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|The Desert, Part 2: The Beetle Tribe|
April 7, 2017
Four days have passed since the desert. One hour past dawn, the group has begun to pack their belongings. Qiú smuggles his way into Guilin's sack of belongings, to which the boy allows, knowing that his pet is eager to seek relief from the rising desert sun., , , and the three accompanying soldiers
"We had a good training session out here, everyone. Let's move out and get out of the desert before the midday heat comes," Dao instructs, gazing around at the distant mountains bordering their exit from the vast landscape before he begins to lead the trek home.
Two hours into their walk, some sand from a nearby row of dunes shifts slightly, catching Dao's attention. He stops in his place and signals the others to halt before eyeing the mounds of sand cautiously. After a few seconds with no further development, he brushes off the interruption, thinking it was merely the wind, and begins the march again. Ten minutes later, a low rumble can be heard from behind the sextet, causing Singi and Guilin to turn their backs in the direction of the noise, slightly nervous.
"What was that?" Guilin questions, uneasy.
"It's probably just the sounds produced by the dunes. Come, we still have a ways to go before we're out of the desert," Dao states before he begins the walk yet again.
Guilin constantly looks around the landscape as he continues walking, clearly unsettled. Sweat slowly begins to trickle down his face in beads as he surveys the area before being halted yet again by the name low rumble that he had picked up earlier. He shudders in place before hastily glancing around, trying to pinpoint the source of the noise, as he cannot detect the source atop the loose sands of the desert. Taking a moment to look behind her, Singi notices Guilin has stopped in his tracks.
"Guilin, are you alright?"
"I swear something's stalking us."
Out of the corner of his eye, Guilin catches the faintest sight of some large figure behind one of the dunes. Gasping, Guilin rushes over to catch up to the quintet. He passes Singi and the soldiers and walks beside Dao.
"Dad, I saw something behind one of the dunes!"
Dao sighs. "Guilin, I think the heat may be getting to you. Have some water while you walk, and we'll be out of the desert in due ti—"
Before Dao can finish his sentence, the sand just a few meters behind the group erupts as an enormous creature bursts from underneath the floor. The creature is a reptilian with bead-like scales colored in various striped bands of sandy tan, kobicha, and wood brown, with a sandy tan underbelly. Protruding from its head is a long, sharp horn about seven feet in length. After crawling its way out of the sand, the animal briefly stands on its hind legs, towering above the humans at about twenty feet tall, before it leans forward and slams its forelimbs onto the sand, kicking up the granular substance in the process. The animal rears up its massive head before glancing down to view the humans before it, eyeing the petrified onlookers with large yellow eyes whilst swaying its ten-foot-long tail slowly back-and-forth, flicking its pale pink tongue to taste the air before it.
"It's a giant gilacorn!" Sen utters in fright, "Their bite is venomous, and that horn of theirs could skewer all of us."
The massive reptile slowly begins to tromp towards the group when Dao shouts, "RUN!" to the other party members. Immediately, they begin running towards the desert exit, after which the giant gilacorn begins its pursuit, picking up speed to a trot as it releases a long hiss from its slightly gaping mouth. After about ten seconds of keeping pace with the fleeing humans, the gilacorn rears its head slightly, opening its mouth further to reveal its sharp, serrated teeth before shooting its head down and just missing the group.
"Everyone, split up!" Dao instructs, while the gilacorn takes a few seconds to shake its head from the impact. Before complying, Singi takes a moment to stop in her place and deliver an air blast to the gilacorn's head. The impact causes the gilacorn's head to bend backwards towards its spine, earning a loud hiss from the disoriented creature before Singi conjures a cloud and speeds off east, while Dao and Guilin continue heading south, and the soldiers flee west. Upon regaining its composure, the gilacorn targets the father-son duo and resumes its pursuit. Singi glances to her right and notices the massive reptile chasing after Dao and Guilin and immediately forms the shield of an air bullet before rocketing her way back towards the animal and slamming into the creature's left forelimb. The massive reptile jerks to the right, stumbling slightly, during which Singi weaves herself away from the creature's forelimbs and heads towards Dao and Guilin, removing the shield portion of her air bullet and using it to widen her cloud as she moves. Upon reaching the duo, she grabs them, one with each hand by the wrist, and the two take initiative and hoist themselves onto the cushion of air while the gilacorn regains its composure once again and continues its chase.
