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Book 1: The Republic
Previously on Gods of War
Fenn has been doing some of his own detective work to find out who tried to assassinate Colette, suspecting a triad to be involved knowing one gang is planning something towards Tariq.
Fenn agreed to help find Otto's friend, who also has been having trouble with triads. In return for his good work Otto gave the firebender some Adrenalin - a highly illicit drug.
Never paying the triads back and stealing a batch of Adrenalin from one, Otto has been fearing for his life.
Chapter Six: The Libertarians
|"They told me I would only live until five. So it just annoys me when I see people give up so easily"|
|— Saffron to Otto|
The dull wall suddenly burst with colour, patterned with zigzags and bands of fluorescence. Cheery music pumped at the back of his head as his entire body shivered ecstatically. Otto cackled like a child and got up to get some water. His mouth felt filled with cotton and a cold glass would revive his spirits even more. He stumbled into the kitchen, music still playing and colours still pulsating against the corners of his vision, and came to the sink. Dirty dishes were stacked upon each other, grime and brown water flowing from the smelly crevasses. It was not a pleasant sight for Otto. It killed the mood.
Nevertheless, he wanted to triumph. If he could find a cup, clean it and pour himself a drink he'd feel glory like never before. He moved aside bowls and plates, their shrill shrieks slicing coldly through the giddy melody; chunks of engorged bread and slippery vegetable scraps sliding over his hand. Otto frowned. The stench of crusted sauce and stewing muck had become a flavor on his tongue. As much as he tried to salivate and chew the insides of his cheeks, Otto could not wash away the taste. He continued though, hoping to see the shiny surface of a dirty, long-lost cup. He grinded his teeth together, his jaw locking, as he found a handle and yanked it out. Dishes and cutlery followed his hand and shattered and clanged on the floor. Jarring sounds echoed through the flat and Otto let out a frightened scream. His vision blurred, then returned to normal, then the sink bulged, collapsed on itself, then his vision returned to normal. Otto took a breath. He could still taste something terrible.
He turned the stiff handle on the sink, and water came rushing out with force, a terrifying hiss baring its fangs at him. Otto pulled though, watching the cup fill and then stopped as the water came to the brim. Carefully he brought the mug to his quivering lips and took a sip. The water, which he thought would taste amazing, sat in his mouth for a bit. He was not accustomed to the taste. Rather than washing away the flavor of smelly dishes, it seemed to magnify it. He slushed it around, thinking it'd help, and then shut his eyes tight to swallow the disgusting mouthful. He poured the rest of the water down then sink, and returned to the lounge room, a gurgling sound seeping away into nothingness behind him, like a thundercloud finishing its spectacle.
The cheery music came back on and the walls, again, started to seep colours; colours Otto never thought had existed. Sitting in awe, Otto watched the dazzling display, mouth unhinged. Things were good, he thought. He was friends with Fenn again, and had not thought of – the triads came to mind suddenly. Maybe they were watching him. Maybe there were cameras set up in his flat. Otto scrambled to his feet and ripped at the couch, pulling out the stuffing. He looked behind the TV, then threw it onto the floor. The smashing sound startled him and he looked up at the ceiling. Blobs of it were dripping down and the cheery music had turned into an intense sound; like a turbine of a starting plane the metallic noise grew and grew faster and louder, sitting heavy at the back of Otto's spinning head.
They were in the kitchen, he was sure. He blasted a gust of air to the kitchen, plates and pans spinning up then clattering across the floor. He ran in, slipped into the bed of shards then pulled open the fridge. He took hold of moldy foods and chucked them away to get a view at the back of the fridge, to spot a camera. There was nothing. He shouted, feeling his skin itch, as if ants were crawling all over him. He screamed again, and the noise echoed in his head droning out into a lower, sickly pitch. He fell to the floor, again into the shattered remains of plates and spilt milk and leftovers. He picked up a shard and started scratching his arm to get the bugs out from under his skin. The sharp edge slipped in like a knife into butter and thick blood oozed out. Otto continued to scratch at the wound with the shard, as the turbine sound grew louder and a drumming was introduced. Suddenly thunder came from the door. He looked up at it, eyes melting from their sockets and heart tangled up in a mess. He was sure death was coming to take him.
The door burst open and Otto fell back, cowering against the sink counter. He shouted something incomprehensible at the two figures that stood before him. They wore matching leather jackets with a fist embroidered on the sleeve and leered from the doorway with a powerful demeanor.
"Look at him, off his nut on Adrenalin," one muttered, clicking his tongue to shame the hallucinating boy.
"Please, I'll give it all back," Otto whimpered, taking some capsules of the drug from his pockets and presenting them. "And I'll pay all the debts back. Please!" The thugs came closer, cracking their knuckles.
"Oh, the boss wants to see you personally," the other said, grinning with menace. "He's gonna have fun with you."
"But don't worry, he said we can do some damage." Otto gulped down a terrified lump before a concrete fist came into contact with his face and he collapsed to the floor. The other gang member started kicking him in the ribs, while the other continued punching his face. He squirmed on the floor, trying to get free – but also trying to make new parts of his body available for pain. The cheery music came back on as blood started to overpower his senses. He could smell it on his bruised skin, taste it on his shattered teeth and see it in his fading vision. The men lifted him up off the floor, punched him one last time in the stomach, threw a bag on his head and hoisted him over one's shoulder.
Otto cried, blood filling up in his eyes like tears, whimpering pathetic pleas to his killers. But it was no hope. They weren't going to listen. And he was going to die.
President Tariq stood on a stage. In the expansive theatre, wings draped with flags and colourful banners, rows upon rows of seats were filled with people, fans, eager to see the man reveal Beyond's latest creation. Tariq stood proud, microphone curled next to his mouth, chest out. He wore his usual white suit. Colette sat at the front row, fingers curled with Fenn's, as she too watched in awe. Fenn smiled. The energy that buzzed in the arena, passion and excitement, was invigorating. He smiled at Colette then continued listening to Tariq's speech.
"And with that, I reveal Beyond's mecha-suit!" Tariq swept back an open palm and, as if by instruction, the curtains behind him opened up to reveal a Clandestine. The man was wearing a sleek suit, something that resembled a wetsuit; made of a flexible, metallic material. The suit came from behind and over his head like a helmet, bearing a holographic screen before his eyes.
