Fandom: Akatsuki no Yona
The Courage After Dawn
Chapter 1: The Lone Wanderer
Who… who were they? That intensity…
Three days later and Yong was still thinking of that encounter as she strode leisurely down the dirt-gritted road, surrounded by tall grass. Where she was heading, she had no idea. The higher-ups had already commenced their journey back to their respective domains. In every village she had travelled through, she could see the return of the soldiers of the Fire Tribe, greeting people on the streets, laughing and otherwise patrolling again like nothing had happened.
But something had happened.
"Have you heard the news? A new king's been crowned!"
"He's Yu-Hong's son isn't he?"
"Long live King Soo-won!"
It was all the people talked about nowadays. Speculations and theories were exchanged over the sudden crowning of the new king. Yong, like everyone else had also come to her own conclusions about the entire thing but brushed it off. After all crown politics didn't concern her- not that she was particularly law-abiding in the first place.
Instead, other thoughts plagued her mind.
All she could think of was the scarlet of the girl's hair, the violet of her eyes in the moonlight, the sheer strength of the man that defended her and the failure of her skills to snatch what would have been an easy steal.
It occupied her mind, even though she tried to forget it- what could she have done to change the ordeal? Could she had tried a different approach? Lain in the shadows and struck out like a snake? Attacked the man first using her blade instead and immobilised him first? Never have underestimated them in the first place?
Yong liked using daggers, short blades, anything she could easily dispose of. But her real strength lied in her swordsmanship. She was arrogant about it, and so neglected to practise as much as she used to, having judged herself being at a high enough level of skill. But after that encounter she became determined again. Because-
"I'll defeat him." Yong whispered out loud and having strayed off the dirt road and into the grassy bushes, she had found a clearing. Placing her belongings carefully at the foot of a tall, shady tree, she began to swing her wakizashi.
One strike. Two strikes. Three strikes. Dodge. Sweep under. Repeat.
"Speed. Strength. Stamina." She repeated those words as she swung, rotating her entire body as much as possible in order to stretch herself, to improve her flexibility. Her footwork became a mesmerising dance, her forehead perspiring and dripping sweat down her back.
She stopped suddenly, breath caught in the middle of a mid-swing. With all the strength her arms could muster, she swiped her blade into the nearest tree, only to have it stuck, perhaps, a few inches in, no way close to decapitating the tree trunk with one swing.
She sighed. Perhaps she still wasn't strong enough yet.
The next few days were an alternation of making her way towards her client, practising her swordsmanship and deliberating over what to do with a book that she had somehow stumbled upon in a trade. Being illiterate, the only use she could think for it, was probably to start a fire. Old paper burned easily, after all. Tossing it up and down, she had opened it many times but each page only looked like a wall of pretty scribbles with very few characters that she could actually decipher.
It was still early morning by the time she made her way to the next village, drawing ever so closer to where her client had specified her to meet up. Just before she left the area, it had occurred to her that she should bathe before meeting her client again.
Heavens, she reeked.
Yong scoffed but resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she slid into a seat opposite a thin, balding man. After all, this client had requested her services perhaps, more than a month ago and putting it as being 'late' was a little more than an understatement.
"I made no promises." She intoned, keeping her face casted in the shadows of her hood whilst glancing sharply up to meet the man's frown.
Not following schedule certainly had its disadvantages. Yong had spent the last few days hovering around the local bar, waiting for her client to perhaps turn up. And if not, then she was either going to dump the jade seal somewhere or take it and sell it off herself.
"Did everything go well?" He asked, lips barely moving amidst the loud hearty cheers and cheerful chatter around them. As if on second thought, he raised his hand and called up for a bottle of alcohol. The smooth of his head flashed in the dim lighting.
"I suppose." Yong kept it vague, before pushing the clothed jade seal towards her client, who took it with a suspicious glance around them.
After subtly checking his goods, the thin man gave a very satisfied smirk before pushing a cup of sake towards her, the clear liquid sloshing over the sides of the cup. "Drink up, my good friend. This cup is on me."
But Yong knew better than to accept drinks from a client of all things. "And my pay?"
"Ah. Of course." And then he pushed a small drawstring pouch that skidded heavily over the wooden table. "Ten pieces, all there."
Yong undid the pouch, took a glance and shoved it into one of her many pockets. And with that, she shot him the sweetest smile, one that promised all seven hells that he would go through if he ever tried to cheat her. "Nice doing business with you. I bid you good day." She was gone in a swish of her coat.
