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Book One: Water
August 12, 2013
Following Mother Leliita's dying wishes for the Avatar to restore balance to the world, Dover, Sedgley, Erik, Anurna and Miko head to Haven for help.
When captured by the Bloody Knuckles in Chan Dai, Dover was tortured by Alphonse and his henchmen but saved by his friends. After fleeing the town, they continue to head to West towards Maderia, the green city.
~ Chapter Six: Mother Nature ~
~ Chapter Six: Mother Nature ~
Sedgley grunted as he tripped over a mossy log and his already-saturated foot landed in a muddy puddle. He almost slipped but grabbed onto a tree branch for stability, which was flung back into Erik's face when he let go of it.
"Hey, watch it!" Erik whinged, rubbing his stinging nose with one hand and scratching a mosquito bite with another.
They had been on the move for days on end. Finally ending their traverse down the mountainous countryside away from Chan Dai, the horrible place it was, they now had to bash through the thick forests of the valley below, the only pit stop being Maderia, which was tucked away somewhere deep in the trees. What was once the bite of the cold was now the sweat of the heat that irked them, and the terrain, once a beaten path, but a path nonetheless, was substantially more difficult than before. Erik had lost his way from the track outlined on his maps, which was understandable considering it seemed there was no physical track to begin with, and the GPS on Anurna's phone was in and out of service. They were well and truly lost.
"Anurna," Dover puffed, his scar tensing and relaxing with each breath, "you must've been through here before to get to Gao Lin. How'd you do it?"
She stopped and thought, "I used my GPS mostly. But the stupid thing's not working at all now."
"As long as we keep heading West we'll be fine," Erik explained, examining the compass that was hanging from his belt, "We may not make it to Maderia but at least we'll get out of this forest, for sure."
And so they continued West, ignoring the maps for now as it was, indeed, a hopeless act. As midday turned into evening, the already ominous shadows of the forest looming further, and night-time turning into morning, and the squeaks and hisses of near and far creatures echoing through the trees, the children couldn't help but feel slightly uneasy as they ventured deeper into the green. Dover remembered back to the secret tunnel in Gao Lin, and how they were once surrounded by complete darkness. The leafy canopy above wasn't totally as effective as earth in blocking the Sun, yet was still able to plunge the undergrowth in shadows and, although they were sure no Molipedes inhabited the area, they all felt they were being watched, if not by some fearsome beast, then by something. Or someone.
It was only when a bat flew into Erik's face that the silence was broken.
"Get it off! Get it off!" the boy shrieked as the animal flapped messily around his face.
Miko hissed and jumped on the bat's back, causing Erik to fret further. He stumbled backwards, tripped over a log and fell down a hill.
"Erik!" Dover yelled over the commotion, until the warring animals crashed into him, pushing him over a log, and sending him careening down a slope in the opposite direction.
"Dover?" Sedgley shouted, confused beyond belief at what was happening.
He chased after him. He could hear the boy's screams, and the sound of stems breaking as Dover's body ran over them like a sled, however there was no sight of him below the ferns and bushes. Suddenly, a hole in the ground caught the better of him. Sedgley tripped and flew through the air, landing in a tangle of vines, hanging from the trees like a fly in a spider's web.
"Miko! Stop it!" Anurna demanded, nimbly dodging the raucous marsupial as it, along with the troublesome bat, bounced off Dover and flew off into the trees, disappearing with a rustle of leaves.
Somewhere along the way Sedgley had vanished and she was now standing atop the mound by herself. Blowing some hair out of her face, she looked around at the empty scene. It would be comical, she thought, if it weren't so dangerous in these woods.
I wake up and the air is colder than it was before. My head is pounding furiously, like my brain's about to burst from my temples.
I might have a concussion! Boy that would be the worst. Lost in the middle of a strange forest trying to deal with a medical emergency...
I breathe in slowly, calming myself down, and try to remember what had just happened to me. Like a mist slowly creeping through tree trunks, the memories eventually come back. I remember a bat flying into my face, the bones in its wings like metal wires whipping me, and then tumbling down a hill and finally hitting a tree trunk.
Yeah, I most likely have a concussion then...
I pick up my staff that had fallen off my back and use it to hoist my aching body up from the ground. My knees quiver with pain.
"Sedgley!" I yell, looking around at the all-encompassing expanse of green, "Dover!"
No one responds.
At least they're all still together, I think.
"Anurna!" I shout again, half-expecting her to sneak up from the shadow of a tree or twirl athletically from some high-up branch.
But, yet again, nothing.
The shadows are darker than before and what very few glimpses of the sky I get are grey, going on night – not exactly the best time of day to be bumbling about in the woods by oneself. How long had I been unconscious?
I peer at my surroundings again, hoping to spot my path of broken plants and snapped sticks and follow it back up to the others. However the evening light is acting strange – that or my concussion is more serious than I thought – and I can't for the life of me distinguish between what is colour and what is shadow. The light, or lack thereof, bends and refracts through the translucent leaves, smudging my vision. I can't see the path. I can't see any stems or leaves or trees at all. I've lost my sense of depth perception; it's as though I've been warped into a watercolour painting where someone has grabbed a paintbrush wet with water and smeared all the colours into one inconceivable green blur.
My heart gallops, my temples throb, and my breathing quickens.
I step out in front of me, stabilising myself with my staff, and hear a twig snap under my boot. I look down but all I see is a swirling mass of brown and khaki; leaf litter presumably, but to me its like quicksand or the mouth of some ravenous monster. My foot's stuck. I try to move the staff outwards but my arms are locked too. I look back up at the swirling, dark-green smear and truly believe I am underground.
I can't breath. Leaves and dirt and paint and mud clog my mouth, putrid, turbid water trickling into my lungs and drowning me. I'm choking.
I recall falling to my knees, my eyes clenched shut hoping it would all wash away, but the grip on my heart and lungs remaining.
As I kneel in the middle of nowhere my worries glance towards the others. I hope they're okay.
By now the feeling that he was being watched was even worse than before. With each passing step Dover's nerves heightened and, with each stick he snapped stepping on, his eyes would flick back to his peripheries. He didn't feel safe.
Something in the way the twilight glow scattered through the canopy was unsettling.
