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|The Sunonachi Tribe (Part One) - Barbed Wire|
Book One: Water
May 20, 2014
Following Mother Leliita's requests, the boys head towards Haven for support. On their way, they've come across many enemies, including the maniacal Alphonse, the ruthless Clandestine Miss Zaida, as well as some thugs who claim to be part of the Sunanochi Tribe.
Sedgley, after being heavily poisoned by a dart, was pushed into the Spirit World by Sheker - the witchdoctor of the Hebikumo Tribe who nursed the kids when they were found passed out in the Wasteland. It was here where Avatar Lyn, the previous Avatar, came to him, spurring him to believe that he is the Avatar. However, he's yet to tell Dover and the others his shocking discovery.
~ Chapter Ten: The Sunanochi Tribe (Part One) - Barbed Wire ~
Harsh sunlight shot onto their faces and, as soon as they were even remotely conscious, their noses began dripping. It was cold; it must've been early in the morning.
The kids stirred in response to the woman's orders. She needn't have given them a reason to get out of bed at this ungodly hour, yet she did anyway.
"You're going to help make things right. I'm taking you to the scorpion-snake."
Anurna sighed as she rolled over and shuffled into her clothes. She liked Sheker, she wanted to make things better again, but the fact that it had to be done spiritually was exhausting. She never cared much for traditions and prayers, so this was getting on her nerves. Nonetheless, she had to do something, and so she followed the boys out to the sleeping desert, carrying a still drowsy Miko in her arms.
She joined the boys, who watched Sheker's back, outside their tent, Sedgley widening his eyes at them all to fill him in on the situation at hand. No one dared say anything, and silently shushed him.
The sky was a grey mist, made whiter by the morning Sun, and wispy trails of brown sand danced along its canvas, causing the kids to cover their mouths with their scarfs. Sheker coughed or grumbled, and walked towards the Sun, her shuffling body silhouetted by the light. They were being led East, to where the scorpion-snake – dead at their hands – was lying. It was a long walk back to where they had met the beast, however the cold morning air and the fact that they were well rested and fed meant that it wasn't as laborious as the first time they had trekked across the dust.
They walked in silence for about two hours, Sheker knew the sands well and was able to get them there faster.
Sheker turned her trusty rain stick upside down as they approached what was left of the sacred animal; a mere pile of black coals with some hints of an exoskeleton and traces of chelicerae. A stain on the otherwise spotless bed of rubble.
Erik and Dover swallowed back lumps in their throat as their stomachs quivered.
Candles and sticks of incense had been placed around the scorpion-snake's remains in a precise way. Sheker pulled something out from a pocket in her coat.
"Eat these please." Sheker's eyes avoided theirs as she handed Erik the same dark blue berries Yindi had offered them the previous night.
Erik distributed them amongst his friends, and they each put the fruit in their mouths. Their cheeks reddened with the sweetness and Miko scoured Anurna's palm for another berry, the prospect of more food waking him up completely.
Sheker shook the rain stick and sang another language through her throat, wet and gurgling with grief.
Sedgley had no clue what was happening. Who was this lady? What were they doing here? He could just, literally only just, remember his friends battling a monster but the rest was a mystery. Not that he could really care. His mind was still in shock from what he had seen, or rather experienced, the night (or however long he was out for) before. Avatar Lyn had appeared to him – to him! – and told him not to give up, and to believe in himself in order to achieve greatness. He still couldn't believe it. Sulking over not being able to plantbend seemed so stupid to him now. However, that was the old Sedgley. The new Sedgley – 'Sedgley the Wise' or 'Sedgley the Valiant', yes, he liked the sound of that one – would not sulk or moan or whine. The new Sedgley had everything he wanted, and therefore had to share it with and help others.
He stepped forward.
Sheker's teary face snapped to his, the rolling desert mists reflected in her cataracts.
The other kids seized up. It was a good thing they were all covering their mouths with scarves, for they had fallen ajar with shock, and Sheker may have found the sight offensive. What was he doing?
He was going to get them all in more trouble, that was what, Anurna thought to herself. Still, she wouldn't intervene and watched silently like the others.
Sedgley walked slowly towards the old woman, whose gnarly arms reached out to him almost instinctively. He had been to the Spirit World. She had sent him there. That meant something to her; it had to. They touched arms, and Sheker slowly brought him down to kneel next to the ashes of the beast. The black scraps were swaying, almost blown away by the breeze and Sheker's grubby face crinkled as she closed her eyes.
"Please forgive us, spirits of the sandy sea, gatekeepers to our paradise," Sheker mumbled over her dry lips, "A mistake was made in desperation by some unaware of your purity, your power and your knowledge. We come, appealing to your compassion, begging for your forgiveness and mercy."
She unclipped a few vials from her dress and poured the contents onto the sand; one mixture red as blood and another a foul-smelling, translucent brown liquid. After mixing it in, she drew a wavy line across the wet patch of sand.
"Is... is there anything I can do?" Sedgley prodded gently, trying to be as sensitive as possible.
Sheker kept her head down, but spoke loud enough for everyone to hear, "Just apologise. Profusely."
Dover and Erik hurriedly knelt next to Sedgley, closing their eyes in case eye contact was made with Sheker. Anurna followed reluctantly. She knew she had to.
Kneeling in front of the scorpion-snake's remains, the girl awkwardly waved her hands around above the sand and jerkily mumbled, "Dear, um, bountiful scorpion-snake... overlords!" She had no idea what she was doing, and Erik was shaking his head in disbelief, "We're really sorry we killed you and, um, took your... sacred cacti. It was really good cacti... If that's any consolation... So! Again, our deepest sympathies to your family. You were a good man – or woman..."
She continued on stumbling clueless through her apology as Sheker started weeping. The kids were unsure of how long she had been crying, only now having heard a faint sniff.
Sedgley wrapped his arm around her shoulders and brought her close to him. Dover watched with raised eyebrows, utterly perplexed.
Sedgley hushed her and rubbed her back, cooing, "It's alright, it's alright. Everything's going to be alright, ok?" His eyes darted to Dover, not ready to tell him yet, "One of us is the Avatar, okay, so everything's going to be alright."
"Um... Sedgley...?" Erik stammered. They were meant to keep low profiles from now on!
"What...?" Sheker gasped slowly, looking up at Sedgley, her watery eyes now filling up with a trace of something other than grief.
Miko chattered nervously, nuzzling up to Sedgley's knee as a potential distraction.
"Yep. We don't know who it is yet, but we're positive that either me or Dover is the Avatar."
"When you were in the Spirit World..." she whispered, only loud enough for Sedgley to hear.
He nodded slowly and smiled at her with closed lips; a reassuring smile.
"We're going to Haven. There's so much wrong with the world, we figured we'd need their help in fixing it."
Sheker looked down at the ashes as they were finally blown away by the wind. The sand underneath was a pale beige, yet bright and pure compared to the black of the ash beforehand. Something stirred inside her. These people had killed an animal sacred to her people, yet it was for the Avatar's cause – a cause bigger than her, or her tribe, or any single scorpion-snake.
"The Avatar..." she muttered, in awe, in reverence.
She never thought that in all her life she'd be able to meet such a holy being. The fact that Sedgley, and evidently Dover as well as the rest of them, were sorry and had given their blessings to the passed beast made it all worthwhile. The Avatar had blessed the token of their tribe, and in doing so had blessed the Hebikumo Tribe as well.
"Very well," she said, getting up from the dirt and offering a hand to Erik, having forgiven them, "Thank you for your prayers, the scorpion-snakes of the great sand sea are appeased. Now let me take you back. We'll give you some food, some good luck; I can't very well keep the Avatar from his worldly duties."
She had linked arms with Erik as they began their walk back to the campsite, her gnarly hands clasped around his for support as she shuffled across the sands. Erik was grateful her animosity had subsided, glad that she still reminded him of his mother.
Dover hurried up to Sedgley's side, who was leading the procession.
"What was that?"
Sedgley looked over at him, kind of nervous, "What was what?" He hadn't the faintest clue how he'd break it to Dover that Avatar Lyn had appeared to him in the Spirit World.
