|More from Specialk16||Action/Adventure||PG-13||None||No update page|
August 16, 2013
Chapter Four: Embers
"Wait 'till you see it, Katara! You'll be blown away! The Southern Air Temple is one of the most beautiful places in the world! I'm sure you'll love it."
The young Avatar looked beside himself with joy, his mouth turned up in a crooked smile. Since the break of dawn I had watched him pack up the entire camp hastily. There was an eagerness and a longing for home burning within him. Katara went over and laid a gentle hand on Aang's shoulder. I knew what she would say.
"Aang, I know you're excited, and I am too, but it's been a hundred years since you've been home. Who knows what we'll see."
She had a point. There was no telling what changes would come to pass in one hundred short years, let alone twenty thousand. What would I see upon coming home? What would be different? I feared to think of the possibilities: my home in ashes, the carved faces of my ancestors crumbling to dust. And my father, in all his light and glory, extinguished. The thought stirred up my insides. I feared what Aang would see—for even after decades, the embers of the past may continue to smolder, lying in wait for the chance passing of unwary kindling. Aang knew not what lay ahead.
"Aang," I said, "a lot can change in a hundred years."
I saw him watch me, the slightest hint of frustration and defiance dancing in his eyes. It did not take an expert, or a god, for that matter, to tell that he was visibly distressed. He was trying ever so hard to resist our pleas towards reason.
Whatever he was thinking of, he seemed to ignore us. "Let's go! Southern Air Temple, here we come!" he said.
With that, Aang hopped into Appa's saddle, awaiting our departure. I just hoped he did not throw his friends' counsel to the wind in the hopes of finding his people. Perhaps he would think on our words during the journey. The world could not afford to lose him, again.
As we flew higher into the cold, clear sky, each member was silent, an almost somber feeling passing over the group. Everyone was turned inward, brooding on his or her own thoughts. All around, puffy clouds full of their cargo floated past carelessly, breaking the seemingly boundless expanse of blue above. Flat bottomed, anvil-shaped clouds towered on high, promising a downpour for those below. Like flying in and out of intermittent storms, our journey, so far, consisted of escaping one situation, and falling into another.
The higher we traveled, the less clouds there were, until to all sides the horizon began to curve at the edges. Sokka and Katara looked amazed, despite their sudden bout of shivering. They pointed to mountains spiking up into the sky, as if puncturing the azure firmament above. Cloud formations captured their attention, and the large expanse of oceans all around must have been overwhelming to say the least. It truly was beautiful.
As we continued on through the frozen sky, I sat with my arms folded tightly across my chest, my hood pulled up, shrouding my calculating eyes. For now, they were closed. I was thinking hard, concern starting to bite at the fringes of my mind. Even the sensation of flying, which never grew old, did not take precedence over the thoughts that were calling for me. How would Aang react to the news of his people's massacre? I knew the Avatars had some innate power. As I understood it, it was known as the Avatar State, which gave them insight to their past lives and consequently, immense power. Could Aang control it in such a state of grief and agony? I could not allow myself to sit by and watch as Aang brought danger or even death to our group. In that case, I would have to act.
At last we began to descend, and a good thing too. Sokka and Katara looked worse for wear despite their arctic upbringing. Sokka's nostrils had grown icicles and his hair and eyebrows had taken on a frosty white color. Even Katara, who took better care of herself than her brother, had begun to freeze, her hair loops taking on a hard, definite shape. The two of them sat shivering with their legs crossed and their hands tucked into their armpits. Everyone but Aang seemed affected by the cold. He sat still and straight in Appa's saddle, looking ever onward, indifferent to the inhospitable weather around him.
"There it is. The Southern Air Temple," Aang called back.
The three of us in the back peered over the edge of the saddle, looking to where Aang had pointed.
"Aang, it's amazing!" Katara said.
It truly was. Below, sitting high in the snowy alpine mountains, was a city hewn into the rock and built upon with the utmost care. The stonework was exquisite, consisting of both large, house-sized blocks and tiny keystones holding towering arches together. It was frighteningly familiar, reminding me of my long forgotten home. I pushed aside the feelings of nostalgia threatening to overwhelm me, and instead, turned my eyes to the empty corridors, the empty halls, and the empty courtyards. There was no one in sight. If the obvious vacancies had not yet caught Aang's attention, they surely would after we landed. Pots and pans sat unused, collecting dust and dirt instead of water and food. Lichen and moss was rampant, having had free roam for the last hundred years. The low growing shrubs peeked out of every crack and crag, fighting for a chance at light. It seemed things had moved on in this sanctuary. I just hoped Aang could move on with them.
