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Previously on Energy Saga
The Avatar Legion handily defeated the Anti-bender Militia, the Dai Li, the Air Nation and the Phoenix Army at the Battle of the Six Armies, with Aang beating Icarus and Azula in separate head-to-head duels, although after agreeing to an Agni Kai, the Avatar had to resort to earthbending when fighting Azula. In turn, she swore vengeance upon him for what she decided was an unfair victory. Even though Aang and company won, the battle was not without its costs. Sokka and Toph mourned the deaths of Hinko and Nala, respectively. Meanwhile, Aang decided to contact Yue to locate the spirit who approached her regarding energybending, so that he may at last fix his wife, Katara.
Chapter Forty-Two: Shihang Shi
Omashu Royal Palace Courtyard, 121 AG
"I'm still not sure about this." Neinei sat cross-legged, facing the Avatar. It was shortly after dusk when Aang summoned her. The moon was hanging loosely in the sky over Queen Toph's courtyard, having just taken the sun's place there, and Neinei's white hair hanging in a mess over her forehead and down her neck signified the trace of the Moon Spirit on her. Looking on were the queen herself, Chief Sokka and Fire Lady Mai.
"There's nothing to be nervous about. I must talk to Yue again if I'm to fix my wife, and you're the one who can help me," Aang told her pleadingly.
"Do you know what you're doing?" asked Mai, her arms crossed. She spoke in her usual dry tone, but her eyes told another story. Her face war a hint of an expression like that of a mother saber tooth moose-lion. "I don't trust these spiritual journeys."
"She'll be fine," Aang reassured her, raising a hand in the air for calming. "You can trust me on this."
"Why, because you're the Avatar?" Mai questioned him, as though peeved that the slender airbender would presume himself entitled to her respect.
"Because I've communicated with the spirits many times before," Aang explained to her, emphasizing his experience. "It's usually safe, as long as one has the right intentions."
"That's reassuring, coming from you," Mai said to him, but the words did not come at face value, and judging by her tone, she did not think this was the case. Aang had not always shown to have the right intentions in recent times.
To the Avatar's relief, Neinei put her hand up. "Mom, it's fine," said the exiled princess, looking the deposed Fire Lady in the eye. Mai opened up her mouth to say something more, but then slowly closed it again. Neinei then turned back to Aang. "I trust you."
"Thanks." Aang was a little uncomfortable at this statement. Katara had also said she trusted him at the Fire Nation Capital before he unwittingly drained her bodily energy from her. "Let's take our meditation, then."
One look showed that Neinei was not a habitual meditator. She struggled to sit still and squirmed her muscles to find the most comforting position. Several long moments passed by and Neinei opened her eyes in an instant. Like had been the case with Katara, she was not herself. Fortunately, though, it was a very different sort of not being herself. "Avatar Aang?"
"Yue, is that you?" Aang called from a few feet away. He felt the irrational need to speak unusually loud, to make sure he could be properly heard from right in front of her.
"Why do you contact me? I thought I made things clear last time." Yue spoke through Neinei, referring of course to when they last met in the Spirit Oasis.
"I know that you won't tell me any more about energybending, but I'm not asking you to," Aang said in a hurry. "I just want to know who the spirit was who forbade you from telling me any more on the subject."
An uncomfortable silence followed as Neinei sat paused, with her eyes open the same way, unblinking. "Very well. It was Shihang Shi, the Spirit of Aether."
Aang had first hard of this spirit from Sokka a couple days earlier. "Where do I find him?" he asked.
"Go to the murky lair of Urghin the Banisher and Silghid the Devourer," Neinei's body instructed. "These spirit creatures are thee guardians of the gate to the domain of Shihang Shi. You must go before them and declare you intentions – but be wary. Urghin the Banisher – a devious being – will expel those who are unworthy to speak with Shihang Shi, those who come before him and have no right to be there. Urghin will then summon his fellow henchman, Silghid the Devourer, the soaring beast of flame."
"And then this Silghid being devours them?" inquired Aang.
"That is correct." Neinei's face twitched, the spiritual voice of Yue fading as she ceased using her as a mouthpiece. "I wish you well, Avatar Aang." The Crown Princess of the Fire Nation exited meditation and fell forward, managing to catch the grassy ground with her palms.
Sokka stared at both of them, bewildered. "Well, that was...interesting."
"I'll say," said Toph, her arms crossed. "Now you know how to find the spirit you need."
Mai rushed over, bent down to place her hands on the shoulders of her daughter. "Neinei, are you alright?"
"I'm fine," Neinei answered, slightly out of breath. "Just a little tired."
"There's a couple extra monsters to deal with along the way, but hey, you're the Avatar," Sokka shrugged, clarifying that Aang's version of a big deal was unlike that of most human beings. "I'm sure it's nothing that you haven't handled before."
"Don't forget that I don't have any bending in the Spirit World," Aang noted, lifting his index finger. "And there's another problem. I've never seen Shihang Shi in the Spirit World, and I've also never heard of Urghin the Banisher or Silghid the Devourer either. So, knowing their names doesn't actually help me much."
"They sound pretty hard to miss, if you ask me," Sokka stated simply.
