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|The Weeds of Wealth|
Book One: Water
October 25, 2013
The Bloody Knuckles, a ruthless gang, sent the Clandestine general, Miss Zaida, after the Avatar. When she attacked Maderia, killing chief Aran, it was Dover's newfound ability to plantbend which let them escape safely.
As the green city burns to the ground, who knows what trouble waits for them in the shadows of the forest?
~ Chapter Eight: The Weeds of Wealth ~
~ Chapter Eight: The Weeds of Wealth ~
The orange blazed and a hunk of wood fell to the ground, glowing embers floating up into the air.
"Ah..." Anurna muttered to herself, glad that she had finally been able to light the campfire with all this sodden forest wood.
The smoke brought back memories of Maderia. Aran, Yuka, maybe even Livia, had given their lives alongside many other citizens of the green city so that they could escape safely. Dover knew keeping the Avatar alive was paramount, however it didn't feel right to him to leave them behind. Justifiably, it wasn't right to burn Maderia to the ground, but, no matter the perspective he looked at the situation with, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was in the wrong.
"It's smoky," Erik commented, squeezing out his voice while coughing profusely.
"Well there's not much dry kindling around here," Anurna explained, hips bent and wiping a sweaty tassel of hair away, "I even had to use some of that tall, green stuff we walked through."
"Isn't that really bad for your health?" Erik wheezed, wiping the smoke's condensation off his glasses.
"Eh," Anurna shrugged before walking off to her tent, "If it burns..."
Sedgley sat on a log in front of the fire and buried his chin beneath his crossed arms. The dancing flames reflected in his eyes as he watched the green plants shrivel under the heat, and eventually wither into ash.
Why couldn't he plantbend? He had undergone exactly the same training Dover had; he didn't even sleep during their trip into the forest, for he was too busy practicing his forms. Still though, it was Dover who was the plantbender, and not him.
Maybe he just wasn't good enough to be a plantbender, Sedgley thought to himself. And then, if he wasn't good enough to even do that, how could he ever hope of being the Avatar?
"Everything alright?" Dover tapped Sedgley on the arm.
"Hm? Oh, yeah, I'm fine. I think I'll just go for a walk."
Erik looked up, "Make sure –"
"– I won't go too far, don't worry!"
Erik was stopped in his tracks, his finger pointed up ready to lay out a rule, and pushed his glasses up the ridge of his nose, "Okay, can't argue with that."
And with that, Sedgley pushed past some tall weeds and disappeared into the wilderness.
"Should we really have let him go off by himself like that?" Erik asked the group, rummaging around in his bag for something, "I mean, we know what this forest can do to us, plus there's the whole army of Clandestines out there that, you know, want our heads on shiny platters and stuff. Was it the best idea?"
"Yeah," Dover responded, "I think he needs some time alone; to mull over all that's happened lately. He'll be back, Erik."
Dover had known Sedgley since before he knew how to crawl, so understanding what his friend was thinking was second nature. When they had pinched some cookies from another kid's table at Redwall, the look on Sedgley's crumb-covered face told Dover it was time to apologise; after being rejected by a girl he liked, Sedgley's darting eyes meant that he didn't want to be seen for while; the heavy sigh after a long day's waterbending training meant they should take it easy for a second; and a small flicker of a smile after escaping Chan Dai told Dover that everything would be alright for a little while longer. Sedgley's life was so intertwined with his that it seemed almost unnatural to Dover if he were not able to read him so well. Even now, the distant look in his eyes and the slight furrowing of his brow allowed Dover to understand what should happen next, and so he sat down and let Sedgley be.
He knew Sedgley needed time to think, and knew it was something to do with not being able to plantbend. He hoped Sedgley would be safe in the forest with only his thoughts, but he'd know if something were to happen, and exhaled slowly.
Don't do anything stupid, Sedgley, he prayed, knowing also, all too well, that Sedgley could be reckless when upset like this.
Sedgley flicked a broad leaf out of his way and stomped through the forest.
"Stupid Dover... and his stupid plantbending," he muttered.
He stopped at a tree.
It's not that amazing," he said aloud before thrusting a palm out in front of him, "Hah!"
"Hah, huh, hah!" he yelled again, jutting a new fist towards the tree trunk with each noise, until finally hitting the bark hard with his bare knuckles.
The tree shook along its length, and then a wash of dead leaves fell on top of him. On the ground, dirty and covered in leaves, Sedgley sighed.
He knew he shouldn't be jealous of Dover; he should be happy for him. If the strange incident in the forest a fortnight or so ago had taught him anything, it was that Dover was his friend no matter who the Avatar was. And, the more he thought about it, the more he realised he wasn't envious or angry at Dover; he was upset with himself, and his own abilities. Again, he knew he shouldn't be so concerned about whether he was the Avatar or not – maybe deep down he was selfish for thinking about the Avatar's identity so much. Dover probably wouldn't dwell on it this much...
