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When Wan, oblivious to Vaatu's identity, freed him from Raava's grasp in 9,830 BG, Vaatu used his influence to turn other spirits dark, using their anger to grow stronger. Wan managed to stop him from causing further disruptions by merging with Raava, thereby becoming the first Avatar, and imprisoning Vaatu inside the Tree of Time in the Spirit World, allowing the dark spirits, whom Vaatu had converted, to return to a balanced state.
In 151 AG, many spirits were angered after Tonraq destroyed their forest in the Northern Water Tribe's tundra while in pursuit of the barbarians who attacked the tribe. As a result, they attacked the city and were unable to be stopped until Unalaq effectively calmed them by using his spiritbending technique to restore the balance of light and dark within them, sending them back to the Spirit World.
By 171 AG, the dark spirits began scourging the icy regions of the South Pole, where they were known to attack ships in the waters near the Southern Water Tribe.
It was only six months after the conclusion of the Anti-bending Revolution that Avatar Korra had become aware of these attacks upon her visit to the Glacier Spirits Festival in the Southern Water Tribe. Her uncle, Chief Unalaq, theorized that the spirits were angered by the spiritual deterioration and the decay of Southern Water Tribe traditions.
During Korra's visit, one of these spirits visited the festival at night. The spirit charged at the Avatar and managed to pin her down, although it was distracted when Mako and Bolin came to her rescue. The brothers proved to be no match for the spirit, and it quickly defeated them. However, by that time, Tonraq and Tenzin had entered the scene and were battling the spirit, each in his own way; Tonraq assisted his daughter in attacking the being with waterbending, though he was batted away, while Tenzin attempted to reason with the entity, subsequently suffering the same fate. The spirit was eventually faced by Korra, who entered the Avatar State as a last resort, but even harnessing the powers of her past lives proved to be ineffective against the spirit's power. It used one of its tendrils to bring Korra to the ground and was about to deliver the final blow when Unalaq intervened, encircling the being with water in the same way he had twenty years prior. The spirit changed color and started to glow, eventually dissipating in a flash of golden light.
More dark spirits stalked Korra, her family, and her friends as they journeyed to the South Pole, where Unalaq intended for the Avatar to unlock a spirit portal and restore the southern lights. When the party reached the Everstorm, the dark spirits ambushed them, destroying their supplies. As Korra ventured into the frozen spirit forest alone, the dark spirits attacked her, merging into a single entity in an attempt to restrain her. However, Korra went into the Avatar State and managed to unlock the portal. The dark spirits disappeared as the southern lights were restored and the spirit forest slowly returned to an unfrozen state.
While she was being pursued by Desna and Eska on the Mo Ce Sea, Korra was once more assaulted by a dark spirit, this one much more massive than the rest. Despite her attempts to purify the spirit, it broke free of her hold and swallowed her whole, dragging her below the surface. This spirit ended up infecting her, posing a lethal threat to her Avatar Spirit. However, by learning about her origins and of Raava, Korra managed to cleanse herself from the spirit's infestation.
At the Eastern Air Temple, while attempting to aid Korra in crossing over to the Spirit World, Tenzin performed a spiritual cleansing of an ancient meditation area. In doing so, Tenzin stirred a group of dark, bat-like spirits, and the swarm promptly attacked them. They could not be stopped by regular bending, as they broke through Korra's water blast and Tenzin's wind vortex. However, their relentless assault was halted when Korra encircled them in water, utilizing her uncle's spiritbending technique to quickly pacify them. As they dispersed in a golden light, their dark energy was also cleansed from the surrounding stones, restoring the environment's spiritual energy.
In the Spirit World, when Jinora found herself cornered by Unalaq in Wan Shi Tong's Library, the waterbender's energy caused the nearby dragonfly bunny spirit, named Furry-Foot, to turn dark and aid Unalaq, capturing the young airbender. At the same time, Korra found herself in a forest, surrounded by dark spirits. She soon learned that she could affect the state of the spirits and the environment around her in the Spirit World with her emotions, as her own negative reaction caused the spirits to turn dark as well, and her insecurities caused her to turn into her four year old self. Armed with that knowledge, Korra was able to calm three dark guardian spirits with only her positive attitude. However, when she arrived at the Tree of Time, the combined negative energy of Unalaq and Vaatu turned the guardian spirits dark again, causing them to turn against her; the three guardian spirits stopped her from saving Jinora's soul, who was being carried off toward the Fog of Lost Souls.
