Part XII: Of the Renegade of Fire
Yǎn-sui spared a downward glance at the male airbender, before immediately shifting his attention back to Jiān, who was engaged in some sort of bizarre greeting ritual with the sky-bison.
She might be friends with the human, but Beasts are a different matter, he thought, noticing the distinctly rigid set of the animals multiple legs as Jiān balanced on the rivers surface, her face a distinctly unfamiliar mask of wide-eyed wariness. Saving her from her own idiocy is quickly becoming a full-time occupation. How tiresome.
A pointed cough broke him out of his concentration. Is there something you wish to ask of me, hu- Master Airbender? he growled, keeping his eyes trained on Jiān.
Well, not really, I just thought, seeing as well be working together, we might as well get to know each other a bit, the human (Rinzen, that was his name) offered with friendly smile. Maybe chat about the weather, or fishing, or
Or we can just watch Jiān say hello to my sweetheart. Noticing Yǎn-suis quizzical head-tilt, he added, Lhamu. Theres no girl Im closer to than her!
Humans are very odd; perhaps Jiān prefers their company because she seems sane by comparison? Yǎn-sui postulated inwardly. That would explain a few things
The sky-bison rumbled low in her chest, front paws shifting into a wider stance suitable for charging. Jiān froze, just within arms reach of the beasts nose.
and no matter what anyone might think, sky-bisons are much smarter than your average ostrich-horse, the human was blathering. Id go so far as to say theyre as smart as dra-
"The bison has adopted a defensive posture," Yǎn-sui announced, cutting Rinzen off as he laid hold of Tiào-fěi's hilts. "This has gone far enough." Jiān was a goddess, but he nevertheless had the obligation to protect her from harm, however slight it might be.
He started when Rinzen clapped a restraining hand on his arm. "Hey, cool it, big guy!" the small man admonished cheerfully, completely oblivious to the fact that he was courting death. "Jiān and Lhamu are old friends."
It was only out of courtesy to Jiān that Yǎn-sui warned the idiot away with a teeth-baring snarl instead of lopping the offending appendage off; Rinzen recoiled immediately. "Ahahahaha, right!" he laughed nervously, holding his staff as a frail ward against the hulking warrior glaring down at him. "No touchy!"
Yǎn-sui's eyes darted from the cowering human to Jiān and the sky-bison: the animal, instead of attacking, took a long, deep sniff of Jiān's scent as the goddess held statue-still...
'Am I too la...?'
Jiān's face split into a huge grin as the wall of air loosed by the sky-bison slammed into her head-on, blowing her hat off her head and blasting her hair and garments straight back behind her. The children, who had apparently been watching expectantly for just this moment, broke out into a tumult of laughter and giggles. "Hahahaha, I'm glad to see you, too, Mumu!" Jiān trilled, latching onto the beast's face as the sky-bison made pleased purring growls. "Gimme a kiss!"
"I think it's cute how they never get bored of this game, don't you?" Rinzen asked, clearly enjoying Yǎn-sui's utter bewilderment.
"...'Game'?" the demon echoed weakly. 'Abyss, deliver me from this stupidity,' he begged, burying his face in his hand as the situation finally became clear to him.
Hey, I know youre just concerned for Jiān, so no harm done, Rinzen continued, smiling brightly. Just so you know, though, Im not going to let you even think about hurting Lhamu from here on out, got it?
Hes threatening me, even though he considers me stronger, all for the sake of his friend, Yǎn-sui thought, sensing aggressive intention radiating from the human. Certainly not a coward, but perhaps a fool. I harbor no desire to harm the sky-bison, Master Airbender. My master would be most displeased if I did.
True, agreed Rinzen, wary humor warming the coldness of his contrived cheerfulness. Hey, Lady Jiān! You and Lhamu done playing around yet?
Oh, yes, Im sorry! Jiān called, releasing Lhamu and ineffectively trying to straighten her hair as she walked toward them. Where is my
Here ya go, Lady Jiān, one of the children said, holding up her hat. You really oughtta think about getting some hair pins for it or something if youre going to hang around Lhamu anymore.
Thats a good idea, Jiān laughed, placing it on her head and arranging the veil. So, Rinzen, you and Lhamu will help Yǎn-sui?
Like I said, Id do anything for you, Lady Jiān, he replied, Lhamu, too. But now that Ive met your
companion, Im not sure.