"No kidding," Toph said with a slight, cynical-sounding laugh. "Urghin the Banisher sounds like a formidable enemy."
"Same with Silghid the Devourer," said Sokka.
"A soaring beast of flame..." said Toph, quoting Yue.
"Obviously a dragon," Sokka said matter-of-factly.
"One would think so," concurred Toph.
"In the Spirit World, though, things are often not quite as they seem," noted Aang, turning his eyes to the side in deep thought. Then, with a sharp gasp, a triumphant smile spread across the Avatar's face. "I know where to go!"
King Bumi Central Square
Deciding that they could do little to assist Aang in his Spirit World venture, Tenzin and Migo took a stroll together in the downtown streets of Omashu. Although not bustling with activity like on a normal day, this area was infinitely more crowded than during the battle, when all civilians were advised to stay indoors.
"What's up, Migo?" asked Tenzin, looking up his companion's much taller figure. "You seem pretty aloof."
"Just thinking about stuff," Migo replied, not bothering to turn his head. "I'm glad everything's come together for us, now. We've been through a lot of fighting lately."
"Yeah, we have," said Tenzin. "As for me, I'm looking forward to some more cozy time between Neinei and I," he added smugly. "So...how is it on your end?"
"You mean with Toph?" questioned Migo, raising an eyebrow. He had not discussed his feelings with many people, let alone Tenzin.
"It's alright," Migo answered simply. "I've been trying to ask her to marry me for a while, but I haven't been able to."
"Did you go mute?" Tenzin asked bluntly.
"Ummm...no." Migo replied, not sure what to make of Tenzin's odd inquiry.
"Then there's nothing stopping you from asking her but yourself," Tenzin said flatly.
"I've been looking for the right moment, but it never seems to come.," Migo told him defensively. Since their reunion in Ba Sing Se, they had spent most of their time either fighting or on-the-run. Migo had hoped for more quiet time together in Omashu after the battle, but whenever Toph wasn't talking to Aang or somebody else, she was managing the official affairs of her the city. Maybe it had been absurd of him, but Migo had forgot being a city-monarch was such a busy profession.
"You can't wait forever on this," Tenzin told him, "How long ago did you decide to propose?"
"Shortly before going to Ba Sing Se," Migo answered.
"Are you serious?" asked Tenzin, widening his eyes in surprise. "That was so long ago! Migo, you've got to get a move on man."
"Actually, that was pretty recent," Migo clarified. "It only seems like it's been a while because of everything that's happened in between."
"Just do what my dad did," Tenzin advised his older friend.
"I'm an earthbender. I can't cloudbend."
"I'm not talking about when he wrote letters in the sky – although that was a nice touch," Tenzin said slyly. "He asked my mother to marry him in what was a simple, everyday setting for them. There is no right moment. Just do it."
"Hmmm..." said Migo, pondering the young adolescent's advice for his adult relationship.
Omashu Royal Palace
Not over an hour later, it was dinnertime for all but Aang, who, having contacted Yue, had gone off into the Spirit World on his own to find Shihang Shi and obtain the information he needed. Already late after braiding and straightening her hair, Vameira speed-walked down the hallway from the room she had been staying in the past few days. She stopped abruptly when she caught site of her brother heading the opposite direction. "Kaddo, what are you doing here?"
"Just hanging out." Kaddo responded, pretending to ignore his sister's suspicious eyes. "What are you doing here?"
"I was just going to dinner," Vameira stated, indicating the obvious. "I've been sleeping in this wing, remember? I share a room with Neinei. But what about you?"
As though she was staring right through him, Kaddo cleared the tension with the truth. "I thought that I'd go see our mother."
Vameira had not been expecting this. "You did?" she asked, concerned. "What do you think you'll accomplish by doing that? You know her condition..."
"She'll be better soon," Kaddo told her. "Dad'll fix her. I'm just going to see her early to – give her some reassurance."
"Do you really think you can help?"
"She'll recognize me," Kaddo said stubbornly. "I'm her son."
"Okay," said Vameira, breaking eye contact. "See you at dinner," she added sheepishly.
"Do you want to come?" asked Kaddo, beckoning after her.
"Alright," said Kaddo. As he walked down the rest of the long hallway to the place his mother had been staying in, Vameira looked on in pity.
Katara's room was small and cozy, but also dark and dreary. It consisted of a tiny bed, a round bedside table and a window, where the room's only light shone in from the starry sky outside. The entire setup looked out of place in the royal palace of Omashu.
Kaddo timidly trotted over to the mattress where his mother lay. "Mom?" he uttered. "It's me, Kaddo."
From a distance, it had appeared like she was looking out the window; lying rigid and still breathing. Kaddo picked her up her hand and gradually guided her to a sitting position, gently removing her blanket. So she could sit. It was unclear what else she could do without energy, though likely not much.
"It's terrible, what's happened to us," said Kaddo, shaking his head as he prepared to pour forth some of his emotional buildup. "But I wanted to let you know that it's going to be better. Dad's going to find a way to help you, Mom." Whether Kaddo's mother knew what he was saying or not, she did not react..
"I know you're still in there somewhere, Mom. You must be able to hear me." Kaddo gazed into Katara's bright, blue eyes where he had often found comfort, love and support. What he found there now was like a fog.
