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Book 1: The Republic
Previously on 'Gods of War'
After doing his own snooping Fenn believed that a triad - the Libertarians - were planning an attack on Tariq, but nobody believes him. He and Colette had a big fight after he revealed to her he still believes in demons.
Otto was captured by Libertarians and taken to the Eastern Domain where he was enlisted by Larkin to find an entry point for his goons. It was during his work that he shared a connection with an earthbender called Saffron.
Upon meeting in the Green Akira saw the Smiling-Mask on Fenn and seems to possess a connection to the demons.
Larkin declared war against the Republic after he invaded the Eastern Domain and took over the throne.
Chapter Seven: Civil War
|"I'm quite sick of getting paid to fake crimes and get arrested just to buff your image."|
|— Larkin to Tariq|
A group of men wandered through the scrub. Their uniform bore the Eastern Domain crest, a golden sphinx, and their hands were readied at their chests. The air was hot and practically silent, all but for a few snapping twigs and ruffling litter. Those sounds were the most crucial, however. With the Councilman's army separated, Libertarian guerrilla forces had surrounded the woods along the perimeter of the domain and blocked off all trade routes.
The Eastern soldiers continued quietly, making sure their breaths were faint enough to go unnoticed but wholesome enough to give them strength. If they were to make it to the wall they would have to maintain focus; and for that their eyes stung immensely with painful concentration. What they would do once they made it to the city's border, they had no clue. But they were soldiers, and they were loyal. And their families were in there with the gangsters.
Suddenly a handful of scrawny men burst from the bushes, tattoos and scars flashing pink in the dappled light. Every man took forth a weapon – a sword, an element – and charged at their respective enemy. Seconds later Eastern blood spattered along the understory, and the guerrillas moved on.
Angry thuds banged the door. Again and again they echoed down the hallway as gunshots and cries tapered in the distance like fading crashes of a drum kit symbol. Saffron and her family sat together in the kitchen, staring frightened at their door.
"Mr. Lang!" came an impatient voice, followed by another knock. "Mr. Lang!"
The girl's father got up, squeezing his wife's hand for perhaps the last time, and edged over to the door. He inched it ajar only slightly when a muscular man then came bursting in.
"Thank you! You think you were going to let me wait out there forever?" he spat. "It's bloody madness! I would've been hit in the back!"
"Sorry," Saffron's father replied nervously, rubbing his hands together. "How can I help?"
The man, obviously a Libertarian as the mark was worn not on his clothes but as a large tattoo across a beefy arm, grumbled and then looked down at the kitchen. Saffron's unwavering worry heightened suddenly as the two of them made eye contact. It was for split second, but in it she knew something terrible was going to happen.
"Is that your daughter Saffron?" the Libertarian coughed out, reading off a crumpled sheet of paper.
"No!" the mother cried out.
"Yes," the father interjected, knowing that trying to fool the Libertarians would only lead to further harm.
"That is our daughter."
"Is it true she volunteers at the chapel down on Mapleday Road?" the brute continued almost professionally – secretary-like.
Saffron's eyes widened, tightening the already stiff muscles in her sockets. Cold air rushed under her eyelids as her stare intensified on the man's sheet of paper. Her life was theirs now; a rusty chain strangled her supple neck and pulled her forcefully against her will.
"She would sometimes bandage and tend to the sick there. But the charity ended about a year ago."
Her father's eyebrows skewered into an uncomfortable state of angst – he was choosing his words very carefully.
"Well she's been called up to offer her services. We've got men at the chapel who need medical attention," the Libertarian replied bluntly.
He looked down the hallway at the terrified girl; her mouth was half-open, and she was petrified frozen. Broken.
"But," Saffron's father added, a loudness coming up in his voice. "She hasn't practiced in months. And she has a lung problem, she's not well enough to work in the conditions of war!"
The Libertarian suddenly slammed Saffron's father to the wall, holding a blade of brilliant orange fire to his neck. The brute let the heat do the slicing, melting away the soft layer of top skin on the man's throat. Saffron's mother let out a shattered scream as her brother shouted 'Daddy!'
"Now listen here. You are not in a position to negotiate. It's you who has been invaded, you who has to obey our orders. If you step out of line, even just a crook of the lips, I will not hesitate to burn your family to a crisp."
Gurgling on an immense pain Saffron's father nodded, boiling veins jutting out of his neck for a cooler freedom. The Libertarian dropped him to the floor and watched as the father dabbed his wound with shaking fingers.
"Saffron?" continued the gang member, waiting at the door like some demonic shepherd.
The girl stood straight, the skin on her neck tingling as she watched her father shudder on the floor. She didn't want the same to happen to her, or the rest of her family. She would obey. She would concede defeat. She would survive. It was the only option left for the people of the Eastern Domain.
"Come with me. Keep your head down and your wits about you. With all those fucking idiots out there our heads could be blown off any second."
With that the man chuckled grossly and grabbed hold of Saffron's shoulder. His hands were hefty and rough, but the way he guided her into his chest somehow made her feel safer. Perhaps he was a father, and it was his paternal instincts kicking in. Or maybe he was just a compassionate man who knew that the girl he was taking was frightened beyond belief and needed that reassuring hold to keep her sane.
The two made down Saffron's street, the patched up hole in the wall surrounded by Libertarian guards. She looked up at the sky beyond it. The clouds were blackened with ash and whimpering rays of sunlight cowered behind the greying display. The wall reminded her of Otto. A knocking played on her heart each time she thought of him. It was either a feeling of betrayal, she never did find out if all of it – the invasion – was his doing, or another, more affectionate feeling. Something about an airbender, the freedom, the lightness, was breathtaking. Refreshing.
The two continued down the main roads, more and more sparring soldiers and gunfights appearing as they got to more prominent areas. Finally they arrived at Mapleday Chapel. Half the brick fence was missing as Eastern soldiers shot from tanks while Libertarians charged forward in great masses.
"Come on!" Saffron's leader yelled, jumping onto her and rolling her onto the grass.
An explosion, probably from some unseen grenade or tank shell, knocked them both through the air as gravelly debris cascaded in chaotic plumes.
"You alright, girl?" the man asked once the dust settled.
His heavy body was on top of hers and their faces inches apart. His breath smelt of booze and cigarettes, and the sounds of screaming and gunshots whirled around in Saffron's dazed head.
"Yes, thanks, I'm fine," she said quickly, swallowing down a mouthful of blood and phlegm.
The Libertarian quickly rolled off her then punched out two spires of flame at the enemy.
"Quickly now, they're closing in!"
He yanked her up from the grass and pulled her around the back of the brick chapel and in through the back door. Inside was a ghastly sight. Men and women lay on sheets on the wooden floor, bones protruding from spots they shouldn't and entrails barely intact. Coloured light poured in delicately through the stained glass windows, making the bloody wounds glimmer hideously.
"You've got bandages, gauze and alcohol. Put it to good use," the man said to Saffron, shoving her deeper into the main hall amongst the bodies before running back out to help his men defend.
Saffron tiptoed through the masses, taking a role of bandages from a table and knelt down between two men. One man was unconscious with a pool of blood growing from under his left shoulder and another had his eyes wide open. He stared up at the chapel ceiling, pupils flitting about only just – shivering from terror. Barely audible cries trickled out from his gaping mouth and his fingers were sprawled out on the floor, nails digging into the cracks between the floorboards. The pain teetered on his voice, paralyzing him almost entirely. Upon examining him Saffron discovered that his left leg was missing. Everything below the knee had been blown off and all that remained was a bloody stump. It looked like an exploded barrel, gnarled skin peeling off from the centre.
