Here's the exciting conclusion everyone! Enjoy!
Toph could not exactly be called the most patient of girls. This was one of those times though, when she just had to force herself to wait.
Slowly, Toph, slowly, she silently told herself, over and over again. She was breathing slowly, shallowly now as she crept towards the hog.
Now, she was about seven zhang away.
Slowly Toph, slowly.
She could feel that the trees were now offering a good straight path for an Earthbended missile, and focused her energy down, down through the fallen leaves and soil and crushed rock, down to the bedrock itself that would make useful weapons.
There was a lot of soil, and she would need to be stealthy, yet swift about extracting a mass of stone and splintering it into daggers before the hog ran too far away from the noise. Just a couple paces closer...
And then two different things happened at once in that patch of forest.
First, Toph felt the hog stop feeding and go on the alert again. And this time she could feel that it wasn't her that the boar's attention was focused on. He was suspicious about something off to her left and in front of the Earthbender.
And once again, she felt the discomfiting vibration through her soles. Now they came in a measured series, closer and being produced by something large that walked on four legs. They were faint, the seismic equivalent of the sound of a person walking barefoot over a soft rug. But they were definitely there. And it was apparently craving gharial hog too.
It looks like I have competition, Toph thought coolly. Deadly competition.
But which kind exactly?
There were only fractions of a second between the time that each of her feet picked up the weak vibrations, but the earthbender could still work out where they were coming from. She turned for better reception.
Because of the way the breeze was blowing, the hog couldn't smell this new predator. But now, as the woodsy spring air slipped in her direction, Toph suddenly caught another odor besides the gharial hog's stench.
It was the faint, but distinctive odor of a feline. Combined with the size of the creature her seismic sense was drawing a picture of, there was no doubt in Toph's startled mind about its identity now.
And her sightless eyes widened.
A horned jaguar. The demon cat.
In the halls and rooms of the Bei Fong mansion, there were a decent amount of trophies on the walls and shelves. Her paternal grandfather and great-grandfather had both been great hunters, and her own father too, hunted when he could find the time. Indeed, the floor of her parents' bedchamber was softened by a rug made from the pelt of a platypus bear Lao had killed when he was just 16.
Although she couldn't see the mounted heads, her dad had either had them taken down or had his daughter lifted up to them so she could feel of the trophies, always with an admonishment to be very careful.
They'd all been impressive underneath her hands. Some of the beasts though, were more impressive than others. She'd felt the deep skull and massive canines of a tiger, and the wickedly sharp triple sets of daggers in the scaly head of the land-running boar crocodile, over three bu in length! She'd explored the talons of a mounted crimson eagle, the two chi high dried sail and elongated but thick head of a giant finback lizard, the size of a tiger.
And then there was the mounted head of the horned jaguar, the pelt suspended beneath it.
The head was broad and deep, the muzzle protruding somewhat like a big dog's. At the front of the mouth were teeth like long, thick thorns which intermeshed like clasped fingers.
Behind them were great fangs every bit as formidable as the tiger's, backed by cusped, shearing teeth and bulging jaw muscles that were strong enough to crunch through the shell of a large turtle.
Most extraordinary of all to Toph's roaming fingers had been the foursome of impressive horns that gave the big cat its name. A pair of thick, ridged horns, conical and slightly curved, arose from the top of the feline's skull, at least a chi and a half in length from base to tip.
Two thinner ridged horns grew from the animal's temples, curving downward until they ended a little way underneath the deep, spreading jaw.
As for the pelt, it was sleek and silky to the touch, and according to her parents, had gorgeous markings...which to her of course, meant nothing. What had meant something to the blind Earthbender though, was the size of the pelt, which when you added the head, came from a bulky animal one zhang in length from nose to the tip of its long, serpentine tail. And right now, what really, really meant something to Toph was the memory of examining the broad, spreading paws, still containing the fully exposed retractable claws, over a cun in length and knife-sharp.
This one sharing the woods with her seemed to weigh 320 jin, and was a little over a yin away, completely focused on the lone boar. Soon, the big cat would be close enough to charge.
The Earthbender hesitated, indecisive. Yeah, this made things a lot more interesting.
The last three years and her time with Team Avatar had been so liberating. Yet they'd also made her a lot more mature. No matter how good you were at bending, it was stupid to get into a life-or-death battle if you didn't have to, and especially if you were at a disadvantage.