One piece of gold, two pieces of gold, three pieces of gold…
Yong's scowl deepened as trekked down the barren dirt road, counting her most recent pay. Seven pieces of gold and three pieces of silver. That seedy old baldy had cheated her.
She gritted her teeth trying to suppress the rage that was building up inside her. Four years of experience in this business and she was still letting herself be cheated. Rather than the rage being aimed at her client, it was more aimed towards herself and how lacking she still was.
She should have counted the pieces right there and then.
But it was unwise. Especially in a bar setting where anyone could be watching.
Swallowed up in her self-reflection, she didn't notice the shifty glances, or the unsubtle jabs of a thumb towards her. She didn't notice the small group of teenage boys surrounding her until they blocked her path. The pouch of gold that she had been tossing up and down froze in her grip as she felt the shadow of a taller individual rise from behind her, clasping a large hand threateningly onto her shoulder.
"Hey Mister." The person spoke loudly and obnoxiously. "Give us all you've got or else- oomph!"
Without turning around, Yong had slammed the hilt of her wakizashi into the broad stomach of her assailant, causing the man behind her to double-up, clutching his middle. Green eyes flashing, she proceeded to sweep her blade towards his neck, stopping a hair's width before it cut the skin.
"Big bro!" There was a collective shout of outrage, but all was silenced when the man raised his hand.
Yong swept her gaze across the bunch of children pretending to be men and gave a small sigh. "You're outclassed here. Leave."
The man-child that she had at her blade point couldn't have been more than sixteen years old. He was tall, but lanky, with visible arm muscles underneath a ripped long-sleeved tunic that surely couldn't be warm enough for the cold winter nights that the Land of Fire was so famous for.
Slowly, his gaze hardened into one of determination. It was the gaze of someone who had starved many days, of someone who had nothing more to lose, of a child trying desperately to survive in this world. At some point in time, Yong would have had this kind of expression etched across her face. Her previous rage ebbing away, she could only frown in confusion as the boy stared fearlessly into her narrowed eyes.
And when she didn't proceed to do anything else, he ducked under her blade in one rugged movement and tried to headbutt her. But his movements were sloppy. The teenage boys cheered around her as they also closed in, following their leader's movements. Their movements, too, were predictable and almost clumsy.
Yong dodged them all, clashing briefly with those who carried blades and knocking them from their weak grips. And when the group became all but a pile of bodies on the ground, she sheathed her clean blade. The eldest of the lot weakly tried to raise his head in defiance and she quirked her lip in amusement. And against her better judgement, she carefully picked out a piece of gold from the pouch and laid it in front of him.
His eyes widened. "W-wait!" He cried out with a cracked voice.
She smiled, even though he couldn't see it under her hood.
Grow strong, boy.
She didn't look back as she continued her path down the gritty, unpaved road. A few times she had contemplated stalking back to the village bar and wringing her ex-client of everything he had. But if that man was cunning- and she knew better than to underestimate sly old and bald men like him, then he would have already been out of village by the time she realised that she had been cheated. That snake.
But it was ok. She'll let it go for now. After all, it wasn't as if she was ever in any dire need of money. What were her skills as a thief for, if not cultivated for her own use?
Although, one thing was for sure. That old man had better watch his back.
Another day later, and Yong found herself on the move again. What was she searching for? Her aim? She didn't know. With her large bag securely on her back, her hood draped over her head, she took off at a steady pace, heading deeper still into the Fire Tribe's territory.
What would she do today? What would she eat? Where would she sleep tonight?
She didn't know. She never knew. Perhaps it was these surprises that still made life interesting.
The dirt and gravel scuffed under her worn boots as she followed the winding road through the bushlands. The trees swayed back and forth in the warm breeze. And she took a deep breath in, savouring the taste of nature and the heady sweet scent of perhaps some sort of flower or ripe fruit.
Shifting the weight of her bag upon her shoulders, she continued on her journey, somehow making her way onto another trail that wasn't the one from before. But it didn't matter. All she had to do was keep heading west.
She wasn't alone on the trail either. Every now and then she'll pass by some people. Perhaps it would be some soldiers whom she'll nod to, or a farmer toiling in his lands, or a group of laughing children chasing a butterfly.
Why did everything seem so uninteresting.
