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|The Factory, Part 2|
29 August 2014
It was an awkward situation to say the least, tied in a chair and glaring at a guard who has just informed me that I am moments away from exploding.
The barrels of blasting jelly, I was told, were meant to keep me in my place. I found that funny. You see, the major flaw in their analysis was that it was entirely inaccurate. Nothing keeps me in my place. Didn't those fools know that?
I guess someone had to teach them.
"Those barrels," I started, unamused and unimpressed, "will explode upon contact with... fire?" I inquired curiously.
"You got it," responded the smug guard. "So don't try anything."
I raised an eyebrow. "Try what?"
Slightly confused, the man stuttered. "To use any of your Firebending."
My puzzled facial expression even more exaggerated than before, I leaned forward. "And..?"
"And the barrels will explode!"
"You'll die instantly!" The guard was stunned that I wasn't following along.
I rolled my eyes. "Ohhhhhh! I see now! If I ignite a fire this entire room will explode, killing both of us!"
His expression turned to a growing nervousness. "That's correct. Firebending will kill you-"
"But will kill you, too," I clarified. "It would kill both of us. Instantly."
He simply nodded, sweat beginning to drip down his face.
"Let me ask you another question," I yawned. "I'm a slave. My life is meaningless. My only purpose is doing the Fire Lord's bidding, and when I'm done, he's going to kill me. You're a young guard possibly moving his way up the ranks, maybe even with a family..."
He took a step back, but I continued.
"So, who do you think values their life more? Me, the slave? Or you..." With that, I breathed a small blue flame from my mouth.
"Wait!" he shrieked.
I inhaled the flame back. "Yes?"
His eyes were nearly popped out of his skull, and his entire body shook as his voice trembled. "You wouldn't!"
His assertion only made me laugh. "Tell me something. Are you feeling lucky today?"
"No! I'll let you out!" And just like that, he realized who was really in control.
"Good boy. Now untie me, and we'll switch." He did as I told, and within moments he was the one bound to the chair, and I was wearing his uniform. I gagged and blindfolded him, and found an unlit candle on a table across the room. I then proceeded to light it and place it by his feet before exiting the room with a barrel of blasting jelly propped right behind the door, ready to fall onto the candle flame should anyone come in.
"Now where the Hell am I," I muttered, still not completely recovered from the blow I must have taken to the head. Being discovered by the city guards was certainly not ideal, and, for the first time, I was genuinely concerned for Jirou's well being. Of course, I myself wasn't in a fantastic situation. My environment didn't seem like a prison, but rather some sort of headquarters, maybe even considered a lair. The corridors were damp, moldy, and only navigable by the dim light from the occasional torches hung from the eerie stone wall. Doors were few and far between, and rarely did I pass guards. When I did, they didn't utter a sound or even acknowledge me. It was just business as usual.
Towards the end of a particularly wide cobblestone passage were two blazing torches on either end of a thick, arched double door with a two metal rings. Tugging one of them, I pulled open the heavy oak and discovered a foreboding set of stairs sufficiently lit by even more torches. At the top stood another door, this one rectangular. I could barely hear my footsteps over the sound of my pounding heart as I made my way to the door and pulled it back slowly, cringing with every creak.
My eyes were blinded by the initial burst of light I received upon entering a bright, ornately-decorated office complete with embellished furnishing, bookshelves, and an intimidating desk hosting a rather plump, bald man sporting a thick black mustache, heavy eyebrows, and draped in velvet robes.
The entrance I had made my way through appeared from the other side to be nothing more than a painting, indicating that I had probably just navigated through a hidden passageway.
"Mayor Wadze?" I presumed.
The pumpkin of a man didn't so much as glance up from his furious scribbles on parchment. "What purpose do you have entering through my private corridor?" His voice was dripping with irritation and void of patience. "Why are you here?" he snapped.
I answered him bluntly. "To assassinate you."
At once, he dropped his quill and glared at me with confusion. "What did you say?" he gasped.
He didn't have time to move before I leapt over his desk and seized him from behind, containing his flailing body and bringing a deadly blade of fire to his throat. "Stop squirming if you know what's good for you," I warned sternly.
