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April 2, 2013
Previously in Air
Venturing into the Spirit World, Aang learned that the darkness is a result of an unnatural skew to the Balance. Someone in the mortal world is attempting to bring the two worlds together. They were attacked by the shadows encroaching on the spiritual plane, and when Aang revived the summer solstice -and his window back to the mortal world- had passed.
Chapter Sixty-Three: Cursed
"Calm yourself, Aang," Haku ordered.
Without comprehending it, Aang obeyed, gulping down a deep breath.
"You aren't trapped. Not eternally, anyway."
A strangled laugh escaped Aang's throat. "Right, just until the winter solstice. Just for sixth months!"
He paled. Six months... Haku spoke again, but he didn't listen. His brain whirled. Six months! By then, his child would already be born. Katara would no longer be pregnant. He wouldn't be there to rub her feet, he wouldn't fret and worry over every word in case it might upset her, he wouldn't be there to trek through the snow to get her a papaya when she craved it. He would miss it all!
Haku scowled at his oblivious young counterpart. He glanced up at Yue, but the Moon Spirit shrugged. He reached out, his hand right before Aang's face, and snapped his fingers with surprising force. "Aang!"
Aang jumped, blinking away his shock. "I can't just sit here and wait!" he cried, bolting to his feet. "I'll miss everything! I'd never forgive myself. Six months is too long–"
"I agree," Haku cut in. "Six months is too long. Plus," he added, "You won't survive that long anyway."
Aang stared at him. His jaw dropped open; his mouth moved in an attempt to speak, but no words came.
"You shouldn't be so harsh with him," Yue admonished.
Haku shook his head. "We have little time to waste." He turned back to Aang. "Now that I've finally got your attention, you must realize that six months is too long for any of us. Already the darkness has nearly conquered the Spirit World, and soon it will move into the mortal realm. In six months, we will no longer exist."
Aang swallowed hard. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes to gather his senses. "What do we do?"
Yue moved forward. Her bright glow combated the darkness, but Aang wondered how long that would last. "The Spirit World is almost claimed by the shadows, but the origin of this Chaos lies within the mortal world, Aang. Someone is attempting to force open a path between the two worlds, and they are skewing the natural Balance of things."
Haku nodded agreement. "What we need to do is get you back home."
"Okay. Great." Aang kneaded his forehead in frustration. "But you just said we can't afford to wait six months. So how do I get back without the solstice?"
"You don't know?" Haku grinned, and Aang noticed for the first time how crooked and mischievous a grin it was. "I thought you said you read my journal," he teased.
Aang flushed, a mixture of annoyance, embarrassment and frustration. "I did! At least, some of it. Okay, only a little, but..." He frowned, his voice trailing off. Something pricked at the back of his mind, an idea. He had read something in Haku's journal. It had given him the idea to try passing into the Spirit World as a mortal, through meditation. But Haku had mentioned one other means of travel.
"The Spirit Oasis," Aang cried. "You want to send me back through the spiritual hotspot."
"I was thinking of one a bit closer," Haku said, "But yes."
Steam bellowed from the ship's smokestack as it plowed through the waves, toward the small island.
"One of my men has a grandmother here," Captain Jee explained. "He's says the port can make adequate repairs until we return to the mainland."
Zuko nodded. And how their ship needed repairs!
Chong had tried very hard to get them to turn back and dock in Ember Island for a patch up. He'd even composed a few short verses on it, strumming away on his instrument and begging with song while his nomadic troupe backed him up. Apparently, the Ember Island Players were performing a modern masterpiece entitled, 'The Cave of Two Lovers: A Tale of War, Unconditional Love, and a Secret Tunnel'.
Ursa and Roh-Roh stood before their father, peering over the rail at the approaching shore. "What's the name of the island, Captain?"
"It is known now as Xing Shi Yu, Princess," the Captain replied. "Though I believe it had a more practical name once upon a time."
Roh-Roh peered over his sister's shoulder at the captain. "What does it mean?"
"Ah." Jee cleared his throat. He shot a quick glance at the Firelord, but Zuko seemed as intrigued as his children. "It means 'Land of the Walking Corpses.'"
Roh-Roh's eyes widened, and he ducked his head behind Ursa again.
Ursa shivered in delight. "It sounds ominous."
Jee chuckled. "There are a great many stories that come from this island," he said. "People say it's cursed."
Ursa and Roh-Roh exchanged their wonder in a glance. Cursed?
Mai examined her fingernails with a bored expression, standing close to Zuko. She heaved a dramatic sigh. "First ghost, pirates, and monsters...now a curse? Just what we needed."
Zuko cracked a smile. "Should I be worried, Captain?" he asked, a twinkle in his eye.