"Using the latest in infrared technology, the mecha-suit allows one to scan the environment for otherwise undetected materials. The internet can be accessed and the suit itself is waterproof, and highly heat-resistant. Using macroscopic filaments, the wearer can use the gloves to scale walls as well as sample evidence for forensic testing, all in the palm of their hand." Tariq explained the suits ingenuity as the audience sat in silence, watching the demonstrator climb a wall, as well as other things. Once the demonstration was over, applause filled the arena and Tariq bowed.
"With these mecha-suits, our Clandestines can take better care of the Republic, ensuring the safety of you and the ones you love." Tariq smiled once more for a picture then walked backstage, clamors of adorning, awe-struck fans echoing behind him.
Colette got up from her seat and swayed Fenn's arm, smiling. She was in a cheery mood, happy things were going well for her, her father and Fenn.
"Are you going to come to the launch party?" she asked. Fenn smiled, then shook his head meekly.
"Sorry, I'm on the roster for this afternoon," replied Fenn, kissing Colette's cheek softly. "I would if I could. But I'll see you tonight at mine?" Colette frowned playfully.
"See I cancelled my stuff for tonight, but you couldn't get out of work for this?" She giggled. "It's obvious who the better one in this relationship is." Fenn tickled the girl and she started cackling loudly.
"I told you I tried."
"Okay! Okay, stop!" Colette replied, trying hard to get Fenn's hands away from her sides. "I'll see you tonight then, yeah?"
"Yeah," Fenn nodded, kissing her quickly on the lips before departing away from the stage to exit the theatre. He was happy things were better with Colette. Even though he still had to tell some white lies in terms of demons, they weren't much on his mind anymore. Being preoccupied with finding Colette's assassin, and dealing with Otto's troubles kept his mind busy. And better still was there was no second assassination attempt. From his pocket the boy took out the photo of Otto's friend. He'd study it many times a day, scouring wherever he'd be at the time for the man's face. It had only been two days since he had decided upon finding the man, but Fenn had not much else to do. Leroux gave him small tasks, so he wouldn't 'exert' himself – it seemed the man was still concerned for Fenn's well-being, and Fenn had completed all of them. Searching for the assassin that attempted to murder Colette was near to impossible to do, what with no real starting point, and researching demons was currently not number one on his list – though he still took caution.
Fenn studied the faces of the exiting crowds. They were painted with hungry expressions, and covered by warm streaks of orange from the setting sun. Some men wore glasses, some wore suits – others wore both – but none were the man Fenn was looking for. He made his way from the theatre and down a street following a young couple and another man beside them. He was on his phone.
"Do you want to go out for dinner?" he said, scratching his butt. A pause.
"Just put it in the fridge," the man said to his phone, listening to the reply – probably his wife. "Come on. Don't you feel like going out?" Fenn tried to shuffle between people to get past him, but there was no crack big enough to hurry through. Annoyed the boy crossed the road, pulling up his collar past his neck and checking over his shoulder – another habit he had when around large crowds. Cars and delivery trucks beeped as the chaos of rush hour and dinner time merged into one. Smells from the restaurants and ramen bars hissed from vents as flyers, wrappers and old cigarette butts caked on the ground – over older discarded items. Noise and smells filled the streets as people crossed the busy roads without care for the clustered traffic. It was this that Fenn loved the most about the Republic. Though he had spent some time on the upper, more expensive levels of town, the ground was always the most human.
After squeezing into the nearest ramen bar he found, ordering a takeaway cup of noodles – surprised at the discount he got when the old chef recognised his Clandestine badge, Fenn continued down the heavily clogged streets. As he slurped up the hot broth, vividly dressed girls waved fluorescent toys in his face while humble waitresses offered their restaurant's menus; even when they could see Fenn was eating. Steam cascaded upwards from the alleyways and other stall owners shouted discounts out randomly, hoping someone would hear their prayers and give them their salvation. A fiddler played on the corner and the last rays of sunlight sunk over the looming skyscrapers – a warm night beginning its contenting dance.
Fenn found a spot on a bench – a rarity in these parts of town – and swooped into it. An old lady, layered with parkers and windsheeters, smoked silently on his right while to his left a business man munched on an octopus skewer with one hand, tapping away on his phone with the other – he must have just gotten off work nearby. Fenn breathed in the hot steam from his cup. The salty mist filled his nostrils, and the smoke from the lady's cigarette left a spicy taste on his tongue.
He felt someone shuffle behind him and lean against the fig tree. He was on his phone and, as per usual, Fenn listened in. There was something about stopping and soaking up the atmosphere of others that was enjoyable. It was a simple pleasure that often revealed more endearing secrets than disgusting discoveries. People were happy. And seeing that made Fenn happy.
"Yeah, I just got some dinner," the man behind him replied to the phone. "But I'll make my way over. Where'd you say it was again?" Fenn slurped some noodles and poured some broth in his mouth, mixing it around in his mouth to a hearty blend.
"The docks, yeah I'm not too far from there. Will that be too open?" the man whispered once he got a reply. Fenn swallowed. That sounded shady. Fenn felt the photo in his pocket; it possessed more weight than it had previously. Maybe it had a connection, or maybe whatever the man behind him was talking of was none of Fenn's business. But maybe...Fenn had spent too long now being suspicious of things that it was hard not to discard his doubts. The man left his position and pushed though the crowds. He had slick, dark hair and Fenn could spot a tiny cross stitched on the sleeve. He was part of a triad, that said it. Fenn jumped to his feet, hot ramen splashing onto his pants. He was panicking; he didn't want to lose sight of the crook.
"Ah," he groaned, patting down the hot water and looking around for a place to put the remaining meal. "Here." He shoved the cup into the hands of the statuesque lady, who slowly turned her face to look at him and smiled. She opened her mouth to speak, smoke billowing out.
"Don't mention it!" Fenn said as he ran off after the shady man, leaving the silent old lady speechless forever. He shoved his way into the wandering crowds, frustrated that they weren't as in much a rush as him. He bobbed up and down, keeping the man's slick hair in sight, and weaved through the crowds as if performing some subconscious ballet. Fenn was onto something, even if it wasn't concerning Otto's missing accomplice, it was definitely something illicit – and for that he had to do his duties.