No one would blame her if she simply did nothing right now, allowed the horned jag to rush the gharial hog and either kill it or fail to run it down, depending on how the wheel of fortune turned.
She could also simply either kill the hog herself right now like she'd intended, or let the demon cat do the work instead. Then she could drive the jag away easily enough with a mixture of shouts, earthbending, and a kick-butt attitude. That would be the safest choice.
But it also wouldn't be in Toph's nature.
She'd successfully killed crested bobcats a few times before (and they tasted great when stewed or stir-fried too!), so why not try for a horned jaguar? A wicked smile of anticipation spread over her face, and she extended her left arm. She was ready when he was.
Now the pig, and the signals, had stopped. She could still feel his heightened pulse however. Aware that there was something out there, but unsure where the threat was, he began to walk away upwind of her, occasionally rooting at the ground as he did so.
Suddenly, a coiled spring bursting into action, the horned jaguar rushed the gharial hog as he wheeled with a snort and ran-but his charge was cut short as Toph felt that sensation of blink in her head and in a twisting motion, made the soil collapse underneath him.
The cat gave a fearsome growl of fury and surprise as he sunk. While he was occupied with clawing his way out, Toph swiftly bent two slabs of bedrock up through the topsoil, intending to kill the big cat by dropping first one, then another, on his torso.
But the jag was strong and fast, and he freed himself before she could even bring the slabs of rock crashing down.
Not understanding what was going on or where the true threat was, the horned jaguar began to run blindly. Toph threw up a curved barrier of limestone in front of him. The big cat swerved, and ran in another direction. She broke the top of the small wall into daggers, and flung them at the jag's broad back with a sideways sweep of her arms. But they all either missed completely or hit trees instead.
She stomped her foot, intending to bend the soil so hard it would send him flying up into the air, where hopefully he'd hit a big bough and come down crippled. A large maple tree got in the way at that moment though, and to her frustration, most of her bending energy was absorbed by the trunk and roots instead. The demon cat simply stumbled on the remainder with a growl, righted himself like the athlete he was, and swerved again as he ran on.
Toph pulled another thick crescent of bedrock out of the soil to block the horned jaguar's path. He swerved again. This time, the chances were good that if she made the stone into flying daggers, at least a few of them would hit the cat.
But by sheer bad luck, this barrier was mostly facing her. To earthbend spikes of rock from it and then send a bunch flying in her general direction would be suicidal.
Switching tactics, she decided to see if she couldn't blind the cat for a little while by flinging a nice big bunch of topsoil into his face. Angling her body towards another space between the trees, she did just that, making the jaguar snarl in surprise and agony as he clawed at his face.
But before Toph could even think of pressing the advantage home, he'd recovered and was running in frightened confusion again. It was frustrating!
She tried to fling him high up into the air again, but he simply used the mound like a springboard, and leapt off.
With the solid earth betraying him at every turn, the horned jaguar did the sensible thing and followed the example of his smaller crested bobcat cousins. The earthbender heard the hurried rustling of leaves and felt the impact of the padded paws suddenly stop as the cat came to a stop under a great oak tree.
She tried to earthbend the dirt out from under him, but he'd already leapt, and her ears plainly heard the way his claws grated against the bark as the stocky cat hoisted himself into the oak's crown, taking up position on a bough two and a half zhang above the forest floor.
The Earth Goddess damn it! Toph silently growled in frustration. Now she would have to flush him out of the tree, at close range. She'd had to do this twice with crested bobcats, and that had not been fun.
Up in a tree, insulated by wood, she had no idea exactly where the animal was, what its intentions were, what posture it was in, which way it intended to flee if it left its refuge.
And if she flung some sharp rocks at it, Toph truly would be firing blindly. She couldn't feel the projectiles in the air anyhow, and would only be able to know by sound if they hit anything so removed from rock and earth. Most likely it would be a branch, not flesh.
Sighing and inhaling deeply, she paced over to the tree, confident, yet cautious. She could feel the horned jag's eyes on her as she approached, and knew that he saw her, was watching her. It plucked at her nerves, to say the very least.
Extending her arms, she began to pull the fractured stone underneath the topsoil to the surface. Her intent was to pelt the cat perched above her with a fusillade of rocks, sting his hide and make him either fall or leap from the tree to escape the pain.