The soldiers, meanwhile, halt themselves before gazing east at the gilacorn and its relentless pursuit of the remaining three group members.
"We can't just leave them be. That gilacorn will wear them down with its endurance," Sen states, to which Dan in Xin Bo nod in agreement before rushing over to the scene. Once they've gotten a considerable distance towards the melee, the trio manages to sandbend the gilacorn's right forelimb into the ground, halting it in place. The creature hisses loudly in anger and turns to face the soldiers before orienting the rest of its body towards them. In the process, the gilacorn's massive tail whips against Singi and the father-son duo, knocking them forward and onto the sand in a heap while the cloud dissipates. Groaning, Dao staggers to his feet alongside Singi and Guilin and gazes over at the three men before his eyes widen in horror as the gilacorn begins to close in.
"Men! Split up!" Dao shouts as Singi whips up another cloud and the trio mounts it before rushing over to distract the gilacorn. Suddenly, the trio come to a halt when a mass of large beetles the size of Volkswagen Beetles scurry over from the north and west and swarm around the three soldiers. The gilacorn lurches its head back to view the newcomers before shaking its head violently and emitting a loud vocalization somewhere between a hiss and a roar. It desperately attempts to flee the scene, eventually managing to twist and jerk its trapped limb hard enough to free it. With the gilacorn unbound, three of the beetles stand—revealing that they are in fact humans encased in the hollowed out shell of the insects—before guiding the soldiers to a large sandstone pedestal. The trio bends at a smoothed out portion of sand atop the middle of the pedestal, revealing a hollowed out tunnel.
"Hurry, jump in!" one of the humans—a man in his mid-40s with copper eyes and taupe-colored hair reaching down to a rounded beard, and donned in beige robes with a khaski sash and buff trim—instructs, whilst other members reveal themselves before diving into the hole. The three soldiers glance at one another for a few seconds in uncertainty before jumping in themselves. The same man turns his attention to Singi, Dao and Guilin before shouting "You three as well! Hurry!"
The remaining trio rushes over and complies, jumping into the hole before the man follows them, sealing the hole in the process. Disoriented, the gilacorn turns around and buries itself in the sand, its long-winded hunt unsuccessful.
In the tunnel, Singi cushions the remaining members' descent until they've finally touched solid ground. Noticing light to their south, the remaining three strangers brush themselves off before following the man that accompanied them in their fall down another tunnel, soon widening out to reveal a very small subterranean settlement. A fire in the center of the settlement is revealed as the main light source, while twenty tents make up the perimeter of the settlement. The tunnel narrows back at the southern end of the settlement, continuing onwards into the dark complex below the desert.
"What is this place?" Guilin marvels, while Qiú manages to wriggle himself out of the boy's sack and leisurely explore the settlement.
"My name is Ashaa," the man addresses himself. "I am the leader of my tribe. We make a living here beneath the desert and survive any attacks by the gilacorns by mimicking the appearance of these beetles." Ashaa lifts up his armor. "The gilacorns find them distasteful."
"That's quite the impressive living, Ashaa," Dao acknowledges. "I wasn't sure if there were any other people residing the desert besides those in my hometown of Ba Sing Se."
"For all I know, we are the only tribe of our kind. Living in the desert requires one to be resourceful, quick, and adaptive. You must make do with what you have and what you can find, or else you cannot survive."
The moment is halted briefly when Dan, Sen, and Xin Bo—who were replenishing themselves over a small basket of chopped tubers—stand and share a happy, relieving reunion with the remaining trio. As the group checks in on one another, Ashaa takes notice of Singi and raises an eyebrow in curiosity.
"Pardon me, young lady, but I couldn't help but notice that you don't seem to be from around these parts."
"Certainly not the desert, at least," Singi chuckles. "No, I'm an airbender from the mountain range in the far north of the continent. My name is Singi, and, I'm the Avatar."
"The Avatar..." Ashaa exclaims in wonder. "What is the Avatar doing here in the desert?"
"She is honing her earthbending skills with my son Guilin, my men, and I," Dao responds.
"You are quite the decorated man, here," Ashaa notes. "Captain?"