"Excuse me," he said apologetically as he squeezed past the loafing people, stepping on their feet in order to get to a free spot of cement. Once he got out of that particular street, and past a few more – keeping his eyes on his target, the docks were a lot less crowded. The night was dark now, streets and dirty water illuminated by bright street lights, and Fenn slowed down his chase. The triad member looked behind himself, Fenn changing his direction towards the water to appear casual, then came to some gates, pulled the gap wider and squeezed through. Fenn waited for a moment. If the man had seen him, it was no doubt he'd also have some suspicions about a boy stopping to take a look at the harbor – especially from such a quiet, grossly polluted area, not much a scene to marvel at.
Fenn checked his watch. It had been five minutes, ample time, then licked his lips. He could still taste the salt from the ramen, and wished he hadn't left it behind. Not only was he still hungry but it would have made for a better alibi. The warm wind lapped his curse, and the boy pulled his collar down. The flesh underneath the mark was tender, and tingled from the breeze, heating around the edges. He touched it delicately, dabbing it to avoid the pain. From the day he was given the curse, it had spread now more to his chest. Only an inch, but that meant more of his body hurt. He sighed, then coughed – making sure not to dwell on such matters, bringing his mind back to the task at hand.
Fenn made to the gate, and squeezed in just like the man had done so earlier. It seemed that past these gates was a cargo storage area. It was filled with large rectangular containers, dark red and metal; almost maze-like in arrangement. Some were stacked on top of others like buildings and Fenn tiptoed around cautiously. He kept his steps quiet and his breaths slow and soft. He could feel the thuds of his heart drum at the skin of his curse and clenched his teeth, waiting for someone to come out to surprise him.
He could begin to hear chatting and stopped. Looking around he saw a groove in a nearby container and another higher up. If he could get to the top and peek over the small box he would be able to watch the goings on of the triad. He gently gripped the high shaft of metal and put his foot into the lower. Pulling himself up he put the next foot in then used his abdominals to hoist his body over the container. Suddenly his leg slipped and banged on the side of the metal. Fenn froze, his breathing becoming faster and louder. 'What should I do?' he thought. Scrambling to the top would make more, localised noise, while climbing back down would take too long and he'd be discovered. Whatever he'd do, he had to make the decision fast. He stretched out his arms and grabbed onto a groove in the roof and slowly shuffled his torso over the edge. Doing it as quiet as he could he crawled into the shadow of the smaller box and leant in as much as possible.
"No one?" a voice asked. A man, gun pointing outwards, looked down the path. Fenn was sure the man would look up and spot him. He walked around the container then back to the group.
"It was probably just a seagull," the man replied, his voice squeaky.
"Okay..." the first groaned, still guarded in his beliefs. Fenn raised himself carefully and peered over the top, keeping his knees bent in case he had to slip back down to hide. On the docks stood three men, one fat in a tracksuit, the slick-haired man from before, and the skinny one that did the searching – he had yellowy skin and thin, sneaky eyes. On the floor, on his knees was a person with a sac over their head, and hands tied behind their back. The slick-haired man pulled the sac off and revealed the victim.
The victim's glasses were stained with tears, dark brown hair a mess, and a gash on his lip had dried up. His face and eyes were bruised, his cheeks glistening with the sweat from other men's knuckles. His grey business suit was torn at the seams, and the tie was undone in what seemed like evidence of struggle.
Fenn, almost unconsciously, took the photo from his pocket and raised it beside his vision, to match it against the man before him. Sure enough, it was him – Otto's friend. Everything bad seemed to always be connected with Fenn; to some extent Fenn knew he'd see the man's face come from under the sac. It was sort of a relief. But nevertheless he remained frozen, partially from fear, but also to formulate a battle plan. He couldn't charge at them like a hero, it would be three to one – and they were part of triad – from his time in street-fighting Fenn knew triad members were ruthless fighters. He watched, hoping the men would reveal a weakness Fenn could play to his advantage.
The fat man kicked the victim in the ribs, causing him to bowl over and groan in pain. The fat man then picked him up, looked him in the eyes, and punched him across the jaw, throwing him across the wood. The skinny one laughed, shaking on the spot with some manic excitement. Otto's accomplice spat some blood out, a dark red that stained the dock. He held his stomach tightly, as if it could fall from his body at any minute.
"Please," the poor thing spluttered. "I've given you the money. It's all there." The slick-haired man opened the briefcase, of which Fenn presumed had belonged to the victim, and scanned the bundles of notes.
"Oh," he replied, smiling cruelly, golden eyes flashing with hideous delight. "Didn't we tell you? Seeing as it took you so long to repay us, your debt increased with interest." The bloodied man looked up at the men, his eyes swollen with salty tears, mouth pouting – begging pathetically for mercy. "You still owe us twenty thousand."
"No," he replied, spitting more blood to the floor. "I've got a million there. That's all you asked! I had to sell my grandmother's wedding ring for it!" The skinny man growled and skidded, almost a blur, to the victim and produced a knife next to his neck. He pushed against the skin and let out a thin trickle of blood. The man began to cry, clenching his eyes shut so as to not see himself die.
"Min, leave him alone!" the slick-haired man ordered. The skinny man stared down his master, screamed through gritted teeth – obviously annoyed, then kicked their prey down with an outburst of anger.
"Look," continued the slick-haired man. "If you don't want to pay the twenty gees, then you shouldn't have asked for a favor from us. You wanted us to get rid of your wife-"
"I didn't want you to kill her!" the man shouted, his brow crooked with a strange mixture of adrenalin-fuelled defiance and fear. The slick-haired man laughed snidely.
"It's funny how people misinterpret these things." He knelt down to face the man. "And in these next few seconds, let's hope I don't misinterpret anything you should say. Now let me say this again. It's not a matter of if you want to give us the money, nor a matter of how – it's if you will or if you won't. What's gonna be the choice?" Fenn gulped. He had never seen anything like it. The man on the ground was so utterly defeated he could barely hold his own head up, and the brutality of the men was astonishing. He had no idea such scary things existed – he had always heard of the triads, but never imagined they'd carry out their tasks with such cruel teasing.
"What's it going to be?"
