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Book 1: The Republic
|"You're the worst person I have ever met"|
|— Fenn to Otto|
Fenn's eyelids were heavy from his rough sleep. His head was groggy and his neck, the blackened skin cursed by the demon, stung. The morning air was stagnant and sounds of people could be heard from outside. Perhaps the demon's body was found at the bottom of the apartment block. Fenn could remember it visibly. A giant plume of fire protruding from his palm, forcing the screeching demon away and over the railing. Fenn hoped dearly that the beast was dead; he could feel anger scratch at his insides like some trapped, frenzied bird. He hated the thing. He hated all of them. Fenn moved into the bathroom to wash his face and saw the broken mirror in the sink, and the memory came back to him. The evil smile in his reflection, laughing at his pain and terror. Fenn looked at his knuckles, which were bloodied and scabby, and then at his curse. The black skin was soft and tender on the top and, as he gently poked it, Fenn could feel that the flesh underneath was starting to rot. He ran into the main room, found a jumper in the cupboard and hoisted it over his body. He returned in front of the remaining mirror and reexamined his neck. The jumper – which was navy blue with two hanging buttons – covered the mark perfectly. Fenn did not want anyone to see it, in case things became over-complicated; in case the police had to get involved and he'd have to be taken away to have experiments performed on him. It was a silly idea, but caution seemed like the best approach, rather than flaunting it in the streets for everyone to admire.
Fenn stopped himself, he was thinking too much. He was getting worried. He punched furiously at his pillow and then stopped again and breathed, slowly and calmly. He told himself not to get overwhelmed or irrational. The rise and fall of his chest pained the mark slightly, and the irritation of it caused more thoughts of police and quarantine to surface. Fenn decided it would be best to go to work early, to do something to get his mind off the topic. He got dressed and ate quickly, trying to force himself not to think about it. The way to work was harder. As he passed commuters and businessmen, Fenn would constantly check his shoulder, and pull the neck of his jumper up – almost up to his chin. He also took every slight glance as if it were a 'I know your secret' type look, then breaking in to nervous sweats. Upon arrival to the company Cale came up to him and shook his hand.
"You're here early. You didn't get up to anything extra last night?" Cale said.
"No," Fenn replied almost instantly, realising in hindsight that his tone was slightly too defensive. Cale ogled at him, like he had said something odd – perhaps he knew of what happened last night. But how could he? Maybe he was a spy. Fenn, realising his growing paranoia and the incongruity of his reasoning, moved to his spot in Printing Unit 4 and warmed up the coals inside the system.
"Fenn!" came the thunder of Taro's voice. He slapped Fenn on the back heavily, the weight of the man's palm causing the mark to tingle painfully. He shoved him off, perhaps a rude gesture, and smiled.
"Jeez," Taro said. "Did you get much sleep in last night?" The boulder-like man heaved in coals with his earthbending while Cale began moving the water in.
"Yeah, not really," Fenn replied with an airy laugh, hoping the topic would soon end. Thankfully, the others weren't too bothered by the lack of conversation, and the unit could print many copies of the page. They worked hard, uttering drabs of conversation that bared little interest or importance here and there as the machine pressed. Fenn didn't contribute much to the little talk there was. Constantly the boy would re-position his collar to make sure the mark wasn't showing, and he'd have to stop and cringe from the jolts of cold pain that would pierce the front of his right shoulder. Fenn didn't want to make a scene though. And each time the pain came and he would flinch from it, he would brush it aside to make it seem like a fly was bothering him.
The day was long and, the typical summer Republic weather, humid. Towards the end of the shift the main sound at Printing Unit 4 was silence, aside from the grunts and breaths of the men and the hissing and clunking of the system as it pressed its words to paper. Taro hauled a large amount of coal into the furnace and, to burn the entirety of the black material, Fenn bended large flames from his palms – just enough, however, to not damage the system. The mark suddenly seared with intense pain and the surge of some shuddering force extended from his shoulder, down his arm, like a powerful avalanche, and to his palms. The energy built up and burst from his hands in the form of fire. Fenn tried to hold back the flames before they got any larger but the might that took over his arms and the energy of his bending became uncontrollable.