And then, she heard a scrape of claws on bark, and the demon cat gave a slow, tearing snarl. Turning, he actually moved closer to the middle of the tree's crown, placing as many branches as he could between them.
It was then Toph realized. This horned jag had been hunted before. Hunted by Earthbenders! He knew she was an enemy, and that she intended to use the pelt-you-with-sharp-stones trick to make him vacate this tree.
At first, the blind earthbender was uncertain. Maybe she should just leave well enough alone. A story about singlehandedly treeing a horned jag would be impressive enough in itself without dragging the cat home as well.
But she was this far along already.
Steeling herself, Toph bent herself a dagger of stone out of the ground, and then pulled a pillar of stone, thick as a man's leg and with a jagged point, out of the bedrock at what she thought was a suitable angle, keeping it just underneath the leaf litter.
And then she did what every proper warrior does before doing battle.
Raising her stone dagger in her right hand, Toph spread her feet apart, adopting the same posture she'd felt Snoozles take before engaging an enemy so many times before. Like a mountain peak confidently meets and absorbs the crackling fury of a lightning bolt, the earthbender prepared to meet the demon cat's explosive savagery. She tilted her head back to the spring sky and inhaled deeply.
Then she yelled.
It was a defiant sound that knifed through the gaps in the trees, rang out over the forested hills, and made the air itself tremble. It was a feminine, yet steely cry, the shriek of a war goddess. Of a master huntress.
Ready for whatever might come, Toph Bei Fong voiced her challenge to the demon cat. And he knew what she was saying.
From above her, Toph heard the scrape of claws on bark as he got up and walked out onto a limb. He gave a deep growl and a single low cough as Toph sensed him crouch. She knew what was coming.
"Come and get me kitty," she coolly taunted, baring her teeth in a leer.
With a spine-chilling, snarling roar, he sprang at her, twigs rasping and cracking against his horns.
She knew better than to wait, and met his leap in the air with the pillar of stone.
She'd hoped to impale him with the sharp end if she could. But the angle was off, and the demon cat was too agile. Still, he was bowled over and over by the impact, crashing into a bush.
He came at her like a flash, vegetation hissing against his hulking body.
Immediately, Toph made that blink sensation go off in her brain, and pulled upward as a wide pillar of stone about a bu wide erupted underneath her feet, shedding leaves and soil as it did so. Her objective was not only to get out of the cat's way, but to get above him and hurl the stone dagger down into his torso. It was a risky move in mature forest like this though.
And a bu and two chi above the forest floor, Toph suddenly felt the unexpected and agonizing crack of a tree limb against her skull.
With a groaning howl of agony, she dropped to her knees in pain on the pillar, clutching her throbbing head and rendered half-stunned. No, no, no! Not now!
The dagger of stone she'd bent had dropped to the forest floor. And now she heard the horrifying sound of the horned jaguar's claws as he climbed up the pillar. He was already almost on her!
Desperately, she fought past the pain and tore a chunk of stone three times the size of her fist from the top of the pillar, smashing the demon cat right in the face as he began to pull himself up over the edge.
He gave a furious snarl and let go, dropping to the ground.
Toph heard him growl, and the sound of his sweeping tail lashing the vegetation as he crouched beneath the pillar, preparing to charge up at her again.
With a loud crack, she pulled another spike of stone from the pillar and sent it flying down at him. There was a snarl of shock and pain, and she knew she'd struck true.
Roaring in fury, the demon cat charged up at her with a new determination. He was so fast!
Wildly, Toph smashed him in the face again with a bent rock.
It knocked him off balance-but then to her horror, Toph suddenly felt a broad forepaw wrap around her ankle and tug. Massive claws began to bite her skin like needle flies, and they both crashed to the ground together just two chi apart.
Terrified, the earthbender tore a vertical slab of rock from the pillar about as thick as her wrist, and hurled it into the big cat as he began to embrace her with his fearful forelegs, knocking him off balance.
But he was still way too close-close enough to smell the garbage reek of his breath!
She earthbent at least two jin of soil into his face with everything she had, and used the distraction to pull broken stone from both the pillar and under the dirt, forming it into crude armor. And just in time too.
The demon cat leapt for Toph once more, and she instinctively stumbled backward, holding her stone-mailed arm lengthwise out in front of her.