"I – I've got ten thousand left in my account. It's all I have left," the man replied, quickly to assure the triad members he was worthy of survival. "Please, just take it and we can be don-"
"-I'm sorry, Nicholas, but that's not enough," the slick-haired man replied, shrugging and reaching into his jacket pocket. Nicholas' eyes widened behind his glasses.
"Please! Please! Ten thousand! That's all I have!" he shouted, spit spurting as he spoke. "I just want to be done with this all!" The fat man and the skinny lifted the collapsed man from his misery, Nicholas' face dripping with heavy tears, lips shiny from bloody drool.
"Please," Nicholas whimpered, before raising his voice again. "Please! No! Please!" The slick-haired man took a shiny silver pistol from his jacket and loaded it. Fenn gasped. His body was stuck to the container – he didn't dare show his face.
"Please! No! Twenty! I can get twenty! I can, by the end of the month! Plea-" A bullet tore through Nicholas and burst from his back, a dry thunderclap from a maddened storm. His pleas echoed into the night and the bleeding body fell with a thud to the ground as the men let go of him, the slick-haired man not even flinching a bit. Fenn slid to his feet and pushed his back onto the box. He clasped his hands together and tried to calm his breathing. He had just seen a man die. He had seen it before on his expedition to the Green – but nothing as intimate. Tears ran down his face, he could still see Nicholas' bloodied body in his vision. Fenn didn't know why he had started crying – he didn't know the man. For some reason the scene he had witnessed had just tore through him, much the same as the bullet that ripped through Nicholas.
Fenn heard a splash behind him and listened as the triad members walked away indifferently – as if nothing had happened. Once he was sure they left, and he had calmed his fretful state down, Fenn climbed off the top of the cargo container and walked to the dock. Nicholas' blood had dried on the wood, except for a large pool that glistened in the cold moonlight. Bits of organs and flesh were in it too, and the man's cologne continued to linger across the warm fog.
Fenn knelt on the jetty and peered into the water, his shoulders still shaking from the trauma. He could see the cadaver sink into the murky depths of the harbor – the poor soul would never be seen again. He looked at his reflection wrinkle and bob in the small waves and suddenly, as if revealed from under a ripple, the Smiling-Mask appeared next to him. Fenn choked on his breath, his lungs clutching onto his boiling heart, and turned around. He was alone. It was just him in the cargo dock. He looked back at the water and the demon was still present, smiling callously at him; ready to cause him more despair. Fenn rubbed his eyes and stood up, walking away from the water's edge then running away. He needed some more ramen – something to soothe his muddled mind. Nicholas' dead face and the mask of his demon enemy flashed before him as he briskly passed happy city-goers. Any one of them could die – it was that easy – or any one of them could be demons, ready to cause innocent people great pain.
The boy decided to skip on the ramen. His stomach was weak and he felt nauseas and light-headed. He needed to lie down and get the images out of his head.
Fenn sits on the grass by the lake, and breathes in the sweet air. He looks out across the water, and sees a girl standing on the water's surface. She has blood painted on her face and a feather in her ear. Her hair is pure as snow. Fenn knows her name, but can't remember it. Behind the girl a building appears, as if from nowhere. It is decorated with an ancient language and painted gold. The curse on Fenn's collarbone heats up and his body becomes ablaze, peaks of orange and vermillion flourishing about him like a whirlwind. He sees a man standing next to him. The man is wearing a blazer and his hair is slicked back. He smiles at Fenn and produces a silver pistol. A bullet races through the air, sounds of ripping metal tearing Fenn's ears, and jabs into the boy's chest. Fenn woke up, covered in sweat. His heart was pounding and he looked around the room quickly to spot any intruders hidden in the darkness. Colette shuffled then woke too, disturbed by Fenn's movement.
"Is everything alright?" she asked, voice croaky with tiredness.
"Um, yeah," Fenn replied. "Bad dream." He got up and went to the bathroom. Moonlight spilled in through the window and he splashed his hot face. Entering back into his bedroom he found Colette sitting on the bed.
"Are you sure you're okay?" Colette asked softly, rubbing her arm shyly. The girl studied Fenn. He was hiding it from her; all she wanted was to hear him say it.
"I'm fine," Fenn laughed, stroking Colette's shoulders. "I just had an intense night." The two stared into each other's' eyes; Fenn's an inspiring gold and Colette's a sultry brown. Fenn smiled and nodded, as if to ask if she understood. She smiled back, nodding slightly so that curls of black, like crashing waves of a midnight beach, bounced beside her pronounced cheekbones.
"What was your dream about?" Fenn croaked, not sure whether to say what he really dreamt or make it up.
"I was in the Green and that girl we met was standing on a lake. That demon building appeared," he paused to see Colette's reaction – obviously irked by the phrase 'demon building.' "Then I caught on fire and this man shot me in the chest." Colette raised her eyebrows. What he had told her just confirmed her suspicions.
"Do you know the man?" she said, pursing her lips – thinking it was a good way to hide her interrogation.
"No," Fenn replied, biting the inside of his cheek as the lie escaped his lungs. Colette shuffled back under the blankets.
"Well, what a strange thing, to get shot at by someone you don't even know."
"Is it?" asked Fenn, getting confused. What was she doing?
"Maybe not," shrugged Colette. "But seeing that girl, and that building you were so caught up in, that's weird. Where'd you come up with that?"
"I didn't come up with it," Fenn said slowly, carefully watching the words that blew over his tongue. He didn't want to reveal to Colette he still believed that demon building existed – when it did; doing so would through away weeks of work he had put into his relationship.
"It was just a dream," he explained bluntly. Colette laughed.
"Just a dream? Dreams are based on life, Fenn, everyone knows that." Colette's eyes twinkled playfully as she continued to pry him open for the secret she knew he was hiding. "So what could it be based off?" Fenn felt his patience snap, a brittle branch half-cooked from a dry fire cracked in two on one's knee, and his mouth, as if it had lost control, opened to expel something he had kept bottled up.
"On demons, I don't know!" he replied angrily. "It's probably based on that building I saw in the Green. It probably means the girl and that building have a link!" Fenn had always believed that savage, tribal girl, Akira was her name, had a connection to the demons. It was just inkling, but he always knew it.
"That's crazy!" Colette responded quickly, screwing up her face like she tasted something foul.