Sedgley brushed off the leaves. His mind wasn't helping him. All it did was lead him down more thought paths, each path ending in a junction at which he'd spend hours considering which next path to choose, which had more paths coming off their sides and leading to more junctions, each leading to more paths, with more and more paths!
He shook his head.
He needed to act. He always had been a boy of actions – that was probably why it was so easy for Dover to read off him.
Sedgley wished he could understand what Dover was going through. Dover was sort of an enigma to him in a way. They spent all their life together, but Sedgley always had trouble reading his signs.
Wait a second... Sedgley thought, I'm not autistic, right?
"Snap out of it, Sedgley!" he barked, whacking himself on the side of the head and walking off further.
Despite the difficulty he had in reading Dover, Sedgley felt bound to him by some inexplicable force. It was probably love, he thought. He did love Dover, like a brother loves his own. When he thought of his favourite person, he thought of Dover – Erik running a close second. As such, it was hard for him to feel jealous – no! He wasn't jealous of Dover!
"Come on, man, get a grip!" he yelled, bursting water from the trees, pulling it from the puddles around him, and barraging his face with torrents of water.
He didn't know what to think! He didn't know what to feel, how to act! His life ahead of him was just one big uncertainty ever since Mother Leliita unearthed her big secret. He didn't know what tomorrow would bring. Fortune? Death?
He screamed into the water, the noise drowned out in watery bubbles.
What was going to happen? He had no idea. Absolutely no clue and it scared him to death. He was frightened. He was unsure and afraid and cautious and maybe, hopefully maybe, if he were the Avatar it would take some of the edge off.
But he wasn't the Avatar, he thought. He could even plantbend...
The water fell limp to the ground and Sedgley dropped to his knees, panting. His blonde hair hung wet in matted ringlets over his forehead as he caught his breath.
"Did you hear something?" a voice asked.
Sedgley lay down fast, out of sight hopefully.
"What?" a deep voice returned.
"I thought a heard a noise..."
As silently as he could, he crawled over to a bush and peered through it, his nose mere millimeters away from touching a man's knee. Sedgley held his breath with eyes wide.
"We're in a forest, Lu Gong," the deep-voiced, flabby knee responded, "There're noises everywhere, right? Boss said he wants this load in two days, so we better keep on pickin'."
They walked away from Sedgley's bush and over to some tall, weedy plants. They picked off what looked like the buds of flowers yet to bloom, and threw them into plastic tubs, of which they had already filled many. The weeds they harvested had become increasingly more widespread the further West Sedgley and his friends had headed, and the dryer the air became – Sedgley thought he even saw some near where they had set up camp.
"Aren't you sick of this?" the one named Lu Gong asked, Sedgley fine-tuning his ears to eavesdrop.
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, come on. Picking! Aren't you sick of it? We ain't no pair of normal thugs, you and I, Donnie. We should be back with the boss, planning heists and rounding up prisoners or whatever. Strategising!"
"Stra...teh...jai...zing?" Donnie sounded out.
"Yes!" Lu Gong enthused, throwing his hands madly through the air and shoving his face in his counterpart's.
"I... I guess..." Donnie grumbled with his index finger to his bottom lip.
"Eh, just food for thought, old pal. Gotta keep the noodle salty, right guy?"
Donnie looked up at Lu Gong with a thumb up and smiled, "I like my noodles salty, Lu Gong!"
Hearing all that he needed to, Sedgley receded back behind the shrub. From what he had gathered from that dim-witted conversation, those two were a pair of thugs, albeit harmless thugs, and if he were to foil their 'picking' operation he might just feel better about himself. No; he would feel better about himself. Seeing as the Avatar was all about righting wrongs and thwarting crime, Sedgley took it upon himself to right this wrong and thwart this crime – whatever it was.
Sneakily pushing himself up off the ground with straining arms, Sedgley strutted back to the campsite, where his friends greeted him with relieved sighs and a cold drink. Dover wrapped his arm around Sedgley's shoulder and smiled at him.
"How was your walk?" he asked, "Feeling alright?"
"Yeah," smiled Sedgley, "I'm feeling a lot better now."
He knew he'd have to do this thing alone tonight, if he ever wanted to prove to himself that he was worthy of being the Avatar. Dover couldn't know, or else he'd tag along; Erik shouldn't know, or else he'd protest against it; Anurna wouldn't know, as she cared not to go meddling in things that didn't concern her; and Miko... Miko was fine, he could come, Sedgley concluded.
The Sun fell behind the Earth as day turned to night. The light, as usual, was cast ominously through the canopy of the forest, but they had gotten used to this setting, and knew that their minds wouldn't trick them again if they didn't let them.
Dover relayed a cheerful story of Miko's struggle eating a beetle-worm, followed by facts about the moon from Erik, and what his mother had told him about it. Apparently, an ancient princess from the Northern Water Tribe had sacrificed her life long ago to replace the moon spirit when a heartbroken suitor had killed it. Anurna scoffed at the mention of spirits, yet no one took notice. Dover said the moon looked the best when viewed from the high-up vantage point of Redwall Orphanage, prompting Anurna to argue it looked better from Heaven's Crown; the majestic beacon of Haven.