"General. My name is Dao."
Dao reaches a hand out, to which Ashaa accepts, shaking in mutual respect.
"We were on our way back to our village outside the desert when we were ambushed by that gilacorn."
"Why don't you all stay here for a while? You can leave at sunset—the gilacorns aren't as active during the nighttime hours."
"Thank you very much for your hospitality," Dao responds, bowing, to which Ashaa returns.
The group settles along the fire and is joined by every member of the small beetle tribe.
"So, how do you make a living out here?" Guilin asks.
"We get most of our water from tubers, which we seek out and harvest underground. We also hunt whatever animals we can find that won't kill us. We try to seldom go above ground, but sometimes, we just need to replenish our resources by any means necessary. Whenever we go out, we always wear our beetle disguises to ward off the gilacorns. They more tend to scavenge out in the desert, and occasionally, adults will perform cannibalism, but it wasn't until we started using our disguises that they have refrained from attacking us."
"It's amazing you're able to make such a living out here in the desert," Singi marvels. "Years ago, I waterbenders living miles away from the North Pole. They had to make a living in freezing temperatures and blizzards, and yet, like you and your people, they managed to do so seemingly well."of
"Now that humans are no longer living atop the lion turtles, we have begun to take over the planet. People are now claiming land that was once inhabited by the spirits. It is a remarkable role reversal," Ashaa adds.
"How do you and your people view the spirits?" Singi asks.
"We have only seldom seen them when above ground during the solstices. They do nothing to us, we do nothing to them."
Singi decides not to bring up the war in front of Ashaa and the other members of the beetle tribe. As they live a rather unique lifestyle in such a harsh landscape, it is very unlikely they would be willing to join in the war effort.
Hours pass, during which Singi and the other visitors continue to recover from their earlier ordeal, relax, and bond with the tribe, which collectively ends with a rather simplistic dinner. After dinner, Ashaa bends away the opening to the outside world and Singi uses her airbending to lift Dao, his men, and Guilin back above ground. Guilin as usual, faces some difficulty whilst being lifted back up, so Singi slows down the process for him in order to ease his nerves. Once Singi is the only one remaining, she turns to face Ashaa and the members of the beetle tribe and smiles.
"Thank you once again for saving our lives and allowing us to live alongside you for much of the day."
Singi bows in respect, to which Ashaa returns the gesture.
"We are fortunate to have been graced with your presence, Avatar. Please, continue your mission of peace and balance for as long as such a goal is attainable."
"I shall. Thank you again."
With that, Singi launches herself up the tunnel with airbending. Upon touching the soft sands of the desert, the hole is sealed, and the sun has begun its westerly descent across the sky. Dao glances around him, taking notice of the mountains bordering their way out of the desert.
"Everyone, let's go home," he states, to which the remainder of the group respond in agreement before they once again make their way south. This time, except for a single lit lantern carried by Dao, they do so under the cover of darkness.
- The subterranean ancestors of the beetle-headed merchants, as well as the giant gilacorn, are introduced.
- By 100 AG, the giant version of the gilacorn went extinct, leaving only the diminutive version.
- The author stylized the giant gilacorn not just from its namesake—the gila monster and unicorn, respectively, but also the Komodo dragon.
- The only characteristic shared between the unicorn and the giant gilacorn is its massive horn.
- The giant gilacorn shares its bead-like scales and striped patterning with the gila monster.
- The giant gilacorn shares its bipedalism and tendency to scavenge and cannibalize with the Komodo dragon.
- It should be noted that the giant gilacorn and Komodo dragon do not exhibit a bipedal gait. Rather, males stand on their hind legs when combating against one another for females.
- The Komodo dragon is also the largest living lizard species on Earth today, growing to a maximum length of 10 ft. (3 m.) in rare cases, and weighing up to approximately 150 lbs. (70 kg.).
- Finally, the creature contains a forked tongue and venomous bite akin to both reptile species.
- Ashaa's name is pronounced "Ah-sha".
- This is the fifth chapter in which
does not appear (since his introduction in " "), and the fourth in which does not appear (since her introduction in " ").
- The only other chapters to do so since their proper introductions are " ", " ", , and " ".
For the collective works of the author, go here.