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|More from Firebender896||Action/Adventure/Romance||PG||None|
After a full day of tracking the Archers, Rokan decided that her mission was hopeless. They were about two hundred feet ahead of her, leaping over the rocky mountain terrain of the North with superior speed and agility. They moved as one; an impossibly fast, intelligent creature that Rokan could never hope to mimic. It was proving difficult to just stay hidden from their impossibly sharp eyesight, much less infiltrate their ranks. Do they ever stop for a rest? She wondered in frustration as she clambered over a boulder that the Yu Yan had scaled in seconds. Despite her strong physical condition she could not keep up with the Yu Yan's extreme stamina and elite grace. Sweat poured down her face as she slid down the side of the boulder, her knees threatening to give way when she landed on the ground.
The Yu Yan Archers were nearly out of sight, and Rokan pressed her back against the boulder and slid to the ground.
So much for my 'mission', she thought miserably.
Just then, the Yu Yan stopped abruptly like a well-oiled machine. Rokan instinctively froze, concerned that her exhaustion-induced carelessness had caused her to be seen. Her heart pounded in her throat as one of the Yu Yan turned around, staring in her direction. Rokan hoped with all her might that her green and grey clothes from the Air Temple were enough to camouflage her. The Yu Yan Archers were as still as stone until they suddenly dispersed in all directions, swiftly hopping about the rocks and brush. Rokan's heart dropped into her stomach and she was about to accept the fact that she was stuck when she noticed that the Archers were picking up dry sticks from the brush while others were setting stone in a clear circle on the ground.
Oh. So...it's just a campfire, Rokan thought. Feeling rather foolish, she mentally reprimanded herself for failing to notice the darkening skies. The wind that had bitten her skin for the past few days had finally died down, giving the late-winter night a mild quality. Rokan waited till the Yu Yan had finished collecting their kindling to sneak behind another boulder. Here she curled up, out of sight from the Yu Yan. She lay on her side so that she could keep her katana strapped to her back and cupped a small flame in her hands; small enough to avoid the attention of the Archers, but large enough to give off some heat. She was cramped, afraid, and hungry, but the return of her bending still brought comfort and joy. In a matter of minutes her hand dropped to the ground, snuffing out the flame, as Rokan let out a gentle sigh and left the harsh terrain for the quiet refuge of sleep.
When Rokan awoke the Yu Yan Archers were nowhere in sight. They had so well hidden the traces of their campfire that she almost thought she had dreamed of their existence. But no; they had been here before. It was invisible at first glance, but she saw the scattered ashes of a campfire on the ground. The sky was dark with gathering storm-clouds, sealing Rokan's hopeless predicament; once the rain began, she wouldn't even have their tracks to guide her. Come to think of it, she didn't even know where she was, or how far away she was from civilization.
The raindrops began to fall from the black sky, masking the tears that were trickling down Rokan's cheeks without her consent. It was childish of her to cry like this, like a toddler who didn't get her way...but she was really nothing more than a child, thwarted in her own game. The rain mingled with the salty droplets that fell from her eyelashes, and Rokan let out a roar of frustration. With a swipe of her boot, she sent a charred branch flying into the air, watching through a screen of red as it flopped unceremoniously into the mud. Wiping her face furiously, Rokan stormed through the ashes of the Yu Yan camp and began to make her way blindly forward. The only thing she could see before her was a dark forest looming a few hundred yards away. With the sun gone, she had no means of telling what directing she was heading, or if the Yu Yan had also gone this way. This mattered little to her though; now the only thing on her mind was food. Her stomach had been empty for two days now, and it growled unpleasantly.
By the time Rokan reached the trees, the rain had increased to an utter downpour. Barely pausing to check for edibility, she lopped off a branch of berries with her katana and was wolfing them down as she walked. She paid little heed to the twigs and branches that nicked her hands and face, as she was more preoccupied with the twisted roots that were ensnaring her ankles. She was deep in the forest by the time the rain let up and rays of light beamed down through the trees. She was confident that she was at least heading somewhat south, for here the trees had already burst into bloom and bushes were leafing out. In fact, the white and pink blossoms were so beautiful that Rokan ignored where she was stepping and tripped over a mossy log, falling prostrate in a puddle of mud.