Evidently knowing what was good for him, he froze. The next second, two guards dashed into the office. "Is everything all-"
"No. Everything is not all right," I informed them. "Not for you, at least. For me things are going quite well."
One of the guards pulled his fist back. "Release the mayor right now!"
"Or what? You'll set him on fire?" I brought his head right in front my face, and his round figure made for an excellent shield. "If either of you take one step or make one sound Wadze's gonna get it."
Both men, with no other options, stood down, allowing me to continue.
"There was a man with me. Did you take him prisoner too?"
The guards looked at each other and then nodded timidly. "I want him brought here immediately, unharmed. Do I make myself clear?"
They both nodded and started out the way they came in.
"No!" I barked. "One of you go through the painting. The other lock that door and stay here."
The obedient men each did as I ordered, and as soon as the one guard had disappeared to retrieve Jirou and the one who remained had locked the other entrance, I kicked a spiral of blue flames into the unlucky bastard's face.
Wadze let out a brief shriek so I slammed his head against his desk. "Shut up! I am not fucking around!"
It was an awkward couple minutes before the guard I had sent out finally returned. Behind him appeared Jirou, escorted by two additional henchmen. My partner had never looked worse, bruised all over his face, his lips bloody, and his wrists bound by a chain.
"We brought your friend," the guard started nervously. "Now let go of the mayor."
I acted as though I was genuinely pondering his offer for a moment.
I ended Wadze right then and there, then jumped and used both feet to kick a roaring blast at the guard. Simultaneously, Jirou snapped one of his escort's necks and then thrust his body upward so that his legs crashed into the other man's chin, knocking him backwards. He then snatched the helpless guard by his collar and slammed him into a wall.
"Where is the weapons factory?" I thought lightning might burst from his eyes.
"We're in the factory! I swear! This is the administrative side where the mayor conducts his business. On the other side of our compound is where we develop the weapons!"
Jirou dropped him momentarily to retrieve a key from a dead body and free himself from the chain. Meanwhile, I had been rummaging through the desk. In one drawer, I was lucky enough to find my still fully-equipped black robes. The others were filled with paperwork regarding the Crimson Wolves. "We've hit the jackpot now Jirou."
"Do we want this man dead?" he asked matter-of-factly.
"No, he can help us get around the compound. Put on one of the guard's uniforms so-" my train of thought was interrupted when I came across blueprints for a weapon I had never seen before. It looked simple. There was one main barrel-looking tube structure on wheels and some sort of string attached to it. There were arrows indicating something was to be put inside the tube but I couldn't tell what the drawing was of. The only other thing was the word "powder" scribbled at the bottom.
"You ready?" Jirou had changed and was once again handling the guard like an animal.
I took of the guard uniform off and put it back on over my robes, tucking in the folded-up blueprint, and the three of us cautiously left out of the room, the real guard fully aware that if he tried anything he'd be dead in seconds. That said, it was a brisk and relatively easy out of the administrative building and across the high-security compound.
Jirou and I couldn't have been more relieved when we passed by a fenced-in block imprisoning none other than Nightmare and Uma. I demanded the keys from our new friend, and stood in front of the gate as if I was on watch. With my hands behind my back, I unlocked the gate, then turned and told the animals to stay put. As badly as Nightmare wanted to charge out of his cell, I held a hand up sternly and ordered him to heel. Still, they were free in the event we needed to make a quick escape.
The factory itself was massive, and two women in the same uniforms we were wearing guarded what seemed to be the only entrance. Without skipping a beat, our prisoner confronted them casually. "Officer Qiufan here to show the new recruits their posts."
"You may enter," nodded one of the women. Admittedly, I was impressed with how well Qiufan performed under pressure.
I had never imagined anything quite as industrial and magnificent as the inside of that monstrous factory, and I'm almost certain Jirou's jaw dropped even further than mine. Everywhere we looked, there were lines of people manufacturing what could easily have been the weapon I saw on the blueprint. Sparks flew, metal clanged, workers coughed, and everything operated together like a machine.