"Fenn! What are you doing?" Taro boomed as he shut the furnace door, stopping the exit of the rapidly growing fire. The inferno developed savagely inside the system as Cale edged back in numbing fright. Fenn for some reason could not take his hands from the gloves and the black mark along his neck stung agonisingly. The system, straining from the mass of energy, shuddered and hissed and the three men sidled back, hoping to avoid the anticipated oncoming explosion. A moment of foreboding silence fell over the room. Fenn, breathing from the pain and exhaustion the uncontrollable bending caused him, stared, shocked and perplexed. Suddenly Printing Unit 4 exploded in a blazing mass of coal, piping and fire. Violent peaks of vermillion surged up and out in all directions, scorching the surrounding air. Fenn, Taro and Cale all, out of instinct, leapt down to the ground and as far away as possible from the printer to avoid the hungry flames and white hot metal. The building shook from the force of the explosion and the other benders in their units ducked and flinched from the thunderous boom. Soon enough the flames dissipated as they rose and nothing was left of the unit except a sizzling hunk of metal, brightly burning coals and alight papers. Fenn coughed. His lungs tried to suffice his beating heart. Turning over and brushing small embers and shrapnel from his shoulders Fenn witnessed the destruction he had caused. He was speechless. Never had he thought he could be the source such damage; he knew instantly that it was linked to the mark that throbbed on his neck. He pulled up his collar again to make sure nobody could see it. Taro and Cale, and the other employees, were alright – shocked but nonetheless unharmed. Lee Jnr would not be happy.
A clock ticked acutely and a clammy, frowning face looked at a speechless Fenn for a response.
"I'm sorry?" Fenn uttered. Lee Jnr, with his sweaty skin and bulbous nose, laughed.
"Sorry won't help. You've completely halted printing for the day! And do you know how much it costs to get another one of those machines? They're a collectable!"
"I'm sorry, sir."
"I just can't have that type of behavior in this business. It's not safe," Lee Jnr said, running his fingers through his thick, dark brown hair. Fenn perked up.
"What...what does that mean?" he asked meekly.
"I'm sorry Fenn. But we can't have you here anymore." At that moment Fenn's curse seared, as if to tease him. He cringed and shut his eyes tight.
"Sorry." Fenn nodded, downtrodden and stewing, again, with hatred for the demons, and exited the printing factory, Cale and Taro watching him turn the corner into an unemployed world.
"Recklessness?" a man read out loud as he looked upon a reference Lee Jnr wrote for Fenn without the boy knowing. It seemed the reference was on file or something because every employer he went to saw it and turned him down. And with each rejection the idea that Fenn would quickly become unemployed and broke cemented inside him. He'd soon be living on the street – he just knew it. Fenn had just left another interview, this time from a firm of the Star Bank. He sighed a heavy breath. As he sauntered begrudgingly down the towering streets of the Republic back to his apartment he racked his brain for any other place he could hand in his résumé. Fenn had travelled downtown and uptown for employment, he'd been to the docks and to the suburbs for possible job offers, he had even tried his luck in the central business district but he couldn't even score one interview. The people there said he was 'not their style' – in other words, they were the swans of the lake and he was the scum that built up at the bottom. He had run his luck out. Like an old tire it had been worn away by asphalt; skidding across an endless road only to fault and run off into the gutter to crash and rust. He turned into Parkes Alley, a shortcut he knew of to get home quicker and sulk in private, and encountered – from a safe distance – a robbery, a beating of some sort. Along the alley two bulky men dressed in dirty singlets and baggy jeans held a shivering boy up against the wall. As one took the boy by the neck, strangling him ever so slightly so that he could squeeze the fear out one drop at a time, the other punched the boy in the stomach.
"We need our payments!" the man screamed as he hit. The boy was let loose and he dropped to the floor, recoiling and gasping for air. The other man kicked him in the ribs while the first pummeled the boy's face with his fists.