Gently rubbing his scar, which was stinging more than usual due to toppling down that hill, Dover had tried to find the others. Yet he was so dazed by the sudden chaos and the eerily similar surroundings that he had no idea how to start looking for them, and so headed off in what he thought was the right direction.
By now, though, he had concluded he was lost. The monolithic trees chanted a singular, guttural note, almost an omen of something to come, while the vines, hanging wispily like the hairs of Medusa, or like parasitic worms hanging from their prophetic hosts, sang in mischievous whispers, bewitching him, reaching out like hands, to press forward.
Dover pushed through the scrub, reaching out for the emerald hands to help him along, and the vines behind him brushed his shoulders and tickled his neck. He knew it was just a vine that touched him. But what if it was actually a hand?
As he wandered deeper into the entanglement, this fear continued to play at his mind until a bunch of vines bounced onto his chest. His scar suddenly seared with pain, as though the torture he had once experienced was happening all over again.
He looked down at his chest where a muscular hand was clawing at him, sticking one long fingernail into the tip of his scar and tearing downwards, as though unzipping him. Dover's innards spilled out, turning to dust and floating away into the shadowy mist of the forest. Dust now began pouring out of him, cascading towards the ground but puffing into an almost opaque cloud before reaching the leaf litter. He peered through the dusty fog, seeing shadows looming behind trees and scurrying behind bushes.
"Sh-show yourself!" he stuttered, shakily raising his arm to a fighting stance in front of him.
"Well, well, well..." a gruff voice muttered, gurgling like gravel in a blender, "We meet again, young waterbender."
Deep from within the milky smoke Dover could see a small orange glow. He started sweating profusely, his stomach tensing in fear, tugging at his scar.
"No..." he whispered; it couldn't be true, they had been on the move for days.
The voice laughed, reverberating like a witch's chant through the trees, and the orange glow crept forward, revealing itself as the end of Alphonse's cigar. He blew smoke out through his teeth, which were shining like daggers and caked with Dover's dried blood, adding to the fog, and grimaced straight into the boy's eyes, his own ones glowing the same feverish auburn as the dirty butt he puffed on.
"Why yes, my boy," he spoke like an animal, spraying his words past a mangled, wet throat, his body drenched in the fluid of his enemies whom he'd outwitted to survive, picking at their remains, "What, did you think you could escape so easily? I've got my eyes on you, remember?"
"No..." Dover whimpered again, falling to his knees, or pushed down by McKay and Diego, as the heinous villain slid across to him like an octopus.
Dover's scar was throbbing with the beat of his frenzied heart. Could this actually be happening? Just as he had left Chan Dai, he had vowed to himself that he would be ready the next time he'd meet Alphonse and his henchmen. But, as Diego tore into his stomach and feasted, giggling, on his entrails, which no longer turned to dust but grew back as soon as they had been ingested, it was obvious to him that he was not ready at all.
Alphonse leant down and breathed the stench of his heavy tongue into Dovers face, "The forest can do weird things to a man, boy, just you wait."
"Dover! Erik!" Sedgley called, slicing through some vines with the frozen water from his pouch, "Anurna!"
He sliced again, identical green revealed behind the falling vines.
"Anyone?" he puffed, plopping himself down onto a tree stump, his cheeks red with exhaustion.
He had never been so tired in his life. They had literally not stopped moving since fleeing Chan Dai, and the recent debacle had thrust him into a whole new dimension of fatigue. Not to mention the thoughts that exhausted his mind.
Why had none of them entered the Avatar State back in Chan Dai? Were either of them even the Avatar?
Every time he caught even a skerrick of this idea in his head, he had to shut it out with the faith that Mother Leliita was right. She had been right about everything else in her life, why would she be wrong now? How could she be wrong?
Nonetheless, all the walking and slicing was getting frustrating and the fact that he was alone – lost probably, but certainly alone at present – meant that it was hard to keep faith and the doubt consumed him.
Just as he submitted to the dreadful, worried thoughts he felt like a heavy wave of water swallowed him up. Sedgley's lungs contracted with the weight, his heart beat slowly and sorely inside his throat and the tumbling water turned his mind to a churning whitewash of doubt, grief and jealousy.
The feeling soon passed, the violent waves settling down and receding into the horizon, as Dover stumbled through the bushes.
"Dover! I sure am glad to see you. I thought I was going to get lost soon enough." Not just in this forest, mind you, he thought.
"Me too. I don't like this forest, Sedgley," Dover responded blankly.
"Yeah, neither do I, buddy."
For a short while they were silent, Dover just stared at Sedgley as though waiting for his lead. Sedgley could sense something was off with the boy.
"What is it?" he asked, stepping past Dover to look for the others.
"How come none of us went into the Avatar state in Chan Dai?" Dover asked bluntly, following Sedgley and then stopping when the boy turned around, his blue eyes looking concerned under his blonde ringlets.
"What?" Sedgley remarked, astounded. Had Dover been thinking exactly the same thing as him?
Dover opened his mouth to explain, but suddenly a glowing ball of white light tore through the leaves and landed into him, knocking him over. The ball of light seemed to hum with an electrical pulse and, as the hum became higher pitched, Dover moaned in agony.
"Dover!" Sedgley screamed, rushing to his side, "What is it? What just happened?"
He looked closer at the light, which was made of plastic or metal and, he noticed when he tried to pry it from his friend, was clamped onto Dover's arm. The strange machine, whatever it was, had a lining of small needles and, near where they had pricked him, Dover's veins bulged blue with the toxins.
"Dover, hold on, I'll think of something," Sedgley mumbled frantically, "I just don't know what this thing is!"
Then, as the pieces all came together in his mind, he understood. Dover's eyes, previously clenched shut in response to the pain from what Sedgley now knew was an Inducer disc, burst open in a brilliantly horrific display of white. Sedgley peered into the Avatar's glowing white eyes, the expanse, the knowledge of all Avatars past and present, like a manuscript. The vacuous white void read like a sneer, a spit in Sedgley's face teasing him about not being the Avatar.
"Dover?" Sedgley muttered, leaning back from the boy who lay atop his knees, unable to believe what was happening.