"Do you think we'll ever get to Haven?" Dover asked, his stomach suddenly churning with butterflies.
Erik paused, before answering croakily, "Yeah. We will."
"We'll get there if it's the last thing I do," Anurna yawned, stretching her legs before continuing with a posh accent, "I don't go back on my word, dear Avatar. I will see to it that you arrive, spic and span, in the greatest city on earth!"
Erik and Dover laughed boisterously, Sedgley looked up and chuckled along. He didn't want Dover to catch on that something was up. Little did he know Dover had already seen right through him.
He could tell Sedgley was planning something; the boy's eyes stared intensely into nothing, focused not on the merry conversation but on what lay ahead, and his lips quivered ever so slightly, reciting the plan in his head. He had kept his shoes done up tight and the water pouch was still around his waist; a rookie error, thought Dover, not that he had any more experience than Sedgley in sneaking away from his friends. The thing that troubled Dover, however, was that he wasn't breathing as deeply and heartily as the others. His shoulders were tight and restricted, even as his lungs released a relaxed breath. That meant whatever he was planning was dangerous on some accord, and that meant that Dover would follow Sedgley without his knowledge when the time came.
Anurna looked at the dwindling fire, "We should put some more wood on."
With a gentle wave of a stiff hand, Dover moved a dead branch into the flames. Sedgley looked away with a pang of some bad emotion.
"Don't let the fire get too big," Erik nagged, "There could be Clandestines about."
No one really listened, and no one really responded, except Sedgley, who saw an opportunity and ran with it, "I'm going to look for more firewood, okay?"
"As long as I'm not doing it..." Anurna leant back onto her log.
"Sure you don't need a hand?"
"I'll be fine on my own," were Sedgley's parting words, solidifying Dover's suspicions that he was up to something.
As was the norm, Sedgley disappeared behind the undergrowth, pushing his way through the tall, weird-smelling weeds. Dover waited a while until Sedgley was out of hearing range and got up too.
"I'm going to go help him," he told the others, hurrying off quietly in Sedgley's direction.
Miko chattered snuggly and nuzzled up to Anurna, his dark brown eyes glinting in the firelight. He was hearing far-off bat noises all night, reminding him of his unfortunate loss a fortnight ago. He couldn't often remember much, but he couldn't forget that. The unnatural strength of the thing; the lifelessness behind its angry, black eyes; and its strange smell, were what stuck with him as he clung to Anurna's dress with his delicate fingers.
"Well, Erik," Anurna started, looking up from her phone, "Got any good ghost stories?"
Sedgley walked through the forest to where he had seen the crooks. He crouched behind the bush, just as he had done before, his thighs aching with the movement.
"Alright, Sedgley," he muttered to himself, "What now...?"
He reviewed his plan. What he'd do was seize one of the guards, find out what their operation was all about and put an end to it all. Simple really, he figured, considering Lu Gong and Donnie seemed like total buffoons.
A stick snapped behind him. He whirled around, popping open his water skin, whipping a stream of water and turning into a blade of ice with a flex of the forearm.
"Sedgley! It's me!" Dover hissed, hands raised to his neck where the ice almost got him, clenching his fingers and turning it to liquid before Sedgley returned the water to his pouch.
"I thought I told you not to come!" Sedgley replied, whispering.
"What? You didn't tell me anything!"
"Oh yeah..." Sedgley remembered, "Well then, don't come!"
"Why?" Dover pushed past Sedgley, through the bush and into the clearing where the weeds grew in the hundreds, "What are you up to?"
All he could see was plants, nothing out of the ordinary.
"I'm just... looking for firewood," Sedgley responded suspiciously, his eyes darting around nervously in case he woke the criminals upon loudly bashing through bush.
"Sedgley," Dover laughed, "Your eyes are darting all over the place. Something's up, I can tell."
Sedgley crossed the scene, looking for a path or tire-tracks, something that he could follow to the crooks, "Just leave me alone, Dover. It doesn't concern you."
"Oh come on," Dover stared at the back Sedgley's head, "If you don't think our problems are one and the same by now, then you've got something coming for you. We're in this together. Now, what are you doing?"
Sedgley scurried back to Dover and spat, "Can you just leave? I need to do this alone!"
"Why, Sedgley?" By now they were getting a bit louder.
"Can't you see for yourself? You're always reading off me! Why don't you just do that now?"
"Well I'd like to –"
"– You have no idea what I'm going through!" Sedgley burst, releasing his frustrations in a final rush of words, "You haven't the faintest clue what's going on in my mind! You can plantbend, you chose the Avatar's water pouch back in Gao Lin. And what can I do? Nothing! So I'll say it again, leave, because you have no idea what this is all about!"
