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|This Side of the Glass|
October 27, 2013
Chapter Eight: This Side of the Glass
As I walked along the seashore with the waves rising and falling around me, I began to examine myself, from deep within, and from without. I questioned my existence. Before me, the prints of my friends slowly faded and disappeared with the rising tide. Behind me, my prints vanished just the same. There was no difference; in the steps of a man compared to the steps of a god—they both faded just as quickly. So what made us so different? I thought deeply to myself. Well, for one, the aspect of immortality. Timelessness was what made the gap between gods and men so vast. We could never mingle, for the friendship would be fleeting and brief—gone within the blink of an eye. They would die and we would live on, no matter how virtuous and kind-hearted they were. It was just the way of the worlds, and sometimes, the evil and corrupt got to live forever.
I sighed, feeling the brisk waters lap against my boots. On the outside, humans and gods were much the same, yes. We felt like them, we thought like them, we bled like them. But it was a different tale on the inside. Our wiring was different. The engines and cogs that kept gods running tirelessly were incompatible with those in humans. The gods could never truly comprehend the workings of man, and likewise, mankind could never hope to grasp the complexity of the gods. We were two entities, separated by an endless ocean, and there was no ship large enough to combat the crashing waves and perilous weather. It seemed, our positions were set, and we were to watch the struggles of the opposing shore. There was no changing that.
Out on the churning seas, large sea birds rose and fell with the currents, borne ceaselessly by the wind's impulsive nature. Further out, dark clouds rumbled low on the horizon, promising misery, wanting death. But I supposed that was much like the path of life. We, like the birds, do not choose our path. We are buffeted by the wind, drawn into some storms and delivered from others. We knew no other way.
In front of me, the departing tracks of my friends trailed off into the pine forest. I could not hear their talk any longer, only the ominous sound of the sea. I had better catch up, I thought. They might have need of my assistance, perhaps a few words of wisdom, though now I doubted my helpfulness more than ever. That was when I saw the smoke.
Cries of horror and despair filled the air. Turning my head towards the sound my vision was overtaken by a wall of flame.
"By the White," I said to myself, "Please, let them be safe." I dashed off, bounding over debris and flaming timber; to find my friends and fight my foes.
The flames flared and roared, licking the trees before swallowing them whole as a lion does its prey. Even from afar I could feel the intense heat of the fire on my face. My eyes watered, my tongue dried. I turned from the field of red to find solace. I could only imagine what it felt like to be enveloped in it. The thought made me run faster.
I stopped in a clearing of barren soil and cupped my hands around my mouth. "Aang! Sokka!" I yelled. "Katara! Where are you!"
I sidestepped a falling tree, fire biting at its crown of leaves, having already feasted on its trunk. It fell with a crash, sending embers everywhere. I brushed them from my shoulders and arms and squinted through the wall of flames for any trace of my friends.
"Where are you!" I yelled again.
Suddenly, from the red field emerged a young man, wearing scowl that would have made even my brother proud. His face reflected the dancing ring of flames around us, and on the left side of it was a grisly scar as red as our surroundings. Fire Nation, I thought.
"Where are my friends?"
"What's it to you?" he said.
"I am their guide, and I must find them quickly so tell me."
"Ah," he sighed, "so you're the guide I've heard so much of?" The young man looked me over "You're the one who has kept them safe and hidden from me."
"Who are you?" I asked. My brow furrowed in anger. "Answer quick, boy, or you may never again."
A growl rolled up through him like the fires surrounding us. "You dare threaten the crown prince of the Fire Nation? You ignorant fool." He gestured to himself. "I am Prince Zuko."
I watched him, the Crown Prince, his fists raised in defense. I saw what was buried within. I looked into those eyes of his, those dark, pained eyes. They had stories to tell, not all driven by rage. I saw pain, I saw sadness, I saw desire. He was but the product of a tainted upbringing. I knew that, for I was too. The only difference was the side on which we fought, and to whom we directed our rage.
