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|The Yu River|
February 12, 2012
The Yu River is the seventh chapter of the series.
The three Fugitives attempt to cross a river in order to reach the fort as soon as they can, yet they encounter an obstacle that brings them into close proximity to several foes.
In the dark of night, in their camp's most open area, Fire Nation soldiers gathered by the lantern light. Many of them had minor injuries from a chaotic morning, but few were in any serious danger. It was the slashing wounds that proved most deadly on the bloody morning; the Waterbender was the only one with the intent to kill. Other blunt trauma wounds proved to be disabling in battle, but had such a small recovery time that nearly the entire regiment was prepared for battle. Such a gathering was usually reserved for a pre-battle briefing, wherewould address the crowd on their target.
Tonight, however, was clearly different. Normally Mung would be at the forefront of the group, standing in a cold, intimidating silence that demanded attention. Tonight, however, the crowd had nothing to keep the silent. None knew why they were called there, but they knew better than to disobey the General's summons. Each soldier, having nothing better to do, spoke with his nearby comrades about the topic of their meeting. As the collective conversations slowly became a dull roar, the group's officers began filing into the area and stopping behind the stage. Mung was the last to arrive, though he did not bring his intimidating demeanor that typically came with his arrival.
Mung walks onto the small platform, his mere presence silencing the chattering crowd. His face was wrapped in bandages; the cloth blocked out his right eye and went to the bottom of his cheek. It was partially bloody, as the wound underneath had yet to seal. Such was the recently defeated General Mung, who literally had everything ripped and torn away from him. Inhaling deeply through his nostrils, the General signaled his desire to begin talking. "Men, we have suffered a nearly irreparable blow today. It deeply angers me that a small group of filth could escape our camp without being decimated. Now, I understand many of you were injured by this surprises escape. I too have been given a reminder of the failure. Many of you have bruises or a broken bone, but I have something that will not heal and will never fade away from my thoughts." He slowly reaches to the back of his head and begins unraveling the bandages that kept his wound clean. The once mighty General was now wearing a long arc across his face, the makings of an incomplete oval. The metal staples lodged in his skin glistened in the lantern light, making the scared regiment near terrified. "Now, as you well know, intelligence must be filed for every incursion we experience. This day is no different except that I am now a part of the report. As our Nation's policy requires, I am to be sent back to the homeland and a new officer will be appointed to take my place. But this is not an act that will go unpunished. These insolent benders believe that they have escaped our wrath, but we will prove them more than wrong. In order to make the report seem more favorable, I am reporting that a group of soldiers were on a scouting mission during the time of the escape. It will be made up of injured soldiers who wish to take personal vengeance on these inferior soldiers who took advantage of our complacency. Do not let anyone tread on you and heed my words," he says in closing, taking time to enunciate every syllable in order to drive his point home. He turns and exits the stage briskly, prompting a swift salute from the gathered soldiers.
As the crowd dissipated, Tazo remained standing in place. From a few yards away, Inata approached slowly. After a few moments of silence, Inata sighs. "You're planning on going, aren't you?" he says, his tone indicating his lack of sympathy.
"Inata, my brother was killed by these people. The only way I'll get any chance of redemption for him is for me to find them. This is his honor at stake here. I can't sit by and do nothing."
"You could. To be honest, I'm sure he doesn't have much use for his honor now."
"It's about respecting his memory. He deserves retribution," he says while shooting his friend a dark glare. "I won't deny him his justice."
"I knew you wouldn't."
"I guess I'll see you when I get back," Tazo mutters while walking in a different direction.
"I never said I wasn't coming," Inata says in the lightest tone he could muster. Tazo stops and turns, clearly confused by his friend's revelation. "I'm not going to take this lying down."
"Good. I get the one with the hammers."
"Then I'll get the Earthbenders."
"So you have no real plans?" Kuan asks as the three walk along a river shore. The current is powerful; each man must nearly yell to be heard over the crashing waves.
"Honestly, we've found so many distractions I'm surprised we've got this far," Kuro replies. Kuro reaches into his bag and pulls out the map he fought for a few days prior. Motioning for the others to stop walking, Kuro unravels the scroll and flattens it out on the ground. "We were stationed here," Kuro deduces, pointing to a specific area.