Due to Unalaq's allegiance with Vaatu, the Chief of the Water Tribes was able to command the spirits, enabling them to fight alongside the Northern Water Tribe military for the remainder of the conflict. They aided Unalaq in overpowering the Southern Water Tribe rebels as well as in defending the Southern spirit portal.
When Oogi approached the spirit portal, the dark spirits attacked the flying bison and his passengers. Some spirits latched on to the creature, weighing him down and causing him to crash land, while others directly fought Korra, Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi. One of the spirits was brought down by Bumi, who grabbed hold of it and pushed himself off Oogi. The spirit was waiting for Bumi to regain consciousness to resume their fight. After receiving a few blows that did not affect it, the entity retaliated, easily flinging Bumi meters back. However, the spirit became docile and morphed back to its regular self upon hearing Bumi play his flute.
Believing music to be the weak point of all dark spirits, Bumi attempted the same technique on the other spirits who were protecting the Northern base near the South Pole. However, it did not affect the spirits roaming there, and they subsequently attacked Bumi. They chased him around the base, and when he sought refuge in a mecha tank, two of the spirits crawled into the motor, causing the machine to go haywire. However, the spirits' actions inadvertently destroyed the entire camp.
In the Spirit World, Bumi, Kya, and Tenzin encountered a dark spider spirit, who was angered by their boisterous presence. It promptly attacked them, attempting to trap them in its web, though it ended up chasing them off a nearby cliff. Soon afterward, the siblings disturbed the spirit again, as Tenzin believed it would lead them to Jinora. This time, the spirit was able to catch the threesome in its net and subsequently drag them off toward the Fog of Lost Souls, oblivious to their ulterior motives. As they arrived, the spirit tossed them into the valley, stating that they would never escape the fog spirit's grasp.
When Korra was meditating in the Tree of Time, a horde of dark spirits charged the tree in an attempt to stop her from creating an astral projection that could stand up to the Dark Avatar. They met the resistance of Tenzin, Kya, Bumi, Bolin, Mako, Desna, and Eska, and although they suffered some losses, their sheer number proved to be no match for the handful of humans. As they were about to swarm the hollow of the tree into which they all had retreated, the astral projection Korra had created returned from her battle with the Dark Avatar, dissipating them all.
The dark spirits are seemingly invincible, possessing chaotic and nearly amorphous bodies that sustain damage with limited to no effect and enable them to stretch their limbs and form tentacles. Their abilities vary – some are inhumanly fast while others move with more force and less speed. Furthermore, they are almost impossible to defeat by mundane tactics. Only spiritbending seems able to effectively stop them. Bumi's flute-playing managed to calm one dark spirit, but agitated the rest, showing that each spirit has unique characteristics and weaknesses despite other overarching similarities. Like every spirit, they can possess human beings and thereby put them in mortal danger.
Their body density also gives them intangibility, enabling them to enter machinery and tear it apart from the inside. They can contort and fuse together to become larger and more powerful spirits or to shapeshift into convenient forms.
- In "The Southern Lights", the lurking spirits that followed Korra and her group throughout the South Pole were loosely based on African wild dogs, while the serpent-like spirits that attacked her in the sacred forest were based on pelican eels.
- There is a special relationship between light and dark spirits, as one cannot exist without the other.
- Dark spirits are stated by Unalaq to not be inherently malevolent, but rather chaotic, merely reacting to nature's destruction. This, combined with their supposedly intricate relationship with light spirits, reflects traditional Asian ideas of yin and yang, that neither darkness nor light have moral attributes, and that evil comes from imbalance. When spirits are angered, Vaatu takes advantage of this and corrupts them with his essence.
- Hundun is the only known being besides Vaatu who can turn spirits dark.