Dover was silent for a second as Sedgley stared him down angrily, waiting for him to back down and leave. It was true Sedgley couldn't read him that well, but he knew Dover avoided conflict, especially with him; his best friend.
"Is this the hardest thing you've gone through?" Dover muttered.
"What?" Sedgley was a little bewildered he had responded at all.
"Is this, this whole thing, our journey; is this the absolute hardest thing you've ever had to do?"
Sedgley didn't know whether to walk away or respond. He swallowed a giant lump, and said, "Yes –"
"– Well it is for me too!" Dover shouted, "So how dare you fucking undermine my experiences, and what I'm going through!"
"– No, Sedgley. This is hard for all of us, alright? You're not the only one who feels like shit! We all do. Ask any of us and we'll all say this is the hardest, scariest thing that's ever happened to us. So don't go running off trying to make yourself feel better and get yourself into trouble."
"Why not?" Sedgley barked, tired of being berated, "What else can I do? Why the hell not?"
"Because this'll happen!" Dover yelled, tears forming as he clutched his scar through his shirt.
It throbbed in agony as his fingers squeezed around it. As lost as he was on this journey, he knew he couldn't bare it if Sedgley or his other friends were hurt like this.
"Or worse..." Dover continued.
Sedgley stepped down, looking to the ground and relaxing his shoulders.
"Yeah," a voice called from the forest, "Or worse."
Lu Gong pounced from out of the weeds, his face painted with maroon markings. Donnie followed close behind, wielding heavy maces.
"Shoot them down!" Lu Gong hollered, "Don't let them steal our stash!"
Archers, hidden in the leafy curtains of the trees, shot arrows at the boys, which they barely deflected with whips of water. Donnie charged at them, a juggernaut tearing through the air, snorting like a wild boar – while thinking wasn't his strong suit, it seemed fighting was his forte. A spiked, metal ball crashed to the ground next to Dover in a heavy clash of clay and grass. Dover, still in the air having dodged the man's attack, swiftly lifted a knee and both his arms with hangs hanging downwards, pushed Donnie back with a wave of swelling moss. Sedgley shot sheets of ice from his pouch, managing to pin a few of the enemies' bows to the trunks of trees.
"We're just passing through, trust us!" Dover called, landing and stepping back to avoid a kick, "We mean you no harm!"
He was kicked across the ground. Sedgley wrapped tendrils of water around his arms and lifted him up, before splaying off streams of water in different directions, knocking over a few attackers.
Lu Gong curled his moustache and sneered, "No matter. The Maukaizo Tribe takes prisoners of all walks of life. With some two feisty waterbenders, I'm sure the boss will be proud of me!"
He winked at them and snickered. Dover looked at Sedgley, annoyed at the situation he had gotten them in, but could barely stay mad at him as they boy's curled eyebrows and gaping mouth exuded guilt.
"Looks like you'll get your fight after all," Dover said to Sedgley, before jumping into the battlefield.
"And that's when they realised she wasn't a sweet old lady from the south... but a demonic witch with mind-control powers!"
Erik screamed in fear and fell backwards, almost landing on Miko's tail who screeched piercingly and flew in a circle over their heads before settling on Anurna's knee.
"Calm down, Erik" she laughed, "It's not real; just a bunch of old words!"
Erik got up from the ground, rubbing the dirt off his clothes, and looked around nervously, "I guess so..."
He never was the biggest fan of ghost stories. Dover and, especially, Sedgley always used to play tricks on him around the orphanage; planning elaborate pranks to execute in the dead of night. He shuddered just thinking about them.
"Why aren't the guys back yet?" he whimpered, "Do you think something happened to them?"
"What? No! Erik, relax! I'm pretty sure I made half the story up anyway."
"– Here," she got up and staggered over to the edge of the small clearing they had set up camp in, "There's no firewood but this stuff's pretty dry. I can chuck some of it on the fire if that'd make you feel better."
Erik looked around at the forest, the shadows intensifying as the fire withered, and muttered, "Yes, please..."
"Jeez, Erik. I thought you wouldn't be so much of a wuss by now but I guess I thought wrong."
Anurna, hands full with the weeds that grew around these parts, returned to the fire and threw the plants on. For a while nothing happened. Then, ever so slightly, the waxy surface of the stems began bubbling slightly and suddenly it all went up in flames, sizzling and crackling as the burning weeds billowed thick, grey smoke. The area was shrouded with the dank cloud and it hung heavy and low like a sodden cloth. Anurna coughed gracefully into her forearm while Erik spluttered everywhere.
"Anurna," he wheezed through dry coughs, "What... What's going on? The witch? The witch!"
The smoke filled their lungs and soaked into their alveoli like water to a sponge. It felt like they would never stop coughing and their squinting eyes were red and itchy with the ashy smog. Anurna thrust an arm into the air and shot a plume of fire through the cloud, her fist just inches away from blasting Erik's head. The fiery disturbance was enough to dispel the smoke and their rasping throats recovered in due time.
Anurna breathed in and then out, "What?"
"What?" Erik drawled.