"Call me crazy then!" said Fenn. "But I've always thought it, ever since we returned to the Republic! I've seen things, Colette. And they're signs." Suddenly all the lies Fenn had been telling Colette returned to him and redness filled the expanse of the girl's cheeks. She cackled.
"Oh please, Fenn! Signs?" she hissed. "Don't give me that. You don't think I'd find out?" Colette took her pillow from behind her and squeezed it with rage.
"Find out what?" Their voices started to get louder. Colette threw the blanket off her body and stomped out of bed. She flung open the drawer on her bedside table and picked up the contents.
"These, Fenn!" Colette waved the capsules of Adrenalin around, her eyes filling with contempt and disappointment. Why didn't he tell her anything? She always wondered that. As much as they were close, Fenn was always so distant, and being the only one trying in the relationship was physically exhausting. She was tired. Tired of having to tell her associates her boyfriend was off doing some Clandestine work when he was somewhere dank downing illicit substances and coming up with phony revelations and theories.
"How long has this been going on for?" Fenn's heart sunk into the depths of his stomach. He had never anticipated Colette to uncover the drugs, and had not prepared an alibi. It was time for honesty, even if it was painful to tell.
"I'm helping a friend-"
"-Let me finish," Fenn interjected. "His friend was missing and I agreed to look for him. He just wanted to repay me – he owes me quite a bit. And I found his friend, members of a triad shot him down, the same triad who is trying to assassinate you! They're doing it to get to Tariq!" Fenn caught his breath as Colette shook her head. She had had enough. What rubbish, she thought.
"I know it's hard to believe...Colette?" Fenn asked gently as the girl went back under the covers. A single tear trickled down her face. Never had she thought she'd be in a relationship so messy.
"This relationship doesn't work because you're not honest." At that moment time stopped. Fenn got out of the bed, staring crossly down at the back of Colette's head.
"This relationship doesn't work because you don't trust me." He wiped his eyes, took his pillow and made for the lounge room. The couch was cold from lack of contact and a blaze of neon light cascaded in from the city before him. Fenn tucked his knees to his chest and hugged the saggy pillow. As he stared out at the ads and lights, holographic billboards and passing hovering taxis he felt something prick him inside. It wasn't an emotion. Or maybe it was. It was emptiness – if that can be an emotion. Like the Republic, things between him and Colette were complicated – almost chaotic. He could see it now.
He would go to sleep listening to Colette weep, and in the morning he'd pretend to be asleep while she leaves in the early hours; both of them not knowing what to say, or having nothing left to say.
Otto took a large breath in. As the sac was ripped off his head the light that blasted on him stung his still fresh wounds. Bruises throbbed on his face, and he could only see from one eye, the other was swollen like a plum. Hordes of angry-faced men and women, grit on their cheeks and evil in their eyes, swarmed around the dazed boy as if he were famous. Otto coughed, his lungs aching each time he did – he was sure a rib was broken. A man came through the crowd. His tousled hair was mousy in colour and his yellowy teeth were out of line. He stroked his unkempt chin. As the man got into the light Otto could see the man's face was covered in scars – old and new. And he was huge. He was a rectangular slab of meat, all muscle, no fat, and no fear. He lifted a small bag and poured out the contents onto Otto's lap.
"We've got the drugs back," the man began, his voice graveled almost beyond comprehension. "But not the money." Otto whimpered as he felt the last capsule of stolen Adrenalin land on the pile on his legs.
"How are we going to settle this?" Otto swallowed some blood in his mouth and then spoke.
"I'm." He decided to pick up his pace. "I'm still working on it, a friend is helping get it all together, so if you only give a bit more time, I can just-"
"-Time?" the man spat. "Time? Boy, we don't have time! I've got something in here," the man tapped his forehead, "and it can't wait any longer! My name is Larkin, not Patience!" The triad members behind the man cheered and Otto's eyes widened with crippling fear. He was talking to Larkin, the most notorious leader of triads, don of the Libertarians. He saw the fist emblazoned on Larkin's denim sleeves, his fear now ringing true. Larkin could see the boy recognise him, and he relished the fear the exuded from the kid's body.
"So if you can't give me the money now, where's your use?" Larkin shouted suddenly, putting a gun between Otto's eyes. Otto shrieked, tears dribbling from his clenching eyes.
"No!" he pleaded. "I can give you what's left!" Larkin shook his head, and loaded the gun. Otto again cried. Tied to the chair he was unable to duck or squirm. He was completely helpless.
"Please! I – I." Otto started choking on his tears, shaking under the ropes that constricted him. "I'll give you my apartment! You can sell that!" Larkin pouted, mockingly, and shrugged.
"I'm afraid that just won't do." He pulled the trigger back slowly and Otto screamed out for all his worth. His throat was torn up with a hoarse cry and tears splashed out in heavy plashes down his cheeks, all in a matter of seconds.
"I'll work for free!" Otto screamed, thinking he could give one final compromise. But it was too late. The trigger snapped into place and the blood in Otto's heart curdled.
Laughter filled the room as Larkin threw the gun down on the floor, staring down at the pathetic body in front of him. He cackled and held the boy's chin in his rough hands, lifting the head up so he could speak directly to him.
"He fell for it! Oldest trick in the book! All my men do it! So you can't give me money, boy. That's a shame. But free labor. That's something I can work with!" The man's warm breath covered Otto's face as the boy, realising the gun was never loaded, sobbed.
"Normally I wouldn't accept," Larkin began, walking around the space with his hands behind his back ponderously. "But I need as many men as I can get my hands on. So consider yourself lucky." Otto never once considered himself lucky, and still didn't.
"Why?" Otto groaned. "What for?" Larkin laughed and turned to face the bloodied Airbender.
"Where do you think you are, Otto Tinchen?"
"A warehouse?" he replied. "Maybe a biscuit factory?"
"This is no biscuit factory!" Larkin shouted back, seemingly offended. "It's a warehouse, yes-"
"-So I was right?" Otto smiled, subtly enjoying playing with the man.
"You're in the Eastern Domain, you little shit! Stop being a smartass!" Larkin punched Otto's jaw and the boy's head swung sharply on its joint. He spat blood out, regretting what he had done, and it dribbled down his scuffed chin.