"I told you," the boy coughed, blood splattering out the sides of his scathed lips. "I haven't got it yet." One man groaned with fury and pulled out a knife. Fenn almost fell backwards with astonishment. He had never seen a knife in use before, it was almost surreal. But he had to act fast. The poor boy's life depended on it. He ran forward, screaming to get their attention and held out his palm. As usual his mark began to sting and his entire arm shuddered. Without control bursts of fire poured from Fenn's palm and cascaded furiously down the alley, knocking the crooks off their feet.
"What do you think you're doing?" one of them said, rubbing singed gravel from his sleeve. Fenn stopped for a moment. What was he doing? He could've turned away and taken the long way home. He could've not gotten himself involved – not have chosen to be a hero. Something in his body, an extra beat in his heart, seemed to urge him on though. Maybe beating some lowlifes would serve as a release for all the anger and frustration that had swelled up inside him today. It felt good to firebend – and firebend well for that matter. The bruised boy got up next to Fenn and chuckled boyishly.
"He's with me," the boy lied, trying to come across as confident. Fenn nodded, not knowing why he was still going along with all of it, then took a stance. The two criminals charged forward and Fenn, focusing the pain that came from his curse to his bending, produced another mass of fire. It surged to the men and consumed them so they were not visible.
"Let's go!" The boy clutched Fenn's sleeve and made for the opposite direction. Pushing past commuters and crowds the two boys dashed through the Republic streets. Fenn kept his eyes on the battered boy in front of him, scared that he'd lose him and end up facing the criminals alone. The boy led Fenn to his place, a ramshackle block of apartments in the dodgy end of downtown. They made to his room and collapsed on the couch. Fenn's chest heaved and excitement pumped against his muscles like an intense beat. His brain scolded him for being so rash – looking around the neighborhood Fenn was a bit regretful of following the boy all the way home – while his heart relished such spontaneity. The boy took a bottle of water from his backpack and started drinking, allowing Fenn to examine him closer. Past the swelling bruises and dried blood, the boy had a thick layer of black hair on his round face and large, grey eyes. His yellow, V-neck shirt was stained with dirt and blood and other bodily fluids and his shorts were tattered at the ends. His white sneakers were kept surprisingly clean though, contrasting his scarred and scathed skin. The boy looked at Fenn and offered his bottle. Fenn accepted – another thing he normally wouldn't do – and drank from it.
"Thanks, man," the boy said, rubbing his face and flinching when he touched the cut on his cheek. "I owe you."
"No problem," Fenn said after he swallowed a mouthful of what he soon realised was cheap wine. He cringed from the bitter taste.
"I'm sorry I can't offer you anything. I have no biscuits or, like, bread and stuff," the boy smiled. Something clicked inside his brain and he suddenly got up.
"Maybe I do have some bread!"
"No! It's okay. I'm fine," Fenn said to stop the boy. "I'll probably leave." Fenn walked to the door; the handle was grimy, much like the entire room. Dirty clothes and underwear was strewn across room and an uncovered futon was the centerpiece. A kitchen was off the main room and riddled with grime and unwashed dishes and the smell of urine indicated a toilet was hidden somewhere, hopefully. Fenn immediately wanted to leave – at least his place was a little more hygienic.
"What? No. Don't go," the boy insisted, smiling nervously. "We were only getting to know each other. Here, I'll go first. I'm Otto Tinchen." The boy nodded, as if an introduction session was in order.
"Okay, um," he fumbled, trying to keep the conversation rolling. "I'm an airbender? What about you? Anything special?" Fenn stood straight and shuffled his collar up in case the curse was showing.
"No, not really. I'm Fenn." Otto mouthed the name to himself, sounding it out to see if he liked it or not.
"And I've got no job," Fenn sighed, slouching against the peeling door. Otto beamed, his grey eyes glistening like silver.
"Well that's great!" Otto bounced and skipped around his messy room clapping and laughing. Fenn's brow bent with confusion. To him Otto was becoming more and more peculiar – and not the good kind.
"You can fight with me!" Otto said, returning to his position close to Fenn's face.
"Yeah! You were incredible in the alley!" Otto started, quivering with delight towards some unknown – but probably dubious – idea. "With you and I teamed up we can make our way to the top! We'd be reeling in so much!" The doubtful fog that clouded Fenn's mind cleared instantly when the thought of money was uttered. And from Otto's shaking, it seemed like a lot could be made. Fenn tried not to get himself worked up; his interest could get the better of him.
