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Book 1: The Republic
Previously on 'Gods of War'
Colette and Fenn promised to keep no more secrets between them and to keep work separate from their relationship. But Fenn still believes that Demons exist, contrary to the President's claims.
Apologising to Saffron for the Libertarian invasion, Otto and the earthbender kissed.
Fenn used Leroux's key card to investigate the Demons.
During the civil war Fenn, Otto and Akira discovered the Red Demon injured and upset in the Mapelday Chapel.
The relationship between Beyond and the Libertarian Triad was revealed, and in order to end the civil war Tariq sparked a deal with the leader Larkin - promising him the role of Non-Bender Councilman.
Chapter 8: The Killer
|"I don't want people to start thinking that your loyalties lie elsewhere."|
|— Colette to Fenn|
Golden chandeliers glimmered from the ceiling, their crystal light casting rays of rainbows against the walls. Silk artwork draped the walls, embroidered with delicate flowers, fierce red dragons, and scenes of women dancing in intricate kimonos. Tables were displayed perfectly, a floral ornament the only thing coming between couples on dates and suited men on business meetings. A piano was being played somewhere, its jazz notes dancing through the clientèle like a dolled-up showgirl bopping to a tune.
The whole restaurant was alive with elegance as the buzzing Republic glittered from deep below. Fenn had never experienced top level dining before. Fourth level was classy back when he was middle class, and tenth was incredible as a Clandestine. But Colette had taken him to the twenty-second level; the highest in the building, Fenn was sure other buildings went even higher. He never quite understood the classing system of the Republic, nor truly explored what each level had to offer that could make it distinctly different from the others. Nevertheless, as Colette strode in, dressed in a royal red gown, black hair pinned up, Fenn lost all thought of the Levelling System. His entire attention was shifted to the girl.
She cast him a smile, lips voluptuous with matching lipstick, and then sat herself down, ringing a loose curl back behind her ear with a finger.
"Hey," she said, beaming.
Fenn couldn't stop himself from smiling, or from blushing. Looking down at himself he realised he was seriously under-dressed. A white button-up under a corduroy jacket, greyish to match his pants. All the other men were dressed to the nines in suites and tuxes, hair slicked with gel and an expensive cigarette teetering from their scotch-infused tongue.
"I, I should've changed," he started, laughing with embarrassment.
"No, Fenn. You look fine," assured Colette.
"Look at you, though!" he replied, almost a little too loudly. "You look like a supermodel and I look...I look like I've just woken up."
They both laughed then began at the menu, ordering a drink and something light to start off their dinner. It had been just a few days since they had come back from the Eastern Domain, Otto gratefully joining them on their airship home. And since their return there had been no speak of the cause of the Civil War, or of Beyond's hidden allegiance with the Libertarians. All that was printed in the newspapers was that Tariq and his troops had swiftly mitigated any threat that was to come, and that relations with the East were unharmed from the proceedings. Fenn and Otto met up occasionally for a drink, reaching only the second level to accommodate Otto's budget, and things were a lot better between him and Colette.
Between the two of them they often shared small looks, glances. And though they were barely a second, fleeting against the bigger picture of their relationship, in those glances a firework of attraction was shared. It was as if the air ignited between them. They smiled more, blushed more, and sharing each other in the flesh, alone together in the middle of the night, their bond grew stronger – Fenn could barely keep his lips off her, making sure to kiss every inch of her porcelain skin the bed sheets left uncovered.
And Colette too felt giddy around him. Being with him made her feel like a child again. There was so much excitement to have in their budding romance. His touch gave her goosebumps, his voice made her melt. And whenever she met his eyes time would stand still, as if nothing else mattered but the silence they shared. As if everything poured out from her, and from him, that all their secrets and weaknesses, flaws and embarrassments were splayed out before them. Whenever she met his eyes she could see his love, and feel hers numb her entire body.
It was scary at times – how one boy could make her feel totally undone. It was scary too to enjoy being open, to let herself bleed and reveal. But for some reason or another, the fright only made her love him more. It was inexplicable, something she could not work out. But she knew she'd have all the time in the world to work it out.
Dinner was divine. The sushi was prepared with such precision and painted with so many colours that it looked almost like modern art. Each little bit had its own distinct flavour, but also complimented the other flavours perfectly. The main course, too, was delicious. Braised lamb slowly cooked so that it melted off the bone, sharply marinated with mint and orange zest to counter the gravy and roast potato. And finally, dessert; a fluffy mousse topped with cream and berries.
Throughout their date Colette and Fenn shared conversation, aside from the moments of silence spent gazing into each other's eyes. They talked about many things, laughed, debated and, as they had promised each other, work did not enter the topics.
Both were working hard to maintain their relationship. And by keeping work separate their relationship was now laid with foundations of honesty and trust as opposed to stress and secrets.
"Larkin's going to-"
"-We're not supposed to talk about work," Fenn interrupted, smiling behind his glass of beer with an eyebrow cocked.
"This isn't work. This is current affairs," rebutted Colette, smiling too. "Anyway, in a few days Larkin will be appointed Non-bender Councilman. There's going to be a big do in the harbor."
"Should be fun."
Fenn was still upset about Tariq's affair with Larkin, and what that did to the prospect of being a Clandestine soldier. Colette nodded in sincere agreement, licking her top lip. Her father had asked her to give Fenn a job, but she wasn't sure how to go about it.
"Two problems though," added Fenn, scraping the last of the mousse from the bowl. "Larkin's the face of a worldwide triad, and we already have a Non-bender on Council."
He knew Colette was getting at something, something her father probably had planned. And a nervous pang fluttered in his full stomach. Colette nodded back, acknowledging the two problems then spoke.
