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|The Social Experiment|
19 August 2013
You'd be surprised how comfortable hay is when you haven't even seen a bed in almost a week. For six days I'd been trying to find the capitol city, but that place is harder to find than Commissioner Long's penis. The only thing even close to civilization I'd come across is an old, abandoned barn that looked like it was ready to topple over if someone even breathed on it. Somehow, after I finished up at the general's base, I managed to go leave the forest in the direction of absolutely nothing. I could have either gone back into the town I came from or into the rural Fire Nation, and I went the latter. Figures. On the bright side, my hunting skills had improved tenfold, but that didn't negate the fact that food had become scarce in the last two days. There were times when Nightmare and I had to compete to catch a lone elephant rat. Your only means of transportation isn't a good enemy to have, especially when it can snap your spine like a stale cracker. His head perked up, and he glared at me with his usual grimace. He was hungry, and I wanted to change that before my head started looking like a juicy steak.
I clutched my blood-stained dagger in my right hand and gently pushed open the wooden barn door, allowing sunlight to poor in. The rusty hinges creaked until they cracked and the door fell flat on the ground. "Looks like this was my last night staying here."
The dry, barren field surrounding the barn seemed to go on forever without any sort of life in sight. The prospects of my survival were not looking good, which prompted me to ask myself If a slave dies in the woods, and no one is around to care, does it make a difference?
With that in mind, I seriously doubted that anything was caught in the snare I set up the night before. I let out a long, heavy sigh on my trudge to the other side of the wooden deathtrap, but it turned into a gasp when I noticed an unfortunate rabbitcoon whimpering and pleading for its life. "I don't know where you came from, but I know where you're going," I told him, pointing to my stomach." I skinned him properly, put him on a stick, and slow roasted him with my fingers. Then, I cut him in half and split him with my beloved pet. "Can I get you some dessert or tea?" I asked Nightmare sarcastically before realized that I've spent days either talking to myself or an animal. Am I going insane? I think I'm going insane. Who wouldn't at that point? I had been forced to kill way too many times, and I was doubtful that I was even close to finished. For the meantime, however, I wanted to figure out where the rabbitcoon came from. Those things typically hung around villages or cities, scavenging from people's trash. What was it doing in Nowhere, Fire Nation? The mystery pressing my mind, I straddled Nightmare and tugged on the reins. Squinting, I looked off into the distance and noticed the faint silhouette of a mountain range. Was there guaranteed civilization in that direction? No, but it was my best shot.
The sun's intense rays beat down on the back of my neck, and after pondering my chances with sunburn and heatstroke, I decided to throw on my hooded robe. I could feel my throat drying up. Of course, on the hottest day of the year I was somewhere without any trees. I still couldn't see any signs of- I'll be damned. Ahead of me sat two parallel rows of run down, beat up structures, forming one Hell of a blink-of-an-eye town. A few unimpressive townspeople meandered around the lone street, and as I got closer, most of them took one look at Nightmare and backed off. I kept a cool head while dimwitted mothers yanked their kids away from me. "I don't bite," I said to one. "And neither does he... mostly."
"I'm telling you! They're real!" My attention was drawn to a frail old man drunkenly stumbling across the dirt street. "They're as real as you or me!" He took hold of people's arms as they passed by, only to be shoved away and scoffed at. "You guys have to believe me!" He was clearly obsessed with something, but no one wanted to hear any of it. His curly gray hair went down to his shoulders and his scraggly beard was so gross and unkept I swear he could've had bugs living in it.
A boy around fifteen years old walked up beside me, probably noticing that I wasn't a local. "That's Mabuk," he stated matter-of-factly. "My parents told me to stay away from him."
I didn't look at the kid. My eyes were fixated on this man, Mabuk. "He the town drunk?" I inquired dryly.
"Mom calls him the town oracle, sarcastically though. She says he's always trying to warn us of some impending threat or doom."
"Hmph," I chuckled. "What's he warning you about now?"
The boy shrugged. "I dunno. Something about secret killers."
Mabuk's eyes darted right at the boy and he hobbled towards him. "Oh they're more than just killers! They're- they're... assassins! Loyal only to the Fire Lord himself!"
I was taken aback by his sudden declaration, and I bit my lower lip in nervousness. The government obviously wasn't doing a great job keeping us secret if some hobo was ranting about us.
The kid laughed in the man's face. "You're out of your mind, old man!"
"You better respect your elders," snarled a red-faced Mabuk. "One day you'll all be sorry you didn't listen! One day-"
"That's enough, Mabuk!" An intimidating man with a coiled robe on his hip jumped into the scene. "Get on now! Scram!" he ordered.