"I still don't understand," Fenn said.
"It's simple, really," Otto coughed as he slumped into his couch, legs spread wide apart with comfort. "You enter in the fights and then you try your best to beat up your opponent." Otto described it so nonchalantly, as if he was playing a video game.
"If you win you get paid, if you don't you've got to pay up," Otto continued. "The higher you go up the ladder the more winnings you get but the harder you fall." He looked up at Fenn who was staring at the floor, thinking things through in his mind. The firebender had to pause. What was he getting himself in to? What Otto had explained to him wasn't simple at all. It was complicated beyond measure. Fighting for money, like a dog, wasn't what Fenn wanted for a life. But, nevertheless, he wanted a life. And if his powerful firebending could help him live stably then he'd have to accept. He only hoped they'd win.
Dark clouds loomed and stretched, tainting the sun's morning gaze and rain drops plummeted to their death as Otto and Fenn walked to the warehouse for the day's fight. It was Fenn's first and angst and fear, heavy as iron, weighed down on his stomach. His entire body was tingling grossly with fright. The warehouse was of an old orange colour and covered in ivy and graffiti. The windows had been smashed and the slated roof had holes in it. Fenn still wondered why he had chosen to join Otto, but he was too far in to back out now. Grunts and screams and echoes of bending came from inside, only adding to Fenn's nervousness. Excitement, though – like a whisper of a mouse, sounded somewhere in the depths of the boy's body and as he got closer the idea that what he was doing was wrong and illegal seemed to instill some form of empowering adrenalin. He could walk in with a type of confidence that he could not define nor had never felt thusly.
Inside the warehouse was dim and crowds of sweaty, battered men and woman – scratched and tattooed, large, weedy, all shapes and sizes – eyeballed the newcomers. A single round light hung from a chain from the ceiling and spewed its swinging light onto a ring. Otto left to do what he called "administration" while Fenn sat away from the ring, away from the fights. The atmosphere was tense for the most part but broken, often, by hearty cheers of victory. Often fights broke out mid-battle between audience members when they argued over whom would win. On desks wads of cash flowed in and out of peoples' hands and small packets and needles were given in exchange for money. These people seemed almost like savages. And for that Fenn felt wild. Otto ran over to Fenn after a few fights and shook his friend's shoulder.
"We're up," he grinned, his usually pale cheeks red with zeal. Fenn followed Otto through the crowds and into the ring. People circled him entirely – he could barely see the ends of the warehouse. Two men entered the ring too; one had long black hair and the other had tattoo sleeves up both arms – little ink rivers, tributaries of black, blue and red.
"These guys seem pretty amateur," Otto whispered into Fenn's ear as cheers and brawny whistles began to make a din. "The guy with the lady hair is an earthbender and the other doesn't bend. We've got this in the bag." The two teams began to tiptoe around the circumference of the arena, keeping on opposite sides and waiting for the other to make the first attack. The tattooed man, fervent for some bloodshed, charged forward. Otto stepped aside and kicked the man over and onto the ground, causing Fenn to jump out of the way. The man then grabbed Otto and pulled him down and the two began punching each other and rolling around to get the upper hand. Fenn tried pulling the man off but was knocked down too by a charge of earth. His head roared with pain and the side of his face oozed warm blood. A surge of cheer intensified his swirling vision and ringing ears. The fight was over before he knew it, and they'd have to pay up their low savings because of it. Suddenly Fenn was bowled over by a powerful gust and the tattooed man raced through the air and into the crowd. Fenn opened his eyes and saw Otto on the ground and arms extended – he must've airbended the man off of him.
