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|The Boy Under the Lake (The Kyoshi Chronicles)|
Book 1: Earth
|"We feel you are a friend of the Earth State"|
|— Nero to Kyoshi and Momzen|
Kyoshi could feel her body ache with fear and disappointment – disappointment in herself. How could she let herself get into such a position? She was the Avatar. Dai Li agents patrolled every corner of every corridor and as she passed a room, Kyoshi could see a disheveled and shrunken woman being interrogated; she was on her knees pathetically begging for mercy. Lake Laogai was Ba Sing Se's prison, located under the small Lake Laogai. The walls were damp and lit by dim, green lights. Moss seemed to grow on every surface and behind each metal door Kyoshi could hear moans or screams, or nothing. Lake Laogai was like a labyrinth – dark, terrifying and there definitely seemed like no way out. The Dai Li stopped her at a metal door numbered 82. Somehow, the men opened the seemingly heavy door with ease and pushed Kyoshi inside. She fell onto a cold floor covered in straw and began to weep with her head down as she heard the door close behind her – there would be no return now. From a tiny, barred window high from reach, moonlight spewed in abnormally and shone onto a small figure across the room. The figure was squatting on the floor and shivering quite profusely.
"Are you alright?" Kyoshi whimpered, wiping the tears from her eyes. The figure turned its head into the light; it was a boy about her age with ruffled black hair, pale and sickly skin and ravenous eyes. He was drooling from his thin lips.
"A meal?" the boy whispered to himself. He suddenly got up and ran towards Kyoshi, screaming maniacally with his teeth showing. Kyoshi got up too, pulled back an arm and put enough force into her fist to punch him back onto the opposite side of the room.
"Hey!" the boy screamed. Kyoshi charged towards him, fists clenched and muscles pumping when a giant shirshu – a two metre high mole like creature – intercepted her and hissed; displaying rows of jagged teeth. Kyoshi reeled back in surprise, her heart jolting painfully, and fell to the floor. The shirshu staggered forward, hissing defensively.
"Jin Jin, stop!" the boy ordered calmly. The shirshu halted and lay down crabbily and the boy walked up to Kyoshi.
"What's the big idea, cannibal boy?" Kyoshi said heatedly, her back hurting from the fall. The boy laughed deeply and helped her up.
"Sorry. I just always wanted to do that to a new cellmate. You should've seen your face. Priceless! It was all like," and the boy pulled an amusing facing, causing Kyoshi to utter a chuckle. The boy was unexpectedly cheery for a prisoner.
"I'm Momzen, your hilarious roommate. And this is Jin Jin. She was here when I came. Don't worry, she's really friendly," Momzen explained. Jin Jin smiled with a grunt.
"What is Jin Jin?" Kyoshi asking, summoning the courage to pat the intimidating beast.
"She's a shirshu. Although blind, shirshus can smell and track anything. And their tongue, it can paralyse an entire platypus bear!" Momzen explained with trembling excitement. Kyoshi liked the shirshu. It had mottled brunette hair with a black strip on its back and a dirty white tip on its tail. It had large paws with incredibly sharp claws and the creature possessed no eyes. It had a large snout ending in small, pink, fleshy tentacles surrounding the nostrils – which seemed to be continuously running.
"Have you got a name, crazy punching girl?" Momzen asked with a snigger. Kyoshi was told by Nero not to give away her identity when in Ba Sing Se and she hesitated to tell Momzen but, in knowing that Nero and his words meant nothing, she continued.
"I'm Kyoshi. I...I'm the Avatar," she said, knowing he would not believe her. She made no eye contact to avoid humiliation. There was a pause as Momzen's eyes widened and his mouthed gaped – Kyoshi was bracing herself for a bout of laughter.
"What? What are you doing in here then?" Momzen squealed, his voice cracking from astonishment. His arms flailed and his crimson eyes almost rolled back.
"We need to get you out of here so you can save the world!" He lunged onto Jin Jin, who was attempting a toothy, dribbly smile. Kyoshi laughed a bit, relieved by his reaction.
"You really believe me?" she asked through an airy giggle, trying to contain her joy.
"Well of course!"
"As soon as you fell in here," Momzen began, "I just knew you were something special. I could feel it. The Avatar! That's not special, that's...that's incredible!" Kyoshi laughed again – his kindness and faith was uplifting.
"Don't get too excited. I can't even bend," she said. Momzen stopped immediately.
"Oh...that's a problem," he muttered comically. "But – yes! I can teach you firebending!" Kyoshi almost fell back from the news.
"What? You're a firebender!" Kyoshi exclaimed. "How did you end up here?" Momzen's merry smile fractured at the corners and his shoulders sagged.
