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|Into the Wasteland|
Book One: Water
November 30, 2013
Following Mother Leliita's requests, the boys head towards Haven for support. But first, they will have to venture through the dangerous Wasteland to get there.
Now, having escaped both Alphonse and Miss Zaida's attacks by a thread, Sedgley has just been hit with a poison dart and the Wasteland hasn't helped in remedying him. Will he live to tell the tale? In fact, will any of the kids be able to survive the Wasteland?
~ Chapter Nine: Into the Wasteland ~
~ Chapter Nine: Into the Wasteland ~
From the desk of Professor Chan,
Ba Sing Se University
In the winter of 388 ASC, I led a team of scientists to sample and record the abiotic conditions and overall biodiversity of the Wasteland area. To say it was an almighty task would be to make light of it.
The Wasteland was cruel. Chemical isotopes measured in the soil were at a level we previously thought were too high to sustain life and the high temperatures and wind conditions seemed precariously harsh as well.
Only a handful of animals were found, mostly hardy sand-dwellers, and fewer plants, yet somehow humans thrived. Among our team of botanists, zoologists, ecologists and environmental chemists, we had only one anthropologist with us; a young man named Zei (who was named after a brave relative or something of the sort).
Although he studied humans and I had majored in animal science, Zei and I got to talking and became good friends during our trip. Many nights spent huddled around the campfire were filled with stories about our travels, and what we had learnt from our research. He had spent his career studying the remnants of an ancient Fire Nation civilisation, but to no avail. Still though, the stories he told were a good distraction from the extremities of the Wasteland.
With respect to the Wasteland tribes, they were an inhospitable bunch and, despite all of Zei's attempts to talk with them, they insisted we leave their land before violence was exacted. And these people were the good ones...
It was about a month long into our research in the Wasteland. We had studied what we could in the outer regions of the area, and had begun to move into the centre of the land by now. The conditions had gotten much rougher and at night we would hear howls in the distance; of animal or man, we couldn't tell.
One night, while sitting tensely around the fire, we were attacked by a pack of the Wasteland savages. They had snuck up on a few of the researchers back in the tents, slit their throats, as Zei had witnessed, and then stormed the main site. Zei had told me that in this situation we either die or surrender ourselves as prisoners to be sold on the slave market. We tried defending ourselves but our bodies, wearied from our work, were no match for theirs, which had grown accustomed to the conditions. They seemed not to kill for a purpose, but just for the sake of killing. I suppose, in such a relentless environment, they live by the code 'eat or be eaten.'
That night I witnessed all of my research team get slaughtered. All of them except Zei, that is, who offered himself up as a captive.
I managed to escape, using my earthbending to create a cover of sand and make it to the four-wheel drive unnoticed. By the time the dust had settled, I was already speeding back to Ba Sing Se, and they had already slunk back into the night.
Our research is still lost out there, along with Zei. To this day I still wonder what happened to him. Is he still alive?
The only thing I know is that I will never step foot back in the Wasteland again. It is a place of death. The thing that frightens me most is that it is spreading, like wildfire, bringing with it the same barbaric, ruthless people that kill to kill.
A word of advice, dear reader; don't ever go into the Wasteland. Nothing good can come from it.
Erik gulped and looked behind him, fearing ambush from a pack of Wasteland barbarians.
Out of all the stories he had read about the Wasteland, it was Professor Chan's one that had stuck with him the most. And, for some reason, as he and his friends silently trudged across the endless sea of dust, he could not stop reciting it in his mind.
A body fell to the ground behind him, the grunt of a young man coming with it.
When Erik turned around he could see Dover crouching next to Sedgley, his fringe hanging worriedly over his forehead in sweaty strings. Miko flew off Anurna's shoulder and onto Sedgley's, licking his cheek.
"What's the matter? What's wrong?" Dover fretted.
Sedgley slowly lifted his head out of the sand, and moistened his dry, cracked lips before talking, "I... don't feel too good."
"Do you need water?"
Dover pushed the water skin to his face, knowing it wasn't dehydration that was the problem, but the toxic chemical that had entered his bloodstream through the poison dart. Still though, water wouldn't do him any harm. Sedgley reached out shakily and took a cautious sip.
He felt nauseous and mere seconds after swallowing the water he threw it straight back up.
Erik flipped through a small notebook book that hung from his belt – being a self-proclaimed 'worry wart,' he liked to keep a first aid book handy.
"Poisons... poisons..." he muttered, eyes skimming the pages for the correct bit of information, "Okay, here we are."
He bent down to Sedgley, who had been helped up by Dover and was now sitting upright against his pack.
"I'm going to ask a few questions, alright? So I can figure out how to help."
"It's not the poison..." Sedgley stuttered, lying, "I think I just ate an unripe lychee nut or something."
"He's lying," Dover said quickly, just wanting his friend to get over his pride and let them help him.
"Yeah, we're out of lychee nuts," Anurna confirmed, "Miko ate the last one."
Miko let out a guilty chatter and hid his head in his hands.
"Whatever," Erik continued, "You need to tell me the truth, Sedgley, or things could get a lot worse. Now, answer me. Do you feel nauseous?"
Sedgley looked down at his leg, breathed in sharply through his nose, and then answered through his exhale, "Very."
"Is it throbbing where the dart pricked you?"
"Does the pain appear to be spreading?"
"Yep. And my leg's gone numb."
Dover stared at Erik with his mouth ajar, eyes wide and waiting for the next step; if there even was one to take.
"How would you describe the pain?"
"Very, very bad..."
"No," Erik explained, "Like, sharp and shooting, or aching and throbbing?"
Sedgley hummed as he thought, visibly in pain, before finally groaning, "A bit of both?"
Erik perused the book, his eyebrows furrowed in concentration. He picked his glasses off his nose, wiped the sweat from his cheeks and looked at the others with the book in his lap.
"Well?" Anurna asked, leaning in.
"What do we do?" Dover too was riddled with worry.
"I wish you had told us earlier Sedgley," Erik began to reprimand his friend, "then it wouldn't be so bad. When were you planning on telling us, hey? Ever?"