Jee returned the smile. "It is only a legend, Your Majesty," he said with the assured calm of an unbeliever. "The locals do what they can to attract tourists."
Ursa and Roh-Roh heard his words, but they shared a secret glance. Perhaps they sensed what he did not say, that the soldier who had informed Jee of the island suggested they not stay long.
The two children turned back to the island, chills racing up their spine.
As the sailors scurried about preparing to dock, Sokka ducked to the rear of the ship. He'd spotted Haru talking with Captain Jee –the earthbender was fascinated with the ship and had been asking all kinds of questions about sailing– and if that didn't keep him distracted, Sokka also noticed Ty Lee waiting to pounce on him. Apparently the Stache Man's stache had worked its magic on another young maiden.
It didn't take him long to find Toph; she was laughing loudly with several of the soldiers and sailors. At first, the men had made the mistake of treating her with the respect a lady of her standing surely deserved, but Toph quickly broke them of that.
They stood in a circle, laughing over some joke, when Sokka interrupted with a polite cough. In order to actually interrupt the loud laughter, he nearly punctured a lung, but he got their attention.
Toph scowled in his direction. "What do you want, Sokka?"
"I'd like a word with you," Sokka said, glancing pointedly at her company.
Toph grinned. "A real one, or one you made-up?"
The soldiers snickered, but the laughter quickly died when Sokka did not join in.
Si Yung cleared his throat. "We'd better be going, anyhow," he said quickly, ushering his companions away. "Once we hit land, we're back on duty."
As the soldiers scuffled farther down the deck, Toph's scowl deepened.
"I don't want to talk about it," she growled, before Sokka opened his mouth.
"You don't even know what I'm going to say!" he protested.
Toph crossed her arms. "You're going to say something about Haru."
Sokka deflated. "Well, yeah."
"He's being a baby," Toph said. "He's going to have to deal with it, and don't tell me I have to ease up or try a nice, soft approach to get it through his head. That's Katara's deal, not mine."
"That isn't what I was going to say at all," Sokka said, his brow knitting over troubled eyes.
"Really?" Toph cocked her head in surprise. "What were you going to say?"
"That you had no right butting into his life like that."
Toph stepped back as if struck. She blinked several times, sputtering, "Look, Sokka, I don't expect you to understand–"
"Not only that," Sokka continued, ignoring her protests, "You were incredibly callous. It's no wonder he's not talking to you anymore."
Toph blushed. "You caught that, huh?"
"Everyone caught that," Sokka assured her.
Her blush brightened. "Well... I don't care! He might not believe me, but it's for his own good. I've been there! You didn't see the way his dad was needling him to go home. Haru thinks it's all his idea, but he's just falling right into his parents' plans."
"You're projecting," Sokka told her.
"Projecting," Sokka repeated. "It means–" He frowned suddenly, realizing the definition had slipped from his mind. "You're putting Haru into your place, and treating his situation the way you would. Did."
"I agree with you about Haru," Sokka said. "He is capable of great things, Toph. Maybe leading his village isn't the best place for him. But he can still do great things there, and it's his decision to make."
Toph tried to protest, but Sokka cut her off.
"During the War," he said, "Before I met Aang, my father took all the men of my village off to fight. He left me in charge. If someone would have told me then –insisted– that I would better serve as a warrior and ambassador than as the leader of my village, I would have told them to leave and never come back."
Toph frowned. "But you do make a better ambassador. And you're not even the leader of your village anymore."
"I know. And I wouldn't trade my life for anything now. When it actually happened, I accepted it, because I knew it was the best place for me. But back then, I knew the best place for me was with my village.
"People change, Toph, and so does life. But you have to let it change on its own. It's not something you can force, because if you do, that makes you no better than the parents who kept you from earthbending."
Toph's face flushed deep red, but this time it wasn't in embarrassment.
"Haru could do great things given the opportunity, but you have to let him make his own decisions. He has to choose his life for himself, just like you did when you ran away from home to teach the Avatar earthbending. If the time ever comes when Haru will take a bigger role than the leader of his village, he'll recognize it himself." He cracked a grin. "Then you'll get to say I told you so."
Toph's reddened face nearly glowed, but for a long moment she said nothing. Finally, she snorted. "That actually makes sense."
Sokka scowled at her. "You don't have to sound so surprised!"
Toph grinned. "I'm not used to this wise and profound Sokka."
Sokka straightened with dignity. "I think it's the benefit of fatherhood."
"Nah, I bet it's old age."
"I'm not that old!"
"Are you sure?" Toph asked innocently. "I think I see a couple of gray hairs..."
"What?" Sokka cried in horror. He had already dashed several feet away in search of a looking glass when he stopped short. "That's not funny!" he shouted back at his blind friend.
But Toph couldn't hear him over her cackles.