"Oh I don't know, the big reveal? We weren't meant to say anything. We don't want anyone finding out about one of us being the Avatar, remember? It's too dangerous."
"I think she needed it." Dover turned to look at Sheker, who was in a contented conversation with Erik, the wrinkles in her face crumpled in happiness and not in sorrow.
"Yeah, I guess..." he sighed, not really caring, before looking at Sedgley and smiling relieved, "I'm really glad you're alright, man. I don't know what I would've done if... you know. I think –"
"– I know," Sedgley interrupted, flashing a smile, "I know."
He flopped his arm around the boy's shoulder and looked forwards, his cheeks relaxing from the smile while the guilty knot in his stomach tensed.
As they made their way back to the Hebikumo Tribe, something like peace of mind settled in the bottom of their guts and the back of their skulls. Everything had worked itself out. Sedgley was alive and well, Sheker had forgiven them and given her blessings, and they were only a few days away from arriving in Haven where they could finally make a concerted effort to do some good. It certainly was a breath of fresh air to feel this weightless, and the chilly, dry mist they inhaled was suitably invigorating.
"God I'm hungry," Anurna stated, filling the silence as they walked along.
Miko growled loudly in agreement.
"Okay, Miko! I get it," she continued, "It's not a competition! You're always –"
She bumped into Sedgley's back.
"Yo, Sedgley, what's u –"
Dover whirled around to face her, "Don't let Sheker –"
Sheker fell to the ground, her recently mended heart yet again torn to pieces.
"Sheker I'm so sorry," Erik spluttered, crouching next to her and trying to support her weary body.
Below them, in plain sight from the dune they were atop, lay the smouldering remains of the Hebikumo Tribe's camp. Tents, or rather limp husks of tents, sat lifeless in the dust, parasitic flames burning anything left they could find in the rubble. A few bloodied men were splayed out in several separate pieces across the scene, their eyes open and filling up with sand.
Sheker was silent. She had done enough grieving lately; there wasn't enough air inside her to bother trying.
"The Clandestines?" Erik muttered, looking away from Sheker.
"No," the old woman responded, apparently having heard them, "It was the Sunanochi Tribe."
Sedgley blinked. He had heard that name before. Yes, the people who poisoned him back in the Maderian forest claimed they were part of the Sunanochi Tribe.
Erik had also heard of them. He thought back to all the fables he had read, and was positive he had heard the name somewhere. He couldn't remember any explicit details, but knew they were bad news. In fact, he knew they were very bad news.
"Suna-no-chi," Anurna sounded out, "That means blood of sand, right?" She didn't much know how to cheer up someone who was grieving. Hell, she didn't even know how to deal with her own grief. Sounding out words seemed kind of relevant.
"Yes," Sheker muttered, "They're brutes. They're the epitome of all that is bad and cruel in the Wasteland. I take it you've heard the stories?"
The kids were all too stunned to nod or say anything.
"Well, half of them are of the Sunanochi Tribe."
She sighed a withered, exhausted sigh as her eyes perused what was once her home.
"Sheker..." Dover mumbled, completely unsure of what was the next step to take, "What... What do we do?"
He was so sick of asking others what to do! It seemed, no matter what the situation was, he always had to ask for someone else's advice. When practicing waterbending he needed Sedgley's affirmation that his stances were correct; he had to have Erik double-check if the food he was buying was in their budget; he even waited for Miko's purring to see if he was scratching in the right place or not. He was meant to be a leader. He was meant to be the Avatar. But how could he be the Avatar if the thought of making a wrong decision scared him more than how much he hated his indecisiveness? The answer was plain and simple; he couldn't. But he'd probably need to check with someone else to be sure...
"I don't know," she said blankly, her eyes counting as many dead bodies as her eyes would let her, "The Sunanochi Tribe only kills those who retaliate. The rest they see if they can sell on the slave market. It looks like most of the tribe were taken captive."
"So, we go get them," Sedgley proposed, like it was the most obvious thing to do.
Anurna snapped her head to him. What? They were meant to stay out of trouble! She snapped her head back to Erik, her black hair madly pirouetting like the tail of an angry fish.
Erik looked down at Sheker. He wished his mother were here to tell him what to do. But now he was the one handing out orders. Even Anurna had just now turned to him for something to say.
"We have to."
Anurna sighed and crossed her arms. She didn't want to upset Sheker, but come on!
"Erik..." Sheker uttered.
"Are you sure?"
"Dover, we have to. They saved our lives, all of them. And it's not like it's some internal dispute we know nothing about. These people captured innocent men and women, helpless children, Yindi. I don't really think we have a choice."
Dover was taken aback. Erik had spoken like a true leader. Hell, maybe he was the Avatar.
Sedgley eyed Dover and wondered how he'd be acting right now if Avatar Lyn had spoken to him in the Spirit World. He could see that the boy doubted himself more and more since the incident in Chan Dai. Plantbending was a well-needed win, but something had clicked, turned off, since their run in with Alphonse. He couldn't pinpoint it, mainly because of his own excitement about seeing Lyn, but Dover had changed.
"Do you want to go give them a proper burial?" Erik asked softly, regarding the men whose body parts were scattered around the campsite.
"How can I?" Sheker responded, "I don't know which arm belongs to which body belongs to which leg."
"Their families –"
"Their families are waiting for us to come get them," she snapped thunderously, heaving her old frame back into standing.
Sedgley clenched his fist.
"Then let's go get them."
Miko grumbled unsurely.
"Anurna, I think you should go over the plan one last time."
Sedgley wanted to make sure he had everything carefully planned out in his head. He had a habit of rushing into things without thinking them through, and it often got him into trouble. This time he'd be ready with a plan, one he could meticulously work through like a shopping list.
Anurna huffed, as walking across the sand in the heat of midday had tired her out, before responding, "Okay, so once we surrender ourselves to the Sunanochi Tribe and infiltrate their camp, we find the Hebikumo people and then get the hell outta here. It could take a night or two to figure out the best way to bust ourselves out, but we stay no longer than two nights."
They were all silent. It wasn't really a methodical plan, and was riddled with variability, but it was all they had.
Dover stared down at the sand as Miko grumbled nervously again. Last time they tried to infiltrate a gang without a plan he had returned with this blasted scar along his belly. It was safe to say he wasn't placing his bets on this being easy.
"Just keep your heads down, kids," Sheker added, "Don't draw attention to yourself, don't get on anyone's bad books, got it?"
Again no one responded, as was beginning to be customary.
Erik's stomach churned when he saw tyre tracks in the sand. It was only a streak – something someone had forgotten to cover up – yet it was a sign that their enemies had been here before, and that he and his friends were getting closer. Sand whipped at his shins and blew away behind him, advising him to follow in the same direction; away.
Up ahead brown sand and grey dust swirled as a sandstorm in the sky, speeding towards them.
"A dust storm," Dover remarked blankly as Anurna pulled up her scarf to cover her mouth.
"To the ground. Now. Huddle together," Sheker commanded gravely, "That's no dust storm..."
The kids followed her orders without question, their throats straining with anticipation. Erik had to try really hard to keep the nightmarish Wasteland stories out of his mind as the dust cloud engulfed them. The wind whirled around their ears, deafening them, and the sand clouded their vision.
Dover tucked his head into his shirt where Miko was taking refuge from the storm. He watched his stomach as with every shallow breath he took his scar quivered. He heard a crunch, of boots against gravel, and looked up.
"We don't want to fight," Anurna snivelled, hamming it up, "Please. We're lost and out of food –"
Anurna yelled out in pain and crumpled to the ground as a man kicked her in the side.
"You'll speak when spoken to."
Sedgley put her hand to hers and helped her over to him. Erik's temples throbbed as he wrapped Sheker tighter in his arms, her face hidden in his chest and under a cloth.
The man, who's face was wrapped in bandages, either to keep his identity hidden or to protect his face from the sand and sun, walked over to Erik, his cronies watching him solemnly from their truck. They continued moving their flat hands in a cylindrical motion, so that the dust storm covered them from detection by possible enemies.