"I didn't say anything!"
Erik was finding it hard to suppress laughter for some reason, whereas Anurna was sussing out a strange sort of tingle that ran along her arms in warm ripples.
"– Do you –"
"– Oh –"
"What were you saying?"
"Oh no, you go first."
"Um..." Anurna looked around, trying to remember what she was about to say, rubbing her arms before excitedly realising what it was, "Oh yeah! So," she giggled, something she hadn't done in years, "um, right. How funny does Miko look?"
Erik slowly craned his neck in the animal's direction. At first he couldn't make out Miko from tree root from leaf litter, and thought he was going to have one of those weird freak-outs like the one from a few weeks ago, but eventually saw him when Anurna picked the creature up.
"Hah, yeah, he does look silly..." Erik chuckled, dragging his butt across the ground with his legs to get closer to Miko.
Anurna cradled the little animal. Her hair hung messily over her flustered face as she peered thoughtfully at him, gently rubbing a finger along his cheek. She looked beautiful somehow, thought Erik. The moonlight shimmered patchily in her dark, black hair and her thin, red lips smiled demurely – demure wasn't a word Erik would often describe Anurna with! – at Miko's purring reaction.
"I love you, Miko," she beamed at him.
She had travelled the word, never really settled anywhere, but, throughout all that time, Miko had been by her side. She had heard of animal guides; creatures said to have bonds so close with their masters that they could understand each other like close friends.
"Maybe Miko is my animal guide," Anurna mumbled without realising.
"That'd be so cool," Erik agreed, "I always wanted a sharktopus as a pet, but I don't think the sisters at Redwall would've allowed it, or paid for the saltwater tank."
"A sharktopus?" Anurna asked excitedly.
What was she doing? She never acted this way. She wasn't meant to open up to people like this. She noticed the relaxed state her body was in, and turned her shoulders away, hastily putting Miko down and tensing her shoulders back to the way they were meant to be. Miko nattered in annoyance and crawled over to Dover's sleeping bag by the fire.
It was warm, hot to press from sitting next to the pulsing embers but easy to get used to. The outside of the swag was rough yet comforting, like a father's hand – not that Miko even knew what a father was. And that wasn't because he didn't ever have a father, but simply because the notion of fatherhood didn't exist within the realms of squirrel-glider behaviour.
And he didn't mind.
Not at all.
He had friends, companions. And, for some indescribable, obvious reason, that was more important to him than unknown concepts he couldn't comprehend, like love or fatherhood. He could only understand friendship, and, in his animal ways, it wouldn't matter if his parents were his friends, his siblings were his friends or if Anurna and the others were his friends. As long as someone was by his side, part of his pack, he was whole. If he were able to think deeply, he would commend the ability of friendship, of camaraderie and loyalty, to transcend whole species, forever ingrained mysteriously in the building blocks of life. He would think that maybe he wasn't so different from the tall, hairless giants he spent his days with after all. Because, really, in the end, he and them, we all, share this Earth.
"... Breathe the same air. Tread the same path," Erik continued, "That's why we're doing what we're doing. It's the Avatar's duty to restore balance, and treat every living thing with respect. And in that, I just know Dover or Sedgley will be a righteous and peaceful Avatar."
Sedgley punched a man in the jaw. Dover tripped another one to the ground.
"Tell us what you're doing here!" Sedgley demanded, picking a thug up by the scruff of the collar before throwing him down again to duck from Donnie's swinging mace.
"Sedgley!" Dover called, reminding him that they were meant to leave.
"What? Why aren't you helping me stop them?"
Sedgley was right. All Dover was doing was avoiding attacks and knocking people away, not beating them up and demanding information.
"Well," Dover began, sidestepping away from an oncoming firebender, "the way I see it, we're the bad guys here. We're the ones who barged in here looking for a fight."
"Don't worry about that, we're criminals anyway," Donnie grunted, slamming his mace next to Dover, who was blown back by the ripple of earth.
"See, he knows the go," Sedgley reassured Dover, jumping onto Donnie's massive shoulders, "What else can you tell us, big guy? What's this 'picking' operation all about?"
Dover rolled over, barely evading a spear that stuck into the ground where he once was. He wrapped his legs around it, squeezing his thighs together until it snapped. He got up off the ground and ran towards Sedgley, pulling water from the grass with his arms hanging behind him.
"We pick the plants and sell them for people to smoke," Donnie explained, trying to swat the pesky waterbender off him, "People will do anything for a toke; they'll pay big money."
"Enough Donnie! Hold still!" Lu Gong berated, lifting a tube to his mouth and blowing a dart straight into Sedgley's leg.
The dart pricked him but fell out when he toppled off Donnie in shock. The big bruiser made to smash his lights out, but Dover, landing firmly with his knees in front of him and extending his hands in a forceful wave, pushed the thug back with the water he had collected from the grass.
"You alright, Sedgley?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," the boy answered quickly, getting up despite the stinging in his leg, "We need to take the water out of those plants."