There was a sudden, terrible grinding pressure on the blind earthbender's right arm, and she cried out in both horror and pain at the crushing sensation, knowing the great cat was actually biting down on her. With the protection provided by the shattered stone and the leather gauntlets, there was no way that the horned jag's fangs or claws could pierce her skin and draw blood. But the sheer crushing force still hurt.
Spirits, did it hurt!
Frantically, Toph earthbent her legs into the soil up to her knees, and desperately strained backward against the big cat's terrible power. If she fell, the impact would break her concentration and knock the stone off, leaving her naked before the demon cat. And she'd never get up again.
How stupid could she have been, even with her mastery of Earthbending, to try to tangle with this beast? With despair, she thought of her mother, her father, her friends. She was going to die.
There was an eerie silence all about the two of them, as if the very forest itself was waiting, with baited breath, to see who would win this dreadful tug-of-war. And Toph was rapidly losing.
Despite the fact that the badger-moles she shared such a profound kinship with had been her true, best teachers, Master Yu, that pathetic mockery of an Earthbending instructor, had still been good for advice if nothing else.
And now, as the demon cat's power steadily, inorexably pulled her downward, a piece of it suddenly rang through her panicked mind like the sound of a gong being struck.
Successfully defeating an opponent by Earthbending isn't simply a matter of how skilled you are, or how big a stone you throw, or the size of your muscles. It also depends on doing the unexpected. Leap when they expect you to stomp! Another saying followed on its heels. Despair is the strangler of action!
In a flash, Toph stopped resisting, and shoved the cat instead, knocking him backward.
The grinding pressure on her arm weakened for a few moments, and she took that precious opportunity to do something Toph couldn't remember having ever needed to do during a hunt or battle.
With a fist mailed in limestone, she punched him as hard as she could, right in the throat.
The demon cat dropped back with a choking yowl, and Toph instantly bent the soil out from below his hind legs with all she was worth, solidifying and encasing the entire rear half of his body in the dirt. Then, as he wheezed and struggled to get free, the blind earthbender about-faced and ran. She wasn't retreating, but retracting, like a bowstring being pulled back to accept and notch another arrow before firing.
When she'd covered twenty chi, she felt and heard the wounded demon cat pull himself from the dirt and rush at her. Whipping around, she cracked a large boulder just a few inches underneath the surface, extracting a crude, yet effective, stone ax with all the precision of a sculptor.
As the horned jaguar charged her, she tilted the sharp edge to face his beefy chest, and sent it whizzing through the air. There was a ragged chopping sound, an agonized roar, and she felt the cat stumble heavily. She'd got him good this time!
But the big cat still had plenty of fight left in him, and clumsily leapt back to his feet, snarling like a demon. Toph hit him with a wave of soil, knocking him onto his left side, his legs facing away from her.
Instantly, as the cat tried to get to his feet, she cracked a second sharp wedge from the boulder and flung it at him, low to the ground.
She heard it slash through a bush, crack a sapling in two, then the awful, sickening sound of the sharp edge going through skin and flesh as it buried itself deep into the horned jaguar's wide lower back.
The great cat gave a snarling roar of agony and hatred that seemed to tear the air apart, and he yanked himself to his feet, ready to come at her like a bolt of lightning.
And then, suddenly, his hindquarters went slack, drooping to the leaves. She'd damaged his spine, and excitement at getting the upper hand at last flooded through her body in a jubilant rush. Now to finish the job.
Shredding the air with snarls of defiant hatred, the horned jaguar very shakily got into a half-crouched posture. His hind legs still worked, but they had now been rendered ineffectual by the chop of the stone blade.
Toph backed away to afford herself more room, smelling the copper reek of the big cat's flowing blood. Breaking a stone dagger out from the bedrock, she flung it though the spring air, right at the now-vulnerable animal's chest.
Once more, there was the sound of slicing flesh and gristle to tell her she'd struck true. Again the horned jaguar cried out in a feral bass yowl. This time though, it was with a sudden staccato burbling, and the blind huntress realized she'd pierced a lung.
He staggered, and snarled in rage again. Now her ears picked up a sudden weird, hushed sound of something falling, like a light rain. But as far as she could tell, the sky was clear. What was going on?
Then the nauseating realization came to her, making her insides twist. She was hearing the blood from the cat's punctured lung as it burst from his mouth and rattled on the leaves.
