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March 26, 2013
Previously in Air
At the Western Air Temple, Aang and Katara discovered the lost journal of Avatar Haku. Aang remembered that the Avatar was not the only one able to journey into the Spirit World; other mortals have undertaken the journey. Desperate to contact Haku, Aang decides to try passing into the Spirit World during the summer solstice.
Chapter Sixty-Two: Answers
Katara clutched at his hand. "Be careful, Aang."
"And remember, you don't have much time."
Aang nodded. Unlike his other excursions into the Spirit World, this one would have a time limit. He had to pass back into the mortal world before the day ended. Otherwise, he would be trapped there, until the winter solstice. Katara made it clear that was not an option.
He kissed her, and Katara reluctantly retreated from the sanctuary. Aang decided it would be the best place to attempt the passage, surrounded by the last vestige of tranquility his people had left behind.
Sitting cross-legged, Aang closed his eyes. He breathed in, listening to the echo of Katara's footsteps outside. He let the air out, as the sounds faded away. With only the whistling wind to keep him company, Aang breathed again, focusing his thoughts on the Spirit World. He remembered all that he had learned from Monk Gyatso and Guru Pathik. He concentrated his mind, but at the same time attempted to release it from the confines of his body and his own consciousness.
Hours passed, but they glided by as seconds. The sun rose high in the sky, but as her rays warmed Aang's face, his attention focused on a wisp of eerie light that appeared on the horizon of his mind's eye.
The unfamiliar voice called to him from the light. He followed it. The light flashed once, glimmering in his eyes.
The voice was louder now. Aang reached out to catch the glow, but instead of settling into his palm, the circle of light widened and his hand slipped through. He hesitated.
The final call, full of hope and desperation, strengthened his resolve. He slipped through the light, leaving the Western Temple behind.
Aang closed his eyes against the sheen of white. The light enveloped him, blinding him more than any summer's day, but in an instant it vanished. He could feel the oppressive darkness against his eyelids, and a chill ran through him. Not through his body, but his soul.
He opened his eyes and the breath left his lungs in a gasp of surprise. A familiar swampland surrounded him, but it was twisted and cast in shadow. The trees bent and stooped at jagged angles. Where Aang had seen the monkey spirit before, the wooden entryway was now abandoned. No sound filled the air, not even the hum of a firefly or the croak of a bullfrog. The only light in the sky was a smoky gray twilight, far to the east. The rest was darkness.
"Roku?" he called out. "Are you here?"
Aang slowly turned, following the shadow with his eyes. It was nearly everywhere. To the west, the Spirit World was pitch black. Only within the last few hundred paces could he discern the shapes of trees and boulders. To the east, the darkness encroached, but the last vestiges of light within twilight held on.
"Yue? Hei Bei? Anyone?"
Aang whirled. Sitting in the middle of the entryway, where there had been no one a moment before, sat a man. His blue form shimmered, betraying his ghostly state, but Aang's eyes were drawn instantly to the arrow tattooed on his forehead, and the smaller ones on the back of his hands.
The man smiled at him. "Avatar Aang." Folding his hands into customary Air Nomad placement, Avatar Haku nodded his head in greeting. "It's about time."
Aang tried to hide his surprise. "You were expecting me?"
"I expected you'd find me someday," he confided, grinning wide, "But in all honesty I didn't think it would be out of necessity."
"Then you know why I'm here?" Aang asked. He stepped forward, sitting on the ground before Haku's feet.
Again, Haku nodded, his expression turning grave. "The question is, do you?"
Aang frowned. He glanced again at the contorted trees around him. "Something's wrong, but I don't know what. At first, I thought it was a warning about the Guild and the Loyal, that they were threatening the world's balance, but I don't think so anymore. Even in the midst of the Hundred Year War, I'd never felt anything like it before."
"And so you consulted the Avatar Spirit."
Aang cocked his head. "You know about that?"
"The darkness attacked it." Aang looked again to the thick shadows hovering above them. "But it gave me a message. I think." He wrinkled his brow in confusion. "At least, I got the impression I was supposed to talk to you."