"Get up!" Otto screamed to his teammate. Suddenly the pain was sucked from his body and adrenalin coursed through. Fenn got up and, seeing another large, stone projectile coming his way, he punched forward a plume of fire. Typically his curse stung, the searing pain empowering him exponentially, and an overwhelming flow went from the mark down his arm and out in the form of orange heat. Fenn gritted his teeth. He needed to gain control of his attack or else the audience would be harmed too. Screaming from the agony that sliced into his shoulder Fenn held his arm, which bubbled and grew at parts. Continuing through the pain he tensed his fingers in order to contain the fire. Feeling something give way he released and, with his own control, used a burst of incredible flame to send the stone back to the enemy. Otto quickly twisted his arms behind him, forcing air to raise him to his feet and he sliced the air in front. The thin gust pivoted across the arena and cleared the long-haired man off his footing and into the roaring crowd.
The two men, furious at the humiliation Otto and Fenn had caused them, pushed through the audience and back into the arena, heaving violent breaths of anger and covered in gritty scathes. They roared as they ran, the long-haired man firing a line of rocky debris and the tattooed opponent baring colossal fists. Fenn, smiling now from his capability, clenched his fists at the flare of pain and stepped swiftly sideward. Otto copied almost immediately after so that he was opposite Fenn and once the two men – who had no time to notice – were in the centre of the ring, the team fired both flame and air to knock the men into each other. As the blaze dissipated towards the ceiling and the gale settled the two hefty men were revealed exhausted on the floor and Otto and Fenn were announced victorious. Fenn could hardly hold back laughter. His heart was pumping fast, like a thumping hare racing through its woods, and his breathing was acute. Otto led him back through the crowd – some were raking in money from the battle while others were screaming bets for the next – and to the desk to collect the winnings. They got two hundred yuans between them, which Fenn thought was pretty good for an amateur bout.
As Fenn and Otto continued entering in the illegal fights Fenn gained more and more control over his firebending. Though his arms or legs would swell and engorge depending on which limb he used to attack and the fire that was produced still came out only in large, wild masses, Fenn became accustomed to the stinging that would occur on his curse and could use it to enhance his bending. The team moved up the ranks, battling more prestigious fighters and earning greater sums of money for winning. Otto paid his dues to the triads and Fenn could finally buy a new fan, good dinners and nicer clothes. Though the people he was spending time with were dangerous and drug use and crime was with him at every moment, he was happy that a steady – or rather increasing – income was his. The two friends decided to make an account together, saving up the winnings so that it would grow over the years. Fenn was not satisfied with his life any more, he used to settle for what he had, but now he fought for it, and for that he was happy with what he had and with what lay ahead for the two of them. Together they shared a time of great wealth and promise. It seemed the curse, which appeared to strengthen Fenn's bending, could bring around at least one good thing – even if it continued to rot the flesh underneath his skin. Ultimately, Fenn was happy to have a friend his age
Fire, like an incredible phoenix scorching with crimson feathers, flew across the arena. The roar echoed amid the crowd and hit a fat man and spread out across his body. He tumbled over. But his partner, a topless man – bald with a tattoo on his skull – continued, unrelenting in his violence. He tore the ground up with both hands and sent the earth flying towards Otto and Fenn. Scratched up and with dried blood crisp in their hair, the two boys crashed onto the floor, their bodies aching from the blow. This was the hardest fight they had done yet. It had lasted nearly an hour and both teams were sweaty, tired and cut up – but nonetheless determined to get their reward. Otto tensed his stomach and bent his torso to stand upright. Fury was etched onto his pupils. He screamed through gritted teeth and fired bursts of wind to the opponents. The bald man raised a wall of stone in front of him and his teammate and they hid behind it to catch their breath. The fat man, with two tankards of water placed in the arena, pulled two tendrils of water from the tankards and whipped them to Otto. The airbender was hit and fell, face first, to the cold ground; Fenn, too, was knocked down before he even got up.
Otto screamed again. For some reason he was hating the way the fight was playing out. Fenn, eyes blurry from the ache and pain his body was experiencing, punched a plume of fire up to the ceiling, hoping it would deter the enemies away. But when his vision returned he saw the bald man with two sharp spires of rock facing him and Otto, the fat man smiling callously from behind. They had to forfeit. Otto got up, hands at his head and stormed off away from Fenn. Fenn shuffled up from the ground, his legs hurting from the fight. He went to give up some of their money, taking out their shared credit card to a seedy man who worked the dealings. First he changed into his clean clothes – which he had bought with his share of their money. The man took the card, entered in the amount that was to be handed over and swiped the card. He paused, frowned and the grumbled.