Despite Haku's assurance that the place he had in mind was much closer than the Spirit Oasis, Aang quickly learned it was not exactly 'close'. Even without a clear concept of time in the ethereal world, Aang knew they had been walking for a long time. He knew that the two worlds were parallel to one another, and he wondered for a moment whether the worlds themselves mirrored one another. If so, he could be walking through what would be an ocean in the physical realm. Did that mean that if the two worlds were forced any closer together he might drop into the water?
Pain stabbed through his head. Aang decided these thought were more trouble than they were worth and shook them away. "So..."
Haku glanced at him, his pace never wavering. Aang felt a pang of jealously; as a spirit, Haku did not walk through the tricky terrain, merely floated over it.
"Why does Miku hate you so much?"
Haku's lips curled; it looked more like a grimace than a smile, but it was not wholly without mirth, either. "I told you before, Aang, that the spirits consider the Avatar a tainted being. Mortals are worthy creatures in their eyes, but they are by no means worthy enough to handle the problems of the Spirit World."
"But they did need your help," Aang concluded. "So he's just mad because you helped them solve a problem they couldn't on their own?"
Haku chuckled, but the sound was harsh against Aang's ears. "Miku has never forgiven me because I proved him wrong in his conceptions of mortals."
Aang frowned. "How did you manage that?"
"We should press on," Haku insisted, effortlessly floating ahead.
With a snort of impatience, Aang hurried after him. If Haku didn't want to talk about it, he could just say so. In the eerie quiet of the dying Spirit World, Aang needed something to distract himself.
He was panting hard by the time he caught up with Haku, but he'd already decided on another topic of discussion, one he hoped his past incarnation wouldn't have any desire to skirt.
"I've been thinking," Aang said. "How exactly does this passage between the worlds fit?"
Haku cocked his head at him. "What do you mean?"
"We know someone is trying to force the worlds together," Aang explained, "But not how. How did Quera even manage to open a passage? Wan Shi Tong said it was a forbidden dark art, but not what kind." Aang shrugged. "It might be easier to find what we're looking for if we actually know what we're looking for."
Haku nodded slowly. "A wise idea. I am not terribly familiar with the story myself; it was long before my time. But I have heard that each side of the passage must be attached to its respective world, to keep the path in place, by using an anchor. In Quera's time, the separation between the worlds was still fresh. There would have been countless relics that could have been used as an anchor."
"What about now?" Aang asked. "What could be used as an anchor this time?"
The former Avatar's brow furrowed. "Only something that is connected with the Spirit World," he said. "Only something that holds its essence."
"Like the Spirit Oasis?" Aang suggested.
Haku considered it. "It's possible, perhaps," he admitted. "But it would be harder to anchor the passage to a place, than an object."
Aang gulped. "What about a person?"
"What do you mean?" Haku asked, alarmed.
"Well, it's just, the Avatar," Aang said. "We're connected to both worlds. We're already a bridge between them, couldn't someone use that to force open the passage?"
Haku's face grew dark with concern. "That's a very disturbing thought," he muttered. "But if anyone attempted that, they would have to first battle and defeat you." He forced a chuckle. "And that would be no easy task."
Before the ship docked, Ursa and Roh-Roh made certain everyone knew that Xing Shi Yu was supposedly cursed. As the group crept down the gangway, the nomads kept together in a close knot, eyes jumping around as if they expected a spectre to rush at them any moment. Chong clutched his instrument tight, and every time he jumped –which was often– his fingers struck a sour note that made his friends squeak.
"Just keep thinking what a great song it would make," Chong murmured.
"Or story," his wife suggested.
Captain Jee descended the gangway with the Firelord and his family, saying, "I'll see what I can find in the way of ship repair, Your Majesty."
Zuko nodded. The Captain gave a quick bow, and hurried off toward a group of dock workers clustered near the warship, whispering amongst themselves.
"Good day, gentlemen." Jee nodded to the sailors. "I'm looking for someone to make ship repairs."
One of them laughed. He glanced pointedly at the battered and torn ship. "No, really? I thought you was needing directions for a day spa!"
Seeing him a man of good humor, the sailor asked. "What kind of repair are you looking for?"
"Nothing fancy," Jee said. "Just patch it up til we can put it in to the mainland. I'm looking for a good job, though; can't have her sinking in the middle of the ocean."
The sailor continued coiling the rope about his arm, nodding. "The lads and I could probably do that for you. It'd be nothing fancy, like you said. But we wouldn't charge you much. It would be our pleasure." He treated the Captain to a sly wink. "The ship repairer in town's a little too big around the coin bag, if you know what I mean; doesn't know the meaning of a fair bargain." Extending his calloused hand to the navy captain, the sailor treated him to a toothy grin. "The name's Kumbo."