"My parents were taken away during the war," he said monotonously. Jin Jin went up to him and nudged her head under an arm and the boy stroked her fur with painful recollection in his eyes.
"I followed them all the way here but...I was caught and I – I've never seen them again." Kyoshi went up to Momzen and hugged him dearly. The boy appeared lively and unaffected by his prison when in fact, he was hurt and miserable.
"I've never seen my mother," Kyoshi admitted to him. "She disappeared before I can even remember, and I haven't seen my father in five years – he was recruited to go to war." Forgotten feelings of desertion and separation came to her and the two of them sat on the cold cell in silence.
Bako was sitting in the dirt with his back on a fence post. He had a sword and was picking at the ground. From down the street a little body came scurrying down. It was Tori. She stopped at Bako and continuously chirped at him, waving her greasy, useless wings in desperation.
"You? What is it?" he said, looking down the street for Kyoshi. The bird jumped up and bit at his cheek.
"Hey? What's the big idea?" Bako screamed at the tiny animal. Tori looked up at him with worried eyes, croaking nervously.
"Is it Kyoshi?" Bako said. Tori's milky eyes lit up and she ran in circles.
"Is she in trouble?" The bird jumped up, this time almost to his height, and then began down the street, suggesting for him to follow.
"Hold on, Tori. I'll only be a minute," Bako told the impatient thing before going to his house. The agitation from the bird was distressing. He knew something was wrong – and with Kyoshi being the Avatar, it had to be big. He went into the main room, smells of a plain, salty broth roamed the cluttered and messy area and his mother was working on some vegetables.
"Mum," he said as he packed some food into his pocket.
"Yes, dear?" She said, her tired eyes looking into his but her weathered hands continuing.
"I think I have to go somewhere," Bako muttered, trying not to make eye contact in knowing he'll change his mind if he did.
"To where? Another speech from the Avatar? If you're friends, we should have the girl over. It would be an honour," she replied, examining the room. She would have to clean and dust for days.
"It's got to do with the Avatar," he started. "I think she's in trouble." The mother sighed and wrinkles formed in her wary frown.
"What kind of trouble?"
"I think it's pretty big trouble." Bako turned away to the table and put on his chest scabbard.
"I knew it. I knew there'd be some trouble involved," the mother spat, chucking the vegetables into the broth.
"So what do I do? It's the Avatar. Do I just leave the Avatar?" There was a pause. His mother was trying hard to hold back a tear, and she knew the answer.
"You were always meant to do good," the mother said, turning to face Bako. "You are brave and strong. Just be careful."
"I will, Mum," Bako smiled.
"I wish there was more I could give you."
"You've given me enough. Hopefully, it won't be too long. But if anything happens, lie low for a while, okay?" Bako said in a warm embrace. The mother chuckled with sadness.
"Okay." He laid one last look on his faithful mother before leaving his ramshackle house. He followed Tori down the street towards the unknown danger.
Momzen and Kyoshi were seated facing back to back in a small, dimly lit room. Dai Li agents held themselves on the walls that seemed to stretch up endlessly. Momzen had told her about this room. This was where people were hypnotised into becoming an ally of the Earth State. He said if she was ever taken there, she should just pretend to be hypnotised and they would let her return to her cell. Nero entered the room and a ring began to spin. Attached to the ring was a lantern – the only source of light in the room.
"Now, you don't have to worry. All we want to do is talk," Nero began with his calm voice. "You are here because you were declared an enemy of the Earth State. But. We know this is not true. We do not feel this. We feel you are a friend of the Earth State. You are our friend." There was no reply. Every time the lantern came past Kyoshi could feel the back of her eyes burning and they would become tired.
"I know this must be strange for you. We've done things and said things. Bad things. But we did not mean them. Perhaps it will sound more reasonable if you say it to yourself. Say it out loud," Nero said slowly. Kyoshi could feel the man's perfect smile drill into the side of her neck. She hated him.
"Say, I am your friend," Momzen repeated the phrase and, as was the plan, Kyoshi did too.
"See. That doesn't sound too bad. Say it again. I am a friend of the Earth State."
"I am a friend of the Earth State," the two of them replied. Kyoshi could feel her concentration slipping. The dim light, the warm room and Nero's soothing voice was calming her down. Her eyelids became heavy and Nero's words became muffled. The plan had failed.
The sun seared the dry scrub and the sky was clear of any clouds. The bird was chirping brazenly through the dense bushes and Bako followed, drinking the remains from his satchel. Tori stopped as the two came to a giant lake. Haze covered the expanse of dark blue water and, down the shore, a troop of Dai Li soldiers uncovered a pathway of stone to the surface of the lake; they were at Lake Laogai. The agents entered a hollow at the end of the pathway and water began to submerge the entrance. Bako made for it, dashing across the crisp sand and across the pathway.