Haku smiled. "That was quite intentional, and you have your friend Princess Yue to thank for it. Most of the spirits have forgotten the merits of mortals, but she remembers all too clearly her existence before becoming the Moon Spirit. When she realized that the Avatar Spirit would succumb to the darkness, it was she who decided to channel all of the Avatar's past lives –all of its mortality– into you."
"She did that?" Aang cried, horrified. "Do you have any idea what it's done to me?"
A frown tugged at Haku's lips, not one of anger, but one of disappointment. "You do not understand, Aang. If Yue had not acted, all of your incarnations would have been lost. While they are separate beings, they are still stored in the Avatar Spirit. When the darkness took it, they all would have been lost. Forever. It is true that the arrangement is not ideal, and it will not succeed for much longer, but it was necessary."
"Are you..." Aang frowned, his mind churning. "Are you saying the Avatar Spirit is gone?" he whispered. "That I'll never regain it? That I'll be–" Terror raced through his mind. No, he couldn't. Not again! "...I'll be the last one?"
"No, Aang," Haku said firmly. "The Avatar Spirit has succumbed to the darkness, but it is not dead. It is only lost. Spirits cannot be killed. Some may fade, but they never truly die."
Aang nodded slowly, letting the idea sink in. The uncharacteristic silence of the Spirit World became deafening. He frowned. "Where is everyone? Why didn't anyone else answer me?"
"The spirits have their hands full combating the darkness," Haku said dryly.
Haku sighed. "Roku's spirit, like most others, has been caught in the chaos. His essence remains stored in your mind, but until you regain the Avatar Spirit, or you banish this darkness, you will not be able to contact any of your past lives." He smirked. "Except me, that is."
Haku smiled once more. "My connection with the Spirit World has always been strong, Aang. My essence is stored in your mind, but a piece of me will always remain in this place." He glanced about the Spirit World as if in wonder, despite the darkness tainting its beauty. "That is one reason I was chosen to guide you."
Aang studied his fellow Air Nomad carefully. Haku looked exactly as he had in Aang's dream. He wore the more casual Air Nomad robes in the traditional yellow and orange, but there were also several colored bands around his wrists and a fur pelt draped over one shoulder. The blue arrow tattoos were borne proudly, gleaming brightly in his ethereal form. No older than his early thirties, there was still a spark of youthful mischief in his eyes that reminded Aang of his old friend Gyatso.
"Is that because of your studies?" Aang asked.
Haku cocked his head, a curious smile on his lips.
Aang flushed, self-conscious, as he remembered that Haku only wrote about it in his private writings. "Oh, I, uh, found your journal, about how you were researching people's sensitivities to the Spirit World. Sorry about that."
"No need to apologize," Haku said with a chuckle. "And yes, that is how it began. My intention of study was to..." He trailed off, rubbing at his neck in embarrassment. "Perhaps it sounds silly now," he said with a sheepish smile, "But I hoped that my research would encourage people back into a more spiritual way of life, as in the days we first learned to bend the elements. Even then I thought it was folly, but Ama said the people would never change if they had no example to learn from. So I studied."
"It isn't silly," Aang said quickly. He frowned. "I don't know that the different nations will revert back to such an existence, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make the guidance available."
"You sound just like Ama," Haku said, grinning wide.
"She was a friend of yours?" Aang asked, trying to sound casual.
Haku nodded. "A dear friend. Almost like a–" His grin grew. "I know we Air Nomads don't think in such terms, but Ama was a little sister to me, Aang."
Aang decided not to mention the rumor that the two of them had been 'involved.' But there was one thing Aang needed to know. He caught Haku's eye. "The people thought you abandoned them."
"Yes, some did believe that." Haku's face saddened. He glanced away for a moment, gazing into the past. "There were no great wars in my time, no uprisings or massacres. It was an era of relative peace for the mortal world." A troubled frown clouded the Nomad's brow. "There was nothing for me to do, aside from attend prestigious ceremonies and travel occasionally as a delegate. But I knew there was more that I could accomplish.
