph stepped back onto solid ground where she could see, and she could still feel some vibrations coming off of the dock. She knew where to strike. She also felt exactly when Piandao and Sokka were pushed onto solid ground; that was her cue. She sent a fissure that shattered the dock, sending all the soldiers into the water.
Piandao, meanwhile, gave in to his instincts, instincts honed by countless years of training. No soldier, bender or not, so much as scratched him. He whirled in complex patterns, sliced precisely, and aimed to kill. He could not afford mercy with so many. He found, though, that in the midst of his rampage, there were a few who traded several blows before falling, and he respected them. In another life, he might have trained them, but it was not to be.
He barely heard the shouts or felt the heat when fireballs rained down on the landing boats that hadn't yet made it to the harbor; he only knew the plan had worked.
Piandao handed Fat the instructions. "Bring the 5th," was all it said. His old unit, his friends would help him now.
He barely noticed as a massive man charged him; he simply jumped and stabbed downward, piercing the man's shoulder behind his collarbone. The man fell face first in the dirt.
Zhiang Li barely made it to solid ground, and he didn't even care if Gow did. With their landing boats compromised, the only way to go was forward. Toward the maniac with the sword.
"I underestimated him....greatly...."
He watched in disbelief as Zihark made a ten-foot jump from his sinking boat to solid ground. "It will take a little more than water to keep me out of this fight."
Zhiang sneered. "If there is any proof to your claim, kill him before he ruins everything!"
Zihark smirked. "I will wait. Your poorly planned offensive needs to fail for a little longer in order for you to learn a lesson in humility and tactics."
The general's eye twitched as he stared in rage, before finally hearing an explosion rock the Empire Class ships offshore. He gritted his teeth as Fire Nation War Balloons targeted the main vessels' weapons to prevent a bombardment.
Sokka and Fat fought back-to-back, cutting down enemies before they could muster a successful attack. Sokka watched in horror as a man with twin war hammers came against the butler and engaged him. The young warrior felt his breath leave rapidly as Toph knocked him to the ground, rock flying overhead.
"Get out of la-la land, Sokka! That's twice I've had to save you today because you weren't paying attention!"
Sokka cocked his head. "When was the first time?"
Toph didn't reply; she simply blew her hair out of her face in frustration. That's when she felt him. The one Piandao had talked to.
General Zhiang Li moved toward Piandao's protégés, intent on forcing his surrender through them, but the small blind one stood in his way.
He snorted as he realized the absurdity of it all. A tiny, helpless blind girl was challenging him! "You are no match for me, child."
He winced as she spit on the ground before him. "We'll see," she said, an eerie grin on her face.
The general sighed as he lifted a large rock out of the ground and sent it her way.
Gow rained down blow after blow on Fat, forsaking technique in order to gain an opening, and he finally did. One of his hammers struck the butler in his ribcage, and the man fell, gasping.
"I'm gonna do the same thing to your master." Gow said as he brought his hammer down.
Elation at the victory turned to surprise as Sokka intercepted the strike. "Who're you?"
The Water Tribe warrior pushed back and forced Gow to retreat a few steps. "My name is Sokka." With those four words, he launched himself into an attack aimed straight at Gow's heart.
Piandao held the line and prevented more men from surging through, cutting most of them down before they could chance a strike at him. He had noted from the beginning the opponent that stood before him now.
"I suppose the great Zihark desires to challenge an old swordmaster..." He closed his eyes, listening to the battle around him.
The other's voice, cold and filled with cunning, was something Piandao had not anticipated. "Yes, I will prove myself your better, Master Piandao. I must say," He continued as their standoff went on, "That I am surprised that you've heard of me."
"I make it a point to know as many potential threats as possible."
Zihark raised an eyebrow. "To your reputation."
The old man shook his head. "No, to innocent lives. I had heard of your utter disregard for them almost as often as I'd heard of your skill. That combination I knew would be deadly."
"And you are correct. I will kill you now, and the world will have a true master swordsman." He brought his blade to a ready position while Piandao kept his flipped behind his back.
"The guest has the first move."
Zhiang's eyes widened as Toph blew his rock apart with little effort. He was equally incredulous when she attempted to submerge him. "I am a master! You cannot—!"
He stopped as he was struck in the back by a massive boulder that he hadn't even seen coming. Before he could turn to destroy the projectile, the blind Earthbender launched herself into the air with an earth pillar and met him in midair, kicking him back through the rock. He dredged his hand into the ground, launching up a small rock aimed for her head, but she simply smiled as it flew past.
