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Book 1: The Republic
|"Another demon attack. This time in the Eastern Domain"|
|— Fenn to Cale|
Distant sirens and shouting drunks echoed in the streets below. Bright, neon lights, they were on every building, glowed forever throughout the night. And the heat was unbearable. Fenn's back stuck to his sheets and his chest was dripping with sweat. It was the most uncomfortable summer night of the year, thankfully summer would be over soon, and cool winds and crisp mornings of autumn would follow. But for now Fenn would have to lie awake, sweaty and grumpy. His ancient fan buzzing like a giant mosquito.
That was an average summer night in the Republic. 'United as one.' The city was famous for its lights – people would come to see them never turn off, what a waste of time. Posters of useless products covered older posters of useless products until the wall would be cocooned in glue and paper, and the sides of the paper would crinkle and tear, bend over like dogs ears. Litter would be found in the corners of every street and, if you took the time to stop and focus, graffiti would cover every brick and telegraph pole – it'd cocoon the cocoon of posters.
Nevertheless, the Republic was sprawling. In the mornings, commuters would rush in opposing directions like a frightened herd of wilder beasts. In the afternoons, businessmen and women would scurry around for lunch while the road workers and cleaners would do their bit. And in the nights, the bars would be open – their music and cheering would go until the next morning. And then the lights continue.
People loved it, though. The atmosphere. The hustle and bustle. Fenn loved it too. He'd love to live in the nicer areas, but there'd be endless lights wherever you go. And the haunting ambulance sirens would be there too. And Fenn would miss his apartments all too dearly – he wouldn't be able to afford any other place in any better place. His apartment was home; he'd lived in it practically all his life. The pattering fan, the bumpy bed, the humming fridge and the TV. All of it was his home. The Republic was his home. It was, after all 'The Greatest City in the World: United as one.' Fenn got up and looked out his window. A warm, dirty breeze went by as he watched an ambulance drive down Maine Road. He latched the window shut and checked the fan's dial, to see if it could go up one notch but he had it on full bore. He threw off his sheets and collapsed onto his bed with a sigh. He knew he had work in the morning – or, today. And he knew he'd get no sleep tonight. The world seemed to be against him that night – or, morning.
"Last night at the Eastern Domain," began the news presenter on TV, Fenn trying to brush his teeth and put a sock on and watch the TV at the same time.
"Another attack occurred at 10:30 p.m. This time, the demon, which was small and red in colour, attacked the suburbs – frightening an old lady to her death." Fenn fell over and minty foam was spluttered into the carpet. That was the second demon attack in two months. Demons had been attacking the Republic and its Domains for almost a year now. Thankfully, each attack has been properly stopped and the demons killed. The company Beyond was responsible for that. They were responsible for the protection of the Republic. In fact, they were responsible for many things concerning the Republic; protection, car manufacture, infrastructure, mining, housing, hospitals, fridges and all sorts of inventive objects that made life that little bit easier – they made useless products too. Beyond was a tycoon company that basically controlled the Republic with their products – they had everyone hooked on what they'd come up with next. Of course, they weren't really in control. The Council, made up of a bender of each element and a non-bender, were the true governing force behind the Republic. And then there was Fenn. Who was seemingly a speck compared to the Council and Beyond. Fenn worked at a small printing firm called 'Lee's Prints.' They printed the papers for such newspaper companies like The Republican and Unity News. It didn't pay great, but it paid his rent with extra for food and the occasional drink at the pub.
Fenn raced down his stairs, the lift seemed to always be out of order, and ran through the morning crowds, pushing past people in suits and holding coffees. He hopped on the 8:30 train, raced out and ran around the back of 'Lee's Prints.'
"9 o'clock. You're actually early," smiled Taro. Taro was an earthbender and around thirty-five years old. He was bald, bulky and, with an enormous, protruding gut, Taro had to walk sideways through any doorway to get in and out. Although he was massive and sturdy, he was the nicest man Fenn knew.
"I told you. When summer ends, I'll finally arrive on time," Fenn tried to reply, speaking through big gasps of air.