"That is when I began to study the connections between the mortal world and the Spirit one, the varying sensitivities of peoples and the inclination of spirituality in some but not others. I thought the knowledge may help in the future. I never did finish my studies." He winked roguishly at Aang. "Instead, I discovered something else."
He hadn't realized it, but Aang had leaned forward eagerly. "What?"
"I spoke with many of my –our– past lives in researching. I learned that not all of them are attuned to the Spirit World. They are all aware of it and they have all traversed it, at some point or other, but their true connection to it is meager. I learned that Avatars of the Air Nomads, because of their intense spiritual upbringing, are more open to the messages and influences that reach out from the Spirit World."
"But even they aren't truly connected?" Aang guessed.
Haku nodded. "They still must devote themselves to the exploration in order to reach their full potential as an Avatar."
Aang frowned. "Wait. You're saying that most of the Avatars in history were only half as good as they could have been?" He kneaded his brow as the notion attempted to squeeze into his already-crowded brain. "That doesn't make any sense!"
"They were only as good as they needed to be, Aang," Haku corrected. "I was able to obtain the full stature of an Avatar in the Spirit World, but even I had help."
The ghost of a smile haunted Haku's lips. "Yes. From Enma. And he wasn't very happy about it." The smiled faded. "But he didn't really have a choice, either."
Aang frowned, wondering what he meant. An image from his vision flashed in his mind's eye, of Haku and Enma waiting for that terrifying beast. The breath left Aang in a gush.
"You said that you lived in a time of peace for the mortal world," Aang realized. "But there was turmoil elsewhere, wasn't there?"
Haku's eyes darkened, but he gave Aang a sheepish smile. "You caught me. When I was the Avatar, it was the Spirit World that was on the brink of war."
Aang blinked. A spiritual war? "I...I don't understand."
"It was just like any other war," Haku said with a shrug. "Someone decided to seek power and upset the delicate Balance."
"That's not what I meant," Aang said quickly. "The Avatar is a spirit in mortal form. We are here to maintain harmony in the world and act as a mediator between the mortal plane and the spiritual one."
"The Avatar is also the bridge connecting the two worlds, Aang."
Aang's head spun. The Avatar's duty extended to both worlds? Did the harmony of both planes rest on his shoulders, and he hadn't even realized it?
"...I don't understand," he mumbled again, miserably.
Haku smiled kindly at him. "Don't worry, Aang; it isn't an aspect of the Avatar that many have had to deal with. I didn't mean to blindside you. To my knowledge, aside from the very first Avatar, I'm the only one to spend any extent of time in the Spirit World. Our duties in the mortal world are clear because they call out to us; the spirits do not. That is another reason so many Avatars don't understand the full extent of our powers. It was years before I even took part in the battle, despite my ever-increasing knowledge of the Spirit World. My involvement was a rare case because they needed my help, no matter how much they hated the idea."
"But...wait. If the spirits established the Avatar in the first place, they're the ones who designated his job, right? They were the ones who made him a bridge between both worlds. You're saying they set him up with a task they didn't want him to do?"
Haku laughed. "At the time, they all believed it was the right thing. If the mortal world was given a guide, the Spirit World decided it could use one as well. But spirits can be very haughty, Aang. They help and guide mortals, but they consider themselves to be on a different level entirely. The Avatar is a spirit, but the others believe it has become tainted from its hosts. It's become too mortal. They will do everything in their power to solve their own problems because they would rather writhe in eternal pain than ask a mortal for help."
Aang was struck speechless.
"That's...idiotic," he finally managed.
"Yes," Haku agreed. "But the most idiotic things come as a result of stubborn pride."
"So..." Aang took a deep breath. He was sure what it was that Haku was trying to tell him, but he was almost afraid to accept it. "The fight is here?"
Haku sighed. "I'm afraid it's worse than that. I remember when I first became aware of the turmoil in the Spirit World. I felt an emptiness, an inexplicable discomfort in my soul. This you have also experienced. But even before the darkness encroached on the Avatar Spirit, you felt it's presence in both your mind and your soul, did you not?"
