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The Tunnel
Chapter information
Series

Avatar: Neo Revolution

Book

Book One: Water

Chapter

3

Written by

Jtwin1

Editor(s)

Perplexed Panda

Release date

October 11, 2012

Chronology
Last chapter

Chapter 2: The Firebender

Next chapter

Chapter 4: The Northern Healers

Previously

Following Mother Leliita's requests, the boys head West to Haven for support, the identity of the Avatar still unknown to them.

When they accidentally revealed to Anurna, the mysterious firebending girl from Gao Lin, that one of them was the Avatar, Dover and Sedgley agreed to follow her through a secret tunnel out of the town, bypassing the customs centre where Erik had a run in with a troublesome family.

Will the tunnel prove more or less cumbersome than their previous plans?

~ Chapter Three: The Tunnel ~

~ Chapter Three: The Tunnel ~


"Come on, wake up!" Erik jostled the sleeping waterbenders. "We've got to go soon."

Sedgley rolled on to his back, stretched, and yawned, "Tell me again why we have to get up so early?"

The sky was still dark; the only source of light was the moon, which cast a silvery shine on the sleeping Gao Lin.

"Because," answered Anurna, who was cooking some beans on the hotplate, "if someone sees us use this tunnel – which is against the laws of Gao Lin, and many other provinces – then we could get into serious trouble."

"And, might I add," Erik piped up, "we want to get out of here as soon as possible. So, the earlier, the better."

With that, he pulled the sleeping bags off his groaning friends. Dover and Sedgley discovered a pattern in the events of the morning-time; it seemed Erik was developing a habit for pulling off their blankets. Either that or they were developing a recurring apathy for getting up early. Cold and blanket-less, the boys attempted to remain in their beds.

Anurna had an idea. "So... anyone want to feed Miko?" she called out casually.

Dover instantly jumped from his swag and scurried to the fridge. He took the bag of seeds and turned to Miko, who was already feasting on breakfast.

"Hey..." said Dover as he realised what was happening.

"Well, you're up now, may as well get ready to leave." suggested Erik, walking past the tricked Dover to fetch himself a plate of freshly cooked beans.

Dover's wake spurred Sedgley to get up himself, and soon all four children were quietly eating their beans.

"All right. Let's go." Anurna, having swallowed the last of her dry meal, was eager not to get caught, and wanted to act silently and efficiently until they got to the tunnel.

Hama's village at night

The children sneak through Gao Lin at early morning.

After packing their things, the three boys followed Anurna through the shadowy back alleys of Gao Lin. It was so different from the daytime, when people hurriedly crowded the streets as if the plethora of objects on sale would cataclysmically disappear. Dover and Sedgley expected the swarm of market-goers to remain in a constant state of busied buying and selling and, when sneakily passing through the main strip, they were surprised to see not one mischievous child or a single fruit vender in sight. Nonetheless, Anurna demanded stealth, telling them that they could never know how many people were watching them.

How did she come to learn all this sneaky behaviour? Yes, they had agreed to let Anurna help them for as long as it took to discover who was the Avatar, and they regarded her as a helpful ally, but there was so much about her that they didn't know, and so much about her that they didn't know if they could trust. All they knew was that she had travelled the world and, evident from this tunnel, she had connections all over the place. But that was all they knew of this girl who lead them through dark streets, her stolen bead necklace clashing gently on her chest. She could have been leading them into trap for all they knew. However, just as she had sensed something special in them, Dover and the rest of the boys sensed something in her. A sense of overarching good was what they detected in the mysterious girl and, because of this trait, they entrusted her with their safety; with the world's safety.

After about half an hour of sneaking, they were in the northwest area of Gao Lin, where the beginnings of hills and mountains returned to their sights and rose steadily higher. Not only did this tunnel help them leave Gao Lin while avoiding the futile process of waiting for passports, but it also provided a shortcut through the arduous trek downhill from the town. It seemed fate, having brought them Anurna and word of this convenient passageway, was on the boys' side.

Upon turning a corner with explicit subtlety, the boys noticed that one house, its back up against a hill, had a light or candle lit inside. Anurna led them to the house, looking behind her; it seemed everything was clear.

She turned to the boys behind her and said, "Hold on, I'll just check if everything's okay. Wait here for a minute, yeah?"

The boys, slightly unnerved by all this suspicious conduct (which was completely new to them), obeyed and stayed a few metres behind Anurna, who was slyly walking up to the house. Sedgley was reminded of the shifty stranger at Gao Lin's marketplace who sneakily listened in on their conversation. How much he didn't trust her then; how much he feared her. Now, he revered her for the favour she was about to commit for them, heading to knock on the door of the house.

"Anurna!" called a deep voice, suddenly, from a shadowed alleyway.

Anurna jabbed her head around, like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a speeding truck, and tried to make out who it was that called for her. The boys, hearing nothing, were a little confused at what they were seeing, and Miko made a nervous clicking sound with his teeth.

McKay, a bulky skinhead, and Diego, his scrawny sidekick, stepped out from behind the shadows, Diego's eyes intently following the shaven head of his master as he awaited his next command.

"We thought we'd see you here," McKay said furtively.

Fire shield

Anurna sends off a warning to McKay and Diego.