"Hey, stop it," Dover intervened, "Yes, it was dumb not to tell us, but we can call him an idiot later, right? Right now we need to help him get better. Is there anything we can do?"
Sedgley silently thanked Dover for what he had done. His pride was already low, what with not being able to plantbend and being hit by the dart, so to help him avoid one of Erik's classic lectures was a godsend from Dover.
"Well, it says here there is one thing we can do. I'd never thought I'd say this, but thank the spirits we're in the Wasteland because there's a plant we can use to counteract the poison."
Anurna straightened her back and flung her arms into the air, "Great! Good thing there's not a plant in sight!"
"We'll have to keep our eyes peeled. It's described here as a pink flower that grows on small cacti, so that's what we're looking for people. In the meantime, we can't let Sedgley walk any further."
Erik pulled his swag out of his pack, tied the corners of it to his staff and to a stick Dover had found. Gently sliding it under Sedgley's body, they had created a stretcher to carry him on. Before they could lift it though, Anurna pushed past Erik.
"Let me carry it," she insisted, "You're a bit... scrawny."
For some reason, Erik's chest tightened but he agreed, and led the group in search for the desert plant. He showed Miko the picture and the squirrel-glider zoomed into the air in an attempt to look for it from above.
He looked behind him as his companions became smaller and smaller. He had travelled through the Wasteland before with Anurna, but this time he growled nervously as he headed towards the horizon by himself.
A small cactus with a pink flower.
A small cactus with a pink flower.
He had to make sure the image never left his mind, for Sedgley's life relied on him finding the discrete plant. Anurna he knew like the back of his little paw, and he had gotten to know Erik and, in particular, Dover over his time spent with them. It was Sedgley, however, who he hadn't really formed a connection with. Yes he was kind-hearted, and would feed him or scratch him behind the ear on occasion, but that was all Miko could think of presently. Nonetheless, Sedgley was part of Miko's pack, and this squirrel-glider, unlike ones he had met before, didn't leave others behind when they were unwell.
He continued to peruse the ground, his beady eyes intently surveying the brownish-grey landscape below him. Nothing changed; the colour, the texture. It, all of it, was endless. Then something caught his eye. A spec of pink; a rosy lighthouse amongst the sea of brown, a beacon.
He glided down for closer inspection and found that it was in fact the cactus he was searching for. He chattered with a mixture of happiness, relief and pride as he nibbled inquisitively on the sweet flower.
Erik looked up at the skyline, shading his eyes with a hand, as Miko flew back to them, nattering successfully. The creature flew in circles over them and then led them to the plant. Walking up to it, referencing the notebook, Erik inspected the small cactus.
"Is that the right plant?" Dover asked, puffed from having carried Sedgley all that way.
"Yep, it's the one."
"Well then, let's mush it up or whatever and get on with this."
Anurna placed Sedgley onto the ground and strode up to a cactus. However before she got to it, the sand below her seemed to collapse and become less dense. A monstrous hiss filled the air as a scorpion-snake burst from the sand underneath her feet. It lunged at her, baring its toxic fangs, but she managed to evade its attack, landing on her side and pulling herself along the ground away from the beast.
"What...?" Sedgley muttered, squinting in the sunlight, disorientated.
The scorpion-snake rattled its tail, which dripped poison from it's barbed tip, and hissed down at Anurna who was still crawling across the ground. It went to bite her again, but Dover knocked it back with a water whip – his stiff arm in front of him.
The creature made an angry sound, and whacked its tail towards the boys. Dover nimbly sidestepped it, but Erik was knocked over by it. Holding onto the scaly tail with all his might, Erik was swung over Sedgley – who was lying, confused, on the ground – and landed in a bunch of cacti, yelping in pain and wincing as he plucked a bristle out of his arm.
"Watch that tail, guys," he called, "It's poisonous!"
"I'm more concerned about its teeth!" Anurna yelled back, shoving her hands and feet above her as the scorpion-snake lunged at her again.
A cloud of flames burst from her limbs, hissing like the beast she was in battle with. Sand whirled around her as she span into standing and jumped out of the snake's path.
The firebender looked up, noticed Dover pointing behind her, and did what came naturally. She cracked around and jolted her clawed palm in front of her. There was a slight crackle as orange swirled amongst her fingers and instantaneously collapsed together before bursting from her hand, pushing strands of her hair back from the sheer power let loose. The expanding line of fire shot forwards, encasing the creature. The flames swelled up, nourished by the oxygen from its pained wailing.
Erik grabbed Anurna by the wrist and pulled her away as the scorpion-snake writhed in angry agony.
Dover turned back to Sedgley, unable to watch the animal's dying squirming. Sedgley's face was pale as the full moon, and the sick boy barely had enough energy to look around and mutter in toxic confusion anymore. Slowly the squealing died down. When the scorpion-snake finally squeezed out its last smoke-ridden breath, Dover listened as Anurna walked across the dust.
"There," she puffed, plucking a dainty pink flower from a cactus, and returning to her customary bent hip.
Dover's brow furrowed as Anurna boots crunched along the gravel towards Sedgley.
"You didn't have to kill it."
Anurna's boot crunching stopped.
Dover's hands squeezed at the grains of dust and sand.
"You didn't have to kill it."
Dover spun around, in order to show Anurna his upset face. Miko sat on Dover's shoulder and looked at his cheek, feeling something of sadness – something awful in his gut.
"Dover, it was the scorpion-snake or Sedgley. If we hadn't have killed it, it would've killed us without a moment's notice."
Erik made one step outwards but said nothing. His face was crumpled in what couldn't exactly be called thought. It was the face he made when something upsetting had happened, and it had made many cameos along his head in the past few weeks.
"Maybe," Dover continued, looking down again, "But we didn't have to make it last so long..."
The boy got up, Miko flying onto Anurna's shoulder now, and tentatively pulled out a small metal bowl from Sedgley's pack. He knelt back in the dust and looked to Erik.
"What now? How do we make Sedgley better?"