"Well, summer's not over yet. Get to it," said Cale, a thin and sickly coloured young man with oily black hair. He was a waterbender and together, Fenn, Taro and Cale made up printing unit 4. Each unit had a waterbender, an earthbender and a firebender to work the machine, and each unit made a specific page for the newspaper. As the earthbender moved coal in to be heated and the firebender heated the coals, the waterbender moved water into the system to prevent overheating. The rush of steam forces the pad to push down onto the paper and press the words on. Excess coal is then taken away and refined into ink to be used on the pad, while excess heat is used to permanently press the words. It wasn't the most modern way of printing, but 'Lee's Printing' had been using these presses for three generations.
"Did you see our page?" Taro started as he heaved a mass of coal into his opening. "We've got the front page. Lee Jr. said we could get a bonus for printing this." Cale's eyes flickered at the sound of those words yet he continued to move water from an underground pipe into the system. Whilst listening to this, Fenn blew fire into the furnace, turning the coals bright red and waited for the water to come in. When it did, steam rushed up the system and into the compression valve, though some escaped out the sides, meaning the workers were continuously sweating. It would be thought that such a machine would be dangerous, especially for the firebender who is putting his hands in to ignite the coals, but the system had great safety features. Rather than putting their bare hands in, the firebender puts their hands into heatproof gloves and into the system while a protective and durable glass window allows them to see inside so that there are no openings. The gloves, too, are completely sealed to stop the palms from burning. This is done by using a stone called 'Phoenite.' The mineral was discovered, and is still being mined, by Beyond. On one side, the stone absorbs the energy a firebender creates at their palms, transfers it through its transparent, green body, and releases it on the other side as fire. This ensures that no part of the firebender's body is harmed.
"Well. Let's try and print as many copies as possible so we can definitely get that bonus," Cale suggested twitchily, frustration and fatigue spitting out from his voice.
"You like the sound of that bonus, do you, Cale?" Taro laughed. More steam blew out the sides as the system pressed another page.
"Don't we all?" Cale hissed.
"Fenn? You'd like it won't you?" Taro smiled at him. His smile was warm and welcoming, a bit toothless, but the weathered state of it was endearing.
"Yeah, I wouldn't mind it," Fenn replied with a grin. "It'd pay the rent off nice and fast."
"Rent?" Taro's deep-toned voice bellowed. "You're 18, Fenn! Go out! When was the last time you went out?"
"Just last week. I went to the pub with you guys," Fenn said, taken back by the comment.
"No, no. We're oldies. When was the last time you hung about with people you're age. When was the last time you went into the city and went clubbing?" Taro explained, shoveling coal into the furnace, and smiling with each word.
"Clubbing?" Cale exclaimed as if in horror. Fenn laughed.
"Clubbing...isn't really my thing, Taro. I'm not much of a socialite." It was true. Fenn couldn't remember the last time he went to a club in the city. Ever since he was living by himself, he was solely focused on keeping himself alive. He hardly even knew what a young person looked like, or what they did for fun nowadays.
"You'd get lot's of chicks, that's no doubt," Taro smirked, sweat patches growing on his singlet. Cale muttered something under his breath as he delivered the water in. Something like 'he would' or 'I wish I could.'
"I haven't got the time," Fenn debated, getting a bit agitated at all the prying. He hated talking about love. Just the word of it made him cringe. Whenever he'd see an act of affection in the street he'd look away. Something about sharing your life with someone else was just totally unappealing to him.
"So you won't come to the pub with us tonight if you haven't got the time?" Taro asked, looking at Fenn with a matter-of-factly expression.
"I'll come," Fenn said, trying to resist the man's smile. Taro was good company, anyway.
"And Cale, you're coming along, aren't you?"
"Well," Cale tried to get the words out. "I – well – I'm not sure – but
"So we'll meet at the pub after work!" Taro said on behalf of the nervous man. Cale sighed and, again, moved water into the system. Steam hissed out and the system rattled.
