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"Get out while you still can!"
"I can help you!"
"We'll handle this! Here," the kind soldier lifted a crying child and handed her to Rokan. "Please, take her to the safe-house."
"Run!" commanded the soldier, lowering his spear to face the oncoming attackers.
Rokan fumbled with the toddler in her arms; she wasn't used to children. The little girl was sobbing into her tiny hands and her thick black hair was covered in dust as her lower-class neighborhood crumbled to ashes. Rokan pulled the child's legs around her hips and adjusted her arm so that she could carry her with one arm. With the other hand, she drew her katana. With frustration, she noticed that her hand was shaking.
Pull yourself together, Rokan, it's just for a few minutes. However, the absence of her greatest power was disconcerting and Rokan could not fully overcome her fear. It was as if the past eight months hadn't even happened. She was back to where she started; a hopeless, unlucky child with no Firebending.
The outlying town that stood in the shadow of the volcanic capital was bathed in a strange purple light. Enemy soldiers were pouring in from strange underwater machines, and great metal-shelled worms were destroying everything in their path. Rokan had to hand it to the enemy; today was a perfect opportunity for an assault. When she was a child, Rokan had heard of the Darkest Day, and her father told her that it would return again in her lifetime. And so it had: The Day of Black Sun.
"Where are you parents, cutie?" Rokan asked the child, shouting over the commotion as she ran through a side street.
The little girl couldn't ebb the flow of her tears, but Rokan thought she heard the child choke out "safe-house". She hoped that was true. The last thing she needed was to destroy someone else's life.
One more turn and the safe-house was in view. Small and unassuming, the metal-plated structure sat over many underground levels. It was to be used by the civilians in case of emergency. Rokan ran up to the bolted door at full speed and rammed it with her shoulder.
"Open up! I have a kid with me! Let us in, she needs to find her family!"
An unseen figure released the bolt and cracked the door open just enough for Rokan to slip in with the little girl on her arm. An intimidating middle-aged woman eyed Rokan's sword warily, her brown eyes darting from its blade to the crying girl.
"I'm sorry," Rokan said, sheathing the katana. "Where can I find this girl's parents? Are they here?"
The woman relaxed as the weapon was put out of her sight, and she rolled up the stained sleeved on her muscular arms. By the glint in her stern yellow eyes and the callouses on her palms, Rokan had an inkling that the woman was a former soldier, perhaps from the border guard. The woman looked at the child and her eyes sparkled.
"Yes! I recognize this girl from the town, though I don't know her family by name. Her mother and father arrived almost a half an hour ago!"
Stepping forward, the woman reached out her thick arms to the little girl.
"Come on, sweetie, let's find your family."
The toddler shook her dark head frantically and, to Rokan's utter surprise, threw her little arms around Rokan's neck. Rokan felt the tears rub off of the girl's smooth cheeks onto her own bare shoulder.
"Um, I guess, if you could show me the way--?" Rokan prompted, unable to suppress a smile.
The woman folded her powerful arms and raised a dark eyebrow. There was an echo of an explosion outside and the hair on the back of Rokan's neck prickled.
"I'm not letting you near my families with that thing on your back," said the woman with an icy-eyed nod at Rokan's katana. "They'll come to her. Wait here."
An explosion went off far closer to the safe-house than was comfortable. The walls shook and dust fell from the beams on the ceiling. The little girl in Rokan's arms screamed and clutched at Rokan's tunic. Rokan crouched down instinctively, clamping her hand on the back of the child's head. The woman in charge of the safe-house held onto the wall, bracing her feet on the uneven floor.
"We can't stay up here, lady! Here—..."
Rokan wrenched the child's fingers from her shirt and thrust her into the woman's arms. Anger and guilt was boiling up inside her and she narrowed her eyes defensively.
"If you don't trust me, fine," Rokan snapped. "But don't you dare put this little girl in danger because of your stubbornness!"
The woman opened her mouth in a mortified shock, but Rokan was already gone, slamming the thick door of the safe-house behind her. The woman was right not to trust her. She was better off fighting than protecting families. It was in her nature to attack rather than defend.
The enemy fighters had taken out the towers and stormed into the upper city. The Eclipse was at its peak and by the looks of it; it would be a few more minutes until her Firebending was returned. From was she could see of the battle, Rokan second guessed her decision to join in the fray. Perhaps for once, she might just find a safe place and wait the danger out.
But of course, with her luck, Rokan had barely made it down a side street when a black-clothed figure dropped down from a rooftop directly into her path. It was the slim assassin from the battle behind the storehouse...this was the man who killed Izu. Her heart pounding, Rokan drew her katana and bent her back leg, lunging into a defensive position.
"What do you want with me?" she growled.
The assassin reached onto his back and drew his twin sais, spinning them into place in his gloved hands. The hooked spikes on his vambraces glinted in the strange sunless light.