Erik blinked and then hustled next to Dover, tugging the first aid book from his belt. He read the instructions aloud, placing the ingredients into the bowl as he went, and prepared the remedy. It was pretty simple really. All they had to do was crush the petals of the flower and boil it in water. Erik soon passed the bowl to Dover, who heated the water up with a clench of his fist. Cooling it down, and blowing off the steam, he pushed it to Sedgley's mouth.
"Here, Sedgley, can you hear me?" Dover's mouth barely moved, and his words could barely be heard, "Drink this, it'll help."
Sedgley's mouth relaxed, forming a small slit into which the broth could be poured. He had to sip it though, for his body couldn't perform anything more. The smell of the medicine (when it managed to slip through the stench of the still-crackling scorpion-snake) was soft and pleasant, and the warm steam reminded them all vaguely of baths; which they hadn't had the luxury of having since they arrived in Maderia some weeks ago, and probably wouldn't have until they arrived in Haven. If they arrived in Haven.
A short moment after the potion had all been consumed, Anurna piqued up.
"How long until anything happens?"
She was concerned. What if they had just lost the Avatar? Their whole journey would've been for nothing.
"The book says we should notice results almost immediately," Erik answered, again perusing the pages for more information, "but he's had the poison in him for a while, so it might take longer. I don't know..."
I don't know...
Dover knew something was wrong when Erik had no idea what to do. It was habitual for him to rely on Erik's knowledge. Now that Erik was clueless, Dover was lost. And Sedgley was probably, or definitely, lost too.
"So..." Anurna had begun to notice Dover's increasingly vacant stare and was trying to keep things moving, literally, "We keep moving."
Dover couldn't respond.
Erik could barely do so, "We have to."
The boys got up; Sedgley's backpack returning to Erik's shoulders as Dover and Anurna carefully lifted Sedgley from the ground. And, like they'd been doing before, they again traipsed across the scorched sea of sand.
Seconds turned to minutes, and minutes to hours. Soon, they had no idea of how long they had been walking for. Erik, leading the procession, had started to focus on his shadow. At the start of the day it was in front of him, but now it was lagging behind. He could tell it was the afternoon this way. He wasn't sure what the time was. Nor did he care. Really, all he had to do was ask Anurna to check her phone, but even if he did so they'd still keep on walking until it got dark and they could try and sleep.
Dover passed the time by intently listening to Sedgley's breathing, to confirm he was alive. He'd count the seconds between each sporadic breath, worrying each time that he'd have to count on forever. He felt like breaking down, crumbling to dust and joining the Wasteland, but he could be the Avatar. He needed to be strong. Occasionally, he almost began in conversation, in a distraction, but when he opened his mouth he felt it was not the right time.
Sedgley's face was shiny with sweat and red from the Sun, and his brows slightly furrowed from whatever was going on inside him. The Wasteland was not doing him any favours.
It was doing any of them any favours.
Little Miko sat in a sweaty patch on Anurna's shoulder, his mouth open in discomfort, while Anurna and Dover's hands were split and sore from the sand, and having carried Sedgley for so long. They had exhausted their water supply – they'd even reduced the damp logs taken from the Maderian forest to dry husks. Their lips were cracked and peeling and their heads pounded, futilely telling them to find shade.
Anurna's arms were numb. She was a strong girl, a combat prodigy, but even she got tired. She didn't have the childhood connection that spurred Dover to keep walking and carrying.
"Dover," she croaked, pretty much inaudibly, "Rest... I..."
Before she could finish, her knees quivered and her body gave way. She fell sideways, Sedgley's makeshift stretcher leaning with her, and tumbled down a dune, her lifeless eyes blinking every time her head tore into the ground. Sedgley's body slid off the sheet and followed Anurna down the slope.
Shocked at what had just transpired, Dover frantically chased the pair, mumbling like a madman, Erik hot on his trail.
"What...? Sedgley! Sedgley stop...!"
Erik's feet got tangled in each other, and he proceeded to trip and tumble down the dune in a flailing cascade of sand and limbs.
Anurna finally halted, Sedgley sliding up next to her – not that she could notice, she was barely conscious as it was. Erik passed Dover, and rolled into a messy heap with them.
When Dover reached his friends, he knelt down next to Sedgley. It felt strangely good to collapse. Miko crawled down from his shoulder and lay under the shade of the pack on Erik's shoulder, giving up.
An animal knew when survival was hopeless. Humans, however, have a stupid tendency to persevere.
"Come on...!" Dover muttered, tapping Erik's leg and grasping at Sedgley's shirt, "Come on, get up."
He could see Anurna panting, her dehydrated body slowly shutting down. Erik looked much the same, except his big ears were burnt and peeling.
He looked down at his friends, sprawled out messily across the Wasteland and sighed. His arms were so sore. All he had to do was lay down, yet something inside him urged him not to. Eventually gravity and physical exhaustion beat determination, and he fell into a cloud of dust next to Sedgley, his cheek in the sand and his mouth ajar. Looking away from his friends, across the dust, his eyes barely open, Dover could see blurry streaks of heat flowing above the sand. He waited, burning, for the waves to pick him up and take him out to sea, or for the sand to blow over him and he'd become part of the ocean of dunes. It was terrifying, he thought, that he could actually see pure heat, yet he couldn't take his eyes off it.
His world eventually became smaller, as his eyelids slid closer together. As everything began to fade, as the hot tides rose, he could just make out a group of people walking towards him.
Saviours or savages?
Dover's last thought faded with his vision, as the people of the desert closed in on him and his friends.
"Is he like this all the time?"
"Yeah, he always did like to sleep in."
"Shush, Yindi, he was dehydrated, let him sleep!"
Blurry outlines of people flitted around his peripheries. It was dark, shady, and it smelt of animal fur.
Dover's eyes shuddered; they felt heavy.
An old woman leaned over him, her skin like crinkled cardboard or sunburnt stone, and took the wet towel off his forehead.
"Hello there," she creaked before turning around, "Erik, Anurna, your friend's awake!"
