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|Into the Dark|
Book 3: Doorways
December 9th, 2013
John and Korra head into the Everstorm.
The Royal Feast was, at least by John's standards, little more than a glorified dinner party. Various people all sat at different tables around the hall while Korra, her parents, her uncle, and her cousins all sat at the head table. John himself sat with Mako, Asami, and Bolin. The couple sat close to each other, while Bolin licked a silver plate.
On the table before him sat the disassembled parts of his pistol as he inspected the inner workings for faults or failures. Ordinarily he wouldn't have done this in a setting like this, but given his dislike of traditional Water Tribe foods it wasn't surprising. Following a somewhat depressing speech given by Unalaq and some dancing Penguin Otters trained by a strange clown man, John made the command decision to leave.
After reassembling his pistol and sliding on his coat, he left the hall in a manner that he hoped both kept him from the general eye of people and let Korra know that he was leaving. The air outside the Royal Palace was significantly colder than when he had entered. Red sunlight plastered the sky as the sun set. Steam from his breath curled up around his nose and hand as he pulled the scarf up.
"You didn't stay for the stewed sea prunes," Korra said, appearing next to him. John cupped his stomach and leaned to the side. Just the thought of stewed sea prunes threatened to make the firebender sick.
"Oh yes, heaven forbid I miss the sea fruit crap," he replied in a sarcastic tone. Korra cocked her eyebrow and placed a hand on her hip.
"You don't like sea food?"
"I was born on an island that's known for its landscapes and beer, you tell me."
"What's beer?" John blinked in stunned silence, even leaning forward on the balls of his feet to see if she joking.
"You don't know what alcohol is."
"Oh I know what that is: Sake, Baijiu, things like that, I just don't know what beer is," Korra said. John shook his head, his eyes shining with a hidden smile.
"You have so much to learn," he said. With that, Korra looped her arm through his and they made their way to the fairgrounds. They walked amongst the games and vendors, stopping only to pick up a stick of cotton candy for Korra and a bag of popcorn for John. The firebender pulled down the scarf and happily plunged his hand into the bag, shoveling the food into his mouth. His refusal to eat at the feast had left him with an empty stomach, but the popcorn would be enough to tide him over until they got back to their living quarters.
"What's up?" he asked through a mouthful of popcorn when he noticed the look on Korra's face. She appeared to be sulking, as if she had just been grounded due to getting home a few minutes after curfew.
"I just found out that Tenzin and my dad were the ones that wanted to keep me down here for training," she replied, picking a chunk of cotton candy off of the stick.
"Thought that was Aang," John said as he tipped the bag of popcorn back and allowed what was left to slide into his mouth.
"So did I. But apparently we were both wrong." The firebender crumpled the now empty bag into a ball and incinerated it, savoring the momentary flare of warmth before he jammed his hands into his pockets. Korra pointed toward one of the games, indicating that she wanted to give it a try. John nodded, fishing out a yuan and tossing it to the man standing at the game before they each took a spot.
He picked up a blueish green object with a hose coming out of the bottom, looking it over before he found a trigger on the bottom.
"What's the point of this?" he asked, fitting the object into his shoulder like he was holding a rifle. Generally the whole thing felt uncomfortable. Korra smirked as she squeezed the trigger on her object. Instantly a jet of water erupted from the end and flew into the open mouth of a little Aang figure. The eyes on the figure lit up, and a small dial on the top began to rise toward a bell.
"Get it now?"
"It's a glorified garden hose!" he said with shock. After a moment, he raised the nozzle and let a stream of water fly, hitting his target dead center. Like Korra's, his target began to rise toward the bell. He held this for a full minute, before he finally snapped.
"This is a mockery of target games!" he declared, throwing down the nozzle and drawing his pistol. The first shot went through Aang's open mouth, causing the eyes to light up, while the second and third sent the dial rocketing into the bell. Out of fear, the man running the booth handed a stuffed flying bison to Korra before he ducked behind the counter, afraid that more bullets would be flying toward him.
Blowing a wisp of smoke away from the barrel, John twirled the pistol and returned it to his holster. Korra held the stuffed animal up and looked it over.
"So what do you think I should do about it?" she asked.
"You really think I'm the one to be asking about issues pertaining to spirituality and childhood captivity?"
"John, you're one of the most spiritual guys I know." John snorted.
"You're aware that my job and skill set involves killing right?" he asked, motioning a hand back toward the game as proof. Korra shrugged.
"I just want to know what you think I should do." They were heading toward their housing now, small single room huts that sat on a ridge overlooking the port.
"I think you should do what you think is right. You're the Avatar, no one else can choose what course you should take," he finally replied. Korra remained silent as she led the way into her hut, throwing the stuffed flying bison on the couch as she sat down and leaned against Naga. John sat at a small table, unrolling a large duffel bag in the process. Inside was his shotgun, a pair of standard issue United Forces revolvers, a disassembled Thompson, his father's revolver, and several bandoliers of ammunition.