"You stay out here, Tori! Thanks for your help!" Bako said briskly as he hoisted the lid off the hole, the bird walking in a circle before plonking itself to the ground and screeching. Water poured down the hole and Bako had to slip himself in to avoid any more water coming in.
"What's going on?" came a single voice from the bottom of the well. "Show yourself!"
"Are you alone?" Bako uttered. The voice croaked and Bako let go of the rungs and gracefully tackled the Dai Li agent to the floor. Fortunately he was alone and the force of Bako's fall knocked the man out. He undressed the agent of his uniform and put it on himself, and began down a hallway. A constant dripping echoed through the labyrinth and before he knew it, he was lost.
"Excuse me sir," Bako asked a passing agent. "Can you direct me to the Avatar's chamber?"
"Why do you need to go there?" the man asked, looking suspicious.
"I've been ordered to clean the cell." Bako stood tall to try and seem believable as the agent stared him up and down.
"Cell 82," he said before walking off the opposite direction.
After meandering down many hallways, counting each number on the cell door, Bako came to the 82nd cell. He took out his two swords, bent back and tightened his core, and lunged forward, thrusting both swords in front of him down onto the lock. The metal loudly broke in two and the two clicked open. Jin Jin jumped out from the cell, sniffing Bako wildly. The beast sniffed the air and went running down the hallway.
"I'm looking for Avatar Kyoshi!" Bako shouted at the animal. It turned to him, her crooked teeth drooling with anticipation, and bent down. He approached the shirshu and stroked its short hair. A sniff reverberated through its body and it insisted for him to get on. Bako cautiously lifted himself onto Jin Jin and suddenly the creature moved off at rapid speed with its nose in the air.
Kyoshi could barely open her eyes and had no control over her mouth – she was repeating everything Nero said without a second thought. Momzen felt Kyoshi's head tilt back on his heavily and he knew she was succumbing to the hypnotism. He had to act fast. He rocked his chair forward and then, on the reverse, he kicked a surge of fire from his foot and the whole room lit up. The immense amount of light startled Kyoshi back into focus. She rocked herself forward and, as a Dai Li glove flew at great force onto her chair, the wood shattered and she was free. She manoeuvred her way around the dial and sliced Momzen's cuffs with her boots, allowing him to fire more flames across the room. Kyoshi tried to open the door among the havoc of crashes of rock and flashes of fire but it would not budge.
Outside, Jin Jin was scratching at the door and Bako could hear crashes from inside. He took a sword from his scabbard and, using a downwards swipe, slashed the lock like he had at the cell. The door flung open and Kyoshi and Momzen fell out.
"Bako!" Kyoshi screamed. She could not believe her eyes. It felt so good to be saved, to know someone cared enough to come after you.
"Get on!" Bako shouted as he pushed Kyoshi onto Jin Jin. Momzen blasted another line of fire before jumping on. From behind, Nero raised a giant ball of stone and flung it to the kids. For Kyoshi, time seemed to slow down. Her companions knew nothing of the oncoming attack and she wanted desperately to help them. She held out her palms and, like Nero had taught her, she 'caught' the ball and threw it back onto the Dai Li. With the smell of the outdoor guiding her, Jin Jin took them up a ramp and out into daylight. Dai Li guards stood their ground at the exit but Momzen fired two flames to the men, allowing them to get away down the shore. In the distance Tori was shouting with glee. Jin Jin moved past the bird and Kyoshi caught Tori in her arms, hugging her close to her heart. Jin Jin continued to run into the woods until the vegetation was dense and tall enough to cover them. They stopped finally and Kyoshi lunged onto Bako, embracing him with as much emotion as she could give.
"Thank you," she whispered into his ear.
"Yeah, thank you!" Momzen gurgled jokingly as he joined in on the embrace. "I'm Momzen. How you doing?"
The sun had dimmed quite a bit and the friends had finished their introductions and basic meal of bread and jam. The plan was to cross the Serpent's Pass and afterwards try and find a willing earthbending teacher for Kyoshi. They straddled Jin Jin and continued through the woods, taking measures to avoid walking tracks and any clearings.
The office was silent.
"I want you to find the Avatar," Nero said solemnly. On their knees was a fat, pale young man with a silver tuft of hair and a muscular girl in a dark crimson uniform with her hair tied like the Dai Li. She raised her head and smiled up at the furious man.
For the collective works of the author, go here.