"And then get out of here?"
"Right. Let's go."
"Let's go for a walk!" Erik suggested enthusiastically, jumping up from the ground.
"Yes!" Anurna agreed, "Come on, Miko, let's go!"
"Do you think I should takes this?" Erik asked, pulling the gun out of his bag like it was a smelly sock, "In case the witch comes back?"
"You better," Anurna confirmed, "Just in case."
"Indubitably!" Miko added.
"What...?" Erik muttered to himself.
He was sure Miko couldn't talk. Positive. Yet he was sure he had just heard the creature speak, quite eloquently in fact.
Oh well, he thought, at least he can speak well.
The three bumbled through the woods, Miko on Anurna's shoulder as usual, stopping occasionally to examine a weird-looking root, or to dote over a pretty flower. It felt like they were kids again. The tensions and worries of the journey seemed to have dripped off them, and they were now cleansed and fresh. Everything the saw seemed new to them, yet somehow maintained an air of nostalgia as well. It was weird, to say the least; and amazing, to say a bit more.
Erik looked over at Anurna, who had collected peonies into a bunch in her hands, even decorating her hair with a few. Her face was grubby from inspecting the dirt and then rubbing her face, but she was happy. Or better yet; she was content. For happiness was short lived, and meant that the blissful state one was in was out of the ordinary. Contentment, on the other hand, seemed like normality, and that's why it was better, Erik always thought.
Anurna was content, and she felt she would always be. The feeling would soon seep away – as the effects of the noxious smoke would reside – but for now, her future seemed not bright but a perfectly normal shade.
She looked over at him, "Here, wear this."
Tucking some of his hair away, Anurna delicately placed a small peony behind Erik's hear. The feeling was nice, reminiscent of Mother Leliita's soft touch. But, for some reason, this time Erik's stomach fluttered. He gave a subtle smile, trying to push through his nausea, but felt dizzy. He continued to smile and look like everything was fine until Anurna walked away. His heart beat fast and his cheeks came up red as he leant over a tree and subdued the feeling.
Anurna stopped in her tracks.
"Is everything alright, Anurna?" Erik called croakily, hustling up to her side.
Anurna's body was still, her eyes transfixed on something in front of her. Erik's heart sunk. It was probably something terrible; a dead Maderian, a Clandestine search party, or Dover and Sedgley's bodies.
"What is it?" he begged, eyebrows upturned in what he was sure was about to be grief.
"Look," Anurna spoke softly as the pointed ahead, the pale peonies still in her hand, "I almost walked into that spider web."
Sure enough, after having to focus his eyes, the thin, silvery veneer of a web became apparent to him. He sighed, relief enveloping him like warm water, his arms still tingling as if spiders themselves were trickling down them.
"Isn't it pretty?" Anurna remarked.
The wispy, silken web was unadulterated; no dead or dying flies were trapped in the net. What the spider had caught, though, were glistening orbs of dew that stuck to the silk like tiny gemstones. As the lustrous moonbeams swirled through the droplets, the web seemed almost like the night sky, with each gleaming drop a twinkling star. A fat-bottomed spider daintily scuttled across a string, meticulously yet elegantly fixing any kinks in her perfect galaxy. For her, this imitation universe was her universe, it was all she knew and had she ever had to know. And it was perfect.
Anurna's eyes began to water. For some reason the beauty of it all made her feel terrible, guilty. She felt she had somehow turned her back on something, but at the same time was determined to emanate the perfection she saw in front of her. It was complicated, what she was feeling. She had no idea what was happening to her. It felt like a beautiful storm was raging inside her, one she had forgotten that she had predicted. She couldn't explain it, yet the reason she felt this way seemed so clear, yet so unclear. From experience, it was best to shut out these feelings and focus on her own world, on what she could see and touch.
"It is pretty," Erik agreed softly, staring inquisitively at the web.
What an enviably, pathetically uncomplicated boy you are Erik, Anurna thought, sighing.
She was wrong, of course. No one was or ever is uncomplicated.
Miko wondered why they had stopped so suddenly. The abruptness was strange, as his mind had been zooming around non-stop ever since the campfire spewed all that smoke everywhere.
He suspected it was nothing. Maybe they had seen something cool, like a spider's web perhaps. But then, slowly, memories crept back of that freakish bat that had attacked him and his friends when they had first entered this forest.
Ever since he had run in with that bat, Miko had never been the same. He always looked to the treetops to see if he could spot the devilish thing anywhere. Maybe it was the bat that had stopped them in their tracks. It probably was!
His little mind raced, as he thought he heard some ominous screeches from the darkness surrounding him. His heart galloped madly as his suspicions morphed to certainties.
The flutter of wings, the animalistic screech. Miko jumped into the air and squealed with all his might.
Anurna and Erik were terrified by the sudden outburst and screamed loudly in unison. What was going on?
Erik lifted the gun from his side and, without even thinking, shot four or five rounds into the abyss.