"From the get go we've kept Larkin's identity well-hidden-"
Suddenly Fenn's spoon slipped in the bowl, causing the bowl to crash onto his plate and send his fork flying onto the floor.
"What?" he hissed furiously, as Colette looked down at the mess in embarrassment.
"What?" she hissed back.
Fenn rubbed his face, trying to alleviate his anger, feeling his scar tingle under his shirt.
"You knew this whole time?"
"Knew what, Fenn? And be quiet, you're making a scene," replied Colette, looking around the restaurant at the judgmental faces.
"You knew about Tariq and Larkin? That they were working together?" Fenn continued to whisper, anger present on his lips.
He could not believe himself. As much as he wanted to throw the table over on its side, to blast fire from his fists and scream, he had to remain collected among the other patrons.
"Do you know what that does to me, what it does to the Clandestines?" he muttered through hot, pursed lips.
"I don't know," Colette replied, angrily humoring the topic by shrugging. "Please, tell me what it did to you."
"It destroyed the entire integrity of the Clandestines. Everything they've worked for was for a lie!"
Colette leaned in, her eyes ablaze. It was as if she were disciplining him.
"And you think I was happy when I found out? It ruined my integrity too, okay. But so what if we have to tweak some information here and there, the people are safe aren't they? And that's what matters. Sure it was a punch to my morals, but you have to stop and think if it will really benefit the Republic. And it has."
Fenn stopped, his mouth ajar. If the crime was staged, did it really count as crime? And if it instilled a sense of safety into the people, and people weren't really hurt then could it still be considered false help?
Suddenly applause filled the restaurant as a swanky jazz band entered the stage. One large man held a big, mahogany cello, a woman in red bangs had a violin perched under her chin, another man had a trumpet close to his wide grin while a muscular man with a ponytail sat at the kit. Slowly the applause faded and an elegant woman entered from stage left. Her bronze hair fell down to her hips and her sequined gown trailed her behind just as the gazes of the businessmen did. On her full cheek was a single spot, dark and beautiful, and she held herself with such a confident sexuality that she owned the room entirely. Slowly from her lips a note came, starting off deep and soft before coming full and loud, the trumpet blaring with her. Suddenly she lifted her hands to the cleft of her bosom then sang her hippity song to the plucks of the strings, the kit's soft beats hissing rhythm into the melody.
Whistles and cheers clamored through her repertoire as she eyed off each individual man and cast them a naughty wink. Fenn kept his attention to Colette, knowing now was not the time to watch a woman, and what a woman, show off her vocals and curves.
Colette chewed her bottom lip, waiting for Fenn's full attention. Was the singer that attractive? She was chunky and far too cheeky – borderline slutty. Until Fenn finally returned his gaze to her Colette spoke. She knew the next thing she'd say was not going to go down well with him. But it was crucial.
She smiled. He smiled back.
"There's one other thing."
Otto lay sprawled on his couch, his pajamas encrusted with grime and sweat and weird against his skin. Slowly his lips enveloped the end of a cigarette, his eyes focusing down on the thin object under his nose. He breathed in deep, getting the smoke right into the pools of his lungs. The inside of his mouth was hot. Quickly he puffed the smoke out, watching it dissipate before him.
On the table were magazines and books, and half-finished cups, plates with congealed curry. In the centre of it all, as if it was what gravitated the chaos of mess, was a landline phone. Its orange screen stared at Otto as he looked at it unimpressed; the buttons teasing him, the empty silence growing more and more frustrating.
His arms tingled at the joint of his elbows. An electronic beat constantly played in the background. It was fast and had some melody to it that Otto couldn't figure out, and it faded from loud to soft without any obvious pattern.
Suddenly Otto scratched his arms feverishly, nails against the skin until the spot was red and inflamed. He had been up all night staring at the phone. He had seen the rosy sunlight rise from the cracks in his curtains, flecks of gently floating dust appearing when the light hit the right angle. He had not left the spot. He had skipped breakfast and his ass was numb on the upholstery.
Yet still silence poured spitefully from the phone. Nothing was going to come from it.
Part of him expected the worst – death – but most of him was fed up not with her but with the phone. As if it was the machine's fault he had been waiting all this time.
Suddenly a bang came from his apartment door.
"I'm busy!" he shouted over his shoulder, flapping his hand to tell the stranger – probably his landlord – to get away.
There was a pause until the knock came again, and continued. It seemed it wouldn't persist until Otto answered the door. Annoyed the airbender hauled himself from his slouch and stomped over to his door. Sighing as he twisted the handle he swung the door open.
Meeting him was a smile; beautiful, petite and familiar. Instantly the girl lunged onto him, swinging herself around his shoulders into his apartment.
"Saffron!" Otto managed, frozen in confusion.
Saffron laughed, her blonde hair bouncing as she skipped excitedly through Otto's apartment, taking in the dingy sights.
"What are you doing here?"
The girl turned to him and smiled, taking his hand in hers.
"I had some money saved up so I thought I'd come and visit you," she replied, blushing.
Had she made too big a move? Were they ready for this? For the week since Otto had left the Eastern Domain, leaving his number, address and apology at the cell in the chapel, the two had spoken everyday – and almost every night.
"Is that...is that a bad thing?"
Otto's eyebrows rose – still taken aback.
"What? No!" he laughed, ecstasy washing over his body like a sweet wave. "I'm just surprised."
"Are you sure? It's only a few days, but is it too soon?"
Otto pulled Saffron to him, their lips resting millimetres from each other. Subtly he sniffed; her sweet yet fittingly mature perfume making him grin.
"Not soon enough," he replied. "This place is a little run down; I would've cleaned up if I knew you were coming. But everything I have is yours."