"I see the pain in your eyes, Zuko. I know from where it comes." The flames had slowed. Even the roar quieted for our discourse. "Let this fool's chase burden you no further. You are not answerable to those who shamed you and sent you on this quest. Honor in their eyes is no honor at all." I extended my hands to him. "I can give you a chance, Zuko. Give this all up. Come with us, Zuko, and fight for all that is good. Fight for the White. Fight for a chance at life."
He watched me, contemplating my offer. It was enticing to even myself, even thought I despised it. I hated the spinners of gilded words, those masters of rhetoric who used honeyed words only for their gain at the expense of their listeners. In other words: my brother. I preferred to be blunt. But this prince didn't seem to be understanding, flowery language or no.
The sparks of hope in his eyes left. Fire lashed from his arms. "You don't know me!" He yelled. Once again the flames leapt from his arms and seared the very air. I did not want to hurt the boy. He wasn't evil. He was hurt, he had no where to go but on the path made by his elders. I could not hurt him.
"I can help you Zuko!" I called through the tempest of fire. "Let me help you!"
It was futile. He lashed out with whips of red and gold, and I could do nothing. I let them encircle me, the fire licking at my body. That was my first hurt on this world, and it hurt like nothing else. The warm lick became a searing bite and tear. The flames clung to me like sap from a tree, molten and alive. They tore, oh how they tore at me. But that was when it stopped. When the pain was most unendurable, it just stopped. And why? I was a god, was I not?
The boy prince gaped at me, a man he had watched burn before his eyes, only to emerge from the fire unscathed. My black garb gleamed anew, refreshed, not a blemish on the black cloth that defined my work.
"I can help you," I whispered to him. "I want to help you."
His head shook, he grabbed at his face, "No, you can't. You don't what what it's like for me. I want to go home! And I can't unless I do this; unless I get the Avatar!"
I splayed a hand upon my chest. "I too, can't go home, Zuko, unless I complete my quest. I can hardly remember those marble stone hallways, those majestic pillars, statues, fountains. I can hardly recall the sigil of my lineage, my house, yet I am it's heir. Do you know how long I've been away from home, Zuko?"
He shook his head.
"Twenty thousand years." The flames burned down to a crackle in the grove. "And Time will only roll on, like a wheel, and I must roll with it. And so must you."
"Home is not permanent, not some castle you can return to when the day's work is done. I know that now." My thoughts turned to the Keep of the White, the sheer white cliffs and bone colored battlements and walls. "Home is not that." I pointed at the boy prince. "Home is where you find your friends, your true friends. Do you think going back to the Fire Nation, to where they shunned you, will be like going home?"
Only Silence. His eyes shimmered, I almost had him.
"It will be nothing like that, Zuko. Home is where you laugh, where songs are sung that bring forth laughter, and where the skies grow dark and winter comes, yet you do not care, because you are with your friends. That is home, Zuko. So, let me help you."
Zuko was torn. He stared for the longest time. "No," he said. "You can't". And with that, he bolted, through the field of red and gold, away from me. Away from help. He was lost, in more ways than one. But like it or not, my duty was not to a troubled prince, but to my friends. And they needed me more than ever.
I dashed. I dashed and ran faster than I had ever before. My surroundings became a blur—a myriad of colors, shapes, and objects. Fallen trees, charred and black, lay smoking in heaps. The stench of ash, and smoke, and death combatted my senses, threatening to overwhelm me. My path took me up the slope towards the central village which was also in flames. It was there that I got my first glimpse of a true fighting force bred only for one purpose: war.
Packs of Fire Nation had swarmed the village, eager for death. I watched in a daze as people screamed and wept, yet the soldiers did not relent. Plumes of fire shot through the air, promising a wretched end. Everything that red menace touched was doomed. Entire buildings had turned to nothingness, devoured by the fire's insatiable hunger. I knew I would have to act.
So it would be. First, I took a deep breath, only as deep as was needed. Upon exhaling, I let the vapor from within me intensify and grow, until there was a downpour of water falling upon the burning village. Any and all flames were extinguished, thus saving the people from further harm. And then I turned to my grim duty.