Anurna's eyes widened feverishly and leaped at the two. McKay instinctively put out his hands to defend himself, but Anurna locked her fingers with his and fired an eruption of intensely bright, orange flames. The blazes fanned out, like an angry bird displaying its vermillion plumage, and then disintegrated, revealing the pair of local thugs pushed back and shocked. Anurna was still ready to attack, maintaining a cat-like poise; ready to pounce. Diego was jittering anxiously behind his boss, a throbbing vein in his temple pulsing with blood that seethed with cravings for violence.

"I don't understand," began McKay, moving to take a step forward.

Anurna, her ferocious, red eyes more than necessary to convey her message, gritted her teeth and launched then in a blunt and chilling threat, "If I ever see you two around me again, I will not hesitate to singe the skin off your bodies."

Diego writhed with anticipation to inflict pain, but still required the command from his master.

"But-" McKay started, however was cut off by Anurna.

"Go!" she shouted, whipping the ground below their feet with a stream of fire. "Get out of here, and never let me see your faces again!"

McKay and Diego paused, looked at the furious girl, then scampered off into the night. The boys were worried. They had recognised, even from afar, the two thugs they fought at the Moorbird Inn, and had witnessed a great burst of fire. They hurried up to Anurna, rearing themselves for a battle, when they discovered there was no one there except for her.

"Are you all right?" questioned Dover, lowering his fists.

"Yeah," responded Anurna, wiping back some hair, "I'm fine."

"How do you know those guys?" asked Sedgley, beginning to doubt Anurna's credibility of being a reliable and truthful ally. She knew those people - did that mean she was affiliated with them?

"Those idiots?" she replied, regarding McKay and Diego. Sedgley nodded. "Oh," she began, as they started walking towards the door of the house, "They're just some thugs I've met on my travels. I've had a few run ins with them before, but they won't bother me anymore. It's all fine."

She dismissed Sedgley's concerned expression and knocked on the door. A slit in the door opened to reveal two squinting eyes examining them.

"What do you want?" asked the pair of eyes, squinting further.

"It's me," said Anurna, trying to jog the eyes' memory, "I used the tunnel before, I'd like to use it again. Come on, let me in."

"Oh yes," remembered the eyes, "How could I forget a pretty girl like you?"

The slit closed, followed by the sound of many bolts being unlocked, and the door opened to reveal an old man. He had fuzzy grey hair, and a round body that sat, oddly enough, on thin, gnarly legs. He ushered them inside, peered down the street, and then shut the door, locking all the bolts again.

The source of the light was a fireplace, which crackled calmingly on one side of the room. The house was very similar to Anurna's; shabby and, though a bit larger and with more detail than Anurna's cube, simple. The only difference which brought the attention of the children was the gaping, dusty hole that lead into darkness at the back wall.

"We've just opened up the tunnel, and are about to leave," the old man remarked enthusiastically.

Erik paused for a little, still somewhat dumbfounded by the obvious tunnel that had been dug into the back of his home. Then, he asked, "Wait. What do you mean 'we've' just opened the tunnel'?"

Before the man could answer, a horrible, incomprehensible shriek bellowed from the small bathroom. The door opened and, to the absolute dismay and terror of Erik, revealed the short-tempered Chin, his impudent infant girl and his doormat of a wife, Lucy – the troublesome family from Gao Lin Customs Centre.

Erik's heart sank as he realised, like a slap in the face, that fate was no longer on their side.

"You..." said Chin grumpily, recognising Erik.

He began to stride menacingly towards Erik, his chest inflating with each breath in, as though to intimidate his young opponent. Lucy grasped his hand firmly, in a somewhat uncharacteristically defiant manner, and then gave him a look that, somehow, calmed or detained his rising temper. Either way, Erik was happy to, yet again, avoid another confrontation with this beast of a man.

"You guys know each other?" asked Sedgley, puzzled by what had just happened.

Erik turned to his friend and said, quietly, "Let's just say we had a run in at Gao Lin Customs Centre, and leave it at that."

And it was indeed left there. However, although there was no talk of what went on between Erik and Chin, Sedgley, Dover and Anurna could feel the heavy tension between the two parties, and these tensions continued to rise as they entered the tunnel.

Once in the tunnel, the old man, who revealed his name to be Marco, created a wall of earth where the hole in the wall used to be – a feeble attempt, thought everyone except Marco, to cover their tracks. After Anurna lit some torches, Chin and Erik's, and even the little girl's, faces were revealed to be holding subtle frowns and furrows.

Upon seeing this, Marco spoke up. "Now," he began, "Although this here tunnel gets you outta Gao Lin fast, there are some troubles. But, if you stick with me, you'll most likely get out the other end in one piece." He laughed roughly and the proceeded to lead them further into the dark tunnel.

Wind whistled through the tunnel from the opening on the other side, and echoing footsteps faded into faint whispers as they continued to walk along the rocky ground. Occasionally they would hear the delicate whistle of a bat, to which Miko would reply with an anxious nattering. The eerie, pitch-black cave did nothing to dissolve the tension between Chin and Erik; as a matter of fact, it seemed to heighten it. The four children could sense Chin seething behind them and, if they listened close enough, they could hear the gritting of teeth and the calming whispers of Lucy. Occasionally the baby girl would screech or gurgle, spurring Chin on, but Lucy would shush it and pass her a bottle. Now a faint slurping was added to the cacophony of disconcertingly feeble sounds that seemed to murmur and whisper throughout the tunnel.