It was late afternoon that Yong found herself lounging upon a sturdy perch from atop of the tallest tree in the area. Its leaves were flat and large, branches thick, dense and rough with plenty of grooves in the trunk to scramble up with. Balancing herself with practised ease, her legs swung freely as she bit down on a red apple.
She frowned as she did so, wiping the juice haphazardly from her face and licking it clean after. The apple was a ripe, shiny, crimson, and she rotated it idly in her hand, viewing it at different angles.
Red. It still lingered in her thoughts. That night, where she was stolen of an easy prey. That night that she encountered a girl with the strange hair colour. She had thought it forgotten already- it had been a while after all. But with every vivid redness that she saw in her daily life, she was reminded of how crimson the girl's hair had been in the darkness.
And she couldn't forget, no matter how much she tried, the adrenaline that had rushed through her at the overwhelming power that the girl's companion had displayed. She couldn't' forget how bright that night had been, lit by moonlight. She couldn't forget how violet the girl's eyes were or how crimson her hair, or how much fear she had crashing through her or how shamed afterwards that she had been knocked down by a mere gust of wind.
Or rather, how it had her questioning herself. Was she wrong in attacking them? By just how much had she underestimated them? All these questions swirled into one great chunk in her head but there was definitely one thing clear and that was-
She yearned to see them again.
Yong shook her head abruptly to clear these dangerous thoughts of hers, her high ponytail swaying violently from side to side. Green eyes fluttered close, bringing pale fingers to gently squeeze the sides of her temple. She scoffed. Now what were the chances of encountering the exact same people again? It must probably be one in a million- no, more than that. One in a billion, perhaps? She scoffed again and took a vicious bite from her apple. It was a large world after all.
At that exact moment, there was the noise of snapping branches and Yong froze. There was the rustling of leaves, the crisp shuffle of footsteps on shrubbery and the muffled curses and low voices. And right in front of her, three figures emerged from the bushlands and into the clearing.
Yong swallowed inaudibly and pressed herself closer under the leaves of the tree. She quickly pulled her hood up, and pulled her body closer to herself until she was squatting, one palm securely on the tree trunk to roughly maintain her balance.
The first of who pushed away the ferns and into the sunlight was a teenager. A light-haired boy, judging from his figure, wrapped in a light-blue shawl and feather-like decorations in his hair. He looked around carefully before turning back to wave at his companions. And slowly, they too crept out from the shrubbery, the taller man holding out the greenery for the short, cloaked figure to step pass unhindered.
Immediately, Yong's eyes were drawn to the long spear-like item that the tall, dark-haired man held firmly in his hand. It was a wooden staff, thick and bundled all over in cloth at the very tip, tied by rope. A weapon? It seemed strangely familiar though she couldn't quite place where exactly had she seen such a thing. The man was tall, with broad shoulders and dressed in traditional blue robes- nothing you would find on the average civilian. He had messy dark hair with bangs that fell past his eyes, a large straw-hat that hung from the back of his neck and a quiver of arrows strapped to his back.
Beside him, was the cloaked figure he had been aiding. Small in stature, with uncommonly pale, smooth hands, the stranger was suspicious. Yong's eyes narrowed as she trailed the cloaked figure's every movement, to them sitting down gingerly on a fallen tree trunk to them handing some sort of food to the others. Before long, the trio of strangers had settled down in; excess baggage dumped carefully onto the ground beside them.
And then the cloaked figure threw back her hood.
Yong's green eyes widened. Her hands shook, the red apple threatening to fall from her grasp as she slowly brought it to hide the uncontrollable curl that crept over her lips, forcing them into the biggest, most gleeful grin. Her heart beat erratically, so loud that she was afraid that the trio would have heard it, ten feet away.
Because right there in front of her, was the red-haired girl from before. The cloaked figure had been revealed to be a girl. A girl with the most beautiful scarlet hair that was accented only by the yellow rays of the sun. The white moonlight that Yong had once thought made her red tresses ethereal had nothing on this yellow splendour.
It must have been the same girl, despite the noticeable difference in hair length. No other would have such unique apple-coloured hair. And Yong then realised why the tall dark-haired man seemed strangely familiar, or why she felt as though she had encountered such an uncommonly used weapon before. Nowadays, people tended to use swords rather than long staff-like weapons as it aided better in close-combat. Cheaper too.