With both hands stretched out, I sighted down the men that promised death, and dealt them their own cards. Lightning leapt from my hands, arcing across the flattened town square and contacting the nearest soldiers. They went down with garbled cries and their final grimaces of agony, and for the first time that day, the sounds of thunder rolled through the countryside. Again and again I loosed my innate power, leaving death in my wake. Through the village I walked, casting bolts and all the while, calling for my lost friends.
"Aang! Sokka! Katara!"
I yelled until my throat was raw, and I continued yelling.
"Aang! Sokka! Kata—"
"Atlas!" I heard the scream come from behind a burned hut.
Immediately I ran over to see who had beckoned for me. The dirt ground strewn with litter and blackened wood gave under my feet, but it did not stop me. Nothing stopped a god. Turning the corner of the straw and wood hut, I was relieved to find Sokka and Katara huddled on the ground, fear imprinted on their young faces.
"Atlas!" Katara cried, running over to me. "What do we do?"
"Where is Aang?" I asked.
"He went to get Appa," Sokka said.
"Good, we must lead these soldiers from this island. I have done what I can, but I am afraid it is not enough. Once we leave, they will stop burning."
"But Atlas," Katara said, "what of the people?"
I placed a hand on each of her shoulders pulling her close. "It is all part of the madness that is war, Katara. There is nothing we can do for so many, with so few. To leave is best, for the soldiers want us, not them. I have done what I can." I lifted her fallen head with a hand beneath her chin. "Come, perhaps the Avatar can do something about it."
I lead her and Sokka away from the burning hut, higher into the hills in search of Aang.
"Where is Aang?" I asked again.
Sokka pointed to his left up onto the crest of a hill. "He said to meet him up there. That's where he left Appa."
Together we made the short climb to the top of the knoll, which stood alone, devoid of trees in the forested surroundings. The slope was steep, but I urged Sokka and Katara onward, for the stakes were steeper. We did not have much time. The people of Kyoshi did not have much time.
At last we reached the top and met the furry, imposing form of Appa. Aang was already seated in the saddle, watching us impatiently.
"Hurry! Before they burn down the whole island," Aang yelled.
And we quickened our pace. Before long, we had left the ground, soaring above the burning island, watching in horror at the events below. I suppose my friends got a glimpse of what it was like to be a god, a mere spectator to the struggles of man.
"I can't leave them like that," Aang said, "I just can't." He leaped from his seat in the saddle, and plunged into the shadowy waters below.
"Aang!" Katara yelled. "What's he doing?"
I watched the boy, his fading shadow diving deeper. I knew exactly what he was doing. "He has gone to get some help."
We craned our necks, peering over the edge of the saddle, watching for any sign of our friend.
"He's been under a while," Sokka said. He nervously watched the unbroken plane of water.
"Look!" Katara said.
She pointed at a black form steadily growing from beneath the water. Suddenly, the unagi emerged from the sea with a cry and a spray of water and foam. On its back rode Aang, holding on by two long whiskers.
"He's going to put out the fire!" Katara yelled.
And put them out he did, with the water jets that streamed from the unagi's throat. But it was not enough. This was but one small cove, and there was an entire island that was dying. For the third time today, I had to act.
"Katara, Sokka," I said, "wait here. You might consider bundling up."
I leapt out of the saddle, as Aang had, and plunged into the sea. But before I contacted the water, I put forth an outstretched arm ready to impact the water with my channeled power. All the powers I knew were concentrated in that fist. A gift from the gods, I thought. With divine force, I rent the water with my hands, sending a blue wave high and far. However, I did not wish to flood Kyoshi Island. With precision, I blew the air again from my lungs, making the wall of water set to fall on the land side thin. I would not deny that the island was inundated, but it was saved from that terrible fire and it was not destroyed. The feast was cut short, I thought. What fires remained sputtered and died, leaving this world with a resounding hiss.