Everything that occurred in the tunnel was faint and of the subtle kind; the half-sounds that were softer than silence itself; the small, unnoticeable cracks and levels in the ground below that would cause small, unnoticeable stumbles; the flickering flame of the torch that cast a dim light which tickled the surroundings with a subtle glow; the inkling of dust that fell, light as a feather, on their tastebuds; and the demure smell of damp dirt which was only available to them if they breathed in hard enough. Every sensory stimulant seemed to evade detection. The only thing worth noticing at all, and the only thing that was noticed, was the all-encompassing darkness that surrounded them. Marco claimed that their eyes would adjust to the light, or lack thereof, but even after walking for over half an hour the abyssal dimness remained like a greedy hound, eager for another morsel of food, following behind in close proximity; even the orange light created by the torches seemed to be inked out by the surrounding blackness.

The earth that encased them, and the meditative atmosphere it provided in blocking the entry of light, created a thoughtfulness in all who walked between it. The pattern of footsteps, the subtle sensations, and the primal rocks that surrounded them nourished self-reflection and deep thought. Marco had quietened down, beginning to breathe deeply, and Chin no longer grinded his teeth together, but looked forward at the hints of heads that disappeared and reappeared upon distancing and nearing his torch. The infant had nuzzled into her mother's soft bosom, seeking a heartbeat to break the silence, or augment it, and sucked her thumb as she peered, rather pensively for a child of about two, into the similarly, infinitely black scene of her underdeveloped, infant mind. Swirling shapes of dark hues – indigos, crimsons and olives – lurked and rolled, sometimes there and sometimes not, she noticed, in the still sea of darkness. With every delicate thud of her mother's heart, the colours behind her eyelids would intensify, and in every gap, darken into nothingness again. The four children experienced a similar visceral experience to the young child. As their breathing deepened and their heart rates slowed, the differences between the worlds behind and in front of their eyes slowly evaporated into obscurity too. Like a fetus surrounded in embryonic fluid, the darkness encapsulated their bodies in a delicate membrane, providing them with the nutrients of clear mindedness and meditative peacefulness. All previous tensions were forgotten, diminishing into zephyrs and faded echoes, wafting away into the abyss of the cave.

Suddenly a thought, bold and distracting, broke the peace of Dover and Sedgley's minds. They thought, by meditating in and experiencing complete and absolute nothingness other than the infinite expanse of their own minds, they could somehow find out if they were the Avatar or not. Dover and Sedgley looked deep into the blackness of their being, searching through a silent, black sea for some indication of a glowing, all-powerful spirit. With each attempt to traverse deeper into the chasm that was his mind, each boy experienced a pang of being trawled further away from what they sought. Looking at the other boy, each felt that their counterpart was discovering something they were not, and each felt a sudden, uncontrollable desire to thwart the other from discovering what he wanted to discover himself.

In an act of selfishness, Sedgley broke the silence, "How long now?"

"Are we almost there?" said Dover at almost exactly the same time and with a similar ulterior motive to Sedgley.

Chin sighed, anger slowly returning, and the little girl groaned through pursed lips as though annoyed.

"I hate to break it you kids," replied Marco, somewhat glad with the return of conversation, "But we haven't even begun."

Upon uttering the last syllable, Marco, and the rest of the travellers, entered a large cavern. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling of the cave, allowing everyone to observe a tall wall with holes covering its face. Each hole, they presumed, lead into a new tunnel and into another section of the abyss.

"Marco," began Erik, impressed, "how many tunnels have you made? And where do they all go?"

The old man laughed, stretched, and answered, "Oh, I didn't make these tunnels, kid. These are the work of our resident earthbenders."

"People live here?" asked Anurna, with a slight tone of disgust or disbelief, or both.

"No! Don't be silly, girl," he returned, enthused by the prospect of relaying a good fact, "the Molipedes! The Molipedes make all these tunnels."

"Ah... Molipedes?" asked Lucy fearfully, "What's a Molipede?"

"You folk don't know what Molipedes are? Jeez, they're real spooky they are. They're blind, you see," Marco explained, "so they have these giant noses that help them feel their way around. And their pincers – gosh! – they can cut through boulders. We don't wanna go messing around with any Molipedes today, let me tell you that."

All of a sudden, any peaceful thought was replaced with anxiety and awareness. Marco, seemingly unfazed by the knowledge of the beastly cave dwellers, sturdily thrust his foot in front of him and swung a clenched fist in a semicircular motion, as though scooping. An earthen ramp sprung from the ground and headed in the direction of a hole almost ten metres up the wall. How Dover and Sedgley yearned that they could earthbend. If one of them were able to move a singular rock, and demonstrate a bending capability other than waterbending, then the identity of the Avatar would be revealed almost instantaneously and undisputedly. However, though surrounded by earth, neither of them felt the slightest sense of attachment to it, as they did with water, which enabled manipulation. As of now, the earth just felt like the ground beneath their feet and the obstacle between them and the Sun. The eruption of the stone ramp from the ground created a reverberating rumble throughout the cavern. Everyone but Marco held their breath, hoping the sound would not anger any nearby population of Molipedes.

The great cavern trembled violently with the forceful shockwaves of Marco's earthbending. As the clay slope rose from the ground, the powerful quakes caused dust to fall from the roof of the cave and the light bulb that dangled from the ceiling to quiver, disorientating those already unfamiliar to the light conditions. The resulting shadows danced perturbingly, bursting from unseeable origins then disappearing altogether into one's peripherals. The timid Lucy and Erik, and everyone else present in the rumbling, flickering cavern – except Marco, who proudly watched his rising ramp with arms still outstretched – fearfully glanced at any shadowy shape, darting their heads erratically in every direction in order to spot any oncoming, enraged Molipedes. As the thunderous noise eventuated into a familiar echo, silent sighs escaped the lips of all who were previously frightened and they were able to breathe yet again.