"Sedgley," Dover spoke meekly, as though drained, his eyes still glowing and his voice still talking with all those of his predecessors, "please, help. The Clandestines are coming, they know I'm the Avatar."
Sedgley purveyed the trees, perverted by the evening dapple, seeing nothing.
"Dover..." he murmured again, shaking his head of upcoming tears, salty with disbelief.
How could this be? How could Dover be the Avatar and not him?
He was the better fighter. He had the stronger, more resilient spirit. How could he not be the Avatar? How?
Sedgley fell to his knees, a squirming Dover by his side, and was shrouded by undergrowth. He looked over at the boy who was once just like him, but was no so much more important.
"How..." he spluttered quietly through tears.
By now Dover's attempts to cry for help were nothing but raspy gasps, cut short by the pain of the Inducer chemicals. He was writhing around in the leaf-litter like a caterpillar-grub bitten by a fire ant – funny how even the Avatar can be compared to an insect, thought Sedgley nastily.
Stop! He screamed inside. Stop this jealousy, you idiot! He's the Avatar, it doesn't matter anymore! Help your friend! You stupid thing!
The malicious thoughts were somewhat worse than the fact that he wasn't the Avatar.
"Se-... He-lp...!" Dover shuddered.
"Over there, by the bushes!" someone yelled.
Sedgley prayed it was Erik, who may know how to get rid of the damned thing fixed to the Avatar's arm.
Heavy, thudding footsteps jogged up to them – not the clumsy, light ones of Erik. Sedgley pushed himself behind a fern, Dover's watering, white eyes following him.
"Well, look what we have here," jeered a pair of legs that stopped next to Dover, "Looks like we caught ourselves an Avatar."
"Better tell the boss," a rough, male voice said, before clicking on a walkie talkie and speaking, "Clandestine Forest Team, Avatar found and captured."
Upon hearing his reply, they picked up Dover, who grunted through his teeth, and dragged him through the woods. He was violently thrashing about, again, like the poisoned caterpillar-grub. His white eyes bore directly through the fern and into Sedgley.
"Don't!" he finally screamed, the fear of capture and the pain of it all manifesting in his voice in a gut-wrenching howl, "Let me go! Sedgley, help me, help!"
Sedgley remained behind the fern, his mind at war; hatred and envy against brotherhood and love.
"Sedgley...!" Dover moaned still, throwing his legs about, trying to break free, "Sedgley! Sedgley!"
He couldn't take it. He had to run away. He closed his eyes; they were blurry from distress anyway, got up and careened through the woods away from the scene. Behind him he could her the incoherent wails of Dover, for words could not express his feelings. And neither could they Sedgley's. All he could do was breathe. And run. Away.
"Miko, you know what, no dinner for you tonight!" Anurna yelled through the trees, hoping her mischievous pet would come scampering on back to redeem himself some food, "Actually, when I'm through with you, you'll b –"
She was blown to the ground before she could finish. A few of the bushes and trees surrounding her were ablaze.
Her eyes darted here and there, looking for an enemy. She had been trying to find the others for hours now, she was not in the mood for a night-time skirmish.
She pushed herself up from the ground, despite the heavy pack on her back, grabbed a tree branch from above and pulled herself into the tree, landing on the branch with deadly elegance.
No one in sight. Though it was a thick forest...
She could hear thunder in the distance, and the crack of lightning, causing the hairs on the back of her neck to stand on end. She shuddered, shaking the fear away, and looked around once more.
"I'm warning you, whoever you are, I'm a girl, yes. But I've killed a man before, so choose your next step wisely. It could be your last." She chose her words carefully; knowing a lot of the time it was the way you spoke that got you out of trouble.
What had happened? Surely someone had shot a fireball at her. Looking around yet again, she could see no flames on the trees that were once smouldering with orange. The air around her crackled with static. Something was weird.
Anurna lifted up her hand in defence, when a blue streak of electricity burst from her fingertips. The terrifying pulse of energy extended from her hand, spasmodically danced through the air like a snake of sin, and struck a tree, obliterating it into tiny pieces.
She looked at her hands, the once delicate fingers of a girl now the uncontrollable claws of a killer. She had heard of lightning generation, hoped that one day she could master it and exceed her already commendable strength. But the thought alone was terrifying. To be able to control that much power, sheer energy, was something, perhaps the only thing, that frightened her. She had tried to do it once, but it didn't end very well. No, not very well at all, she thought.
The electricity was still coursing through her. She had to ground herself before it destroyed her like the flaming stump in front of her. She jumped, spinning in the air and accidentally tearing up more static with the action, and landed on the ground. Nothing happened. She was still overcharged with energy.
A breeze blew through the trees. The air around her arms crackled, polarising.
Anurna, she heard the wind whisper.
The airy sound was both soothing, bringing with it wafts of nostalgia, and ominous, causing the energy inside her to reverberate and escape in another bolt of lightning which again exploded a tree. She could only just shield herself from the debris with an arm before firing off yet another frightening streak of blue.
Anurna, the voice chimed again, this time more desperate, almost pleading.
"What...?" she grunted, curling up into a ball.
She hoped doing so wouldn't allow the electricity to shoot from her fingertips, however small, furious zigzags of light radiated from her body, snapping like ostrich-horse tails trying to swat away hordes of ravenous flies.
The wind didn't reply, except continued to mutter her name in zephyrous sighs, exciting the electricity that danced from Anurna's body.
A fearful tear streamed down Anurna's face, quickly annihilated by the heat of the lightning, as she muttered, "I'm so sorry..."
Miko and the bat crashed through the canopy leaves. Hurtling along, twigs scraped against their limbs as the two angry creatures battled it out.
Screeching with fury, Miko was determined to win this scuffle.
He always came out on top in times like these; travelling with Anurna must have made him tough and resilient – not like those other squirrel-gliders who spend their days in cosy tree hollows. Miko was fighter. However this blasted bat was too.
The hard, wiry bones of his wings, almost like metal, struck the squirrel with every flap and his small, sharp claws pulled at his fur, tearing it out in tufts. No matter how much Miko screeched – which was often enough to deter his enemies – the bat continued to fight back, like it was on some sort of mission. Clawing at its face, Miko glanced to its beady, black eyes. Something in the way they glinted, or maybe it wasn't in the eyes, maybe it was the way the bat smelt, was unnatural to Miko.