Kaddo thought to his many memories of waterbending training under her tutelage. She could be a stern, but caring teacher and mother. He had argued with her many times, and now he would give anything to have it be like that again. Today, all he found was a silhouette of his mother. People who mourned deceased loved ones had it better than this, he thought. What he had was not her, but more like a life-size moving picture of her that used to be real. That empty shell that was once used by a very real person, and it served as a constant reminder for what was lost.
"Oh, Mom...Mom..." said Kaddo, locking his arms around her neck, on the verge of tears. "I'm here for you."
Kaddo sat on the bed next to Katara and rested head on her shoulder, but it had no more meaning than resting his head on a rock, as he was seeking some of her warmth, but finding none. She was with him, but she really wasn't. It was merely a mobile inanimate object which resembled her. Although typically self-conscious about such things, Kaddo did not bother turning around to make sure that no one was watching before he cried his eyes out.
"Go. Away." The odd monkey-like spirit perched himself on his muddy mound in the middle of the vast Spirit World swamp. Wooden poles lined the sides of his designated spot like a large, worn-out bison polo goal.
"You're still here? But..." The monkey squinted his eyes, closing some of his white, furry mane around the rest of his face. "Of course you are. You're the Avatar."
"Yes," Aang declared with confidence, having just leapt off Hei Bai's backside. "I have business here."
"Is that so?" The monkey raised one of his thin eyebrows before gesturing to his other companion. "Return to the depths, Silghid!" The glowing fly sounly flew in a circle a few times, and then sank down into the swamp water below. The odd monkey spirit turned back to Aang. "You got something you'd like to say?"
"Sorry, I'm just having a hard time picturing him devouring anything," said Aang, eyeing the spot where the Spirit World firefly-like creature had been seconds before.
"You can't assume by first appearances in this world, Avatar," the monkey said with caution as he slowly brought down his eyelids and shook his head. "You should see him when he has more of an appetite. So, what's your business?"
"I must speak with Shihang Shi," stated Aang.
"Naturally. Is he expecting you?"
"No, but what I have to ask him is most urgent," Aang said in an attempt to sound decisive and in-charge.
"I suppose I can't stop you, if you're determined, Avatar," the odd spirit conceded, lifting one of his smooth paws. "But be warned – he might not be as enthused to see you if he doesn't know you're coming."
Aang bowed with respect. "Thank you...Urghin."
"Come forth," the old spirit creature instructed, rising to his feet and beckoning Aang to step up onto his mound. "Enter the portal."
"What portal?" asked Aang, looking about.
The spirit grabbed a long, fallen branch and swung it in turn at both wooden poles. A ripple formed approximately four feet in mid-air, exactly in the center of the space contained by the large gate. It gradually grew into a gaping hole with a purple spiral. Bracning himself, Avatar Aang stepped forward, disappearing as he passed through the bizarre spiritual gateway.
"Good riddance," Urghin the Banisher said as he sat back down and returned to his usual position. "Ommmm... "Ommmm..."
Omashu Royal Palace
The rightful Fire Lord Zuko's condition was steadily improving, and he was predicted to wake up within the day. Mai was already in his room, visiting her husband. Their daughter was heading there as well, when she bumped into someone along the way.
"Hi, Neinei," said Tenzin, smiling as he waved at his assumed significant other.
"Not now, Tenzin," Neinei brushed him off, still walking. "I'm going to my father's room. It's a family matter."
"I'll come," Tenzin told her eagerly, moving his legs with haste to keep up.
"It's a difficult time," Tenzin said with tenderness. "I feel like I should be there for you."
Neinei stopped walking at once and let out a sigh. "Tenzin, we need to talk."
"What do you mean?" asked Tenzin.
"Here's the thing..." Neinei began, trying to search for the right words. "I like you a lot. You're very funny and nice – even if you can act full of yourself sometimes."
"Ummm...thanks?" said Tenzin, not fully comprehending.
Neinei took a deep breath. "And I know that you have feelings for me, but the truth is...I don't feel the same way about you."
"What do you mean?" Tenzin asked, the hurtness already showing through his voice. "Think of all we've been through. We're perfect together! Why did you lead me on?"
"I didn't lead you on," Neinei countered sternly. "I know that our parents are close – and I truly am grateful that you escorted me from the Fire Nation Capital. Sorry if you got the wrong idea, but I've only ever thought of you as a friend."
"I understand," said Tenzin, hanging his head.
"Look, you're a great guy," said Neinei, reaching over and patting her hand on his shoulder. "I'm sure you'll find someone else better fit for you."
"I mean it!" said Neinei, trying to cheer him back up. "Your special someone is out there for you, even if it's someone you don't know or haven't met. Or maybe it's someone you have met, but you don't see them that way yet."
Aang was in a vast, unending desert of mist. He could barely see enough to find his fingers in front of his face. The flat ground felt like solid rock, but somewhat softer, though Aang could not glance down that far. Soon, the path led downward, over some steps or simply a jagged hill, descending into an area with a powerful aura – like the lair of Koh the Face Stealer, but almost invisible.
"Hello," Aang called out into the white void. "Shihang Shi, are you there?"