Her quarry roared again, and the ugly sound of the falling blood accompanied it as he gave a heavy lurch forward. Defiant to the end, he was dying on his feet from her blows, but still refused to go down. And oh, how Toph respected him for that. She would give him a warrior's death.
She tore another stone dagger loose, angled it downward, and let it fly. She heard and felt it go into the hollow at the base of the horned jaguar's neck, down into his chest, and the cat went down.
Even as he fell, he used his crippled hind legs to shove himself forward, and Toph heard his claws tear at the leaves and dirt in front of him as far as he could reach. Even with his last breath, he was still trying to reach her, refusing to surrender.
He snarled one last time. Then he gave a low, accepting, almost lamenting moan that turned Toph's stomach and made her sightless eyes tear. And then the horned jaguar went limp forever.
Only when Toph couldn't feel his pulse through the soil any longer did she carefully walk up to the magnificent cat.
She wiped the sweat from her brow with the sleeve of her tunic as she caught her breath, panting heavily. She could smell the sharp metallic scent of his blood, the rotten meat stench from his mouth.
The blind young huntress stood silently for a time, her face tilted down towards the dead jag as she just let everything sink in, listening to the leaves in the trees, the birds and insects.
She had done it, and could hardly believe it to be so. She'd taken on a huge, agile, dangerous predator with excellent sight and reflexes in thick forest, with mature trees and saplings in the way, up close and personal, and most stone harder to get to-and killed it!
Grinning smugly in triumph, Toph knelt, feeling the long quills that ran down the nape of the cat's thick neck and covered its huge shoulders.
Then she vaulted to her feet and pumped her right fist in the air, laughing crazily as excitement and pride overwhelmed her, drunk on the thrill of victory.
"Hah Hah! Yes! I did it! I did it! I killed a horned jaguar!" For no particular reason, she began to gleefully dance around her kill, deliberately making the earth quiver with her stomps as she pointed at the jag and hooted, "Yeah, that's right buddy! You just got killed by a blind girl and some rocks! Ultimate humiliation time!"
She stopped and raised her fist into the air again in pure glee, whooping, "Yeah, who's the best? Who's the queen? Who's the ultimate huntress!" as she jumped for joy. "Platypus bears and crested bobcats are child's play compared to pulling this off!"
Calming down, but still throbbing with the thrill of victory, she bent once more to feel the cat's horns and blocky face. Grabbing the top horns, she tugged at them, testing the weight.
She could gut the cat easily enough, but she couldn't possibly drag it back home all by herself. Toph would need help.
And thankfully, someone who could do the heavy lifting wasn't all that far away.
Inside the sash she wore around her tunic was a special stone whistle. When you blew into it a certain way, it made a sound like a blue crow cawing. It sounded similar enough to the real thing that other animals weren't disturbed by it, but different enough so that her friend and hunting partner would recognize it for what it was.
Raising it to her mouth and putting the narrow end to her lips, Toph produced a sharp, grunting blow. Then again. It burst into the hot forest air, exploded up through the trees, and carried over the wooded hills.
The message was simple. I've just killed. Come get me if and when you can. I'm ready when you are.
If her partner had yet to take prey himself, there would be just a single reply to let her know he couldn't come yet and she must wait. Her friend was pretty good at Earthbending himself though, and could see too, so the chances were good that he'd also bagged something by now.
But nothing as awesome as this! She grinned in wild glee. She could hardly wait for him to see it!
And then, from the place where they'd split up to hunt alone, Toph heard one, then two, then three imitations of a blue crow from his own whistle.
I've killed too. I'm coming.
She sat down and waited patiently, rubbing and massaging her throbbing right forearm in the meantime. Her bones had felt like they were going to snap from the force of the demon cat's crushing bite. She was going to get one doozy of a bruise out of this, that was for sure.
She could also feel the bleeding scratches curling around her ankle, and found it both chilling and marvelous that he'd actually managed to score a hit. Thankfully however, they were only skin deep, and she could easily either hide them under a gown or pass them off as thorn scratches to her parents.
Then she heard the noise of two large animals galloping though the forest, one leading the other, and her heart leapt in excitement. She could tell that the one in front had a rider, and she stood to greet him, taking a position just behind the cat's body and baring her teeth in a self-satisfied grin as a way of telling her boyfriend, Bet you didn't think I had it in me to take down something like this, did you?