Suddenly the bat flung him down onto a tree branch and flew off into the thickets of the canopy, clumsily rustling as it went.
Miko's little back was sore, as were his stinging paws. Getting to his feet, he licked his wounds, aware of his defeat.
What a shame...
He couldn't remember the last time he lost a fight. Then again, he couldn't remember much, being so small a creature. It was more of a habit that he never lost. Just like it was a habit to eat at sunset and for Dover to scratch him behind the ear every few hours.
His little thoughts went to Dover, Anurna and his other friends. He could really go a bag of seeds right now, he thought.
Chattering with some animal emotion, only now realising what he had gotten himself into, and that he was lost for what he perceived as imminent eternity, Miko walked in a circle before finding a comfy spot on the tree branch to doze on. Shutting his sore eyes, he slept, unsure of what his new life would bring as a wild animal again.
For a while he slept, ears still pricked for any lurking danger, as the bat and its strength had unnerved him, until the sound of gunshot woke him up. Screeching with shock at first, but then feeling compelled to find the source of it, he flew off in the direction of the noise, disappearing yet again into the sea of green.
"Where were we?" Alphonse asked, his animal lips drooling with excited anticipation, "Ah, that's right. We were just picking up from where we left off in Chan Dai."
Dover squirmed under the weight of McKay's arms, trying to shake Diego who was still feasting on his entrails. He was reliving everything that had happened in that town – not that what was happening to him now really occurred, but he truly believed so. He remembered being torn open – that of which was true – he remembered dirty sand falling from his belly, and he remembered Diego eating his intestines. All of this had happened before, and it was even more terrifying the second time round.
"Stop it!" he yelled, "You can't do this!"
How he wished Sedgley were here to save him again, or Anurna, or Erik even. In fact, anyone else's company but these men's would be graciously welcomed by Dover.
"The world is full of creeps like me, boy," Alphonse oozed, noxious gas spilling in bursting bubbles running down his face, "You'll meet worse ones than me out there, I swear."
"No one is worse than you," Dover spat, hopelessness seeping in.
"No one is worse than me, yet," Alphonse smiled, kneeing Diego out of the way and shoving his fist into Dover's heart.
The boy was winded. He could see his scar on the ground, torn off from when the enemies attacked. That stupid, bloody scar. A reminder of his failure, a warning of worse things to come.
He looked up at Alphonse, whose eyes were growing wider with bloodlust. He looked he was about to completely consume Dover until he shot a cowardly glance to the left and disappeared in a misty puff. Sedgley burst through the bushes. Dover's insides were again inside, where they were meant to be, and his scar on his outside, where it happened to be.
They were gone. Just as they had appeared out of nowhere, Alphonse and his men had transpired back into it. He was dazed. What had happened? It had felt so unbelievably real...
"Dover?" Sedgley asked, his eyes red and swollen, "I thought you were..."
Dover was silent.
Sedgley took a step forward. The inducer was missing from Dover's arm. Was there even one to begin with?
"Dover," he said firmly, "is that you?"
Dover swallowed, returned to reality, "Yes."
That was enough to reassure him. Heck, the Dover he spoke to moments earlier sounded nothing like this one.
He walked over to his friend, who was kneeling on the leaf litter with his palms to the canopy, and pulled him into a tight embrace, clutching Dover's head to his stomach. He thanked the spirits that Dover was okay, and his eyes blurred again to a close. Dover lifted a hand up and rested it on Sedgley's arm, warm, beautiful tears streaming down his cheeks. The saltiness, the warmth, the sensation was much more real than the torture he thought he had just gone through. These tears of joy were more painful, far more real, than Alphonse's grip on his heart.
Even if Sedgley didn't know it, he had saved Dover from Alphonse yet again, and for that Dover couldn't even comprehend how indebted he was to him. Little did he know, Sedgley prayed Dover would forgive him for his previous abandonment, and sighed in relief for now at Dover's touch, knowing too well that he wouldn't forgive himself if in the future he ever let his friend, his brother, down.
"For a second there I thought everything was over..." Sedgley choked.
Dover's eyes stopped running, he squeezed his friends arm, "Me too. I thought I was lost for good."
Suddenly a gunshot went off. Their heads snapped to the direction of its source. Sedgley helped Dover up off the ground, and they ran to it, thinking only of Erik and his newly purchased gun.
Erik picked up the gun from his things scattered around the forest floor. He held it in his hand, the background awash with swirling, dark hues, his foreground focused on the stupidly terrifying object.
He hated this thing. He hated fighting. But he hated this thing the most.
All it was good for was death. It was designed by man to kill – as if they hadn't done enough bad without it. It was unnatural, and did not exist in this world, or at least in his. As much as his bleeding consciousness, struggling to act cohesively in the suffocating mud of the forest, felt about the gun, he knew it had to belong in his world. He knew one day he would have to use it. If Dover or Sedgley were in trouble, Anurna even, he would have to swallow his fear, his anger, his grief, and use the thing.
His hands shook in front of him, rattling the metal object.
What would his mother think, she who was so opposed of such a weapon? She would be ashamed to call him her son.
"Erik," called a voice from above him.
He strained his neck upwards, wrapping his fingers around the trigger unknowingly.
It was his mother. Leliita was standing above him, clear as day, her eyes furrowed with shame or impatience or some uncharacteristic emotion. Erik knew she was dead. He reminded himself every day, so that they would keep on track of her wishes. But the woman before him looked so real, so alive. It was horrible to see her again, and perfect. Mother Nature was playing a cruel trick on him. A cruel trick indeed.
"Erik," she commanded, again sounding callous, "How do you expect to win this battle if you can't even shoot a gun?" She raised his hands up to her, "If you don't do this now, you never will. You've got to shoot this gun, Erik."
She was saying everything he knew was wrong. She would never say this. He would think this, but she would never say it.
"Erik!" she scorned, causing him to flinch and tighten his grip, pointing the firearm straight at her nose, "Shoot. The damn. Gu –"
The gun went off. Leliita was gone. The bullet raced off into the forest somewhere.