Mabuk sneered and shambled to the side of the street. "I'm done with you people! I give up!"
"That's right!" The man stood up straight in triumph. "Head back into the pub where you belong!" He then turned to me. "I'm sorry about that, Miss. He usually doesn't stir up too much commotion."
"I've seen much crazier," I replied. My mind was still racing after that display. Am I compromised?
"Bet you have. Where are you from?" Before I could answer, he continued. "Where are my manners? My name is Chifu. I'm sort of our default leader here at The Road."
"The Road? That's what you call this place?" Chifu nodded proudly. "I like that." I smiled and then it was back to business. "I don't need much, but thank you for the trouble." With that, I hopped off Nightmare and walked him over the saloon Mabuk entered. I tied the mongoose dragon to a wooden beam before I went in and saw my person of interest sitting with his back to the door, hunched over at the bar.
Not even two seconds went by before the whistling and hollering started. Men are pigs.
"Boys! Control yourselves!" A plump elderly woman cleaning tables stared down the patrons who were bothering me, and they shut up.
"Sorry Aunt Oba," muttered one of the men as they all resumed their regular business.
The woman rolled her eyes and looked at me. "They call me Aunt Oba. Nice to meet you. If you're thirsty just go sit yourself at that bar over there and my husband Uncle Oji will fix you up."
I took the barstool next to Mabuk and twiddled my thumbs for a moment before Oji walked into the scene from a room in the back. He was bigger than I expected and had to duck to fit through the doorway. "Always nice to see a new face," he said with a grin. "Can I get you something?"
"I'm just here to see a friend." I waited for the bartender to leave again to confront Mabuk.
"What were you talking about outside?" I asked, nearly breathing down his neck.
He grunted. "You mean you actually care about what I have to say?"
"Yes. I do."
"Well..." he took a moment to collect his thoughts, and I questioned myself for trying to gather information from a drunken lunatic. "There are these... people," he said.
"People who kill?" Playing dumb has never hurt anyone, right?
"They're the Fire Lord's personal assassins. They kill any enemy he wants to see gone, and they do it in the shadows where no one can see them."
"If no one can see them, how do you know they exist?"
Apparently, my question was funny to him as he retorted with a belly laugh. "Because they mess up every now and then! And when they do..."
"When they do, what?"
"Then the Fire Lord just," he burped, "does away with them. Throws them away. Discards them. When you're done using something you throw it in the trash, right?"
I tried to mask the concern in my voice. "You think he's just using them?"
"Oh I know he is!" He gazed at me, and I noticed that he was missing a few teeth. He also had a horrible lazy eye. "He uses them like his pawns. And he... promises them things."
"Promises them things?"
"Yeah. Money, power, glory... freedom." My heart sank as he explained his theory. He looked deep into my eyes, exhaling heavily with drool dripping from his mouth. "So," he started with a wide grin, "What did the Fire Lord promise you?"
I nearly vomited as an icy chill rushed down my spine, and I was barely able to speak. "What?" I trembled.
In response, Mabuk threw his head back cackled in my face like a madman, kicking his feet back and forth in excitement. Other customers looked over, and Aunt Oba shot us both suspicious glance. I could envision myself, pale as a ghost in horror of being caught. Compromised. Exposed. Without knowing what to do, I stood up and left abruptly, saying nothing else to anyone. I paced around outside the pub for a few moments, unsure if I should see Mabuk as a threat that needed to be eliminated or someone whose claims of secret assassins would be disregarded by everyone he told. Ultimately, I untethered Nightmare and ducked into the small alleyway between the pub and the next door building, where I concealed myself behind a couple of fish barrels. There, I would wait. And when Mabuk left, I would-
"Found ya!" I shrieked and knocked over one of the barrels when the crazy man startled me from behind.
"What do you want?" I demanded, flashing my dagger.
Mabuk backed off and waved his arms. "Whoa! I don't want any trouble. No Ma'am, no trouble at all from me!"
I sprang to my feet and narrowed my eyes sharply. "You're gonna tell me everything you know about this secret web of assassins."
His eyes widened and he licked his chops before looking back and forth and leaning in close. "If you really want to know everything," he whispered, "meet me by the pond at the edge of The Road tonight." I opened my mouth to reply, but the man laughed and skipped away. I really had no choice after that but to listen to him, even if it felt odd to seek knowledge from a man who was completely bonkers. Then again, competence is such an exotic bird that I admire it whenever I see it, even if it's just a glimpse.