Aang slowly nodded. "Before the Avatar Spirit was lost, I had these horrible pains in my head, but they seemed to tear right into my soul."
Haku's face drew tight. "Your premonitions have been much more violent because somehow this danger–" He gestured at the darkness beyond "–is not only here. It is also connected with your world. Your soul belongs to you, Aang, but also to the Spirit World. It is the part of the Avatar that is most influenced by its spiritual nature, while your mind retains so much of your mortality, grounding you to the mortal world. Because you have felt the presence of the darkness in your physical body, and not merely your soul, it warns you that this danger pertains to both planes."
Aang swallowed hard. His skin prickled and a shiver raced down his spine. What could threaten two worlds at once? "How is that possible?"
"Someone else intends to explain that to you."
Aang frowned. "Someone else?"
Haku rose. Instead of climbing to his feet, his ethereal form merely flickered from one position to the next. "Follow me, Aang."
Katara wandered the corridors. With Aang meditating in the sanctuary or, hopefully, wandering the Spirit World, there was nothing for her to do. Momo sat on her shoulder, occasionally launching off to investigate a cubbyhole, but inevitably always returning to his perch. Katara suspected the lemur sensed her agitation and discomfort.
For hours she walked without end, exploring dozens of rooms, some whose purposes she could only guess.
As the sun climbed high in the sky, Katara decided to take Appa out for a ride. But when she returned to the outdoor courtyard where Appa lay content in the noon rays, she knew it wouldn't be happening. She prodded the bison as he snored, but he was either too tired to be disturbed, or decided to ignore her.
Katara scowled at the snoozing bison. "What am I supposed to do now?"
With a resigned sigh, Katara sat up against Appa. She dug around in Aang's pack and pulled out the scroll they had found hidden in Haku's chambers. Unfurling the journal, Katara let the sun warm her shoulders as she began to read.
Katara liked to think she was a spiritual person. At least, she was more open to it than Sokka. But as she skimmed through Haku's writings, she felt herself sinking into a confused bog of wishy-washy mumbo-jumbo. Profound statements jumped out at her, but she couldn't quite make sense of them. She supposed it would be some time before she was to the state of Aang and his fellow Nomads.
She continued to roll through the scroll, but her eyes caught sight of an unfamiliar hand and she stopped cold. Haku's words faded some distance from the scroll's end. Reading the last few lines, she knew that he had not finished his spiritual research. Reading on, she knew why.
The next line marked the date of Haku's passing. Even not understanding his words, Katara's eyes saddened on the scroll, knowing the Avatar had never finished his work.
As Katara moved to close the scroll, she saw a splatter of ink down the parchment, and stretched it farther to investigating. A third person had taken pen to the Avatar's journal. She recognized the handwriting right off. They were the slanted characters of Sister Ama, though printed now with a more mature, manageable hand. Intrigued, Katara began to read.
Haku has passed. It has only been four years, but already they tarnish his name. I have heard the outrage; I know that even while he yet lived there were those who did not see the value in his work, who believed Haku had abandoned them. I have tried to tell them the truth, but what exactly the truth is, even I am uncertain. They no longer listen to me, thinking me only a blind follower.
But I know that Haku was a good man, that he did so much for mankind. I believe he even died for us.
Others say that his heart gave out, turning a blind eye to his young age. They insist it was a natural death. Unfortunate, but unavoidable.
I have told no one else my belief that Haku was killed for our sakes. No one would believe me, and that is why I write it here. It will be preserved, perhaps, for a more open-minded generation.
Avatar Haku told us, when he came to the Western Air Temple, that he intended to study the spiritual nature of his people in us, and also to meditate on his research in the tranquility of these mountains. I was fascinated by him, by his ideas and his energy. Beside that, he was the Avatar.
I would visit him every afternoon –sometimes with other children or Sisters, sometimes alone– and listen to his stories and his studies. The more time passed, the less people came to listen to him. I was thirteen when he struck upon the idea that more than one Spirit Oasis may exist in the world. I remember when I came to visit him that day, he practically glowed with excitement. I asked him how he could even find it, and I never forgot his answer. 'I will feel it, Ama. We are all, basically, of a spiritual existence, if only we recognize it. I will open myself up it, and it will guide me.'
