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|Den of Woe|
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Once in a while, she saw a reddish gleam streak up the river she walked along, but that had largely passed as the clouds became too dense for the rapidly retreating sun to fight its way through. Even without the precipitation, visibility was poor. The buildings cast deep shadows in the limited sunlight and the slush, asphalt, and overcast sky had a tendency of blending together in the premature dusk.
The reason for these repeated treks in terrible weather was partly to visit the unemployment office. She was still covered by "severance" pay from the department, but would soon need a temporary job to stay under cover. The unemployment office had lined up a few positions, all as a first aid instructor, but she had another reason to keep visiting.
Thiera had told Aroma of people she suspected had been following her while she was still living on her own. Sometimes, when Aroma turned a corner, she would glimpse someone who seemed to match one of those descriptions. Never the same one twice. Usually performing some mundane ritual like checking a sign or ordering food from a nearby stand.
For days, Aroma had to pretend not to notice them. To avert her eyes and try to steady her breathing. To ignore her stomach, churning so hard it threatened to push its contents back up her throat, burnt and dry from resisting. Sometimes, Aroma would open her blinds late at night to see them on the sidewalk across from her building, and then be kept awake by the sound of her chest hammering away and the ache of the blood racing through her temples.
She hadn't noticed them today, but maybe that was because the ongoing struggle to not run away screaming was weighing her eyes shut. Miserable from the weather and lack of sleep, she continued uphill, hunched over, sloshing through puddles and kicking gobs of slush that disintegrated on the toes of her boots with wet thuds.
The plan was for the Purists to abduct her, but what she wasn't expecting was how. Just in front of her, she saw something dart over the guard rail, duck under, and circle around. She blinked a few times before she realized that this "something" was the head of a Purist bola, now dangling from a cord wrapped around the railing.
She stumbled back as something much larger shot up over the railing: A tall, slender figure wrapped head to toe in gray bandages, with just a narrow slice for the eyes. How did he scale the wall so fast?!
Startled, she turned to see almost exactly the same thing on the other side, the only difference being this 2nd Purist was just slightly shorter, with narrower shoulders but wider hips. The shorter, female Purist jabbed at Aroma with her left fist, dominant knuckles outstretched. Without thinking, Aroma flexed her trunk to the side, grabbing the Purist's wrist with the crook of her elbow and her upper arm with her other hand.
She twisted and the Purist teetered on her right foot, but just as Aroma thought she was going to go over, she tucked something silvery into her belt and grabbed the rail with her right hand, kicking into Aroma's side with her left foot. Aroma also forgot about the Purist behind her, who kneed her in the lower back before punching both of her shoulders. Aroma's hat slipped off and floated silently over the bridge to a watery grave, while her purse fell from her shoulder and into the puddle at her feet with a heavy thump.
Aroma gasped from all of the blows, especially the searing strike to her side that seemed to be squeezing tighter around her lungs even after the Purist had retracted her leg. Between this and her now-immobilized limbs, it was easy for the male Purist to shove a firmly packed ball of fabric into her mouth.
She stopped falling for a split second as he grabbed her rain cape, but Aroma heard his hand slide off of the slick rubbery garment and shut her eyes tight as her face rushed towards the concrete. Colorful sparkles twinkled in the back of her eyelids as her nose depressed and she felt a wave of cold run through her cheek bones, then hot as the pain kicked in. She guessed that her nose was probably bleeding, but she couldn't tell with all of the dampness in her face. Drops of water were quickly sucked up her nose, burning the back of her throat.
None of this was doing much good for her breathing, and it only got worse. As Aroma's strained coughing began to dislodge the gag, her ribcage was crunched by a full-grown man sitting squarely on her back. The man then drew a thin line of fabric was wedged between her lips, tied tight behind her head to keep it inside. As water seeped into the cloth, it packed together, resisting further movement and air. This was all on top of the fact that most of her body felt like a wet noodle, making even raising her chest to take breaths difficult.
Of course, the Purists weren't out to let her drown in a puddle, but their means of preventing this was by no means gentle. Having regained her footing, the female Purist bent down, gripping Aroma's hair tightly. Aroma felt some of it rip out as she was yanked upwards. Seeing a hand approaching her, Aroma quickly closed her eyes again, only to feel the most painful part yet as the Purist compressed her eyeballs. The fire immediately spread throughout her head, panic commanding her to thrash around, but only managing to loll her neck oddly. Finally, the Purist retracted her hand, Aroma's face and temples throbbing as her eyes readjusted themselves. The globes themselves were completely numb.
When Aroma tried to open her eyes but couldn't tell whether or not she succeeded, her thoughts raced, Did she blind me?! Did the Purist Leader order this as some sort of ironic punishment?
She inhaled deeply several times a second, practically sucking her gag down her esophagus. Already light headed from facing other breathing difficulties, coupled with the pain of the combined blows, the strain was too much for her and she fell limp in the Purists' hands. The male Purist snatched her purse, securing it around his neck before they quickly tied Aroma's hands and legs together with their bolas and hoisted her up, rolling her over the railing.