Picking up a rag and the shotgun, he began to wipe down the weapon. Across from him, Korra folded her arms, crossed her legs, and began to doze off. John watched this with a smile. Loading the shotgun, he sat it to the side before pulling out the ivory disk and his knife. After several minutes of thinking, he began to carve.
He started by filling in the center of the disk with the symbol of the Water Tribe. When he was done with that, he began the tedious job of carving a dragon around the outer edge. Unlike the Asian dragons that were native to this world, John carved a European dragon that curled around the Water Tribe symbol.
With that he sat back and blew away some of the shavings, satisfied with what he had. He had chosen European dragon for two reasons. The first was the fact that like the dragons of this world, they represented fire, second was the fact that it was from his world. Together, the two symbols represented himself and Korra, a firebender and waterbender from two worlds.
Running a piece of cord from his pack through the hole on top of the disk, John stabbed the knife into the top of the table and looked over his finished work. Compared to some of the ones he had seen, this betrothal necklace was certainly wasn't the best. But it was unique, and made by his hands. Looking up at her sleeping form, John suddenly felt something he hadn't felt when facing Amon, the eruption in the Fire Nation, or even after the death of his parents: fear.
Cold, directionless fear that Korra wouldn't accept his proposal.
Outside, a set of wind chimes began to ring against a small breeze. Naga raised her head, coming out of a deep sleep and sniffed the air. And through his thoughts and worries, John felt a new chill creep up his spine.
Putting the necklace into a small pocket, John grabbed the shotgun and strained his ears, listening for anything that was out of the ordinary. Across from him, Naga stood and began to walk toward the door, waking Korra up in the process.
"Hey, what's going on?" she asked in a daze, standing and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. The polar bear dog walked out the door into the frigid night, her nose sniffing the entire time.
"She smells something," John said, watching the large hybrid.
"What?" she asked. John shot a glance toward his girlfriend.
"In a word, evil." With that, Naga unleashed a blood curdling howl into the night. Without bothering to put on a coat, Korra headed out the door with John close behind. A light snow was falling, adding a dark gray to the already dark sky. Below them, the lights of the port and empty festival grounds glowed like embers of a fire. Naga continued to howl, clearly uncomfortable with the sudden shift in the air.
"Naga, calm down, you're going to wake everyone up," Korra said, trying to lead her back inside. But the hybrid refused to listen to her master's commands, instead letting out another howl. This time, other dogs and wildlife joined in, their calls filling the night. Below them, outlined by the lights from the port, a large figure morphed into existence.
It was dark, even darker the night around it. It stood on a pair of legs, and for the most part vaguely resembled a human. But even a blind person could tell this wasn't a human by any standard.
"What is that?" Korra asked, almost in horror at the sight. As if hearing her, the figure turned and looked at them. Unlike the rest of its body, the eyes glowed like a blazing bonfire. In a flash, it covered the distance and slammed into the ridge, forcing the pair backwards and Naga to back off. It pinned Korra to a rock, hissing at the teenager as it leaned well into her personal space.
Before the spirit could do anything, Korra felt her hair stand on end. A bolt of lightning passed through the spirit, freeing her and causing significant damage to its form. Turning it's attention away from Korra, the spirit instead focused on John. The firebender watched as the hole, which had been blasted through its chest, reformed itself.
"I'm never going to get a proper vacation," he muttered to himself. The spirit lunged at John, but instead of staying to fight, he turned and leapt off of the ridge. His original intention had been to slide down the hillside on his feet, but instead he fell, rolling once before he wound up sledding down the side on his rear.
The spirit gave chase all the way down the hill before it finally caught up to him, sweeping the firebender into the air with a swat of its hand. John toppled through the air like a rag doll. Instinct took over, and he twisted himself through the air before landing on his feet. He was on the fairground side of a chain link fence, with a very angry spirit barreling toward him like an avalanche.
Raising the shotgun, John aimed and fired at the spirit's face. The buckshot slammed into the spirit at the same time a bolt of fire did, sending the dark entity toppling through the fence like it was made of pop sickle sticks. Korra came down the ridge behind the spirit, riding a chunk of ice like it was a snowboard.
On the ground, the spirit began to rise up. Anger burned in its flaming yellow eyes, more pissed than hurt by the double hit it had just taken. Wasting no time, John slid the shotgun over his shoulder and bent his knees. Pulling his device out, the firebender stared down the spirit like a bull fighter.
"Casto noi lapide asterium manto, casto noi lapide asterium manto, alaum raum om, alaum raum," he chanted, raising the device. Korra came up on the scene, her hands raised in preparation to attack or defend. She had heard the language before, when they had first met almost a year ago. Latin is what he had called it, one of the sacred languages of his world.