"You are saved, people of Kyoshi," I said.
Slowly, I returned to Appa, floating along gently, riding the rising wind that uplifted upon hitting the rocky walls of the cove. We were calm, that zephyr and I, coming home from a hard day's work on the sea.
I stepped down onto the saddle from the air, quietly thanking my brother wind for the ride.
"By the spirits, Atlas, that was amazing!" Katara said, upon my return.
"It was nothing Aang could not do, with the right training," I looked to Aang, who had retaken his seat. "But you did well, young Avatar. And those people have you to thank."
Aang beamed at me with that lopsided smile of his. "Thanks Atlas," he said.
"Why, you saved the people of Kyoshi too," Katara said, "why don't you ever take credit for your work?"
I simply watched her underneath my dark hood. "You know why, Katara. The mingling of gods and men is not something done lightly, and surely not something to be remembered. We are not like you, Katara. There is a reason we have lived in separate worlds."
"Of course you are!" Katara said in a pressing tone. She would not let this die. "What makes you act that way Atlas? You do the same things as us," she said, her eyes brimming with tears. "What makes you so different?"
I was torn. I knew not what to say, and that was saying something. "Katara," I said, searching for words, "we are much different that you think. My upbringing has taught me that...that mankind cannot interact with the dealings of gods, and the same cannot be done unto man. We are set, and there is a glass between us, Katara. And I watch you and Aang and Sokka from the other side. Believe me, Katara, I wish to see the world the way humans do, to shed that forsaken mantle of authority that I wear. But I am afraid I cannot."
Katara became quiet for a minute—the entire group became quiet, sitting in wait of what was to come.
Finally she spoke up, saying: "Well, glass can be distorted, making the sights it shows false and untrue," her expression became soft, wearing a warm smile spread wide with compassion. "And with the right tools, glass is fragile and can be broken."
I did not turn my gaze. "Those are wise words, Katara," I said. "Do you speak true?"
"Of course, Atlas." I felt her hand gently pull on my shoulder, lending a certain conviction to her words. "You are not like other gods. You do not fight in our name for us, you fight together with us guiding us, leading us, bleeding with us. And that makes all the difference, in the worlds. The glass is broken, Atlas, you have always known that. Now you just have to pass through it, and see me as I am. One step at a time, if you must."
"One step at a time," I repeated.
"Yes," the captivating voice rang clear, "but only when you're ready."
Within Katara, there was the makings of a god, of that I was sure. The sweet, ambrosial quality of her eyes revealed that much. But it was her lulling voice that made her words bind with my consciousness as none normally could. Perhaps, gods and men were not as incompatible as I thought.
I turned to the endless expanse of sea below, stretching as far as the eye could see. I thought of the journey from one end to the other. Oh, how much energy that would consume. But that was not the way to approach such a daunting task. It was one stroke at a time, right? One mile at a time, right? That ocean was much like life, and like Katara had said, "one step at a time, right?"
Slowly, I touched the soft edges of my hood, the dark mask that had hidden my identity for ages. The silken feel of the material was familiar to me, like a valued object kept hidden. The private knowledge of its every curve, line, touch, and feel, even in the dark, I knew. I knew the weightlessness my hood had, the darkness it created, the comfort it gave, cupping my head inside of it—like a mother cups her young.
The thing about mothers and their young, though, is that they grow distant. The young move on to travel the world and do what they will. I suppose it was time for me to do the same. There was no more hiding anymore. So with longing and regret, I took off the hood, tearing the gossamer fabric from the cloak with ease, and held it before me. The hood blew with the evening wind, flying tight like a sail. It was eager to leave me, I could see that, the way it snapped about in the air. I obliged. Opening my clenched fist, my hood flew away.
"One step at a time," I said, looking back at Katara, my exposed eyes boring into hers, and hers, into mine.
And with god and man as equals, we flew into the sunset, where the red of the falling sun dropped onto the blue and green of the ocean. And it looked much the same from the other side of the glass.
|As the Tide Breaks|
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