"Avatar. It's been a while, hasn't it?"
Aang blindly followed sound of the voice. He almost tried using seismic sense to help him further, but then her remembered he could not earthbend in the Spirit World. "Shihang Shi?"
"Why do you act so surprised?" Shihang Shi had the appearance of something in between a gangly ape and an armadillo bear, sitting down on a white throne-like seat that only appeared as a vague outline when contrasted with the background. "It is me you came to see, is it not?"
"Yes." Aang humbly put his hands together and bowed. "Thank you, great Spirit of Aether. I wanted to ask-"
"How shall I address you?" Shihang Shi interrupted. His voice was calm yet commanding.
"Pardon?" Aang asked the old spirit.
"How shall I address you?" Shihang Shi repeated. "I never know with you. Your story is a very curious one. While most stories have a beginning, a middle and an ending, your story has many beginnings, many middles and many endings. I can't be sure if I should address you as yourself or as this most recent persona you've adopted."
Aang thought about what the mysterious being was saying for a moment. "Are you asking whether I want you to call me the Avatar or call me Aang?"
"So you're in the mood for simple-talk today." Shihang Shi noted. "In that case: yes."
"I guess you can call me the Avatar." It made no difference to him, but he thought Shihang Shi would be more comfortable 'addressing' him as the Avatar. Aang had not expected this manner of speaking when he came.
"Okay, Avatar," said Shihang Shi, speaking in the same voice as before. Shihang Shi appeared to talk in constant monotone, no matter what the occasion. "What can I do for you? I'm busy. I have many stories to ponder, so make it quick."
"I need to fix my wife," Aang informed him.
"You've been married hundreds of times, Avatar," said Shihang Shi. "When you say your wife, do you mean the one called Katara?"
"Yes, I mean Katara," Aang clarified.
"The story of Katara has been told," Shihang Shi stated flatly.
"She's not dead," said Aang, assuming that was what Shihang Shi was referring to. "She's just had her energy sucked out – by my hand. I need to put her energy back."
"As I said, the story of Katara has been told," Shihang Shi repeated yet again. "It was a nice story, but it has had a beginning, a middle and an ending. Now you wish to undo the ending and return to the middle. That is not how it works, Avatar."
"Enough!" Aang proclaimed, losing his temper. "Katara was – I mean is – a person. She is not a story! Are you going to help me or not?"
"Not," said the spirit. "That should have been obvious by now. Not merely from our dialogue here, but also from what such an act would require," Shihang Shi continued. "It would require you to energybend – and the Moon Spirit has already told you where I stand on that."
"I made a mistake with Katara – and I really regret it," Aang pleaded. "Now I have to fix it. I never intended to do this in the first place. I just wanted to bring the Air Nomads back into the world."
"But the Air Nomads would come back into the world, anyway," said Shihang Shi "It would be slow and naturally, as your line reproduces overtime, but that is the way it must be."
Aang took a deep breath as he chose his next response. "I realize that I can't cheat and speed things up anymore. If I never energybent again once I had my wife back, wouldn't that be alright?"
"So, you admit that you can't cheat to bring back your people, but you remain willing to cheat for other reasons," Shihang Shi stated. "I knew that human body of yours would prevent you from thinking straight. The fact of the matter is that the world can't take anymore energybending than it already has. The fabric, backbone and lifeblood of the Mortal World from where you hail is in danger."
"I've seen problems with energybending, but why is it more crucial now than it was before that it can't be used at all anymore?" Aang asked. "While we're on the topic, why is it so harmful in the first place?"
"You really need me to explain that to you? Very well." Shihang Shi proceeded with his explanation. "Every time energybending is used by humankind, it is, by definition, a hostile and artificial disturbance on the balance and natural framework of the universe. Energybening tears apart the fabric of the natural order and strengthens itself by making the world more chaotic and causing the balance to fade in it's place. This effect is amplified by the simple truth that you're the Avatar, for your energy flows contrary to others already."
"Well, at least the damage is contained now," said Aang, pointing out a possible better side of the great scheme. "After Doru Kun fought The Mystic, he destroyed all knowledge of the art. I'm the only one who can use it and I won't energybend anymore."
"It sounds like you have a partial understanding of your role in this," Shihang Shi noted. "Very well, I'll tell you more of the origins. I will not, however, tell you how to perform any more energybending than you already know."
"Fine." At this point, Aang would take what he could get and try to make sense out of it.
"Long ago, spirits much greater than you or I shaped the world into existence," Shihang Shi began at the beginning. "Over time, the various species that were present at the very beginning evolved on their own path. The spirits continued to oversee the affairs of the planet with their ability to manipulate energy across dimensions. Once they saw the progress made by the mammal specimens called humans, some of the spirits chose to share part of their gift with them. Humanity was thus able to bend their own energy – not any kind of energy, like a spirit. This was at the time the spirits molded the Spirit Oasis, though I think you already knew that."
"Prior to the Avatar's arrival, a group of enlightened energybenders called the Five Great Sages worked to preserve the balance with the spirits. The arrangement was peaceful for a long while. Eventually, though, people figured out that all energies mix together and that they could influence other energies they were never meant to by bending their own. Matters were worsened once people figured out they could give or take the ability from others."