Saffron's heart curdled as she too became paralyzed. Frosty tears inched out of her shocked eyes and a hard lump edged up her throat. But she swallowed the lump down and began unrolling the bandage. Obey all orders she thought to herself, repeating it as she soaked the bandage in alcohol. Taking another look at the bloody stump she held out the bandage for a few moments. Could she do it? She could already feel the warmth of the throbbing flesh press against her palms, and hear the screams from the man – they would be for some reason filled with hatred towards her. Like the bandage Saffron felt herself unravel. She couldn't handle it. And she wanted to go home, curl into bed and wake up and realise that it was all a nightmare. But every time she'd tell herself to wake up she would always find herself in the chapel surrounded by dying enemies, perpetually terrified.
"Hey," came the deep voice of a woman. "I'll handle him, okay?"
Beside Saffron knelt a woman. Her thick brown hair was tied up by a red scarf and her brawny arms tended to a patient to her left. Her lavender button-up and jeans indicated she was not a Libertarian but rather an Eastern citizen. Saffron smiled. It appeared that there were others here in the same situation as her; forced to work, emotionally blackmailed. Seeing all the Eastern nurses in the chapel was, to Saffron's surprise, strangely humbling.
"Is this your local?" the woman asked as she began to work on the legless man.
Saffron nodded, taking her bandage to the unconscious man to her right.
"So you know where the storeroom is? Where they keep all equipment for the youth groups?"
"Yeah, it's down that hallway and down the steps," Saffron muttered, looking over at the door next to the sermon's podium.
Was a plan being formulated? Was this lady attempting to be a hero?
"In that case how about you go and feed the people down there. I'll take care of your guys."
"There are people in the storeroom?" Saffron gasped, leaning in to get more privacy from the Libertarian guards.
"Yeah. They use the cages as prisons. They've got soldiers starving down there, hoping to get some information out of them. Like where the Councilman is hiding."
Saffron blinked. These brutes were more professional than she first thought. They were taking this upheaval very seriously.
"Go on," the woman added. "I can see you're not too used to this right now."
She gestured at the bloody stump then nodded confidently at the girl.
"They won't argue. Just say you've been assigned to tending them."
The woman then shuffled closer to her patient and dabbed the alcohol on his tender stump. He screamed immensely, lunging upwards and clutching the woman's collar to shout furiously into her face. She remained blank and casual as his eyes ogled out of their sockets and dribbled tears. Saffron quickly got up and made for the hallway door. Sure enough a Libertarian stopped her in her tracks. The woman had short jet black hair and a piercing on her eyebrow.
"What are you doing, huh?" she mumbled, flicking Saffron's shoulder flirtatiously.
"I've been told to feed the prisoners?" Saffron replied nervously, trying to hide her doubt.
There was a pause as the intimidating woman smiled at Saffron.
"Tell you what," began the woman, flopping into a nearby chair. "Go down, feed them and whatever, and get me a magazine. You think you could do that?"
Saffron looked at the lady for a second, unsure if she should clarify.
"They have magazines in the storeroom?"
"I don't know!" the Libertarian shouted suddenly. "Just find me one and I won't boot you across the face!"
Saffron nodded and apologised quickly, nurses turning to identify the commotion they heard.
"Go on!" the woman added before Saffron made through the door and down the hallway.
The hallway was long and white, with windows running down the entire length. As the girl continued down it she could see the battling troops in her peripherals and hear the battle cries rattle against her. She dared not to turn her head. Biting down on her quivering bottom lip Saffron came to the kitchen, took some fruit out from the fridge and, thankfully, found a trashy magazine.
I'll get that on the way back she thought to herself. Walking through the rest of the chapel's complex she came to the storeroom doors and told a guard she was here to feed and tend to the prisoners.
"Yeah, why would we tend to our prisoners?" the skeptical Libertarian asked.
The lie slipped from Saffron's lips easily as a whistle.
"We don't want them dying without first giving us vital information."
The guard stared her down, squinting suspiciously, and then moved aside.
"Okay. But don't take too long."
Saffron bowed politely and then entered the storeroom, tiptoeing down the steps as pitiful moans came from the depths below.
"Please," they said. "We've told you everything we know."
Saffron continued into the murky room, stopping at the cage. Usually it was filled with sports balls, gymnastics mats and goals posts. But here in each cage resided exhausted Eastern soldiers; blood dried on their faces and bruises on their bodies.
"I'm here to help," Saffron whispered to the first few soldiers.
She handed them some apples and they started into them like ravenous dogs. She went to the next cage – more weak soldiers. She handed them apples too and went over to the last cage. Suddenly her body jolted and the fruit she held fell to the floor. Her doubtful eyes throbbed and her heart twisted inside of her ribcage like a key trying to fit a lock.
In the final cage was Otto. She could barely make him out in the dim light and his face was covered in grit and blood. The airbender boy, his back toward her, pricked up when he heard a gasp from behind but continued in his sulking position; chin tucked onto his knees.
"Otto..." Saffron muttered to herself aloud.
Otto decided to turn around. When his eyes met with the glistening blonde hair before him tears threatened his tragic face. Otto sighed apologetically and smiled, and Saffron, broken up and terrified, smiled back. Otto needed her to make him happy, and Saffron needed him for her sanity.
"Why?" she whispered, however, a single tear streaking her delicate cheek.
"I," Otto started, knowing well what she was thinking.
That he was to blame for the invasion.
"It wasn't me-"
"Otto!" Saffron spluttered. "It was! You were at the wall, and that's where they came in!"
The girl fell to her knees, the thud of her bones on the compact floor startling the other prisoners.
"No! It was my job, yes, but I stopped to talk to you and never got it done!" Otto explained desperately.
Sparkling tears dripped onto Saffron's lap as Otto continued.
"I was going to. But I didn't. You told me to quit, I was going to climb over and run."
Saffron thought back to that day when they had met. He was charming and had piqued her interest. Thinking back it was sort of obvious it wasn't his fault. How could he have notified the Libertarians, they were talking right up until the gang members came and took him away? She coughed and let a small giggle and then handed him an apple.
"I guess I just...Didn't want to forget about you," Saffron said, blushing. "What are you going to do now?"
Otto shrugged. He had no idea really what the future held for him. He had no job, no money; no real life to go back to. The only light he could find in the darkness was Saffron. Every time they made eye contact, blushed, looked away and repeated Otto's world would gain a bit more colour. It was like he was an injured animal and Saffron had come to pick him up and nurse him back to health. Only in this instance there was love involved.
Otto's eyes then widened. He had just used the word love. Love. It was something he was sure he had lost. Something he was sure he would never receive. He bit into the crisp apple, its sweet flesh stinging the inside of his cheeks. Something stirred inside him though; a rationality, a righteousness.
"I dunno," he mumbled.
On one part he wanted Saffron to break him out so that they could kiss and run off together, but on the other he wanted her to be safe. If one of them could have a happy and secure life then he would have done at least one thing right in his lifetime. He was sick of screwing over everyone he met.
"Maybe you should go..." he said finally.
Saffron looked at him, shock glowing from her cerulean eyes.
"I don't want you getting caught up with me, Saffron," Otto groaned, swallowing down the overbearing mass of affection that was trying to subdue the rejection he was to give. "I need you and your family to be safe. I want to make things right."
Suddenly Saffron's hand shot through the cage and onto the boy's chest. Otto had no clue what she was doing, or going to do. Maybe she was feeling for a heartbeat; the hummingbird flapping steadfast in his lungs. Her eyes twinkled as his shimmered; two stars seemingly close in the sky, but eons apart in space. This could not become of them. Saffron was not going to let him go; let the air slip through her fingers. She could feel her unstable lungs jitter and a mass of blood gurgle at the bottom of her throat. Quickly she swallowed it down and pulled Otto to the cage bars.