"Well aren't you just a gentleman!" Saffron cackled wildly, a scratchy cough forming down in her throat.
She slumped herself onto the scratchy rug, shuffling her white-rimmed blue dress from under her thighs. She was giddy with excitement, delirious with the whole notion of romance. Otto followed suit, taking his spot on the couch and sprawling an arm around her shoulder. The earthbender blushed – for the week she thought she had forgotten what Otto's face had looked like.
On some part she had, but staring at it now, studying the scars and rough flaws, his hairless chin and baggy, silver eyes – it made her all the more excited to get to know the boy entirely, and let him know her entirely.
"So what's the plan of attack?" she blurted, grinning.
Otto honked out a weird laugh, almost spitting, then fixed himself instantly into seriousness.
"I don't know. I don't really have the money to take you to the top levels."
Saffron shrugged, flapping her wrist gently as a gesture of nonchalance.
"I don't care about going all fancy. Just take me to the places you usually go to," she replied, blue eyes lighting up with wonder. "I want to see the city."
"The lights?" Otto smiled, cocking an eyebrow playfully.
"The lights! Yes!"
Otto, flapping his arms to his side to blow a gust of air under him, launched from the couch then swiveled on the carpet to face the giggling Saffron.
"Then I'll take you to see the lights! Take my hand sweet girl," he said, taking Saffron's hand and hoisting her to her feet. "And let the city dazzle you with all its luminescence!"
Immediately he pocketed his wallet and keys and led Saffron right out the door, the two not stopping until they got to the waterfront and Otto found the perfect restaurant for them to have lunch at. It felt good for him to treat someone, it felt like he was finally doing something right.
Fenn knelt down on the concrete roof, hidden mostly behind a small wall. Silently he stared down at a terrace. Its brickwork was of old sandstone, with dark iron poles fencing the cobbled and leafy front garden. Two grotesque creatures adorned the slate roof, their steely features carved smooth into the stone. Inside the terrace looked clean, and the Non-bender Councilwoman was in her kitchen making some lunch of sorts.
She seemed to be enjoying herself, and that only added to Fenn's apprehension. The cold air he breathed in was slowly sending his muscles numb. He peered down through the scope, flexing his eye open to keep it from shaking, the world turning a sick green. Wobbling on a knee he shuffled the heavy rifle that was cocked on his arm.
Suddenly he took his eye from the scope, closed his eyes and breathed out. He needed to focus. He just had to get it over with quickly, like ripping off a band-aid. Colette was behind standing behind him; lips glossed a deep purple, hair pinned up with but a strand tickling the side of her jaw, a long beige overcoat billowing in the wind. Her arms were crossed and her lips were biting over each other, knotted in an impatient pout. Other Clandestines were there too, waiting for their post to finish. Fenn could feel all their stares mount against his back.
Again he brought his eye to the scope, blinking away a nervous, frosty tear to focus. The Councilwoman had finished what she was doing and was now walking through the room, maybe on the phone. Then, in a brief, unsure moment, the two locked eyes. It was only for a second. But in it the two shared everything. The fear, the disappointment, the disgust; it was present as a skewed mixture in the woman's eyes. Fenn's breath ceased, receding back and out in fractured gasps. He felt terrible, like his whole being was shattering into backwards pieces.
What had he become? Slowly his heavy finger curled over the trigger, a tear bulging precariously from an eye. Fenn, suddenly, was bowled to the floor, the rifle knocked from his grasp. With a flurry of beige flapping his face Fenn realised that Colette had taken his position. She hurled the rifle on her shoulder and peered in, rubbing her lips together again to smear the purple.
And then in an explosion of silence the bullet tore through the air, a punch nailing Fenn and his strangled breathes to the cement. With but the shattered window pattering the pavement below the Councilwoman was out without a sound. Colette got up from her squat, turned away from the blood-stained apartment and pushed the rifle into the hands of a nearby Clandestine.
"Fenn, are you coming?" she said as she headed for the stairs.
Raising himself from his toppled heap on the floor Fenn replied, "Do you...what? Do you wanna maybe sit down?"
Colette turned to face her boyfriend and cast him an unamused look.
"Why are you doing this, Fenn? Why are you making this harder than it has to be?"
She turned away again and started down the stairs. Instantly Fenn jogged to her and joined her side in the staircase.
"I'm not making this harder than it has to be! You just killed a person," he gawked. "Surely you need some time to recover!"
"I'm fine, really," Colette smiled before raising an eyebrow at him. "Maybe you need some time to recover."
"I probably do!" nodded Fenn. "Aren't you even a little shaken?"
"It was just a job, Fenn. Your job," the girl added. "I shouldn't have been the one to do it."
"I still think it was a bad idea. The whole Libertarian situation is a mess!"
The two turned the corner and continued downwards with the other Clandestines emotionless behind them.
"It's the best solution we can afford. The Councilwoman was an only child, both her parents are deceased. She has no husband or children, no real friends. She was expendable enough so that our agreement with the Libertarians could be met. My father knows what he's doing."
Just then Fenn huffed out a silent laugh. Colette stopped and scowled at him – as if Fenn had offended her greatly. And he had. She was appalled that Fenn had his doubts about her father's legitimacy. She stared into his nervous pupils for a sign that his disbelief was untrue, for something that could take that laugh back.
Upon realising he had laughed too loud Fenn's eyebrows raised, and he trailed an upset Colette a few steps behind.
"I just think maybe you shouldn't do everything Tariq says," Fenn rebutted, blushing from guilt.
Having none of it Colette exited into a side alley. She looked up at the apartment across the road; people were only now noticing the glass on the pavement, putting two and two together. Colette's eyes shifted, Fenn in her peripheries. She didn't like his increasing doubts – ever since the civil war in the East Fenn always questioned the things Colette told him.