The sun was barely up as Katara urged Appa into the sky. Momo clutched at her, curled around her neck and staring back at the Western Air Temple as it faded behind them, perhaps wondering why they had left Aang behind. Inside her cloak, Haku's journal pressed into her side.
When Aang didn't come back, the first thing Katara did was cry. She hadn't meant to, but the tears spilled out anyway, accompanied by loud, wrenching sobs. But she managed to recover herself. After all, crying wouldn't solve anything.
She spent the next several hours trying to determine if any action could solve this. Glancing through the journal once more, Katara found something that might. A reference Haku made to mortals passing into the Spirit World, either through meditation or spiritual hotspots. And there just happened to be one close by, on Imru Island.
Aang hadn't made it back before the solstice. But maybe, Katara thought, grasping onto Appa's reigns with the same unwavering determination that she held onto her hope, Maybe he'll find another way back to me.
The island didn't look very cursed. It seemed like any other island in the Fire Nation. The tropical climate and lush vegetation lent it a relaxed and inviting atmosphere. Soon, the very idea of a curse became preposterous to the visitors. Even the nomads relaxed, strumming a few bars and humming as they walked the port.
The port was small, but close to many of the other islands. They could see Ember Island behind them, to the east, and Xing Shi Yu was situated close enough to the Earth Kingdom that it provided a rather exotic assortment of goods in the market.
Cheerful merchants laughed and called out sales hype in rhymes. This caught the attention of the Nomads; they began strumming tunes and composing quick, bright lyrics for the joyous salesmen. The whole experience reminded Zuko of the occasional weeks he managed to take his family to the getaway on Ember Island.
The crowd at the market wasn't large and Captain Jee spotted them easily.
"I found a man to do the repairs, Your Majesty," he reported. "He's says a quick patch job will take a few days, but she'll be seaworthy."
"A few days on an uncrowded island in the middle of summer," Mai said, rolling her eyes. "Poor us."
Zuko nodded, but a frown tugged at the corner of his mouth. "I guess we should find someplace to stay."
Jee noted his hesitation. "If you'd like, Your Majesty, I could commandeer one of these vessels."
Mai glanced between them, her face expressionless but her eyes demanding. Zuko winced inwardly. He had not told her about the message from Captain Kio, of Ozai's escape. After everything that had happened, he thought she deserved a chance to breathe.
"Surely no one would object to assisting the Firelord," Jee went on, "If you'd like to be back sooner."
Out of the corner of her eye, Mai noticed a man at a produce booth prick up his ears at the conversation. He turned and watched the three as Zuko sighed.
"I'm certain there's nothing more we could do there for the moment." The Firelord frowned. "And I would prefer not to alarm –"
Casually looping her arm through Zuko's, Mai interrupted. "We have an eavesdropper."
Zuko and Jee both turned, spotting the conspicuous listener instantly.
The man's weathered face wasn't even touched by embarrassment when he was caught snooping. Instead, he said, "The people round here fear the wild." He struggled to lift his heavy bag of purchases and hobbled over to them. His hard eyes glittered with insincere humor. "They think things live there."
Before anyone could think of a reply, the man looked sharply to Zuko.
"You're the Firelord, are ye?"
Zuko nodded, uncertain by the man's probing glare. At first glance, he appeared nothing more than a nosy busy-body, but there was something like hope smoldering in the odd man's eyes.
"And what would yer majesty be doin' in such a small port?" the man asked.
"My ship needed repairs," Zuko replied carefully.
The man's eyes instantly dimmed. "Bah!"
"Show some respect," Captain Jee snapped, hands clenching to fists.
"What? I called him 'yer majesty'. Would you like me to bow as well?" The man proceeded to do so, bending in an exaggerated, mocking bow, teetering under the heavy weight of his purchases.
Jaw tight, Jee took a step forward, but Zuko waved him off. A dark frown etched itself on the Firelord's face. The man straightened and, without another word, waddled off.
"The insolence of some people," Jee muttered, staring daggers after the old man.
Zuko did not reply, watching the stranger until he disappeared from sight.
"It did seem uncalled for..." Mai agreed, tapping her lips.
The produce merchant fidgeted with his papayas and cabbages, straightening and rearranging them as he listened. Unable to contain himself, he burst out, "Please, don't mind Kaori, Your Majesty!"
The royal couple and the Captain turned to him in surprise, and the merchant paled.
"I-I'm sure he didn't mean anything by it," the merchant stammered.
"Oh, I think he did," Captain Jee growled, glaring again toward where the man had disappeared.
But Zuko studied the merchant with curiosity. "Why do you say that?"
The merchant swallowed hard. "Kaori, he's just...well, he's not like the rest of us, Your Majesty. It's not his fault, really. Kaori doesn't have it as easy."