Regardless, she had found them. By some miraculous deal by fate, she had encountered the exact people she had been yearning for the past week. The people who had humiliated her skills. The people who had escaped from her. The people who had made her feel insignificant. They would pay.
She smirked. She wasn't going to let this chance pass by. After all, it must have been fate that they should meet again, like this. And finally, would she have closure. Defeating them, should be proof enough that she was superior.
She licked her lips as she imagined. When should she attack? How should she attack? Would she fly in with a flurry of small blades or step calmly out of the shadows to declare a battle? Would she hold her sword up high and attack front on, or swing in from their blind-spot? So many scenarios, so many plans she could execute.
She watched them for a while as they rested. Their guard was obviously down, having expected no one to stray this deep away from the trail and into this clearing. They were talking serenely, laughing at each other, bickering at times, sharing food. The red-haired girl sat at her trunk, kicking her legs up and down. The light-haired boy with the feathers in his hair seemed to be making something as he sat cross-legged on the grass. And the tall man leant against the tree trunk, one arm across his raised knees, his weapon leaning next to him, within arm's reach.
Obviously, Yong thought as she shifted carefully along the branch, he was a skilled fighter. Probably the only skilled fighter within the trio and that alone, made her job all the easier to fulfil. He would be the first she'll challenge, the first she'll attack. And with that thought in mind, she slowly shifted down a branch as the wind blew, hiding the noises she made with the rustling of the leaves.
Green eyes narrowed in preparation, her palms a firm grasp on the hilt of her sword. Any moment now. She just had to find the perfect opening. Her heart continued to hammer in her chest, in anticipation or excitement she didn't know. Perhaps some fear? The mighty thrust of power from that night still haunted her.
Any moment now. Stay calm.
Her gleeful smile widened, showing bits of not-altogether straight teeth. Still she, waited until that perfect moment to launch her surprise attack. As of current, the red-haired girl was in her way, having gotten up to stand beside her companion. But the weakling wasn't her target. No, her target was that man behind her. She'd hate to get distracted unnecessarily.
Then finally, finally she moved. Subconsciously, Yong flicked her thumb and from within her coat, the hilt of her sword rose a fraction before drawing it out with a low metallic whine that simply could not be concealed. But to her surprise, the man who had been resting leisurely against the fallen trunk stiffened all of a sudden, narrowed eyes darting about the area.
Yong froze, blade still halfway out of its sheathe as he stood up abruptly, staff already in hand, muttering a few words Yong couldn't hear. His companions quickly got to their feet, alarmed at his sudden reaction.
Good instincts. Yong praised internally and without any more need for stealth, she dropped her rather ragged and bulky bag straight down to the foot of the tree with a muffled thump, before following, landing in a crouch. Her blade came out from under her coat in large arc and then all of a sudden, the three pairs of eyes were focused on her and only her as she pointed it at them, the sharp metal reflecting light from the sun. Yong smirked from under her hood, taking slow strides towards them.
In response to her silent declaration, the dark-haired man had raised his staff-like weapon in a defensive pose, held horizontally across his body. From the closer distance, Yong could finally hear them.
"Yoon, get the Princess to safety." The man instructed to the light-haired boy and the boy hastily complied, tugging on the girl's sleeve.
The girl gave her companion a small, confident glance. "Be careful, Hak."
"I will, Princess."
Then the boy tugged at the red-haired girl's arm again and they were gone, running into the bushes. Yong watched them leave with a hum of approval. That was right. They didn't need unnecessary distractions during their battle.
"So, what do you want?"
His deep drawl tore back her attention and Yong's eyes darted back as he swung his long staff in a show of technique, slamming the blunt side into the ground and leaning onto it lazily. His posture seemed unguarded but his blue eyes were sharp and alert. Yong gritted her teeth and refused to say a word. After all, she intended to defeat him and find closure. There was simply no need for the exchange of words.
The wind blew, picking up the loose folds of their clothes.
"Not going to say anything, huh?" He shifted slightly. "Fine with me-"
Yong didn't give him the chance to finish. As soon as the wind direction changed to favour her standing, she had rushed forward, flicking two blades at him that had been concealed within her coat. He jumped backwards in mid-speech, facial expression shifting from a lazy grin to a more serious face, eyebrows furrowing as the hooded figure continued to dart towards him, blade on the offensive.
He was fast and agile, that Yong had to admit, yet not once has he taken the offensive. All he had been doing was dodging and blocking her advances and no matter how fast she lunged or how nimble her movements were, he always seemed to be one step ahead, parrying her offences in mid-strike or dodging them by a hair.