"I've got plans. And you'll be part of them. So keep your stupid mouth shut and follow instructions, or next time I'll make sure to blow your fucking brains out." And with that Larkin spat on Otto and walked off. The boy took a stiff breath in with what was left of his battered lungs. The air was cold and stifled the beats of his palpitating heart, and tasted awful. He did not utter anything. Something inside him was gone –dignity, maybe. Hope. Happiness, there was no laughter here. His bruised skin shivered from the absence as his eyes leaked small, insignificant tears. He exhaled; perhaps it would expel the hapless feelings he was being swallowed up in.
Love. That was it. That was what had gone. And Otto was certain it would not come back for him. He even considered he didn't deserve it.
Warm light from the autumn sun was cast down from waning clouds. Otto watched his feet move rhythmically as he walked down an old street. He and some other Libertarians were given the task of finding some points along the Domain wall that could serve as possible escape points – for an event Otto was still not familiar with. Most of the wall was behind customs facilities, but around the eastern face the wall connected to parts of the suburbs. These areas weren't all that pretty, terraces clumped together all painted grey or built of dull brickwork, but pleasing aesthetics wasn't part of Otto's job. The group separated from the main road and down roads that ended at the wall – there were many. Otto went by himself, keeping his eyes on his feet. Unhappy he kicked a can down the length of the street and booted it at the wall. It bounced back and hit him in the face.
"God dammit!" he hissed to himself, holding his throbbing nose. He punched the metal wall with a scathed fist and then paused. The pain was unbearable. He knelt down and curled up, biting down on his tongue. He didn't scream out, though. Partially because he didn't want the Libertarians knowing he was messing about, but mostly because he didn't feel it necessary. He didn't think many things were necessary now that he joined the triad. Showering, getting a good sleep, smiling – these were all things that had lost value.
"What are you doing?" came a voice from behind him. He jolted around, thinking it would be an angry Libertarian coming to discipline him, but fortunately it was just a girl. She was tall and slender, and wore a cotton dress white like the purest silk. Her eyes were a magnificent blue. Of everything, her hair was the most striking. Otto had never before seen blonde hair – at least not naturally – and it fell gently over the girl's shoulders like layers of golden thread.
"I'm, I," Otto spluttered, lost in her shimmering hair. "I kicked a can in my face." Otto got up, and turned to the wall, banging on it and listening for a hollow spot. The girl coughed and hacked violently then contained herself.
"You should probably go," Otto said bluntly, still facing the brown wall, tapping it softly. Seeing such a beautiful girl was the world's way of teasing him, he could feel the universe stabbing him in the heart.
"You just like tapping walls, then?" she continued. A huff of laughter came from the boy, and the girl giggled too, then coughed.
"It's my job." Otto walked into the centre of the road and continued tapping.
"Yeah. Sort of." Otto wanted her to leave. She was too pretty to be around.
"Then shouldn't you be wearing a flouro jacket? And a safety hat?" Otto stopped his work and turned to her.
"Look, you seem like a good person. So you really shouldn't get caught up with me," he explained. "It'll all go downhill." The girl's smile slowly curved downwards, the redness fading from her cheeks.
"So it's serious?" Otto nodded in reply and turned back around.
"Triad serious. Does that help?" Otto snapped. There was a pause and only the sound of a breeze passed between them.
"What happened?" the girl asked after she allowed Otto to cool down. Otto sighed.
"I stole some drugs, and owe them a ton of money. But – since I'm good for nothing – I couldn't repay them, and now I work for them for free, I sleep on the floor and still get beaten up every night. So if you could just leave me alone-"
"-To pity yourself?" the girl interrupted, her thin eyebrows raised.
"I think I have the merit to."
"And that'll make things better?"
"You're just full of questions, aren't you?" Otto said, turning around angrily to face the girl. She looked at him matter-of-factly, waiting for an answer. "It's not going to get any better." Otto went to the next segment of the wall and started banging it. The girl skipped over, following his footsteps, and leant on the wall. She peered inquisitively at him, and coughed up some mucous into a handkerchief. Otto looked at her, and saw that her handkerchief was stained red. Their eyes locked and she pocketed the handkerchief and smiled.
"I was born with bad lungs. I have trouble breathing, and cough up blood," the girl explained. "They told me I would only live to five." Otto's eyes widened and a warm rush went down his spine, sending goosebumps to his arms.
"But look at me, I'm sixteen now. And when the doctors told me I shouldn't bend, I still did. And still can without having to stop and catch my breath." She sat down on the curb and Otto did too; as if something was urging him, pulling him down to her. She smiled.
"It just annoys me to see people give up so easily." The corners of Otto's mouth quivered.
"I don't have anything left, though. What is there to look forward to?" The girl pointed to the sky, her golden locks swaying in the breeze.
"It's a beautiful day. And there'll be more. You have those to look forward to. There's a whole world to explore, isn't that exciting?" Otto nodded and scratched his head. A scab on his temple throbbed when he touched it.
"I can't just pack up and say, 'sorry guys. I'm not part of this anymore. Oh and FYI, I'm not paying you back.' It's not that simple," replied Otto. The girl rocked forward, overcome with laughter, causing Otto to grin.
"It is though!" she said. "This part of the wall has no customs facility. On the other side is the rest of the world." Otto looked at the girl, silver eyes shimmering with the good knowledge she had just given him. He craned his head up, squinting at the sun, and stared at the wall.
"Really," he muttered to himself, salivating at the thought of freedom. Just as sunlight trickled slowly and sporadically through darkening clouds, hope – itself a source of light – could be felt empowering Otto's body and the corners of his mouth curved only just.
"Otto," he said, smiling wholeheartedly now at the girl. "The name's Otto Tinchen." He put out a hand and she returned the gesture by shaking it gently, her big blue eyes quivering with admiration.
"Pleased to meet you, Otto," the girl began jokingly formal. "I'm Saffron Lang." Saffron. The fragrance instantly filled Otto's nostrils. As the smell increased before him he could taste it on his tongue and as he continued to look at the girl's beautiful features – meek but full lips, captivating eyes, supple, pearly skin and golden hair – Otto all but wondered, yet somehow was certain of it, if Saffron's lips tasted like the spice. He blushed and so did she when they both realised they were staring at the other for too long.
"Well," Saffron coughed, nervously flitting her eyes about. "Let's see if we can get you up and over this wall and out of this bad situation."