"We're home, Appa!" Aang bent down and nuzzled up against the furry sky bison who let out a low grunt of agreement.
"Aang," I started, "please, take to heart what your friends have told you. All we want is fo—"
"Okay Atlas," Aang said, cutting me off.
With that he threw him legs over Appa's side and dropped out of view, grumbling to himself. There was nothing more I could say without using force, so I turned to Katara, concern etched on her young features.
"I fear for Aang, Katara. The prospect of his reaction to finding his friends and family dead could trigger something horribly violent."
"You're talking about the Avatar State, aren't you?" Katara asked.
Sokka had now turned his head to join the conversation.
"I fear that he will lose control of it, given the chance to enter it in such a fit of sadness and rage. The result could be disastrous. Not just for us, but for the entire world. There are forces you cannot comprehend that lie in wait for those to embrace hatred and violence."
"What are you talking about, Atlas?" Sokka said, leaning in closer with both hands propped on his knees.
"The Red has many followers, Sokka. Those that would speed mankind to its doom." The two siblings exchanged looks of surprise. "Some of these followers have nearly as much power as me. In this struggle, they have me outnumbered."
Katara picked at her nails, thinking best about what to say. "So, you're saying that these followers could attack Aang?"
"No, it is worse. They can control him, that is, if he freely embraces hatred and malevolent intent. In other words, they will have him if he seeks revenge not for the sake of justice, but out of a lust for violence itself."
Sokka and Katara pushed their bags around with their feet nervously, watching their surroundings like a frightened hare timidly watches for predators.
"Relax, you two," I said, "the Red's followers are not present now. They only come when called. Called by Aang."
"So all we have to do is keep him from getting angry," Sokka said.
"That may be harder than you think, Sokka. He has made himself deaf to our counsel as of late. I am not so sure he will somehow heed our warnings before he stumbles upon the truth himself. But if he does go into the Avatar State," I gave Sokka and Katara a serious glare, making sure that what I would say would sink in, "I want to make sure you two are far away. Only the White knows what will come of such a play of power. I will do the best I can to curb the workings of the Red, but I need your word that you two will run if the situation calls for it."
"We promise," the two said.
"Good," I replied. "Let us finish this talk and rejoin Aang. I say, he must be impatient to explore his long lost home. I sure would be."
The three of us dismounted Appa, walking over to where Aang stood on the other side of the courtyard. The ground crunched under our feet, the once elegant paving stones having fallen to the workings of Time. Aang was pushing the gravel around absentmindedly, looking out across the field below.
"That over there is where my friends and I would play airball," Aang said, "and over there is where the bison would sleep..." he let out a long and loud sigh.
"What's wrong?" Katara asked.
"This place used to be full of monks and lemurs and bison. Now there's just a bunch of weeds," He uprooted a patch of lichen, "I can't believe how much things have changed."
"Nothing is immune to Time, Aang," I told him. "As the Old Ones said: Time is a wheel, forever turning, forever spinning onward. Nothing can change that. So mankind must spin with it, whether we like it or not."
Both Sokka and Katara nodded at that, however, Aang seemed to fall deeper into his already detached state of mind. If I was not careful, we would lose all touch with the one hope for humanity. I just did not know how to reach him. He was cooped up in an impenetrable shell. Nothing went in and nothing came out.
Aang began walking towards the center of the courtyard, not caring much whether we followed him or not. His gait was slow—a shuffle, almost. He looked visibly shaken by the sights he had seen, or the lack of sights, for that matter. On the other side of the yard, he stopped before the statue of what I knew to be a monk.
"Who's that?" Sokka called from afar.
"Monk Gyatso. The greatest airbender in the world," Aang said.
He seemed in a more uplifted mood, if such a change was possible. Perhaps this man immortalized in stone was his friend. We approached him to find out.
"Aang, were you close with him?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "He taught me everything I know."
"Do you say so?"
"Mmm," Aang mouthed.
A dear friend, then, I thought. That was not good. A dear friend he may have been, and still may be, yes. But standing before us was no living man, rather, the cracked and worn representation of him. There was no more Gyatso, I knew that. I just wondered whether Aang could deduce that much as well. By the White, hopefully the boy could realize that and give up this fruitless search before he stumbled upon something worse.
"You must miss him," Katara said.
"Yeah, I do," Aang replied.
At that, he began to walk away, past the statue and up towards the hall entrances.
"Where are you going, Aang?" I called.
Without turning and without a loss in stride he replied. "The air temple sanctuary. I think it's time I met someone."