She simply could not hit him. And with that realisation, she retreated temporarily in a massive leap, the sharp edge of her sword dragging along the ground to steady herself.
"What? That's all you got?"
Yong narrowed her eyes at the smug tone and the suddenly menacing expression that swept across the man's face.
"I guess it's my turn now."
He jumped up all of a sudden and disappeared from Yong's line of sight, which was limited to the hood she wore. But her instincts guided her well and she made to tumble backwards, just as the shining glint of the silver blade sliced into her vision, missing her by a foot. Yet even as she dodged that, the sheer power of his thrusts was enough to blast her backwards, and would have thrown back her hood if she hadn't held on, remembering the very first time she had encountered this style of fighting.
Gritting her teeth, Yong stabbed her sword into the ground to brace herself but was forced to retreat as he took another massive swing at her. Blades clashed like thunderclaps and she was blown backwards almost immediately, scrambling not to lose her balance before she was met with another strike. The sheer difference in power was amazing and all Yong could do was to hold on, to not lose her concentration. But Yong wasn't stupid. She knew she had to take back the offensive soon before he shattered her defences. And slowly, through their fiery dance of blades and clashes, she began to accustom herself towards his explosive power; accustom herself towards the way he would bring his quandao down and the technique he used and that damn wind he created every time he did so.
And soon, she had his fighting figured out somewhat- the way he would slash down and simultaneously transfer the momentum from his waist to his shoulders to his fingers. Then that power would emanate from him in one explosive burst. Yet with such a massive, powerful swing, it would be difficult or even impossible to withdraw his weapon in time to defend himself.
Yong smirked, heart still beating erratically as she braced herself, gritting her teeth momentarily when the back of the blade caught the sides of her ribs painfully. It threw her a good few metres and she skidded, stabbing her blade into the ground again for better leverage as she grasped onto her right side.
But it was ok. With a cry, she rushed forwards, sword in striking position high above her head. She felt the mighty weapon sweep towards her before she even saw it and bent her legs, leaping up high to dodge it. The blade swept centimetres from the bottom of her shoes and at the height of her jump, she knew this was the kind of opening she had been looking for.
Sword on the offensive, she sliced it downwards, aiming for the left shoulder. She was going to slice a crimson path to his waist. And just as she was about to reach, her limbs froze in mid-air and green met the sharp glint of blue as their eyes clashed. Yong's eyes widened in shock because-
No normal person should have reflexes this fast.
In a flash, the man had stepped backwards, slamming his quandao into the ground and used its momentum to swing himself around it, smashing one foot solidly into her mid-section. Yong grunted as she was hit out of the air, crashed onto the clearing floor, tumbled and perhaps bounced once on the grassy surface before finally slamming into the hard, unyielding trunk of a tree.
Her world spun for a moment and then the pain and the screaming of her mid-section caught up to her. Shakily, she tried to stand back up, leaning heavily on her sword. Red spots dotted the grass under her and it took her a few slow seconds to comprehend what exactly she was coughing out. A tall shadow fell over her and she looked up, only to find herself at blade-point.
"So, did you want something from me?" The man drawled.
Not good. This wasn't good. Yong's eyes darted about, looking for some opening. Any opening. She was backed up against a tree, at blade point, with some intimidating male interrogating her. The shade of the trees was comforting but bore no real help. The wind had stilled to create an even louder silence. Her bulging backpack was within reach, dirt-ridden and ragged on the floor. It was within reach, that was if she just stretched out her arm a bit…
Yong cleared her throat, and looked up, locking her gaze with the one standing in front of her. For the first time, she noticed his features in detail- sharp blue eyes narrowed through those long dark bangs of his, a straight nose, thin lips and a strong jawline. To be fair, he was quite handsome but he looked young, far younger than what Yong had imagined him to be. Almost her age, perhaps. He looked at her, judging her with those narrowed blue eyes of his and she in turn, held his gaze, looking past the blade that lay in between them.
Her voice, not deep but not feminine either, was slow and steady despite her injuries. "I will acknowledge your strength" She declared, fiddling with the insides of one of her long coat sleeves. "But this is not over."
And with that, she flung a smoke bomb from the insides of her long sleeves, and undid its latch in one practiced movement. In an instant, the entire area was engulfed in blackness.