What? Jiān asked, shocked.
Rinzen had the grace to look slightly abashed. Not to be insulting or anything, Jiān, but Lhamu doesnt seem to like Yǎn-sui very much. He nodded over at Lhamu, who had moved up higher on the bank, the gaggle of children swarming over her. I trust her judgment, and Im not going to make her take up anyone who she doesnt want to. He bowed slightly to Yǎn-sui. Nothing personal, my friend. I can start drawing maps of the valley if it will help at all, but thats about all I can do for you.
Rinzen, you cant possibly say that Lhamu cant
! protested Jiān. I mean, its not fair! I swear to you, Yǎn-sui would never
Rinzen is absolutely correct, Yǎn-sui interrupted, holding up a hand.
He is? Jiān asked.
I am? Rinzen uttered at exactly the same time.
Yes, Yǎn-sui affirmed. Sky-bison are not mere pack animals they are favored Beasts of the Sky Mother. To force them to bear anyone on their back whom they themselves do not accept is to insult them. He cocked his head. Am I correct, Master Airbender?
Yes, replied Rinzen, blinking. But how
Milady, if I gain Lhamus permission, do I have your leave to ascend? he said, ignoring the human.
What? Why do you even have to as
oh. Jiān pretended not to notice Rinzens bemused stare. Yes, you have my leave.
Nodding, Yǎn-sui turned back to the airbender. I will ask for her assent, if that is all right with you.
Um, sure, said Rinzen, frowning a puzzled manner. Not that I know how you think youre going to do that.
Yǎn-sui smirked. The children scattered as he approached the sky bison, who shied, nostrils flaring as she snorted loud, nervous breaths. Jiāns glamour obviously did not fool her keen sense of smell. Yǎn-sui met her gaze evenly, noting how the whites of her rolling eyes showed she was very close to fleeing or fighting for her life in the face of a recognized predator. Very deliberately, Yǎn-sui sat down, laying Tiào-fei in its sheathe on the ground in front of his crossed legs, never breaking eye contact. He folded his hands at the small of his back.
? Jiān ventured hesitantly.
Sh, sh, I think he knows what hes doing, Rinzen interrupted in a low, slightly awed voice.
Only after Lhamu stopped pawing at the earth did Yǎn-sui bow, slowly and deeply. Sky-bison, he said, keeping his head low and exposing his neck. You know me for what I am. I have hunted and eaten your kind before. I do not desire to eat you. I vow never to harm you. I ask that you consider that I serve the goddess Jiān, whom you regard with affection. If you will condescend to carry me into the sky, I will promise never to raise fang or claw against others of your kind ever again.
He remained in his position until he felt the bison draw nearer, her nose snuffling the air about him with obvious distaste and more than a little trepidation. Ever so delicately, the wide black nose ruffled over his mane and his bare neck, causing the small hairs there to stand straight; as blunt as they were, a sky bisons teeth could inflict serious damage to such a vulnerable point. Yǎn-sui paid close attention to the paws that shifted the earth just in front of Tiào-fei, causing the ground to tremble slightly with every nervous twitch.
With a final, violent snort, Lhamu emitted a throbbing growf! and moved away. Yǎn-sui waited until she came to rest beside Rinzen and Jiān before he regained his feet and retrieved Tiào-fei. We have reached an understanding, he announced to the bewildered human and goddess, with a slight bow to Lhamu. She has agreed to allow me to fly with her.
Lhamu agreed, sounding somewhat dubious but no longer antagonistic.
Whoa, Rinzen admitted, patting her ear. I thought for sure youd try to trample him, sweetheart. Guess even I can be wrong. He looked over at Yǎn-sui, his eyes newly appraising. Lets get going then, since Lhamu says its all right.
Yǎn-sui nodded and came forward as Rinzen used a burst of air to loft onto Lhamus broad head. We will return shortly, hopefully with useful information, Yǎn-sui said to Jiān with a bow before vaulting into the expansive saddle on Lhamus back.
Wish us luck! Rinzen called, waving to Jiān and winking. He whistled an ascending three note chord to Lhamu and the bison took to the sky with a slap of her tail.
Play nice, you two! Jiān called after them, clapping one hand to her hat to prevent it from flying away again in Lhamus backdraft and waving madly with the other. And dont do anything stupid!