"How long have you been a Clandestine, four months? My father's been with Beyond before I was born, I think he knows what he's doing."
With that Colette and the other Clandestines ushered themselves into a limo, unnoticed by the public.
"Four and half..." Fenn muttered under his breath before he followed the girl to the limo.
"Larkin has been a good friend of mine, we've kept in good contact for a long time," Tariq said into the microphone, smiling down at the small crowd and for the cameras.
Among the crowd was Colette and Fenn, dressed in formal apparel. Fenn sat slouched in his chair, cursing to himself every time Larkin was mentioned. It reminded him of everything he had promised to himself, and how those promises now meant nothing because of the Libertarians and Beyond.
"So it is my utmost pleasure to announce that our new Non-Bender seat on Council will be taken by Larkin!"
The two shook hands, frozen for the flash, as applause filled the space.
"Now, go!" Tariq added most grandly. "The hors d'oeuvres are delectable and the wine is flowing! You are my guests for the remainder of the night so please enjoy yourself on this fine cruise."
With that the crowds dissipated from their seats and across the main hall. The ship was enormous, pristine white like a perfect cloud. Fenn stayed in his seat and watched Larkin amble off from the stage – pretending like nothing was happening. Like he wasn't the same person he was in the East. But he was, and it was because of that that Fenn felt sick to his stomach.
"Hey," came Colette's voice, followed by her dainty hand. "You alright? Come, I've got some people to meet and you should introduce yourself."
Fenn lifted his dreary self up from the chair and sighed.
"Nah, I might go outside and get some air," he said, gently kissing Colette on the cheek. "But you go, knock 'em dead."
Colette laughed out a nervous, "Okay," before meandering through the formal crowd to socialise.
Fenn went the other way, taking a cracker with cheese, until he came to the deck. Two rambunctious young adults were knotted together against the wall, giggling and smooching. The firebender, not wanting to hear their displays of affection continued down the length of the ship until he was far enough from them. Then, it seemed to be becoming a habit, Fenn sighed.
Why was it that he was sighing so much lately? Was he sick? Tired? Maybe he was dying – he had to keep the curse on his mind, make sure it wasn't too much of a hindrance. Slowly it was spreading from his collarbone, and lately it ached rather than stung.
Was he unhappy?
Slowly his gaze rose from the lapping black water to the cityscape. The harbor was truly a nocturnal animal. Purples, yellows – all colours of lights encased the buildings, and the hypnotic symphony of traffic and pedestrians could be heard against the crunch of the ship's hull on the water.
A mist of nighttime spray washed over Fenn as he continued to stare out at the Republic, nose chilled from the cold. What was it that made the Smiling-Mask demon attack him that night?
Out of all the people in the walls of the Republic it had to be him. He could feel himself becoming weaker; wilting like a determined flower whose will was all used up. Against his freezing face and aching shoulder, warm tears shone in his pupils. They glistened like headlights in a sea of cars, like stars in a bed of darkness. Another unhappy sigh slipped from his quivering lips, and soon Fenn pressed his crying face on the banister, crushing the cracker in his hand. A lump had formed in his throat and he could not eat.
"Why," he whispered – the question to so many topics.
Why did Beyond have to have a dark side? Why didn't Colette tell him any of it? Why were the demons attacking? Even with Colette, with things patched up with Otto, with Tariq and Leroux, why did Fenn feel so alone?
The boy's breathing stopped. He wanted to open his eyes, he could feel the light from the Republic entice him to stare and marvel. But he was certain. Certain that if he were to look at himself in the water he'd see it. The mask. It would smile at him, forever, and laugh and taunt. And the feeling that he was becoming that demon, losing his sanity, losing his gratitude to become malicious and cruel, would scratch its way into his head. Eyelids shuddering Fenn decided not to open his eyes. It would be best. He had seen enough.
"Why," repeated the firebender, maybe asking again and again he'd get an answer. "Why are you crying?"
Suddenly Fenn's eyes snapped open, flecks of tears falling lost into the harbor. With the oranges of his eyes wide and his pupils but spots, Fenn examined the water, frozen in fear and exhilaration. The mask was not there, just his face. His eyes, sunken deep with so many uncertainties, his lips – stitched together with questions and promises, his ears – filled with lies and secrets. But no mask. Just him.
Sighing once more Fenn took another look out at the ravishing city, glancing over at the couple to see if they had witnessed his minor freak out. Thankfully they had gone inside to escape the wind, though nevertheless Fenn fixed his suit jacket and collected his composure. He kicked the cracker crumbs through a hole in the barrier and down into the murky water, and continued with his thoughts.
Saffron's cheeks were hot and red, the sound of slurping and sizzling deafening across the cluttered tables. Otto had taken her to a cheap noodle house, the Golden Spoon Noodlery. The ramen was steaming before her, the bowl filled to the brim with rice noodles, onions, shallots and a watery broth. Ten seafood dumplings were packed into a bamboo steamer to share while Otto chowed down on his ramen too.
"You enjoying it?" he mumbled through a slurp, head tilted to maximize the amount of noodles entering his mouth.
Saffron smiled, a slippery noodle flopping from her lips back into the bowl.
"Ah! Sorry!" she blushed, wiping the broth from her chin before taking a dumpling in her chopsticks. "It's really nice."
Otto nodded, taking another fevered slurp and swallowing without chewing.
"On the outside it looks kind of grimy, but these guys aren't about the looks," he too took a dumpling and bit through its chewy casing. "They're all about the taste. All the locals know about it so it's always packed – but never with any tourists or rich people."