Zuko's frown deepened. "What's the matter with him?"
"It's not him, exactly..." He fidgeted again, almost knocking a bowl of berries to the ground. He managed to catch it just before it toppled. "He lives in the Forest."
"What's so special about a forest?" Mai asked.
The merchant's eyes danced about the market, as though he expected some phantom hand waiting to reach out and silence him should he say too much. "It's cursed."
Zuko and Mai exchanged doubtful looks. Jee snorted, and the merchant glared at him in defiance.
No sooner had the word 'cursed' launched into the air, than Ursa, Roh-Roh, Sokka and several others nonchalantly crowded about the man's booth.
"I know what you're thinking," the merchant cried. "No such thing as curses. I thought so too when I was younger. But now I know better. No one from the village ever goes into that Forest," he went on, warming up to the chilling topic for the benefit of his growing audience. "They fear for their very lives when they step into the boundary of the trees."
"If no one goes in," Mai pointed out, "How can you know it's cursed?"
Ursa and Roh-Roh listened with wide eyes; Sokka peered between his fingers. Toph grinned, but the others seemed merely intrigued. The occasional nervous twang of Chong's instrument only added to the eerie mood that seemed to cloud over them on the beautiful sunny day.
"We used to go into the Forest," the merchant said, his face a shade paler than it had been. "Long ago. Then it became cursed. People who lived there, one by one, escaped the trees and took up residence in the village. Soon, we stopped venturing in all together.
"But Kaori's family..." The merchant shook his head. "They wouldn't leave. Every time he comes to market for supplies, he's always in such a hurry. He shuffles about, gets what he needs, and rushes back. We've all told him to move into the village, but it's as if he can't leave." The merchant's voice was quiet now, and everyone leaned forward, hanging on his every word. "The Forest has him in its clutches; it won't let him go."
Chong gulped. "So he's, like, out there all alone?"
The merchant pursed his lips thoughtfully, as if debating how much he should say. "We know he had a wife once."
"Had a wife?" Sokka squeaked. "Once?"
The merchant nodded gravely, his face dark. "She used to come into the village sometimes for the shopping, but no one has seen or heard from her in over ten years."
His enraptured audience shuddered. Roh-Roh clutched at his sister's hand, and she reciprocated as Zuko and Mai watched with amusement.
"No one knows what happened to her."
"Did the curse get her?" Moku asked, his voice trembling.
The merchant cocked his head. "The Cursed Ones? Perhaps..."
Toph frowned. "What do you mean, 'Cursed Ones?' I thought the island was just cursed?"
"It is," the merchant replied, "Because of the Cursed Ones who dwell in the Forest. You can only see them on the darkest of nights, wandering between the trees. They are lost souls, searching, doomed to roam the Forest, seeking for something even they don't know, something to make them whole again." Darkly, he added, "Constantly looking, yet never seeing."
Keeping his captivated audience locked in his gaze, he pulled a basket up from his booth. "Dates? The guaranteed sweetest on the island."
Roh-Roh gulped, loudly. Sokka did, too.
Jee snorted in contempt. "I can't listen to this drivel," he muttered. He bowed to the Firelord. "If you wish, Your Majesty, I will seek out lodgings for us."
Zuko nodded. "Let's hope they're prepared for a lot of visitors."
As the Captain departed, Mai planted herself in Zuko's line of sight. "May I have a word?" she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she tugged him away from the others.
Knowing it wasn't a request, Zuko followed without fuss.
Chong shivered violently, as if the tale had sent a permanent chill through his bones. "This place keeps getting creepier," he muttered. "I'm glad we're not staying."
Sokka snorted. "Tough luck, hippy. Jee said the repairs will take a few days."
Chong gave him a blank look. "Oh, we're not staying that long."
"What?" Ursa and Roh-Roh cried in simultaneous dismay.
Chong blinked down at the two children. "Oh, yeah. We found someone headed to Ember Island. The wind is calling us there, little ones." He awkwardly patted the top of Roh-Roh's head, to which the young prince wasn't sure how to react. "It's been a nice journey with you, but all journeys must end."
Lilly bent down and gave Ursa a big kiss on the cheek, as she wiped away a tear.
"We'll cherish the memory always!" Moku cried.
Sure you will, Toph thought wryly. After all, they couldn't even remember meeting the Avatar. But aloud she said, "We'll be sorry to see you go." Even if she didn't mean it. Their incessant praise of her abilities had started to irk her. Sure, she liked people standing in awe of her skill, but if that was the only thing they said to her –it got a little old.
Sokka snorted. She ignored him.
Once they were out of earshot, Mai turned on him with a dark frown. "What are you not telling me?"
Zuko sighed. "I didn't want you to worry."