"Oh, come on!" she growled as her now gunky bangs stuck to her face.
With much cursing, Rokan pushed herself to her feet and set off looking for a stream to wash up in. On the way she came across some leechi nuts, which she hastily devoured. The sunlight bore a golden hue that suggested mid-afternoon when Rokan discovered, not a stream, but a sparkling river on the edge of the woods. There was a wide clearing on either side of the water, and the forest continued across the way. Sighing with relief, Rokan pulled off her muddy outer garments and waded into the cool water in her underclothes. She set to work scrubbing the mud off of her Air Temple clothes before hanging them on a tree to dry. Then, with a deep breath, she leapt back into the river and submerged, pulling the green ribbon out of her hair and shaking it loose beneath the surface. When she came up for air, she could feel that most of the mud had been washed from her thick hair.
Before she returned to the shore, a sudden thought struck Rokan. Slowly, reverently, she reached up and pulled the white bandana from her forehead. Gently, she pulled it under the water and worked away the stains with her thumbs. A warm breeze came through the trees, pushing Rokan's hair from her face, and her forehead felt strangely bare. She pulled the dripping cloth up from the water and looked at it sadly. She really ought to take better care of it...the ends were frayed and some of the stains had gone untended so long that no amount of scrubbing would remove them. It was an insult to Taiko's memory to keep the headband in such sore condition. With a painful stab in her heart, Rokan imagined what her ruined home must have looked like after all those years; if it took so little time to do so much damage to her headband, what would years of abandonment do to the memory of her home, the place of her family's graves?
Letting out a sigh, Rokan trudged through the water back to the bank, where she sat on a boulder in the sun. The warm rays were welcome on her skin. They reminded her of the hot climate of the Fire Nation. She was happy to be out of the cold climate of the north, happy to be away from the ice and snow. She wondered what the summers were like at the Air Temple, and if the snow ever truly melted on the mountain peaks. Did Teo ever experience the hot summers that Rokan herself loved?
Rokan glanced down at her right arm, the one that had been maimed by the explosion. The skin was still a raw pinkish color, and spider-web scars branched out in all directions. The burn marks stretched from the top of her hand to the edge of her collar-bone. Gingerly, she touched the tender skin on her forearm. It was only a matter of time before the new skin would began sealing over the wound, but the scar would always remain, no matter how faint, as a reminder of her foolishness. Or was it a reminder of her good luck? If the people of the Air Temple hadn't found her in time, she might not even have this arm...she might not even be alive.
Enjoying the glimmer of the sunlight off the river, Rokan dressed once more in her Air Temple clothes.
I probably should start looking for a town sometime soon, she thought, poking her finger through a hole on the cuff of her pants. Not only does my katana need repairs, but I could definitely use some food.
Squinting up at the sun, Rokan judged that she had been at the stream for about an hour and a half. Spotting a group of conveniently placed stone across the river, Rokan hopped from rock to rock and passed to the other side of the forest. Her mind delved into memories of happier days as she made her way through the trees with only the wild sparrowkeets to keep her company.
When night fell, Rokan lit a small flame in her palm for light. The darkness didn't frighten her; her empty stomach didn't permit her to stall even for threatening sounds in the darkness. She was immersed in her thoughts, not paying much attention to where she was going, when suddenly—
"Augh!" Rokan shouted in disgust; she had fallen a short way off of a ledge and was now waist deep in a thick, slimy sludge.
"Come on, I just washed this stuff!" she said through gritted teeth.
The muck was heavy and hard to plow through, and her boots were sticking to the bottom like glue. Each time she lifted her leg was joined with a sickening squelching noise. She used her arms to force her way to a nearby log that had fallen on the forest floor...or was this even still a forest?