"I can imagine," said Aang.
"Of course, everything changed when you entered the Mortal World and humans began bending the elements instead," Shihang Shi went on. "But the balance is still not as peaceful as it once was."
"I may have caused some damage, but I stopped," said Aang.
"So you say. Yet you still crave to do more."
"It's different now!" Aang retorted. "When I energybent before, it was for 'fixing' the world out of false sense of duty. Now, I simply wish to clean it up."
"Your duty, right." Shihang Shi placed an uncomfortable emphasis on Aang's word.
"I remember that Avatar Kuruk lost the love of his life for wavering in his Avatar duties," Aang pointed out. "That was when Koh took her from him, but I'm doing my duty now. All I want is Katara back."
"Spare me," Shihang Shi waved away the example. "Other spirits might get worked up over you and your duty, but I've never understood it. That's why my dwelling is disconnected from elsewhere in the Spirit World."
"Yue and the Ocean Spirit listened to you," said Aang, sharpening his gaze.
"That was because I made it clear they had no choice," Shihang Shi told him. "In general, other spirits don't like me and I don't like them."
"Gee, I wonder why," Aang said irritably.
"I'm going to do you a favor, Avatar, and assume that was the human you talking and not your spiritual consciousness," informed Shihang Shi, staring uncouthly into Aang's orbs. "Be sure to teach your human self some manners. Remember that unlike you, I'm not powerless in the Spirit World. And you're not in a position to talk like that. The story of energybending should've ended long ago, but it's back now. It's back because you brought it back, and now you want to prolong it for the sake of your loved one. You gave your enemies the bending power to oppose you, and now, you don't know when to stop."
"It may have been bad under energybending before," Aang conceded. "But this new order seems to have had a lot of trouble as well."
"Oh, I agree fully," said Shihang Shi. "But it's surprising to hear you say that, Avatar."
"And why is that?"
"Because it was your idea."
She was quite possibly the best firebender who had ever lived. Miraculously, she had survived her fall, using jet propulsion in the nick of time before she latched herself onto a ledge. The ordeal was such that even she the mighty Azula out of breath by the end of it. As far as she knew, she was the all-time master of her art, but today she was a threat to herself.
She had always been sidelined by others: both her parents, her brother, her best friends, and now there was the Avatar. Her disappointment at Aang took the form of an intense rage. It appeared that at least he had understood her, after all that had gone wrong for her. Though their interests diverged in separate directions, she at least regarded him as having the decency to fight fair when the time came.
Once more, she was losing her faith in trust – and struggling to pull herself together. Trust was a crutch that kept her balanced; and it was quickly growing into quite an annoyance to keep up. "I might go insane again," she told herself. No, she couldn't let that happen. Azula needed someone else by her side, but she would be more careful about it, as she could not logically see herself giving all her trust away again.
Suddenly, a set of familiar male voices broke the silence in the wilderness she was in. Before they came too close, Azula swiftly hid behind a rounded boulder.
"So, what's the plan now, Captain?" asked one of the marching Dai Li agents.
"I'm not sure," Gitsu told him, his voice trailing off.
"You are our only leader now," the same Dai Li agent said to him, this time with increased urgency. "What are your orders?"
"I'll figure something out," Gitsu said more irritably. "Just give me a sec."
Smirking, Azula stepped out from around the boulder and emerged from her hiding spot. "Where are you all going?"
"Princess Azula!" Gitsu shifted gears and promptly took his fighting stance. Their encounter at the Southern Air Temple was still fresh in his mind.
"It's fine," Azula said calmly. "I come in peace."
"My-my idea?" Aang repeated, astonished.
"Yes, Avatar," said Shihang Shi. "That reincarnation cycle really has made you forgetful. The lessons of the Avatar Spirit within your essence become forgotten over time through different incarnations. As for the original ones, they are all but completely forgotten."
"So tell me now," Aang requested, still bewildered.
"Even with the aid of the Five Great Sages, their followers and their successors, balance was still not possible to retain in such an unstable world," Shihang Shi explained. "The spirits themselves were divided on what to do next. On one end, some spirits had grown disgusted at what humans had made of their gift, and moved to destroy them altogether. Others wanted to just take away the gift of energybending. There were some who desired to leave things as they were. That's when you stepped in with your proposal for a new kind of gift: a dose of power from spirits infused with the essence and beauty of world, rather than raw power alone."
"And that's when we started bending the four elements?"
"Exactly," said Shihang Shi. "With this new order, balance was possible in a way it would never be under energybending. The path of an energybender is a lonely one compared to an elemental bender. The four elements compliment each other and bring themselves into perfect harmony."
Aang stroked his chin for a moment, thinking. "I suppose it was the right thing to do," he said aloud. "It may not be perfect all the time, but it was meant to be."
"That is your view, Avatar. Not mine."
"I take it you disagreed when I put forth my idea?" Aang asked.
"Your instinct serves you well," answered Shihang Shi.
"Well, you must've seen that there's a reason things are like they are," said Aang, giving his own attempt at a lecture. "The Avatar keeps balance between the elements."
"No, it doesn't really make sense to me," Shihang Shi shot him down. "It would have made a little more sense to run it all from the Spirit World."