"Is he? Is he?" a little girl bounced up and down behind the woman, "I wanna see!"
As fast as Dover's heart had sunk – assuming this strange woman was a vicious Wasteland enemy – it had risen again as she had mentioned his friends' names.
Anurna came trotting through the tent flaps, a bright burst of light scolding them all with her entrance, and sat on a cushion next to him.
"Glad you're finally awake, kiddo," the firebender smiled.
"Here," the old woman wasted no time passing Dover a cup of liquid, "Drink it. It'll replenish your fluids."
Dover looked around questionably, Anurna tipping her cup of the same juice at him, as though making a toast, and then gulped back his serving.
Shortly savouring the sweetness and the revitalising return of water, Dover paused for a while before addressing Erik, "Where are we?"
"You're in Princess Yindi's tent," the little girl screeched, "Ruler of the sands, and rider of animals! The only way I'll let you stay is if you let me braid your hair."
"Yindi!" the old lady hushed, "Excuse my apprentice. I am Sheker, of the Hebikumo Tribe. Some men found you unconscious on a hunting trip and took you back to our camp."
"They saved our lives," Erik confirmed, relaxedly scratching Miko's ear.
Erik had read many stories detailing the barbarity of the Wasteland people, but had never come across any that mentioned people like Sheker and the Hebikumo Tribe, or the kindness that they offered. It was almost unbelievable that they had been spared, and he had to keep reminding himself that he was, in fact, awake, and not still unconscious and dreaming in the desert sands.
"So..." Dover continued, "Sedgley?"
"Your friend is in the healing hut," Sheker explained, passing Dover yet another cup of water, "He is very unwell."
"But, you'll think he'll recover?"
Sheker's thin, watery eyes looked down. She was contemplating something.
Her leathery lips parted with an answer, "Perhaps."
Dover's stomach churned with dread. 'Perhaps' was a better response than he had anticipated, yet he would've preferred a 'definitely' or a 'there was nothing wrong with him anyway.'
Erik got up and walked towards the exit, "Do you want to see him?"
"He doesn't look any different," Anurna quipped.
The five of them, Miko choosing to stay in the shade of Sheker's tent, made their way to the healing hut. Walking through the Hebikumo Tribe's site, Dover noticed wary glances from its people as they sharpened blades or skinned animals. Erik's body was rigid with nervousness, his teeth clasped shut and anxious beads of sweat dripping down his face as he tried to avoid eye contact with the daunting tribesmen and women. He had no reason to be nervous, at least not yet.
"Sheker," a thin man, perhaps in his twenties, came running up to the witchdoctor, puffed and out of breath, "An omen."
Yindi clutched to the old woman's dress, her little eyebrows upturned and quivering in childlike fear.
"What is it, young one?" the elder asked the man gravely, placing a soothing, leathery hand on Yindi's.
The kids looked at each other. Anurna didn't believe in omens, crossing her arms in disbelief and glancing away, yet Erik and Dover looked worried. They had been raised to believe that the spirits often behaved in mysterious ways, particularly in this day and age. An omen seemed as real and fathomable as, say, the scorpion-snake they had battled earlier.
"It's bad, it's very bad," the man, visibly shaken, muttered, becoming more distraught the more he thought about it.
Sheker turned him away from the tribespeople, who were growing increasingly concerned, "Daku, tell me; what did you see?"
The man looked up at her, the whites of his alarmed eyes contrasting his sun-scorched skin, and stuttered, "A... a scorpion-snake, my sister, burning..."
Anurna's head slowly craned back to the conversation, an eyebrow curved up as if to ask the boys, did they say what I think they said?
A pit formed inside Dover and Erik's stomachs, filled to the brim with solid guilt. This was bad.
"No...!" Sheker whispered, heartbroken.
Yindi clutched tighter at the old woman's dress, out of instinct. She shuffled in the sand; as far as she understood this was the end of the world. She had been taught by the elders to revere the scorpion-snakes, the emblem of the Hebikumo people and the embodiment of their tribe. Their teachers, their protectors. She hoped one day should would ride atop one. That once seemed possible. But now... things looked grim. A scorpion-snake had been found in flames – what could this possibly mean for her and her friends and her mummy and daddy?
Dover's mouth flinched before speaking, "Is... is something the matter?"
Anurna glared at him, angrily questioning his sanity.
"A..." Sheker tried to explain, but was held back by her sense of dread and her feelings of hopeless brokenness.
"Scorpion-snakes are our protectors," the man explained, fiddling with his knuckles, "When one is found dead, it can only mean one thing."
"Evil is coming."
Sheker spoke that line to the sand, almost as if the Wasteland had told her itself. Dover and Erik looked to each other, thinking of Sedgley and praying this didn't mean his already risky state would worsen. Anurna didn't believe a word.
She believed that they believed, that was true, and she was already feeling bad at how distraught they all were to tell them they were wrong, so she kept her mouth shut and her eyebrows down. As if their seemingly inconsequential action – which was in self defence, mind you, she thought – could have such a large 'effect' later on. There was no link between the animal they had killed and the possibility of danger down the track.
"Daku," Sheker finally addressed the man, looking over her shoulder secretively, "could you not mention this to the others? I need to properly consult the sands before panic spreads out. You will do this?"
The man nodded shakily, gulping back what felt like a lump of sandstone.
"Yindi, you too. Under no circumstances can you tell anyone. This is a secret, okay?"
Yindi looked the woman up and down, her cutely freckled face slightly blemished with an array of emotions.
Sheker placed her hand on the girl's untidy, black hair and smiled, "Good girl, now run along, off you go. I'll see you tomorrow."
The little girl looked very unsure, but sniffed it back then ran along the sand, turned behind a tent and was gone. Sheker nodded at Daku, who also took it as his time to leave, and then finally led the three of them into her healing hut.
It was dark inside, and adorned with many shed skins of the tribe's esteemed scorpion-snakes. The tent was filled with smoke, smelling strongly of a what would be a subtly sweet aroma if there weren't so many sticks of incense being burnt at the same time. In the middle of the room, unconscious, was Sedgley. His cheeks had been painted with ash or ochre and in a small pit next to him sat a clay pot over a smouldering fire.