I asked if I could go with him to find it. He was happy to have me, but the Sisters would not allow it. They said the Avatar could do just as he pleased, but to drag others into it would be foolishness. And so I did not tell Haku what they said and snuck away to join him, but that is all recorded.
We did find a place in the Fire Nation, on a small island, where the hair rose along my arms as if charged with power. Here, I could almost feel the connection with the Spirit World. Standing in the midst of a cool clearing, I thought I even saw a spirit flicker beside me.
Avatar Haku meditated here. I remember this clearly, because I did not have the patience then to join him. Long after I had given up, he sat in utter silence, his tattoos glowing with his power, barely breathing. The sun sank behind the horizon and in the twilight, his light blinked out. I turned to ask him whether we should go, but found he had not returned from his meditation. He had disappeared.
I am not ashamed to admit I screamed. I had never been so frightened, alone in that jungle, even for a moment. He returned almost instantly, with a grin so broad I thought it might burst from his face.
He never told me what had happened, only that he had learned something interesting.
After this, Haku began to lock himself away in his chambers. He would ask not to be disturbed, though he would always make time to see me. No one knew what he did, and he never said. He used to spend hours in the library pouring over spiritual and meditation studies, but the books now lay abandoned. The Sisters wondered if he had given up on his research, but I believe he found something bigger.
I went to his chambers one afternoon, with a message from one of the Sisters. But when I opened the door, he wasn't there. I searched the entire Temple, but found no trace of him. Anyone I asked said he was in his chambers as always, locked up tight. Desperate, I returned to his door and opened it again, knowing I would find it empty. But this time he sat cross-legged on the floor and looked up at me with a grin.
'Where have you been?' I cried.
Silly Ama,' he said with a chuckle. 'I've been here the whole time.
Later, from a number of conversations, I realized that Haku had found a way to travel to and from the Spirit World, somehow, at will, with his Avatar abilities. Whenever I asked how, he would never answer. I never knew why he wouldn't outright tell me, but the day he died I realized it was because he was afraid of the danger.
I was the one who found him, dead in his bed. But I did not tell the Sisters everything. When they entered the room after my cry, they assumed that I had laid him out, hands folded on his chest. But I hadn't touched him.
When I opened the door, there was someone standing over him, gently placing his hands. He was garbed in plain clothes of no national distinction. He had a head of light brown hair unlike I had ever seen and as he turned in the light, I swear I caught a glimpse of something very like a tail protruding from behind. But in that instant, my eyes caught sight of Haku's still face, and I gave a cry.
The man turned to look at me, but to this day I cannot recall his exact features. His eyes were sad, and he seemed to sense my own dismay.
"Haku was a good man," he said quietly. "He sacrificed much for his people. I can only hope you will remember that, as I will."
Tears blinded me and I began to sob. He stepped up beside me, placing a comforting hand on my shoulder.
The Sisters burst in then, having come at my scream. It was a moment before they realized what was wrong. They murmured it must have been a quiet death in his sleep, despite his age, but I protested that the man must know what had happened. They thought I had gone mad, and when I brushed away the tears, I saw that the man had vanished.
I never truly understood what Haku did in the Spirit World, or what his purpose had been. I only know that for awhile it thrilled and disturbed him.
And it killed him.
The scroll fell from Katara's hands. "Aang!" She leapt to her feet, startling Appa and Momo, and raced into the Temple.
How could someone be killed in the Spirit World? She had never considered it before, but now the possibility frightened her. Haku was the one luring Aang toward the spiritual plane. If it had killed him, what did that mean for Aang?
She reached the sanctuary doors, left ajar in case of emergency. Katara threw her body against it as Momo flitted through the small opening.
But as the crack widened and she peered into the room, she saw that it already stood empty.