Mai's eyes flashed. "Worry? Right now I'm worried that you're hiding something from me! If you're hiding it from me, it must be worse than anything that's already happened, and if it's that bad, I should be the first person you tell, Zuko."
Too late Zuko realized he had made a mistake not telling her. "Mai..." He reached for her arm, but she pulled away from his touch.
"I thought we were passed this," she said, turning away.
Zuko sighed. He couldn't bear to have Mai angry with him. How could he continue to make the same mistakes? He had only wanted to protect her, but sometimes he forgot that Mai didn't always want protecting. "We have. I'm sorry, Mai."
Stepping up behind her, he took gentle hold of her shoulders. She stood rigid in his arms, but she didn't pull away.
"What is it?" she demanded.
Zuko didn't hesitate. "Shortly after we left the Earth Kingdom, I received a message from the Fire Nation. Ozai escaped."
"We were expecting that." No emotion entered her voice, and he flinched.
"So why bother keeping it from me?"
Zuko rubbed his hands along her arms, his frown deepening. "I would have told you once we were home, but I wanted to see your smile for a little while longer. After everything that happened, I didn't think it was fair to burden you."
Mai turned on him, tears glistening in her eyes. "That's just it, Zuko. You didn't want to burden me with it, so you carried it on your own. You shouldn't have to do anything on your own, not anymore. I'm your wife; half of your burdens are mine."
"I'm sorry." There was nothing else for him to say. He had promised her, long ago, that they would solve everything standing side by side. Together.
Raising a skeptical eyebrow, Mai studied his face. Finally, she relaxed into his embrace. "Apology accepted. But don't ever do it again."
"This isn't right," Haku murmured.
He had stopped short, and Aang hurried to see what had stunned him. Up to now, the line between darkness and light had been clearly drawn. But in the distance, Aang saw nothing but shadow. It roiled in a thick fog. Aang squinted to see through and he could just make out the silhouette of a familiar tree.
"This is Koh's realm."
Haku's eyes widened in horror. "Im-impossible!"
"I've been here before," Aang assured him. "I'd recognize it anywhere." He frowned. "Do you think–"
Before he could finish, Haku surged forward. Aang grunted, and sprinted after the spirit, grumbling. "I wish he'd stop doing that."
On the edge of the shadows, where the line between them ended with inexplicable abruptness, Haku stopped. Aang caught up to him, bending over to catch his breath.
"I don't understand," Haku murmured.
Aang frowned. He looked at Haku, at the horror in his eyes. "What is it?" he asked. He glanced back at the darkness, and now the silhouette of that unmistakable, eerie giant tree seemed to glow within the shadows, pulsing with energy. "Is it...because of Koh?"
Haku shook his head, eyes fixed on the darkness. "This is his prison."
"Whose?" Confusion crinkled Aang's face. "Koh?"
Haku tore his gaze away, turning to Aang. "No," he whispered. "Nithe. The spirit I battled long ago. This is where he was imprisoned, and this is where the darkness is the most powerful. But I don't understand. The prison is foolproof. There is no way he could have escaped. Enma and the other spirits bound him within the roots of the great Tree, and it feeds off most of Nithe's energy. Beneath the roots, he is powerless, and even if he managed to find some means of escape, Koh is his jailer. He would have sensed it before Nithe could even try breaking free." He looked again at Aang, terror clear in his eyes. "How could this happen?"
Aang's expression hardened as he looked out over the darkness. "I guess there's only one way to find out."
Thick foliage covered most of Xing Shi Yu, flourishing right up onto the beaches and only grudgingly yielding to the ocean. A rather optimistically large inn stood on the beach, set back into the forest, with a magnificent view of the stunning seascape. Despite its beautiful location, the inn boasted no annual traffic. For this reason, the proprietor agreed to rent its rooms to the company for what he ecstatically claimed a bargain price. Jee suspected the innkeeper was charging double his normal rate, but there was no other place that could house even half as many and so they had no choice but to agree.
As it was, even the inn could not accommodate them all. After a good deal of unsuccessful bargaining, Jee found himself back at the docks as the sun sank in the sky, where word had spread fast about his predicament. Kumbo had a good chuckle over it all, but finally said he could put up the remainder of the company –namely the Captain and his sailors –in his shipyard for a few nights in exchange for some good tales.
"And you can start with the one that did this to such a fine ship," he said with a toothy grin.
Captain Jee returned to the market as it lit with the brilliant colors of a flaming sunset to inform the Firelord of these arrangements and led the party to the inn. It was not as fine as it once had been, but they managed to ignore the shabby exterior and the dusty insides.
Admiral Jeong Jeong alone seemed perturbed by it. He assessed the building with sharp eyes, ignoring the velvety sand beneath his feet.