Marco, consistently unaware of everyone's fear, cheerily said, "Come on, up we get! We don't have all day!"

He proceeded to lead them up the ramp, commenting on how the dusty air has given him a nasty cough lately. No one payed much attention, continuously looking behind themselves or peering into the many other tunnels for any signs of angry, scuttling bugs. But Marco was still oblivious and sustained in his pointless nattering until something stopped him. Anurna, looking around nervously, had not noticed the sudden halt, and bumped into his back. Everyone else was also taken aback by the standstill and waited anxiously for Marco's next word. It was strange how at one second not a soul had payed any attention to what Marco said, but at another they hung on to his every word, watching intently as his lips pronounced each syllable.

"We got Molipedes..." said Marco gravely, his once cheerful face now emanating seriousness.

"What?" spluttered Erik, "Molipedes? Where?"

"How do you know they're coming?" asked Dover fearfully.

"What do we do?" Lucy begged Marco for an answer.

Upon picking up on the panic, the young girl burrowed her face into Lucy's chest, hoping with all her infant might that her mother's heartbeat would again brew sensations of peacefulness. Lucy clutched the back of her daughter's head with a soft hand and Chin's rough one squeezed Lucy's shoulder. She looked up at him. His eyes, usually uncontrollably livid and harsh, now gazed at her with a protective manner, as if determined to defend their daughter. Dover and Sedgley looked at each other in a way that not only portrayed fear, but something else. They seemed to challenge each other with their eyes, viewing the situation as a competition to uncover the Avatar once and for all. Sedgley nodded, understanding, and Dover then looked at Erik, who was gazing, stricken with terror, at Marco for the next command.

"I can feel them coming. Through the ground, you know?" Marco explained, "We can't outrun 'em, so we're going to have to fight. How's that for a plan, is that all right with you Chin?" He nodded solemnly, stepping in front of Lucy.

"And what about you kiddies?" Marco asked, "Will you fight?"

"Yeah," replied Dover determinedly.

"I thought you'd never ask," responded Anurna, trying to mask her distress with bravery.

"Well," grunted Chin grudgingly, "I don't know about this one. He likes to run away from fights."

He pointed at Erik, who, offended, reached to take his wooden staff from behind his back. However, it must have been out of place, because he couldn't grasp it and ended up floundering about embarrassingly trying to reach it.

Marco ignored the jeer and began ushering them down the ramp to the larger space to fight in below. Suddenly, a blood-curdling screech pierced the cave – drastically and unbelievably different to the dim, echoic sounds of before – and a pair of pincers crunched through the wall a few metres above them. A grey segmented insect, five feet in length and about a foot in width, slithered out. It viciously searched for the human intruders with the tendrils of its nose and its salivating forceps snapped angrily as it neared them. From its place scuttled a horde of more ferocious insects, feverishly smelling out the morsels of flesh that were Sedgley, Dover, and the other humans.

Chin pulled his sword from the sheath on his back while Dover popped the lid on his water pouch, enabling him and Sedgley, who was equally as eager to prove himself as the Avatar, to prepare a fighting stance, equipped with a streak of water.

"What do we do?" whispered Erik frantically to his friends, his hands now firmly gripping his staff as though, if he were to release his grip in the slightest, death would surely arrive.

Dover and Sedgley, almost petrified with fear, looked back at Erik. All they could do was look, as they were equally unprepared and unaware of the imminent fight for their lives. They had nothing to offer him. No pearls of wisdom harnessed from the past lives of the Avatar lineage, nor a measly suggestion from past experience could be leant to him as an aid. All they could do was look, not attempting to hide their fear in any way, at Erik.

Anurna, growing tired of the boys' being unaccustomed to violence, lunged forward with poise and said, with an intrepid tone that inspired courage in others, "We show them who's boss."

Squeezing a glowing torch in her dirt-clad hands, she caused the flames to increase dramatically until whips and lashes of orange fire warned off the attackers. The beastly insects screeched angrily and, not a second later, another group of the fierce bugs sprouted from the ground behind them. Chin turned, brandishing his sword before him and stepping in front of his family. Erik also turned to face the new opponents. Chin looked down at the boy he hated and jeered, "You'll fight now?" Suddenly, a Molipede launched itself at them, gooey saliva flowing hungrily from its pincers. Chin's head snapped up. The creature seemed to land on him, letting out a piercing shriek, but then fell to the ground, motionless, as foul-smelling blood oozed from a hole from the underside of its thorax. Chin's sword, drenched with the same odorous blood, remained in front of him, held strongly with an outstretched arm. The sight of the dead Molipede, or perhaps the fetid smell of the dribbling gore, seemed only to aggravate the insects further, and they rapidly charged at the humans.

Centipede

A young Molipede.

