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August 7, 2013
Chapter 2: Happenstance
It was the most pitiful looking ship I had seen in ages. The greasy, tar covered vessel, hot and sooty from the coal fires that propelled it, had a haggard appearance and feel. As if conditions were not miserable enough, dim oil lamps cast a dismal, smoky light across the ship's vast corridors, illuminating little and creating flickering shadows that jittered and danced like beasts. The very conditions of the ship, dark and sinister as they were, would have made even the bravest men jump at every sound. Their hearts would pound in their chests at the thought of what lurked inside the dark crevices and cracks—thoughts of the ungodly beings dwelling in the depths of the ship.
I, however, had grown callous to such petty fears. I had since embraced the dark and become one with the night. Family habits, I supposed, ironic as they were. But I did not sneak into the stinking ship to reminisce on my past. I had come for someone. His name, as I understood it, was Aang, and he was the Avatar, the supposed master of all four elements. It was peculiar: all four elements, for I had known many more than four in my time. But again, I did not come to reminisce, I had come to help the Avatar—to help him save his world.
And my help arrived not a moment too late either, though he may not have known it at the time. Like a phantom, I swooped down from my perch on the network of pipes criss-crossing the ship, barring his way. He was just a boy, frightened like an animal caught in a trap. His eyes were wide and bloodshot, darting around erratically looking for danger. Immediately, their path crossed where I stood and locked onto my figure. The sight of me seemed to make him jump out of his skin with fright, as if I was some spectral ghost come to whisk him off to the underworld. I knew it was my appearance that had taken his imagination and run with it. My black garb seldom reaped compliments from others. It was only meant to blend with its surroundings when unseen, and cause nightmares when spotted. My thoughts must have drifted off, because the next time I looked back at the boy, his fists were raised, a maniacal look taking over his young visage.
"Stay your hand, Avatar, we both fight for all that is good." I spoke softly, but the weight of my words were ever present and had seemed to take effect. For, at the next moment, Aang's hands were lowered. He was squinting at me with a slight tilt of the head, giving me a thorough inspection.
"Who are you?" he asked.
A great choice of words, if not for the bloodthirsty men scouring the ship for him. His question would have to wait.
"Now is not the time nor place for introductions. We must be off. Perhaps, when we are with your friends, and your beast, I will give a name to myself. But right now, you need to move."
Yes, I had met his friends earlier. They were hard set on a reckless, suicidal mission to save their beloved friend. They had no idea about the surprises that awaited them—the living horrors that yearned to lap the blood that pooled from their lifeless corpses. Quite timely of me, I must say, that I came to their aid. It was one step in the right direction.
But I did not expect Aang to trust me. To learn of his friends' safety was surely a consoling thought, however, it did not warrant his trust. He had lowered his fists, but I did not believe for a second that he lowered his caution. He was no fool to trust a stranger, and a stranger of the likes of me at that.
"Where do we go?" He asked.
"Just follow me," I turned on the spot and began to walk, "and do keep up."
I hoped my walk did not scare him much, for it looked more like an eerie glide across the hall. My form shimmered, causing my outline to coalesce with the dark walls around me. Perks of the job, I thought. It must have scared him because he remained still, his legs like heavy foundation stones set to permanent rest.
I turned to him again, without so much as a loss in stride. "Hurry up Aang."
The sound of my voice jolted him out of his reverie—or was it a nightmare? Either way, he was moving, so I had that to be thankful for. I could only begin to wonder the thoughts and emotions that were exploding through his consciousness at the moment. Fear at being captured, fear of who he was, fear of me. He was doing quite well, his face betraying nothing of the turmoil that must have been ravaging his mind.
In fact, he was so engulfed in his thoughts, that he was oblivious to the set of gates that soon stood before us. They were hard to miss, with what I understood to be Fire Nation emblems emblazoned on each door, colored in fiery reds and the darkest blacks curling about each other to form a flaming badge.
"How does he do it," Aang said, the sound resonating in my ears.
It was the faintest whisper, yet I heard it quite clearly.
"If you would hurry yourself up, Aang, I will tell you." I pushed my weight against the pair of heavy, rusted iron doors. "Now, after you."
Squealing on their large hinges, the doors swung open, letting a torrent of light stream in like a flood. It must have been blinding for the poor boy, but at some point we all had to face the light of truth, even if it did hurt us. For Aang, coming back to the light—coming back to life from the depths—would be the hardest thing he would ever do. As the Old Ones once said: we do what we can with what we are given, yet sometimes, a little encouragement is needed.