As soon as he was done, they, still shrieking in fear, tore through the forest back to their campsite, Miko in hot pursuit, reassured that the bat, if it was even nearby, had surely fled.
Soon, while gathered around the campfire, their rightful states of mind would return. But for now, they were skittish beyond belief.
A tall man landed a punch on Dover's arm, sending it numb, but the boy lifted his good hand up, grass growing en masse and tying him up. He and Sedgley, ducking under a swinging spear ran up to the vast plantation of weeds, and planted their feet firmly on the ground before moving their hands in a welling motion. The plants shrivelled and fell to the ground as the water gushed from their insides.
Donnie ran at them, swinging his mace and brutishly yelling, until he was struck in the leg by a bullet that careened out of nowhere. He looked around nervously, wondering where it had come from.
"They have back up!" Lu Gong yelled, "Retreat!"
The crooks scattered into the woods like cockroaches fleeing from light, Donnie limping behind them.
Lu Gong, jumping onto a tree branch and turning to the boys, sneered, "You think you won but just wait until the poison dart kicks in. Then we'll see who's laughing."
Dover looked over at Sedgley, "Poison dart? Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," Sedgley reassured, puling the last of the water out of the weeds, "It barely pricked me."
"Give it time, kid, it'll seep in," Lu Gong continued, "and, when you're paralysed and can no longer walk, that's when we'll get you!"
He jumped off the tree branch and scampered into the scrub, disappearing for an indefinite amount of time. Dover didn't like the sound of Lu Gong's threat of returning, but he hated the thought of Sedgley becoming immobilised by toxic chemicals even more.
"Are you sure everything's okay?" Dover pressed.
"Yeah. Let's just get back to the others."
Dover led the way back through the undergrowth, keeping an eye out for more enemies but unaware that Sedgley touched the stinging spot on his leg where the dart had pricked him. Lu Gong was right; the poison was seeping in.
Erik, Anurna and Miko were sitting around the campfire when the pair returned at last. Their sleeping bags had been rolled up and the campsite set down. Even Dover and Sedgley's backpacks had been hastily packed and zipped up, bursting at the seams.
"Sorry guys," Dover apologised, hurriedly reciting the alibi he had thought up on the way back, "We didn't get any firewood because we just had a chat with... some guy. And it kind of got really interesting and, before we knew it, it was already time to head back so, yeah. No fire wood. Sorry."
"That's fine," Anurna responded blankly, handing Dover his backpack, "We were thinking of leaving soon. Or, you know, now."
Dover's eyes squinted and he tilted his head, "Really? So do I. In fact, I'd love it if we left now!"
He wanted to leave immediately. As soon as he knew that there were not just Clandestines but gangs out in the forest he felt uneasy. Really, it was about how the clutter of leaves and wood could mask enemies even mere meters away, allowing ambushes and snooping to happen without a moment's notice.
Anurna and Erik got up. Their minds had settled down, as the dank smoke in their lungs had been replaced with fresh air, and the chemicals in their bloodstream eventually flushed out. However, they were still a little anxious and were absolutely ready to leave.
Erik, still holding Sedgley's pack, looked behind Dover and called, "Sedgley, ready to go?"
Sedgley stumbled from behind tree line, wobbling on his sore leg, unable to hold his weight. He was about to fall but clumsily leant his hand against a tree.
"Sedgley!" Dover rushed to his side and helped him along.
"What's happened?" Erik interrogated, shuffling in front of Sedgley and inspecting him through his spectacles, "What did you guys do?"
Dover gulped, knowing that, some way or another, Erik would eventually work it out of him, "We found some criminals when in the forest and we both tried to stop them. But Sedgley got hit with a poison dart, I think."
Sedgley sighed. He was grateful Dover had shared the blame, even though he shouldn't have. It was all Sedgley's fault. He was the one that wanted to prove to himself that he was worthy of being the Avatar. At first, walking away victoriously from the shriveled weeds, Sedgley did feel good about himself. They had succeeded; they had won. But now, here he was, doubling over in pain.
He swallowed back a lump in his throat and spoke, "It only pricked the surface. I'm feeling a bit woozy that's all. It'll wear off soon, I already feel a little better than before."
"We can't let you walk," Erik fussed, "It'll spread around your bloodstream. Are you sure it only just pierced the skin?"
"Yeah. It fell off straight after."
"We should go," Anurna reminded them, "Angry criminals, and whatever else out there that wants to kill us, are probably on their way. What's it gonna be?"
Erik thought for a short while, trying to access what he'd read about poisons in the library at Redwall. But a smoke clouded his memory. Maybe it was because he was put on the spot, or maybe it was actually the smoke he had inhaled prior.
"We'll move," he finally decided, "We'll see how you go for a half hour, and if you get even a little bit worse we'll have to carry you. For the moment tie this above where the dart hit you."
He handed Sedgley a bandage from a pocket in his bag, who wrapped it around his shin, wincing inconspicuously at the pain; he didn't want anyone to worry about him, or worse; pity him.