Marco stepped back with one foot, his old ankle straining under the pressure, and moved his fisted arm in a similar fashion to before. As his arm swooped through the air, gravel and clay was torn from the ground below and pushed the predators back. A hissing Molipede rushed at Lucy and the baby. The little girl squealed back, as intimidating as she could muster, while a gushing torrent of water from Dover's direction knocked the insect from its feet. Anurna, following a brazen display of acrobatics, landed a flaming heel on the disoriented insect, whose exoskeleton crunched under the force. Sedgley froze an attacker, and fired the ice-covered enemy across the cavern. The solid projectile hurtled through the mass of bugs, shrieks and hisses erupting with every torn limb and every crushed body. As it finally reached the back wall, shattering on impact, Sedgley quickly recovered the water with a wave of his hand, as there was a limited supply of water in Dover's pouch. As Miko hovered overhead, and Erik hovered on the outskirts of the conflict, only waving his staff if a Molipede noticed him, Marco and the rest of the defenders noticed the success of Sedgley's strategy and attempted to recreate it. Chin would spear a Molipede with his bloodied sword and proceed in pushing back others with the skewered corpse, while Anurna would concentrate her flames into a compressed ball and suddenly release it in an expansive burst of fire. They seemed to be gaining the upper hand until Marco, straightening up from a squat and rotating his hands, lifted a massive slab of earth from the ground and launched it at the horde. It pummelled through them like a wrecking ball, destroying the light bulb in its wake, and then smashed into the back wall, subsequently causing a great tremor and rumble. However this time, instead of attracting the Molipedes, the noise seemed to deter them.

Bending their heads to the ground and rubbing their sensitive noses on the earth, the surviving insects sensed a violent quake quite unlike the previous one. They hurriedly scuttled to the nearest wall and, with their pincers now dry with fear, burrowed through the rock and away to an indefinite distance.

Though initially confused at the sudden and seemingly unprovoked behaviour of the Molipedes, a resultant crack that formed up the wall and over their heads, like a dusty bolt of lightning, soon triggered the same sensation of fright in the humans as in the insects. Unable to hold the weight of the earth above, the fractured ceiling of the cavern gave way. Dust, gravel, stones and boulders toppled in; a painful demise if they had not narrowly evaded the heavy cascade.

Chin rushed to Lucy, messily picked her up, the baby in her arms, and collided into Erik. Marco, still stunned at the destruction he had caused, was pushed in the opposite direction of Chin, by Dover and Sedgley out of harms reach while Anurna nimbly avoided the falling rocks and joined Dover and the rest of them at a safer point.

Cave blocked

The collapsed cavern ceiling means they will have to find another way out.

A mound of rocks, piled up to ceiling and further into the crack. now separated the two parties, once lead by Marco as one. With each of the earthbender's attempts to thrust a hole through the mound, more dirt tumbled in from above and filled the space. This meant they were now separated. Not only were they unable to go through or over the earthen barricade, but also the possibility of going around it was thwarted when they discovered that the debris even managed to fill in the tunnel that lead back to Gao Lin.

Surrounded by darkness yet again, Chin spoke to his family, "Looks like we'll have to go ourselves."

Lucy was overcome with a concoction of worry and fear, "Chin...!"

"Don't worry," he consoled her, "I'll take care of you. I won't let any of those rotten bugs lay a finger on you, okay? We'll be all right..."

He held his sword by his side and rubbed the handle with his thumb on the utterance of this promise. He lifted his other hand tiredly and stroked the blonde, curly tufts of his little girl.

"You too, Su," he said in a childlike voice, unexpectedly, "I won't let them get you either. No, I won't! No, I won't!"

Erik laughed quietly but was abruptly silenced by a scowl from Chin. The tall man led his family up Marco's ramp, a rough hand on his wife's back. Erik followed reluctantly, wondering about the fate of his friends but somewhat reassured they were with the knowledgeable and resilient Marco.

On the other side, Marco had given up trying to get through the mound and had collapsed on the floor, completely and utterly exhausted. Dover went down to his side.

"Are you alright? Is there something I can do?" Dover asked, somewhat desperately.

"Not unless you're the Avatar and can bend away these rocks, " he joked, unaware of the jarring feeling he induced in the two waterbenders' hearts.

Dover just sighed, attempted at a laugh, and got up from his crouch. "So what do we do?" he proposed to everyone present.

Anurna looked around; there were many tunnels on the wall behind her; there was no doubt they contained masses of Molipedes, and the concept of venturing through them seemed far too dangerous for the kids, let alone the worn out Marco.

Sedgley then remembered an earthbending technique he read about in a book once, and asked Marco, "Are you any good at seismic sense? You could just see where the other tunnel is, or the outside, and take us there, right?"

Marco, still on the ground, looked back at Sedgley, who was staring at him with an unsettlingly furrowed brow. He replied, to his utmost displeasure, "Sorry kid. I'm no good at seismic sense. I could feel the Molipedes coming, 'cause they were loud, you know? But, unfortunately, there's nothing I can do here except try and make another tunnel."

"And pray we don't run into any more Molipedes," added Dover with a sigh as he hoisted Marco from the ground.

Anurna crossed her arms and muttered, "I don't think 'praying' is going to help us..."

Marco decided to start at a hole in the wall that was closest to his original tunnel. He explained that, through using it on so many occasions, he had come to memorise the many turns and the overall direction of his man-made tunnel. He decided that it would be wise to begin their expedition at the Molipede hole nearest the original tunnel and, if it proved to diverge from the general direction of the original tunnel, Marco would lead them in the right direction by creating a new path.

As they approached the designated Molipede burrow, a sense of impeding yet avoidable (if they had just decided to turn back) doom was instilled in everyone, even the usually carefree cave guide. The gaping black hole resembled an open mouth, the hanging roots and edgy stalactites and stalagmites poised like teeth, ready to devour its unsuspecting prey. Miko nervously sat on Anurna's shoulder, aware that he was a perfect, bite-sized snack for the vicious insects that dwelled inside. Marco led the way, closely followed by Anurna, who still held a torch. Dover and Sedgley watched everyone's backs, remorseful that they could not earthbend and help Marco, who was growing weaker. They remained hopeful that the earthen surroundings would excite, in one of them, the earthbending nature of their Avatar spirit.