I resent the implication, Yǎn-sui heard Rinzen mutter.
As the sky-bison climbed steadily higher, Yǎn-sui leaned over one side of the saddle, scanning the ever-widening panorama below him. Jiān was tiny white doll still waving up from the brown, gravel-strewn river bank. The children were smaller dots whirling about her in their erratic games. The river itself was becoming snakelike again as they topped the cliffs and he could see the bends they had hidden. Turning his head northward, toward Lhamus tail, he could spy the mountain where the river began, a mist-enshrouded green mound easily covered by his outstretched paw. The sky above was clear for many leagues, a bright, nearly blinding azure. Yǎn-sui stood and breathed the thinning air deeply, feeling his heart race with excitement as his mane whipped the air behind him.
It is a good day to fly, he announced, his good humor making him generous.
Rinzen looked up over his shoulder at his passenger, surprise evident in his grey eyes. Well, the hits just keep on coming, he said. Not everyone is so confident to be standing up on a sky bisons back on their first time airborne; most of them dont grin like hyena-apes either. He raised a shrewd eyebrow. Youve done this before.
Not on a sky-bison, but yes, Yǎn-sui replied, taking the time to watch a hawk jet past them and dive in pursuit of its prey.
Oh? Clearly Rinzen desired elaboration.
Jiān did say to play nice, Yǎn-sui reflected. The human was fairly intelligent-looking and it would not hurt to be polite to someone a sky-bison so obviously approved of. Normally, I fly on a dragon.
Huh that explains it, Rinzen said with a shrug, returning his attention to the way ahead,. You dont seem the type to boast, but I hear dragons can be rather picky about who theyll take as a rider.
Yǎn-sui replied with a shrug of his own, although Rinzen could not see it. If you respect them and are worthy of their time, they will deign to serve as a mount for a
for a while. I seem to be getting glib all of a sudden, Yǎn-sui noted, narrowing his eyes at the back of Rinzens head. Altitude, perhaps?
Rinzen seemed to read his mind. You know, I could have sworn I heard the only riders a dragon will accept are the servants of Agni himself.
Rumors overstate things, Yǎn-sui drawled, his body tensing. Lhamu sensed his suddenly aggressive vibe and grumbled her displeasure. He breathed out slowly, regaining his composure. A dragon will sometimes take up a human rider.
Uh huh. Rinzen glanced back at him, a sly grin creasing his lips. But sometimes, rumors carry a grain of truth in what is not said. What Ive never heard of is a dragon-riding demon.
I take it you know Jiān for what she is as well? Yǎn-sui finally said after a long silence.
You only have to pay attention to figure that out, Rinzen replied with a chuckle.
Is that why all the humans in this valley assume shes only the human servant of a goddess? he asked pointedly.
The airbender dead-panned. I take it youre not too fond of humans, he observed somewhat ruefully. Except as dinner, perhaps?
Yǎn-sui cocked his head. Typical human, he replied, allowing a slight sneer to creep into his voice. You dont taste that good. But no, I dont think very highly of humans. Many beasts are a great deal more intelligent and better-smelling.
Cant really argue with you there, my friend, Rinzen said unexpectedly. Not that I know if people taste good, one way or the other. So, if you dont like humans
Why in the name of the Abyss am I trying to protect the humans in this valley? Yǎn-sui finished for him. It is what my master asks of me.
Rinzen loosened the reins enough to scoot around so that he could look squarely up at Yǎn-sui. Normally, I dont pry into the matters of gods and monsters, he said frankly. Humans are enough for me. But how in the name of the four winds did Jiān suddenly become your master? Youre something I think she would have mentioned to me before.
And how familiar do you really think a goddess would be with mere humans? Yǎn-sui shot back, not liking the easy manner Rinzen bandied Jiāns name about.
I think its pretty obvious how familiar she gets, Rinzen retorted, beginning to frown. She plays with the kids like shes their big sister; she sits for hours with the elders of the villages, just talking to them. She heals the sick, and uses the river to better everyones lives, whether it be to irrigate the upland farms, prevent floods, or help the fishermen. I dont know many gods on a personal basis, as Im sure you do, but I can bet theres not a single one of them that goes out of their way to care for mere humans like she does. Thats why Im willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, and Im sure thats also why Lhamu doesnt throw you out of that saddle here and now.