Toph grinned as Zhiang Li attempted to send a fissure at her feet, redirecting it with a mere twist of her foot. She raised a thick, but short pillar and began carving little cylinders out and thrusting them at her hapless opponent. He blocked the first two, but the third caught him in the sternum while the fourth knocked his legs out from under him, planting him face first in the dirt. As he struggled to rise, another pillar hit him in the stomach and sent him flying into the wall behind.
Toph laughed maniacally. "The Blind Bandit strikes again!" Her elation at victory, though, was tempered when she saw Sokka being driven back.
Gow used the same tactics that he had with Fat, all offense. Fortunately, Sokka had come up with a plan. I can't beat this guy by absorbing or redirecting his strikes...
He saw his opportunity. As Gow brought his hammers together in an attempt to crush Sokka's head, the young swordsman slipped his sword in between them, nearly stabbing the Earthbender in the chest. The blade had stopped, but Sokka had not. He jumped up before Gow could react and kicked the hilt of the sword, pushing it through the makeshift barrier and into his opponent's chest.Gow paled, and Sokka barely noticed Toph's cry of exultation. He pulled the blade out, noting that it had not penetrated very deeply, and resumed his attack on the now retreating Gow. He noticed that the man's hands were now unsure as they held the hammers, and he, in turn, hammered back. One of the weapons dropped to the ground, while he caught the other.
In desperation, he began to launch rock after rock at Sokka, but each one was dodged or broken by his jian sword. As Sokka came closer, Gow dropped his other hammer and knelt.
"Please, don't! I'll do anything!"
Sokka kept walking, and upon reaching the man, cracked him in the jaw with the hilt of his blade. The Earthbender's eyes rolled back into his head as he fell into unconsciousness.
Sokka sheathed his sword. "And that's how we do it, Water Tribe style."
He was caught off-guard as Toph wrapped her arms around him. "Awesome, Sokka! You did it!"
He raised an eyebrow at her uncharacteristic display of emotion. "Uh...yeah..."
Piandao let Zihark's blade meet his own and parried, but Zihark threw a backfist that struck him in the cheek. As he staggered back, the younger man kicked his shin, causing him to go down on one knee.
Zihark sneered. "Is this all? I expected better." He turned away from Piandao briefly. "Bad move, old man!"
Piandao stood with no effort and launched a lightning strike against his unprepared opponent. Zihark barely moved away from the lethal stroke, gaining a gash in his cheek in the process. Piandao continued a blinding barrage of blows that quickly pushed the young man backward. As he, in a panic, swung sideways at the old master, Piandao jumped and landed quickly on the flat of his opponent's blade, kicking upward under his chin before coming down with the same leg on the top of his head.
As Zihark flailed wildly to keep from being struck, the more experienced swordsman clotheslined his opponent. Before he could deliver the killing strike, however, the young, once cocky blademaster kicked Piandao in the head, knocking him back.
"Speak!" Zihark stood, breathing heavily. "Are you a phantom that you don't even taunt me?!"
Piandao exhibited his usual calm. "You kill indiscriminately; you will be stopped. Surrender! You must know that I have controlled the duel from the beginning."
Zihark let out a battle cry as he renewed his charge. If it were anybody else, Piandao noticed, Even Sokka, Zihark would have won the battle with ease. He is almost my equal. He smiled as one of his strokes cut into his foe's side. Almost. As their duel progressed, Piandao felt fatigue setting in, but he knew that he would outlast Zihark, who was gaining more and more minor cuts from Piandao's attacks.
The end came when Zihark jumped over a forward stab, a feint, landing behind him only to be caught by the backstab. Piandao had flipped the sword around as the other man landed and plunged it through his midsection.
Zihark expelled a breath of pain and shock. "I was to be the best..." His eyes glazed over as Piandao removed the blade and he crumpled to the ground.
"Not quite..." Piandao replied sadly.
The battle ended as the men realized that their best assets were either dead or incapacitated. The one ship still in working condition surrendered to the Bladerunner battalion, Piandao's old unit from the 5th.
"Thank you all for responding to my call, gentlemen."
Qin Sow waved it off. "It was nothing, Sarge." Piandao smiled at the mention of an old nickname. "We relished a chance to fight alongside you again."
He turned to see Sokka and Toph tending to Fat as best they could. "How is he?"
Sokka looked up at him. "He has a few broken ribs and a concussion, but with some medical attention he should be fine."
The old master nodded. "Good." He put his hand on Sokka's shoulder. "You both performed beyond my expectations, and because of you, Shu Jing is safe."
Sokka grinned at the praise.
- Piandao is a beast, just in case you didn't already know.
- Zihark is also a character in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn; he is a swordsman and in my opinion, one of the better units in the game once leveled up.
For the collective works of the author, go here.