Erik's eyes were shut tight, his arm stretched out to his side away from his mother. He couldn't do it. He felt he had made the right choice, for his vision had returned and he no longer felt like death, yet he couldn't shake the feeling it would come back to bite him in the bud in the future. Either way, he had to gather his things and senses and carry on finding the others.
Suddenly Anurna and Miko burst through the trees.
"Miko, you scoundrel!" Anurna yelled as she landed her jump, scratching him affectionately behind the ear, the little creature chittering warmly at the return of company.
"Guys, am I glad to see you," Erik puffed, still a little shaken, "How'd you find me?"
"I followed the gunshot," Anurna explained, she too catching her breath, "I knew that thing would come in handy someday."
Miko growled quietly in agreement.
"Well I guess we should find the others," Anurna said, placing a tired hand on her hip.
"You mean these two?" a voice from the trees asked.
A group of five men jumped down from the canopy, holding spears at the pair. Two others, facing away from them, waved their arms to side. With the movement, the gnarly branches of the trees before them were bent out of the way and another group of men led Dover and Sedgley into the clearing, who were tied up in vines.
"Guys!" Erik called, shocked.
"We heard your gunshot," a brazen, dark-skinned man exclaimed, "We've been watching you through the trees, silly boy, don't think we didn't see it either."
So they had been watched this whole time; all the children's suspicions were correct.
"Wait," Erik blurted out as the strangers picked up his things, "you're all Maderians aren't you? Plantbenders of the green city?"
"You've got that right," the leader confirmed, crossing his tanned arms, thick as the logs that surrounded them.
"Please, we were on our way to Maderia and got lost in the forest. We don't mean you any harm. We're from Gao Lin, passing through on our way to Haven. Could you escort us to your leader?"
"I don't take orders from little kids, pipsqueak."
He stepped forward, a tone of defiance in his voice, "We need to speak to your chief. The Avatar is in our company."
The man huffed out his nose and stared down at Erik. A few of the others mumbled to each other.
"The Avatar, huh? I thought the Clandestines would've gotten him by now."
"Come on Yuka, we always let the chief handle captives anyway..."
A vein throbbed in Yuka's temple before he finally burst out, "Fine! I'll take them to the chief!" He bent down and looked the kids in the eyes, "But if you so as look at that gun, any of you, we won't think twice about dumping you in a scorpion-snake nest."
"Deal," Erik smiled, not wanting to touch the gun any time soon anyway.
Following the Maderians through the woods, the shadowy trees and hooting calls of animals no longer seemed ominous to the children. Instead, they found it trivial how they were once so frightened. Miko still flitted about anxiously on Anurna's shoulder at any loud rustle, and the kids were silent, still pondering what had just happened to them and what it all meant, but they were considerably not as worried as they had been.
The Maderians seemed not to take a particular path through the trees. It was as if they could listen to the gentle swaying of the leaves, read the slow heaving of growing trees, and find their way. After about half an hour of walking they stopped. Yuka and some of his other men planted their feet firmly on the ground, bent down with their hands together and slowly wove back up to standstill, their arms now outstretched like the far-reaching branches of a tree. Slowly, in sync with the plantbenders' movements, the trees in front of them, so thick they almost formed a wall, peeled back. Behind the wooden curtain was Maderia.
Perched in and around a mossy conglomerate of monolithic trees was the green city, hanging above the ground in the branches. Yuka squatted down and swiftly shot back up. A mass of roots, like the gnarly hand of giant, carried them up into the canopy, where they landed on a platform made from the wood. Four men moved their hands from above, bringing down heavy vines that knotted to the platform, and carried them along. When each vine stretched to its capacity, a plantbender would bring in another one to take its place, and so created a steady movement through the treetops.
The kids watched in wonder as they glided past tree houses, patched together with corrugated iron and dodgy plaster but still grand in their high-up positions. Suddenly they stopped.
Yuka turned to them and nodded at Anurna, "She's gonna have to get off here. Don't allow firebenders in the city."
"What, why?" Anurna asked, voice raised in concern.
"Ain't it obvious?" piqued a small woman with sinewy muscles, "Huh, 'case ya burn it down."
"Whole city's made of wood, firebender," Yuka continued, shuffling Anurna off the plank of wood, "Now off you get."
"Okay! You don't have to push!" Anurna yelled, flicking his hands off her. She turned back to the boys, "Okay, I guess I'll see you soon."
"We will," Dover quickly affirmed. He had only just reencountered his friends after the frightful events in the forest; he didn't want to stay far from them too long.
Zooming away from Anurna, who looked a little forlorn at the sorry state of her accommodation, the boys now ventured deeper into Maderia. As they got closer to the centre, they noticed that the majority of the houses were built atop branches that stemmed from a huge, central tree. The colossal trunk, wizened with age, had been adorned with decorative ribbons and hanging ornaments – paper lanterns, totems and the like – and had been delicately modified by the resident plantbenders to look elegantly castle-like. They stared in awe at the great tree, where they assumed they would meet the chief, with their mouths gaping.
"That's the Mother Tree," the stringy woman said, noticing their awestruck faces, "Legend has some lost waterbenders were about to starve to death. They prayed to something for them to be saved, and then they stumbled upon this tree and built the city."
"Livia, that'll do," Yuka interrupted, his voice severe as ever, trying to assume leadership, "Those fables mean nothing now. All they need to know is that the Mother Tree gives us everything we have; food, shelter, safety. Without it we're nothing. We don't need stupid stories to understand that."
Livia shrugged and pulled down another vine, leaving the boys to soak in their last glimpses of the grandiose trunk before they entered a hole in the tree. It was dark inside, lit up by incandescent, green mushrooms and glowing, orange bracket fungus. Other wooden platforms sped past them throughout the labyrinth of tunnels inside the tree. They reached a dead end. Yuka and his team pushed upwards, levitating the wooden plank up through the tree. Fireflies gently wafted out of their way as they slowly climbed up the vein of the tree, and little critters peacefully watched them go by.
"How does the tree stay alive with all these tunnels inside it?" Erik asked, thinking it impossible for water to efficiently travel throughout the mass of man-made tubes.