Saffron's lips pursed into a smile as she stared into Otto's eyes.
"Well I love it. Everything you've shown me has been incredible."
And it had been. The lunch they had by the harbor, the crazy shopping streets filled with peculiarly dressed teens, Otto's favourite pet store which had the cutest little Bunnydog; all of it was super. As much as the East was her home, slowly but surely Saffron was falling in love with the big city that was the Republic.
"Well there's one more thing. Once we have the desert I'll take you there," Otto smiled cheekily. "It's my favourite place in the Republic."
Saffron's bubbly eyes snapped open in joy as she smashed the chopsticks to the table.
"No! Let's skip desert! Let's go there now!" the girl replied, shaking in her chair.
"But the Golden Spoon is famous for its lychee pudding. Like, it melts in your mouth! Are you sure you wanna skip on that?"
Saffron smiled, a cheeky twinkle shimmering in an eye.
And with that the pair paid, left the noodlery and headed off into the busy streets. The chaos, the traffic, the sounds and the lights; all of it only added to their passion.
"Okay you've got to keep your eyes closed, remember?" Otto chuckled, holding both of Saffron's hands as the girl kept her excited eyes shut.
Otto wanted it to be a surprise. He wanted to really treat Saffron, and the place to where he was taking her could really show her just how much she meant to him.
"I am, I am!" giggled Saffron, treading carefully through the blackness.
The earthbender could smell cooking meat and sweet sauces, and the dense scent of soil became more and more prominent. The sounds of loud chatter clamored on while children's laughter could be identified in the far reaches of her hearing. Finally Otto stopped and held Saffron's shoulders, shifting her around to face the way he wanted.
"Okay, you can open them now."
Saffron smiled. She wanted to savor the moment. Slowly she rolled back her eyelids, bright reds blasting their way in. Suddenly her eyes snapped open and as her heart smacked down into her lungs, her breath was torn right from her lips.
It was beautiful. The multitude of signs blurred into a thousand patterned colours and stretched on forever forward, petering left only at the very end. Steam and smoke that rose from below glowed from the neon, rising up in rainbow incandescence. Like blurred droplets the circular lights from the traffic zoomed by in the edges; spiraling down, jutting across or streaming from the ground like a luminous river.
It was her and her alone; floating as a single point the planes of light and blur changed and enveloped past her, sucking her up in the spectral vortex. Slipping out like wet paint a gasp came from her lips.
"Takeshita Street is one of the busiest roads in the Republic, everyone comes here. It just keeps going," Otto said from behind her, as if he were a godly narrative there to explain the new world of colour to her. "I like to come up to this park when I'm stressed, sit here and absorb it all."
Saffron's eyebrow cocked. She hadn't noticed. Grass was below her feet and around her were tall, leafy trees and dense flowerbeds. She turned around and examined the next amazing sight. Takeshita Park; the entire garden was built atop the main road, bridging two shopping centres together. Children eagerly lapped up ice-creams and played on the play equipment; the shapes and constructs embedded with neon lights that sunk and swayed in changing shades. Couples strolled on the paths, happy to get away from the noisy lower levels and finally hear each other's' voices, while business men rested their weary arms on the balcony to have that night-time cigarette they'd been craving all meeting, soaking up the lights and sights of their beautiful city. It was like a floating paradise, enveloped in dazzling lights yet separate from the chaos.
"I can't buy you nice things, I don't have a fancy apartment, I don't really have anything important to my name," Otto began, leaning over the edge to get the full breadth of the view before continuing. "But I can give you this. The Republic is a scary place, but it's beautiful too. And if you ever feel sad or scared come here and just have a look. Because it's certain it'll make all your worries go away."
If before she was unsure, now Saffron knew. She was in love. With a grin broadening across her face and golden hair shimmering in the city light Saffron jumped forward and wrapped Otto in her arms. Together they kissed, locking each other's' embraces tight to their own as the neon fireworks seemingly intensified and a luminous brilliance washed over them. They were young and swept off their feet; and everything was perfect.
Colette took another sip of champagne from her flute. That fat-bellied aristocrat had nearly bored her half to death on a topic she didn't have the faintest care about. She was getting sick of socializing with old, rich people. She wanted to find Fenn and have his arm wrap around her waist. His body was always so warm, and only in a strapless frock Colette was beginning to feel the chill.
Suddenly a face came from the crowd and addressed her.
"Madame Yamamoto," it was Strauss. "A pleasure as always."
His bespectacled green eyes were poised in that fanciful mix of disgust and apathy that rich people often wore. His tuxedo was crisp and the navy cuffs set him out from the crowd. That and his blonde hair, natural blonde.
"I hope you're enjoying the cruise. Have you tried the crab-cakes?" Colette replied, trying a smile and a polite tone.
"I'll be frank with you, Colette," began the uptight boy. "Your father gave me his word that I'd dine with you sometime. I had found a rather exquisite place that specializes in Western cuisine."
Colette rolled her eyes, but still stayed in position. She knew leaving a conversation was rude, and Strauss was one of the Republic's most budding stockbrokers – particularly for his age.
"So when I found at that you had taken the fancy of one of your employees I was highly offended. Mortified, even."
"Mortified, huh. I'm so sorry," Colette replied flatly, the boy not understanding her sarcasm.
"Well. You must understand, the reputation that comes with dating one of your inferiors..."
"Well thank you for your concern, Strauss, really. But I'm going to go find my inferior now and kiss him. Not you."
She gave the silenced boy her glass, smiled and then shuffled her way through the crowd and out to the deck. The nerves of that guy. He really was the biggest twat she could think of. Coming out to the deck she found Fenn against the bannister. He seemed on edge about something – probably from what happened earlier that morning. But maybe about something else – something that happened in the East. Since their return he appeared different; not as eager to do his duties, but rather more lost in thought.