"Is there something wrong, sir?" Jee asked, keeping his voice low so as not to alarm the others. As he stepped back to join the Admiral, he realized it was not the inn Jeong Jeong studied so intently.
The Admiral frowned, the twin red scars crinkling as he narrowed his eyes. "It is this forest, Captain. It makes me uncomfortable. We are closer to it than I would like."
Jee couldn't believe his ears. "Surely you're not worried about this ridiculous curse, Admiral!"
Jeong Jeong mused for a moment, pursing his lips. "Not all stories are true, Captain; but they all contain a grain of truth. I have seen too many strange things in my time to dismiss everything."
Darkness was falling over the island. Jee turned back to the trees and, even with his skeptic's eye, the shadows leeching between them felt ominous. He scowled.
"I'll form a party to search the perimeter," the Captain said. "Just to be safe."
Jeong Jeong nodded. "A wise idea. Take some of my men with you."
The Captain nodded, and soon departed with his scout party.
Aang expected the darkness to kill him.
If there had been any other way, he would have taken it. But not only did it appear that Haku's old enemy was the true origin of the Chaos, and not the mortal world, but the spiritual hotspot that was Aang's way home also lay within the darkness.
Aang remembered the stabbing pains when the shadows moved in his head, remembered the ice-cold terror that gripped his heart when it attacked the Avatar Spirit. This was ten times worse. His body simultaneously burned and froze as he waded into the shadows. It caught his breath and refused to give it back. Aang squirmed, trying to scream, but he could not open his mouth. He fought for air, but it did not exist in the Chaos. Stumbling back, he retreated toward the light from whence he had come, but he found himself surrounded by only the darkness. He fell to his knees. Unbidden tears of panic and pain streamed down his face, turning to liquid lava on his cheeks and burning their tracks in his flesh.
Something touched his shoulder. A hand, Aang realized, struggling to lift his heavy head. Haku's hand. The spirit stood over him, staring grimly down at his weak mortal body. He tightened his grip and heaved Aang to his feet. Vaguely, Aang wondered how he managed it. Haku was a ghost, after all. He shouldn't be able to physically touch Aang.
Aang's eyes blurred as Haku drug him forward. He sensed that the world was also spinning around him, but as there was nothing to see but endless darkness, he couldn't be sure.
The first thing that came to him were his feet on solid ground. In the darkness, he had felt he was walking on nothing, but now there was hard packed dirt beneath him. Haku's grip next came into focus, the spirit's fingers digging into his skin, relieving their hold slightly as Aang began to carry himself again.
A glimpse of light caught Aang's eye and he looked up. The eerie Tree loomed before him, and he realized it really was glowing. Before he could decide whether this was a worrying development, the all-encompassing pain suddenly lifted from him, as though knocked away from his shoulders.
Haku's grip vanished and Aang fell to the earth. His knees knocked painfully into a tree root and as he gingerly scooted away, he realized that the shadows had retreated.
He glanced around. The Tree was not only glowing, but apparently keeping the shadows at bay. Haku still stood beside him, but his form had reverted to a purely spiritual state.
"Sorry, Aang." Haku examined his hands with morbid fascination. "The darkness marks the parts of the Spirit World made corrupt by its connection with the mortal realm. My body began to solidify, and since you stopped..."
Aang nodded. Wheezing, all too aware of the remaining aches from the attack, he slowly climbed to his feet.
The Tree alone –branches, roots and all– stood untouched as an island of light amidst the sea of shadows.
Even as he watched them, the shadows surrounding Aang rippled. Something flickered across them. Curious, he took a cautious step forward.
"What is it, Aang?"
"Look," Aang said, pointing at the darkness. "Can you see that?"
Haku squinted into the shadows. It was hard to decipher, but when he followed Aang's finger he caught sight of an image. Once he recognized the distortion for the silhouette of a tree, the rest of the setting fell into place. Before them, where there had been only shadow before, now stretched a clearing in a lush tropical landscape, tinted and distant, as though through a glass darkly.
"Imru," Haku said. His frown darkened and his eyes cast about the island of light.
"This is it?" Aang asked. "This is where you were taking me?"
Haku nodded. "But we should not be able to see into the mortal world..."
Aang was worried about something else. "Why is this the only place untouched by the darkness?"
Haku nodded, his brow furrowing. "I wonder the same thing. Perhaps it is because of the Jailer." He nodded again, as if to reassure himself. "He is an old and powerful being. He could have been able to withstand the Chaos even as it surrounded him."
"Then where is he?"
Haku looked upward, searching the branches for any sign of the Jailer. "Perhaps he has taken refuge above or beneath. Circle round that way. See if there is any sign of him."
Before Aang could ask what he was looking for, Haku disappeared around one side of the tree. With a shrug, Aang ducked in the opposite direction.