"There's nothing here," he said, getting a bit hostile. Fenn tweaked his neck.
"There's no money left on this." Fenn shuffled on his spot. Was he hearing the man correctly?
"Hold on a minute. I'll be back," Fenn told the man, who watched him closely as he walked over to Otto. Otto had his head in his hands and was shaking his head. Fenn immediately knew what had happened, but needed Otto to tell him. He needed to hear it out loud.
"You want to tell me what's going on?" Fenn asked bluntly, using a tone he'd use towards a naughty infant. "Why I can't use the card and why he said there's nothing left on it!" Otto suddenly looked up, shaking a bit.
"It's all gone! Okay?" he shouted. "I bet it all on us winning. I was going to double our money!" Fenn flinched when he heard it.
"I can't believe it! You didn't even run it by me?" Fenn screamed in reply. "I – I can't believe it! You're so stupid!" Fenn rubbed his eyes. He was incredulous with rage.
"It's not my fault!" Otto pleaded, teetering on the edge of his seat.
"What? It's my fault?" Fenn yelled, looking back at Otto furiously.
"Ye- yeah! It is," Otto replied, his eyes ogling outwards to make it seem as if he was angry at Fenn when really – masked behind his anger – was shame and self-pity.
"I can't believe you," Fenn muttered, turning away from his 'friend.'
"It is your fault!" Otto continued. "We were relying on you and your expert bending!" Fenn turned back immediately, his head burning and arms extended as if to make a point.
"I don't have entire control of it!" he screamed, waving his arms at Otto as if he was in a state and needed to be snapped out from it. "You know that!" Now Otto was frustrated. Fenn always put every mistake down to the lack of control he had with his bending. It was annoying that the boy couldn't recognise his own faults.
"You're eighteen, Fenn! God dammit, you've been a firebender for eighteen years!" the airbender cried. "Why don't you have control, Fenn? Why? Come on, tell me." Fenn's heart tangled around his lungs. Otto was on to him, he thought.
"I don't have to talk about this with you. I hate you, okay? I actually hate you," Fenn said, spitting his hurtful – and truthful – words out of his mouth like it was poison. "You are the worst person I have ever met." The argument halted for a second as the words sank into Otto's skin, poisoning him. Fenn could see the sadness well up inside the boy. Suddenly a shattering sound filled the warehouse. Gun shots began to fly and bending sounds rumbled and roared. The gang men and triad members trampled everywhere and a hiss, like that of a giant, venomous snake, screeched, filling the place with thick smoke. Hordes of policemen entered through the shattered windows, pointing their guns at the criminals and herding them, yaks by wolves, into a tightly packed circle where they could be handcuffed and arrested one by one.
Fenn, defeated and angry, did not try to struggle. With no money he saw no point to try and fight for his life. It was gone. He knew one day the underground fights would be discovered, he only thought he'd have some money to fall back on. He was hauled by police into a large truck where other frowning crooks sat, their hands cuffed behind their backs. Otto sat opposite him and stared, all the way back to the station, at Fenn, hoping his friends would talk to him again. But Fenn didn't. He looked at the ground. Just thinking of Otto and what he did made him sick. He should have never agreed on joining the thug – he should have never rescued him. Rather, he should have left him in the alley, beaten to a pulp, to drown in his own blood.
His cell at the police station was cramped – shared with ten other people captured at the warehouse, some of which he recognised. On both sides and opposite were more cells, also filled to the brim with criminals and fighters. Fenn sat down in the centre, sulking among the enraged men and women who shook the prison bars in a bid to tear them down and the crazed ones; who became worked up thinking about what was going to happen to their heads – they were probably on the drugs that were sold at the warehouse. As much as he pitied the fate of these people, he felt annoyed that they had chosen such a lifestyle and made such a lifestyle seem so exciting to him when he first started. Fenn scratched his dark brown hair, unknotting the patches that were crisp with dried blood, and wiped his scathed face. He could feel some form of emotion stewing in his cauldron-belly. He couldn't quite put a name to it though. It was anger. Or sadness. It may have been regret, desire, or possibly even hatred. Hatred towards Otto for betraying him in their endeavors, or hatred towards Lee Jr. for firing him from the printing company. If Lee Jr. never fired Fenn, then the boy would never have met Otto and gotten himself involved with the underground fights. Maybe it was Fenn's hatred for the smiling-mask demon resurfacing. If the demon never cursed him, Fenn never would have been fired in the first place – he'd been living his normal, boring life. Some emotion stewed and he was sure the final product of it would taste horrid.