Aang had no time to question Haku as the latter led him through the shadowy undergrowth of the swamp. They did not travel into the darkness, but nor did they travel into the light; instead, they walked between the two, as if at the very line of their clashing. His eyes were drawn to the darkness at his right. At times, he thought he glimpsed movement within, the glint of watching eyes, or the pitiful cry of a wounded animal, but he could never be sure, and Haku did not stop. The spirit of his past incarnation did not slow, nor stray too near the darkness. "Stay close," he ordered sharply once, when Aang leaned a little too far toward the shadows for a better view.
"What's in there?" Aang asked.
"I'm not entirely certain," Haku replied. "I know only that many spirits have been lost, and some have plunged willingly into the darkness."
Haku sighed. "Just as some spirits are benevolent, Aang, others are malicious."
No concept of time stood in the Spirit World. Aang had no idea how far they had come when the swamp finally cleared into a meadow. At one time, the place probably looked like Paradise, but the grass had shriveled and dried, and the once babbling brook was nothing but a bed of cracked dirt.
In this meadow, there stood six spirits. Aang recognized only three of them: Yue, Enma, and Wan Shi Tong. The knowledge spirit's owlish face turned to Aang, eyes flashing. A chill shot up Aang's spine at the memory of their last encounter. He gulped.
Wan Shi Tong's head cocked slightly. "It is lucky for you, Avatar, that this is no time to settle scores."
Aang decided the best reply was silence.
The other three spirits Aang had never seen. One resembled a boar, though dozens of purple tentacles writhed on his snout as if alive. Alive, and very annoyed. The second was a regal-looking man with an elongated neck and the antlers of a stag protruding from his forehead. The third took no shape, only a shimmer of space through which Aang occasionally spotted a body part, like a pair of eyes, an arm, or a furry tail.
Yue smiled at him. "Aang. I am very sorry it has come to this."
"Yeah. Um, would you mind telling me what exactly 'this' is?"
The antlered man spoke. "Someone –or something– is forcing the worlds together."
Aang blinked. He turned to Haku in confusion. "I thought you said they were both being attacked?"
The boar spirit Miku snorted in contempt. "They are, fool!"
"Silence, Miku," Enma snapped. The monkey did not raise his voice, but his tail slashed at the air in irritation. He turned to Aang. "That is exactly how they are being attacked, Avatar. The worlds are no longer designed to be so closely interconnected."
Aang felt as if a chasm had opened beneath his feet, but he fought to keep from falling into its depths. "What do you mean, 'no longer'?"
The purple tentacles on Miku's face shot upright as he raked a giant hoof through the brittle grass. "How can we expect him to be of any use if he knows nothing?"
Haku's weak essence sparked. "Perhaps you should remember why it is so few Avatars know anything about the Spirit World's history, Miku."
"Don't preach at me, mortal," Miku snarled, eyes flashing amber. "You may know some of our weaknesses, but you are nothing more than–"
Enma shrieked at the boar, baring large fangs. "Need I remind you once again that Avatar Haku is the reason we did not succumb to such ruin long ago?"
A wet snort –contemptuous and irritated– burst from Miku's snout. He raked at the earth again, tusks lengthening in anger.
The spirits stilled. The shimmering essence of the sixth spirit glared at them. Even without seeing her eyes, the guilty parties shuffled back in embarrassment.
"We are not here to argue or fight," the spirit continued, her voice cold and crisp. "We are here to save both worlds from a fate worse than death."
Aang forced a chuckle. "Is that all?"
Seven spirits swiveled to stare at him. Aside from Haku, who smirked, and Yue, who winced, the others did not respond.
Tough crowd, Aang thought. He cleared his throat. "Okay. How do we do that?"
"Miku does have a point, Avatar," the shimmer admitted. "For you to help us, you must know the history between our worlds." One impossibly large eye appeared in the cloud, peering out at Wan Shi Tong.
The knowledge spirit stepped forward, the darkness draped around him like a cloak somehow paling in comparison to the shadows to their right.