"What do I want with you?" he echoed, his voice muffled by the dark cloth concealing his nose and mouth. "I want revenge. I want to see you DEAD FOR WHAT YOU DID TO THEM!"
Leaping forward, the assassin aimed to slit Rokan's throat, but she dug the hilt of her katana into his stomach. Slightly winded but by no means slowed down, the assassin crossed both of his sais and drove them forward towards Rokan's collarbone. The blade of Rokan's katana clanged on the ground as she did a back hand-spring to dodge, simultaneously hooking her toe under the assassin's chin to snap his head backwards. When she planted her feet back on the ground, Rokan saw the assassin rubbing his hand on the back of his neck, one sai gripped in his other fist. The weapon's twin had skidded towards Rokan, and she aimed a kick at it, hoping to send it out of reach of its owner. Unfortunately, she was too slow, and the assassin grabbed hold of her foot as she kicked and pushed her down onto the ground. The side of his palm cracked on the back of Rokan's neck and she cried out in pain. During the seconds of her incapacitation, the assassin had pinned Rokan down on the ground with a knee on her chest and a sai at her throat.
For a moment, it was as if time were frozen. The assassin's eyes were like ice that reflected a pale sun. They stared down at Rokan with a spark of madness as tears welled at their corners but refused to fall. With his free hand, the assassin took hold of the black cloth which covered his face.
"I want you to see my face," he hissed, bending forward till his face was inches away from Rokan's. "I want you to remember me when you burn in the afterlife."
Rokan struggled for breath as the assassin dug his knee into her sternum. The sounds of the distant battle seemed like pin drops in comparison to the blood rushing in her ears.
"A—a face won't do me much g-good," Rokan gasped, "Without...a-a name."
The assassin's eyes widened with deranged rage, and he tore the cloth off of his face. He might have been handsome were it not for the terrible anger and grief that distorted his pale, chiseled features. Behind his dark head, the sun began to peek out from behind its veil. Rokan grunted as the assassin wrenched her head up by her ponytail.
"I am Zhensu!" he screamed into her face. "Zhensu! Let my name in your mind drown out the sounds of your screams in hell!"
Zhensu raised his sai and prepared to drive it through Rokan's neck. Rokan screwed her eyes shut desperately. Which would come faster: death or the sun? Cold fear settled in on Rokan's stomach, but it was snuffed out by something much warmer...
Snapping her eyes open, Rokan took in as deep a breath as she could muster and breathed out a stream of flames. Zhensu roared in anger and bent backwards to avoid the fire, giving Rokan an opening to shove the assassin's knee off of her chest and roll to a standing position, picking up her katana as she did so. Holding her katana in a confident offensive position above her head, Rokan stretched out her left hand and willed fire to grow on her palm. The flames danced exuberantly, illuminating Zhensu's pale face in a demonic orange light.
"I don't know what I did to turn you against me," Rokan began, attempting to keep her voice steady, "But this is no time to be fighting your countrymen!"
Zhensu spun his sais around his fingers and gripped them tightly, crossing them over his chest in a defensive stance. His eyes glittered with rage as tears escaped at their corners.
"You don't even know?" he spat in a hoarse whisper.
Sympathy tugged at Rokan's heart and she loosened her grip on her katana, allowing the flames in her left palm to shrink.
"I seriously don't. I've never even known you...I only just returned to the Fire Nation a few weeks ago," she said hopefully, witnessing the flicker of doubt in Zhensu's eyes.
Zhensu grimaced and wiped his brow with the back of his wrist. His pale golden eyes darted about as though he was searching for his own motivation. The battle grew closer, and over Zhensu's shoulder appeared a strange metal tank that moved like an otherworldly worm. The shouts of men and women alike could scarcely be heard over the commotion.
"Go protect them!" Rokan prompted, taking several steps back. "That's what I'm going to do. Please, there are women and children out there who are depending on us!"
Immediately after speaking, Rokan realized that she had said the wrong thing. All signs of confusion and potential surrender disappeared as Zhensu's face contorted with rage once more.
"No. Not anymore. You made sure of that."
The metal worm plowed closer, obliterating the side of a small wooden shack. Rokan's attention remained on Zhensu, however, and she backed up quickly, her eyes wide with fear. In a split second, she registered her surroundings; to her right was an open courtyard, but to her left was a tall wooden pole that flew a Fire Nation flag. Behind her was a wide street that had not yet been overcome with the enemy. The flagpole was old and rotten at its base; Rokan couldn't believe her luck.
With a swing of her katana, Rokan sliced through the soft base of the flagpole. As it fell in front of her, she sent a searing blaze of flames across it from end to end, creating a fiery barrier between herself and Zhensu. In the moment of his limited ability, Zhensu hesitated, giving Rokan enough time to begin running down the street. Though smoke burned his eyes, Zhensu still hurled one of his sais after Rokan, and it whipped across her right cheek. She wasted no time looking back, however, and she could only hope that Zhensu would be overtaken by the enemy tank.