Pulling herself up onto the fallen tree, Rokan observed her surroundings. The towering trees still remained, but the thick oaks had been replaced with sagging willows. The soft, needle covered ground was also gone, switched with...well, it couldn't exactly be called ground at all. The thick mud was spread in all directions. Twisting vines snaked in all directions, and once or twice Rokan swore she saw one move. The air was very still except for the mosquitoes that buzzed incessantly in Rokan's eyes and ears.
"Where...what--?" Rokan muttered.
Suddenly, an ear-piercing shriek broke the air, sending a chill down Rokan's spine. She jumped and drew her katana, frantically searching the contorted trees for the source of the sound.
"Hello?" she called tentatively.
She was answered with another scream and caught a flutter of movement from the corner of her eye. A small white bird was perched on a nearby branch, and when it opened its beak the same bone-chilling cry came out.
"Ooooo....kay?" Rokan said aloud, trying to ignore the rising fear in her chest.
The sky was completely dark now, and as the ground wasn't very reliable, Rokan tried as best she could to stay on a path of fallen trees and massive roots. Once or twice her ankle got tangled in a vine, and she used a small fire blast to free herself. Each time she could visibly see the vines recoil, and once she swore that she saw the pieces mend themselves and slink away. All the while she was under the distinct impression that she was being watched.
Rokan had hoped to stay in a generally straight line and make it out of the dense marsh before sundown, but her sense of direction proved to be faulty. When night fell, she appeared to have ventured only deeper into the menacing, gnarled trees.
Is it my sense of direction, or is the swamp changing? Rokan thought uncomfortably.
Hold on...swamp! This must be the swamp that the Yu Yan Archers were supposed to attack!
Hope surfaced in Rokan's heart. Perhaps she could find the Yu Yans' trail, or even the Archers themselves. She didn't even care if she was successful in her goal to sabotage their mission; she just wanted company in this ethereal place.
A twig snapped behind her and Rokan froze. Someone was definitely present, and they were right behind her. Rokan took a deep breath, preparing to Firebend if necessary and whipped around, only to find herself staring into the shadows between the dilapidated trees. Trying to ignore the tremor that was building in her hands, Rokan turned back with the intention of continuing on her way. However, she failed to notice the wriggling vines before her and skidded headlong into the sludgy water, choking as the muck slipped into her mouth and nose. Spluttering, she stood and wiped the mud off her clothes as best she could.
It was not long before Rokan was sure that she heard the whisper of fire behind her, and felt the warmth on her back. She paused in the middle of climbing over a large fallen log, when a quiet voice sent a rigorous wave of chills down her spine.
"Why didn't you save me, Ro?"
Sweat beading on her forehead, Rokan slowly turned her head. Her golden eyes watered as they came in contact with large brown ones...eyes she remembered clearly from all those years ago.
Taiko was standing before her, looking exactly as he had the last time she saw him; feet bare, trousers stained from work, grubby white tunic. Rokan caught her breath when she saw that his tunic was ripped across the bottom hem. With shaking fingers, she unconsciously touched the matching headband that was tied across her brow.
"Why'd you leave?" Taiko said sadly, his soft brown eyes boring into Rokan's very heart.
"I—I..." Rokan gagged on the lump in her throat and tasted the bitter salt of her tears in her mouth. She blinked hard and swayed slightly as she failed to draw breath through a sob.
The sound of flames grew louder, and Rokan's eyes widened in horror as small fires sprung up on Taiko's body, eating away his clothing and skin slowly but steadily.
"Come back, Ro! Please!"
The urgency in Taiko's voice cut Rokan's heart like a knife. She dug her fingers into her temples, but no amount of pain could wake her...so this nightmare wasn't a dream after all. Try as she might, she could not break Taiko's gaze. Her brother, still resembling a thirteen-year-old boy though he was two years her senior, stretched out his bruised and burned arms in desperation.
"Please, Ro! It's burning me!"
Rokan could hardly utter a scream from her closed-up throat as Taiko cried out in pain, the flames rising higher on his flesh.
"I'm burning, Rokan!" he shouted, stretching his arms out toward her as far as he could reach.
With a rushing sound, the fire covered Taiko completely before it and he disappeared into thin air, the wisps of flame being pushed apart by two barbed arrows that were suddenly flying directly at Rokan.
