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|More from Skyart||Action/Adventure||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 4 - The Spectral Forest (Avatar: The Second)|
Swiftly, Skaï made the incoming fireball turn around him in a circular motion and used the momentum to launch it back where it came from. However, Cielle had already moved away, running quickly between the spirit trees and their darkness. The shadows were so dense that the Avatar couldn't see the firebender until the very moment she fired her blasts. Moreover, earthbending, the perfect art to defend himself when being still was unavailable, for the ground was made of the same spectral substance as the trees. Without any water to be found around here, he had to resort to airbending to dissipate the fire, or firebending itself to redirect Cielle's own attacks. It was the first time that he actually saw the girl fight by herself, and he now knew that if she had helped her underlings the first time they met, the result may not have been exactly the same.
"You're slowing down!" shouted a voice somewhere in the obscurity of the blueish transparent trees.
"You can't run around forever, Cielle!" Skaï replied.
"You can't dodge forever, Avatar."
Realizing that he would have better chances while moving around, Skaï put out the flame he used to light himself and entered the deep darkness of the forest, running between the trees as much as he could.
Three hours ago
The setting sun was laying low, shinning its orange sunshine on the blue and purple trees of the Spectral Forest and its edge, where Skaï, Cielle, the Air Nomads and the Blue Warriors were resting. Near a small campfire, away from the two other groups, the young firebender girl was feeding Molly with dried fishes when she saw Skaï, looking thoughtful, coming back from inspecting the forest from the outside. It has been about five weeks since the two of them had their first strange meeting, but she noticed that he still had many expressions she hadn't see yet. In fact, the boy who called himself the Avatar was still very mysterious to her. Being together almost all day long, she expected him to open up about himself, but he never did, even after she revealed her own story to him. He talked though. About the landscape, the cities, the fauna and flora, and especially about the past. But not his past. Every time the topic diverged to him, he dodged it immediately. The only aspect of his background that he agreed to discuss with her was what he called 'his duty as the Avatar'. It made her wonder if he had lived all his life under the weight of his self-imposed responsibilities. During the clash with the earthbenders, she had had a glimpse of his impressive battle abilities, and travelling with him showed her that his mind was just as refined. In that aspect, they were a bit alike; competent fighters, but which would rather use their mind first. However, Skaï's analysis ability was on a whole other level than hers. For her, acquiring such skills demanded nine years of living in the wilds, fighting for her own survival, and often for the ones of other kids like her. But she also had a goal that drove her to improve and to get stronger. What did her companion's life must have been for him to be how he is now?
"How does it look?" she asked when Skaï got near.
"It looks... spiritual," he replied, not convinced about his own answer. "We should really be on our guard, I have a bad feeling about this."
"Don't you think we can handle some fluffy puffy spirits?"
"They're not... 'fluffy puffy spirits', they're angry corrupted spirits who feed on the human souls they can trap, so be a bit more cautious. You never faced a spirit before, especially an angry one. If you don't have complete control of yourself, they could easily penetrate your mind and use your wildest emotions against you. Hatred for example."
Wildly, Cielle quickly retaliated. "Oh so you've faced some before, mister the great Avatar?"
"Yes," he replied. But then he sighed. "Well no. But I dreamt about it. I saw Wan handling it. In fact, most of my knowledge about Avatar stuff comes from my dreams. I don't know how to describe it but – why are you laughing?"
She couldn't help it. From time to time, he had moments like that when she just couldn't take him seriously. In those moments, he started like an old man of wisdom, his pretty grey eyes shining with confidence, but then he was suddenly saying dubious things that barely made sense.
"I'm sorry," she said trying to stop her laugher. "It's just... I expected something more... concrete."
"We understand," said a voice behind them. When Cielle turned, three old Air Nomads were looking at them with tired old eyes. In their old orange clothes, they looked like very weak old men barely standing on their feet. "Your spirit is incredibly connected to the spiritual world," continued the one who spoke before. "It is no wonder that you are capable of exploring your life through time. Your past, of course, of one life or the other, but perhaps your future as well."
"You are?" asked Skaï, seemingly very interested by the monk words.