Through the gap they kissed, sharing the warmth of it between them. And yes, as Otto discovered, her lips did taste like saffron.
Fenn looked out over the Republic as the lift climbed up the glass tube of the Beyond Tower. The day was bright and autumn leaves were sweeping through the buildings on crisp gusts. But something seemed off. Colette had urged him to come quickly to Tariq's office – that something important was happening. As the doors came open Fenn casually adjusted his collar to make sure it was covering his mark and walked over to Colette. Colonel Leroux was with her too and Tariq was in his chair talking on the phone.
"Is everything alright?" Fenn whispered to Colette.
His girlfriend leaned in so that her warm breath tickled his ear.
"We received a distress call yesterday about an invasion in the Eastern Domain."
Colette's face was wrought with worry and her eyes darted from Fenn to her father. She still couldn't bear to look at Fenn, their fight was still fresh, but she squeezed his hand and he squeezed back. Suddenly Tariq slammed the phone into its holder.
"Shit," he spat, rubbing his stressed face. "Okay. Leroux I want you to take your Clandestines to the East. I can only give you two days to get there; we don't have much time until a full scale war breaks out. I want you at the walls and ready to subdue the enemy."
And with that he turned around briskly and made for the elevator, a grim expression painted across his face.
"And us?" asked Colette softly.
Her round brown eyes shimmered towards her father. She was scared; and a flurry of other emotions vibrated oddly inside her like pins and needles. Tariq made sure to look at his daughter confidently. He didn't like it when she was frightened, when she felt weak.
"We're going to take some airships," he told her directly.
He snapped his fingers to gain her wavering attention.
"Colette. Hey, Colette, look at me. You're coming with me. If you ever want to be a tycoon like you father you've got to face your obstacles head on."
Fenn tried not to listen. What they were sharing seemed too private, but they never told him to leave the room.
"And a civil war is just an obstacle?" Colette laughed doubtfully.
A war was not an obstacle. It was not a log that could easily be climbed over. Or a wall that could be broken down. A war was a war; it could take lives, ruin homes, and shatter cities. It was a darkness that tore people apart and corrupted their hearts. And darkness was intangible; it could not be climbed over or taken down. Colette could never handle something that was out of her control; it was why she was okay with being a non-bender.
"It's just like a game of Pai Sho," Tariq replied. "You have to play out the moves in your head until you find the right one. And from experience we're both pretty good at that. The Libertarians, however – well, I don't think a bunch of thugs off the street would be pretty good at Pai Sho, let alone executing a war."
"The Libertarians?" Colette repeated, apparently shocked at the revelation of their enemy. "They're the ones with the fist stitched to their clothes aren't they?"
Fenn's ears pricked. The men he overheard scheming something involving Tariq had fists stitched to their jackets – so they were Libertarians. Like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle every bit of information, every inkling, finally fell into place.
"Yes," Tariq replied casually, lifting his hands up to a shrug. "They think they're revolutionary; liberating people from rules, fighting with fists and hearts. But..." He chuckled. "You know how this will play out."
He nodded at his daughter and Colette, a twinkle of hope in her eye – some confidence, nodded back.
She took Fenn's hand and led him into the elevator, leaving Tariq to make more arrangements.
The airships hummed as they bounded slowly through the orange sky like mighty blue whales. Tariq's team had been flying east for the entire day and the setting sun was casting out its final hued waves. Pinks and yellows faded into one another, the breezy clouds melted into the stars. Fenn smiled, watching the winding river below glisten in the twilight. Though a city boy, chaos and neon like a second language to him, the Green was somehow mesmerizing. It was probably because he was a city boy. Lush fields, mysterious lands, breathtaking scenery; that was what the Green offered in its fragile hands. The Republic, however, gave Fenn money, a life, and a relationship. The Republic gave him security. Its constant noise and light, its compactness; all of its hellish disarray was strangely comforting, and at sometimes even exciting. There were still plenty of places to discover in the Republic, millions of people each with different stories. But for now Fenn enjoyed simply watching the Green below and soaking up the stories it had to tell.
A sound came from behind, startling him. Turning around Fenn's eyes met with Colette. Her pearl skin shone angelically when the sun hit it and her black hair stood out magnificently against the background of Fenn's dull bedroom. She smiled and sat down beside him on the couch, looking down too at the yawning landscape. Fenn could feel his gut turn and his tongue etch inside his jaw. Anything he was to do or say could backfire. Their fight was still fresh, their relationship still wounded and scarring. He had no idea what was going on inside Colette's head, inside her heart.
Was it to be the end of them already? He didn't want it to be, even though she never trusted him, and they were seemingly always arguing. He really liked her, heck, even loved her. Colette was his savior, but more than that she was...well... Fenn couldn't even put a word to it! Every time Colette came to mind, even when he wanted to be angry at her, his heart would plunge into his stomach and his cheeks would tingle. She was Colette, Colette Yamamotto. Even thinking her name gave him butterflies.
Suddenly their eyes locked and Colette laughed airily.
"I can tell what you're thinking," she cackled, flicking back a midnight curl.
Fenn grinned back, the words on the crest of his lips, happy that Colette could read him so well.
"I, I told you so!" Fenn replied happily.
Colette jokingly rolled her eyes as Fenn hung his arm around her shoulder.
"I know," she giggled. "I know..."
Then she looked back into his eyes. And things seemed serious all of a sudden.
"I really am sorry."
Fenn blinked. Had she ever apologised to him before? About anything?
"I," Colette swallowed a tear. "You were right. Right about triads trying something with my father, about how I was in danger. And I feel so stupid doubting you, and getting angry at you."
"No, no," Fenn comforted, pulling the weeping girl into his chest.
"I need to trust you more. I don't want this to end, you and me. It would be too premature."
Fenn nodded and Colette tidied herself up, wiping her stained eyes.
"You were right," she smiled softly, shaking her head for she was still carrying some disbelief. "All along. I should've believed right from the beginning."
Fenn shook his head. It wasn't just her to blame – he had a part in their quarrels too.
"If I didn't lie to you it wouldn't have been so hard for you to trust me. I don't want to push you away. I don't want to lose you, Colette."
The two hugged their differences out, feeling the others' heart beat against their own.
"From now on no more lies," Fenn said assuredly.
"From now on I'm going to trust you."
Suddenly the memory of Fenn's obsession with demons emerged in Colette's mind; how he lied to her about his beliefs concerning it, how he didn't believe Tariq killed the last one. Deciding it better to end the night on warm note she squeezed him harder, for maybe if she squeezed tight enough more lies would surface.
"So does this mean you believe me about the de-"
"-Fenn," Colette interrupted powerfully.
"Okay. Never mind."
It was probably best to sort one issue at a time. So instead of opening up that can of worms Fenn kissed the girl on the forehead and shuffled on the couch to look down at the Green again. He could feel Colette's warm fingers snake between his.
"I think our problem was we brought work into the relationship," Colette added. "It was always 'I think this happened' and 'let's investigate using this evidence.' We need to not be a Clandestine and his boss, but Fenn and Colette. A couple."
Fenn agreed entirely, nodding stiffly.
"Just watching movies together. Hanging out, that kind of stuff?"
"Yeah," replied Colette. "Just more lax. The stress of our jobs got in the way. We shouldn't let that happen again."
Colette moved closer to Fenn along the couch and held out her hand.
"Let's make a deal. More trust, no lies, and no talking about work," she paused to correct herself. "Less talking about work."