"We're right along the Yu River," Kuan announces. After Shenji gives him a questioning look, Kuan begins to explain. "I remember crossing it during the dry season, before I got captured. I'd rather not explain further. So that means we're about here," the Waterbender deduces, placing his finger on a point along the river bank.
With a sigh, Kuro announces his conclusion. "Then that means we've got a long march ahead of us guys..."
After looking over the map for a moment, Shenji thinks he has a plan. After ascertaining their group's current position, Shenji drags his finger towards the river, a relatively short distance away when viewed on the map. "Why don't we just cross the river? We'd get there much quicker that way."
"Kuan's a good Waterbender, he could just ferry us across. It'd be easy."
"As brilliant as that plan is, it can't work. It's the rainy season now. I can't get us all across the river during the rainy season. The current would wash us further away from the base. That would hardly be a good idea."
"We might as well get going as quickly as possible. There's no reason to give the Fire Nation more time than they need," Kuro decides. The Earthbender gives a nudge and the trio set off in a different direction. "We'll give the Fire Nation a reason to fear the Fugitives," he mutters.
"The what?" Shenji asks.
A grin flashing across his face for the first time in a while, the Earthbender begins explaining. "Well, we're all running away from something, for one reason or another. And when we finally take out this base, I want a name to go with the victory."
"Okay, but don't expect me to be calling out our name when we try and ambush people," Kuan quips.
"That would be highly counter-productive," Shenji adds.
"I know that," Kuro adds. "They'll know somehow. When the military finds out, they won't put us on trial when we get back! They'll know that we didn't just leave."
"The problem is that you did leave," Kuan says as they continue. "It's not going to be pretty if you get back."
"We will complete this mission and then we will go back. It's the right thing to do. We did disobey our orders, and we'll accept our consequences," Kuro bluntly states, his face reflecting his adamant desire to fulfill his self-imposed quest. "I knew this would happen, and I'm prepared to accept the results."
"Good luck when you get back..." Kuan mutters as he walks into the lead.
"Unlike you, I haven't been scorned by the government as a whole. I still have faith that they can make the correct exceptions. So how are we going to get the fort again?"
"Kuan, could you freeze a bridge across the river?" Shenji asks enthusiastically.
"That is actually a good idea Shenji," the Waterbender replies with a grin. Kuan turns to the river slowly, squinting in an attempt to see the far bank. "The river looks too wide to get across quickly, but if I we make the bridge, we'll be able to make it across within around a few hours. Quick thinking soldier, I like it," he adds, swiftly jerking his hand in an upward swipe, creating a frozen strip around ten feet long at the bank of the river.
"Nice bridge there Kuan," Kuro begins, walking towards the frozen path. "Sadly, we've got a few miles to go in order to make our way to the other side. Is it possible to continue across the water?"
"Well, since we are dealing with a different element than your own, the path must react with the water. Ice is like earth, but it still remains water; essentially, I'm not just going to be stubborn with the water, but use this piece by piece system to make sure we don't get washed away. I wouldn't be able to just make a massive bridge across the river."
"Can't you just make longer strips and see what happens?" Shenji asks.
Before Kuan can respond, Kuro takes charge. "Kuan's right, Shenji. We need to get there as quickly as possible, without waiting. Do whatever you think is best," Kuro says, sternly and respectfully looking at his Waterbender companion.
Taking the response as a mutual agreement, Kuan steps onto the ice bridge and again raises his hand. Water freezes from the river, connecting to the initial piece at a slight angle. Hesitantly, Kuan takes a step onto the ice, clearly intending to keep part of his weight off the newly formed bridge. After proving its stability, Kuan swiftly makes a much longer path, now reaching fifteen feet into the river. "Let's start going," Kuan says, motioning for the duo to follow him. Kuan begins freezing more of the river and the group continues tentatively walking across the frozen river. As the current passes downstream, the ice begins to submerge as water flows over the bridge. "Kuan, water is coming over the bridge!"
"I know it is. It's just like making a dam; some water is going to go over, but most of it is going to stay put. What does go over won't be that deep, so we can keep going."
"I hate not being on solid earth," Kuro mumbles as they continue walking on the cold, damp ice path.