As if to serve warning, Lhamu banked sharply to the right, causing Yǎn-sui to stumble a bit while Rinzen, accustomed to her turns of temper, remained steady as a rock on his precarious perch.
What does it matter to you the circumstances behind my killing other demons? Yǎn-sui demanded, forced to go down on one knee in case Lhamu made another radical alteration in her flight path.
Cold grey eyes glared. It matters if youre going to disrespect Jiān in front of me, Rinzen answered in all seriousness.
You humans have a strange concept of respect, Yǎn-sui drawled, suddenly understanding what Rinzen was implying. He almost laughed, but since Lhamu did not seem entirely averse to pitching him overboard for imagined slurs against her old friend, he decided discretion was the better part of valor. Jiān is my master. She desires to protect the humans who inhabit the valley her river runs through. She knows that I am a warrior capable of doing so. Even though I detest humans, the terms of our
contract give me a very good reason to act against my better instincts and seek out an unknown number of demons who, for reasons I cannot yet fathom, have begun quite deliberately massacring humans and eliminate them.
If anything, I hold Jiān in the highest respect for binding me when most others would have taken to fright for even daring to contemplate such a scheme. The last part was not entirely true; he was convinced Jiāns audacity sprang as much from naïveté as from her own inborn courage.
Innocence was always a casualty of war, never its victor.
Rinzen stared hard at Yǎn-sui, apparently weighing whether or not to carry the debate further. We came up here so you can figure out the lay of the land, right? he said, turning around. Ill be your tour guide, you do whatever it is you need to do, and well return to Jiān with a happy story about how demons and humans really can get along without bloodshed. Sound fair?
Eminently so, Yǎn-sui agreed silently, casting his eyes out over the landscape below. Lhamu had carried them above the crests of the cliffs; unbroken verdant forest carpeted their shoulders, deep gullies plunging minute waterfalls into slender tributaries of the main river. He could smell human settlements down there, beneath the canopy, but they were so frustratingly small and scattered that even his sharp eyes could not pinpoint them, not from this height. This will take longer than I thought
the sky-bison will have to take us down nearly to the treetops if Im to conduct any sort of reliable survey, and by the time weve scanned nearly a tenth of this valley, the demons will most assuredly have struck again. It irritated him, having to wage such a woefully ill-informed and ill-supported defensive campaign. He returned his gaze to the river as Lhamu made a lazy, climbing arc, turning toward Jains mountain. The humans must be convinced to abandon their upland settlements, and concentrate defense on the river. Even if thats the enemys objective, I see no other solution if protecting the population is Jiāns primary goal. Why are you flying about aimlessly? he snapped at Rinzen as Lhamu changed direction yet again she had been flying in ever-widening circles over the valley, and soon her revolutions would bring them back out over the river. We must survey the valley from end to end!
I was waiting for you to make up your mind about where you wanted to go, since youre the expert, Rinzen replied cheerfully. Im just the human with the sky-bison, remember?
Yǎn-sui growled low in his chest, knowing that swiping off the impudent humans head would doubtless incur both the wrath of Lhamu and Jiān, and he was more immediately concerned with the mood of the former.
Very well, he ground out, taking deep, calming breaths. Fly us above this side of the river, down to where it flows out into the sea. This altitude is all right for now, but we will have to make a lower pass to fix each village accurately, in particular those that have already been targeted by demons.
I can help you there, said Rinzen, even as he directed Lhamu seaward. Ive gone up and down this valley a couple times since I arrived a couple months back. I can tell you where most of the villages are from the air, even some of the individual farms up that way in the hills. And Lhamu can sniff out those villages that
that were attacked if I dont remember where they are.
That will be helpful, admitted Yǎn-sui.
Jiān said something about a map, the human continued in a light tone, as if he had forgotten their earlier conversation. If you need parchment and inks, I think I can get you in contact with the merchants who do trade around the river mouth. I have a line of credit with a couple of them for things like that.
assistance is appreciated, he replied, feeling somewhat out of sorts. Jiān, he had to admit, had chosen this ally well, despite his annoying mannerisms. Such a frail human would be useless in a fight, but his keen insight and courage were admirable and the information he possessed would serve Yǎn-suis purposes. Perhaps he could also be induced to convince the other humans to flee the...