Fenn shook her hand and smiled at Colette, the enigmatic girl beaming back at him with loving eyes. They were going to be alright. If they could sort themselves out maturely like this, then other hiccup they were to face down the road would be just that; a hiccup.
Fenn stood tall as he listened to Tariq. Soft morning sun, the colour of eggshells, peeled over the horizon before them and into the bridge. The captain steered casually as a group of Clandestines listened intently to Tariq's orders.
"Colonel Leroux has given me the coordinates for a safe landing spot not too far from the domains walls. We should be arriving a little past midday." Tariq looked each Clandestine in the eye, hoping to instill some bravery in their fearful hearts. "I want you armed and ready for battle, I want people already manning the tanks for docking. You haven't let me down yet, don't let today be the day. At ease!"
The Clandestines gave the salute, their boots crunching together, before disappearing to unknown quarters of the airship to prepare themselves. Colette snatched Fenn's hand and pulled him beside her.
"And I guess you don't need to prepare," Tariq growled, frustrated that Fenn, a Clandestine, was not leaving to carry out his own duties.
"Dad," Colette warned. "I think Fenn wants to know entirely who we're up against."
Colette eyeballed her father, eyebrow cocked, as Tariq stared at her with a glint of hesitation. He gave in, however, opening his mouth with a smile.
"Fenn, the Libertarians are an international, underground empire," he began. "They've got stations in the Republic, in every domain, and eyes in every alley. Of course they're not the only triad in the world. But they are one of the biggest, and one of my biggest challenges."
Fenn gulped down a hard, nervous lump. These Libertarians seemed powerful, far more so than the thugs he spied at the docks. They appeared to have everything planned out, everything perfect. It was only normal that with the world under their eyes a civil war would be next; surely Beyond would have figured that out.
"They are ruthless and hard-playing," Tariq continued, brow shadowing his grim face. "They are not a force to reckoned with."
Suddenly a beeping sound rang through the bridge.
"Ah, sir, we've got something coming for us," the captain spluttered. "Something big."
The captain spun the steering wheel hard and the airship turned slowly in the air, like a crashing wave in slow motion. Suddenly an explosion shook the ship. Fenn locked his knees as his footing gave in, Colette clutching onto him frightfully. Fire and smoke flushed out over the windscreen and a screeching alarm sounded, flashing red warning lights all throughout the ship.
"We've been hit!" the captain screamed, arching his back to pull the wheel upwards.
They were nose-diving, and fast. The Green expanded before the crew and Fenn's heart swung up and down inside his rearing lungs. Colette's cries mashed in with the droning alarm as the shuddering, destroyed ship continued to plummet.
"Dad!" the girl screamed, holding out a weak hand.
She felt something take hold, a firm grasp, and yanked that something to her. It was her father. She wrapped him and Fenn in close as the captain yelled at the ship to turn upright again. Fenn could feel the tears amass on his eyes as death's icy grip became more and more noticeable against his shoulders. This was it. They were going to die.
The boy looked up at Tariq who was frowning down at him. Not out of annoyance, or anger, but from worry. The man was seriously concerned. His normally youthful face was now wrinkled and aged and his cheeks grew increasingly flustered every time the ship shook. Tears began to stream down Fenn's face and he squished his head onto Colette's, both of them crying into each other's faces at their top of their lungs. The face Tariq gave him, no it wasn't out of worry at all. It was because Fenn was intruding. It was because he had more of a hold on Colette than Tariq did. And as much as Fenn knew that he should let go and let the family die together, he couldn't.
Colette was the only person left in his life that had any significance. His mother was dead, his father was gone and Otto was out of his life. She was it. And she was all he needed. For that he couldn't let her go, not ever. So he hid his face from Tariq. He couldn't bear to think of the pain he was making the father feel.
Suddenly a screeching, explosive sound roared through the ship, tearing it apart. Gravel and branches, cold air and metal; sharp debris, whole clouds of it, crashed over the crew, bowling them through the blinding chaos. Fenn felt himself slip off from Colette, her voice fading in and out like someone adjusting her volume. The roof slammed against his back then some glass sliced his cheek. He smacked into another wall, unknowing which one, gravity tossing and turning like the tumble of a stormy wave. With each breath he attempted to suck in it was punched back out moments later by something hard. At one point he was sure he was atop Tariq's head.
Slowly the airship came to a halt, its framework caved in at spots and mud and grass splattered all through it. There was silence, all but for the squawks of fleeing birds. And whimpering. Colette was pressed up into a corner, the side of her head almost touching her toes and her back twisted. Small, pain-filled sobs dripped out of her shaking mouth. Her hair was a mess and she could barely move. Blood trickled down an arm, cooling down her stressed, overheating body. She craned her stiff neck up. She had to see. They had to still be alive. Through blurred vision she tried to examine her surroundings. Sparks of electricity came from the ceiling, which was actually once the floor, and the entire windshield was shattered. A grimy puddle of blood spread out along the floor, dripping rhythmically from above.
Still locked in his seat was the captain; upturned and his head caved in the dead body hung like a ghastly, petrified bat. Colette could taste hot vomit at the back of her throat; she was going to be sick. She looked away and continued to stagger through the wreckage, sucking down her broken sobs. What would she be without them, her father and Fenn? What if they were – no, she couldn't think it. Trudging through the rubble she felt something soft against her foot. A gasp fluttered from her mouth.
"Dad?" she muttered, eyes split open with fear.
Slowly Colette lowered herself down, her shoulders shaking and tears bubbling down her cheeks. She was sure she was going to uncover his cadaver, she was certain she was going to explode if she saw. Digging through the glass and metal she found him, face scathed and covered in dust, mouth open only slightly like a tiny keyhole.
She lifted his heavy body out, was it heavier than usual? One usually gets heavier when they die. But he wasn't at all that cold and clammy.
"Dad are you alright?" she spluttered, choking on her oncoming grief.
As she wiped her father's hair from his gritty face the man's eyes flinched. A weak grumble came from his tight lips. Slowly his deep brown eyes opened and peered up at the person that held him.
"Colette," he muttered. "Are you alright?"
Tariq could see blood on his daughter's hands and tears shining against her pale skin. As much as he was in pain, he had to make sure his daughter was alright first.
"Are you hurt?"
"Not much," Colette replied, body still frozen numb with shock. "You?"
"Maybe a few ribs. But nothing serious."
The man helped his daughter up and the two stumbled out of the wreckage through the windscreen. Branches and surrounding bushes were ablaze, thick smoke trickling into the looming overcast. They looked back at the airship with disgust as heavy fumes and glowing cinders writhed upwards from the contorted wreckage. Thankfully some Clandestines emerged, bodies scathed, a few with broken legs or arms – but there was still a fight to be had with the Libertarians and the Clandestines were fighters. One crash would not faze them.
"Fenn?" Colette whispered intimately, studying the faces of the grouping soldiers.
She had hoped to find him in the cockpit with her father or in the perimeter of their crash but he was nowhere. It was as if he had become the smoke in the air, vanishing with each swivel higher. If he was dead?
As morbid scenes flashed in the girl's throbbing head she sucked down a defeated sob. If Fenn was dead she would, well, Colette could not comprehend it. There would still be so much for them to do together, so much she still had to say. And for some inane reason Colette felt guilty. Standing among the Clandestines that were aiding and bandaging each other, holding her father's hand tighter than she ever had, Colette felt as if Fenn's death was her doing. That she had somehow brought it about.
Tariq clicked is tongue, a sort of wild fury wrought against his sweaty brow.
"Those fucking goons," he muttered to himself as he stormed over to a fallen log, pushing up his sleeves. "Clandestines!"