"Now," he spoke with a voice as hoarse as the gravel he strode on, "you kids don't look like you're from around here. You're a little too pale to be from these parts."
Erik didn't dare look up at him.
"We found some bags full of all these nice clothes and things in the tribe we just raided. Really pretty stuff. Some maps, jewellery, a fancy GPS, waterbending scrolls." He huffed, "Any of that ring a bell?"
Habitually, no one responded.
The man rushed down to Dover, grabbed him by the jaws and turned his face to his.
"I said you'll speak when spoken to and I just spoke to you!" he paused, inspecting the boy's sapphire eyes, "Now, I'll ask you again. Does that stuff belong to you?"
Dover parted his lips, "Yes."
The man threw Dover's face away like a used tissue and turned and faced Sheker, slowly pulling down the cloth covering her face.
"Ah. And you, my friend, where do you fit into all this? I assume you're from the tribe we raided, the Hebikumo Tribe; come to save your people? So, am I right?"
Sheker's eyes watered with fear and rage. She was too old for the Wasteland. She was too old and the children, like her once, who were unlucky enough to be born into this hellhole, were far too young.
The man continued, "Whatever, we'll see. So now that we know a little more about each other, we can finally get to the business of why you're here; so far away from another camp, and so close to ours. You're not planning anything stupid are you?"
As everyone's minds had frozen, Anurna's ran wild with possible answers. Her travels across the globe had forced her to create many alibis, and she had become quite adept at deciphering which story left her with the least amount of holes, with the most leverage.
"May I speak?" she asked cockily, fearlessly.
"Careful girl," the man grumbled, "Tongue like that won't keep you alive here."
"Oh gosh I'm so sorry. I didn't mean anything by it, I swear," she rebutted politely, taking the road of naivety, hoping it would be enough to get him off their trail, "We have no idea what you're talking about. My friends and I were passing through the Wasteland and found her passed out in the desert. We've been travelling with her ever since. People saying they were from the Hebikumo Tribe stole our bags the other night and that stuff you mentioned. Please, we don't want to upset you. We just want some water and to get on our way."
She swallowed, ending her spiel, hoping she hadn't stepped on her own feet, even in the slightest. Everyone else went over the story in their heads as well, praying they wouldn't find any faults.
Sheker placed her hand on her arm, scratching it.
"Really? Then how come this old bird has the Hebikumo totem on her sleeve?"
Their eyes flicked to Sheker, who had tried to cover up the embroidered scorpion-snake with her scratching hand, then flicked back to the man.
Anurna's eyes were wide open, before she swiftly turned to Sheker.
"Well you did not tell us you were from the Hebikumo Tribe you dirty liar! How dare you!" she yelled, before shooting a nervous smile to her enemies.
"That's it girl, you've been sprung!"
The man snatched Anurna by the wrist and pulled her towards the truck. She lifted up her leg and spun a blazing kick around to freedom as Miko screeched from inside Dover's shirt, tearing out from one of his sleeves to scratch and bite at the man's head. A gunshot went off.
"Look out," Erik yelled through the commotion, as a whip of sand shot past him and nailed Anurna to the ground.
The man grabbed Sheker by the neck and lifted her into the air, pulling out a knife.
"I'm the Avatar!" Sedgley yelled.
Silence, as the sand cloud dropped to the ground. Five other trucks had surrounded them.
Sheker was released, and landed in a crumpled heap of bones, though no one dared move over to help her.
Sedgley's heart was fluttering. It felt so great to say that phrase out loud, but the repercussions of what he had said scared him more than he could stay happy for. Sheker was spared for now, and they'd definitely be detained in the Sunanochi Tribe's camp like they'd wanted but then what? Who would these people contact?
All of his friends, except Sheker who was muttering incoherently and watching the sands, stared at him, their eyebrows twitching with what would eventually be a scolding.
How could he have done that? Dover thought, First of all, we don't know that for sure and secondly, does he know how much danger he just put us in?
"You're the Avatar?" the man asked faithlessly, "Kid, how do I know the Avatar is not locked up in some prison and you're just pulling my chain?"
"I'm a seventeen year old waterbender," he explained, almost pleading, "I could be the Avatar. There're a lot of people who'd love to find out if I am, they'd pay a lot of money."
"Kid's right Kahn," a deep-voiced woman exclaimed from one of the trucks, "Give him to someone with Inducers and we could make a lotta cash for the boss. That means a lotta good stuff for us."
Anurna was breathing heavily from the scuffle and the stress. It seemed Sedgley was good at bargaining his way out of trouble too, yet he played his cards a bit riskier than she preferred. If she had her way, everything would be planned to the second. That's how she did things. But flexibility was also her forte, and she could roll with this punch.
"We surrender, peacefully," she added, her eyes darting between each of the trucks.
Kahn noiselessly weighed up his options, his bulky frame heaving with the stress of the decision.
"Fine," he barked, "Silva, chain them up."
The deep-voiced woman got up from her crouch in the back of the ute and slid her bent arms through the air. Metal chains and shackles flowed like water and wrapped around their wrists and ankles. She bent her legs slightly, weighing herself down, and pulled her elbows towards her waist, causing the shackles to tug just enough to start them walking towards and into the back of the car. Kahn lumbered back into the front seat, stiffly moved the grunting gear into place and drove back to camp.
Anurna looked at her allies. They looked shaken up and unsure, even Sedgley. And frankly, so did she.
Silva yanked at their chains.
Miko nattered nervously from inside the metal cage they had put him in. He hadn't been confined for a very long time. It agitated him, as no animal felt completely at home when imprisoned.
"Tell your mouse thing to shut up," an unshaven man ordered, "Else he won't sell well on the market and we'll have to cook him."
He didn't expect a response, so he wasn't upset when no one said anything as he carried the squirrel-glider over to where the other animals were held. Anurna kept her head down and her sight fixed on the direction they were taking Miko. She wasn't leaving this place without him.
The camp seemed empty. Trucks and four-wheeled drives sat dormant at the front of the camp, while the large, metal storage boxes dotted the yard. At the back of the camp were three-story structures which the kids could only assume were their prison cells; mosaic buildings pieced together with mud, bricks and corrugated iron. Another barbed wire fence, identical to the one surrounding the whole site, separated the prisoners from the gang members, where more permanent housing was being used.
Silva and some other gang members led the kids and Sheker through the yard towards their cells. A large hand landed on Sedgley's shoulder and pulled him out of the line.
"Not so fast, Avatar," Kahn grumbled, "We gotta take you someplace special."
Sedgley peered over his shoulder and widened his eyes at Erik. It was the sort of look that said, Well this makes things difficult. See you later, hurry.
Erik blinked and his lips pouted ever so slightly, thoughts and plans rushing through his brain like cars on a highway.
"Eyes forward," a hoarse voice commanded from somewhere nearby.
Erik complied immediately. He knew they were taking Sedgley past the fence and into their own lodgings to hold him. As soon as he'd see the door close behind Sedgley's back, Erik wouldn't be able to figure anything else out so there was no real point in looking. Still, Sedgley was like a brother to him and it was instinct to just look. Plus, he had only just woken up from his battle with the poison, and Erik hadn't gotten the chance to tell him how relieved he was that he was alright.
They passed a large metal box. It was rusted and had a few cracks in it. Spray-painted on the sides in red paint were faces of angry boars and vicious dogs. They could hear whimpering petering from inside.
Passing it, Dover saw a flash of green through a break in the metal. A scared child, eyes crusty with grime and tears, was staring out the crack, praying for salvation or dreading cruelty. Dover snapped his gaze back to the ground as his stomach tensed, his scar tightening. His heart flipped over in a painful surge of fear and sadness. This was the Wasteland he had heard of. This was what he was up against.
"Alright," started Silva, taking off her sunglasses as she stepped into the shade of the makeshift prison, "This is where you'll be staying. Each cell has its own camera, so don't try anything dumb. In."
She held a metal door open and moved her head at Erik. He shuffled inside. Dover went to follow.