"Very well, Bhari." The owlish face turned to Aang, large eyes dark and foreboding. "Long ago, before even energybending was forgotten and the Avatar was established, the mortal world and the Spirit World were closely interconnected. They co-existed in harmony. Even then they did not inhabit the same plane, but communication between them, even travel, was a common occurrence. Years passed. Mortals sought out greed and other vices, and cared less for nature and the Spirit World. They drew apart. And as they drew apart, there arose a man called Quera, a madman, who craved power and thought to use the strength of the Spirit World to conquer the physical realm."
The luster in Wan Shi Tong's eyes dimmed, though whether at the tale or actual remembrance, Aang was not sure.
"Quera used fortunetellers and mediums to find a way into the Spirit World," the spirit continued. "They studied dark arts and probed into forbidden knowledge that never should have been tampered with. With these dark arts, Quera hoped to bend a spirit to his will." A smug golden gleam glimmered in the knowledge spirit's eyes. "He vastly overestimated his abilities, but a passage was opened. Darkness and shadow encroached on the Spirit World and it was forced to join once more with the physical realm. The spirit Quera hoped to conquer instead defeated him.
"The Spirit World became divided. Many sought to reap judgment upon all mankind for Quera's actions. But the spirit who defeated him –and many others– knew that to hold an entire world responsible for the actions of one man was wrong. They tried to reason with the others, but to no avail, for their comrades were blinded by rage. And so to save the mortal world, drastic measures were taken. As their comrades plotted an end for human kind, the other spirits decided that a mediator between the two worlds was necessary. The spirit who defeated Quera passed into the mortal world and became the first Avatar."
For a long moment, Aang did not speak. The story rattled around in his brain, trying to find purchase, trying to detect the important piece of this story. "You think it's happening again," he realized. He looked around at the circle of six in disbelief. "You think another Quera is trying to usurp the power of the spirits?"
The spirits did not answer. As one, they turned to Wan Shi Tong. Aang followed their gaze.
The knowledge spirit shifted. "It is possible. This information..." He cleared his throat. "It was stored in my Library and it was only one of many pieces that were pilfered and defiled by ungrateful mortals."
"When?" Aang asked, heart pounding in his ears.
Wan Shi Tong cocked his head, grave eyes studying him. "It was the same who set flame to a portion of my knowledge. I believe you were acquainted with him before he had the misfortune of angering La."
Aang's jaw clenched. "Zhao."
"You know who is responsible?" Enma asked, tail twitching.
Yue shook her head, frowning. "He cannot be responsible for this attack. Zhao died many years ago."
"True," Aang said, "But I doubt he was the only one–"
A bitter, high-pitched shriek rent the sky, ripping out of the darkness. Aang winced as the sound stabbed into his mind like an icicle. He clapped his hands over his ears. Tears streaming from his eyes, he fell to his knees as the sound raked at his soul. He tried to block it, tried to shake it away, but it only grew louder and shriller. There was nothing he could do. Nothing but clasp his head and wait for it to pass.
But it would not pass. The shriek grew and grew as the shadows lurched forward, past the line of twilight, into the side of light. Spirits scattered, balking from the darkness. In the midst of the light, they stood their ground, facing against the chaos. Aang tried to move, to join the others in the light, but he could not. His body was weak, refusing to respond to his commands.
The sound grew louder still, escalating, no longer merely a sound, but embodied. It became an object, an instrument of the shadows, and it leapt at him, latching onto his soul, ripping away at his essence. His vision swam. Pain exploded in his chest as though his heart had burst inside. He gulped for air, but could find none; cried out in agony but no sound came.
Around him, the image of the spirits became fuzzy. He did not know if they were fading away, or if it was his vision. He decided it was a little of both just as the darkness pooled around him. Fatigue and terror raced through his limbs, making them useless. His strength drained away. Collapsing into the shadows, it swallowed him whole and he knew no more.
Min smiled in satisfaction, feeling the steady pulse in the atmosphere around her that announced her success.
Slowly, she opened her eyes, drawing herself back to the physical world. The black rock of the cliffs came into focus, and the jumping flames of the bonfire beneath the shelter of an overhanging rock. Cold wind whipped through the air, biting at her bare arms, bringing with it the mist of the sea. The sun dipped low, swallowed by the horizon. The summer solstice had nearly ended. Let it. She had accomplished her task.