"I am merely a traveler of the earth, young Skaï. Though I have a name, it does not matter, as my guidance is the only thing you must remember."
"Your guidance? Are you saying you can help me in my spiritual path?"
"Perhaps," answered the monk. "Just like you once did to us, though with another face, we would like to offer you our help."
"So you've met Wan," replied Skaï, suddenly sounding cold. And? What is the help you think you can provide me?"
"Only this," answered the nomad. "Forgive." As soon as he said the word, the three monks turned around and left without another word. Cielle had thought that Skaï would go after them to ask for more explanation, but when she looked at him, he was looking at them going away, squinting, with a mix of suspicion and puzzlement in his eyes. She was about to ask what was the matter when three other men came from where the three others had left. They were in Blue Warriors outfits, and their muscular body showed that they were used to combat.
"We're going in," said the man in the middle, probably their leader, with a deep and imperious voice.
Deep in thoughts, Skaï didn't even seemed to have noticed the men, so Cielle answered in his place.
"You can't be serious! It'll be night any minute now, why not wait for morning?"
"The spirits are less active at night," simply replied the big man with a ruthless look at the small firebender girl. "Listen girl," he continued after Cielle gave him his look back, her arms crossed on her chest. "You and your friend insisted to come with us, so you can either do just that or leave, but you will not cause any problem to this expedition if you don't want to be crushed."
"It's okay, Cielle," intervened Skaï before the girl did something inconvenient. "These guys know what they're doing, so let's just go along."
"Fine," replied the firebender sharply. "I'll just get my things."
A few minutes later, the three groups penetrated in the deep darkness of the Spectral Forest. Strangely, the trees seemed to emit fluorescent light, but it didn't light any of the obscurity. Therefore, the only things in sight were the trees themselves, and the person right before you. To prevent anyone from being left behind, the Blue Warriors made everyone tie themselves with a rope and torches had been forbidden as they seemed to anger the spirits. Cielle, used to move in dark forest, was the very last person tied by the rope. Before her, Skaï was moving forward with confidence. Earlier, he asked Molly to fly above the forest and to regroup with them at the other side of it. Ahead, the only noises to be heard were the numerous footsteps of the two other groups.
"Now what?" asked Cielle to her companion.
"We wait for the spirits to manifest," simply answered Skaï.
"You mean we wait for them to attack us?"
"Not necessarily. They may try to communicate."
"They're feeding on human souls, Skaï. I think it's a bit late for chit chat," replied the firebender girl in an ironic tone that made the boy sigh.
"I know. But I'd like to give them a chance."
"Besides," continued the girl, "why don't those monks just go around the forest instead of going right through it?"
"Because we're in a hurry," answered a voice in front of Skaï. Cielle couldn't distinguish the owner, but the voice itself was one of a boy and sounded quite young."
"What do you mean?" asked Skaï.
"The Southern Air Settlement has been attacked by a group of earthbenders calling themselves the Earth Legion," answered the young monk. "They wanted to use the settlement as a military base, because of its difficult reachability. We all thought the nomads there would leave without resistance, but, unexpectedly, the high monk decided that the newly built temple couldn't be left to barbarians and decided to take arms. They successfully stopped the earthbenders invasion thanks to the high ground advantage, but the Earth Legion swore to retaliate. And now they're targeting every Air Nomad. We're hurrying to the Eastern Settlement where we should be able to hide for a while."
"Chaanakya..." Cielle faintly heard Skaï whisper.
She was then about to comment about earthbenders all being the same savages when they heard a scream coming from ahead. Then, someone else shouted, then others, then more until a general panic started. The rope was pulling from every directions until Skaï cut it before it put them on the ground.
"It started," announced the Avatar.
"Oh really?" replied Cielle in her habitual sarcastic tone. "So what now?"
The girl heard the beginning of an answer interrupted by a blast of wind that send them flying, both being still tied together.
"They've gone mad!" shouted the girl.
"The spirits invaded their mind," said Skaï calmly. "The Air Nomads are deeply opened to the spiritual side, so they must be very vulnerable."
"What about you?" asked Cielle.