Lhamu! Yǎn-sui roared. Dive! NOW!
Rinzen let loose a an oath as the sky-bison dropped like a stone, then yelped as a red-gold fireball whistled overhead and exploded where they had been only a moment before. What the
That was a fair greeting, Yǎn-sui remarked as Rinzen pulled at the reins, attempting to steady Lhamu. He grinned. Lhamu, come about I wish to return the favor.
Are you crazy?! the airbender demanded even as Lhamu began to turn, narrowly avoiding another fireball. Someones throwing fireballs at us! We need to get out of here!
Agreed, replied Yǎn-sui. Youll get in the way, human. Lhamu, return him to Jiān, and report that I have engaged the enemy ten miles from our original position. He drew Tiào-fěi. The battle begins now.
Wait a minute, didnt you hear me? demanded Rinzen as Lhamu swerved wildly to avoid yet another fireball. You cant go
! He looked back only to see an empty saddle.
alone. Dammit, dont tell me he
The wind screamed in Yǎn-suis ears as he plummeted, eyes scanning the screening treetops. Already gone to ground, have you? Such ill-manners shall be corrected. Drawing in a deep breath, he felt his chi and granted fire kindle and flare in anticipation of battle, melding seamlessly. Release unto me thy destruction, oh will of Heavens Flame. I invoke the Inferno! Blue-white fire roared out of his maw, slowing his descent and consuming the trees below, reducing them to ash to their very roots. Yǎn-sui landed in a crouch, the smoldering earth cracking and crunching under his weight. Hm, a touch overboard; I suppose the fire didnt appreciate being caged anymore than I did, he reflected, surveying the extent of the destruction with satisfaction.
Stop hiding, coward! he declared, standing. I have answered your challenge.
Yes, you have.
Yǎn-sui turned, eyes narrowing at the figure approaching through the smoke. Name yourself, renegade.
The black-skinned demon leveled his massive, saw-toothed pudao at Yǎn-sui. I will give no name to you, Blue Spirit; you no longer have the right to demand it of me! he spat, dark crimson eyes flaring.
He was a young demon, Yǎn-sui determined from his comparatively light build, although he was easily a good foot taller. A pair of scimitar-like grey horns jutted from high on his forehead. His armor, what there was of it, concealed what he recognized as that of an officer of the Southern White Army, its red sun-flare crests conspicuously torn from its black collar and white sleeves. The exploding fireballs from before an artillery specialist. His scarlet mane was tied up in the signature topknot of the servants of the Qiú niú, a son of Agni Yǎn-sui knew to be missing in battle and long supposed to be dead.
The other demon started, eyes widening and pointed ears twitching in surprise as the point of his pudao wavered and dropped.
Lieutenant, Yǎn-sui repeated gravely, why have you abandoned your post?
I did no such thing! the other demon roared, raising his pudao and charging full-tilt at Yǎn-sui.
Yǎn-sui easily parried, letting the whelp stumble past him. There was little point in killing him, just yet. Then why are you slaughtering humans in this valley so far from the battlefield?
This is my battlefield! his opponent snarled, red-gold flames swirling up the length of his blade, Now fight me, traitor!
Traitor? Yǎn-sui echoed, caught off-guard. The demon came at him faster than expected, leaping up and striking downward with his flame-blade. Yǎn-sui blocked with both halves of Tiào-fei crossed overhead, wincing as the others flames exploded and swirled about them.
Die! the young demon screamed, dropping a smoking iron ball the size of a moon-peach at Yǎn-suis feet and vaulting away.
The blast threw him clear across the field his fire had created; stars exploded across his vision as the back of his skull impacted with a tree trunk.
Tiào-fěi's left hilt slipped from his weakened grip.
The other demon was upon him in an instant. Yǎn-sui rolled out of the way just as the crackling blade slashed across the tree trunk at neck-height, cutting it in two. Yǎn-sui lunged at his opponent, attempting to slice through the tendons behind his left knee. The demon dodged, swiped downward while reaching behind him with his free paw
Thats where hes keeping his bombs, Yǎn-sui realized, noticing the thick dragon-hide belt around the others waist. He dove forward to avoid the blade, rolled, then sprang over his opponents head and sliced through the belt that secured the large, sturdy munitions pouch at the small of his back.