The soldiers gave their attention as Colette tentatively watched her father take lead.
"The Libertarians know we're here, so this fight could get ugly. Our numbers here are down but Colonel Leroux may still have his squadron at the walls...We can still win this!" A hurrah murmured in the livening crowd. "Get your things, anything you can find, keep on alert at all times and follow me to victory!"
As Tariq turned into the forest his spirited Clandestines followed him, hands and guns at the ready. Colette took one final look at the airship, scanning it for a sign of Fenn's body, tears amassing in the corner of her eyes. Surely he was around there somewhere. What if they left him behind when he was still alive?
"Come on," she said to herself, thinking that seeing his body would bring about some solace.
Suddenly a smudge caught her eye. It was black and shaped irregularly against a pale background, and situated on a nook above the upturned windscreen.
Fenn's mark. His curse. Colette was sure.
"Wait!" she yelled out, hearing the troupe behind her halt.
She ran over to the gaping hole and clambered up the side. Her breathing became shallow and manic moans came forth from her fervent climbing but her eyes remained controlled and transfixed on the scar. The smell of hot metal choked her nostrils and she dug into the rubble with shaking hands, the debris slicing at her skin like hungry animals tearing into a morsel.
As Colette pulled aside a crumbled sheet of metal she unearthed Fenn. His left arm and entire shirt were drenched in wine-red blood and his top lip and forehead bore nasty gashes. His eyelids were inched opened only just, his amber eyes absent of gleam but rather opaque and listless. The girl carefully stroked his head, wiping blood-encrusted hair from his forehead.
Slowly Fenn came to, his pupils dilating from the light above him. He felt a drop patter on his cheek, only to realise that Colette was smiling down at him, eyes swelling with relieved tears.
"Wh, what happened?" he coughed, feeling his sore lips subconsciously curve into a smile.
Colette closed her wet eyes and smiled too.
"The airship crashed. But we're alright," she replied, feeling a certain secure warmth comfort her tense muscles. "We're going to be alright."
And Colette was correct. Tariq, Fenn, and herself were alive. Though a fight was still to be fought, and the Libertarians were playing rougher than Colette had anticipated, knowing she had these two men safe and sound with her was comforting enough to keep her going. Maybe even enough to suffice a victory.
Yesterday's rain could be tasted in the hot air. The sun was ablaze ahead, pointing east in the direction of the Domain. The acrid smell of human blood clung invisible on the vegetation, winding its macabre trail through thin, blanched canopies.
Akira knelt inside a bush, her calves and abdominals tensed to keep herself upright, as she watched a group of dirty men traipse the forest. With snail-like speed she swept a strand of white hair behind an ear, maintaining her falcon focus on the criminals.
They were responsible for what she was feeling; an overbearing sense of unease. Like something was about to attack her from behind but, as hard as she tried, she could never turn back to face it. She was in the dark. But she was not alone. And for that she was frightened.
She could hear the men talk about success and of their payment, and say rude things about, from what Akira could only imagine, innocent people, laughing with broken cackles and hideous grunts. Slowly the waterbender glided her hands past the satchels on her hips, taking at small tails of water and freezing them into claws on her fingers.
She had to get to the Eastern Domain as soon as possible. In doing so she would have to get through these men.
Suddenly Akira leapt from her hiding, screaming violently. One man quickly launched a boulder from shock but Akira sliced through it with her ice claws, squinting to protect her blue eyes from the debris.
A blast of fire came from another man. Feeling the air around her scorch as the flames neared Akira ducked and jumped to the left. Charging forward she slashed the firebender's belly, watching his insides gush out like water from a broken damn. Suddenly a boulder smacked her back, throwing her through the sharp grasses and into the fat trunk of a tree. Winded and her chest throbbing the girl lurched herself backwards and sapped the tree of its water, the trunk wilting. With the turbulent stream thrashing Akira spun back and whipped it to the female goon. The water engulfed the woman's gun and hands and as Akira circled her arm backwards the lady was thrown into the sky and tumbled off behind the savage.
Akira could feel her body ache, that boulder must have done damage, but as she sucked in the humid forest air and shook her fringe aside the girl managed to contort the plume of water once more. Whacking away the final goon's earthen attack Akira launched the jet to him. Exhaling with utmost control Akira froze the jet mid-flight into an icy spike and quickly impaled the criminal into a tree. His blood oozed from behind his bluing body as his eyes slipped into vacancy.
Akira walked to him and put her hand on his heart. With her other hand she slid a finger over the trickle of blood and re-applied it over the drying lines on her cheeks.
She had to pay her respects. Every life was important, and she promised their deaths would not go unnoticed. Looking back up at the sky Akira spotted the sun, a golden shepherd, and continued east to the Eastern Domain. There was something waiting for her there, a business she had to attend to. Something was terribly wrong in the Eastern Domain, and she could feel that at any minute its poison could spread and devastate the entire world.
Auburn afternoon sunlight sank in the west under the shading woods. Tariq's squadron had been travelling for almost half the day, keeping cautious as they trod through the dense forest. Fenn's sore body still ached and his cuts continued to sting but for the most part he was feeling better. The cursed mark on his collarbone shuddered every now and then and he'd have to stop and wince, sucking down the pain with bitter-tasting saliva.
"Are you alright, Fenn?" Colette asked, putting a soft hand over his back.
She could see the pain in Fenn's shuddering amber eyes and his hair standing on end. Gritting his teeth Fenn was slowly able to move through the pain and sighed once it had dissipated.
"Yeah, I'm fine," the boy replied nervously.
Was he fine? How much longer would it be until the curse would spread over his entire body? What would happen once it did? Though Fenn had become accustomed to the sharp throbs that came on occasion, he could even start to control his firebending, the dark, rotting flesh worried him. Every time he looked at it in the mirror it would hypnotise him and stressful thoughts and questions would race through his blanking mind, ambiguity and insecurity the only surfacing answers.
"Was it your scar?" enquired Colette, gently smiling at the boy.
"Yeah. I guess it's just hurting from the crash."
Suddenly Tariq stopped and shushed his group.
"Stop," he whispered intensely, staring into the shrubbery ahead.
His fierce brown eyes scoured the nooks and niches to identify what was before them while with his hands he gradually raised a gun. He loaded it with a click, eyes not breaking when a strand of black-brown hair fell over his face. His finger slowly curled around the trigger, his body tall, shoulders broad. He was not just an entrepreneur, Fenn could see that now; Tariq was a soldier too. A good one. Menacing even.
"Who's there!" he shouted, quickly cocking his gun in case the hidden people showed aggression.
There was a pause.
"Tariq?" It was the voice of Leroux.
Leroux and his soldiers revealed themselves, walking into the clearing with grim faces.
"Shouldn't you be in an airship?" Leroux asked, glasses flashing as they met with waning sunlight.
"Change of plans," replied Tariq angrily. "Are we close?"
Leroux nodded quickly at his boss.
"They wall is just beyond here."
"Good," Tariq nodded. "Leroux, take your men and post them at spots around the wall. I want no hiccups from now on, okay? Nobody goes in or out."
Leroux and his Clandestine soldiers crunched into a salute.
"Yes sir!" they replied in unison before marching back into the bushes from which they came.
Tariq turned back to his soldiers – what was left of them anyway, making sure to appear big and confident. His lips were frowned deeply on his chin but his is eyes glistened as if he could smile.