The spirit froze, raising up on its legs as it regarded the firebender. John inched forward with the device raised above his head. He continued the chant, until he finally got close enough. The device glowed with an emerald green, catching the spirit's arm in an invisible bond. Instantly the effects of the chant wore off as the spirit began to thrash about in an effort to free itself.
John sped up the chant, but he wasn't fast enough as the spirit's free arm slammed into him. The firebender flew through the air, smashing through one of the wood and canvas booths, knocking him out cold.
When he came to again, he was lying in a pile of furs that covered a small cot. He recognized the inside of Korra's hut after wiping some sleep from his eyes, and judging by the light that was shining under the door a lot of time had passed since he had been knocked out. It was clear that he was here alone, and he wondered where Korra was. As if to answer him, the door parted and the Avatar entered the hut, her body blocking most of the sunlight.
"How long I been out?" he asked, propping himself up on his elbows. Korra was silent as she came over and placed her hand on his.
"I was worried about you," she said in a whisper. John's eyes narrowed in confusion. As an answer, she guided his hand to just above his lip. There he felt a roughness, which he realized was dried blood.
"When I found you there was blood leaking from your nose, and you were starting to cough," she explained as he rubbed off any of the remaining blood.
"Exposed too long to the cold," he mumbled, sitting up fully and swinging his legs over the side of the cot. Standing up, he dipped his hands into a wash basin and began to scrub his face.
"What happened to the spirit?" he asked as he looked up into the mirror.
"Unalaq did something to the spirit and made it disappear. We're going to the South Pole shortly to restore balance," she replied. John dried off his face before he headed over to his pack. Digging out his father's journal, he flipped through the pages before he found what he was looking for and handed it to Korra. A sketch of trees surrounding an orb dominated the page.
"What's this?" she asked, unable to read the lettering.
"The Southern Gate. My guess is that this is where we're going," he replied as he pulled his pistol from its holster and replaced it with his father's revolver.
"Why are you showing me this, so we don't walk past it?"
"Korra, this is a spirit portal, one of the anchors that keeps this universe where it's suppose to be. It's been closed for thousands of years. Why would the spirits wait this long to attack if a closed Gate was the reason they're pissed?" he asked, twirling the revolver for effect and sticking it in the holster.
Together, the two left the hut. Outside, the sun shown high in the sky and reflected off of the sea. John placed his hat on his head and slid the scarf up before they approached a small collection of people and animals. Naga had been saddled with various equipment and a few servants were loading some arctic camels with supplies.
"I wasn't aware that we would be having the soldier accompany us," Unalaq said as they walked up.
"My daughter has spoken nothing but good of him, and if what she says is true then we'll need him to get through the Everstorm," Tonraq countered. John cocked his eyebrow at Korra.
"It's a blizzard that's been blowing around the Pole for decades," she explained.
"Great," came the sarcastic reply as the firebender swung himself up into the saddle on one of the camels. It wasn't long before Mako and Bolin had arrived, and the group began to move out. A few miles out of the city, John took notice of Bolin's position. He had been attempting to develop a relationship with Eska, but this backfired and he wound up driving both of the twins with his snowmobile.
Mako attempted to make fun of his situation, but Bolin merely sent him away. John rode past the packed snowmobile, laughing the whole time.
"Go away John," the earthbender said.
"Just remember Bolin, if we get to this storm and you find yourself in a hedge-maze being chased by a guy name Jack Torrance, leave the Grady Sisters behind," he said over his shoulder.
"I'm male," Desna said in his usual monotone voice, but John ignored him as he trotted up next to Korra.
"God I love this place. You guys haven't heard of Steven King at all!" he said with a hint of joy. Korra cocked her eyebrow at her boyfriend.
"Let me guess, you don't like this King guy?"
"Depends on what he writes. Most of the time I don't care for it, but 'The Dark Tower' series holds a special place in my heart," he said.
"You going to let me read it sometime?" The firebender snorted.
"I hold a grand total of one book to my name, and that one deals with the mystics and general holes in the universe," he said, holding up his hands and wiggling his fingers in the processes. Korra giggled at that, realizing that he had slipped into sarcastic mode.
The ride continued for several more hours. As they continued, the sky grew darker and darker. Finally, Unalaq brought his camel to a halt, looking out over the landscape. Rather than the gentle tundra that they had been crossing, jagged mountains and frozen wastelands lay before them, dominated by a massive swirling wall clouds that had a green glow to them. Thunder echoed from the storm, adding to the sense of danger.
"The Everstorm," he said, marveling at its size. Thoughts crept into John's mind, memories of time that he had spent in Kansas. The most dangerous of thunderstorms, particularly the ones that killed with everything in their power, had a green glow to them just like this one. Swallowing a lump in his throat and ignoring the insane amount of bad feelings, he followed the others right into the storm.