"He is alive." Sheker confirmed, rushed.
Dover tentatively walked up to him, inspecting all the ornaments around him. There weren't any medicines or medical equipment, which he didn't see as a good sign.
"So... What have you done? How... is he recovering?"
"We have drained some of the poison from him," Sheker explained, lifting up a blanket to show a makeshift dialysis mechanism on Sedgley's belly, not that Dover knew what it was, "The flower you gave him helped dramatically, you did good."
Erik's heart fluttered every time she explained this. It meant he wasn't pointless in the group.
"You saved his life," Sheker continued, "Well, physically..."
Anurna rolled her eyes as Sheker adjusted the incense sticks and fiddled with the pot on the fire.
"We have done all we can to restore his health, but there is still something toxic inside him. Turmoil, grief, shame; something. No matter what I do to heal him physically, he will not get better spiritually."
Dover looked at Sedgley's face. It did look like it was in battle. He could barely believe his friend was in such a terrible state. All his life he had always thought he could read Sedgley but now it didn't seem so. Dover had sensed Sedgley was upset, but spiritually in turmoil? He felt cheated, yet guilty too, that he didn't know how his brother was feeling.
"I'm afraid if he doesn't work things out inside of him, he could be lost forever," Sheker added as gently as she could, "And with that omen..." She could hardly finish the sentence, "things... look bad."
Anurna shook her head. Erik stepped forward and knelt next to his friend on the rug. There had to be more they could do for him.
"We in the Hebikumo Tribe don't believe in much," Sheker began, her eyes stuck on Sedgley's strained forehead as she wiped away beads of sweat, "We don't believe in debt; we don't believe that people will return our kindness, especially out here; we don't even believe in love. What we do believe in, though, is the spirits. We try, as our duty, to reach them. We appease them every day, we ask for their help, their advice."
"Yeah? How?" Anurna asked with a trait of sarcasm, though Sheker took her as being sincere.
"We have our ways, especially the ones of us more dedicated to our spirituality," Sheker lifted the lid on the clay pot and blew the steam off the dark mixture, her eyes quivering with something of bewitchment, "Tell me, young ones, have you ever been to the Spirit World?"
Anurna raised her eyebrows and looked to the ceiling, holding back a chuckle. Everyone else remained silent. Sheker turned a rain stick upside down, and the pebbles rattled like the tip of her sacred creature's tail as she added a powder to the broth and stirred it in.
"Those of us wanting to convene with the spirits use this remedy to thrust us into the Spirit World."
"Yeah, or to just trip balls..." Anurna muttered under her breath.
"It works?" Erik asked.
Sheker nodded in that slow, gentle way that meant she was sure. Erik remembered Mother Leliita had nodded like that when she had given them all her talk about their identity as the Avatar. The potion had to work.
"I believe giving him this with thrust Sedgley into the Spirit World too. There, it is up to him sort out his demons."
The old lady looked up for approval, Erik looking to Dover for the final word. Dover's eyes flicked to Erik, then back to Sedgley and he breathed in through his nose.
He nodded, "Yes. Let's do it."
Sheker waited, still looking at Dover. He nodded again and she was sure. She added the black juice into Sedgley's dialysis bag, so that it would go straight into his bloodstream; he was not in a state to drink.
As the black solution diffused into his system, fading to clearness, Dover and Erik hoped Sedgley could find the strength to do the same thing to his mind. Hopefully he could find the strength to dispel the darkness in his spirit and find clarity in peace.
Sheker looked at them, gesturing for them to leave. It was Sedgley's fight now, and his fight alone.
It is dark. Things have been dark for a long while. Trees, water, walking, sand and then darkness. That was how it went, and how it goes.
Different shades of black and deep, deep – to the point that they are pretty much black – purples and blues swirl in front of you. Sometimes you hear your name.
You don't remember any of this; the darkness, the churning hues, the flashing memories. It feels like it has gone on forever but, in what you guess is hindsight, it feels like no time has passed. It feels like nothing. It doesn't even feel like nothing because there is nothing to feel.
You are barely aware of this fact. You are far away from all of this nothing. You see it in the distance. You sense it along your arms and through your ribs, in the knuckles of your toes. It tastes like stretching.
It is dark. Things have been dark for a long while.
Then a light. Are you dying?
The light becomes more concentrated, then saturates the darkness in a great burst. Your stomach surges as you are thrust into water. Suddenly you feel everything, only it feels lighter than reality. You don't feel confined by your own skin, especially in your shoulders.
You get up to kneeling – the water was shallow – and look around. It is swampy. Gnarly mangroves knot through the mist and the water, and glowing orbs dart around like insects.
"Where am I..." you whisper to myself, unsure if you are in danger or not.
The land seems to vibrate a kind of energy. Something powerful but not necessarily dangerous. You get up.
"Hello!" you yell, "Can someone tell me where I am?"
There is no response. A breeze blows, if even, and the fireflies continue their subtle dance. You walk through the water; your feet don't exactly feel wet so it doesn't bother you. The only thing that really bothers you is the fact that you have absolutely no clue where you are.
Everything is unfamiliar, yet somehow ingrained in you.
You peer through the mangroves and see a white light.
"Hello?" you stutter, walking towards it like a moth to a lamp, "Excuse me. Can you tell me where I am? I... woke up here and I don't know where I am."
You push past some reeds and seemingly glide through the trees. As you get closer to the glow you see that it is emanating from an old woman dressed in traditional Water Tribe garb. Her skin is tanned and she wears her hair in a high ponytail. She is hunched over in thought, her eyes shut with what looks like a painful memory. You don't feel like bothering her but you need to know where you are.
"Sorry, um, excuse me. Do you know where I –"
Before you can finish she snaps her head to you and opens her eyes.
The pure white eyes that signify everything...
"The Avatar..." you mutter, awestruck.