With that Tariq led the group through the remaining bit of forest and to the foot of the Eastern Domain wall. Fenn stared up at the gargantuan thing. It was thick and rusty, intimidating to look at – especially with the Libertarian guards perched at the top with machine guns in hand. The boy could feel his heart sink into his stomach and blood cease to flow. Petrified Fenn could barely walk forward. As the guns were aimed Fenn stared down the barrel; probably to his death. He could feel his skin become icy and his scar seared sharply on his collarbone. Again he thought he was not ready to die. And at his age such a thought should not be so prominent – it was scary that it was.
Tariq looked up at the dirty guard and held up a hand. After the two men prolonged intense eye contact, a test of endurance, the guards lowered their weapons and the gates were opened.
What? Fenn couldn't believe his eyes. What had just happened? They were given entry. Not even a fight was necessary, not a single punch. Astonished Fenn looked over at Colette for an answer. Seeing him she shrugged in reply, seemingly just as confused. Fenn knew Tariq was very important but something didn't seem right. It shouldn't have so easy.
Nevertheless the squadron continued into the Domain as a handful of Libertarians escorted them through the devastated city to the Palace Complex. This was the gang Otto was caught up with remembered Fenn. If they had the means of staging a civil war and the firepower to take down an airship with one hit, Fenn hated to think what Otto's fate was.
The Palace Complex was stunning, for the most part. Its magnificent burgundy walls stood proud, adorned with golden rooftops. However, rather than the usual Earth Kingdom insignia displayed the Libertarian fist was put in its place. And more hideously so where the myriad of rough looking Libertarian men and woman that surrounded the area – fat ones, skinny, skeleton-like ones, dirty ones, tattooed ones.
Fenn could tell something was wrong.
As they entered the building a haunting chill washed over Fenn's spine. Locking eyes with a few of the gang members the boy felt as if he could see into their history; all the men they've killed, the families they've ruined. But it wasn't the horrors he could identify that scared Fenn. It was the hatred. The contempt. As much as he stared into the blacks of their eyes Fenn could not find one particle of happiness. There was no light in them, just darkness. Continuing down the hallway Fenn swallowed down a terrified lump in his throat. Maybe past those doors he'd get the fight he anticipated.
Gold-plated wooden doors swung open. Tense air pressed down on the Clandestines; guns at their chins. Tariq remained firm – russet eyes directed at the man on the throne. An applause echoed through the expansive throne room. Followed by a chuckle. Then the clicks of loaded guns.
"Well done, Mr. President!" Larkin cackled grossly, saliva spitting out the sides of his mouth. "You managed to get in without any harm."
Alone Tariq walked to the base of the throne and threw his backpack to the floor.
"Here's the money. Let's go." Tariq began walking back the other way, tired and fed up. "How about less causalities next time?"
"What if I don't want the money?" Larkin callously smiled, his voice deep and raspy. "What if I want more?"
Slowly Fenn's eyes widened, letting with it some warm tears. Frozen still with shock he could feel his lungs strangle what little breath he had left and his heart contort and curdle. It was as if somehow his ears were deceiving him. He watched Tariq turn to face the Libertarian leader, smiling as if they were friends. Surely Fenn was hearing them incorrectly. He hoped he was.
"You want more? More than twenty million!" Suddenly Tariq cocked his pistol and aimed it Larkin. "You know the deal! You asked for twenty million! Don't think you can fucking barter with me!"
Quickly the Libertarians pointed their weapons at Tariq while the Clandestines pointed their weapons at the Libertarians. A bead of sweat trickled down the side of Tariq's face. He needed to choose his moves wisely; like a game of Pai Sho.
"Woah now, Mr. President! My Libertarians don't like any sudden movements. Any sign of a threat and things could, no will, get ugly," Larkin started, getting comfortable in the throne. "I don't know about you but I don't mind waging war. It's refreshing. And I'm quite sick of getting paid to fake crimes and get arrested just to buff your image. Got a little stale after the tenth time, didn't it?"
Larkin coughed out a single laugh.
At that moment Fenn could hear his world shatter. It was as soft as a moth's flutter but more painful than a hot, white branding. Like a fork of crystal lightning everything he had known or thought to be true about Beyond had been sliced open and destroyed, falling now in broken bits to the pit of his empty lungs. It had all been a lie. All his good deeds were fabricated, webbed in a silk of deceit and falsity.
His whole investigation, his worries, his fights with Colette even; all of it was just an embellishment to boost Tariq's image. Starting up as a Clandestine Fenn felt that for the first time in his miserable, tedious life he could in some way change the world; and for the better. Maybe he did – or would – but as the revelation became nauseatingly rock-solid in his mind somehow it just didn't seem right. A Clandestine was a soldier, loyal to the Republic. They were revered as heroes and known the world over as fair, righteous people.
But Fenn felt far from righteous, the word even sounded out of place on his tongue. His uniform was now a stain that tarnished him, his badge a mockery of the praise innocent Republic citizens had garnered the Clandestines with. He didn't deserve applause, none of them did! Even if one Clandestine were to save a family from a burning fire, or singlehandedly discover an illegal internet trade would it even suffice to matter if it was all staged?
What good is selflessness when it is founded by lies?
Fenn diverted his attention from his growing conflict back up to the Libertarian leader. Was he an actor? Are the Libertarians even a real triad? Of course, of course; Otto had is troubles with them – they were serious.
"The Libertarians are sick of being tossed around as your glamour card! We want a voice! We want to be heard!" screamed Larkin, feral eyes widening with excitement. "If these little charades continue then you can forget about this deal and you can forget about any future performances! You've got what you wanted out of it, you're President now, so I'm not playing your games anymore! Got it?"
Tariq stared down the Libertarian Don with a furious conviction, his lips taught and temples sweating. He could feel the icy stares of gun barrels on his neck – he would have to make a decision. His daughter was in the room, he couldn't forget that. The man's lips opened slightly and a defeated sigh came out.
"What do you want?" he asked in monotone, perhaps the faintest hint of aggression.
Larkin, a smile pursed on his prickly chin, hummed out a single laugh.
"Republic's Police Chief."
"Larkin, please, a lot of people know you're face," Tariq responded quickly, rolling his eyes at the man's stupid suggestion.
"I don't care!" interjected Larkin. "I know my stuff about crime and know that city like the back of my hand! I'm perfect!"
"It's too much in the public eye!"
Fenn swallowed as he nervously watched the oncoming arrangement. Was this really happening? How long had the Libertarians been working alongside Tariq in his campaign?
Larkin bent forward in the throne.
"So you've got something for me?"
Tariq stopped for a moment, dreading the decision that clung to the forefronts, the farthest tips, of his lips.
"I'll give you Non-Bender Councilman. It's less public, but you'll still get heard."
Larkin cackled and slapped his thigh jovially.
"Well then I'm happy we could work something out! And I promise, Mr. President, you won't regret it!"
"I hope so," Tariq mumbled under his breath as he turned to gather his men. "Come on, everyone, let's move out. And if this gets word back in the Republic, or anywhere for that matter, there will be consequences. Got it?"
"Yes sir," the Clandestines replied stoically.
Together the Clandestines and Libertarians exited the palace, seemingly shaken by the proceedings. Fenn shuffled through to Colette and took her hand. He didn't know what to say, and neither did she, so they walked together in silence – making vain attempts to admire the architecture.
Fenn still couldn't believe it; that all this time the triads were playing by Tariq's orders. He tried to shake the idea out of his head, all the shame, the unexplained guilt, but it lingered grossly like cigarette smoke on people's clothes. It followed him around to taunt and upset. But he needed to maintain focus, on anything, to distract himself. He needed to do something nice, something he was sure wasn't first ordered through Tariq and carried out by shady means. A pure deed.