One thing Fenn was certain of was that he was sick of hating people. He wanted to smile again. He wanted to enjoy things, and people and people's company. Maybe he was lonely? Maybe he needed to share his apartment with someone nice – someone with a clean record, definitely. He just needed a second chance. He looked up at the ceiling – a dim rumble echoed in the sky unseen – as if to look up to Fate. He had challenged it, and now he begged for a second chance. He'd know what not to do. The rumble came again, this time a bit louder. It came again, only now it sounded like a powerful wave crashing white water onto sand. Following it were screams. What is it now? Fenn thought, huffing loudly. It seemed trouble pursued him everywhere he went – maybe it was a side effect of the curse. Suddenly the rumble came from above; like a raging thundercloud it tore the back of Fenn's cell along with others. An alarm went off, red lights flashing down the corridor. The prisoners cheered as the rubble settled and poured out from the police station like discovered cockroaches from behind a fridge. Fenn got up and scrambled to freedom with his fellow prisoners, smiling, until suddenly the cheering stopped and many froze. Climbing over the station was a giant demon.
It was about as big and as long as two buses and insect-like in appearance. Its exoskeleton was a sickening green, its six black legs scuttled busily and its giant orange eyes darted around in search of something to destroy. It scurried off the station and over to a high-rise. With its pincers it clamped into the façade and bit down, slicing the building in two. The top half collapsed downwards onto the street as frightened passersby and workers ran away in terror. Fenn watched in disbelief. He had never seen a demon so huge and so destructive. The stew that was before inside his stomach had risen now as hatred, he could surely say it was hatred. The smiling-mask flashed in his vision, as if to tease him and remind him of how it ruined his life. Fenn's shoulder throbbed, his rage fuelling the curse into action. He had to act on his emotions. He ran around the station to the street. Debris and rubble, fallen electricity poles and flattened cars, riddled the street and citizens and prisoners alike all ran away to safety. Police officers, uninterested in the escaping criminals, fired their bullets at the demon. The metal bounced off the bug and the demon appeared unfazed by the attack, which would have normally ripped a human into tethers. It continued to the next building, eating away at the scaffolding mercilessly.
Black, armored trucks came immediately and surrounded the demon. Men and women poured out in uniform and started firing at the beast. These people were Clandestines – highly skilled soldiers for Beyond that carried out tasks ranging from espionage, law enforcement, laboratory work and military duty. They were revered as the most skilled fighters in the entire world, often referred to as 'super soldiers' as they were the only ones authorised to use Beyond's expert and innovative weaponry and machinery. Even their bullets, which were made from the highest-grade lead and uranium, seemed to do little damage. The Clandestine Lieutenant called out orders and soon a tank was brought in. It was a giant tortoise; green, slow and heavily protected. It fired a blast into the demon's back. The bug cried out, noticing the attack this time, and turned around – bearing its colossal pincers. Fenn immediately knew he had to step in.
Now the Clandestines fired at the demon's front. It was the softest part of its body and so was the one place they could make any damage. Bits of flesh ripped off as a barrage of shellfire was shot at the frenzied bug. It thrashed about, picking up cars with its pincers and throwing them away. Fenn ran sideways to avoid a falling car, its crash screeching behind him beckoning for him not to go any closer. But he continued towards the beast – he never took his eyes from it. He ducked under a fallen bus stop to get right up close to the insect so he wouldn't hurt any people when he attacked. The din here was thunderous; the mass of rocketing bullets, the booms of the tank, the scuttles of the giant legs and the shrieks of the demon all mixed together to create one horrifying atmosphere. It sucked Fenn's breath from him.