If youre going to fight me, do it without these toys, Yǎn-sui sneered, flinging the pouch away over the treetops before his opponent could activate them.
I defeat my enemy by any means I have; thats what you told us to do, isnt it?! the other howled, charging again, aiming another stroke down at Yǎn-suis neck.
Yǎn-sui parried and kicked him across his midsection, sending him sprawling so his horns lodged deep in the dirt.
Perhaps I did; but when did you decide I was your enemy? he countered. You are a soldier in the Army of the Heavenly Flame! I am your commanding officer! Explain yourself! As he spoke, he called out to the left half of Tiào-fei, beckoning it to return to his hand.
The other clambered to his feet, rage and embarrassment radiating from his trembling body like waves of heat as he swiped the ash and dirt from his face. I serve no god! he exclaimed. I do not answer to black-maned scum who bow their horns to them either!
Yǎn-sui narrowed his eyes. So be it, nameless renegade. I hereby declare you a deserter, and by the authority bestowed upon me by glorious Agni as Supreme Demon General, I sentence you to death!
Tiào-feis missing half leapt into his outstretched hand as he darted forward, lighting-quick. The other blinked as he seemed to vanish; too late, he slewed around, bringing up his pudao to block Yǎn-suis blow.
The pommel of Tiào-feis left half slammed into the base of his right horn, cracking the skull around it; for good measure, Yǎn-sui head-butted him, splintering the protective plating of his snout. With a groan, the other demon crumpled to his knees, dark ruby blood gushing from his face. Kicking away the felled demons weapon, Yǎn-sui dragged him up by the front of his uniform.
You will answer my questions, Yǎn-sui informed him in a low, pleasant voice, laying Tiào-feis right blade across his jugular. Depending on if you answer to my satisfaction, your death will be quick and clean or slow and very painful. Do you understand me, deserter?
the demon rasped, dazed eyes trying to fix on Yǎn-suis face.
Not if I have anything to say about it, Yǎn-sui promised him. You will beg for death before Im through with you.
The way youre stuffing your ugly mug up his snout, Im pretty sure he wishes he were dead right now.
Yǎn-sui swerved around and ducked to avoid the links of chain, ending in a large iron weight, that had nearly snaked around his neck.
His prisoner, seizing the moment of his distraction, snapped his head around and bit down into Yǎn-suis right wrist, nearly making him drop the blade. Yǎn-sui howled in pain and clouted him across the temple with his other hilt, knocking him loose. Just in time, he dodged another flying chain, which passed so close to his ear that it tore loose strands of his mane as it hissed by.
Yo, greeted the green-skinned, white-maned demon, wriggling his fingers in a sort of salutation as he snapped his weapon back into his paw. His left eye was scarred over, the lid receding into an empty socket. The right gleamed solid white with near-manic glee.
Punga, what in the name of the Abyss are you doing here?! the young demon choked out, retrieving his pudao and leveling it at the newcomer.
This is the thanks I get for coming to save your happy bomb-throwing ass? the demon called Punga sighed, scratching lazily at the thick base of his under-curled horn. No wonder fire and water are always trying to massacre each other.
I know you, Yǎn-sui breathed, eyes flicking over Punga, absorbing his strange garb, little more than a brief breast plate made of slabs of bone tied together with sinew and a slovenly dark blue kilt tied about his waist. Chains criss-crossed his massive chest, indicating he wielded at least two more chain weapons other than the one in his paw. He reeked of the human blood that stained every aspect of this apparel and thickly coated the strands of mane around his wide maw. The second Great Southern Polar campaign; you were among the soldiers of Pana. You lead the Fourth Division.
My, my, my. Punga clicked his tongue against his fangs and shook his massive head, the bone beads tied into his braided beard clattering. Dont I feel special? The Blue Spirit actually remembers me, although I must say, I almost didnt recognize you in that hideos human get-up. At least you had the grace not to try and hide your black mane. He glanced over at the younger demon. Too bad he cant actually recall you, eh, Uutu? Guess you aint exactly important enough to remember, being a whelp and all.
Shut up! Uutu blared, his pudao flaring into red and gold once more. Ive had enough of your damned insolence, you bastard ice-snake!