Encased in darkness yet again, with the similar orange glow of the torch also present once more, the peacefulness that was previously nurtured by these conditions was now non-existent. Presently, foreboding sensations and apprehensive emotions thrived like weeds, covering everything, from the soil of darkness the looming danger.

Dover looked at Sedgley; his friend; his adversary. How he envied Sedgley's fighting skill. How he regarded his 'brother's' abilities as a key, or at least part of it or a hazy outline of a key, of which would unlock the identity of the Avatar in him. Dover felt that, because he was not as confident a fighter as Sedgley, he somehow lacked a factor necessary for being the Avatar. Despite knowing this, there was nothing he could do. As Dover trained, aiming to surpass Sedgley, the latter would continue training and subsequently exceed the former. All Dover could do was wallow, like a hog-seal, in his own doubt and self-pity.

Sedgley turned his head to Dover and asked, quietly, "Um... do you mind if I use the water skin now?"

Dover touched his hand to the sack, contemplating whether or not to give it to his friend, then said, rather bluntly, "No, you can't."

Taken aback, Sedgley inquired, raising his voice, "What? Why not? I thought we agreed on sharing it?"

"Well, I just don't feel like sharing it right now."

"But we agreed-"

"–We agreed to swap it every week, remember?" Dover was beginning to sound harsh and clutched the pouch protectively, "I've barely used it one day, so back off! You can use it later."

Sedgley was silenced, out of fatigue and at the uncharacteristically shocking outburst of the usually mild Dover. Anurna, having heard the whole conversation, refused to comfort them, aiming to conserve her energies for holding the torch or if any Molipedes reappeared. Marco, however, grew not only increasingly tired, but also increasingly concerned for the boys' friendship. Upon meeting them he had noticed a kinship between the two. It was only now, for some reason presently unknown to him, that he observed an unravelling of their bond.

Marco slowed his pace, walked beside Anurna, and muttered politely, "You lead the way."

"Are you all right, Marco?" asked Dover, aware of the man's slowed gait.

"I was just about to ask you the same question." Marco replied wisely. Although he looked out in front of him, one of Marco's eyes seemed to fall on each boy, each on one side of his shoulders, as though he were looking at them simultaneously.

"Pardon me?" grumbled Sedgley having grown disgruntled by his previous interaction with Dover.

"You two seem a bit off."

Only footsteps responded.

Marco continued, "Now, I can't say I know what the problem is, but something has definitely drawn a wedge between the both of you. And, again, I can't say you just have to get over it either. I'm sorry..." he trailed off, "I not so good at mending bonds. Now, chaperoning folks through tunnels, there's my shtick..."

Marco's rambling only deepened the boys' condition, nudging them further into frustration.

"I digress... Anyway, just hear me out. This is the only thing I ever read – or the only thing I remember reading... I think it'll help." The old man cleared his throat and began, his perceptive aura returning from the previous muddled musings, in a poem.

"'Jealousy is of the beast.
As we remain human though,
Succumb to Envy's power least
Or friend will turn to foe.

Impatience, pride, falsehood and greed
Belong to men of evil.
So please, I beg, these words, do heed
Then surely you'll prevail.

Be kind, noble and generous
Let courage take you far.
Valuing friendship is a must.'
Are words of the Avatar."

He slowly exhaled the remaining air in his lungs and walked forwards, leaving the boys to contemplate the message of the poem alone. Supposedly written by an Avatar, each boy scrutinised the words solemnly, as if their life depended on it. Dover craved he would uncover the message before Sedgley, while Sedgley desired the opposite outcome. For an indefinite amount of time following Marco's utterance of the poem, only the quiet echoing of footsteps and the careful breathing of concentrated boys could be heard, as they trudged deeper into Molipede tunnel. Deeper into the belly of the beast.

~

Though separated from the group – including Marco – Erik, Chin, and his family, felt a miniscule touch of reassurance being in the only man-made tunnel in the mountain. This sense of safety was held ever so delicately in place by their choice to keep out of their minds the fact that all around them dwelled vicious insects hungry for fresh meat. In the back of their brains, bordered up like a terrible secret in an attic, sat the knowledge that, at any moment, a horde of Molipedes could come bursting from the surrounding earth. This thought, though they suppressed with all their might, bubbled edgily and resurfaced whenever a shadow, cast by the light of the flame torch, danced on the wall. It was easier for Su, the infant girl, to forget her current troubles; all she had to do was close her eyes and imagine a happy place, like the farm, or grandma's house.

To make matters worse, Erik and Chin were stuck with each other. Erik regarded Chin as an arrogant bully with a bad temper while Chin felt Erik was spineless, nosy and also arrogant. This created a hazardously tense atmosphere of impatience. Meanwhile, Lucy regarded the two as immature in their quarrels – especially at a time like this – and felt sick with fear.

After a tense session of silent wandering, Chin spoke up, "Nice fighting back there. I almost wet my pants, I was so scared." The sarcasm was beyond obvious.

Erik said nothing, trying not to allow Chin to aggravate him.

"Look," Chin changed his tone, "if you're not going to fight with us, then you're basically fighting against us."

Erik almost stopped on his spot.