As she ran, Rokan was forced to come to the unhappy conclusion that it was no longer safe for her to continue living in the Fire Nation capital. When she reached the western border of the city, Rokan sidled into a small market shop, pressing her fingers to her cheek to ease the stinging of the cut. There was no one behind the counter; no doubt they were hiding from the battle like everyone else. Rokan hesitated at stealing the bright-hued fruits in the stands. She had no money in her pockets or anything of value besides her katana. Her heart weighing heavily with guilt, Rokan slipped some provisions in her pockets and searched for something with which to write a note. The inkwell behind the shopkeeper's counter was dry, and she couldn't justify carving a message into the wall with a knife. Slightly amused at the melodrama of it all, Rokan pulled her bloodstained fingers off of her cheek and traced "IOU" on the countertop. With the hint of a smile despite the terror of the day, Rokan jogged out of the shop and through the western gate of the Fire Nation capital. It looked as if she was being driven from her homeland yet again.
Six legs. What kind of animal has six legs?
Rokan stood with a groan, massaging her lower back with her palm. Her knees ached from crouching, examining the strange tracks that had suddenly appeared on the dry ground. Sweat dripped into her eyes as she turned her gaze to the horizon, into which the tracks appeared to lead indefinitely. In addition to the odd, three-toed footprints, she made out at least four pairs of human footprints, as well as two narrow, shallow grooves that ran parallel to each other without breaking. Perhaps it was the trail of a cart, or a wagon...whatever it was, it was definitely wheeled.
With an inconspicuous growl, Rokan's stomach twisted painfully. Clutching her abdomen in discomfort, she squinted again at the trail. Her last pomegranate bumped her leg from its place in her pocket; she couldn't go on much longer without food. There was a fifty-fifty chance of the people at the end of the trail being friendly to her.
Well...maybe more like sixty-forty, she thought, with the odds against me.
Still, what choice did she have? At this point, Rokan had little idea what she would do about Zhensu. She just needed to focus on finding a safe place for the night. And maybe, if she was lucky, she'd actually discover a few friends for once.
After four hours of trudging through the stifling heat, Rokan came to a sheer cliff face that looked out over a massive gorge that was filled with mist. The trail she had been following ended as suddenly as it had begun, and there was no sign of footprints heading back or along the cliff-side.
"They can't have all just walked off the cliff," she said aloud, shading her eyes with her hand. "Seriously, where—..."
Rokan blinked. Had she just seen...? Cupping both of her hands around her eyes, she squinted through the mist into the gorge. Yes, she was right. There were buildings under the cliff-side! Great floating temples hung upside down under the rocks, and even from her great distance Rokan could make out the swirling designs carved into their walls. Rokan stood still for several moments, her mouth agape as she took in the breathtaking view. Then, wondering whether the incredible structures hung also from beneath the cliff on which she herself was standing, Rokan began to walk the length of the gorge, looking for a way down. Easily a half a mile away from her original location, she discovered a boulder on which was attached a thick rope. It descended far below into the mist, ending in either the temple or a sudden fall to the death. Excitement and apprehension combined pounded in Rokan's chest as she proceeded to pull the end of the rope up to herself. When she had gathered the entire length in her arms, she wound it around her waist and grasped it firmly with her hands, wrapping the cord about her wrists. Praying that her fingerless gloves would protect her arms and hands from rope burn, Rokan stepped gingerly off the cliff and began to slide down the rope and into the misty ravine.
For many feet it was just a craggy rock-face, but after a time the surface was worn down into a smooth wall. Then Rokan saw the alcoves carved into the wall, and inside them stood ancient statues of men and women alike. The figures were depicted in long, voluminous robes, wooden necklaces, and with arrows on their foreheads and hands. The arrows were inlaid with a different type of rock that bore a bluish hue, and a chill of awe went down Rokan's spine.
"This is the Western Air Temple!" she said to herself in a hushed voice. "I had no idea it was so nearby to the capital!"
Tightening her grip on the rope, Rokan lowered herself down more slowly, taking time to appreciate the immense size and detail of the architecture. The sharp, angular palaces of the Fire Nation could not compare to the timeless beauty of the temple that had stood for countless centuries. As she slipped down the rope, Rokan passed by the carven face of an ageless Airbender nun. Moss had ground out of the cracks in the wall and it now covered her serene face like a disease. Reaching out her hand, Rokan allowed her fingers to scrape down the stone face, clawing the moss free from the statue's features. Was it her imagination, or did the blue stone of the arrow on the nun's forehead seem to gleam a little brighter?
With a jolt, Rokan's feet hit the ground unexpectedly. Her knees buckled in surprise and she sat down on her rear, accidentally crushing the fingers of her left hand beneath her.