My insolence? Punga gasped, mockingly affronted. This from the bloodless puppy who was abandoned on his first battlefield? He pulled out the munitions pouch Yǎn-sui had thrown away from the recesses of his robe. Maybe if youre polite, Ill return this to you.
Crimson eyes flew wide. Damn you, Punga, he snarled, the flames embracing his pudao dissolving nevertheless.
Punga glanced over at Yǎn-sui, who had assumed a wary defensive position, and shrugged. Youngsters, eh? What can you do, other than kill 'em. He tossed the pouch carelessly to the other demon, who nearly dropped his weapon in order to catch it before it hit the ground. Why dont you squat down over there and let the real warriors fight, eh? Master Blue Spirit is way out of your class.
Were supposed to fight as a unit! retorted the young fire demon, paw digging searchingly through the pouch. He bared his fangs in a sneer. If I recall, General Yǎn-sui has defeated you once already.
thats true, the ice demon agreed in a dangerously soft tone. He slitted his single eye at Yǎn-sui. I gotta score to settle with you, black-mane.
Whenever youre ready, Yǎn-sui replied, baring his fangs, Ill take both of you on at once, if youre done bickering.
Oh, arent you the generous one? Punga asked sarcastically. You hear that, whelp? Your precious general is
WHERE ARE THEY, PUNGA?! Uutu roared, mane sticking straight out in his rage. His munitions pouch hit the ground in a heedless clatter, inactive bombs rolling every-which-way over the ash.
Oh, those, drawled Punga after a moment of feigned bewilderment. I figured since you were so careless as to let him chuck away your precious bombs in the middle of a fight, Id better keep em safe for you. Theyre right here. So saying, Punga reached behind his breastplate and drew out what looked to Yǎn-sui like a rolled scroll wrapped in white silk and bound with a black ribbon.
Uutu made a noise that might have been a bitten-off oath of fury or a cry of dismay. Whatever it was, it made Punga grin cruelly. Heh, you know, Blue Spirit, I think this little keepsake of my young friends just might interest you.
Dont you dare
! Uutu cried as Punga cut the ribbon with a flick of his claw. With a flourish, he snapped the wrapping cloth, sending the objects within flying through the air, where they landed in the dust midway between him and Yǎn-sui.
They were a pair of horns, torn by the root from a skull, turning a darker shade of yellow with the passing of their owner.
Yǎn-suis vision bled red.
Ooo, looks like were going to have to forget our little lovers quarrel after all, Uutu: here he comes, Punga observed merrily.
UUUUUUUUUUUAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRAAAAUUUUUUGGGGGHHHHHH~!!! Yǎn-sui screamed, charging forward heedlessly, Tiào-fěi forgotten in his hands.
Uutu and Punga leapt aside in opposite directions, Uutu flinging three bombs down at the enraged Yǎn-sui. Yǎn-sui ignored them, leaping up after him as the explosion served only to accelerate his ascent. Uutu swung his flame-blade wildly, but Yǎn-sui batted it aside with a snarl, ignoring the bite of red-gold fire. He opened his maw wide, summoning the raging inferno that would consume the others bones to ash
A chain snaked around his throat, cutting off his breath and slamming him into the ground. Howling, Yǎn-sui regained his feet and charged at Punga, who smirked maliciously, readying a second chain, weighted with a spiked ball. Thats it, come on and get a spike in the brain
he muttered, swirling it faster and faster over his head, until the moment of perfect acceleration that he would let it loose to
A sound of rushing wind overtook the whooshing of his whirling chain.
Grr-OWF!! Even a demon cannot withstand a head-butt from a sky-bison flying full-tilt at his backside. Punga howled as he was sent high into the air, his weighted chain hurtling harmlessly over Yǎn-suis head.
Yǎn-sui, down! Rinzen yelled, leaping out of Lhamus saddle.
Blood-crazed as he was, Yǎn-sui instinctively registered the presence closing in behind him, and hit the dirt, rolling out of the path of Uutus strike.
Ugh! Uutu grunted, as Rinzens wall of air plowed straight into him, knocking him backward.
Yǎn-sui regained his feet, whirled
and slashed aside the daggers of ice released by Pungas chain, slicing off the weight that had been aimed at Rinzens head.
Whoa! Rinzen yelped, starting back as the weight slammed into the earth beside him. Thanks!