After a life of training, years of stringent discipline, and months of waiting for the power and proximity that only the solstice could bring, she had finally accomplished not only her mission, but the first step in her life's goal.
Min's existence hinged on her actions for the next several days. She had been apprenticed at the age of four by two aged, wise and ambitious women. Her life since then had been leading to this moment.
The man had ceased his struggle, though he remained tied and trussed despite his fighting. At least, Min assumed it was a man. Her hands, coated in the koala sheep's blood and clutching the femurs of a komodo rhino, still pressed into his heaving chest. She eased the pressure, checking the rate of his heart and his vitals. They jumped and danced in terror, but he would not die on her.
As her attention gradually shifted back to her mortal body, she shivered, realizing the cold. Stepping back, she tossed the bones into a metal bowl. They clanged as they hit, splashing the blood inside onto the legs of the bound man, and her own black cloak she had laid at his feet. Oblivious to the stains, she took the cloak and draped it over her body. She clutched the fabric around her. As the cold reached her lungs a violent cough drove her to her knees. She may not possess the gift of health, but she had something worth so much more. A destiny.
"Is it finished?"
Min was not surprised to hear his voice. While in the throes of the ceremony, she became oblivious of the physical world. She would not have been aware of his presence even if he announced himself with song. The idea quirked her lips into a smile. She coughed a moment longer, clearing her lungs. Perhaps it would be prudent to force the cough back, but Min suspected he did not care much for prudence at this time.
Finally, she managed to take a breath without hacking. "Yes," she rasped. She rose, wrapping the cloak tighter to cut the chill, and turned to face him. Her eyes met his, and she quickly lowered her gaze as she bowed forward. "The foundation is laid, Your Majesty."
Ozai smiled. "Excellent."
Aang opened his eyes. He saw nothing, only the continual darkness. Was he awake? Dreaming? Dead? Panic caught him by the throat and he gasped for air.
Someone shook him by the shoulder. He turned his head, but still could see nothing but darkness. "Katara?"
A white glow blossomed before him. Yue stood in the center of the light, standing over him, and Haku and Enma at either shoulder, staring down.
"I'm afraid not," Yue said gently.
Aang rubbed his head. "What happened?"
"I am not certain," the Moon Spirit replied. Her face darkened. "But the darkness is growing stronger."
She gestured out, and Aang saw that the shadows had claimed more ground. Enma must have dragged him back, or else Aang would have been swallowed in the chaos.
"She's right," Haku said. His weak blue essence quivered as if shivering, but Aang thought it must be a trick of his eyes. "The worlds are drawing closer."
Aang struggled upright. "I have to get back. Before the solstice ends. I can find the passage there." He winced as pain shot through his cranium. "And I think I have a good idea where to look."
"Aang..." Yue's eyes were sad. She glanced quickly to Haku, and Aang followed her gaze.
Haku sighed. "That attack knocked us all back, Aang."
Aang swallowed hard. "What are you saying?"
Haku licked his lips. He hesitated, but finally locked his gaze with Aang's. "The solstice has already ended."
"I-I'm trapped in the Spirit World?"
Katara refused to take her eyes from the center of the sanctuary. She rocked back and forth, ignoring the darkening sky behind her, and the first of the glittering stars as they appeared, twinkling, oblivious to her pain.
"Come on, Aang," she whispered. Tears stung at her eyes. She clenched her fists. "Come back to me."
But he didn't.
- You may notice this is the first chapter rated PG-13. This is because of Min, and her ritual involving koala-sheep blood. It's kind of dark.
- Speaking of dark, I was not expecting this story to take such a dark turn. I was just as surprised by the appearance of Min as you are.
- The Avatar what now?
- Yeah, I took some liberties with canon here. I was thinking about the Avatar's duties one day, and remembered that the Avatar was actually a spirit who lived in the mortal world. Yada yada. I made me wonder: If the Avatar is a spirit, why doesn't he maintain the balance of the Spirit World? *gasp* What if he does?
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