"Then you could swim," Kuan says while freezing another five feet of water. "I'm sure that would make you feel so much better about it."
"I'll just stick to walking then..."
After fifteen minutes of walking on the bridge, a humming sound breaks the group's awkward silence. "What could that be?" Shenji asks, stopping and turning in the direction of the mind-numbing noise. As Kuan continues making the bridge, a small craft, only slightly larger than a person, speeds over the horizon. The vehicle moves swiftly above the water, rapidly and carelessly approaching the shocked fugitives. Upon noticing people standing on the river, the man turns the vehicle sharply and begins gaining on the three friends. "Kuro! Stop that thing!" Shenji exclaims as the metal vehicle approaches.
"I can't bend metal! What do you expect me to do?" he replies in debilitating frustration.
"Right," Shenji says, remembering that they are standing on a river. "Kuan, can you stop him?"
"I'm a little busy now," the Waterbender replies.
"Just do something!" Kuro shouts. In frustration, Kuan raises one hand, creating a ten-foot wave that nearly knocks the soldier off his vehicle. After regaining his balance, the soldier swings his arm, creating an arc of fire that goes towards the three Fugitives. Kuan raises an ice wall that shields himself while Kuro rolls onto part of the bridge that had been previously made. Shenji, being in the middle of the three with nowhere to go, quickly turned and dove into the water on the other side of the bridge. After flailing in the water for a few moments with nowhere to go, Shenji makes it to the surface of the river, where the current began pushing him downstream.
"Help! Someone!" Shenji screams as he bobs his head above water. "I don't know what I'm doing!"
Kuan melts the ice wall into a wave and crashes it into the soldier. The soldier is knocked off the craft and onto a rock within the stream. The craft continues on its path, ramming into the rock with deadly force for the group's attacker. The resulting explosion sent a plume of smoke into the day's bright and clear sky. Kuan turns around and dives into the water, swimming swiftly towards the struggling Shenji. As Shenji begins slipping under the current, Kuan submerges himself as well. After nearly a minute of fierce swimming, Kuan reaches Shenji, who was still flailing about in the water. Grabbing the Earth Kingdom soldier's right arm with his left, Kuan uses his free hand to create a powerful water spout, using the swirling torrent to bring the two allies out of the river and a few feet into the air. After falling back into the water, Kuan freezes a small block of ice and places Shenji's arms on top. "Hold on to this!" he says over the roar of the current. Also taking hold of the ice, Kuan sends it moving towards the bridge. Eventually reaching the bridge, Kuro helps the two out of the water.
"Guys, we've got another problem." As Kuan dries himself off, Kuro points at the approaching threat. A large, metal ship approaches over the horizon, moving faster than the initial craft and flanked by three more of the same vehicles. "How are we going to stop that?"
"Could Kuan make a wave and overturn it?" Shenji asks, still shocked by the boat's intimidating presence.
"Normally I could, but I need more room. We may need to head back to shore."
"Will it work?" Kuro asks.
"If I've got time, we'll be able to get a pretty big wave. It's the best option we've got."
"Then it's all we've got," Kuro mutters decisively. "Go first and make it there as quickly as you can," he orders, assuming a leadership role in the group's moment of need. Inching closer to the edge, Kuro watches Kuan sprint by before nudging for Shenji to follow. A soldier on a water vehicle approaches Kuan, sending a fire blast into the ice bridge. In a flash of steam, a section of the bridge vanishes. Kuan vaults over the small gap, twirling his legs in a swift and defined path. A continuous stream of water rises from the river and begins flying towards the metal vehicle. Upon landing, Kuan takes over the motion path with his hands, freezing the water into a powerful ice spear. The soldier manages to jump off the craft just before its destruction, but as the smoke cleared, he was nowhere to be seen. Kuan continues towards the shore, unfazed by the scuffle, ignoring the fact that the ship was turning towards the shore as well.
Upon reaching the solid ground, Kuan turns to see the ship approaching the land. After the ship came to a halt, fireballs begin raining from the sky upon the Waterbender. Kuan dodged several and pulled water from the river to block the remainder. "Guys! This isn't going to work!"
"What's not?" Kuro announces as he makes it onto the ground, shocked by the ship. "Oh, right."