"Uh, uh, uh," the guard tutted, "You're next door."
Dover went into his cell, where another man was covered in blankets and lay with his face to the wall.
"Dead? Not yet," Silva locked the door and span around, "Ladies, follow me now. You two get to share a cell with Lee. He's a writer I think; good with words and stories. Guess you'll have something to pass the time until any buyers come along..."
Silva's deep-voiced ramblings trailed off as she led Anurna and Sheker upstairs and around a corner.
Erik huffed as he looked at his cell. It was dirty and uneven, and there were signs that someone else lived here, if one could even call it living. One of the beds was made while the other had the blanket all screwed up. He couldn't tell if the bed belonging to his cellmate was the unkempt one, the blanket tossed aside after waking up, or the tidy one, as he assumed the Sunanochi Tribe wouldn't provide new prisoners with a pre-made bed. Still, it was a sign he shared this room with someone. A murderer, a barbarian or someone just like him?
He sat down on the tidy bed, suddenly realising the futility of the questions he was asking himself. Beds and cellmates didn't matter. Where was Sedgley? Where were Anurna and Sheker, and Yindi? How were they going to get out of this place?
"Dover," Erik croaked, "What do we do?"
Dover had sat down too. He looked up at Erik with a blank face.
"What do we do without Anurna," Erik continued, "We need her to come up with a plan!"
"I know," Dover responded, his voice breaking as his eyes tingled and he screwed up his face, "I don't know what we're gonna do...!" "Dover...!" Erik sighed, looking for an answer.
"What?" the boy snapped.
Erik looked him in the eye and saw something no friend should ever have to see in another friend's eyes. Dover was lost, or broken or terrified. But that wasn't completely it. He wasn't entirely lost, or broken or terrified yet. Rather, he was on the brink of falling into these pits, his toes hung over the edges and he was staring down into the darkness. That was to say, Dover was fully aware of just how close he was to falling in, and there seemed no way to step back and save himself. Any sudden movement and he'd fall. And, the bags under his eyes, the tension in his jaw, told Erik that Dover wasn't up for a big show of courage. And neither was he.
"I don't know..."
The two were silent for a while, not even contemplating their next step but going over how they got into this mess. Destiny has a strange way of throwing someone completely off course.
"We have to talk to Anurna or Sedgley some way," Dover blurted.
Apparently he had been thinking of what to do.
He noticed the security camera in the corner of the ceiling and went and leant his back against the bars separating him and Erik. Erik followed, and then Dover began whispering.
"They'd have to let us out of our cells sometime. When that happens, we find Anurna and Sheker, maybe the others, and we start coming up with something."
Erik was silent. There was nothing more he could add.
"We can do this Erik. Look at me."
Erik turned his head and saw that Dover and spun around to face him.
"We can do this. Look at what we've done so far. We're different than when we were at Redwall, we've changed. Your mum would be proud."
Erik's eyes averted Dover's gaze for a second, then flicked back as he offered a weak smile, "She would."
"She should be."
And Erik knew she'd be proud. Dover had surprised him, and in a good way. He was persevering. She'd definitely be proud of him.
Dover's words echoed in Erik's prominent ears.
We can do this.
What lay ahead would be like nothing they had ever done before. It would be tough as hell, but they could do it.
They had to.
A pygmy ostrich-horse screeched as the cage it was in was picked up and placed on a table. It thrashed about in what little room it had to move in, sending soiled newspaper flying. A fist bashed the top of the cage, shutting up the distraught bird.
"Uh-huh," a bald man in his forties confirmed, "Yeah, it's in great shape. Yep, four fifty. Okay. Okay, see you in a few days then. Alright. Okay, bye now."
He put the phone down and bent to look into the bird's cage.
"Well don't you just love to screech ya dumb bird? Stupid thing."
He turned and walked over to the other cages. A platypus-bear sat hopelessly in one cage, staring ahead and whining slightly with each exhale, while a litter of possum-hounds that were once yapping, begging for food, were now cowering at the back of their cage due to the proximity of the man.
Miko's cage sat atop the platypus-bear's. He was still and surveyed the dark room. The iron shed had no windows, only small slits that let in disorienting lines of hot light. Forlorn creatures packed uncomfortably into crates and cages lined the walls, some pacing or spinning in discomfort, while the more agitated ones made noises that agitated the other agitated animals even more so. It was a filthy, sad sight.
He thought of his pack, and wondered if they'd come and get him. Surely they would, right? They liked him enough, didn't they?
The man pulled a key out of his pocket, unlocked the bird's cage and picked up the hysterical thing.
"Put a sock in it!" he yelled as he shoved it into a wooden crate.
The crate shook as the distressed creature squawked and bashed at the sides, hoping the wood, that was softer than the metal, would give way to freedom.
The man walked over to the cage of possum-hounds, and transferred a few of them to the cage that once held the pygmy ostrich-horse.
Miko watched the man move the whole time, until he went into another room. His survival instincts were kicking in. His little brain was formulating a plan. Freedom was something he wanted, and all he had to do was work through his obstacles to get there. Some say humans are the smartest creatures, or the only ones capable of complex thought yet, while humans continued to assume that, Miko had realised that the man had used the same key for two different cages. This meant that the same key could most likely be used to unlock his prison as well.
The freedom puzzle had many pieces but, fortunately for him, Miko had just found a corner piece and was one step closer to completion.
A guard slid a dirty tray of beans and bread under the barred door, an unpleasant start to an unwelcome new day. Dover looked over at his cellmate; he was still 'sleeping' and hadn't made a sound all night. Nevertheless, Dover left him some of the food, thinking it best not to accidentally make an enemy in this place.
Shortly after their meal the guard returned, blowing a whistle and unlocking their doors.
"One hour of fresh-air starts now newbies," he grunted, tired from having kept watch all night, "Any funny business and you get put in the box, any more and you'll have Kahn to deal with. Got it?"
He paused before unlocking Erik's cell.
"I said got it?"
Erik eyed the gun at the guard's waist and nodded fast, "Yes."
The metal door squeaked open and Erik joined Dover and the other prisoners in the hallway.
The guard leant in to Erik, and spoke so only he could hear, "Sit at the tables on the West court if the Sun gets too hot. Heat-stroke's a killer here."
The guard smiled, before straightening up and walking down the hallway to direct more prisoners. He was young, Erik had noticed, perhaps early twenties. The man craved respect in the cruel tribe he was born into, yet knew there was much more out there in the world. He had a way of life though; he had to stick by his tribe. But even just a moment of kindness enacted onto a stranger made him feel different and far away from this place.
Erik walked onwards. He had people to meet, plans to make.
The Sun shone down into the boy's faces as they exited the prison building, and their eyes shrivelled at the light like a dying spider. Dover pulled Erik out of the way of the other shuffling prisoners, and they waited by the door for Anurna.
One last man meandered out the doorway before it was locked up and the boys were shooed away.
Erik led Dover to the Western court, shaded from the rising Sun in the East.
"Erik, Anurna's not here."
They all needed to be present, so they could all be on the same page about what to do about the Hebikumo Tribe. Dover's mind was racing as he sat on the wooden picnic table. Maybe the Sunanochi Tribe knew they were planning a breakout and had separated them purposefully. In reality, they staggered the time that prisoners in each floor got for fresh air, so that the yards didn't get too crowded.
"Should we keep waiting?" Erik asked, after about ten minutes of silence.
"They need to know the plan, Erik. We can't do this on our own."
Erik knew that. "Well how about we come up with some points? Let's brainstorm here."
Dover huffed, almost laughing, "You do love to brainstorm Erik."
Erik played alone with the faux-joviality, "Hey, I'm a brain-hurricane over here."
Dover let out a small chuckle, and Erik's heart fluttered knowing he had done something to cheer his friend up even a little bit.
"Alright then," Dover sighed, "well, we know they have our packs. We're gonna have to get them sometime."
Erik hadn't thought of that amongst everything else whirring around in his head (he was a brain-hurricane after all), "I guess so, yeah. But Sedgley's our priority, then Anurna, then Sheker and her tribe, then the packs."