Holding both palms up inches from the demon's fleshy, bleeding chest Fenn screamed out. He hoped the smiling-mask demon could see what he was doing, and what it stood for. And how happy it made him to able to hurt the insect demon. With one last wincing shudder from his mark Fenn's arms engorged and swelled and fire gushed out onto the monstrous bug. Vermillion and orange and crimson swelled and lit up the darkening sky as if it were to be day again and cascaded up and down in peaking waves across the length of the demon. The Clandestines watched as the unknown fire quelled the beast, engulfing it and swallowing it whole. Fenn screamed again and more fire came, giving the demon one last blast. As the flames amassed they collectively dispersed, revealing a crisped and dead demon. It's burnt flesh stank but Fenn came from the rubble and showed himself to the Clandestines, indifferent to the destruction around him. He was proud of himself for the first time in a long while. The Clandestine Lieutenant cursed, muttered something, under his breath as he watched the sweaty, cut up boy walk towards his men and women. Fenn pushed back his sweaty fringe and scratched the back of his head. He didn't know how to act around these people. He'd probably have to learn.
Some of the escaped prisoners were contained, while most never had the chance to escape in the first place. They had to sit in terror and listen to the battle outside with anxious ears. Otto was among them and when Fenn returned to the station to make a statement he ignored the boy's looks of sorry. Sitting in a cell – he was still a criminal and so was treated like one – he watched a glamorous girl walk down the scummy corridor. She was, like him, eighteen and she had dazzling curls of raven the bounced as she walked. She wore a long, red dress which buttoned up from her bosom to her neck and was fitted with a dainty bodice. On her slender hands where pristine, white gloves and her black shoes had a slight heel, accentuating her tallness. She was stunning. She strutted up to Fenn's cell and looked into his nervous amber eyes with her sassy brown eyes.
"Fenn Miyakami?" she said, her voice as elegant as her looks. Fenn nodded. The prisoners stirred and chuckled, thinking he knew this beautiful girl.
"Colette Yamomoto," she continued, the prisoners falling silent upon hearing the name. "Can we talk?"
"Here?" Fenn coughed.
"Here," Colette smiled, her little pink lips kinking up. Fenn got to a comfy position and then looked at the girl.
"Do you know who I am?" she began. Fenn stopped slouching. He knew whatever he was going to say would come out rude, so he shook his head. She laughed.
"My father owns, well, is Beyond. I'm training to be the next president of it after him," she explained. "I'm quite an entrepreneur." Fenn nodded, smiling dumbly at her – a bit lost in her face.
"And you're quite the firebender," she continued. "And it would it seem that good benders belong with other good benders." Fenn spluttered. If he heard her correctly, he thought she was insinuating he become a Clandestine.
"He's smart too!" she laughed, before quieting down. "Yes, Fenn. It'd be better than this place, am I right?" Fenn looked around the prison and then back at Colette. Fate had heard his pleas and had given him a second chance. How could he not accept? Even if he was let out of prison, with no money he wouldn't have much to go to.
"I – I'd love to," he replied politely, trying to contain his happiness. She signaled to a policeman to get him from his cell and out into the corridor. She smiled at him.
"You don't have any people here you want to take with you? I'm in a good mood," Colette asked him, looking around at the mangy crowd. Fenn examined the room too. Otto was pressed up against she prison bars looking down the corridor at the two of the like a sad puppy at a pound. He did not try and persuade Fenn, he knew there was no chance of forgiveness, he just wanted to see his one true friend one last time. Otto never had any lasting friends, but for some reason he really liked Fenn. They got each other. And now he was leaving. Fenn looked at Otto, feeling nothing. He shook his head.
"Nope. Nobody special in here," he said bluntly for Otto to hear. Colette nodded and led him out of the police station. Outside a limousine was waiting for them. He stepped into it, feeling too dirty to deserve it. Colette entered after him and sat on the opposite side to him. She smiled. She was clean, rich and luxurious – but most of all she was beautiful. Fenn got comfy and laughed at himself. He could get used to this.
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