The Tree was much larger than he remembered. It pulsed with energy, a rhythmic pulse, like a heartbeat. Aang wondered if that was the beat of its own life force. He reached out to touch it, but instead of some comforting warmth, the bark of the Tree bit at his fingers with a harsh coldness that froze him to the core, forcing the breath from his lungs.
Wei was not eager about exploring the Forest in broad daylight, much less in the darkness of night. He jumped at flickering shadows. The moonlight, instead of providing relief in its glowing beams, made the experience only more eerie.
"Relax," Hoo muttered, though his teeth chattered. A flame hovered in his palm to guide their path.
Wei's own flame quivered as his hand trembled. "This place is too creepy!"
Captain Jee stopped, halting the search party.
Something, somewhere snapped.
The Captain motioned toward the sound, and headed for it.
"We're heading toward the creepy noise?!" Wei moaned quietly.
Someone hushed him. Just in time for them to hear another snap.
A light breeze fluttered through the trees, shifting the branches above, and they creaked and scratched against one another.
Hoo shivered. Could this get any weirder?
No sooner had the thought entered his mind then he spotted something, off to their right. A figure.
Hoo poked at Wei, gesturing toward it when his companion turned.
Together, they took a few careful steps toward it. They were the last in line, but they didn't intend to lag far behind. Besides, what was the use of raising a false alarm? Better to check it out, first.
Aang reeled back, heart leaping into his throat, head pounding. The Tree wasn't fighting off the chaos, he realized; it was the center of it.
"Haku! Haku, the Tree, it–"
"I know, Aang."
Haku's voice was close, and surprisingly calm. Aang hurried after. He rounded back behind the Tree, keeping a careful distance from its bark. Haku hovered between two roots, arms crossed over his chest, glaring up at the branches.
Jumping over the roots, Aang joined him, turning his eyes skyward. He gulped when he realized what Haku was staring at. It was not something tangled in the branches, but something protruding from the Tree's trunk. A thick thread of darkness streamed from the tree, stretching into the black curtains surrounding them. Like a spider weaving its web, the Tree commanded the shadows encroaching on the Spirit World, one giant thread, connecting them all.
"I was wrong," Haku said, his voice flat and angry. "It isn't Nithe. Nor does the fault lie wholly in the mortal world."
Aang frowned. "How can you tell? You said he was imprisoned in the Tree, so–"
"Beneath the Tree," Haku corrected. "And I also said it was an inescapable prison, and it is. However, it is evidently not impenetrable." He pointed up at the column of darkness. "The Tree siphons Nithe's power and energy, and it looks as though something in turn is siphoning the doubled life force in the Tree."
"What could do that?"
Haku's face hardened. "Not many things, and certainly nothing mortal." He cursed violently, wrenching himself away and pacing above the earth. "How could this happen? Who would be foolish enough to bring about this Chaos? Even in the time of Quera, every spirit realized the inevitable consequences of returning the two worlds together."
Aang listened to Haku's ranting, but he did not understand his words. Perhaps that was why he heard the sound. Something skittered in the darkness, charging toward them. Aang whirled to confront the creature, but nothing was there.
Haku stopped. "Aang? What is it?"
Before Aang could reply, the sound came again. This time from above him.
"Well, well, well. If it isn't the Avatar."
As one, Aang and Haku looked up.
Lounging in the branches of the tree, a creature with a horrid, insectan body and a pale white face stared down at them. The creature chuckled, a low, throaty sound, and its face shifted, replacing the white one with that of an angry, wild-eyed man.
"Welcome to my nightmare, Avatar."
The two soldiers crept toward the figure, gently rustling the underbrush. It appeared to be standing in a small clearing, staring into space. If that wasn't creepy enough, it didn't seem to hear them, not even when Wei tripped over a protruding root and with a surprised oomph landed flat on his face.
Trembling, Wei and Hoo reached out to part through the last of the foliage. They got a good look at the figure. It was a woman, standing utterly still in the moonlight. She made no movement, no reaction to their appearance. Instead she seemed almost to stare straight through them.
Except, they realized, for one thing.
She had no face.
- 'Xing Shi' or 'walking corpse' in Chinese does not translate as zombie, but someone who is physically living, but emotionally/mentally dead.
- In the trivia on Koh's page, it is mentioned his habitation of the tree is similar to a Norse myth about a dragon called 'Níðhöggr' (pronounced 'Neathe-högr') who gnaws on the roots of the World Tree, and is sometimes believed to be imprisoned by them. From here, Nithe received both his name and his purpose.
- 'Welcome To My Nightmare' by Alice Cooper kept popping into my head as a soundtrack for this penultimate scene, so I felt it had to be referenced.
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