Who was there to meet? Clearly, no man could survive in those drafty halls for a hundred years. Surely Aang knew that. He seemed so determined, however, that I found myself at a loss at what to do. Where was he leading us? What secrets could there possibly be, laid to rest within those deep, dark halls.
"Well, we should follow him," I said, gesturing for Sokka and Katara to follow me.
Upon entering the temple proper, we were greeted by cold alpine blasts of air, running through the countless corridors. Wind streaked and weathered halls were all we saw. There was no life. All around us unused furniture, tools, clothes, and toys lay scattered on the hard tile. The sight brought me to the verge of sadness, if that was possible for me. How many people had sat in those chairs, at those desks? How many men had labored by the strength of their backs with the tools I saw lying rusted and unused? How many had worn those elegant orange and yellow garments, tirelessly crafted with care and love? How many children? How many children entertained themselves with the burlap sack dolls and stick men laying broken and forgotten on the rough ground. How many countless stories of afar and dreams of the future had the toys witnessed, all of them silently heard and kept, forever. How Aang could not see the obvious blade that was pointed at him was maddening. If not yet, he would see it soon, or feel the stabbing pain as it pierced his heart.
Sokka, Katara, and I followed Aang to a side corridor, stopping at a gate constructed of the most peculiar design. It was circular, with metal pipes and symbols covering every inch of it. Three openings to the pipes jutted outward and fanned open, allowing us to see the dark inside the contraption.
"I hope you still have the key, Aang," Sokka said, scratching his chin.
Aang turned to Sokka, a fleeting grin lighting up his features. "The key, Sokka, is airbending."
Without waiting, Aang faced the gate and loosed a steady, concentrated stream of air. The pipes sounded, calling in different pitches and tones, creating an enduring song. One by one, different switches and panels flipped and turned, changing the tone of the winds and slowly unlocking the door. At last, when the centerpiece rotated, the heavy doors—mere stone blocks for that matter—turned inward with a reluctant grumble of protest.
What we saw inside was something beyond much of the horrors I had seen during my endless years of travel. It was a graveyard. Strewn among what looked to be solemn statues, the Avatars, most likely, were the remains of Aang's people. Tattered clothes did a poor job of hiding the latticework of thigh and arm bones. Arrows stuck out between the ribs of many. Spears, broken off and splintered at the shafted made the room look like an enormous slumbering porcupine. Even shiny swords, praised by many a soldier, were left broken at the hilt in the bodies of countless men, women, and children. The killing field was so thick that the ground was barely discernible above the ocean of the dead. And staying consistent with the nature of oceans, there were always waves and Tides.
"Aang!" I called, "To me! Look away! Do not lose yourself to hatred! Push the thoughts of revenge from your mind! To me!"
My efforts were futile. Aang had keeled over, slouching limply on the stone legs of one of his past lives. He was numb to my calls. I could not reach him. He could not reach me. It was as if I was watching him through a wall of glass, forbidden to call through, only there to watch him wither and fall into madness.
Suddenly, the arrows running along his head and down his arms lit up with sunlike brightness. And so Aang had entered the Avatar State. Throughout the room, rising up to the ceiling, Avatar after stone Avatar began to light up. If ever I felt powerless, this was the moment. Even with the powers of a god, I, Atlas, could not even keep a young boy from returning home. How could I fail so easily? No, the real question was, how could I not? After all, it had been the trend for the last twenty thousand years. But Katara and Sokka, them, I would keep safe. I promised myself at least that.
"Aang! Hear me. Anger is not the answer! Do not turn to the Red! You have a duty. To this world, to mankind!"
I watched in despair as the young Avatar's form rose slowly off the ground, his figure surrounded by a tight ball of air. I had to act. With swiftness and finality I ran forward and grasped Aang's leg, the terrifying winds threatening to strip the flesh from my bones. Of course, I was safe from harm. But there was still Sokka and Katara to account for.
"Get out of here, you two!" I yelled back at them, pointing my free arm at the exit.
Thank the White that they understood my meaning, for they immediately bolted for the stone opening we had the unfortunate opportunity to enter. But before they could cross the archway that spelled their safety, the stone doors snapped shut with ungodly speed and strength. At that moment, all the life seemed to drain out of me. There was only one explanation.
"Aang," a cold, drawn out voice said, "the Red graciously thanks you for your support."
From across the room a dark form garbed in red velvety robes materialized. It raised a long slender arm, pointing with a sinister talon-filled hand.
"Come follower," it hissed. "Embrace the hatred, the violence, and let the Red Tide roll..."
|As the Tide Breaks|
For the collective works of the author, go here.