Fei whimpered quietly. The constant motion of the bulky rhino beneath her made her stomach churn and grumble. Her muscles ached and burned. Tight, unyielding rope bit into her wrists and ankles, rubbing the skin red raw. Her head throbbed, and her face stung where she had been hit. But worst of all was that Tian had turned his back on her; she had tried so hard to make him understand, but he was too settled in his prejudice. Fei choked back a sob.
"Shut up, girl!" Kothir barked at her. "Cease your mewling."
Fei turned a defiant glare on the rogue Captain, and received a sharp slap across her face. She slumped in defeat as Kothir chuckled.
"You realise, of course, we're going to lock you back up in Gan Sho?" Kothir smirked, turning his back on the prisoner. "Oh yes, once we place Fire Lord Ozai back on the throne, you'll be locked up nice and tight in solitary confinement. You remember what that's like, don't you?"
Fei squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the captain's taunting.
Kothir glanced up as a rhino outrider emerged on the path ahead. The scout riding the great behemoth saluted.
"Sir, the way ahead is clear. No sign of the earth bender."
Kothir scowled. "Then where is he?" The captain shook his head dismissively. "No matter, I suppose. Good work."
He seethed inwardly. The little coward had got away. The hate he felt for that snotling of an earth bender threatened to consume Kothir, but he knew he couldn't let this petty revenge overcome him. He had to lead his men on the greater path, follow their grand design. The wheels were in motion, and soon the plan would come to fruition.
"Send word to the ship to make ready for departure," he ordered the scout. "I want the crew ready to leave when I arrive with the prisoner."
"Yes, Captain," the scout saluted again, and crashed away down the road on the massive rhino.
Kothir smiled. All was going quite smoothly. The wench had provided a sporting chase, though, granted, the second prey had escaped. A minor setback, perhaps, but a setback nonetheless. Kothir reached back without looking, and patted Fei roughly on the head. "Still with me, girl?"
Fei winced, each tap feeling like a sledgehammer against her already throbbing skull, but she kept quiet. The rhino's hide was hard and rough, and scratched her cheek if she lay her head down. She breathed deeply through her nose, trying to drown out the captain's voice, trying to ignore his very presence.
A low rumble reached her ears. At first she believed it to be the rhino, hoping to heaven that it wasn't a bowel movement. The rumble grew louder, deeper, more like a cracking of stone. Kothir had obviously heard it as well, as he turned this way and that, searching for the source of the noise.
"Where in the bloody hell fire is that coming from?" Kothir demanded of his guards. One bemused soldier shrugged, glancing around, before looking up at the mountain.
The steep cliff sides towered above. They had reached the foothills some hours prior, and had descended into the sparse forest that clung to the harder soil in the low hills. The mountain stood dark behind them, piercing high into the cool sky. The guard peered closer.
"Sir, look!" he shouted in alarm, pointing up at the sheer cliff face.
Coming towards them was a huge boulder. It rolled and bounced down the cliff, bouncing over smaller outcrops of rock, crashing down the mountain, a trail of thick dust billowing behind it. The behaviour of the boulder was odd: several times it struck crags or rock shelves that should have sent it on a different course, but it always span back onto its original path.
A straight line toward them.
It was mere meters away now. Kothir turned his rhino sharply, yanking on the leather reigns. "The earth bender!" he hollered. "He's directing the boulder!"
The huge rock bounced high into the air, pebbles and flecks of earth trailing behind. The sun was eclipsed for one terrible moment. The fire nation renegades scattered as the huge rock dropped from the sky. It smashed into the earth amongst the group with a terrifying crash. Rhinos reared and bellowed and men screamed as sharp shards of rock splintered off the boulder, piercing armour and skin. Clouds of dust billowed outwards, rendering Kothir blind. His face stung as a small pebble grazed his cheek.
Fei, fearing that any second she may be brained by a rock, was left untouched by earth or stone.
The dust settled. Kothir took count: each of the three men he had with him had sustained bruises and cuts from the shower of stones.
"That earth bender must be around here somewhere!" Kothir shouted at his stunned men. "Go out there and search for him! Find him, and bring him to me!"
The three soldiers saluted. They reigned in their panicked rhinos, and charged off in different directions. Kothir glanced back at Fei.
"Looks like your little friend has come to find you." He turned away, smiling. "Perfect. My men will find him, and bring him to me. And when they do…."
A quiet crack made the captain pause. He turned, looking back at the massive boulder. It sat in a crater, ten feet deep, loose earth piled up around it. A small fissure had appeared in the boulder's face. The cracking grew louder, and the fissure widened and deepened, stretching around the outside of the boulder, before a second fracture split down the face of the stone. The huge rock split perfectly down the centre.
The rock erupted outwards, as more dust and warm air billowed out from the hollow stone. A shape moved within the cloud as two large chunks of the boulder shifted, seeming held in the air.
Kothir shielded his face. "What?"
"Tian!" Fei cried.
The earth bender stepped out of his crude vessel of earth. His face was dark and full of thunder. He straightened to his full height, and Fei could see that his arms were buried into the two large chunks of rock that had come free. Each piece of stone must have been five feet long, covering every inch of his arms, from fingertips to shoulder, and each ended in a large, three fingered hand. Tian pointed a great earthen claw at Kothir.
"Release her. Now."
Kothir stared in stunned silence. The earth bender had some skill if he was able to control the path of a boulder that size, rolling down a cliff at breakneck speed, while inside it. The captain recovered, glaring at the earthen-clawed man.
"She is a traitor to the Fire Nation, and will be punished accordingly," Kothir replied sharply. "Besides, why should you care about this…" The captain paused for a moment, stroking a hand through Fei's hair. Fei squirmed and tried to shrink away.
"Don't you touch her!" Tian roared, taking a step forward.
Kothir turned back, sneering. "So why do you care what happens to a Fire Nation wench? Why should an earth bender risk his life for someone of a nation he despises?"
"Tian, please…" Fei begged. Her words were cut short as Kothir slapped her across the face.
"I said silence!" Kothir shouted.
A high pitched whistle was the only warning he had. Something hard crashed into Kothir's chest, with enough force to lift the stunned captain from his seat. He catapulted off his rhino, landing hard on the earth below. His ribs ached and his head spun. Kothir groaned in dazed pain, his head spinning.
Tian lowered his right arm as the claw he had fired at the captain grew back out of the living rock that encased his limb. The earth bender walked over to where the captain lay.
"Get up," Tian growled. "I want you on your feet when I kill you."
Kothir glared up at the earth-bender, before his lips twisted into a tight smile. He stood slowly, brushing the dust off his uniform, his head clearing. He sucked in a deep breath, and exhaled a heated jet of steam from his nostrils as his hands erupted into searing flame.
The Captain cocked his head to one side. "Let's see if you can live up to those words, earth-hog."