The appreciation is mutual, Yǎn-sui tossed over his shoulder as he moved between the human and the two demons. Lhamu also trundled forward to protect her airbender, her tail slapping up clouds of ash as she growled at Uutu and Punga.
Hey! exclaimed the offended human. I cant see!
Looks like its time to beat a tactical retreat, Punga drawled, rubbing at his bruised rear ruefully. Ive had enough playtime for now.
! Uutu protested, but Punga had already turned and sprinted for the cover of the trees.
Get your ass in gear, and maybe I wont tell Milord you were playing against his orders! Pungas voice floated back, punctuated with a cackle.
Uutu cursed, glaring at Yǎn-sui. You wont walk away from our next meeting, traitor, he swore, whirling away in a cloud of smoke.
Thats a pretty bold declaration coming from someone whos running from a fight with his tail tucked between
whoa, hey, where do you think youre going? Rinzen demanded, grabbing the back of Yǎn-suis over-robe as he started after the fleeing demons.
Human, Yǎn-sui said very slowly and patiently. It is only out of regard for the fact that you interfered in my battle out of an admirable if misguided sense of obligation that I do not cut your arm off right now. Let go.
Not happening, my friend, the airbender retorted. They want you to follow them, right now, when youre angry and not thinking. Theyll lure you onto ground of their choosing, maybe right into more like them, and where would Jiān be then?
Yǎn-sui stiffened and slewed around to glare at the human. Rinzen instinctively brought his odd staff up as a guard, but did not yield his ground.
You are correct, human, he growled, lowering Tiào-fěi reluctantly. I am obliged to report this matter to my master, since it seems you failed to do so.
Rinzen smirked. Hey, I was going to, until that other demon showed up; I figured Lhamu and I could even the odds.
Surprisingly enough, you did, said the demon. He bowed to Lhamu. My thanks, sky-bison. You are a true and valiant warrior.
Hrrrrmmmmurrrrr, Lhamu replied, shuffling the ash with one paw abashedly.
Ech, I suppose that just makes me the human along for the ride? Rinzen asked sarcastically.
Youre also the tour guide, remember, Yǎn-sui reminded him, walking away.
Hey, I thought we agreed
They are not my concern for the moment, human, the demon interrupted, scanning the ground. He spotted Huís horns, coated with ash and half-buried in dirt kicked up by the battle. Kneeling, he transferred Tiào-fěi to one hand and picked up the discarded horns carefully, afraid they might crumble as Huís head had. The slightest remainder of his friends presence still lingered within them. Huí
Let us return immediately to Jiān, he said, rising and tucking Huís horns into his sleeve. We will postpone the aerial survey for today.
The human raised a quizzical eyebrow, but made no comment. Sounds like a plan I can live with, Rinzen agreed, using Lhamus forepaw to climb up to his customary seat on her head.
Today, you hide. Tomorrow, I will hunt you down and I will not rest until I have tasted your lifeblood, Yǎn-sui vowed, leaping up into the saddle. I swear it.
Omake: (because I need a good joke to follow up on the violence!)
I take it you know Jiān for what she is as well? Yǎn-sui finally said after a long silence.
You only have to pay attention to figure that out, Rinzen replied with a chuckle.
Oh, really? the demon challenged.
Well, her dress for one.
Rinzen rolled his eyes. Its pure white something-or-other, but it never seems to stain. If youve ever been reduced to doing your own laundry, you have to know thats pretty damned impossible. Unless demons dont do laundry.
? Yǎn-sui prodded, deciding engaging in an argument with a human (over dirty clothes of all things) was beneath him.
And then there are her breasts, Rinzen continued blithely, Tell me with a straight face that such perfection is not divinely inspired.
good point, Yǎn-sui allowed, sounding contemplative.
The airbender regarded him narrowly. Hey, wait a minute
youve done more than just look at them, havent you?! he demanded with an accusatory yelp.
Wouldnt you like to know, human, Yǎn-sui shot back smugly.
Far below the sky, Jiān gave a mighty sneeze.
Are you catching a cold, Miss Jiān? one of the children asked anxiously.
I dont think so, Jiān replied, straightening her hat and giving them all a reassuring smile. But why do I have this sudden urge to send a wall of water into the nearest adult male?
(And no, Yǎn-sui would NEVER talk about Jiān's... assets... to someone else, least of all a human. He has class. And two really big swords)