"Hey there Toph! What'd you-"
Then, even though he was on morse back, Toph felt him tense in amazement as he gave a sharp, disbelieving gasp.
"Great Tu Gong!" he exclaimed breathily, and Toph knew his jaw was hanging open. She smugly giggled. "You...you killed a horned jaguar! And out in forest no less! Wow. You're practically one of Fuxi's daughters Toph!" he told her in stunned awe.
That was a huge compliment, and it cheered her immensely.
"Nah, I'm just awesome instead, and that's all there is to it," she replied, grinning as she dusted off her hands and placed them on her hips.
"That's for sure," her stunned companion said. "That's the biggest horned jag I've ever seen!"
Toph was more than happy to soak up the awe and praise as she felt the impact from her friend dismounting the morse. She could feel his heightened pulse and loose muscles, and picture his goggling eyes as he awkwardly strode up to the cat and knelt to stroke it.
"Wow," he said again. Examining the wounds and scanning the area, he commented, impressed, "Looks like you two really went at it before you made him eat stone. And a lot of it," he added.
"Hah, that's for sure. He even actually came close to getting me twice, but I kicked his furry butt in the end," she gloated, rubbing her compressed arm.
"Well, I definitely heard the commotion from it, believe me. Seriously, it sounded like when Aang released all the animals from the Ba Sing Se Zoo and moved them through the streets to the Outer Ring!"
"Were you worried about me at all?" Toph asked mildly.
"Yes, I was," he replied. "But I also knew that you're an amazing earthbender, and that you can handle yourself just fine in a fight. Besides, you didn't call for my help."
The remark warmed her heart so much. And not for the first time, she was grateful to have found a man who understood her so well.
The aftermath of Ozai's defeat had showered Toph with nearly everything she could've asked for. Freedom to do as she liked. Fame and prestige. Respect. Loyal, loving friends.
But there'd been an awful, wrenching gap. She was the only member of Team Avatar who'd ended up without someone to love and share her life with. It wasn't fair, and it hurt. She'd had a crush on a certain Water Tribe Warrior, but it wasn't to be.
While Suki had captured Sokka's heart though, Flame Boy had the Stone Queen, and Twinkletoes had Miss Sweetness for his one true love instead of her, Toph hadn't gone without romance for long after the war had ended. For one thing, being a famous war heroine, one of the Avatar's close friends and teachers, and the heiress to the Bei Fong fortune suddenly made her more than a little desirable as a girlfriend.
Amazingly, instead of finding all the male attention to be a concern, her parents were enthusiastic about the idea. Toph suspected they found the idea of a handsome, big, strong suitor who would fill the role of "protecting" their disabled, vulnerable daughter after their deaths highly appealing and reassuring. Any grandsons that the relationship might result in certainly wouldn't be unwelcome either.
Could a blind woman manage to take care of a child? She wasn't all that optimistic.
Of what must've been dozens of potential boyfriends who came to the doors of the estate, Toph had rejected the great majority, not hesitating to use her Earthbending skills to get the point across and calling them losers. Some were decent and interesting enough that she'd developed a bond of friendship with them, but nothing further than that.
There was one guy who Toph had found herself developing a real fondness for though, especially over the past few months. Three years older than she was, he was a fellow Earthbender named Kun Yong, and he hailed from Ba Sing Se.
Kun wasn't a duplicate of Sokka, and certainly not a replacement-no one could possibly be-but his nature and temperament resembled the Water Tribe youth's in lots of ways. He had the same wonderfully dry wit, calculating mind, love of meat, measured pessimism, creativity, displayed something of a skeptical disdain towards the esoteric, and laid-back attitude.
And for better or worse, when push came to shove, he also had Sokka's killer instinct.
In some other ways though, Kun was also a bit like Aang. He had his playful, spontaneous moments, and even at the age of 18, often displayed a sense of wonder and marvel towards new things that Toph couldn't help but find charming.
She also liked the Earthbender teen due to an irony she couldn't help but find amusing.
Kun had technically once been one of her enemies, although he couldn't have known it at the time. Three years ago, he'd been undergoing advanced training to become a Dai Li agent when the city had fallen to the Fire Nation. He'd already had matching sets of custom fitted black granite gloves and shoes, and wore his hair in the same long braid.