From what I could tell, it was only about noon, which meant I had a lot of time on my hands to sit with my back against the wall and try to process everything that had happened to me since my father was killed. How many people have I killed, I thought. The messenger, the guard outside Chang's base, the maid, and Chang. That makes four. I bit my lip and a single tear fled from my eye. Three of those people didn't really deserve death, and I wasn't even sure if Chang did either. He committed high treason, but against the slimiest, most vile dirtbag in the country. Isn't that what my father was killed for too? If I killed Chang, did that make me as bad as Commissioner Long? After that thought, it was impossible to hold back the tears. Don't cry you pussy. I had to convince myself that my conscious was clear. Chang had a choice. He was at a crossroads, and he chose to be a wolf. If only he had been a good little sheep like he was supposed to. He'd be alive. It's his fault, I assured myself.
It took a few hours of worrying about others before what Mabuk said in the pub really sunk in and I realized that I was in jeopardy. What did he mean by Sozin throwing away Shepherds like they were trash? Don't get me wrong, I never fooled myself into thinking that the Fire Lord cared deeply for my well-being, but would other Shepherds be... killed without even receiving what they were promised?
My thoughts were interrupted when I heard something scuffling behind me, but when I retrieved my knife and spun around, no one was there. No... Someone was there... "Where are you!" I bellowed to the nothingness in fear and desperation. "Show yourself!" What is happening to me? I must have gone from hardcore badass to paranoid schizophrenic in a matter of days. Maybe a rat was just passing by or-
When I woke up, the sun had already gone down, and Nightmare seemed to be getting impatient. I concluded that I must have fallen asleep, which was a good thing as I wasn't feeling up to waiting all day for sunset. "You ready to go buddy?" He may have been a cold-blooded lizard, but at least he was the kind of best friend whose father doesn't burn down your house and tear apart your entire family.
I could feel the stiffness in my body as I slowly got up and stretched my legs. Yawning, I examined The Road. Oddly, there wasn't a soul to be seen. I expected to see spot activity when I strolled past Oba and Oji's place, but I couldn't hear a peep. I almost felt as though I had to keep silent in order to not wake anyone up, except this time I wasn't a mischievous pre-teen girl trying to sneak out and meet boys. This time I was meeting a deranged drunk to learn about a secret society of "shepherds" who ride around the country on mongoose dragons to kill people, nothing crazy.
The pond was bigger than I expected, cleaner too. It was illuminated by pretty candles floating atop lily pads, and in the glowing water I could see orange and white koi fish swimming about their business.
"Nalia." I jumped when a deep voice called my name.
"Who are you?" I whipped around and drew my knife only for it to be kicked out of my grasp by a man I'd never seen before. Disarmed, I resorted to my bending and sent a blast his way. Grunting, he pushed his palms out in front of him and blocked the flames.
"Stop!" He ordered. The stranger then gestured to his right forearm. "Look." My eyes widened as I saw, burned into his skin, the mark of The Shepherds.
"Who are you?" I repeated.
The man stood tall. "Let me tell you something, kid. You sure are a tough girl to track down. Why the Hell did you come all the way here?"
I scoffed, baffled and stunned by his audacity. "Where was I supposed to go? And how did you find me?"
"Doesn't matter now, and I found you because you managed to stumble upon The Road."
I paused. "Is this place significant to you?"
"That's an understatement. This 'place' is significant to all of us. Welcome to the Fire Lord's social experiment."
"Social experiment?" He may have been a Shepherd, but I trusted him about as much as I would trust a man who told me he was a professional female body inspector.
"The Road," he nodded, "The planned village filled with completely unaware test subjects, the Fire Nation operative who governs them, and one man casually revealing our most classified information."
What the actual fuck is going on? My mind proved itself to be incapable of processing what I was being told. "So Mabuk and their mayor are part of the government?"
"You got it, sweetheart," he said sarcastically. I already didn't like the man's attitude, but I let him continue. "One is meant to test their reactions to our most dangerous secrets, and the other sets ordinances in place to prevent any of them from truly learning the truth, like the curfew he enacted."
I still couldn't tell if the conversation was actually happening. Social experiments? Test subjects? That means Oba and Oji were nothing more than mice in a cage, constantly being abused without knowing it. "You never answered my question," I spat. "Who are you?"
"The name's Jirou, and I suggest you start acting a little more polite towards your new partner."
- A rabbitcoon is a cross between a rabbit and a raccoon.
- Mabuk is Indonesian for "drunk."
- Chifu is Japanese for "chief."
- Oba is Japanese for "aunt."
- Oji is Japanese for "uncle," and the image I had in mind for him was Hershel Greene from The Walking Dead.
- Jirou means "muscle" in Chinese.
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
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