Akira slammed her back on the metal wall, no sound coming from her lips. In the shadow of the wall she was hidden from the guards above, and now that the sun had almost completely set and night was making its starry appearance she could be certain she was unseen.
Taking droplets of water from her pouches Akira formed them into her ice claws. Before taking one final peek upwards the girl dug the claws as far into the metal as she could and pulled herself up on them. With her biceps throbbing Akira repeatedly slashed into the metal, hoisting her nimble body higher and higher up the wall. Quickly she went, taking deep, empowering breaths. She would not waver until the job was done, she was a juggernaut impervious to any forces that would try and stop her.
Finally the girl reached the top and swung herself over the mantle, swiftly throwing the guard back over the wall. The palace was before her. She leapt from the wall onto the palace roof, ducking down as she ran to feel the crisp air glide past her face.
"Up there! On the roof!" she heard a man call out. Suddenly gunshots poured at her feet. She skidded left and rolled down a groove in the roof then tumbled back to her feet and continued. To her right another barrage of bullets came. This time she jumped high and threw her ice daggers down at her opponents. Unsure if her attack was successful Akira continued across the roof, stopping at the edge to peer down.
Men and women had their guns and elements pointed at her and below a group of people came from inside the palace. Suddenly Akira's blue eyes widened, her pupils dilating as if they were being strangled.
Below her was that boy; the one she had met by the lake in the Green. From her angle she could see the curse on his collarbone, and a ghostly outline of the smiling mask swayed from behind him like a lurid shadow.
As another blanket of shellfire came to her Akira pounced down, taking the ice dagger from its string, and landed in front of Fenn, swiping him into her clutches to press the dagger against his neck.
"Don't shoot!" Colette screamed suddenly, the Libertarians halting their attacks.
Akira smiled wryly; bloodied lips curving at the corners like hot burning pages. Apparently she had made the right move. She stared into the brown eyes of the girl before her, stepping backwards with Fenn still in her grasp. She pressed the dagger deeper into the boy's neck to assure everyone that she wasn't joking. And she wasn't. She would do it.
Fenn could feel the ice edge into his neck. The hot blood felt awkward against his chilled skin and his breathing became acute from fear. Everything had happened in an instant, like a blur. At one moment he was with Colette, soaking in his upsetting discovery, and then at the next he was in the arms of a savage girl. Her warm breast pressed up against his back and the boy could feel her frenzied heart drum inside her body.
"Don't attack! Let her do what she wants!" Colette ordered, brow furrowed with a focused mixture of rage and worry.
Slowly Akira walked down the road, away from the palace, with all enemy eyes on her. She could see the angst inside Colette's eyes; swirling and fumbling like lost waves, trying to make sense of a storm of confusion. But Akira could not compromise for sympathy.
"Please, don't hurt me," Fenn squeaked from under her arm, trying not to move his neck against the dagger too much. "I mean no harm."
Suddenly Akira seized the boy's wrist and ran off down the road, taking a sharp turn into a street and into another in a bid to lose the soldiers. And Fenn was powerless to resist. Still in shock and his neck trembling at the wound he couldn't comprehend the situation, let alone take a stand against it. Again the world blurred around him as the two continued briskly through the city. Her palm was soft and warm with sweat and her eyes crazed like a blood-thirsty animal; she ran with a conviction almost terrifying. But nevertheless Fenn possessed not a thought to fight back. He could overpower her, the curse strengthened his firepower so he could break free easily, but he didn't want to. Some strange emotion had washed over him and he was now convinced to let the savage lead to him to wherever they were going.
After almost half an hour of running Akira slowed her pace, her grip gently falling from Fenn's wrist. She stared up at the chapel, its spire beckoning her to proceed, the stain glass windows glowing in the silvering twilight.
"Go in," she said sharply to Fenn, gesturing with the dagger in hand. "Go!"
Obeying her orders Fenn stepped onto the grass, unsure if it was the right move.
"Around the side!" Akira snapped. "Follow me."
Annoyed at the boy's stupidity Akira stormed around the side of the chapel. The brown and orange brickwork was faded, and moss grew in the crevasses, its dank odor seeping history into the air. Gruff voices could be heard in dabbles here and there – rough gurgles and intimidating cackles that shot like bullets into the ears of those that listened.
People were inside; Libertarians maybe, or angered Eastern soldiers. Either way Fenn could feel his ribcage shake and ache from his terrified heart underneath. He blinked a few times, rolling his eyes to get the blurs out into focus. He needed to remain alert. The girl ahead of him, arms and face patterned with blood, was unpredictable; things could turn ugly if he didn't act correctly.
Akira paused and peered around a corner before jutting back to slam her back on the wall.
"Stay," she whispered strongly, blue eyes tapered by worried eyebrows.
Fenn obeyed and pressed himself onto the wall too. Licking his dry lips he began thinking of an action to take. Could he run away? Would that be smart? If he did maybe she would retaliate, kill him even. Or maybe whatever she was here to do was more important than him – she no longer had her dagger to him, maybe Fenn was just one part of her plan?
He could take her on. She was close enough for him to do quite a bit of damage, blast her in her side and send her rolling into the other wall. But Fenn was unsure if he could do it. It would be a cheap move, and he could never hurt a girl. Especially one that spared him from any harm.
And then there was curiosity. It pegged at Fenn's mind like a lost memory at the breadth of remembrance. The taste of mystery, succulent yet subtle, coated his tongue, slowly strangling and engulfing his entire body – a python of tantalisation. Soon it was all he could think of. Running wasn't an option, nor was fighting. Staying with Akira, discovering something secret, that was his best bet. It might even shed some light on demons.
Suddenly Fenn realised Akira had ducked off around the corner. Following her trail the two tiptoed under a sign, of which Fenn could make out read 'Mapleday Chapel.' Mapleday. Fenn had heard that name before, it was sometime recent. But he had not the time to dwell on the name's origin. Akira had come to a door and slashed the knotted chains with a whip of ice and now the stakes had risen.
A Libertarian who had noticed the intrusion had his gun pointed at the two teenagers. He blasted two shots from it as Akira quickly ran forward, a plume of water by her side. Absorbing the bullets into the water the shells lost their velocity, becoming sluggish, before bursting out at the end into the wall. In the few seconds afterwards Akira wrapped the man in the water and froze his body, leaving just his eyes and nose exposed. Then without a moment to lose she kicked open the next door and scurried down its steps.
Fenn remained motionless briefly. He hadn't the faintest idea what was going on. Nevertheless he followed the girl into the next room as the magnetism that overcame him knotted stronger in his gut and his legs seemed to move at the will of some other force than his own.
What the two had come into seemed like a storeroom of sorts. Goal nets and bags of dodge balls, wound up tennis nets and other recreational items were crammed into the nearest corner of a cage. But something didn't seem right. As Fenn tiptoed further into the murky depths of the storeroom, Akira already at another door at the end of the hallway, haunting moans echoed invisible in the shadows. Fenn peered into the cage, holding his breath, feeling fire build up in his cautious knuckles, only to find a cowering Eastern soldier. And there was more than just one. Almost all the cages had two or more men in them; bloodied and bruised, sobbing defeated on the concrete.
Akira slammed her fists on the metal door, ignoring the slow boy behind her. He was not important anymore, at least not now. A powerful aura was pulsating through the metal. She could feel it weigh down her muscles, heralding her limbs as if they were its to tame. What she sought after was on the other side of that door. Turning the water on her fingertips into ice she slashed at the locked handle, her feminine voice coming out in rough grunts as she swiped her arms.