In the midst of her confusion and terror, Rokan had no time to react before the arrows caught her sleeve and pulled her back with astonishing speed and power, pinning her right arm against a tree. With a grunt, Rokan instinctively put her hand up to her bicep, feeling the sting of the arrow that had grazed her skin. When she pulled her palm away, she saw that a small stain of blood tainted her fingers.
Just a scratch, she thought. A whistling sound in her ear gave away three more arrows that had been fired at her, and she tore her arm free, not caring that her sleeves were ripped. Just in time, she ducked, allowing the incoming arrows to lodge themselves into the tree trunk directly where her throat had been. She was lucky that time.But dodging and evading had never been her strong point, and she stood no chance against the Yu Yan from this distance. Drawing her katana, Rokan rolled in the ankle-deep waters to avoid getting punctured by yet another volley. Despite her traumatic experience just seconds earlier, instinct and battle-mindset took over, pushing her fears and horror aside and briefly bringing her back to her old self.
I either Firebend and risk burning down half this land-scape, or get turned into a pincushion, Rokan mulled. With a sharp whistle, six more arrows embedded themselves into the ground around her, one scraping down the side of her ribs and the other, her thigh. Leaping up, Rokan drew her left arm around her shoulders and swiped outwards, unleashing a torrent of flames on the dark trees in which the Yu Yan were hiding.
Trees grow back, she thought with a mental shrug.
Unfortunately, the Yu Yan were obviously prepared for retaliation, and had moved out of the way of danger just in time. Rokan would need more than just strength to fight back. She needed agility and speed...Agility she usually possessed, but her skills were limited and she was not accustomed to the slippery, slimy consistency of the swamp. Speed was never her forte, however, and there was no way that she could change that now.
Come on, Rokan, she thought, frustrated as she jumped out of the way of five arrows, leaving them to sink into the mud, Play to your strengths!
She spotted another shower of arrows, the biggest one yet, and began to run deeper into the swamp, tripping over the vines and roots. With each stumble she felt a new bruise begin, and she couldn't help but think that the marsh was working against her as well. The trees grew closer together as she pushed farther and farther into the swamp until she had to pause every now and then to squeeze herself through tight places. All the while arrows whizzed past her ears; the only thing that was saving her from being killed was her clumsiness. If anything, the close-set trees only gave the Archers an advantage.
Just more places for them to hide while they shoot me. Suddenly, an idea struck Rokan. An arrow struck her as well, but it bounced off of her katana sheath, killing some of its speed. Still, even at its slowed down rate it still caused her pain when it lodged itself between her shoulder-blades, though not too deeply. Gasping in discomfort, Rokan put her idea into action. Directly in front of her was a small cove, blocked on all sides by dense trees and thick roots. Making as though she was running straight forward, she prepared her breath for Firebending. At the last second, she whipped around and sent a stream of fire straight behind her, disintegrating the barrage of arrows sent her way. An Archer gave away his presence with a shout of pain, and she kept the stream of fire going as long as she could, using it as a distraction and shield. Hiding behind her own bending, she rushed towards the Archers, close enough to lash out with her katana just as her fire died down.
After that it was all a blur. Arrows flew left and right, but she managed to burn most to a crisp before they struck her. The rest of the time she was simply lucky. It began as a five on one fight, but somehow, in the midst of it all, three of the Archers left, and Rokan was left fighting against two, a man and a woman. If she wasn't too busy trying not to get killed, Rokan might have appreciated the fluidity of their fighting style, how they played off of each other so seamlessly. Rokan would have been badly outmatched had it not been for the success of her earlier Firebending that left the man's entire right side largely incapacitated. The woman was small, smaller than Rokan, and in the close quarters her speed did little to protect her from Rokan's overpowering strength. Once an opening was to be had, Rokan grabbed her wrist and with a sharp turn broke it. While the woman was distracted with the pain, Rokan cut a diagonal gash from shoulder to hip and pushed the Archer as hard as she could. The woman fell off of the large tree root on which they were standing and out of sight.