Colette knew she shouldn't have to have a problem with that, but it made her uneasy. And she knew to trust her instincts, for they had helped her many times before – and successfully.
"Hey mister," she said, walking over to him and leaning her back against the railing.
"Hey!" replied the firebender, apparently happy to see a familiar face. "How's the socializing been going?"
"Eugh! Awful! I can see why you wanted to be out here."
Fenn laughed then looked back down into the water, feeling awkward from looking into Colette's eyes for too long.
"That Strauss guy talked to me again," continued the girl, filling in the silence.
"Still a douche?" Fenn remarked.
Perking up from his involvement Colette giggled. The noise sent Fenn's cheeks rosy – he loved the way Colette laughed.
"Yes! He sends his regards though – blesses my inferior," goofed Colette.
"I'm an inferior now?" Fenn laughed, straightening his back laughing with his girlfriend.
"Yep, apparently always! Haha!"
Fenn huffed, blinked and paused – unsure if he had heard truth behind Colette's joke. Killing the mood again he slouched back over the bannister and sighed.
"Well tell him he's...I don't know stupid or something. Something fancy."
Colette stopped, her laughter fading into a halt. There was something up with him – she just couldn't figure it out.
"Are you alright Fenn?" she managed, knotting her lips when they met eyes.
Fenn looked into his girlfriend's eyes, wanting to tell her everything; the demon from the East, his disappointment with Beyond, the Smiling-Mask and its ever-present taunts. He was scared of what was happening around him, that things were getting darker. He could feel something terrible simmer behind the surface of every little puzzle piece of answers he got, and he was sure that he'd run out of time before he'd put it all together.
"I'm fine," he quickly replied, emphasising his response with a slight smile.
Colette saw right through it.
"We promised no more lies."
"We promised no work talk outside of work," Fenn rebutted.
"So there's a problem with work?" said Colette immediately.
She always knew what to say in order to pry the truth from people. Fenn sighed, admitting defeat and knowing it was time to drop the walls.
"This morning, Colette. It was a bit extreme for me."
Fenn shuffled on the spot, not knowing if she was buying his half-lie. It was shocking for him, and it only added to his worries – but it wasn't really the crux of the matter. Demons. They had sworn not to talk about it, to not even believe it, or else it would jeopardise and nullify Tariq's entire presidency. But Fenn was almost certain that it was the connecting link between all the matters of events thus far. A demon had cursed him, a demon attack was what got him the job at Beyond, he had visited a temple in the Green full of them, and a demon was present in the East during the civil war. All emotions like anger and fear, suspicion and stress; everything crumpled painfully inside him. He just needed answers – but there were so many questions.
"I know," Colette smiled, taking her arm away from his. "Things have been a little intense lately. We didn't expect Larkin to act out like that, and meeting his demands was a little rough."
Her smile teetered playfully, a twinkle in her eye perhaps saying otherwise.
"But just remember that you're a Clandestine and that first and foremost you have a duty to the Republic. Snooping around, taking your own little side-quest detective jobs, not meeting your orders...I don't want people to start thinking that your loyalties lie elsewhere."
"Uh-" Fenn croaked.
With a final demure smile Colette turned away and went back inside to the warmth, leaving Fenn cold and uncomfortable.
Was that a threat? Did Colette really think he was on a different side? There was no other side to be on! Fenn watched the girl turn the corner, smiling over at some unseen benefactor; nervousness for some reason creeping up on him. He stopped for a second, and gave it some thought.
Of course not. Everything he did was for her and the Republic. There was nothing Fenn wanted more in the world than to find the Smiling-Mask demon, knock it dead, and then do the same to all the other monsters out there. It was just a matter of knowing where to start.
Suddenly the red demon from the East flashed in Fenn's mind; the poor bloodied beast locked away to die slowly. What had it done to deserve such a fate? Surely it was monstrous like every other demon Fenn had encountered. The boy could picture its terrified eyes peering into his, its desperate claws tugging at his clothes for some sort of assurance. It must've been murderous; cruel and vicious. Why else would it have been locked away?
Shaking the thought away Fenn decided to get into the warmth too. Perhaps joining Colette's side in the socialising would help; they were probably all very eager to meet the famed lover of Beyond's up-and-coming.
The cloudless sky of the Green remained motionless; moonlight tricking down through the reddening trees. An inn was packed to the brim with townsfolk, children huddling around the windows to get a glimpse of what their parents were talking about.
A burly man, hands gloved and a tartan shirt tucked into his gut, unraveled a sac to empty out a mound of bayonets and machetes. The torches pronged to pillars sent off dim light through the men, each person shuffling closer to get a look at all the weapons.
"We've got enough now," the burly man – perhaps the owner of the inn – started. "I thank our neighbours from the east for coming and joining with us tonight. I'll make to it that my wife cooks you all a good meal. But it's time that we start working together. The tribes may still be set off, but us villagers aren't going to sit idly by while those backwards city-folk tear our homes apart! It's time we start coming together as one and take back what is rightfully ours!"
Baritone, manly cheers filled the inn – jugs of mead raised high.
"It's time that we fight back!"
Again the townsmen roared at the innkeeper, satisfied that things were finally going to change and that they'd finally get to bash in some Republican skulls.
Colette held her hand against her forehead to block the rearing sunlight that blasted over the hilltop. The air was frosty from the morning's breath and all around her workers upturned stubborn root systems of leftover stumps and sloughed away the land. Colette had been tasked by her father to overlook an excavation project a few miles east into the Green. A new suburbia was to be added to the ever-growing abyss of slated roofs and identical brickwork. Behind her sat a team of architects and builders; underneath the tarpaulin they crowded around a table covered in blueprints and instructions. Bodyguards, one including Fenn, took a corner of the tarpaulin each.