"Then what do we do?" Shenji asks as several Firebenders slide down ropes to the land.
"Fight them off, fight the ship off, and cross the river again!" Kuro announces while thrusting both hands into the ground. Two columns of earth emerged from the ground, knocking two soldiers into each other in midair. Dodging other soldiers, Kuro approached the columns, smashing the raised stone and emerging from the ensuing dust cloud with gauntlets of earth. Kuan pulls water from the nearby river, streaming it directly into the torso of a soldier approaching Kuro's rear. Freezing the liquid around him on contact, Kuan thrusts his arm upward at an angle. The soldier is lifted off the ground and hurled back onto his ship. Shenji never had the chance to attack a single soldier when faced with his friend's daunting speed; he instead approached the two, regrouping for the coming struggle. "Now we need to make sure that we take out everyone on the ship so we can pass safely. Once we've defeated everyone, we can grab some supplies but we need to cross the river as quickly as possible," Kuro says. As he watches the other two nod, he stomps the ground, raising a plateau of earth that brings the group up onto the level of the deck.
The worst turn of events unfolded before their eyes. From the ship's tower, an eerie burning flare was launched into the sky. Its smoke trail was distinctive enough, but the light resembled a second sun for those within its range. "Can anything go our way?" Kuro mutters as he glances into the air. Before further plans could be made, several fire blasts came from around the ship's deck. Kuro managed to raise a slab of earth from the step he created, but the combinations of the blasts ruined the barrier. "We've got to get onto the deck!" Kuro announces, using his bending to clear away the dust and subsequently leaping off the rock. Shenji is next to follow, taking a single hammer into his hand and smashing the armor of the nearest Firebender he could find, one who was intending to attack Kuan. As another Firebender turned to attack Shenji, the Earth Kingdom soldier managed to duck behind the injured soldier, using the defeated foe as a shield. Before the Firebender could launch another attack, Kuan knocks him out with a water whip.
A swordsman approached Shenji, slashing in the typical Fire Nation form. Shenji dodges each slash while purposefully remaining close to the soldier. After an extended cut, Shenji grabs hold of the soldiers arm with his free hand. Swinging his hammer at the sword, Shenji pries the blade from its owner's hands, letting it fall to the metal deck with a clang. After elbowing the opponent to the ground, Shenji picks up the sword and begins fending off further opponents. His methods were beyond the skills of typical soldiers, easily defeating the few swordsmen that came near him.
Kuan and Kuro stood back to back, each fending off multiple Firebenders at a time. Kuan used the vast amount of water nearby to fend off fire blasts while Kuro approached the soldiers. Kuro fought individual soldiers, using his earthen gauntlets to block their fire as well as to knock each successive opponent unconscious. After a few moments pass, all soldiers on deck have been incapacitated, whether by trauma to the head or by being frozen to the ship's hull.
"Now what?" Kuro asks Kuan as he watches his final foe slump to the ground.
"We've got to go check inside the rooms. We can't have soldiers tracking us when we retreat back into the forests."
"We're going back into the forests?" Shenji asks in shock.
"We can't cross the river now. It'd take us a while to get across to begin with, but with the flare in the sky, we don't have much time before Fire Nation soldiers in the area arrive to investigate. Stealth has always been something I've needed to know; we don't have any other choice. It will take longer, but rather we get there after a while than get killed trying to take a shortcut." After a silent nod from both Earth Kingdom soldiers, the three proceed into the innards of the ship.
A Step out of Line
Inata, Tazo and the rest of the expeditionary brigade were following Commander Jidui, the most hated officer under Mung's command. He sat atop a Komodo Rhino, paying little attention to the soldiers making up his unit. "I'm not going to be able to take any more of this wandering," Inata mutters under his breath to Tazo.
"This isn't wandering, I'm sure Jidui knows where he's going," Tazo replies jokingly.
"He's about as well informed as the Earth Kingdom Navy," Inata snidely remarks.
"At least the Earth Kingdom Navy can navigate through water!" Tazo responds with a smile. While walking forward, Tazo knocks into a soldier in front of him, who was in the process of turning. The soldier, who wasn't paying attention, bumped into a larger soldier, letting out a startled yell and creating mild disorder among the entire group of surrounding soldiers.