"I guess that means we're having a break," Taro said quickly before dropping the coals he was just about to load, turning around and moving away with his lunchbox. A silence surrounded the unit, like a slow plume of steam from the system, as Cale and Fenn finished the press. Fenn tried hard not to smile, poor Cale was so awkward, and Fenn could see the man was in pain from the silence.
"Have you seen the page we're doing? Another demon attack. This time at the Eastern Domain," Fenn began. Cale breathed a sigh of relief and looked up at the boy.
"Another one, huh? What is that, one a month now?" Cale said with interest. He seemed to be concerned about this topic, thankfully.
"Yeah, one a month, I know. It was a small demon though," Fenn replied, taking his hands out of the gloves and wiping the sweat on his shirt.
"Do you think they'll get any bigger?" Cale stopped work too, and took out his glasses from his pocket. They were rimmed in thin black plastic and very large, magnifying his squinty, curious, grey eyes.
"I don't know. I don't think so. We'd have seen a big one by now." Fenn nodded at Cale and moved off to eat. After their short break, printing unit 4 returned to work, printing out 1000 copies of the main page until the day was dark. They never got the bonus, or at least not that day, but they made their way to the pub anyway. The outside air was refreshing, still but cool. A slight buzz came from the queues outside restaurants but, mostly, people were heading into the city, rather than away. The three came to the pub, 'Maine Road Hotel', and took up their traditional table. Fenn had his usual, a dark pinyin and noodle soup – the cheapest on the menu. The pub was dark and grimy, and a TV was always playing Pro-bending matches in the background. The dark brown carpet was always sticky with fallen drinks and sauces and the upholstering smelt of cigarette smoke and strong ale. Not much was said during the course of the night, Taro wolfed down his enormous roast duck – no room in his mouth for words, while Cale watched the TV intently. Fenn tried to throw a conversation into their midst, but to no luck. It was almost midnight until Cale spoke a word.
"Well. I should be off," he whispered, his shifty eyes staring the two men down.
"Yeah. Me too, I've got to see the missus," Taro added, straining to lift himself from his seat. Cale got up too, immediately and awkwardly. The three of them paid for their meals and exited onto the street. It was empty and only a few cars sped past. Again, the night was hot and muggy. It felt like they were back in 'Lee's Printing.'
"Well, it was fun," Taro said, pulling up his pants from the belt. Cale nodded at Fenn before heading down the other end of the street with Taro. Another night wasted, Fenn thought. It was nice to have some company, but their company wasn't much. Fenn began toward his street. He thought of those two men, and how they were men and not boys. He thought of how dull his life was. It was work, sleep, work, sleep, work, pub, sleep. Ever since his parents passed away, he had to support himself. Ever since he was nine. Nine lingering years of hard work and struggle. But had his hard work paid off? If so, why was he still working hard?
The lights of some passing shops turned off as Fenn continued. That was strange. The lights never turn off. That pocket of darkness, however, did not last very long against the surrounding light. It was soon swallowed up, and Fenn thought of it as nothing more but trivial. From behind he could hear footsteps – metallic sounding on the dirty pavement. A thin haze, probably a mix of cloud and pollution, fell over the streets, slightly dimming the burning white and pink and green and blue. In his peripherals, Fenn could make out that the stranger was wearing a black, rimmed hat covering their face and a dark trench coat. Seemed a bit of a shady character. Fenn moved onto his street and the stranger turned too. It was coincidence. There was nothing to be worried about. To be safe, Fenn crossed the road and looked back at the stranger. A long truck passed in front of his vision, though, and as it passed, the stranger was gone. A flow of relief cradled his brain, telling him he was safe.