Fenn, feeling the frightened hairs on his neck chill his back, did not know what to make of what they had found. The sound of Akira's slashes thundered in his ears as he looked on in horror. What could he do to make these soldiers better? There was nothing. Maybe it was a mistake to have followed the girl. Finally at the last cage the firebender leaned in for a closer look. The body inside had ghostly white skin; of which clung, like a bag vacuumed of its air, to frail bones. In the flickering light the man's black hair shone like a destroyed spider's web, and was encrusted in blood.
But something seemed familiar. Maybe it was those big, round ears. Or the slouch. Or maybe the clothes – a corn-coloured shirt, in tatters, and blue shorts.
"Otto?" Fenn tried, entirely sure it wouldn't be the airbender.
And of course it wouldn't be. Otto lived in the Republic. There would be no reason for him to be in the East. Not that Fenn should care at much. Otto's whereabouts was not his problem. He had to remind himself that they were not friends; he had to be sure not to think about him at all – there was no point. The nature of their relationship was something Fenn pushed aside frequently. He wanted to be angry at Otto, he did, and for the most part he was. But sometimes there would be a flicker. Of sympathy, or worry, or some human emotion. Something would always bring Fenn to compromise his anger for friendship. Maybe they could be friends. Deep down Fenn wanted them to be friends, and deep down he wanted the prisoner before him to be Otto.
The prisoner heard the address and to be polite – or maybe his name was Otto too – shuffled around. Fenn laughed. He was baffled. How? How on earth did Otto end up in a church storeroom in the Eastern Domain?
"Fenn," Otto said, neither surprised nor happy.
It seemed the airbender had finally realised his wrongdoing, and knew he had to act sincere. His silver eyes looked into Fenn's with a knowingness, or defeat, a maturity. If the civil war had affected one person that person would be Otto. His entire being seemed different. Not off, no. It was like he had shed his skin, or had come forth from a cocoon. This part of him was always inside, the kind, honest man; it only needed time to emerge.
"How the hell did you end up here?" asked Fenn, taking a blade of fire to his fist.
His collarbone seared momentarily before the boy swiped down at the lock. The metal glowed white, hissing from the heat, and then, as if he knew exactly what to do, Otto blasted a gust of air over the scorching lock. Once cooled and brittle Fenn kicked it in two, the door to the cage swinging open.
"I always seem to be thanking you," said Otto, holding out his hand to be shaken. "One day I'll repay it all. That's a promise."
"It's fine," Fenn replied, shaking the airbender's hand. "I just can't believe you're here."
It was as if destiny had brought them back together; as if they were meant to be friends.
"Neither can I," the airbender joked. "But the Libertarians couldn't wait any longer."
Horrified tears surfaced in Otto's eyes as he remembered the things the Libertarians had done to him, and what they had done to Saffron's city.
"Well you're okay now," Fenn started, a smile creeping on his chin. "The war's over."
Suddenly a metallic bang pounded the storeroom, the two boys flinching from the sound. The door Akira had worked on had finally given in and had burst open from the hinges. The girl delicately tiptoed in as a beastly whimpering came from the darkness inside.
Fenn ignored Otto and followed. He had promised to follow through with his curiosity right to the end. There was more to be discovered. Akira did not lead him to the Mapleday Chapel to find a friend – what was she after?
A harsh smell charged into Fenn's nose, gagging his throat with its nastiness. Thick puddles of blood were spattered on the floor and still the pain-filled moans quavered. As his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, seeing Akira crouched on the floor before him, Fenn felt his heart plummet, fat tears rushing forward.
Collapsed on the floor, a pool of blood as its deathbed, was a creature. A demon. Its red skin was slashed and scabbed and its large, black eyes were shiny with fear. The poor thing writhed around and crowed, worried that the people coming closer would hurt it more.
"It's okay, it's okay," Akira quickly hushed, holding out her hand as a gesture of safety. "I can help you."
She pulled a stream from her satchel and brought it to the demon. The demon now backed away, its long claws scraping along the ground in manic attempts to escape. Softly Akira placed the water on a scratch and moved her hand in circular, fluid motions. The water began to glow and soon the demon's anxiety subsided.
Fenn's mouth gaped open. It wasn't because Akira was aiding a demon, and it wasn't because he could feel himself feeling sorry for the thing; it was because he had seen the demon before, and the name Mapleday finally became familiar.
It was the 'Red Demon' he had seen on the news. Apparently it had appeared on Mapleday Road in the Eastern Domain and was killed by the authorities. But obviously not. Why would they want to keep it alive?
As the thing continued to bleed out, whining from the exhaustive pain, Fenn could feel his knees begin to buckle. He was scared. And the black mark of rotting flesh stung like a fresh burn on his collarbone. He wanted to cry out, to lash out, anything to get rid of the pain. But more so he could feel pity breaking through the rage; a delicate flower blooming through concrete, stretching out to the warm sunlight. As much as he tried to let his anger and hatred consume him sympathy would come to curve his eyebrows upward with worry, to turn the burning into compassion. He felt sorry for the demon.
For that Fenn was terrified. He felt absolutely alone in his own mind, watching the savage heal the demon in the darkness of a chapel. It was surreal, unbelievable. A waking nightmare, a walking dream. Akira turned to face Fenn, putting an arm under the red demon. Her blue eyes were still intense and icy, and a frown was still plastered on her moonlight skin. But a plan could be seen on her face.
"Go out the front. People will be looking for you," she said stiffly. "I'll go out the back. You tell nobody I'm nearby, okay?"
Fenn stiffened as the girl awaited a reply; a yes. Should he? Would it be right to let her, or even more, the demon get away? Surely the thing would die if she didn't get it out of the city to somewhere more secluded. But that would go against everything Fenn had been working towards, it would shame his curse; the Smiling-Mask demon would win. He looked at Akira, her hands were shaking and covered in blood, then at the demon. It stared up at him with its frightened eyes all the while clutching onto Akira's arm for dear life. The way it put its complete trust in the girl, it moved Fenn, it confused him too. But somehow he couldn't say no, he could not stop her. The demon was a living thing. It was in pain, it was in terror, and it needed help.
Gently Akira hoisted the demon to its feet and put her shoulder under its arm. Otto, waiting at the door, nodded to Fenn who nodded back. The airbender had heard the plan, he didn't seem to mind.
"Have you got everything?" Fenn asked – he didn't know why.
"Yeah, left a note, it should be all good," Otto replied as they left for the front of the chapel.
Otto left a note at the cell. Saffron would surely come back and he didn't want to leave her behind. They would meet up again, one way or another.
The two continued into the main hall, not looking back. They could hear the demon's whines and its long claws scrape the ground, but they dared not turn around. If they did Fenn was sure he'd change his mind and fight them. He just wanted it all to be over. He'd find Tariq and Colette, kiss his girlfriend powerfully, hoping to never let go, and then hop aboard an airship. He'd get Otto on, and Larkin would go too. Larkin; the Libertarian boss now appointed Councilman. A criminal to run the streets of the Republic. Fenn was not sure if that was a good move on Tariq's part.
But then again what did he know about Tariq? Nothing it seemed. Everything he thought about him had changed, become tarnished by that one proposition. There was a whole underbelly connected to Beyond that Fenn had no idea about. He wondered if Leroux was in on it too, or Colette even. What dark side could she possibly have? The entire Republic seemed unknown to him now that the truth had come out. Every man, every woman could be hiding something behind their face, a whole secret agenda. As Fenn continued to question what the truth really meant, and if there was any at all in the Republic, demons came to mind. Who knew how many lies were blanketed on such a topic, or how the Republic was connected to it. Whatever secrets there were, Fenn was determined to uncover them.
As Colette once told him, "Information is power." But it was obvious now. Truth is ever stronger.
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