"No one really knows," Livia answered mysteriously, then looked at Yuka, who must've given her a look that it was fine because she continued, "Well, waterbenders take it in turns circulating water around the tree. But it doesn't take much effort, so there must be other forces at work."
"Livia," Yuka hushed her, "We need to give back to Our Mother. We do what we need to keep her alive and healthy. But enough now. The chief's up here so be quiet – the lot of ya – and let me do the talking."
Soon enough they were stopped again, small tendrils of vegetation reached out from the base of an archway they were stopped by. The same tendrils, which looked only a few cells thick Erik noticed, came from the platform too and intertwined with the others until there was no definition between the two and they could walk through the archway. Dover and Sedgley could not stop thinking about the amazing waterbending powers these Maderians had mastered; from contorting massive branches to manipulating miniscule plant cells. It was unbelievably enticing to them to think that they were about to meet with the chief of Maderia, who was probably the greatest plantbending master in the city, but who also might think them enemies. A scouting party was escorting them as prisoners to him after all...
Walking through the archway, the boys were lead into a bridge. The bottom was made of wood while the top had been fashioned with glass, strengthened with vines of ivy in the cracks. Vibrant butterfly-wasps and elegant parakeet-doves danced in the lush canopy that surrounded them. Looking down, they could see many other bridges connecting the large branches of the Mother Tree, and further below was the rest of Maderia. They reached the end, where large, moss-covered doors awaited them, manned by guards in green.
"Chief Aran will see you now, General Yuka."
The big man breathed in, pushed a dreadlock back into his pony-tail, and exhaled, then pushed the doors open with his chest puffed out.
The boys were lead into a large, ornate room, with wooden pillars of giant, pulsating vascular tissue dotted evenly throughout. A sage man with broad shoulders sat behind a desk – no giant throne below him but a chair the same as all of his confidants'.
"Yuka, you have captives?" he asked casually.
"Yes chief," Yuka was the opposite of casual, his jaw tense and arms stiff, "We found them in the north-eastern sector of the forest. They had come from Gao Lin, on their way to Haven. A girl was with them who burned down a few trees and the scrawny one shot off a firearm. We detained them and –"
"– Yuka, please. A few trees grow back and 'the scrawny one' doesn't seem likely to use the weapon again," Chief Aran walked past Yuka and stopped at Erik, rubbing his chin as he muttered to himself, "No... I don't think he'll use it again any time soon..."
Erik's heart pounded in its pit. The man had seemed to look right through him, straight into his thoughts.
"Chief, I think we should do a proper evaluation. They were –"
"– They say one of them is the Avatar!" Livia burst, her raspy voice piercing through Yuka's, "One of the two waterbenders."
"Really?" Aran asked, astounded.
Livia nodded and then stepped back, as Yuka's eyes were bulging in anger straight at her.
Dover and Sedgley hoped with all their might that the chief of Maderia would have no affiliations with the Clandestines, like Alphonse, and wouldn't trade them off to the enemy without a second thought. Aran stared down at them imposingly
"Then unbind them!" he cried, flicking his wrist and sending the vines around the boys' wrists limp.
"Please, Aran, could you just take a few more minutes to –"
"I've taken time enough," Aran dismissed, flicking his wrists yet again and pulling wooden stools underneath the boys, "Hell, the whole world has waited long enough for the Avatar to reveal themself."
The boys smiled to themselves, relieved that Aran, and hence Maderia, were on their side. It was refreshing, even though they had only met their first real enemy in Chan Dai, to find an ally in Maderia, and each let out a discrete sigh.
"Exactly," Erik spoke, "If you don't mind my asking, we'd like to stay the night? We're passing through and would only need to stock up on some supplies and then leave."
"Not at all, boy! Where would my manners be? You said one of these two waterbenders is the Avatar, so I will teach him the art of my people! You're waterbenders, it can be done."
"That's very generous of you," Dover remarked, his hopes coming to fruition and becoming eager to better himself. Sedgley had learnt healing, and fast. It was now his turn to become a better waterbender; learning plantbending would be perfect.
"As is saving the world, so, Avatar, consider it even," he bowed at Dover and Sedgley, and then looked up when they didn't bow back, "Something wrong?"
Yuka huffed and pouted before Sedgley answered, "Well... We just don't know which one of us is the Avatar."
"That's fine," Aran shrugged, returning to his chair, "I'll teach you both. Any waterbender who travels with the Avatar also deserves to learn my tricks." The old chief smiled, and beckoned at Yuka and Livia, "You two, escort these three to the guest rooms and see to it that the girl – the, the, ah, firebender – gets a proper meal and mosquito-leech net. Boys," he addressed Dover and Sedgley, waving goodbye, "I'll see you tomorrow. Make sure Yuka shows you to the training arena."
He winked at the boys, making fun of Yuka, whose face was red and flustered with fury. He was a general, not 'the Avatar's' babysitter! Aran had a knack for staring into peoples' eyes and judging them. Most of the time it worked but, just like the old Maderian fables, Yuka thought it was rubbish.
Livia grinned and pulled them excitedly in the direction of the quarters as Yuka stiffly commanded his men to return to their posts. Coming into the guest rooms, which hung over a high-up branch and was equipped with hot, running water, the boys were left speechless at the luxury they were presented with. Redwall orphanage, the dingy Moorbird Inn, Anurna's 'temporary' Gao Lin apartment, cold tents and the decrepit inn at Chan Dai were the only accommodation they had experienced on their journey so far. The lavishness of the spacious room, well endowed with pillows, electrical appliances and information pamphlets about Maderia, was overpowering to them. Livia and Yuka bade them farewell, after Yuka obligatorily gave them his number, and the boys were left in peace.
"Huh," Erik read aloud, glancing over a pamphlet, "Did you know all of Maderia's electricity comes from hydroelectric power? I guess waterbenders really do reign supreme around here."
"That's... interesting, Erik," Sedgley feigned interest, changing the subject, "But you know what's even cooler? The chief of Maderia is going to teach us plantbending tomorrow! Us!"
"Wow!" Erik exclaimed, head still in the pamphlets, "Just under half the materials that make up the city are picked up from the side of roads or on the outskirts of the forest. They recycle everything; they literally are the 'green city!'"