"And Miko?" Dover snapped, reminding Erik that his favourite animal on the planet was captive too.
"Right. Sedgley, Anurna, Hebikumo Tribe –"
"– Hebikumo Tribe? No, it goes; Sedgley, Anurna, Miko, Hebikumo Tribe."
Erik leant back slightly, "Dover, he's just –"
"– He's one of us now, Erik. I thought you got that."
"I do, I just –"
"– Erik," Dover stared straight at him, unwavering, "We lose no one."
Erik's mouth hung open, before biting his chapped lips and licking them, "That I can agree on."
For a second there he thought he had seen the Avatar in Dover. The boy's river blue eyes ran with a ferocious passion for his friends' wellbeing, and it had shocked him. Erik had to snap himself out of it before continuing the discussion.
"We're going to have to take one of those cars as well."
"The son of a nun resort to stealing?"
They boy's turned their heads and saw Anurna standing, hip bent as usual, with Sheker and another prisoner.
"Now there's something you don't see everyday."
"Anurna" Erik rejoiced, "and Sheker, you're alright!"
"We're fine," the woman confirmed, clasping her bony claws around Erik's fingers, "Boy's, this is Lee, our cellmate."
Sheker pulled the man into the group, smiling at him. Erik admired how easily Sheker let people into her life; how much she cared. Lee's face was youthful, but had been withered by the sun and having spent so much time at the prison. He had striking blue eyes and bushy mop of curly, orange hair.
"I've seen you before," Dover blurted, almost without realising.
Everyone looked at him, Lee's eyebrows furrowing in confusion.
Dover recognised him somehow, as though they had met in a faded dream. He was sure he had seen the man before; the shaggy vermillion hair was too vivid not to remember. Then suddenly, like a cold drop of water landing on his forehead, he remembered.
"I saw you in Chan Dai."
Erik and Anurna were taken aback, the former vigorously cleaning his ear with his pinkie finger.
Dover continued, "Yeah. You were a prisoner there, strapped to a table or something."
"That's impossible..." Erik muttered.
"No, that was my brother."
Lee had sat down next to Sheker on the edge of the bench. His blue eyes, hanging on over drooping, grey bags, swirled with something sombre. Dover's insides began solidifying with what he knew would soon be bad news.
Lee sighed, and began in the story of his brother "A month or two ago my twin brother Yong, the man you saw in Chan Dai, tried to start an uprising here. He was sick of being held captive, and wanted to rally everyone else together to regain their freedom."
Lee spoke softly and precisely, like a poet, "No one believed in him though. Not even me... When the leader of the Sunanochi Tribe came for an inspection, Yong thought that killing the leader might make the other prisoners join him, or the rest of the tribe give up. I don't know what he was thinking. Anyway, he tried. He went to stab him but he wasn't fast enough. They captured him in front of everyone, humiliated him in front of everyone, and then took him away. I never saw him again. My own brother, and I did..."
Sheker rubbed his back as his gaze slipped to the ground.
"You said he was alive, though?" Lee asked, hopeful.
"We shouldn't of come here," Dover stammered insensitively with his head in his hands, his chestnut hair jutting through his fingers.
"Dover!" Erik reprimanded.
"We shouldn't have come here, Erik! You heard him," Dover continued frantically, throwing his hand at Lee, "They took his brother to Chan Dai, to the Bloody Knuckles. They... what if they show up?"
"We'll kill 'em," Anurna answered, blunt as a spoon, "Simple as that."
She saw in Dover's eyes that he was slipping. He was letting fear get the best of him. She didn't know what happened that night in Chan Dai; she and Erik had arrived late, and Dover and Sedgley avoided talking about it. But she knew when a person was about to crack. She hoped that by bluntly volunteering to defend him to the death he would keep a more level head.
Erik stirred, "I don't think that's –"
Anurna snapped her head to face him, her eyes telling the boy to shut up, "Simple. As. That. Okay?" She turned back to Dover. "We got this Dover. We got your back."
Dover was looking at the ground like Lee was, then looked up at Anurna before avoiding eye contact, "Thanks... And, yeah, Lee, he was still alive."
"He was?" Lee eyes welled up as he excitedly leant forward.
"Barely, but yes."
For weeks, guilt, like some noxious fungus, had been slowly decaying Lee's spirit. They were brothers for gods' sake, yet he didn't even stand by Yong when he needed him most. He thought that Yong's death was his fault; that if he had helped his brother those weeks ago then maybe they'd be free men. Yong was not dead though, and he felt hope – or what he thought was hope, the feeling was so foreign to him – blossom like a flower in the Spring, shaking off Winter's dew drops and unfurl. It was refreshing.
"I've got to get out of here," Lee said, hope encouraging him to do what he should've done a long time ago, "When you free the others, you've got to take me with you."
"About that," Erik started, "How are we going to break everyone out? It's not like there's just a few of us; we're talking a whole tribe here."
"Fifty three people exactly," Sheker stated, "Well, minus those that..."
Erik placed his hand on her back as she clutched her heart in grief, remembering those bodies still lying back at their campsite.
"We'll need a distraction, a riot of some kind maybe," Dover thought aloud.
"It won't happen," Lee informed them, massaging his bushy mop with his fingers, "The people here are too broken. They all saw Yong get taken away. To them, a riot will only end in punishment."
"You're right, it would," Dover was thinking hard, trying to keep the thought of Alphonse or Miss Zaida from creeping back into his head, "We can't leave thanks to their suffering. We need to find a way to help them all."
"Or we leave them out of it altogether," Anurna brainstormed, "Just deal with our fifty."
"Fifty three," the old lady croaked.
"Oh, fifty three."
"Whatever," Anurna continued, "If we convince fifty three people to join us, that makes fifty nine of us. I think fifty nine people can take this place."
"There are children, though, and elderly..."
"Yeah, but we have the Avatar."
Dover looked blankly towards the building where Silva had taken Sedgley. He hadn't been allowed his time outside, supposedly because of his importance as a bounty, and as such was unaware of the plan they were concocting.
"We have hope now," Lee added, a twitching smile fading into his features.
Hope. That word, and the meaning behind it, was only apparent to Dover now. Hope was finally in their arsenal; a secret weapon of inspiration and perseverance. Their whole journey had been founded on hope. Hope for a better world; hope to better themselves. They had had it from the beginning, but it was only on that sunburnt picnic table that Dover realised its power.
"We could tell the other prisoners," he blurted, interrupting the others' conversation.
"Yeah! Tell them... wait, what?" Erik pushed his glasses up his nose.
"We should tell them that the Avatar is here. You know," he turned to Lee, "give them hope."
"It's powerful thing," Lee confirmed.
"Exactly. If we spread the word that the Avatar is here, and he needs their help, maybe we can start an uprising and free everyone. Come on, what do you say?"
Anurna looked unimpressed. She thought the less people involved the better and easier it would be. But then again, what's the difference between fifty-nine and two hundred and fifty-nine in a jailbreak?
"It could work."
"I think it's a good idea," Erik said, looking his friend proudly in the eyes.
Dover needed a win. And his plan wasn't half bad.
Anurna smiled. Her friends were getting better at this, and she had been the one to teach them. She stood up and, like always, placed her hand on her bent hip.
"Well then, let's get a move on. Lee, how much more time do we have out here?"
"A half hour or so?"
"We better hurry then. Lee, Dover, Erik and I will take a corner of the yard each and work our way from there. Sheker, you find your tribe. Give them the rundown and tell them to spread the word too. The more mouths we have the better."
She went to head over to the Eastern corner of the yard before stopping and turning back to them.
"Oh and guys, don't let any of the guards hear you. If anything gets traced back to us... I don't know what'll happen but it won't be good. Got it?"
Erik nodded, going over the plan again in his mind.
They each dispersed into the courtyard, silently weaving through inmates and swallowing back heavy lumps in their throats.
People seemed genuinely revived, if even just a little bit, by the presence of the Avatar. Some prisoners reluctantly denied the rumours Dover and the others were spreading, but there was more often than not a tell-tale glimmer behind their eyes that some part of them wanted the claims to hold true. Dover knew of that gleam. It was hope – something that hadn't pumped through these peoples' hearts in years. And the more the rumours spread, the more hope began to take hold and grow.