Shaking his head in refusal, though mostly doing so to appear gentlemanly, Otto replied, "Again, you shouldn't get caught up with me. If they find out you helped me, well, I don't know. Break your knees maybe or some other form of maiming." Saffron giggled then held her chest to suppress an upcoming cough of blood.
"I think we'll be fine. There's nobody around."
"They're on the street parallel," Otto rebutted, putting down the girl's raised arms. Saffron pulled them from his grasp and smiled at him. In her eye was a twinkle of exciting hunger, playful yet mighty it glistened like quick, crystal lightning before her eyes returned to their usual calm and quiet state.
With a skip in her step Saffron stood before the boundary wall, her arms extended loosely in front of her body and hands at shoulder-height, and confidently said, "I guess we'll just have to be quick." Otto, speechless, did not want his time with her to be quick. She had lifted his sunken spirits and, if he dared to even think it in case karma came to ruin it, was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She was something different to the other derelict girls he had met; she had youthful vigor, she was clean, she was kind and above all optimistic. It was refreshing to see someone so energised by the simple, yet simply gratifying, things the world offered.
Saffron's wrists flicked upwards and two slabs of stone rose from the road. She hopped to the left and raised two more pillars, this time a few steps smaller. Continuing along the road more pillars were torn from the ground to produce a makeshift staircase. Roars of tearing earth, a deep warning of some giant, wild beast, rolled down the empty streets and as rubble flicked up past a motionless Otto, the boy's heart only contorted more. He no longer wanted to leave the Domain; if he could see Saffron here he could deal with working for the Libertarians. They would become nothing but a chore to him. Suddenly it felt as if he was slapped in the back by a powerful hand. Otto dropped to the asphalt, his cheeks scraping against the warm grit and rocky debris cascading beside his head.
Saffron snapped around and Otto could clearly see the fear in her widened eyes. The Libertarians were here, he knew it – his sinking heart confirmed it, and they had caught wind of his escape plans. More rocks were fired over head and, still uselessly winded on the ground, Otto watched as Saffron ducked from the perilous attacks. Otto sniffed up the dusty air, hoping the intake would surge some power through his limbs, and lifted his legs up. With his spine still stiff from the blow and his back muscles throbbing Otto twisted his raised legs to create a surge of spinning wind. As he lifted his torso the air gushed under and flipped him to his feet, facing the goons with a fat, unimpressed and determined frown.
Releasing the tension in his back Otto swiped an arm down, letting the air around him propel quickly towards a menacing man and knock him onto another. Saffron took a stance next to him, slashing her arms horizontally, slabs of rock coming off the top of the pillars and jetting into Libertarians. Ducking from a surge of fire Otto lifted both his arms, leant back then pushed out with all his might a giant gale. The bellowing wind thundered down the road, knocking goons off their feet seamlessly as if they were pins in a bowling alley. The Libertarians that protected themselves with a wall of stone stomped their feet on the ground and launched said walls towards Otto and his female accomplice. Saffron, out of breath from her condition and clutching her sides, had her head down, trying hard to hide the tears from the boy she fancied, unaware of the fatal projectile that was hurtling towards her.
Blinking twice, his mind urging him to stay out of the way but his heart telling him to do what was right, Otto slipped in front of Saffron and blasted as much air as possible at the oncoming wall, hoping he could slow its speed. As much as he put his heart into it, the momentum of such a hefty attack overpowered the boy and the stone wall crashed into him head on. Tumbling side wards Otto's eyes stung from the blood that trickled from his head and his floppy body was only capable now of admitting defeat. As his eyes began to roll backwards, ears fixated on Saffron's screams – to get any indication of her being given mercy, darkness flooded his vision and soon he felt nothing but the frightened thuds of his beaten heart.
Saffron. Though he was unconscious, Otto was certain he could still smell the exotic spice. And as the last of his awareness faded into a hollow, inky pit, Otto promised to himself that he would one day find out if Saffron's lips did indeed taste like saffron.
Night time was at its peak. Heavy darkness, as if shadows cast from the frightened stars above, held itself over the Eastern Domain; disturbed only by the small glows of street lights and the hypnotic rhythm of nocturnal insects. Bodies leapt over the roofs of the sleeping citizens and crept under the sills of windows avoiding any possible authoritative sight. Faint echoes of finger signals being given creaked like an old door inching open and pattering footsteps were muffled by the encasing sense of peace that the masses went to sleep with.
At the centre of the Domain was the castle, once the home of the Earth King now the workplace for the Earth Councilman and his men. It stood proud and powerful; a red might seemingly undefeatable. Guards patrolled the entire perimeter, holding firearms or hands at the ready to cast some bending. The shadowy figures took their distant positions; some clicking objects to another while others keep vigilant posts around them. So far so good.
Once all the silencers were fixed to the guns the figures took their spots and cleaned out the guards with no sound emitted but the interrupted screams of the dying men. Once everyone got the all clear that each side of the castle was dealt with, the figures tiptoed, heads ducking and eyes on alert, to the castle. From the back a troupe scaled the wall and entered via the glass roof, lowering themselves in to shut off the security alarm. Again, things were running smoothly. Each squadron now entered the castle, tearing down the wall with some simple earthbending. Astonished guards came pouring out from the inside; easily taken care of in silence.
Larkin stepped over a dead man, his silky blood glimmering in the sickly moonlight that spilled in through the entrance hole. Unfazed by the bodies around him Larkin continued down the wide hall, his brown eyes brazenly casual and a wicked smile growing across his bristly chin. He raised a fist as his people followed in silence then took hold of an Eastern Domain banner and tore it down from the wall as if it were an act of defiance, a heroic display of liberation. The gold pole clanged on the marble floor and the echo – a shriek of terror, a plea for mercy – rung down the hallway.
Larkin pushed open two wide doors and strode into the throne room. A long time ago the Earth King would sit in this room, on the golden throne, and delegate his matters from here. Now it was just a tourist attraction but nevertheless Larkin's steely gaze remained transfixed on the throne. It'd be a symbol of his overthrowing. He sat in it, grimacing now with wide, feral eyes, and clenched with dirty fingers onto the railing.
"Secure the perimeter and let them in," he said, soaking up the moonlight as if it were vital blood, licking his lips for such a taste.