"Erik," Dover continued, "We're learning plantbending from a master bender tomorrow. Come on, this is amazing!"
"Yeah, yeah, okay, cool, just give me back the pamphlet!"
Anurna kicked an acorn off the platform and watched it plummet into the unseeable depths of the forest below. Miko grumbled with boredom.
"I know buddy..." she spoke, "It sucks being here."
It had only been one night but she was bored out of her brain on the outskirts of an exciting city. She had asked the guards about the boys, and learnt that they were safe with the enigmatic chief. She had then also asked for some playing cards, a pai sho table – something! – anything to quench her boredom. Still though, the guards retained their animosity towards her. A firebender wasn't to be trusted with all these burnables about. The whole city was a giant bonfire, centred around the Mother Tree.
She sighed again, lowering further into her hunch. She considered texting her father, but knew he'd be busy at this time of day. Miko then screeched with glee and flew over her head. She turned around and, to her greatest pleasure, saw that Erik was walking up to her.
"Erik! Boy am I glad to see you!" she called, running up to him.
"Hey Anurna," also happy to see his friend was alright, "How are things out here?"
"Good. So, when do we leave?"
"I'm bored. When do we get outta this place?"
"Not for a while, I think," he answered, scratching Miko under the chin, "Chief Aran has invited to train the guys in plantbending. It's a real honour!"
He continued, not taking notice, "I've been soaking in the sights. Maderia has an excellent bird enclosure, full of tonnes of different birds! And this one noodle place was just... unbelievable!"
She was silent, sitting on the edge of the platform with her legs hanging over the side and her arms and chin resting on the rope. He sat down beside her, watching as a flock of white whiptails flew against the emerald canopy.
"Everything alright?" he asked, banging his ankles together in awkwardness.
"Yeah... I'm just bored is all."
She had spoken with almost no movement. Her eyes were glossed over and stared out to nowhere, glistening in the dappled light. Erik looked away from her face and stared away too, seeing if there was something worth looking at.
The whiptails had gone, but they were still audible, their wistful melodies bouncing against the heavy leaves of the forest. A small, robin-hawk sped past like a streak of red paint against the green, before quickly disappearing, and a giant pythonaconda coiled lazily on a far-off cluster of branches. A warm, humid wind washed past them; sweat condensing on Erik's upper lip.
Anurna rustled on her spot, wrapping her arms around her knees and burying her mouth in her elbows. Still they watched the jungle as if waiting for more ghostly apparitions to appear before them. The canopy overshadowed the understorey, a place where fear lurched between the ridges of fig trees and danger was not just physical, but mental. Erik remembered the all-too-lifelike hallucination of his mother he had witnessed the day before, how she demanded him to shoot her.
Anurna broke the silence, her voice muffled behind her arm, "You see anything last night? Anything weird?"
Erik looked at her. Her eyes were still looking out over the treetops but they were clear and focused for an answer. Had she seen something too? Not his mother, of course, but something else terrifying?
Finally he answered, "Yeah."
She looked up at him. He could see water forming in the bottom of her eyelids, and wished he was a waterbender and could wash them away with a single wipe of the hand.
As she turned her head to look back into the shadowy pit of the forest, she swore she could her that same voice whisper in the breeze.
Why Anurna...? Why?
"I swear, if you ask me one more time when the chief will see you I'm gonna throw you off this damn tree!" Yuka growled as he made a swiping motion with the back of his hand, a thin branch growing from the wooden wall and whipping Sedgley across the bottom.
"Okay! Okay!" he yelped, "Slow down big guy! We don't want the chief finding out about this."
He and Dover laughed boisterously as Yuka turned to look out the door and peer down at the city below him to calm down. He was fuming. He was a general, he kept telling himself. He deserved respect; even if it was the Avatar he demanded respect from.
Livia then strutted up from across a bridge, shot him a cheeky smile – she'll regret that, he cursed – and pushed past him to speak to the boys.
"Chief Aran is waiting for you in the training arena. Yuka will show you the way. Eh, boss?" she grinned toothily at him, before scampering mischievously out the door to avoid a swipe.
"Come this way," he exhaled through his teeth.
A short walk through the gigantic fork of the Mother Tree's branches eventually lead them to one that had been cleaved off completely. On the plane stood Aran, surrounded by fresh, regular-sized shoots. Piles of leaves sat on one end of the arena, while a bunch of vines resided on the other. It was the perfect place to train. However, before they could train, they had to learn.
"Welcome, boys, to the training are– oh, Yuka, you can leave now, you're dismissed," the chief beckoned for the general to leave before hastily continuing with breathless excitement, "I can't begin to tell you how honoured I am to teach the Avatar the bending discipline of my people."
"Please," Dover assured, itching to get started, "the honour's all ours'."
He led them into the centre of the arena, the spicy scent of incense meandering gently across the space – a tribute to the Mother – and then turned to face them.
"If you don't mind, I'd like to get started right away. Take a strong footing but please, relax your arms. In order to plantbend, you must be the plant. Now, plants come in many different shapes and sizes, but for now we'll stick with your generic plant."
He widened his stance, his bare toes hugging the wood below him, while his arms remained outspread yet relaxed. He nodded for the to do the same.
"Feel the Mother's body below you – close your eyes – and don't forget to breathe. Plants need oxygen too. Now, become the plant. Feel her roots stretching down into the earth, solidifying her, sustaining her."
Suddenly he pushed Dover into Sedgley and they both toppled onto the floor.
"Hey! What gives?" Dover moaned, rubbing his arm.
"Not a tree, pupil," he replied knowledgeably, "It takes a lot for a tree to give way and fall. Your stance should mimic the roots of our great Mother, and you shouldn't fall so easily either. Now, retake your stance, and breathe again. Feel her. Let her knowledge, thousands and thousands of years worth of it, pour into you. Feel your feet sink into her bark; you are just another branch growing from the same root. All is one, and one is all..."
Dover and Sedgley inhaled deeply, smiling ever so slightly. Now this was the sort of training they wanted. Spiritual sort of stuff that could help them discover who was the Avatar.
Aran continued, his eyes closed too.