The sound of muttering eventually reaches the front of the unit. Jidui orders the soldiers to stop, turning in his Rhino to determine the source of the confusion. The soldiers begin parting as Jidui conducts his beast of burden through the crowd, towards the clear center. "What is the meaning of this insubordination?" he asks in a demanding tone. After several moments of silence, he leaps off the Rhino, giving the reigns to a nearby soldier. "Who dares cause this sort of action under my supervision?"
"Sir, it was this soldier!" the large soldier says, pointing to the soldier who made contact with him. The soldier, in turn, points back to Tazo.
"Give me one reason, soldier, that I shouldn't send you back right now?" Jidui knows that the punishment for a soldier sent back was steep, but that the journey through the Earth Kingdom alone is almost a certain death sentence.
"Sir, I was talking with my friend and got distracted. Please forgive my trespass," Tazo says, alluding to Inata while bowing in respect to Jidui.
A dark smile appeared on the officer's face. "Then you will-" With a deafening sound, Jidui ceases his decree. The smile vanishes, replaced by an expression of awe. "It appears there is a flare coming from that direction, Jidui notes. That means some Fire Nation unit there may need our help. Take your friend and find the source. We will be stopping in the next clearing up ahead and camping for the night. You will meet us there to report on whether or not we're needed. There's no use in all of us marching there just to find out we're not needed and you have clearly proven that you have the stamina and focus to march ahead of our pace, so I'm sure you can make it in time," Jidui concludes with a grin.
Tazo nods, bowing to signify his obedience. Inata does the same and the two break off towards the flare. Jidui mounts his Rhino and orders his unit to march forward, leaving the most recent incident behind him.
Having no leads, Luo and Cren continue moving to the East. They only know that Shenji and Kuro's target is in that direction, yet they have no idea which path they would have chosen. "So what do we know again?" Luo asks.
Cren reaches up and scratches his head, recalling all the information he could. "We know where they're heading. The map they stole only tells them that there's a fort that may be built somewhere. The Captain gave us a lot other information, but it still won't help us find him. If they do manage to make it there, they'll be in for a pretty big surprise... Yu Dao is heavily protected. They'll get killed off before they make it to the fort's gates."
"Which means we have to get to them first. If the Army wanted them dead, they would have hired an assassin. There must be a reason for wanting them back."
"It's not like they're that valuable."
"Maybe it's to prevent the army's position from being discovered."
"That's the only reason I'd want them back. That or to make an example of them."
"Maybe they deserve to be heard out," Luo replies.
Cren was not the understanding type. In their years in the army, Cren had almost earned a namesake as a brute, killing soldiers on missions to capture their foes. "I care to hear their opinions as much as I care to hear the Fire Lord's."
Luo sighs. He knew Cren was as likely to change opinions as he was to bend air, but felt compelled to speak his mind. "Don't you think that-" A loud boom silences the soldier. After scanning their surroundings, the Earthbenders turn to each other. "What was that?" Luo asks.
"I think it may have been that," Cren replies, looking behind Luo and seeing a bright flash in the middle of the sky. The object had a powerful light and looked to be fairly close. "What is it?"
"It looks like it may be the Fire Navy, but it's clearly some form of Fire Nation technology. They could have found something and need help," Luo speculates. "Let's check the map," he adds, recalling information from his last encounter with Shenji and Kuro. "They may be trying to cross the Yu River," he states, pointing to the large river near their location.
"What kind of fools would try to cross that river on foot?" Cren asks. "Really, they'd be swept away in the current. It's the rainy season and only ships can travel there. Yu Dao is located on the other side; the Fire Nation would be patrolling those waters up and down."
Luo forgot that Cren was unaware of his confrontation with the Fugitives days before. He quickly came up with a cover story, hoping Cren would accept it at face value. "Maybe they stole a boat. If they've got one of those, then they are trying to get a shortcut. If the boat found them, they may have signaled for a larger ship to come for backup."
Cren nodded in agreement. "Then we've got to get there. Whether we catch them or not, I'd like to see them run out of the water."
They quickly establish their position and set off in the direction of the flare, unsure of what they may find.
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