Dover only hoped that, while the prisoners reacquainted themselves with newfound hope, Sedgley wasn't losing all of his.
"Look alive Donnie, Kahn's coming this way!"
Donnie clumsily jumped up from the crate he was sitting on and stood up straight.
The other man, Lu Gong, knocked on the door of Sedgley's cell and sneered through the small window.
"Brace yourself schmuck. When our boss finds out what you did to our plants, you'll have hell to pay."
Donnie craned his thick neck around to look at their chained up prisoner.
"How did the poison not kill him Lu Gong?"
"I don't know, Don. I heard he was the Avatar. Poison immunity must be one of those Avatary perks you hear about. Stuff like super strength, breathing underwater, better luck with the ladies I hear –"
"What are you knuckleheads blabbering about?"
Silva, who was accompanying Kahn, stared at the two with her arms tensely crossed and her temples throbbing.
"Well," Donnie stammered, his bottom lip sticking out, "we were just talking about how cool it wou–"
"Don't tell me what you're talking about!"
"Sorry Silva!" Lu Gong quickly snivelled, grabbing her hands in his sweaty ones and shaking them vigorously, "It was just a joke, get it? You know... Right? All fun and games until someone starts crying!"
Silva stared at him gravely.
"Do you want to start crying?"
"Donnie shush! Okay, ma'am, we'll just go ahead and leave now!"
Lu Gong's words trailed off into feeble murmurs as he carted a confused Donnie away down the hallway and around a corner. As much as he wanted the boss' recognition, there was no coming back from a berating from Silva.
The stern woman sighed and faced her boss.
"Those two, Kahn..."
"Leave them, Silva," he grumbled, unlocking the door and walking through, "We have more important people to deal with."
The sound of the man's heavy boots striking the ground woke Sedgley up. He was kneeling on the ground, with his arms chained above him and his legs to sturdy bolts on the ground. Kahn stared down at him as Silva inspected his chains and made sure they were tight.
"He's secure," Silva confirmed.
"You sure you're the Avatar?"
"We have to know, kid," Silva explained, "Else we're the ones who have to pay."
Sedgley looked at Kahn. There was something in his eyes that was different to his accomplice's. Silva needed to know so that she could secure her cash prize, while Kahn needed to know for another reason.
"I saw Avatar Lyn in the Spirit World. I'm a waterbender; I'm the right age. It could be a coincidence but I can just feel it. I know I'm the Avatar."
Silva looked at her boss.
"I can feel it too," he said to Sedgley.
Silva walked away towards the door, pulling out a phone from her pocket. She dialled some numbers and waited as Kahn knelt down next to Sedgley.
"You better be the Avatar, kid," he sounded almost angry, "We've waited a long time for something like this to come our way."
Sedgley wasn't paying attention. He was too busy listening to Silva as she spoke to who would soon have him in their hands.
"Yeah, we're almost one-hundred percent sure," she muttered softly, "Tell Alphonse to come here immediately. Ok, bye."
She slid the device shut and stepped through the doorframe. Sedgley's heart had more or less stopped. Alphonse was coming.
"They'll be here soon, Kahn. Let's go, we should deal with those buffoons from before."
He had only escaped Alphonse's clutches by a hair last time. How was he going to do it again?
"You do it Silva," he ordered, before turning to face her, "I wanna teach this punk a lesson for messing with the picking operation."
Silva huffed amusedly, "Right, good idea. See you boss."
"Close the door, will you?"
The metal door slammed shut, blocking out the majority of the light that it let in when it was open. Kahn breathed out through his nose as he examined his prisoner. Sedgley stared back, panting with the thought of Alphonse heading his way.
"The Avatar," the man stammered, his voice croaking like a frog in awe.
Sedgley relaxed a bit.
Kahn looked behind him, then went and loosened Sedgley's chains.
"That should make you more comfortable," he whispered, before turning his head ever so slightly upwards and talking louder, "Hope you like your chains tight, you dirty punk!"
Sedgley's eyebrows furrowed, "Wha–"
Kahn slapped him in the face then whispered just as before.
"Listen to me closely, kid. I wanna help you. Just you wait, Avatar! I've been waiting a long time for something good to happen. You're the Avatar, the answer. You'll get what's coming for you when the boss arrives! I can't let you out right now; there're too many cameras. But later, I promise. I'll stall them. For now though, enjoy rotting in this prison cell! I'll see you soon. Stay strong, young Avatar."
Kahn smiled softly before looking down concerned and then kneeing Sedgley in the stomach. He strode out of the cell and locked the door behind him.
Sedgley coughed and wheezed. Kahn had restrained the force of the blow, yet the boy was still left winded. It didn't matter though. Sedgley had an ally. Amongst being split up from his friends and Alphonse returning, it was good to have someone like Kahn help him out. It was good that someone still had faith in the Avatar.
It was this feeling he liked; the feeling that someone relied on him to improve circumstances, to bring peace, to make their lives better. It was what the Avatar was meant to do, and he was already feeling it. It made the fact that Alphonse was on his way marginally less daunting.
"Up," a woman's voice spoke somewhat sympathetically, "There we go, into your cell. Now don't act up again or we'll have to put you in the box again. Behave if you want to survive."
Erik kept his eyes closed. His cellmate had just returned, and they had obviously started trouble. Hopefully they wouldn't start any in here.
"Inmate," the woman spoke more sternly, forcing hoarseness into her throat, "Get off her bed." She strode away, her boots clicking on the hard earthen floor and preventing sleep.
Erik gulped. So this bed, the tidy one that he had chosen when they first arrived, did belong to someone. And he was sleeping in it.
"Erik?" a soft voice prodded, "Erik, is that you?"
"Well, well, well," he could hear Dover say from the other cell, "if it isn't the ruler of the sands!"
"Erik! You're in Princess Yindi's bed!"
The little girl ran over to him and leapt onto his stomach, wriggling around in ecstatic relief that her friends had come to save her.
"The punishment is... a hundred years tickling!"
She wiggled her grimy fingers into his ribs, giggling and gurgling, happy snot accidentally bursting from her nose and then being snorted back up.
Erik pulled her into a hug, squeezing a tear out of the little girl's big eyes.
"Yindi, I'm so glad your safe."
Yindi got off the bed and hustled over to the bars, where she grabbed Dover's hand and clutched it tight with a smile.
"You guys have come to save us right?"
Dover and Erik looked at each other. Erik hopped off the bed as well and took a knee next to Yindi, forming a huddle.
"Yindi, yes, we're here to help," the little girl's eyes welled up as she clenched her lips together, "but we're going to need you to help us too."
"I don't wanna get in trouble again," the water that had welled up overflowed down her grimy cheek as she remembered something, "I don't want them to put me in the box. I hate it there."
"What's the box Yindi?" Dover asked tentatively, giving her hand another gentle squeeze.
"It's the place they put people who misbehave. It's made outta metal and gets so hot, you have to dance so your feet don't get burned. But..." she sniffed, her voice quivering, "when you get tired..."
She started quietly sobbing, as she put a hand to Erik's shoulder and showed them the sole of her foot. The flesh had been seared. Skin had peeled open like a pea pod around her tender wound, and bits of gravel and dust had been embedded into the sore.
"Oh my god..." Erik muttered, speechless and unable to fathom how people could put a child, a sweet and wholly innocent child, through that. It was simple; people couldn't. The Sunanochi Tribe were not people.
As Dover looked at the girl's burnt foot, he wished Sedgley were here with his healing powers to give her some relief.
"It's okay, Yindi," he cooed, "We're here now. Go, sit on the bed. Are there any others in the box?"
She sniffed back the last of her tears, "I don't think so. There were lots, but less now. I... I think Daku and some others might still be in there actually..."
Dover looked at Erik, who still had his eyes on Yindi's feet.
"Erik," Dover raised an eyebrow at him when he looked up, "We have to get them before we leave now."