Crisp bangs and shots woke Saffron up immediately. She had not slept well. Ever since she had met that Otto boy and watched him get dragged away by brute-faced men and women Saffron couldn't stop thinking about his fate, her fate and to some extent the fate of her city. But the sounds she heard from outside her terrace house became that chilling confirmation. That things were going to change, that something was not right.
"Mum?" she said, voice shaky with worry, as she cautiously pulled away her sheets. No reply. Her blue eyes, as if an ocean, began watering but she bit her tongue knowing panicking would make her reckless. She took some quick breaths in and out then rolled out onto the floor with a dull thud. Gunshots continued outside and Saffron kept quiet to hear for her family. She dared not to breathe. There were enemies out there, and maybe if they knew someone was in here they'd kill her. Uncontrollable tears dribbled from her eyes as her breathing became like whispers to the carpet.
"Mum?" she said again, this time hardly audible as her face wrinkled and she cried even more.
"Stay down William," said her father's voice, muffled through the walls. Saffron's head jolted up. They were still alive. She scrambled to her feet and put her hand on the door handle. Suddenly a boom went off and Saffron fell to the floor as the entire house shook. Tanks, Saffron thought to herself. What was going on out there? A war?
She got to her knees following the sound of her mother's crying down the hallway and saw them crouching under the kitchen table; petrified and faces stained with tears.
"What's going on?" Saffron muttered, body still with the confrontation. She had never seen such distraught looks on her family before – her father, usually so relaxed and powerful, had his arms wrapped around his wife and son and his eyes were shaking with fear.
"Just get down," her mother whimpered. More gunshots and screams of men came from the front door. Saffron turned her curious head to the door. With such gruesome noises coming from outside it was as if they were at the gates of Hell.
"Saffron, get over here now," said her father sternly.
"Just get down," the mother sobbed.
"Just wait." Going against her frozen body and letting her curiosity lead the way Saffron ran forward hoping the outside sounds would cover her loud footsteps.
"No!" cried her mother, thinking one hundred percent that her daughter was going to die in the next few moments.
"Saffron get down!" Saffron's father shouted, getting up and running frantically after his daughter. The gunshots got louder as Saffron neared the door and machine guns, like sped up drums, racketed through the air.
"Saffron! Get down!" her father yelled, voice becoming raspy from terror. Tears began to stream down Saffron's face as she clasped her head and turned into the lounge room.
"No, no. No," she whimpered, choking on her tears and making for the window. She had to see it. She needed to. It was as if it was imperative to her survival, or her sanity. Was her street in ruin? The street that she had lived on her entire life. Would all the good memories be blown to bits and stained with blood? And worse still was that Otto came to mind. The sound of his tapping on the metal wall rang in her throbbing head. Was it his job to find a spot to bring the enemy in? Was it his fault?
She pulled the curtain open only crack, peering through with a delirious eye when suddenly a tank blasted.
"Saffron! Get down!" Her father scrambled to her, having tripped a few seconds before from clumsy panic, then wrapped his arms around her waist and yanked her from the window just as the explosion shattered the window. The two rolled across the lounge room floor, letting the explosion take them on its course, hugging each other as if it were their last. Bright morning light spilled in and the house shook on its foundations. From her position on the floor and through squinting eyes, Saffron could see Eastern Domain soldiers in uniform fighting off hordes of people. They all had fists emblazoned on them, some even had it painted on their faces; but it was the same symbol she saw on the people that took Otto away, the same symbol stitched to Otto's jumper. She pushed her face into her father's warm, somehow safe, chest as the sounds of warfare drowned out the family's crying.
It wasn't soon before the Libertarians overpowered the Domain's forces and the city's army was forced to retreat and surrender. Deeming it safe enough to get up, after almost half a day of staying on the ground with her father, Saffron crawled to the window. As she looked down the street what was left of the air in her lungs was sucked right out of her.
Walking down the road with Libertarians pointing guns at him was the Earth Councilman. His family wasn't with him, no soldiers, no generals or officials. Other gang members followed, cheering proudly at the one-man parade. Led to the gaping hole in the metal wall the Councilman was shoved out to the other side and escorted into the Green. The hole was then sealed with stone and a large horde of Libertarians were placed on either side of the wall to make sure no earthbenders would try and be a hero. Their leader was gone; it was hard for Saffron to say. Their leader was gone and now their city was ruled by someone new – the leader of the Libertarians; probably an awful, awful man Saffron thought.
Larkin sat on his throne and gulped down his last mouthful of beer. Yesterday he had taken the position, defeated the Eastern Domain army and forced the Councilman out into the Green and now he was feeling on top of the world. A goon came in, slender body, slick-backed hair and sunglasses. He bore a concerning frown.
"What is it?" grumbled Larkin, resting his fingers on his handgun so as to intimidate the man.
"Well sir," the goon nervously began. "The guerrilla attacks of the Domain army have been frequenting at our strongholds. They've taken a lot of supplies and though we have more men, we have more casualties too."
"What are you trying to say?" Spit came from the cracks between the man's unruly, grimy teeth and his eyes bulged with a daunting ferocity.
"Well – um – sir, we just don't want to expend all our forces here, with the East. Maybe it'd be a good idea for you to carry out the – um – second part of your plan? So that we could still have a chance?" Larkin cracked his blistered knuckles and stood up.
"You saying you don't believe in your fellow Libertarians? That we can't pull this off?" Larkin growled, eyes wide with a tenacious, nay psychotic, playfulness. "Worse still, you think you can tell me how to do my job?" Larkin whipped his gun from its holster and fired two shots into the goon's belly. As blood gushed out the man looked at his boss with shocked, saddened eyes before collapsing dead onto his back.
"Anyone else want to tell me how to run this thing? You doubt my capabilities?" Silence. "Good." Larkin sat down and wiped his gun lovingly on his shirt.
"Now, send a message to the Republic, to Tariq personally," he continued. A scribe came closer for a better listen with a pen at the ready. "Tell him, that I declare war. That I declare war on the great empire of the Republic. And that I wait excited for his reply." The man cackled a deep, throaty laugh before slouching into the throne to examine his gun more closely.
"I declare war," he repeated to himself, mulling it in his mouth like vintage wine. "I. Declare. War."
For the collective works of the author, go here.