"Right then, let's leave," Dover said, turning west and parting the trees with a sturdy wave of the hands.
They trudged through until morning, stopping for a brief breakfast that wasted no time cooking, and continued through the day. The humid air exacerbated Sedgley's condition, not that he let on, as sweat poured from his hairline, his body attempting to purge the poison from itself. Dover led the way still, following a compass with Erik's help, so as to stay on the western route in the labyrinth of trees.
Scratching her arms, irritated by the sharp leaves they brushed against, Anurna moaned, "Does it ever end?"
It seemed they were never going to get out of the forest. It had been a few hours but it had felt like eons. They felt they had seen the falling leaves of countless autumns, the spindly branches of many winters and the verdant regrowth of continuous springs, but the trees had only ever stayed in one form.
Their heads were looking down at their feet, Sedgley focusing on the numbness of one of them, hoping that watching the appendage would bring back feeling, as they lumbered still. If they were to keep walking, they'd end up somewhere, right?
Dover took a step, missing the ground and toppling down a dusty slope.
"Dover!" Erik called, running after him.
Suddenly the trees disappeared. They were encroached by hot, bare sunlight, and the ground was dry below their feet.
Dover got up and brushed himself down, staring out across a vast expanse of dust and rock and sand. It was breathtaking, but what stood ahead of them seemed even harder than what lay behind them.
"Welcome to the Wasteland," Anurna announced, as dry as the scorched Earth in front of her.
The boys had heard of this place. A dangerous, aptly named wasteland, which was relentless in its environmental extremes and housed none other than some of the most barbaric tribes on the planet. A pit formed in their stomachs, particularly Erik's, who had come across some of the more disturbing fables about the place.
Dover looked behind him at his friends, and where the forest had suddenly been cut off, and huffed, "Better keep moving."
And so they better have. They knew this was the only way to get to Haven, and that one day they'd have to cross it. For some reason or another, though, it had never really crossed their minds. Perhaps they never thought they'd have made it this far.
Anurna smiled and sighed, "Fuck... It's your funeral," before elegantly sliding down the dusty mound and walking alongside him.
Erik awkwardly wobbled down, Miko screeching as the boy shook him awake with his clumsiness, and Sedgley came up to the edge. He went to walk down it but his foot throbbed in pain, like the whole thing was about to tear open, like a bud painfully blossoming into a messy, red flower. He fell, tumbled down the slope, sharp, dry rocks stinging with every jab, and landed face down in the dust.
His friends helped him up, looking at him with that look he hated.
"Are you alright?" Erik asked, "You haven't mentioned your leg. Is it getting better?"
"Yep," Sedgley said through a gritted smile, "Just a bit of a klutz. My leg's perfect."
He shook it around, laughing disjointedly through the agony.
Dover looked concerned. He knew Sedgley. He knew he was in pain. But he also knew he was hurt deep down, severely disappointed, and that bringing it up might risk losing him completely. He knew Sedgley wanted to think things through, but he didn't know how much time he had left to do so. Still though, something inside him spurred him on to be quiet, if not for just a little while longer.
"Well then, if that's all good, let's begin our descent into Hell," Anurna said, trudging through the dust, "On your left, you'll see shit all, and on your right, again, nothing of interest."
From above, they looked like tiny bull-ants crossing a massive entity of sand. The warm wind stirred, the trees behind them, what now seemed like a paradise, unmoving in their goodbyes, and sand whipped at their legs.
"Yep... Just dust, as far as the eye can see," Anurna continued, sighing with detest, "Dust, dust, and dust."
And so they began their trek across the Wasteland, where the real journey was meant to happen, even if what had already happened was almost more than they could handle.
Sedgley's leg felt like it was on fire, like boiling magma slowly circulating through his screaming veins, but he wouldn't let anyone know.
He had to keep on walking.
Even if it killed him.
- Word count = 7,609
- There are several throwbacks to Avatar: The Last Airbender.
- The first one in which Erik recounts a legend based off Princess Yue's sacrifice. However, because so much time has passed, a few of the facts are wrong. Erik says that a heartbroken suitor of hers had killed the moon spirit, when it was actually Admiral Zhao.
- The second being a ghost story told by Anurna about Hama the bloodbender. Again the facts are wrong, Anurna saying that Hama was a demonic witch with mind-control powers, instead of a skilled yet misguided waterbender.
- There is implied drug use in this chapter, that being Erik, Anurna and Miko who accidentally inhale the smoke of the weedy plants. These plants are also grown and sold illegally for a high price, giving the chapter it's title as 'weeds of wealth.'
- Also of note, the author refers to the plants as 'weeds', reminiscent of the real-world drug it was inspired after.
- A lot of this chapter is a nod at how the author came up with many ideas for the story.
- Erik uses his gun for the first time in this chapter, although he was influenced by the effects of having breathed in the smoke from the burning plants.
- This is the first chapter in which the Wasteland is seen.
For the collective works of the author, go here.