"We're leaving? We're leaving! We're leaving!" she excitedly bounced up and down on her bottom.
Erik rushed over and shushed her, "Yes, Yindi, we're leaving. Just don't be so loud about it."
His head gestured to the camera with the type of subtlety that would make Anurna proud. Yindi widened her eyes apologetically, communicating that she understood.
"You're not going to leave," a weak voice stated from behind Dover.
They turned their heads and look at the man who, for as long as they had been imprisoned, had laid motionlessly on the other bed in Dover's cell. He was old and had aged terribly. His face was more wrinkled than Sheker's, likely due to the Sun and sorrow he endured, and the skin under his eyes sagged so much it looked like it was about to fall off. His grey beard was long and dirty, in line with his hair, and his grey eyes were glassy with age. Despite his depleted body, he seemed to emanate sagacity and a will to live, even if it meant giving up hope of freedom.
"Wait," Erik stammered, mentally filing through the cabinets of knowledge stored in his brain, "I know you."
"And I know you," he replied, "You're one of countless other hopefuls who believe that freedom is tangible here. I've spent most of my life studying these people so don't find out the hard way; it isn't."
The old man seemed stubborn and fixed in his ways.
"No, I know who you are."
The old man's gaze reduced in animosity.
"What are talking about Erik?"
Then, as though a light bulb had suddenly turned on over his head, Erik blurted out, "You're Professor Zei! The anthropologist from Ba Sing Se who travelled here with Professor Chan. I've read about you."
"You... you know me, child?"
Zei's jaw relaxed and his shoulders lowered, revealing a slight hunch of an beaten-down man.
"Yes, you've been lost here for almost thirty-three years."
"Thirty-three years tomorrow..." he sighed.
With the outward blow of his breath, all the dust in his cell blew away, revealing thousands of scratch marks across each and every surface, one for every day, some overlapping each other; there were just so many.
"You're an airbender..." Dover remarked, his breath taken away.
"That's irrelevant," he barked, "There's no use bending or fighting back, they'll only break you."
"Well have you even tried?"
"No. But I don't need to. I've been through five different tribes since I was captured – each of them worse than the last – and I've seen just how cruel they can be. I once saw a woman buried so that just her head was above the ground, unable to escape the heat of the Sun, just because she defended her family. I'm telling you; if you try, you'll fail."
The kids were silent. Their morale had been stamped out. After all, what they were hearing was from someone who had spent half their life as a prisoner in the Wasteland.
"Well..." Dover looked at the camera, he was unsure if he should speak.
"Spit it out boy, the camera's are just for show!"
"Well we have the Avatar!"
Zei's eyes widened and blinked in shock and Yindi straightened her back. One of them was the Avatar! It was riveting, plus her mother had always told her to straighten her back around important people.
She tugged at Erik's sleeve, "Erik, you're the Avatar?"
"No," he whispered, "But Sedgley is."
Or Dover, he thought to himself; the only reason he didn't tell her that was to keep her spirits high. If she knew that they still didn't know who the Avatar was, well, it wouldn't exactly be the most promising causes to rally behind.
"The Avatar..." Zei stammered, before returning to stubbornness, "I don't believe it."
"Believe it or not, we're getting out of here," Dover retorted, suddenly determined, "You can join us if you like, or you can spend another thirty three years here. Just don't you dare bring us down."
He stared the old man down, blinking only to alleviate the sting of the sweat that dripped from his brown ringlets into his eyes.
"Good luck," Zei said as he lay back down and faced the wall, as they had found him, "You'll need it."
Dover rolled his eyes and shuffled closer to Erik's cell.
"Don't listen to him, Yindi. We'll be fine."
"We'll be fine," Yindi repeated unsurely, shaking her feet and looking at them in that cute way that kids do.
We'll be fine, Dover repeated to himself, saying it over and over again in his mind until he finally fell asleep, and repeating it further into his dreams.
We'll be fine...
Miko nattered in anticipation. He was hungry and thirsty, but another necessity was his main concern; freedom.
The gears in his small brain had been turning, winding up, getting ready to chime. He had to prove himself. After all, he was Anurna's pet; he was no ordinary squirrel-glider. It was time.
He let out a loud screech, making sure the noise continued as the last of his breath escaped, wheezing into nothing, and fell over onto his back.
The man came rushing in, Miko noticed before shutting his eyes completely.
"What the...?" he walked over to Miko's cage, "Oh, damn it, another one's kicked it."
He took the keychain from his belt and unlocked the door. Miko's heart was beating, coursing adrenalin through his veins. The man opened the door and reached in.
Miko screeched as loud as he could and scurried out up the man's arm and onto his shoulder. The man grunted in confusion before letting out a pained howl as Miko bit into his ear.
The other animals looked up, some of the possum-hound pups tilting their head in curiosity.
"You tricksy little...!"
Miko clambered down the man's other arm and bit his fingers. They keychain fell to the floor. He jumped down and grabbed it.
"Get back here!"
The man lunged down, hitting his head on the cage of the pygmy ostrich-horse. The wooden crate fell to the ground and the bird escaped, shrieking in delight. It pecked at the man's foot in revenge before scuttling under a table to dodge his foot.
Miko flew over to the platypus bear. It looked at him with its deep brown eyes. It had seen a lot in its life. A lot of grief. They exchanged something, not a look or a nod. Something like a gentle electric current of feelings passed between them. Miko wriggled his nose, let out a single squeak and unlocked the creature's cage, before flying over to the possum-hounds and letting them out too.
"Oh no you do–"
The man's words trailed off as the platypus bear lumbered towards him, stretching its shoulders and standing up tall and proud, grumbling and breathing through its nostrils as though regaining energy.
The man looked to the gun on the table and went to grab it but the pygmy ostrich-horse leapt onto the table-top, picked it up with its beak and jumped away. The man shot his glance back to the platypus bear, possum-hounds bounding beside him and a juvenile Molipede scuttling across the wall behind it. He went to say something, yet the hefty paw of the bear landed into his stomach. From the outside of the shed, a dent, roughly in the shape of a callous, middle-aged man, suddenly protruded from the metal wall.
Miko had unlocked all the cages and made circles in the air above the other animals, screeching defiantly. The platypus bear knocked the door down with a single sturdy swipe, and the creatures burst from the doorway. They quickly observed their surroundings, inhaling the hot breeze and shivering in the tingle of moonlight, before running over to the fence, Miko leading the stampede.
A young guard on patrol, never expecting to see something like this in his wildest dreams, stood awe-struck as the creatures ran past. Slamming his foot into the ground, he armed himself with a boulder but fell to the ground as a bullet landed in his leg. The ostrich horse squawked in shock, spitting the gun from its beak, unaware of what it had done.
An anteater-sloth slashed the fence with its foot-long claws and the platypus bear held the mesh open for the others to pass through, as a winged lemur and other flying creature flew over the fence.
The animals, now free, all stopped once outside the Sunanochi compound. Miko landed in front of them, keychain in hand. The possum-hounds came up, sniffed his nose and licked him on the cheek. He stared at them for a second. Maybe these mistreated creatures were his pack. He nattered quietly, and the platypus bear growled thankfully.
The animals passed him, thanking him in various ways. The Molipede inspected Miko's head with its palps, huffed in approval and moved on while a pygmy puma rubbed against him as it walked past. The ostrich horse squawked merrily as it lunged itself onto him, then the platypus bear plodded up to him. It bumped its head against him with its eyes closed in peace, before licking Miko – almost consuming him – and going on its way. Miko sat on top of the fence as he watched the group of animals run to the distance. He hoped they would find their way, but the Wasteland was expansive and unforgiving place. They did, however, have the fortune of being battlers, like him. They had lived through darkness and were stronger because of it. He knew they wouldn't give up without a fight, especially after he had showed them the way again.
He was at peace, yet only for a second.
A bat swooped down and knocked him off the fence. Miko's heart pounded even harder than before. This bat... It couldn't be; they had travelled so far.
It smelt just like the one from the Maderian forest. It had the same beady eyes, the same unfamiliar smell, the same unnatural strength. It was the same bat!