I gave him the gentlest push I could, ushering him out onto the wide, flat deck. His eyes were clenched shut, screaming in protest and pining for the soothing feel of the dark. But I would not acquiesce, nor, it seemed, would Aang. He began to stumble out by his own will, blinking repeatedly to clear the white field that had overtaken his vision. I had no doubt that his first sight shocked him greatly.
A ring of Fire Nation soldiers encircled the group that was Sokka, Katara, and Appa the beast. All of them brandished sinister weapons, all curved, hooked, or pointed. They were armed to the teeth and armed for one purpose only: to kill. I feared the emotions that would surely be running through Aang at the moment, for they often coursed through my body, catching even me by surprise. Aang's face contorted in an unforgiving grimace. I knew the feeling well—the fury that was cascading through his veins, the rage that was thundering into his heart. He was coiled tighter than a spring ready to be loosed. There was only one problem.
"Calm yourself, Aang, these men are no threat to you or your friends. Take a closer look, if you will."
The almost tangible lethality given off by Aang dissolved immediately as he gave the soldiers a more careful look-down. They were frozen solid, much to his surprise. Some had two feet firmly on the deck, others had one as if in mid-stride, and others were fully suspended air, all of them still as statues. What struck me, however, was the fact that Aang could be capable of such an outward show of anger. It was something to note and remember.
The young Avatar turned to me, an incredulous look on his face. "Did you do this to them?"
Actually, I did. They had been quite the fuss, springing from below deck to waylay Sokka, Katara, Appa, and I. It was an act of cowardice, ambushing an outnumbered foe. Or so they thought. For I gave them a true taste of weakness and futility in the face of danger. I had been merciless.
Walking over to one of the brutes, I carefully studied his eyes that, if I was not mistaken, betrayed a hint of terror. The soldier's mouth was no longer curled into a grin. It was the unsightly rictus of despair. A despair for which I was responsible.
"I did. They were here upon my arrival with Sokka, Katara, and Appa. They surrounded us, intent on harming us so I had no choice. They were a threat to your friends and I acted accordingly."
Aang stared at the frozen men. "So are they..." he stuttered, struggling to find words, "are they dead?"
I gave the soldier a reassuring pat on the back. "No, they are still alive, but only just. They live at my discretion, suspended between life and death—a limbo of sorts, a purgatory of sorts, if you follow. Once we are off, I can grant them their lives if you wish."
"Of course," he replied. "No one deserves such a drawn out death."
And he was right. My initial expectations of the boy could not have been more wrong. He really had the balance within him. Maybe, just maybe, this was the right combination that would spell salvation for everyone. I gave him the slightest nod, submitting to his request—the only request in my long life that I was ever glad to fulfill.
"Shall we reunite you with your friends?"
"Yeah, I'd like that," Aang said.
His friends flocked to him like hummingbirds to sweet nectar. If ever there was a more heartwarming sight, I had not yet witnessed it. They hugged him, they hugged him again, and then they hugged him one more time. Even Appa let loose his large, wet tongue and lovingly ran it over his owner's back.
"Good to see you too, Appa," Aang said, chuckling in happiness.
Sokka spoke up. "Yeah, your sky bison is pretty nifty there Aang, once he finally gets into the air. Sorry for doubting ya."
Katara chimed in next, turning the group to face me. I stood with my hands clasped behind my back as they usually were. "Aang, this man helped us out." Katara pointed at me, "we had no clue how we would get to you deep within the ship. He kind of just showed up, and said he could help. He said it was his duty to help, so we didn't ask any questions. He took care of all these men and then went into the ship to get you. All by himself."
Aang's face exposed many things at that moment, but what rushed to the fore, fixed in his brown eyes, was a hunger to learn more. More about my cryptic personality, and of course, more about what I did and of course, who I was.
"Thanks for your help, sir. But...who are you?"
I took a cursory glance at the double doors from which Aang and I had emerged, and proceeded to say, "let us be off, on Appa, then I will tell you. There are more men below deck, and even a worm that spends its life burrowing underground must come above at least once in its life."
Minutes later, we were soaring above the icy glacial canyon where we had before been. The Fire Navy ship was diminished by the dark, ominous cliffs that surrounded it. Aang was noticeably more relieved to be off that hell-bound vessel, taking a comfortable seat at the front of the saddle, breathing in the salty sea spray.
"So," Aang asked, "now that we're safe from harm high up in the air, who are you?"
For a long moment I did not speak. I took a moment to feel the wind against my clothes, flapping and tearing them this way and that. But the time had come to reveal myself. I gave a long sigh and rubbed my fingers on each side of my head, and said: "Tell me, Aang, do you believe in deities?"
|As the Tide Breaks|
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