A few metres to his left, however, was the stranger. Fenn was shocked by the person's appearance, but kept a calm look in his amber eyes. He did not want to show fear. He continued to walk to his apartment, only a few blocks, and the covered figure sustained to follow. Fenn kept telling himself it was a coincidence; perhaps they lived in the same apartment building, and he sped up his walk. The stranger, too, sped up their walk. Fenn looked back at the intimidating, cloaked figure and began to run. Sure enough, the figure ran after him, the metallic clatters of its footsteps sounding like gunshots. Fenn's heart was beating greatly and his legs moved up and down like the press of the system on overdrive. Fear and adrenalin pulsed through his athletic body. He has run further than this before, he knew he could do it. But somehow, it seemed like he'd never get to his room. The figure cried out a moan as its cloak flew off briskly and it raced forward in a state of frenzy. That was when Fenn realised the stranger was not a person.
It was some sort of thing – a demon. It had little metal soles on its feet and an orangey-red mask painted with a giant smile. It's body was made of a translucent, black haze, yet it did not escape into the air, the haze held its own form, seemingly gelatinous. The demon chased after him and, as Fenn ran as fast as he could to his apartment, he could see the smiling mask imprinted on the back of his eyes. He got the staircase and closed the door behind him, keeping it shut with his back. The demon landed onto the wood with a thud and then there was a silence. Fenn kept his back on the door, and took a chance to regain his breath. His lungs and muscles were burning with ache. He noticed the hazy body seeping through the cracks, searching around for his shoulders and legs like a leech to blood. Fenn jumped away and started clambering up the stairs; the demon bursting through the door and, with about six legs now, limply climbed the stairs with him. Fenn got to his level and ran across the balconies, the neon streetscape of the Republic almost laughing at him with each flicker.
The demon appeared from the staircase, it's body throbbing and engorged. It let out a shriek and Fenn, with his door in sight, jumped forward onto the door handle. He got his keys out, his hands shaking uncontrollably with terror, and suddenly the demon engulfed him. The choking haze did not allow Fenn to take in any air and he squirmed and struggled ferociously in the viscous body for escape. A ringing, or screaming, pierced his ears and a burning sensation coiled around his entire body. With a single heartbeat that urged him to keep trying, Fenn moved his heavy arm to the doorknob and pulled himself towards it. He spun his body to face the smiling-masked demon and screamed at it, blasting a great amount of fire into its face. The demon recoiled in pain and fell off the balcony into the abyss that was the Republic.
Fenn stumbled into his apartment with pain – his sides ached and his head was spinning. He was sure he was going to die. He made his way into the bathroom, knocking things out the way and splashed water into his face. The dim, faint green light of the room made him feel sick, and the cold water only intensified his burning feeling. He was delirious. Colours swirled grossly in front of him and his body was shaking with trauma. He looked up at his sorry looking face. His eyes were sunken and his dark brown hair was scruffy from panic. Beads of water slid down his pale, frightened face and each heartbeat hurt his veins. Every breath was tight and painful and his skin was buzzing nauseatingly. Fenn blinked. And on his face was the mask. Smiling at him menacingly. He punched the mirror and it shattered in pieces into the sink. In the remaining shards of the mirror, Fenn could see his reflection. His neck caught his attention. He pulled down his collar and discovered a mark.
It was dark black and jagged and went from his neck down to his collarbone. Instantly Fenn knew what it was, it was a curse. The only question Fenn wanted answered was why? Why had the demon attacked him of all people? He covered the mark with his collar, and it stung on contact. Shaken, tired and queasy, Fenn stumbled into bed. He felt immensely pitiful. He sulked at what happened, and could a feel an intense hatred stirring in the depths of his gut. He hated those demons. He swore that if he ever encountered another, he'd do everything in his power to kill it.
That night he didn't sleep very well, from shock, rage and partially from thinking of what to do next. He had no idea what to do. He knew nothing about the curse, or what it did – he wasn't even entirely sure if it was curse. But, for certain, Fenn knew he could not tell anyone. He'd be treated differently – alienated and given weird, cautious looks. The idea of quarantine even came to him in his delirium. When he said he wanted more from his life, this was not what came to mind. As his eyelids grew heavy and tears of remorse slowly stained his pillow, Fenn fell asleep – knowing that whatever would happen the next day would be entirely different to what he was used to. He decided that night he did not like change. Change was a curse.
For the collective works of the author, go here.