Miko shrieked in rage, a blood-curdling cry like that of a tom-cat fighting in an alleyway. The bat's eyes focused like a camera lens to the keychain in Miko's grasp and it went to take it. Miko bit into the bat's shoulder as they span through the air. They rammed into a wall and fell onto the ceiling, Miko landing on top of the bat. A crunch was heard as the bat's head split open.
Miko caught his breath and slowed his heart as he inquisitively inspected the bat's twitching body. Electrical wires had sprung from its body and, behind the guise of a bat's head and eyes, was a camera, a red light flashing on its side.
Miko could not comprehend what this meant but he now knew this was no animal. That's why it had smelt so weird.
He heard a flutter of wings and looked to the skies. Other 'bats' were surveying the area, keeping watch. He had to find a safe place and rest. Planning really took the tole out on his small, marsupial mind, and the daring escape had also tired him.
He pried the keychain from the metal hand of his former foe and scurried away.
He was tired, but sleep would have to wait.
He had a pack to find.
Silva slammed the door of Sedgley's cell shut, purposefully loudly.
"You have guests coming today, Avatar," she explained militarily, "You will behave yourself. Remember those friends you arrived with? If you do not hand yourself over passively, without resistance, they will be harmed. Have I made myself clear?"
Sedgley craned his neck up to her.
"Very well then," she turned and walked back to the door, "I'll see you soon."
She exited the room and pretty much marched down the hallway. Today was going to be a good day. She had worked herself to the bone, sometimes literally, to get to where she was today, and all her hard work would finally pay off. Kahn would get most of the credit – he was the leader after all. But she was second in command, and it was here idea to bring the Avatar into their custody. She would be rewarded. Alphonse saw her potential, and maybe his special guest would too.
She walked into Kahn's quarters. Kahn's room looked over the whole compound. A microphone sat on the bench top and administrative papers and charts lined the walls. Kahn was a good leader.
"Any word on when Alphonse will arrive?"
Kahn was fiddling with his dagger, and nodded to the window. A flash black car was coming towards the front gate like a metallic comet, dust trailing behind in its wake.
"I'll prep the gate, sir."
"Thank you, Silva."
She was good second, but he didn't know if her true alliance sat with him or Alphonse. People these days do anything for money, he sighed. Maybe it was more for security, at least initially. But greed got the better of people. It always did.
He swallowed, the spit rolling down his throat painfully slowly. Today was going to be tough, but it had to be done. He felt something inside him stir; it hadn't stopped stirring the moment he had heard that boy's claim.
The Avatar was back. The Avatar.
Today was going to be the good day. Redemption was never bad.
There was piercing buzz as the gate slid open and the car entered the site. Guards ushered the prisoners inside. A small truck, that was unseen behind the cloud of dust the speeding car had created, followed. McKay hopped out of the driver's seat and stretched his broad back, Diego exiting the passenger side and looking around hungrily.
Silva strode up to the back door of the shiny, black car and opened it.
"Silva, my dear, Silva thank you," a slimy man drawled.
"No thanks necessary sir. I'm just doing my job."
A heel clicked on the concrete.
"I like her."
A woman, whose skin was dark as the car she exited, examined her surroundings.
"Can't say the same about this dump."
Miss Zaida's lips tensed. Business was in order.
"I suppose you're the one in charge here?" she asked Silva.
"No ma'am," she replied, nodding respectfully, "I'm Silva, Kahn's second in command."
Zaida walked around the front of the car, running her ebony fingers along the bonnet.
"And Kahn. Who is he?"
"That would be me."
Kahn strode up to them. His large arms barely moved as he walked and his eyes were fixated on the people in front of him. He looked mad, but people were used to that.
"Alphonse," he nodded, "It's good to see you. How are things in Chan Dai?"
Alphonse grunted as he hoisted himself from the car. He handed his decadent coat to Diego and picked his teeth.
"Oh, you know," he replied, "same old, same old. I got my hands on this wonderful old vinyl the other day. Such intriguing lyrics."
"Alphonse..." Miss Zaida gritted her teeth. Riding in the same car as him was unbearable; she didn't have the temper to listen to more of his babbling.
Kahn's eyes darted to the unknown woman and back, "Care to share some of them?"
Silva looked at him.
"I mean," he added, "you do have one of the best voices I've heard. And who's to say we can't have a little fun right? The Avatar's in our custody. Totally apprehended. Care for a demo?"
Alphonse's leather shoes crunched against the gravel as he took a suspicious step forward, "Why... I thought you'd never ask. Diego! Drop me some body percussion!"
Diego looked at McKay, his eyebrows upturned in confusion, who just shrugged and jutted his chin forward as if telling him to go ahead and do it.
Diego tentatively raised a hand before smacking out a beat on his chest and thighs.
"Flameo, flameo, where for art thou flameo! Let us drop it like a hotman, and get up in that flame–"
"Sir!" Silva barked, "We really must get to business."
"Agreed," Miss Zaida demanded, "We have very important things to do. Now let's get on with it."
Diego continued on playing body percussion. McKay had to hit him over the back of the head for him to stop.
"I guess," Alphonse said regrettably, "Now, Miss Zaida, you do have the appropriate, uh, gosh I hate saying this, payments?"
Silva rubbed her brow in disbelief.
Miss Zaida paced up to him and stared him down. Her hairline was starting to get sweaty with stress. She stood in front of him, her legs apart, exuding power.
"I think I've made it pretty damn blatant that you will only get paid after I get what I want."
"–But nothing, Al." No one had ever heard him addressed this way, and he frowned, "Once both boys are delivered to me you will get your reward."
"I'm sorry, ma'am," Silva stepped forward, "but you mentioned something about two boys?"
Miss Zaida turned and faced her, visibly irritated.
"Two waterbenders. One of them is the Avatar, we just don't know which one."
Silva looked at Kahn, "Two waterbenders..."
He was panting. Everything about the woman in front of him terrified him. He had killed and tortured but nothing like that fazed him compared to this woman. She seemed to suck the air from around her, injecting tension into the atmosphere.
"Right, my apologies ma'am, Alphonse," Kahn nodded, "I will get him right away."
"Oh Kahn, you don't have to," Alphonse said, as though he still wanted to catch up, "McKay and Diego will. They have some bones to pick with him, so they'll be more than happy to bring him to us."
Diego shuddered, he had been waiting a long time get back to where they had left off in Chan Dai.
"I don't care who gets him!" Miss Zaida's voice resonated through the whole compound, waking a dazed squirrel-glider in a hidden crevice, "Just bring me the Avatar!"
"Yes, ma'am," Kahn nodded, hurrying off before anyone else could do the job.
He looked at Silva before he left. She looked concerned. She had never had to deal with someone like this either. It seemed to make her uneasy too, but there was something else on her face that made him feel like she was intoxicated by it too.
He power-walked away from the group, and then started jogging. Water formed on his eyelids as a dry wind rolled through.
This was his chance.
The Avatar was back.
This was their chance.
- With the word count at 12,889, this is the longest chapter to date.
- The end of this chapter marks the half-way point of Book One of Avatar: Neo Revolution.
- The pygmy ostrich-horse character is inspired by the character Tori from Kyoshidude's 'The Kyoshi Chronicles.'
- The character Lee is the brother of the man from the Bloody Knuckles' hideout with the orange hair.
- Similarly, characters last seen in Chan Dai, such as Alphonse, McKay and Diego, make their return.
- Professor Zei was only mentioned in a story in the previous chapter. He makes his return in person here as the cynical man who doesn't believe in the boys' cause.
- The bat with the camera behind its eyes is an in-joke that the writer has with his friends, created the same time as the premise for the story. It's name is surveillance bat.
- Similarly, the Sunanochi's compound is inspired by many other things that had been imagined that fateful night.
- The song that Alphonse sings is a reference to The Last Airbender, when Aang says 'Flameo hotman!' to strangers in the Fire Nation, as well as reference to a famous Shakespearian quote. 'Drop it like it's hot' is also in there. Pop culture!
For the collective works of the author, go here.