"Alright, so those trees were a bit stubborn," Colette began as she walked back to her team. "But I think we can really start to get this show on the road now that they're all out. How are we for progress?"
A bearded man in a hardhat looked up politely at the girl, then over at his men.
"We should get the foundations down by the end of the week. We still have to level some of the ground, but once that's down we can start with the plumbing and electricals."
"Good," Colette nodded. "Very good."
Again Colette turned to examine the workers like busy bees take to their duties hastily. She took a walk, Fenn and another tracing behind her like they were assigned to do. She liked when things went right. The atmosphere was exciting; a buzz had filled the air and at any moment it could reach tipping point and chaos could erupt. But Colette smiled. These men were good workers, and they were functioning optimally like a single, cohesive unit. For that the buzz remained at a critical level – things were getting done.
Fenn, treading the mud at a slow pace behind her, could see Colette smile. It was only a crease in what he could see of her cheek but he knew she was enjoying herself. A little smile appeared on his face too, a deep spot in his dimples tingling like he had sucked on a sour lolly. He liked it when she was happy, and the silence between them allowed them to share and revel in this happiness in a simple, uncomplicated way.
Suddenly the sounds of men tumbled like thunder. Colette cocked her head to the direction of the sound; had her men found something of interest? Then, like a mighty wave, a mass of villagers horded the countryside. Pouring out from the surrounding forest their screams loudened like fast-coming rain, their faces dirty with grit.
Smoothly, like a curling wind or dancing branch, Colette reared on her footing while Clandestine soldiers swarmed around her. From its holding by her waist her silver pistol was taken in hand, the roars of bending and bullets filling the area around her. As the countrymen and women enveloped the building site, spearing down or knocking back any Republic enemy, Fenn flicked his arms up in front of his chest. An angry man had lunged at him with a trail of water by his shoulder. Quickly Fenn sucked in a large breath, enough – hopefully – to distract him from the pain the came in his collarbone just on time. Feeling the firepower rush to his palms, trembling furiously like a feverish caged animal, Fenn let it go. The villager's face sizzled upon impact with the crimson mass and he tumbled like a ragdoll across the mud, bowling over his own men too.
Colette, peering over the backs of her guards, spun acutely to the sound of a close enemy, the tiptoes of her heels drilling deeper into the grass. She could make out the villagers from the builders. They were dirty, and their form was poor. Fenn was somewhere nearby too; he was on the outside of their formation. Spotting an opening Colette raised her pistol and decisively snapped the trigger, getting the horrid man square between the eyes. Another scuffle sounded from behind. Colette spun, the handle of the pistol beginning to heat up from her tight grip, made eye contact with a furious, bulky woman and shot her down too.
They were outnumbered. And all the scaffolding was being torn down like a locust plague to a crop. However, Colette remained vigilant – eyebrow cocked, a focused smile pursed against a dimple. The villagers were outmatched, it was obvious. The Clandestines were highly trained, and the construction workers had joined the fight too, most of them had some brute force behind them. It wasn't long until the villagers were taken down and broken, mangled bodies covered the building site – some Clandestine, some innocent workers. A remaining few countrymen who had survived the scuffle were tied to posts, a Clandestine opposite each one.
"You okay?" Colette said as she walked past Fenn.
Fenn nodded, puffed and confused. The villagers were down as fast as they had arrived, yet the damage was severe. His jaw ached at the joint – he remembered being smacked there by a boulder. Things were moving at an immense pace, Fenn couldn't even keep his attention on the pain.
Suddenly a rifle was shoved into his hands while Colette continued her peeved march across the grass.
"Okay, listen up," she boomed, marching past the constricted villagers. "We've tried you for answers, for an explanation. But it seems none of you are willing to speak."
Immediately it became clear to Fenn. An old lady squirmed at her post before him.
"We could have done this a lot worse, but I've chosen to do it the honorable way," continued Colette, gesturing for the rifles to be raised. "You'll face the firing squad now. May you rest in peace."
With a final unamused shrug Colette turned back for her tarpaulin, needing to recalculate the damage.
"Ready," came a voice, as the Clandestines followed suit.
"What?" Fenn mumbled, copying the man beside him and taking the rifle to his shoulder.
"No!" the old lady opposite him screamed quickly, words beginning to spill from her chapped lips. "This won't make it any better! The trees are angry!"
The Clandestines locked their barrels. Sweat began to sting Fenn's scalp as again things started blurring too fast past him. What was he to do? Spare this poor lady's life or prove he was loyal to Colette? 'I don't want to start thinking that your loyalties lies elsewhere.' That's what she said, so this is what she wanted him to do, right?
"They're angry at the Avatar!" the crazy lady continued to squawk, head dropping, legs squirming. "You!"
The two locked eyes, Fenn could see she was trying to save herself.
"All your despair, your pain. All the hardships in your life, they're the fault of the Avatar! Please!"
Suddenly Fenn's heart dropped as Colette's looming threat chilled the back of his neck and the trigger fell upon the order to fire. It was over in a flash, the old lady's blood sprayed out across the dirt. Fenn let go of the empty rifle and looked away from the gruesome sight. He had done the right thing, yet he felt terrible.
As he trudged back to the marquee the lady's words echoed in his head. The Avatar. What the hell was she talking about?
"All the hardships in your life, they're the fault of the Avatar." Was she speaking directly to him and about his circumstances, or was she just speaking generally? All this time Fenn was sure the Smiling-Mask Demon was responsible, but could there really be something else in charge?
Where would he start?