"Not at all," Aang continued. "If the Avatar were some great, powerful spirit who never died, it would never feel the preciousness of humanity. Each Avatar needs to learn to be compassionate toward all people, by living among them and having their experiences. Avatar Yangchen told me that-"
"Excuse me, Avatar Aang?" Shihang Shi interrupted loudly. "Avatar Yangchen told you. You mean, you told yourself?"
"That's not how it works. Each Avatar is a different person."
"I don't know how this cycle of yours works, Avatar – and I don't want to know," Shihang Shi said firmly. "I refuse to be lectured on the nature of the world by some glorified schizophrenic."
Avatar Aang scowled. "I changed my mind from before. I want you to call me Aang."
"Can never make up your mind, can you, Aang?" asked Shihang Shi.
"So, that was it? Once I introduced elemental bending, people stopped energybending?"
"Not quite," said Shihang Shi. "Some refused to accept the new order and wished to remain energybenders. There was a war. It lasted a thousand years and engulfed both the Mortal World and the Spirit World."
"Were The Masters some of the ones who resisted the change?" Aang inquired, remembering his old scroll.
"Definitely, The Masters were among them," Shihang Shi confirmed. "There were others, too, including some spirits. Where did you hear of The Masters, Avatar Aang?"
"I read about them on the Scroll of Forbidden Knowledge."
"The Masters were some of the strongest human opponents of the new order. They ruled over those they oppressed with an iron fist, flaunting their energybending power," said Shihang Shi. "The Masters had the arrogance even to challenge spirits. They sought power to shape the world to their liking. They could draw power from people, harness or remove their energies and do unspeakable things to them. They also left an imprint of energy in the world and in those who they bended so energybending would render them more of an advantage."
"It sounds like the transition to elemental bending wasn't easy," Aang commented, staring downward. "Humans and spirits fighting each other across both worlds for a millennium."
"It wasn't even merely humans and spirits," Shihang Shi clarified. "The bending creatures fought as allies of the First Avatar. They were thee badgermoles, the dragons, the sky bison, and the krakens. Do you remember the krakens through your past lives?"
"I do not," said Aang, though he remembered Yue talking about them in his first lesson. "What were they like?"
"Forget it, then," Shihang Shi said dismissively. "They were wonderous creatures, and their story is a great one, but describing them to someone who hasn't seen them is like describing seeing to a blind person."
Aang was about to mention Toph, but told himself he must stay on track. "Avatar Doru Kun said he encountered a 'Dark Spirit.' What is a Dark Spirit?"
"The Dark Spirits were the spirits who sided with keeping energybending and fought alongside The Masters," Shihang Shi told him. "They all perished during the war, except for one who got away and went into hiding."
"That must've been the one he encountered," Aang added. "I recall Doru Kun told me of a move to draw power on another person like the Avatar draws power from it's past lives in the Avatar State. Could The Masters do that?"
"Yes," replied Shihang Shi. "When energies flow as one, it results in a dependency. So when they drew on someone, it was like a way of strengthening themselves and taking a hostage simultaneously. To attack them was to attack their hostage. They would perish, just like the Avatar and its past lives would. It would be like a continuous Avatar State, where they drew the power, not like the Avatar Glow, where you glow your eyes for only a non-continuous instant, powering up for a single action." Shihang Shi proceeded to list some other energybending techniques. "More often, though, they used the moves you're more used to: energy shove, energy tremor, Shuten Shogai."
"Yue told me of a move to counter the energy shove by preventing the other's energy from returning to their body, but I never learned it because I had no need to," Aang told him. "When I use the Avatar State is different than this move where they 'feed' off the other's energy. My past lives grant me their strength willingly, as opposed to hostages like they are here."
"Hopefully you can still count on that, for your sake, Aang," Shihang Shi said without friendliness. "Your past lives have unfavorable view of energybending." This was true for Roku – and Yangchen – and undoubtedly Doru Kun as well. "There is a time to leave things alone. It's going to be hard to undo all you've done lately. You helped solve it, and now you've started it all over again."
"I...I didn't know," said Aang, flabbergasted at the sum of all the revelations.
"I suppose not, but the question still remains. What to do now? Your idea lasted a while – much longer than I expected, but I guess it's over now."
"What do you mean?" Aang asked, uneasy about where Shihang Shi was going with his words.
"It's time to end the whole show," said Shihang Shi. "Humanity has had it's chance, but they never cease from causing havoc, even in your 'balanced' world."
Aang widened his eyes in fury, adrenaline coursing through his very spirit. "Are you threatening to destroy humanity? You may be a powerful spirit, but I can tell you'd be exaggerating if you're trying to say that."
"I may not be able to do it all on my own," Shihang Shi admitted. "But I could act indirectly to achieve the same end."
"No," Aang said in defiance.
"Oh?" Shihang Shi questioned, almost sounding amused. "Why not? You said that even you've seen the error of the current way."
"Those are my people and you will not touch them!" Aang shouted in anger. "If you so much as scratch the world I know and love, you'll have me to answer to!" He spoke of his family, his friends, and all people by extension of his Avatar duties.