"I'm fine. In fact, I don't sense anything, which would be fortunate if I didn't need to understand what's wrong. Let's try this." Swiftly, he cut the rope between themselves, lighted himself with a generated flame in his hand, and headed to a tree. Following the light source, Cielle then saw him press his forehead on a spectral tree. However, as soon as his skin entered in contact with the purple trunk, a flash of light exploded where the contact had been made and Skaï was propelled several meters away. With the flame in his hand extinguished, Cielle couldn't determine where he landed, but the screams of intense pain coming from him worried her greatly. Despite the Blue Warriors' warning, the firebender girl followed Skaï's initiative and lighted a flame in her palm. Around her, no one else except for Skaï remained, though she could still hear faint shouts in the distance. Quickly, she went to her companion who was on the ground holding his head in his hands, like he was trying to stop it from exploding. When she got near, Skaï suddenly got on his feet and violently slashed the air, generating a fire wave that stopped Cielle on her run.
"GET AWAY FROM ME!"
It was the first time she ever heard him so fierce. Only half of his face was out of the shadows, but it was enough for her to read all the hatred and fear present in him right now. Covered in sweat, breathing deeply, the look on his usually serene and deep grey eyes was now the one of a savage beast cornered by danger.
"It's your fault. All of you. All you benders. You only seek power or war or destruction. Just look at you! How many innocent people must die before you lot are satisfied?"
"Skaï! Calm down! The spirits are messing with your mind," tried Cielle to stop him.
"SHUT UP! You guys took her away from me!" Bursting in rage, Skaï had one hand on his forehead trying to contain his headache while the other was tightened in a firm fist burning with generated fire. His face was completely distorted out of anger and hatred and, somehow, Cielle thought seeing his eyes glowing blue for an instant. Realizing she wouldn't be able to calm him down with word, she decided on the hard way. As soon as the raging boy closed his eyes out of pain, she charged towards him with the intent of knocking him out with a strong and heavy punch in the stomach. However, even in his state, Skaï's reflexes achieved to make him jump backward, absorbing some of the impact of the girl's fist, but still getting hit. She had missed her only chance. Now, maddened as he was, Skaï would attack her back and she would have to fight him. Convinced that she couldn't win a face to face fight, even with him being weakened, she quickly put out the flame in her hand and retreated in the forest. She couldn't see much, but the faint light emitted by the trees, visible only from some few inches afar, prevented her to collide with them. A blast of fire directed where she had been a few seconds earlier told her that she had made the right decision. Because of the years spent living in dark forest, she managed to move around with a good pace while Skaï stayed at the same spot, his fire marking his position.
Running in circle around her target, Cielle took a deep breath, waited for a path clear of trees, and then exhaled a small but extremely quick fireball toward Skaï, a move she had learned from observing dragons' fights. The shot successfully reached the target, but only to spin around it and go back to where it came from, with increased speed, but when it reached its original source, Cielle was already gone. She repeated the same tactic several times, but they all met the same ending.
"You're slowing down!" she provoked him.
"You can't run around forever, Cielle!"
"You can't dodge forever, Avatar."
Still running, the firebender was observing the dim light of Skaï's fire standing alone in the darkness when it suddenly extinguished.
"He's still capable of reasoning," Cielle whispered to herself. Then, she suddenly stopped and listened to the night, standing perfectly motionless. He was running. Slowly, but with assurance. He was heading toward her. Dangerously. But suddenly, she heard a rough and heavy sound. The sound of someone falling on the ground. And then he screamed, louder than he ever did before. Cielle was about to light herself with fire to quickly go check on him, but a bright blue light suddenly emerged from the screams' source. The sudden change of luminosity made Cielle flinch and lean back on a tree. She hadn't even had the time to realize her mistake when the blue light suddenly turned blank, and then went completely black.
When she opened her eyes again, Cielle was lying on a white floor under a white sky. There was nothing. Absolute white in every directions the horizon could possibly choose take. She probably would've thought that she was dreaming if her body didn't ache so much. With great efforts, she got up and tried to firebend, but to no avail. Then, from behind her, a soft voice called her out.