A month after the final battle marking the end of a century of aggression by the Fire Nation, King Kuei had wandered back and then reclaimed his place on the throne. His time as a wander had been every bit a trial by fire as it had been a footloose lark. It had shaped him up, changing the monarch into a world-tested, wiser, and sterner man, to say nothing of a more accomplished Earthbender in his own right.
One of his first acts had been to forcibly break up the Dai Li as a formal police force, including the training facilities. With their future uncertain, many of these chastened former agents had taken the logical step of joining the Earth Kingdom army, where they could continue to put their impressive Earthbending skills and strategic capabilities to good use. Some were assimilated into Ba Sing Se's new, less draconian police force. Some became rouges who lived a life of crime.
Others like Kun had left Ba Sing Se entirely, looking for jobs as guards, policemen, watchmen, or even Earthbending teachers in various Earth Kingdom communities. With just his ostrich horse for a companion, Kun Yong had made his way to the neighboring small hilltop town of Guan, where he'd found a job as one of the mayor's guards.
While Toph referred to him as Granite Feet, Kun soon gained the appropriate title of Wahng Shi Bing among his comrades and others who knew him well. The lame guard.
That disability, and the way in which he viewed it, was what perhaps endeared him to Toph most of all.
During that desperate, terminal battle, with the sky glowing blood-red under the comet, Kun Yong had decided he'd put up with enough from the Fire Nation. Even though he knew the power they were tapping into from the comet made them ten times more dangerous than usual, he'd chosen to go after a group of five Firebender soldiers by himself.
Using his advanced Earthbending skills to throw up protective shields of rock and launch himself out of harm's way, he'd used his stone shoes to scramble over the walls like a spider, working the firebenders over with everything he'd had, showing them he hadn't been picked to become one of the Dai Li for nothing. He'd told Toph he knew for a fact that he'd broken one soldier's nose, and badly hurt two others during the skirmish.
But Kun Yong had been up against five older, charged-up soldiers, and wasn't nearly as in tune with the earth as Toph was. Inevitably, one of the firebenders had caught him squarely in the back of his right thigh and knee, literally roasting the muscles and tendons.
Collapsing seven feet to the street and crying out in agony, Kun had had the presence of mind to throw up a shallow stone tent over himself before the firebenders could finish him off. While the soldiers probably could've broken down his rock shelter with their enhanced powers, they'd decided tending to their injured was more important, and had gone away, leaving him crippled for life.
With her sensitive hands, Toph had felt the puckered, sunken depression that extended from mid-thigh to the very top of his calf several times. And even if keeping silent and downwind of her, she could still easily recognize Granite Feet immediately by his swaying, stiff-legged, lopsided gait.
But although he was now forever lamed, he didn't let that stop him or allow it to define who he was any more than she let her blindness restrict her. And oh, how she adored him for that attitude!
More than anything, it was that confidence, that overcoming of a physical handicap, and the courageous manner in which he'd received it that endeared the would-be Dai Li to Toph, made her feel like he complimented and matched her.
Recently, she'd begun to talk to him about her future dreams of becoming an Earthbending instructor, heading her very own academy. Kun had been very enthusiastic about the idea, and had volunteered that with his experience as a Dai Li trainee, he'd make a good Earthbender teacher too, and would love to work alongside her.
She'd lightly punched him in the shoulder then, suspiciously drawling, "Did you just give a subtle hint that you'd like to marry me someday Granite Feet, or am I just mistaken?"
"Perhaps you are. Then again, perhaps you aren't," he'd replied impishly as he'd then clasped her hand, causing her to blush.
Now she blushed again as he told her, feeling the curving horns, "You are one amazing huntress Toph. What a magnificent jag. Your jag," he said in admiration.
"What did you get Granite Feet?" she asked, partly in interest, partly to change the topic.
"Got a musk deer," he replied from underneath the conical hat she knew he was wearing, the one that was part of an agent's uniform but now simply served functional purposes. "It's a buck with nice tusks."
And indeed, Toph could smell the mixed perfumes of blood and the heavy, aromatic scent that gave the creature its name from a place in front of where Kun had been seated on his morse, Gao. Behind them stood her own morse, Bai, who as a herding animal had followed Gao without being commanded.