Unconscious, Aroma was unaware of splashing into the water, let alone being fished out by the Purists waiting just in the shadows of the drain pipe. The Purist duo who attacked her also leaped over the railing, only they withdrew the miniature crossbows from their belts. But instead of an arrow, each contained a modified bola head. The other end of the bola formed their belts.
While in free fall, they fired, once again attaching their bolas to the guard rail. As they flew towards the wall, they held out their legs. Bouncing off, they began to repel to the river below. Once in the pipe, they each pressed a button on their contraption. The lines quivered and the gear mechanisms clicked furiously, but the Purists held fast to the pipe walls. Since they wouldn't come to the guard rail, the other ends of their lines eventually disentangled, flying back into their grappling bows. Grabbing Aroma's feet, they assisted their fellows in dragging her into the shadows.
Aroma woke up, still unable to see. She felt her neck throbbing as another panic attack came on. She thrashed about, but stopped after feeling something chafe against the side of her face. She realized firstly that she could move again and secondly that something was covering her eyes.
After this, more realizations came flooding in. It makes no sense to cover a blind woman's eyes, or for that matter to blind someone you want to perform surgery. The Purists must just be able to use chi blocking on the optic nerve. If they didn't want me to see where they were taking me, that must mean that I'm in their hideout after all! Okay...okay...so I specifically told my new neighbors to watch out for me on that route. The ones who are undercover police officers. And even if they didn't see anything, the Triads might have. I'll be just fine. Euryale will be here to rescue me soon.
Once she was sure of all of that, she breathed deeply into her nose—her mouth was still tightly gagged—and steadied her pulse. She decided to take further stock of her situation by wriggling around some more to see what else she could determine. She was on a hard wooden surface, like some kind of plank. It moved slightly whenever she did, so it wasn't fixed on the floor. And whenever she tried to move her arms or legs, she found that they were lashed tightly together. She also felt some resistance from her ankles and wrists, which were above her head. Trying with all of her might to pull her legs up to her chest, they didn't budge, but she heard a creaking noise, which echoed even after she quit.
Putting all of this together, I'm tied to some kind of prison cot in a cramped cell. If the theory that the Purist base is underground was correct, that would imply...maybe some kind of storage tunnel? That could put me anywhere from the industrial sector to Yue Bay to anywhere in between....
"Wondering where you are?" that loathsome woman asked, as if reading her mind. She'd never before felt such a strange mix of joy at hearing another human voice, coupled with guilt and disgust at that feeling. She heard the clinking of metal, and then steel scraping against stone as the Purist Leader opened the cell door and came towards her, the echo turning each stomp into an infantry charge.
Aroma shuddered as she felt gloved fingers run through her hair, brushing her ears as the Purist Leader undid the blindfold and pulled it free. It was dark enough that it took Aroma only a few blinks to adjust.
Her assessment was correct, she was indeed locked in a prison cot in some kind of caged off side tunnel. She could see the Purist Leader's shape as she held up the offending fabric, framed in the only light that was entering the room, from the tunnels beyond.
"It was a wine cellar," the figure answered, "We just took the barrels out for our own use, and then we had an instant prison. Well, almost instant. The door was rotting away, so we just replaced it with one fashioned from scrap metal. If you're wondering what we do with earthbending prisoners, well we don't take that many prisoners anyway, and those we do are all trussed up from head to toe, usually even more than you are now."
The Purist Leader's hand shot forward, clawing at Aroma's mouth. She ripped away the cleave gag and forced her fingers through Aroma's lips to pull out the fabric. The gag left the kind of bitter, salty aftertaste that only a rag soaked in dirty rainwater could, and it was now joined by a more pungent, metallic taste from leather gloves which clearly hadn't been washed in months, if not years. Aroma couldn't decide which was worse. When the Purist Leader removed her hand, Aroma began flexing her jaw to clear the ache of its joints.
"Now, I'm sure you've got a lot of questions, so here's the short version: You're here to be Dr. Avici's assistant. You'll mostly be patching up your fellow Purists, but you'll also be needing to participate in whatever experiments the doctor has ordered. But having a slave just isn't good enough for me. As you earn your living down here, I will need to test your dedication to the cause. Should you fail, I will find ways to make you dedicated. Do I make myself clear?"
"C—crystal, Ma'am!" Aroma did her best to sound frightened, which she figured would be an easier task. I suppose, after everything they've put me through, my nerves just kind of shut down. People always tell me I sound nervous, so maybe I'll just try to sound like I normally do.
"What few belongings you brought with you are being searched as we speak. Whatever we deem fit to return to you will be given as you prove yourself. We have a Purist who looks an awful lot like you. If you value your comfort, you will us her what she needs to know to get into your apartment and bank accounts, so that your funds can be consolidated for the cause. Needless to say, if this is some kind of secret sting operation, forget about it. Even if you do give us some phony password to alert the boars, my Purists won't talk, and I'll just send my own message as a reply. You won't be needing your toes to perform surgery, will you?"
Aroma shook her head, a shiver extending from head to toe. Guess I remembered how to be scared, again.
"J'nani, come here!"