"As rebellious as ever, aren't you?" Shihang Shi noted. "Like I said, though, I wouldn't have to act directly. I would merely have to destroy the Spirit Oasis. I could do that. The world would turn on itself without the spiritual connection. The most savage nature of humanity released when exposed to chaos without spiritual guidance. They would do themselves in. I wonder if you could still call them precious and compassionate if you saw that. Besides, haven't you become sick of it all?"
"What do you mean?" Aang asked quizzically.
"Your existence is partially like that of a spirit, but trapped with a human soul from lifetime to lifetime, with all your 'duties' and serving as the bridge between the worlds. It's quite a burden for a being. You must've grown sick of it at some point. Sometimes one or two of the nations go bad. Sometimes they fight each other. Sometimes there is a spiritual disturbance or natural disaster that disturbs the balance. Whenever you restore the balance, it's only a matter of time before something else wrecks it and you have to restore it again. So, why do you do this for all eternity? For what purpose do you forever carry this weight on your shoulders, when everything you've ever done becomes in vain sooner or later?"
"This is what I do," Aang declared proudly. "You may see it as a stupid pattern, but I see it differently. Sure, the world gets into trouble sometimes, but being a parent has really helped me see the big picture of my Avatarhood. The world can be like a tempered child. It's never perfect, and it has to be given the time to grow and mature, which requires patience. But humans are a well-created species with potential to thrive become something wonderful when given the chance. Only a fraction of their success can be beheld in their achievements. It's the small things humans do day-by-day that ultimately justify their existence."
"In some ways, you're exactly the same from lifetime to lifetime, Avatar," said Shihang Shi. "You're as naive as you've always been."
"Looking at you, I can see why what Yangchen said was true," Aang said coolly. "I think I'm going to leave. I can find a way to help Katara with or without you. I have all the time in the world now that the balance is restored once again."
"So you think the world is back in balance?" Shihang Shi asked, as though intrigued by such a statement. "You're much mistaken, Aang. The balance is in more danger now than ever."
"How is that possible?" asked Aang, confused.
"Think about it," Shihang Shi said to him. "It's been right in front of you for years. You should've realized it by now. It would be hilarious that you haven't figured it out yet if it weren't so catastrophic."
Aang shook his head in denial. "I defeated the Air Nation and the Phoenix Army. I'm not energybending anymore, so I don't see what more I have to do."
"You may have stopped, but things have spread beyond your control," said Shihang Shi. "All the energybending you've ever done will work against you if you try to stop it. Also, while you've succeeded and failed many times before, in the past you were able to count on your next life to fix the problems, should you fail. This time, however, I sense there won't be a next time if you fail. The Avatar will cease to exist."
"Understood," said Aang. "Whatever needs to be done, I'll do it. It's my duty – for humanity and the world."
"Very well, Aang. I simply wanted to try something new: undo the Providence Spirit's mistakes in creating them and your own mistake protecting them. It would have been a more original story than I'm accustomed to hearing," said Shihang Shi. Aang could tell that he was disappointed, even though this spirit was remarkably difficult to get a read on. "Go on then, save the world, just like you always do. Bring back the balance so it can be lost again later. But you better not fail this time. As much as I don't like you, Avatar, I can tolerate the world under your order. But I would not be able to tolerate the world that would come after you in this case. I've had this conversation with you once, Avatar, and I won't have it again with you or anyone else. So if you fail, I will destroy the Spirit Oasis. After losing both the Avatar and the other strongest gateway that gives them a connection to the spirits, I reckon that humans would tear themselves apart."
"Where should I go once I exit this place?" Aang inquired, as he remained entirely clueless on his new mission.
"It doesn't really matter where you go, since trouble will find you," Shihang Shi told him. "You might want to try the place you're at your best. It's the other great spiritual gateway."
"I thought that the Avatar and the Spirit Oasis were the only ones," said Aang.
"My bad. There's one more," said Shihang Shi. "But it would be meaningless without you, so it's all the same."
"Where is it?"
"You've already been there, Aang," Shihang Shi told him. "It supposedly reveals the truth about people. You'll find a giant wolf there waiting for you."
"Are you talking about the Cave of the Ancients?" Aang asked, perplexed.
"What does the Cave of the Ancients have to do with the Avatar? Why is that a good place for me to go?"
"It's where your prime incarnation came into your world," Shihang Shi informed.
"The first Avatar was born there?"
"Yes," Shihang Shi confirmed. "The city at the center is where the first Avatar gathered his followers to change the world. You're stronger there than anywhere else, but the whole area will deteriorate if you're gone, because the connection won't be there with you."
Although he had just been given helpful information, Aang's opinion of the spirit had not risen one bit. "I must be going, then." With that, the Avatar turned and departed from Shihang Shi's realm.
Shortly after Aang had left, Shihang Shi had another visitor. "Hello, Koh. This really is the day for us older spirits. The Avatar was here, and he just visited you, too. Yes?"
"Just?" the giant centipede-like spirit asked as he encircled the area above Shihang Shi's head. "He came to see me twenty-one years ago."
"Just now, twenty years ago, doesn't make a difference," said Shihang Shi. "It's all in the blink of an eye for us, don't you agree?"