"That's good," she replied. "I'm sure it'll taste great pot-roasted. I don't know about horned jaguar though," she said doubtfully, turning her attention back to the slain cat. "I mean, I've eaten crested bobcat and wildcat before of course, and they're pretty good, but I have no idea if demon cat would taste any good or not."
"Well I've had it before a few times," Kun replied, "and it actually tastes pretty delicious. It's like lean ham almost, at least to me," he informed her.
"Where did you get to eat horned jaguar?" Toph asked quizzically.
"At feasts Long Feng would hold for us now and again. As his enforcers, we Dai Li got the best of everything-even if you were up-and-coming," he laughed. "Anyway, it's good eating."
"Well, then I'll bend out a wedge of shale and open up the belly so you can do the finer work with your own knife Granite Feet. Remember to keep the heart and liver though!"
"Yeah," he agreed. "Not only are those parts good eating, but can you imagine the fit Sokka would throw if he found out?"
Mimicking the Water Tribe Warrior's voice, Toph laughed, saying, "You threw away the heart? That's warrior food!"
Kun laughed with her, before saying, "Say, I don't know about you Toph, but I'm already feeling pretty filthy. You want to wash up with me in the river after we get this kitty up on Bai? We won't go near any deep places," he added.
Rather unusually for an Earthbender, and an elite one at that, Granite Feet enjoyed the water. He loved swimming and wading, telling Toph that he liked the feeling of weightlessness and that the water was good for his crippled, fire-scarred leg.
Kun was very confident in the water too. Once he'd bragged to her that he could swim for half a mile in a suit of Earth Kingdom armor. When she'd replied, "Yeah, and I can fly like a bird too, Granite Feet," Kun had actually called her bluff the next day.
To her shock and anxiety, he'd donned his stone gloves and shoes and a throat-to-shin suit of armor before swimming a hundred yards out into Rabbit Lake, and then swum parallel to the shore for about half a mile as she kept pace.
Then he'd breast-stroked back to her, noticeably worn out but also very pleased with himself.
Toph of course, couldn't swim a stroke. Nor could she feel any vibrations through water.
But still, Kun had coaxed her into wading around and playing with him in this new element, as long as it was no higher than her collarbone-and enjoying herself doing it! Sometimes, in a supreme display of trust, Toph would even hold on to his toned chest and allow him to backstroke out into water over their depth for a few minutes. The danger she flirted with by doing this gave her a pleasant little thrill.
The idea sounded good, and she said "I'd like that."
Then as Kun casually pulled his knife out of its hip sheath, the blind huntress turned away and took a step, feeling the seismic echoes for the signature of shale, which broke to form such a superb cutting edge. She detected some, and the familiar sensation of blink flashed through her brain as she cracked it.
She could hardly wait to hear and feel her dad's reaction when she hauled this home!
For those who don't know Chinese measurements, one zhang is 11 feet. One yin is 109.4 feet. One large li is 1640.4 feet. One bu is 5.5 feet, also known as a Chinese pace. One chi is 13 inches, also known as a Chinese foot. One cun is 3.3 centimeters. 350 pounds=320 jin. A jin is half a kilogram or 1.1 pounds.
The musk deer is a real animal, and is hunted in China for both its meat and the buck's musk, which is traditionally used as both a base for perfumes and a cure for things like fever, sore throats, and arthritis.
The wildcats too, are real animals. As some may know, like it or not, the Chinese do eat the flesh of cats. :( Therefore, I thought it would be logical for Toph to have consumed the meat of their wild ancestors somewhere along the line.
The horned jaguar is my own creation. While its markings, habits, and physique are obviously based off of a true jaguar, the horns were inspired by those of churro, or four-horned sheep. I also added some of the facial features of a Rotweiler dog, while the furred tail is a combo of monitor lizard and sauropod tails. The quills are taken from a crested porcupine, while the spiky incisors come from a plesaiosaur.
In my mind's eye, crested bobcats are like true bobcats, except they have a mohawk of stiff hair running down their spine, and a skin-covered half circle of bone between their ears. Their upper fangs also visibly protrude past the gum line.
Morse are rufous-coated animals that resemble a cross between a cow moose and a horse. They are about the size of a draft horse and serve a similar function in Earth Kingdom society.
Tu Gong is the name of the Chinese earth god, while Fuxi is the god who first taught men how to hunt.
Finally, Guan means "crowned," while Kun Yong's name means "brave earth." Whew! Now kindly read and review if you please!