Before you ask her for help – not concerning your whereabouts, but about everything; who are you, who is Dover, why, how? – she floats into the air. Next to her, Avatar Ji Bao condenses from nothing, his weathered features showing wisdom that you could never comprehend. Kaen, the firebender, comes next, his eyes also white with knowledge and power. It all happens so fast. Avatar Lyn, the youthful airbender, follows, her green, silk kimono flailing as gracefully as it did the moment she died, and then they all start to fade.
"No... Wait!" you yell, running after them as they zoom away, "I need to know...! I need to know!"
They are just out of reach. You frantically chase them all, their celestial bodies flying away from you, yourself hiccupping and grunting in hysterics.
You have to talk to them.
You have to find out which one of you holds the power to make your dreams come true.
You have to kill this question, this, this thing that is eating you up from the insides.
But you are held back.
You trip over a tree root. You get back up, as quickly as you had fallen, but a vine has wrapped itself around your wrist. You go to rip it off but your other hand has become ensnared too. You struggle, writhing like a poisoned caterpillar-grub, and try to break free but more dark vines wrap themselves around your body and legs.
"No... No!" you howl, pleading for The Avatar to return, "Come back!"
They dart off, out of site. Gone, yet for some reason you still fight it. You squirm, moaning, against the grip of the blasted vines. You try freezing them, or slicing them with a blade of ice from the swamp-water below but you can't bend. Your only option is to continue your futile struggle, as though doing something, anything, will help you achieve everything.
You thrash about, like a drowning fish, as the slimy black vines grow over your face and drown out your screams for help.
"And that's how I became known as Princess Yindi," the little girl concluded, dusting off her hands as though completing her story was a tough task.
"Fascinating..." Anurna complimented in a monotone drawl.
The Hebikumo Tribe were gathered around a bonfire not only in welcome of their new visitors but also as a customary warding off of bad luck. The tribesmen and women danced in springing leaps and jagged circles and chanted to the spirits, as the young and elderly sat, watched merrily and shared food. The kids, at least the conscious ones, were made acquainted with traditional Wasteland cuisine – tough meat in a grainy-textured sauce. Although uninviting to the taste buds, it was warmly welcomed by their empty stomachs as though it were their favourite childhood meal.
Yindi shuffled closer to Dover and Erik, if that was even possible.
"Do you wanna hear another story?"
"Yeah, sure," Dover humoured her, staring off through the flames and at the stars.
It was the first time he had noticed the night sky since he woke up at home to start his journey. The moon wasn't full this time though; rather, it barely existed. There only lay a sliver of silver among the pure black, and Dover's thoughts were solely on Sedgley's health.
He had to get better. He just had to.
If Sedgley were to leave them all now, Dover predicted he would curl into a weeping ball and give up. He wouldn't be able to make it to Haven without Sedgley.
Erik too was listening to Yindi only enough to catch the important parts, or the spaces where he meant to 'ooh' and 'ah.' He was too keen watching Sheker as she performed her ritual. Her glassy, cataract-filled eyes were glossed over with something supernatural, and her tattooed arms shook the rain stick and threw herbs into the heart of the flame, as she sung through her throat a guttural, mesmerising melody. She was in her element.
Daku was sitting down with his family, his back straight and his eyes edgy. He knew about the omen. Yindi had seemingly forgotten, or was at least majorly distracted, but Daku, by the looks of it, was still a loose end.
Sheker glanced at him, noticed his uneasiness, and pulled out a worn, wooden flute from her sleeve. As she did so, everyone hushed down and gave their solemn eyes to her.
"And then, my brother fell in the sand, and then..." Yindi trailed off, noticing what was happening, "Oh."
"What's going on?" Erik asked, curious yet dubious.
"She's playing the Song of the Spirits, our most powerful deterrent of evil spirits and bad luck," Yindi explained rather expertly through her toothy mouth, "It must be for that omen."
"Hey, quiet!" Anurna snapped, hissing like a scorpion-snake, "We can't let anyone know we..." she almost messed up, her eyes widening and her cheeks going red, "know. We can't let anyone know we know about the thing, got it?"
"I know," Yindi moaned, quietly though, poking her tongue at Anurna before turning to watch Sheker.
The other old ladies of the tribe had begun humming and singing in soft, creaking notes while the men scraped rocks together. Sheker placed her lips on the ancient instrument and blew. At first it seemed to rattle, like there was a pebble or something stuck in it, but then it imitated the noise of an angered scorpion-snake. Everyone hissed back, their eyes closed, even Yindi.
The kids couldn't help but watch with their mouths ajar.
Sheker's lips moved ever so slightly, and then an airy note came out, followed by another. It was enchanting, the Song of the Spirits. It wasn't beautiful, like something a mother would sing to lull her baby to sleep, but it was natural. It was purposeful, intricate, vital. Like water is needed for life, this song was necessary for these people to be at peace.
Erik watched as Sheker's fingers danced methodically across the flute, her muscles having memorised every tiny twitch of movement to repeat perfection. She reminded him vaguely of his mother, especially her devotion to the spirits and they way she responded to people. He smiled shortly, as though laughing in a singular silent huff, as he realised how he felt about the old witch doctor. He couldn't love her like his mother, but he could respect her and could enjoy the similarities they shared.
The song died down and Daku was at peace. Sheker nodded at him and he nodded back, turning to talk to his family and receive a bowl of food. There seemed to be a blanket of calmness hanging over the Hebikumo Tribe following the Song. It was hard to doubt that it had actually warded off bad things, but Anurna remained characteristically sceptical. However, that didn't do anything to dampen the tribe's spirits. The men and women went back to dancing, Yindi grinning (in that way that completes the world that only a child's pure happiness is capable of doing) as she was pulled up by her mother and father to clap and prance around the circle, and cheerful talking and sharing continued unabashed. Sheker sat down and smiled at her kin who passed by and thanked her for her ceremony. Erik believed Professor Chan, the man who hated the Wasteland so much, would roll over in his grave if he ever heard of the peace and tranquillity this Tribe flourished in. It was refreshing, to say the least.