"Yes, indeed," said Koh, clicking his many pincers back and forth. "So, any emotion to show me today?"
"Oh come now, Koh. I don't have emotions."
"I see..." said Koh, disappointed. "Well, until next time, then."
"Until next time."
Omashu Royal Palace
Once more, Toph and Sokka were waiting in the former's grand throne room. They had bcome quite restless by the time Aang emerged.
"Twinkle Toes, you're back!" exclaimed Toph, standing up to greet one of her oldest friends.
"Did you find out how to put my sister back right?" Sokka asked Aang, eager for a response.
"I'm afraid I didn't," Aang told him. He was equally as disappointed at the words coming out of his mouth as Sokka was. "There's more, though. We have to go back to the Cave of the Ancients."
"That place again?" asked Sokka, raising an eyebrow. "What for?"
"To save the world," said Aang, describing as much as he knew.
"Didn't we just do that?" asked Sokka.
"What's in the cave that we have to save the world from?" Toph inquired further, more serious than when Aang arrived.
"Haven't the slightest idea," Aang told them. "I guess we'll find out when we get there," he added with a shrug.
Though taken aback, Chief Sokka quickly regained himself and nodded. "Zuko, Mai and Neinei should be able to stay behind under the circumstances. I'll get everyone else assembled though...for whatever this is for."
"I just realized something," Toph reflected.
"What, Toph?" Sokka asked.
"I remember when I left my parents' house all those years ago. Everything you said, I took at face value. I thought that I would train Twinkle Toes in earthbending, so that he would defeat the Fire Lord and the world would be back in balance, and then we could look forward to the kind of life others call normal for ourselves. But even a supposedly-peaceful world has so much that's wrong with it." She thought back to the Yu Dao crisis, Zhao Jr.'s attempted coup, and all the minor rebellions in between. The Fire Nation Civil War was of course the largest yet.
"Yeah," agreed Aang. "The last several months have shown that no matter how things seem, it can all go wrong again so quickly."
"It's never going to end then, is it?" asked Toph, not quite meeting their eyes. "We're going to be doing this for the rest of our lives."
"It looks that way," Sokka conceded.
"In that case, I'm not sure if I should ever settle down or have kids," Toph confided to them both. "They would get caught up in it all. Look at everything your kids have been through." In Aang's case, Tenzin, Kaddo and Vameira had been in-and-out of mortal danger, and it was much worse for Sokka, who actually did lose Hinko.
"Being trapped in saving the world over and over is a hard path," said Aang, putting his arm on Toph's shoulder. "We may never know what others call a peaceful life, but we'll always have an inner peace with each other, as long as we're by each others' side."
Toph rubbed her fist across her face, hr blind eyes glazing. "Is that some kooky, Air Nomad saying?"
"Okay," said Toph. "Just this once, I think I can accept it." The three friends extended their arms out and joined with one another in an embrace.
"Actually, that was more like a saying I made up myself, just now," said Aang. Toph broke the hug and punched Aang playfully in the arm. Soon, they had another visitor as Migo came into the room, seemingly with something on his mind.
"Migo!" Sokka called out loudly. "Good timing."
"Hello," said Migo, staring unsurely at what he walked in on. "Toph, can I talk to you alone for a moment? I have something I want to ask."
Queen Toph shook her head. "Whatever it is, it's going to have to wait. We're all departing this city as soon as possible for something important."
"Oh?" said Migo. "What is it?"
"We're off to save the world again," Sokka told him.
"Great," said Migo. "That's been more-or-less the routine, since I met you guys."
"It's what I do," said Aang, smiling. "What we do," he corrected himself. Even if he didn't have the favor of past lives at the moment, he had the luxury of being able to depend on himself and his friends. The Avatar Legion – Team Avatar – whatever one called it, it was back again. Just like when he fought the Fire Lord, if he didn't act soon, there wouldn't be a world to save anymore. Zuko's words still rang in his ears to this day.
At least he knew where to go. It was back to the Cave of the Ancients. Like when he saved the world from Ozai, Aang had met with a powerful being beforehand. When he was younger, though, it was more clear-cut. He knew what he had to do, however hard it might be: defeat the Fire Lord.
But what was he supposed to do this time?
TO BE CONTINUED...
- I came up with Shihang Shi's name a while ago. It originally had a meaning, but I forgot what it was and I couldn't find it written down anywhere, so I guess that's a lost part of the story.
- The part where Aang talks about Yangchen and the prospect of the Avatar being a powerful, all-knowing spirit not in human form is a reference to Escape from the Spirit World.
- Zuko's words about saving the world at the end are a reference to Sozin's Comet.
- Aang having the moment when he realized the truth – which wasn't what it seemed – at the beginning of the chapter is a reference to The King of Omashu.
- Before anyone asks if I intended things differently and changed my mind when we found out about Pema, that is not the case. I never intended "Neizin" to work out.
- In a way, the krakens are like a parallel to the Air Nomads. They were eliminated in a long war when the enemy dealt a first strike. Unlike Aang, the Providence Spirit did not resurrect them unnaturally – for such an action would defy the laws of creation – but allowed for a more proper path to balance to be paved with Tui and La, who entered the world in the Spirit Oasis.
For the collective works of the author, go here.