"We need to get to the control center for this place," Jirou whispered, and without looking back, Qiufan obeyed. He led us to a bleak room, occupied by about five miserable people in grey uniforms scuttling around, whispering to each other, and transferring information to paper. When the doors were closed behind us, it didn't take long to neutralize everyone inside, Qiufan included. What was surprisingly more difficult was locating a factory map, but when we finally did, it told us everything we needed to know. I scanned it until I saw "Powder and Jelly Storage." While I still wasn't sure what the powder was, I figured it was referring to blasting jelly, exactly what we needed to destroy the building.
Knowing it was only a matter of time before someone discovered the massacre in the control room, Jirou and I hustled to the location on the map, but when we reached a sign that read "Explosives Storage Through Here," we were stopped by a man at least twice the size of Jirou.
"Stop. Do you have clearance for these rooms?"
I had no idea what to say, but Jirou went off on a whim. "Look, things are about to get very ugly here, and you can't stop us alone, so if you have a family you care about, you're going to leave this compound right now without speaking to anyone."
Our mission could have been foiled at that moment, but, astonishingly, the man listened. He didn't question us any further. He just... left. Good boy.
Through the metal door was a metal hallway and then two more metal doors, marked "Blasting Jelly" and "Explosive Powder." On both doors read:
Curiosity mandated that we inspect the explosive powder first, as neither Jirou nor myself had ever heard of such a thing. Yet, right before our eyes stood what seemed like an infinite row of boxes, each containing a considerable amount of white powder.
"So is this shit going to blow up?" I asked dryly.
Jirou rubbed his chin. "It hasn't yet, and based on the warning signs I'm guessing it needs fire to ignite. I wouldn't touch it with your skin, just in case."
Something else I noticed about the room was that it was extremely cold and ventilated, with air vents every few feet on the ceiling. I mentioned it to Jirou and he recalled spotting vents throughout the factory.
A smile spread across my face. "I have an idea."
And so, we carried two boxes each out of the room and back out into the main section of the factory, where we ascended up rusty metal stairs unquestioned by the busy workers. After all, we were in uniform. At the top of the stairs were some machinery and other industrial-looking things I couldn't quite identify, but even more importantly an exit to an outside walkway, which had a few steps leading to the flat roof of the building. There, in the middle, completely unattended, was a glorious ventilation system. We set the powder down and returned for two more boxes and a barrel of blasting jelly.
We peered over the vents, then shot each other faces that asked Will this really work? It was worth a shot.
"Three... two... one..." We dumped the powder down the vents, saving only a little to pour some into the open pipes at the other side of the roof that lead down into the factory. Then, we shoveled large chunks of blasting jelly in after it and made two long, thin trails of jelly from the vents and the pipes to the edge of the roof, where we sent a single ember to the tip and proceeded to bolt back down the stairs.
It didn't take long.
The first boom came from somewhere on the other end of the factory, so Jirou and I figured we at least had some time to escape. We were wrong.
An explosion behind us nearly knocked me off my feet, and I collided into a terrified factory worker who was one of many trying to flee their workplace in confusion and fear. People were screaming, tripping, trampling each other, and my fellow Shepherd and I were merely part of the chaos.
Another burst of fire came from the left, and I was knocked into a set of pipes and hit my head, my ears ringing from the explosion. After I fell, Jirou rushed to my side...
...but he wasn't there to help me.
Though my vision was blurry and I was slightly dazed, I reached for his hand, but he grabbed my wrists and pushed them against a pipe, only to chain me to it.
"What are you doing?" I was slowly orienting myself, becoming more aware of what he was doing and more afraid by the second.
"What are you doing!" I tried to kick, but he stomped my leg down and hit me across the face.
"Jirou!" I cried. His grimace sent horror down my spine and tears down my cheek. "Why?" I croaked. "Please! Stop! What are you doing?"
The explosions didn't stop. The only got closer and closer. Blood splattered across the walls and floor. The screaming was deafening.
Jirou looked me in the eye one last time, and for a moment everything froze.
"Sorry, Sweetheart. Just following orders."
With that, he ran out like everyone else who was lucky enough to escape.
"Come back here you son of a bitch!" I was weeping and screaming furiously at the same time. "Jirou! Jioru!"
I let out one shriek after another. I had no idea what I was shouting, just that the world around me was collapsing, and I was about to collapse with it.
- Qiufan means "prisoner" in Chinese.
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
For the collective works of the author, go here.