Erik got up.
"Where are you going?" Dover asked.
"Don't tell me you're going to dance," Anurna joked, straightening excitedly from her slouch.
"No," Erik defended, "I'm going to talk to Sheker, actually. I think she can help us."
"Hold up, I'll come too."
"Me too," Anurna quickly got up, "I don't want to be the only one stuck with that Yindi. She's already claimed Miko as her own."
Sure enough, Miko was being twirled around dizzyingly in Yindi's arms as she danced around the fire, shrieking in annoyance, although she read it as joy.
The three of them walked over to Sheker, who was finishing a bowl of food on her own. It seemed, as much as the people respected her for the good she did, they didn't want to sit and chat. They had families they'd rather spend their time with.
"Kids, hello," she greeted them warmly, "enjoying yourselves."
"Immensely..." Anurna said straight.
"That's good to hear."
"Sheker," Erik began, nervously scratching at his trousers, "Could you... um, could you help me speak to the spirits?"
The others were taken aback. They didn't know this was why Erik wanted to talk to her.
"Why, my child."
"I, ah... I... I want to talk to my mother," he finally exhaled, water forming on his eyes.
"Erik..." Dover muttered under his breath.
He knew the boy was still grieving. How could Erik not? How could they all not? It was true that Dover and Sedgley's minds were cluttered with the Avatar problem, and the details of their whole journey, but a big portion of Erik's was probably dedicated to his lost mother. They really should have talked about it more, Dover though, feeling guilty.
Anurna's gut dropped. Erik had no mother. She never knew.
"You want what Sedgley has, don't you?" Sheker asked, her forehead wrinkling in complex emotions.
"If you can," Erik confirmed politely.
"Erik, there is none left. You have to understand, I never make much. But I can help you talk to her. Yes, through other means," Sheker strained to get up, "Here, come with me, the lot of you. You all could do with a dose of spirituality."
The old woman's gleaming eyes flicked to Anurna, who noticed.
They trudged away from the bonfire, into the darkness. The festivities were nothing but an small orange triangle and a gentle hum. The kids would be skittish beyond belief normally, but Sheker's presence kept their anxieties at bay. She walked purposefully and without fear along the sand, not saying a word until they stopped and she pulled out some incense sticks and stuck them into the gravel.
Anurna fired small balls of flame at each stick, and many delicate flecks of orange, resonating with a calming glow, now surrounded them.
"Lay in the sand, please, and close your eyes," she gestured with a gnarly hand.
They complied, Anurna doing it so as not to feel out of place.
The dust was cool, pleasant, compared to the searing hot beads they had experienced during the day.
The stars above faded to black as they closed their eyes and relaxed.
"What you have to understand," Sheker began in a soothing voice, "is that the spirits are everywhere; near you, around you, inside you. If you truly understand that much, it really isn't that hard to communicate with them."
Erik inhaled. So the spirits where inside him... That meant that he could talk to his mother just by looking within himself. Dover too deduced that if he looked deep enough inside himself, he'd eventually find out if he were the Avatar or not. Well, theoretically.
"Yes, good," Sheker continued, turning her rain stick upside down again, "You're doing well. Relax. Listen to the sand you're lying on, listen to the wisps of the wind and the thud of your heartbeat."
"I don't think it's working," Anurna jeered, bored and out of her comfort zone.
"You're hiding something," Sheker explained, "You must be completely open if you want the spirits to embrace you. Tell me, tell me what it is you're guarding."
Dover didn't want to tell her about one of them being the Avatar. That information always attracted danger of some kind. He, along with the rest of them, also had absolutely no intention of revealing that they were responsible for the charred remains of the scorpion-snake a few kilometres east.
"Nope," he said nervously, "Nothing to hide, just, open books, and stuff."
Sheker's eyes were closed, focused on the energy coming from their spirits, and the secrets it held.
"No..." she pressed, "There's something you're not telling me."
"Look lady, drop it, we have nothing to say!" Anurna had sprung up from the ground and was about to storm off.
"We killed the scorpion-snake!" Erik blurted.
He couldn't hold it in. He could never lie to Leliita, and this woman reminded him too much of his mother to lie to her too. He expected a beating or some screaming, yet Sheker was motionless.
"What...?" she murmured, like a distant drop of water falling in a cave.
Anurna glared at Erik, her eyes beaming with anger like those of a cat's at night. None of them could bring themselves to repeat the truth. No matter though, for Sheker could not un-hear what the boy had said. Those words, as soon as they had been uttered, had been scorched into her memory, where they would remain forever like a burn scar on human flesh.
"How could you...?" the old woman stammered, in disbelief.
These people; she thought they were her allies. She thought they were good, decent people. Yet, they had destroyed something unconditionally sacred to her.
She heard Dover get up.
"Leave. Just, go..."
"But," Dover muttered.
"You may stay until your friend is better but then you leave and never return. In the meantime you speak to no one. Now leave me be. I need," she winced in pain, yet she was not injured, "I need to be alone..."
Anurna was first to head back, promptly followed by the forlorn pair of boys. As they returned to the celebrating tribe, who were still exulting in their hypothetical good luck, the kids couldn't help but feel guilty. Miko finally escaped Yindi's clutches and landed on Anurna's shoulder, nattering in annoyance. However, the little girl took no offense, for her other friends – the cool, big kids (whom all the children wished they could hang out with) – returned.
"Guys, guys!" she yelled, offering Dover a dark blue berry between her thumb and index finger, "You gotta try these. They're my favourite things in the whole world!"
Anurna pushed past her, "Not now, Yindi, we've got to go to bed."
The girl stopped in her tracks, sniffing back a line of snot from her nose, "Aw... Why? The party's only just getting started."
She turned her brown eyes to Erik, the one who had been most friendly to her. He wouldn't let her down.
Erik could barely make eye contact with her, and croaked, "I'm sorry, Yindi. We..." he breathed in shortly before bending down to her height, "Sheker says she wants you up early tomorrow to prepare the herbal tea, okay? Now, if you have any questions – any at all, she said – go ask her. Sheker will explain it all, got it?"