A Purist came jogging up behind her, once again wrapped in strips of dark fabric, in a color she couldn't make out from the light. This young man differed from the others in 2 key ways: First, his head was not wrapped, presumably because they felt no need to conceal their identities from Aroma, since they did not plan to release her. Secondly, he was clearly even younger than Aroma, perhaps a teenager, whose dark hair was in a rather unflattering bowl cut. But his blue eyes were fixed no less menacingly on Aroma than those of the Purist Leader.
"You will tell J'nani here everything that we need to know. Every bit of personal identifying information, everyone you know and your relationship to them, anything you may have hidden in your apartment, and any other secrets that you may have. Once you are done, J'nani will fetch Vyanna, who will show you around your new home."
She left without another word, and after a monotonous stream of questions, J'nani also nodded and left without a word. Soon after, Aroma was visited by a woman. Not quite as tall as the Purist Leader, all of her jet black hair was tied back in a tight ponytail.
"Are you...Vyanna?" Aroma asked, squinting to try, in vain, to make out her facial features.
"Yes," she confirmed with the kind of haughty, disdainful voice that sounded as if something had permanently lodged into her upper sinuses. As she reached down to untie Aroma's binds, she continued, "You can think of me as who you'll be reporting to whenever our Leader is not around."
Once Vyanna gathered up all of the cord and secured it to her belt, Aroma struggled to push herself up, but her numb hands and ankles mostly just slapped at the board she was lying on. Eventually, she was able to swing her legs over the side of the "bed."
"So how do you feel?" Vyanna asked.
"Like I seriously need to use the bathroom!" Aroma cried urgently.
Vyanna sighed and gripped her by the shoulders. "Come on, I'll take you there."
"This is where you will be working," Vyanna said as she led Aroma through a cavernous chamber crawling with Purists. She couldn't see what they were doing, save that they were clustered tightly around various tables, and seemed to be working with their hands. The lights were mounted on a scaffolding far above them, and Aroma could see the occasional wall-mounted ladder leading up to them. Of course, the shadows surrounding this chamber branched off into many side-tunnels.
Now she looked to where Vyanna was gesturing, seeing what appeared to be a 10 foot tall plywood box. A crude doorway was carved into it with a tattered beige tarp hanging over. Surely one of the newer constructions, added by the Purists. Aroma stepped inside when Vyanna pushed it aside, revealing Dr. Avici working at a table surrounded by various gurneys and medical carts stocked with ochre-stained scalpels and hooks.
Aroma peered closer at a dark, sooty blotch on a gurney leg and shouted, "You stole this from our clinic, didn't you?!"
"Does it matter?" the doctor responded without turning around. "Have you read my papers?"
"Yes...but I'm not sure I'm—skilled enough to perform the operation."
"You will have time to learn. Until we can acquire more test subjects, you will observing the after-effects of the procedure. Follow."
The doctor stripped off his gloves and deposited them into an unsealed waste basket nearby. When he stepped away from his work bench, Aroma could see a petri dish that contained a slice of gray matter cut into fine strands. Aroma furrowed her brow and buried her mouth and nose in her hands as she walked past.
"Shouldn't we be wearing masks?" she asked, uncovering her face briefly.
"Yes, well, thanks to the bending elite's persecution, my research has had to continue on very limited funds."
He moved to the back of the makeshift clinic, which had a door very similar to the one on her prison cell. Sure enough, he opened it to reveal a prison of much the same makeshift construction. But she was unprepared for how the occupants looked.
Inside were a trio of Fire Nation descended men, dark hair covered by thick bandages. Straightjackets over their hospital gowns bound their arms tightly and chains ran from the back of the jackets to the wall for good measure. Aroma didn't see why all of this security was necessary, as they just sat staring at the wall, heedless of the flies that surrounded them. Only the central man even glanced at the door when it opened, and then only briefly.
A bucket in the corner sat unused, despite the sulfuric stench that twisted her nose and stung her eyes. Aroma retched when she realized what the contents of the dark puddles that the "patients" sat in must have been.
The doctor produced a pen and paper from his pocket and held it out to Aroma. "When I am not training you, or using you for an operation, you are to stay in here and record what you observe. You need not worry about being a small female alone with a trio of such base thugs. Their violent tendencies have been eliminated, as has their ability to manipulate heat energy to ignite free radicals."
"You mean their firebending?" Aroma asked.
"I do not use such fanciful, unscientific terms, particularly not to describe such base acts of barbarism. Though you should know that Specimens 2 and 3 are beginning to display signs of a reduction in their stupor. Sometimes they will ask for extra food. Pay this no mind. Should any of the subjects convulse, alert me so that I may test our new anti-epileptics on them."
Aroma just nodded, trying to keep her gaze steady on him, stony and impartial.
"And quit cowering behind your hands, you look like an amateur!" he yelled in her face before pushing past her, nearly knocking her over. Aroma flinched, turning to watch him slam the door behind him, just enough light peeking through the bars for her to observe the prisoners. Behind the door, she heard Dr. Avici let out a series of harsh, barking coughs that faded into a wet rattle.
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