She quickly turned back in a scared jump. The voice came from a tall middle aged woman in a long black dress. She had silky golden hair loose on her shoulders, and her green eyes were staring at Cielle with what seemed to be pity. Or sadness. Her face showed that it had suffered the damages of time, but still, she was beautiful.
"Mother..." said Cielle in a whisper of bewilderment, covering her mouth with one hand.
"You look so pretty," told her the woman with a smile full of regrets.
"This isn't possible," tried Cielle to convince herself by shaking her head. "You can't be here! You're... you're..."
"Dead. That's right. So is your father. And your best friend Leia. So is everyone. Everyone but you."
"Oh, mother... I'm so sorry," replied the girl falling to her knees, struck by memories of her past. Memories of deaths.
"Sorry?" said a new voice severely. Next to the tall woman, a man in a black-smith outfit, shorter than the person next to him, had appeared. Muscular with short deep black hair, golden eyes and fierce eyebrows, Cielle's father was just like she remembered him. "What difference does that make, eh Cielle? I mean, we're still all dead, no matter how sorry you are, am I right? We're all dead, but you're not."
Tears troubling her vision, Cielle was looking at the man speaking in front of her, unable to react.
"He's right, it isn't fair." This time, it was a little girl in a white dress who spoke. Her grey eyes half covered by her black hair were staring at Cielle with disdain. "What's so special about you that you should be the only one living?" said Leia.
"She didn't even buried us," intervened an old man which Cielle recognized as her former neighbor.
"She let us rot under those rocks? How sickening," added his wife.
"Why her?" asked a woman.
"Look at her, so full of herself," said another villager.
"You're proud to be the only one, aren't you?"
"I bet she found people still alive, but let them die to be the sole survivor."
"I'm so sorry, she said."
"Yeah, right. I heard she's been smiling a whole lot recently."
"How dare she?"
"It's for a boy."
"She goes flirting while we feed the bugs?"
"Well, being around her, he'll probably die soon too."
"Didn't he already?"
"SHUT UP!" Back on her feet, Cielle stopped the voices with the loudest shout she could manage. "Is that all you got, fiend?" she asked to the sky with a fierce and powerful voice. "I must admit," she said with a crooked smile, "that I was a bit shocked about seeing my parents at first. But you made a big mistake! Did you really believe you could submerge me with guilt by showing me the ghosts of my past? Because there's something you should have known, since you went into my head. And that is the fact that I've already seen all this hundreds and hundreds of time in my sleep. Night after night, I've been blaming myself for surviving alone, but recently, I've met someone who made me realize something. Surviving wasn't a sin. It was a chance given to me. No, a responsibility. Instead of living from despair until my time is up, I shall desperately cling to life until I make sure no one can never go through something like this again. Now, speak to me spirits! Why are you so angry?"
At first, it was silent, but then, one by one, the specters started shattering and disappearing. Then, in a single instant, Cielle saw it all. When the spirits still used to roam this world, the Spectral Forest was a haven for wildlife. Filled with vegetation and animals relying on it, it was like a sacred place for peaceful spirits, which in turn assured the prosperity of the area. Unfortunately, when the spirits moved out, this place was abandoned and, without the spirits protection, it eventually fell apart. And it all started when the humans chopped down the trees, killing the vegetation and scaring the animals away. Now, vengeful spirits had come back to punish those humans.
"I'm sorry," said Cielle genuinely apologizing for what her kind had done. "But you know what you must do, now, right? You know your responsibility."
She fell asleep.
When she opened her eyes, Skaï was looking at her with worried eyes, but smiled from relief when he saw her regaining consciousness. She immediately raised herself to look around her, but the Spectral Forest was gone. They were in the middle of a desert land.
"What happened?" she asked.
"I'd like to know. Last thing I remember is putting my head against a tree. From then, apart from intense pain, I can't recall anything," answered her companion. "When I woke up, everything was gone, except for you, several meters away, and this little tree there."
She looked where Skaï pointed and smiled.
"Well," said Cielle, "I think this Banyan tree might have a great future ahead of it."
To be continued
For the collective works of the author, go here.