"Okay," Yindi said, uncharacteristically vacant, before shoving the small fruit into his palm.
"Okay," Erik smiled, before walking off with the others.
As they trudged silently across the sand to their tent, they felt, or at least the boys did, that this tiny, comfortable journey to their sleeping quarters was much harder than the long and exhaustive one they had done the day before. Walking away from the Hebikumo tribespeople, the people they had unknowingly betrayed, was draining, and they had no trouble collapsing next to Sedgley and falling asleep.
The strange-smelling coals still smouldered next to Sedgley as they drifted to sleep; Miko's familiar grumbling (probably in response to Sheker's heartbroken moans in the distance, which their human ears could not detect) soothing them somehow. Anurna would dream of thunder and a woman calling her name, while Dover would not be able to remember his dreams, which probably buzzed nervously about Sedgley.
However, before surrendering his own mind to the dreamscape, Erik put the delicate berry in his mouth. And it was the sweetest thing he ever tasted.
It tastes like leaf litter, like soil. Like exposed roots sucking away all the water.
"No!" you howl, long and strained, yet muffled by the heavy vines that choke you.
No one can hear you. Heck, there is no one here to hear you.
No... you think to yourself, as if blindly protesting it will make it all go away.
Your thoughts flicker to Dover. What a good Avatar he'll make, you spit, and then groan as your stomach surges in guilt and self-loathing.
Things are hopeless.
You dangle in the middle of this strange, unknown place. No one is coming to cut you down, no one will squeeze their hands through and pull you out.
An energy tingles through the hairs on your arms, and your fingernails feel as though they are extending out in front of you, tickling, pulsing. You open you eyes, but there is a pressure on your retinas. Your shoulders twist inwards and you crumple, you implode.
And then there is nothing again.
It is frightening, yet you only acknowledge that the nothingness would be frightening if something existed with the capacity to be frightened.
You feel nothing.
Your heart rate doesn't increase in fear, as you have no heart. There is no you. You are nothing. Yet you aren't, as there is no you to be anything.
But then you realise there is darkness. And there are thoughts.
And a woman.
She floats ethereally in front of you, her silken kimono billowing like the ribbons of moonlight.
You are in disbelief.
Avatar Lyn. She came to you.
You go to speak but nothing comes out.
"Sedgley," she speaks, her voice subtle like the ever-presence of room temperature yet booming like a gale, "You are at a turning point, at the cusp between complete desolation and the chance to make things right."
You cannot believe it. You don't believe on the outside, but inside it completes you and makes you solid again.
"Stay strong," she continues, her figure starting to fade, or the background starting to blend into her lightness, "When you truly believe in yourself, Sedgley, that is when you will truly achieve great things."
Your beautiful steely eyes are the last to disappear into the decadent light that surrounds her. It spreads, enveloping you in a rushing sensation, shooting into your brain as you gasp for breath.
Sedgley shot up into sitting, gasping and spluttering for air.
Miko screeched in shock, scuttling behind Dover and waking the boys up, as Anurna jolted up too, a deadly flame procured in her hand.
"Sedgley?" she asked incredulously, only just noticing what was going on in the flickering light of her flaming hand.
Sedgley just panted. He had to come to terms with what had just happened to him.
"What...?" Dover groaned, still half asleep, and then got up, "What about Sedgley...?"
"He's alive..." Erik informed him.
"What? Sedgley!" Dover turned and saw his friend sitting upright, eyes open and the colour having returned to his skin, and shuffled closer in excitement, "Sedgley, is that you, are you alright?"
He was still regaining his breath before he responded, everyone, even Miko, intently waiting for his response.
"Yeah..." he finally puffed, "I'm fine." He turned to them, "I'm good."
He lay back down, and everyone else settled back to bed, silently agreeing until morning to decide what to do next, and to actually have a proper check on Sedgley.
Dover's heart thudded in euphoria, so hard that it hurt to lie on his stomach and he had to turn onto his back. He stared at the tent's ceiling, thanking the spirits that his brother was alive. They had come too far for Sedgley to die, both on their journey to Haven and in their friendships. But he was alive. He was alive!
As his happiness became easier to contain, his eyes gently closing, Dover could not have slept more soundly and at peace since having left Redwall.
Sedgley on the other hand, could not go to sleep at all. His heart pounded with a newfound exhilaration and optimism, which kept his mind racing and his eyelids apart.
Avatar Lyn had spoken to him in the Spirit World. He didn't know how he'd break it to the others, especially Dover, but he was the Avatar. There was no questioning it.
- Word count = 9,377
- Zei, the anthropologist, is a relative of Professor Zei from Book 2 of A:TLA, who is also an anthropologist.
- Also a reference to A:TLA; the Zei in this series studies the ancient Firebending civilisation that we see in Book 3 of A:TLA.
- Korra, the protagonist from LoK, makes an appearance in this chapter. The author was going to put Aang in but, seeing as Korra was disconnected from her past lives, she was the first Avatar in the new cycle.
- Korra is seen in the Spirit World. In this chapter, the Spirit World landscape is similar to that in the final episodes of A:TLA Book 1, of which the author loved.
- Names of many Hebikumo tribespeople are derived from the Aboriginal language (I know, there are tonnes) of Australia.
- Yindi means 'the Sun.'
- Daku means 'sand'
- Sheker is an original name
- Hebikumo is derived from the Japanese hebi, meaning snake, and kumo, meaning spider, to form the snake-spider tribe. This correlates to their sacred animal being the scorpion-snake.
- The section: "Nonetheless, Sedgley was part of Miko's pack, and this squirrel-glider, unlike ones he had met before, didn't leave others behind when they were unwell.", hints to Miko's past, and that he was abandoned by his squirrel-glider pack.
- For some reason, this is the author's least favourite chapter so far. Probably because it took about 3 months to write, and the quality doesn't seem to reflect the time. Anywho, there are some pretty significant plot developments in this chapter *cough* Sedgley *cough*
For the collective works of the author, go here.