"Ow-w!" she whined in comical frustration, wiggling her throbbing fingers free.
With a grunt, Rokan rose to her feet and unraveled the rope from around her waist. Her gloves had protected her palms and arms well enough, but her fingers were red from the constant sliding motion of the rope. Blowing on them to ease the stinging, Rokan wandered up a staircase that led to a bridge on the left of the statue. No signs of life greeted her as she wandered across the smooth stone arch save a few tiny hummingjays that fluttered around the blooming flowers of the vines which draped the entire temple. Upon reaching the other side of the bridge, Rokan came to a tall building scattered with balconies upon every floor. The inside was dark, however, and she willed a cup-sized flame to crackle in her palm as she ventured inside.
Rokan's first footfall brought about a cloud of dust from the mosaic floor and she fought back a sneeze. That would be a fine way to get caught, sneezing. Raising her arm up, she looked at the walls of the building. They were vibrantly painted with simplistic figures donning robes that stood upon clouds. Though they would have been created many centuries ago, the paint had hardly chipped away here, though it had indeed lost some of its color to the sunlight that undoubtedly touched them in the early morning. Rokan passed many doors on the walls that lined the hallway, but she was most interested in the one that lay straight ahead. She planned on simply walking forward until she came upon the owners of the strange tracks. When she came up to the hallway door, Rokan saw that its wooden latch had rotted with age, and it crumbled to the floor as she touched it, allowing the door to swing wide open. The afternoon sunlight that streamed through blinded Rokan momentarily, and she blinked as her eyes watered.
"Hey Haru, what was that?"
In an instant, Rokan's heart jumped to her throat and she crouched behind the doorframe, peering out into the sun through squinting eyes. Three figures were milling about just outside the building; a tall young man of about seventeen, a tiny little boy in a helmet, and a boy with dark hair who appeared to be sitting down. All three wore the green hues of the Earth Kingdom. The little boy who had spoken before was staring at Rokan's doorway suspiciously from beneath the helmet that fell over his eyes.
"Was it just me or did that door just open?" said the young man, taking a step towards Rokan's hiding place. The seated boy spun around in his chair and glanced sharply at the doorway, and immediately Rokan's heart leapt. Despite the long months that had passed since, she could never forget the clear, gentle grey gaze of her crippled healer.
"It's probably nothing," Teo said nonchalantly, though his grey eyes were still trained on the doorway, "Just the wind. This is an Air Temple after all."
"But there wasn't any wind just then!" whimpered the little boy.
"Maybe it's the ghost of an old Airbender who still wanders these temples seeking out little boys to train in the ways of the nomads!" whispered the older boy, who must be Haru, in a false spooky voice.
Haru bent down and rubbed his forefinger in the dirt that coated the stones. He traced and arrow on his brow and snuck up on the little boy, who was looking anxiously over his shoulder.
"Better run, The Duke!" he shouted, poking the boy's ribs, "Or he'll get you!"
With a shrill shriek that turned into a delighted laugh, The Duke took off running away from the building with Haru on his heels. Teo chuckled.
"Hey, wait for me!" he shouted over his shoulder, but he never took his eyes from the hallway door.
Despite her happiness at seeing her friend again, Rokan felt a sudden apprehension that caused her to scoot back into the shadows. What if Teo didn't recognize her? She had changed so much since they last met...she had grown weaker. Rokan was suddenly aware of how brave she had felt when she left the Northern Air Temple, ready to sabotage the Fire Lord's plans for world domination. Now she was as confused as ever, bringing death everywhere she went and being chased by an insane assassin. She didn't feel brave now. She felt afraid. So afraid that even the sight of Teo—gentle, kind, Teo—was enough to send her scurrying away into the darkness.
Unfortunately, as she shifted her position, Rokan sent large quantities of dust into the air, and they all seemed to collect in her nose and mouth. Suddenly, she coughed and immediately afterwards she began to sneeze uncontrollably. She would have cursed if she had the breath to spare. In the midst of her watery-eyed confusion, Teo had made his way up the worn down stairs and was wheeling himself inside the building cautiously. Rokan's fire had been extinguished when she began sneezing, so the only light was the dusty beam of sunlight that streamed in through the open door."Doing some Spring cleaning?"
Rokan did her best to open her red-rimmed eyes and look at Teo as she continued to sneeze into her elbow. Teo wheeled in the rest of the way and turned himself around so that he faced the open door, the sunlight falling across his kind face.
"Technically, I suppose its Summer cleaning. If it was Spring cleaning it would mean that it's only been a few weeks since I last saw you."
With a final heave, Rokan expelled the last of the dust from her nose. Sniffing and wiping her eyes, she pushed herself to her feet and looked Teo in the eye.
"I guess I'm allergic to cleaning," she said with a half-smile.
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