"Moving up into your core – the tree trunk of your body. This is where the majority of your energy flows as chi. In a plant, water flows from the bottom to the top and nutrients travel in all directions, dependent on where it is needed. Imagine the strength of your footing as water – you are waterbenders after all! Carry that strength from your roots, from the Mother, up into your mind. Become nourished by that water, that strength. Turn it into willpower, into determination, into adaptability to find life in any place. Completely become the plant."
They could feel something. Maybe it was the incense or the altitude, but they could definitely feel something.
"Now focus on your chi pathways. Imagine these pathways are the tubes of a plant that carry the nutrients. Feel the pulse of your pathways, and of your companions'. Try to direct your chi into your arm, just as a plant directs nutrients into a branch. Your arm is connected to the plant, it has the same power. With these nutrients, this chi, it can be one and the same."
He lifted up his arm, his thumb and middle fingers curled around and touching. For no reason other than instinct, the boys arms came up as well.
"Your arm is a branch. Anything you use now is like the branch of a plant. With each movement, our Mother is trying to express something to you. Understand her, listen to her. Feel everything about her envelop you. The strength of her roots manifesting in your mind as willpower; the pulse of her chi in rhythm with yours; the thoughts of her being expressed in your movement. Now move."
Dover breathed in through his nose and, after slowly sifting his arm in front of him, jabbed it out in front of him, hoping to shoot off some leaves or something. Opening his eyes, he saw nothing had happened except that Sedgley had experienced the same thing.
"Is there a reason why that didn't work?" Sedgley asked, feeling cheated as he honestly thought he was really close to plantbending.
"It was only your first try," Aran smiled, walking them over to some vines and laying down in them, "We've still got a lot more training to do. Choose a pile of vines and lay down!"
Their training lasted all day, broken only by the arrival of Yuka, who brought measly lunches of water and salty bread (Aran said something about mimicking the diet of a plant, with the bread being an added bonus), and extended into the week. Days passed and they still weren't making progress. They'd get up at dawn, head straight to the arena from more intense exercises, Erik filling his days with sightseeing trips and playing connect-four with Anurna, and return at dusk. Sometimes they'd practise through the night, so their visual senses would be stagnated, stimulating their 'spiritual senses', as Aran called it – all in hope of connecting to the Mother Tree. Still though, it seemed to be in vain. By the time the fifth day of training had finished, they were exhausted.
"Why can't we do this?" Dover puffed, falling back into a pile of leaves, "We've been at it non-stop for days!"
"Maybe we're not just meant to be plantbenders..." Sedgley suggested dejectedly.
"Nonsense," Aran quickly retorted, "I know you are capable. I can feel it through the Mother Tree."
The words were comforting but the boys had almost had enough. Anurna was getting restless by herself, Erik was finding less and less to do and even Miko was growing tired of endless fruit and nuts. Maybe it was time for them to leave the green city.
"There is one last thing," Aran said, his green eyes peering solemnly into theirs, "If you venture into the heart of the forest, try and reconnect with what's out there – the trees, the plants – you might be able to discover something about yourselves. I've heard stories of men and women returning from the woods talking of strange apparitions and voices. Maybe, if you go out there, our Mother will try and contact you directly."
Dover and Sedgley looked at each other, then back at the chief.
"Well, um," Dover started, "we already sort of... experienced that. When we were lost in the jungle, we saw things that weren't real. Weird things..."
"Weird? Good! That's her trying to talk to you!" Aran exclaimed enthusiastically, "She must really see something in you to have contacted you already! You must, you simply must, go out there on your own and try again. After all, there's no harm in trying."
The boys looked at each other again, memories of their frighteningly real nightmares coming back to them as they faced the idea of going back into the wilderness that almost killed them.
"Absolutely not!" Anurna cried, pounding her fist on the table and sending connect-four pieces everywhere, "We've been here ages already! How do you expect to get to Haven and do Avatar duty stuff in time if you keep running off doing other stuff!"
"It could be really helpful, okay Anurna?" Sedgley replied, loudly, "We just trying to do our best as the Avatar. We need every advantage we can get, and plantbending seems like a good step up."
"He's got a point," Erik agreed, causing Anurna to roll her eyes and huff, "it might be good to have this on our enemies. Something unexpected. And it's never bad to learn a new skill."
"Yeah, say that to your gun..." Anurna muttered, though Erik heard.
"I just can't believe you'd want to go back out there on your own again. After what had happened."
Erik and the others had a (small) discussion about what happened to them days before – each of them skimping out on a few of the more emotionally sensitive details – so he was worried that something similar might happen again. Nonetheless, Dover and Sedgley assured him, and themselves, that they would stick together at all times.
The following day, the morning fog still lingering in the leaf-litter below, Dover and Sedgley packed a small backpack of essentials each and were lowered into the shadows below. Looking up at the wooden platforms of Maderia above, it seemed as though they were underwater, the Sun barely visible under the surface of the city.
Livia, pulling the pulley back up, called down, rather loudly for such a raspy voice, "Don't worry about us, we'll be fine!" and then cackled to herself.
A sinking feeling in the pair's stomachs blocked them from finding the humour in the woman's joke, and they couldn't help but feel an overbearing sense of dread as they ventured deeper into the forest, turning their backs on Maderia and taking their first step into the darkness.
- Word count = 9,900
- This chapter was based on the Last Airbender episode 'The Swamp' of which the aurthor really liked.
- Anurna and the others play connect four, a popular game of the present day. Anurna also asked for a pai-sho set, implying that she knows how to play the game that the reverred uncle Iroh does!
- Livia's raspy voice is based off the character 'Pennsatucky' from the television series Orange is the New Black.
- The apparitions that each child faced reflect their own worries, concerns and fears:
- Dover is still traumatised from the events in Chan Dai, and lives in fear of Alphonse and other enemies coming to get him and his friends.
- The question of the Avatar's identity still plays heavily on Sedgley's mind, and he is scared of what might happen if he didn't turn out to be the Avatar.
- Erik is still grieving the death of Mother Leliita, and wonders whether the actions he takes to fulfill her dying wishes are right.
- Anurna once tried to generate lightning but it didn't work well, and she has developed a fear of the technique that still haunts her.
- This is the first chapter that Miko really does anything as a character.
For the collective works of the author, go here.