In the time it took for Rokan to overpower the woman, the other Archer had successfully stabbed an arrow into her calf from his position on the ground. Her leg buckling with the pain, Rokan let out a loud yell and blasted fire onto the Archer's arm. Falling to her knees, she swung her katana and brought it to an abrupt halt at the man's throat.
"You let me go on my way and you don't have to get hurt," she said hoarsely, her free hand clamped on her leg in an attempt to stem the blood flow.
The Yu Yan Archer gave a sputtering laugh, spitting blood out of his mouth.
"Too late for that," he coughed. Moving his hand, he revealed a deep wound in his stomach, unmistakably from Rokan's katana, "Too late for her too," he said, nodding in the direction to where the woman had fallen.
Rokan's heart sank. She made a motion as if to go and look over the edge of the tree root, but then looked distrustfully at the man.
"I'm not going anywhere," he muttered.
Rokan hesitated, but her conscience got the better of her and she turned her back on the Archer so that she could peer over at the fallen woman. Horror built in her chest when she caught sight of the broken figure in the three-inch-deep muck, her head having come in contact with a sharp rock.
Rokan scrambled back from the edge, only to cry in pain at the wound in her leg.
"I...I didn't mean to...I never meant to..." she stuttered hopelessly.
"Then why did you?" mocked the man. "I knew right away that you were Fire Nation. You can spot those bright eyes a mile away. So why have you done this?"
Rokan turned and looked at the Archer. He was a terrible sight, with half his skin burnt raw and blood running down his chin.
"You were attacking—," but Rokan paused. She didn't know what they were attacking. She knew they had been sent after a monster, but why should that bother her?
"You were working for the Fire Lord. Prolonging the war. It has to stop. This world's spent one hundred years of death and destruction...that's one hundred years too long."
The Archer laughed again.
"So you've decided to stop the war by killing your countrymen, is that it? Well thought out."
Rokan's hands shook as she tried to think of a way to justify her actions.
"The Fire Lord needs to know that he's got people willing to fight against him at any cost! He needs to realize that he's not invincible!"
The Archer pulled his hand away from his stomach wound and looked at his blood-stained fingers with mild interest.
"Oh, he knows that he has opposition. Believe me, he knows. He remembers it every time he gets a report of a failed mission. He remembers with every messenger hawk he orders sent out to the families of fallen soldiers. The Fire Lord might think he's invincible, but he recognizes the mortality of his men, even if he doesn't act compassionately on it. Do you really think that by killing some more of his pawns you'll frighten him?"
Rokan felt her lip tremble though no tears surfaced. Suddenly she saw Taiko's apparition in her mind again. Taiko, her brother, burning to death because of her mistake. Was she destined to kill and never save?
"If you want to strike a blow against Ozai, you have to strike him. Whether you do this directly or indirectly is your choice. Assassinate him. Turn his men against him. But don't prolong the war by trying to stop it in the wrong manner."
Swallowing hard, Rokan found her voice.
"Why are you telling me this?"
The Archer chuckled for a final time.
"Because we're all of the same mind, girl. This war is hurting everyone."
Rokan let out a shaky breath as the Archer's eyes glazed over and stared blindly at the treetops. The sky was growing paler with the approach of dawn, illuminating more clearly his injuries. Rokan broke off the arrow shafts on the points in her leg and back, and slid gingerly off the tree root, beginning the painful walk towards civilization. Finally, the trees began to grow sparse, and she saw the smoke of cooking fires rising from a middle-sized town in the distance.
Her mission had failed. In her attempt to foil the Yu Yan, she had been bested by plants, driven half-mad by hallucinations, and given more than her fair share of arrow wounds. What was more, she had been sabotaged herself by the Yu Yan Archers, and in addition to her bodily wounds they had inflicted deeper injuries of confusion on her mind and heart.
A Note from the Author
I am so, so sorry for the ridiculously long wait for this chapter. I sincerely hope that my writer's block is gone for good, and I thank you for waiting so patiently. Rokan is back!
For the collective works of the author, go here.