"Colette," Fenn began, smiling at her. "It's a shame about what happened. Are you feeling alright?"
Colette peered up from her spreadsheets and smiled back.
"I'm good, thanks," she replied warmly. "It's put us a bit behind schedule but we should be fine."
She nodded at her boyfriend, gesturing that she had work to get to and couldn't talk.
"Did you hear what that crazy old lady was talking about?" Fenn huffed a laugh, trying to shake off his dread.
"Fenn, I really can't now. Maybe another time?" snapped Colette politely.
"Yeah," Fenn mumbled, nodding gently, ignoring the awkward looks from the builders. "No worries."
Fenn began to walk away, leaving with his head filled with suspicion. Surely the lady was just mentally ill, and was speaking nonsense. Surely. But something inside Fenn was not going to be able to let it go. If this "avatar" thing truly was at fault for everything, then Fenn could not stop until amends were made, would not stop until he knew what he was dealing with.
"Hey Fenn," Colette added, forgetting to smile before looking over at the posts. "You did the right thing today. Good job."
Fenn nodded in reply and smiled back half-heartedly.
At least he was in Colette's good books again; she didn't have to question him anymore. Not that Fenn really cared all that much. Something in his mind was far more pressing, and he had already figured out exactly where to begin.
"And you're sure you're alright?" Tariq spoke into his phone. "Okay, well I want you coming back immediately. You can continue the project later."
A pause as he listened to his daughter.
"Okay. Okay, bye. Love you too."
Banging the phone down Tariq slammed his back onto his chair.
"Well this is just perfect!" he grumbled.
Larkin gave his boss a sympathetic smile, shrugging too.
"They're frequenting, Larkin. We had one, what, two days ago? And there was another in the East?"
"The South, sir," Larkin replied, looking over his clipboard, gravelly voice ill-fitting amongst the luxurious office. "Just last night they attack a part of the northern wall."
"It's just one problem after another, isn't it?" the man sighed, pouring himself a small glass of whiskey.
"Kind of a big one, though, seeing as they seem to be becoming more and more common. What are we going to do?"
Tariq rubbed his chin. He hadn't shaved in a while and brown stubble went against his strokes. He looked up at his Councilman, the reformed Libertarian, and nodded assuredly.
"I'll come up with a solution. Thank you, Larkin, you can go now."
"Yes sir," Larkin replied, taking himself to the elevator.
Almost unnoticeable in the corner Tariq's secretary, Falcon, piped up. Her short brown hair remained still when she moved.
"Yes, sir?" she replied.
"Cancel my 2 o'clock. I've got to figure this out."
"Right away, sir."
And with that Falcon left almost robotically from Tariq's office, leaving him alone with his thoughts. There was a solution somewhere in his brain, he just had to find it.
The chatter was loud in the cafeteria. Clandestine soldiers and scientists, policemen and programmers; the place was alive. They washed past Fenn like slow ghostly blurs, almost invisible to him. For the trip back and night's sleep he could not get the word "avatar" out of his mind. It played at him every waking second, and he was dying to figure it out. Looking out across the crowded tables he spotted immediately the man he wanted to talk to.
"Leroux, hi," he began, unsure what to say.
"Fenn! How are you doing?" Colonel Leroux replied happily, sliding along the bench to make room. "Haven't seen you much since what happened in the East."
From his demeanor it appeared Leroux didn't know the deal between Beyond and the Libertarians, but there was no way to know for sure. In fact, maybe Leroux could not even be trusted for this?
"Oh, sorry, I'm not sitting," Fenn said, shaking his hand. "I've got something to ask you. I need a favor."
Leroux's glasses flashed, his usual cheeky grin growing across his stubble.
"That's not a question."
"Can I borrow your key card again?"
Leroux's smile faded, his back hunching with discomfort.
"I dunno, Fenn. I could get into some serious trouble if anyone finds out," explained the man, beginning to whisper. "Besides, I don't want it to seem like I'm playing favourites."
"Yeah, I'm sorry to put you in this position," Fenn rebutted, determined now to crack the man – though unsure if he should take advantage of Leroux's kind nature. "But I think it's important."
"I think breakfast is important, it doesn't mean I need to know every last detail about it. Has it been okayed by Tariq or Colette?"
Fenn paused momentarily. He could feel the lie press the inside of his lips. He didn't want to lie to Leroux, the man was so nice, but he had to. It was his only option.
"Yeah Colette said go for it. But she lost her key card and is still in the process of getting a new one printed, so she said I should go to you."
Leroux looked at Fenn up and down. It was obvious the boy was lying, but Fenn was harmless. Nodding meekly Leroux took his wallet from his pocket, slipped out his key card and slid it slyly into Fenn's palm.
"Don't be too long, okay?" Leroux grinned up at Fenn, who had proceeded to blush bright red.
He had actually gotten away with it.
"I won't. Thank you so much."
"Don't mention it."
With that Fenn pocketed the card and headed for the lift. He entered it alone and the doors closed slowly. He could feel the card in his pocket, and he rubbed the edges with his finger. With it he knew he'd find something game-changing. And as the lift hummed downwards Fenn could feel a frightening mixture of dread, hatred and excitement overcome his body. All that needed to be typed into the keyboard was "Avatar." For all his questions, the secrets and lies, the answer now was so close. The scar on his collarbone stung.
- The mention of Takeshita Street was a call to the actual Takeshita Street in Tokyo. The author went there last year and it was pretty crazy.
- The Avatar is finally mentioned - but what exactly will Fenn discover?
- This chapter was going to include Fenn's search for information, as well as a second date between Otto and Saffron. The author, however, decided to cut it short because a chapter hadn't been released in ages!
For the collective works of the author, go here.