"Chin!" Lucy snapped.

Xin Fu

Chin is not impressed by Erik.

"Well... I suppose if the bugs eat you first then that gives us some time to get away. So I guess you're not completely useless. But, c'mon, if you're not going to help us, what's the point of you being here? Grow a pair, or go away."

Erik tried thinking of some hard-hitting retaliation but could only come up with something perhaps remotely jarring; "Look, the truth is, no, I'm not here to help you stay alive. In fact, I wish you weren't here at all. But you are. So can you please keep your mouth shut so we can focus on getting out of this place?"

"Fine by me, kid," agreed Chin sourly, "But if you get held up by a Molipede or two don't expect me and my sword to help you out. Not at all. I've got a family to protect."

"And me the Avatar."

Chin and Lucy stopped in their tracks. Surely this kid was just making up lies in order to gain the moral high ground.

"What?" Lucy muttered, feathery wisps of hope fluttering, like a delicate bird, inside her chest with the prospect of the Avatar's presence.

"Honey, he's fooling us," whispered Chin as they began walking again, "The Avatar is..." He trailed off.

He was about to disprove Erik's statement but there was no proof that what the boy had said was false. Chin did not know the whereabouts of the Avatar and both Sedgley and Dover, the other children of appropriate age, were indeed waterbenders. Perhaps he was telling the truth.

Erik piqued up, "So don't expect much from me either."

~

Crunch, crunch, crunch.
Pant.
Rumble.
What was that? 
Silence.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.
Trip. Curse.
Pant.
Crunch, crunch, crunch.
Breeze. Near the end?
Crunch, crunch, crunch.

Silence.

Nothing.

Curse.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

~

"What do you think it means?" whispered Sedgley to Anurna. 

" What?"

"The poem. I'm assuming he heard it, right? What do you think it means?"

"Are you serious?" Anurna hissed, "Jeez! It's about sucking it up and taking one for the team. Dropping all your stupid problems and keeping an eye out for bloodthirsty monsters! Got it?"

Sedgley was silenced.

"I – I'm sorry." Anurna recognised that she had lashed out, "It's just this whole cave thing is kind of stressing me out, so I'm not really in the mood to decipher poems."

Sedgley was still silent in response to Anurna's outburst. He had already felt annoyed at his argument with Dover, so this clash was the cherry on top of the already sulky cake.  Anurna knew that, in order to maintain some level of trust and rapport with the boys, she had to tend to their problems – as any 'friend' would. In fact, she truly was concerned as to who the Avatar would be, so she figured she may as well help Sedgley out.

"Look, all you have to do is listen to the words and then it's easy. Think about it," she explained, "the poem says that an Avatar never becomes jealous and that they should value friendship above all else." By this point, Anurna was speaking loud enough so everyone could hear. "Basically, in order to be a good Avatar, you have to be righteous, selfless and... nice. You know, all the things I'm not. Do you get it now?"

"Yeah," said Sedgley in a mellow tone, "I do."

Suddenly, a terrible scuttling sound filled the tunnel. Miko screeched, as frighteningly as he could, into the abyss behind them. A petrifying shriek rebutted, sending shockwaves of fear down everyone's spines as a group of five or six Molipedes charged furiously towards them.

"Act fast, kids!" Marco yelled.

Facing his side to the attackers, he jabbed one fist upwards, squishing one insect between the ceiling and a pillar of earth, while sending the other, in conjunction with a sliding foot, in the opposite direction, pushing earth away from them so they had room to move. Anurna, cat-like and spinning with a foot in the air, created a burst of orange flames. The cavern lit up, revealing the true extent of the creatures' grotesque features.

They were covered in pale, red scars that darkened and became rougher at the edges. Their pallid, grey skin grew around the scars like a loaf of clammy bread rising around string. Their eyes, festering with anger and old dirt, watered with each sharp hiss while their forceps, dripping with carrion, salivated an almost opaque ooze at the thought of biting through flesh and bone.

Dover couldn't help but feel sorry for the animals; though they were at the top of the food chain in this mountain labyrinth, their lives were reduced to nothing but anger and appetite, only taking pleasure in tasting blood.

Nevertheless, he had to protect himself and the others. Popping open his water skin, he used a whip of water in hope of deterring the Molipedes. Anurna, quickly extending her arm and opening the palm, fired a blazing torrent, scorching a few of the bugs. Marco managed to pull a few rocks down from the ceiling, squashing another. Only one insect remained, and began charging at Sedgley. Dover, in light of understanding Marco's poem, unhinged the pouch from his belt.

"Sedgley," he yelled, tossing the skin in his direction, "here!"

The boy caught it successfully. Draining all possible liquid from the object, and manipulating it to a larger volume, a surge of water from Sedgley proved all too effective in sending the beast away to a safe distance.

With one final outwards kick by Marco the remaining earth in front of them was torn down.

The afternoon sunlight gushed in, blinding them, wrapping them up in glorious yellowy ribbons and fresh air flooded their dusty lungs, welcomed whole-heartedly like the first rains of the Desert's winter. At last they were outside.

~

They heard a rumble.

"Do you think the Molipedes come by here often, seeing as this tunnel is man-made?"

"I don't know, dear..." Chin's voice was gruff.

Erik wondered the same thing. The Molipedes could either frequent this area – knowing all to well how many human-sized meals pass through – or leave it alone – having grown aware that the humans fight back. He hoped for the latter, as he was still unsure whether he would be gutsy enough to brave the gargantuan monsters.

He wanted to see his friends, Dover and Sedgley. Anurna had grown on him, despite her shifty tendencies, and he hoped to see her again. He even wished he would see Marco's face again, and wondered if the old man would be able to keep them safe outside of his tunnel.

Erik stopped. Something had stopped him.

"What is it now, boy?" Chin asked grumpily, "Do you need to pee again?"

Su screeched in delight at her father's jeer. Another, different screech echoed.

"I think that might have been taken care of..." Chin muttered, pulling out his sword, shaken to his core with fear but stony, fearless on the outside.

They all began to run deeper into the tunnel, chased by horrifying moans of hungry Molipedes and fearsome sounds of many scuttling legs. Lucy was crying, holding her baby close, while Chin's unarmed arm was wrapped around her waist, urging her to keep up with him. Erik was slightly ahead of them, having no burdens. Behind him, a hissing Molipede burst from the ceiling only to be decapitated by Chin. Its twitching body fell to the floor, and was kicked aside by its killer.

"Again, thanks for the help."

Lucy was too scared to tell off her husband.

They continued running and could hear the advancing creatures behind them. A crumbling sound up ahead followed by that same, life-threatening shriek meant that there were more up ahead. Chin screamed defiantly, let go of his wife and charged forward with his sword in front of him. Guttural squelches and pained wails splattered across the tunnel walls, echoing down to Erik, Lucy, and Su in an unfathomably unsettling way. Chin limped back, only slightly injured yet severely worn out.

"Da," Su gurgled. She had forgotten the day's terror when her daddy came back. How simple it was for her to forget and reach out for a giggly cuddle.

Lucy smiled proudly, relief falling on her, tiring her. Chin's survival had reassured her too, but all too suddenly it was taken away again when her husband's eyes widened with fear. He stepped forward, but something in his ankle – a broken bone, or sprain perhaps – hindered him.

Erik, noticing the change in atmosphere, turned to see a Molipede, upright, on its hind legs, its clammy, grey segments recoiling with every stretch higher. It was ready to pounce. Its forceps were twitching with anticipation, resisting with all its might to make no noise. The great bug lunged at Lucy. Erik, seemingly out of instinct, reached for the wooden staff behind his back, hoping that he wouldn't miss it like last time. With a firm hold, he smashed the heavy stick into the Molipede's face before it could make an impact with Lucy. He started shouting. He repeatedly whacked the beast on the top of its head, its hind legs flailing in an attempt to flee, until the exoskeleton cracked and watery, green brains toppled out.

Panting, he said, "Let's get out of here."

He and Lucy hoisted Chin onto his feet, little Su on his shoulders and speedily continued through the darkness. Their torch had gone out in the scuffle, so the only thing they could do was hurry in complete blackness. Gradually, the walls became increasingly more visible. Soon, a great circle of light beamed into the tunnel. They couldn't believe their squinting eyes. Either Molipedes had unknowingly eaten them or they had finally reached the exit. Nonetheless, they picked up their gait and were soon drenched in sunlight, exposed to the open sky.

Before they even had time to appreciate their new surroundings, the wall beside them burst open. Erik's heart sunk as he expected Molipedes to come swarming out. Instead, it was Marco's grimy foot that exited the hole. Dover, Sedgley, and Anurna toppled out behind him, revering in the conditions the same way Su did, smiling toothily and laughing in disbelief – though, unfortunately, they did not clutch at passing butterflies.

"Dover! Sedgley!" Erik yelled.

"Anurna!" the firebender yelled back, feeling a little left out.

"I'm so glad you're safe!" He ran down and hugged all three of his friends.

"Same here, buddy!" agreed Sedgley, pulling everyone in tighter.

"All right! Let's not have too much of this!" Anurna said, pushing the emotional boys off her. 

Canyon guide

Marco successfully lead them through the tunnel.

Marco wandered up to everyone, counting heads. He brushed some bushy hair off his forehead and said, as cheery as ever, "Well, a few dramas but like I told ya, 'I always get the job done!'"

They sat down on a log, relishing in some bread and jam; they even broke open the tinned sardines to celebrate being alive. Chin put a hand on Erik's shoulder.

"Thanks, kid," he said.

The gratitude was all too evident in his eyes; sparkling as he watched his wife, sitting prettily in the grass and flowers, and daughter, whose blonde curls bounced happily as she chased butterflies and grasshoppers, no longer afraid of the insects. Sedgley placed the water skin back in Dover's lap, proud of his friend.

"You sure?" Dover asked, looking up.

"Yeah, thanks," Sedgley responded, "Let's just keep to the plan. I'll get my turn on Tuesday, okay?"

"Sure thing," Dover was overjoyed, not only at getting the water skin back, but also at the return of his old friendship with Sedgley, of which he valued even stronger now. "Sardine?"

"I thought you'd never ask!"

Finishing their meal, and after a little play with Su, the four children parted ways with the others. Chin and his family were headed North to stay with family and Marco intended on accompanying them for some of the way, feeling the time of tunnels and angry bugs in his life was over.

Waving goodbye, and starting Westwards downhill, the four children, reunited at last, were thankful they were alive; for now they were finally out of Gao Lin and nearing the edge of their home province, their journey of discovery had officially begun.

~

Trivia

  • Word count = 8,414
  • The Molipede is an original creature, based off a giant millipede with the noses of a mole (particularly that of a star-nosed mole).
  • The poem that Marco recites is original, and seems more like a silly limerick than a proper poem.

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