The wind howled, blowing snow of all kinds around. Unalaq led the way, tying a cord between himself and the others so they wouldn't get separated. John had taken off his hat and pulled up his hood, preferring to save his ears and cheeks from frostbite. They trudged on, trying to see through the near white out conditions.
Suddenly, the chief came to a halt, motioning for the others to do the same. John wondered why they had stopped, until he looked at the ground. There, frozen in the snow, were several bodies of soldiers. Behind him, he thought he heard Bolin scream like a little girl.
"Some great battle must have happened here in the past," Tonraq said over the wind. Rather than answer, John dismounted from his camel and began to study the bodies. It was obvious that they had been frozen for a very long time, reduced to bones with frost clinging to them. But that wasn't what made him worry. It was their armor. Every single corpse wore the armor of a Roman Legionary.
Then, he took notice of a skeleton holding up a staff. A tattered banner flew from the staff It was topped by an eagle, with a metal plaque beneath it that bore the words: Legio IX Hispana.
"The Ninth Spanish Legion," he translated with a shiver, more from realization then the cold. The Ninth Spanish Legion had vanished in Scotland during a blizzard in 117 A.D. No one knew of its fate, but here it was lying frozen in the snow.
"Is there anything special about this storm?" John asked Unalaq, practically shouting over the wind.
"The Dark Spirits rampage through it, rather than dance in the skies. They have kept the storm going for decades." That couldn't be it. Spirits alone didn't have the power to pull an entire legion through to this world. Something else was at work here.
"We have to keep moving, otherwise we'll freeze to death!" Tonraq shouted. John looked back at the dead Romans at his feet. His sense of danger was growing by the second. As he started to climb back into the saddle, he took notice of a new body lying in the snow. Unlike the Legionaries, this one wore fur clothing and had a sword clutched firmly in its hands. An amulet depicting the outline of a horseman with a javelin rested just above the hilt of the sword.
"Huns," he muttered as he began to pry the sword from the barbarian's hands. After a moment, the weapon was free and he began to buckle it to his belt. No one said anything as he finished and climbed back into the saddle. They continued on, eager to put some distance between themselves and the frozen field of corpses.
Finally, after what felt like several more hours of trudging almost blindly through the snow, they arrived at a small cave. It looked like someone with a massive ice cream scooper had scooped out a section of a cliff wall. The wind and snow whipped around outside of the cave as John, Mako, and Korra got a fire going.
Everyone huddled around the fire, eager to try and get warm. John drew his new sword and began to study it under the light. The blade was short, straight, and had a double edged blade. Even for being over a thousand years old, it still gleamed like it was brand new. On the hand guard was a symbol that had a shield with a spear running at an angle behind it.
"What's impossible?" Bolin asked, looking up from his position by the twins.
"If I'm right, this is the Sword of Mars," John replied, looking over the blade with a sense of disbelief.
"The Sword of Mars?"
"According to legend, the blade was used by Attila the Hun during his conquest of Europe. He believed that it had been given to him by the God of War. It vanished soon after his death. What's it doing here?" he asked, more to himself then anyone else.
"It can't be a coincidence that this coincides with the solstice," Unalaq said. John returned the sword to its sheath.
"It also can't be the work of spirits either. The Ninth Spanish Legion vanished in 117 A.D., and Attila the Hun died almost three hundred and forty years later in 453. Both of these events happened thousands of years ago, in an alternate universe no less. It has to do with the storm."
"Unalaq, when we were amongst the bodies you said something about the spirits dancing in the skies," Korra cut in, trying to put things together in her mind.
"It used to be that the spirits would dance in the sky and form lights over the poles, you know them as the northern and southern lights. But the Hundred Year War threw the South out of balance, and the spirits no longer dance in your skies," Unalaq explained.
"Ha. The Lights are caused by solar radiation entering through holes in the planet's ozone layer. Granted the holes are caused by the Gates, but it's not the spirits. Which reminds me, Chief, that outbreak you guys had a few months back, what caused it?" John asked. The firebender looked accusingly across the fire toward the chief, expecting an answer. Unalaq clearly wasn't used to being spoken to like this. Rage boiled in the man's eyes, but years of politics had tempered him so he didn't react.
"A man came into the tribe one day, severely burned and sick. Every person who made physical contact with him fell sick with the same symptoms. He went to the spirit oasis and used the water there to heal and cure himself. Luckily the disease didn't spread beyond those who had contracted it from the man, and a quarantine was issued," he recounted. John sighed, his fears having just been confirmed.
"It wasn't a disease, it was radiation poisoning. You should have killed that man when you had the chance," John deadpanned before he turned and left the cave, pulling up his hood as he walked out into the snow.
Once he was a reasonable distance away, he began to shoot bolts of fire in all directions. Anger surged though him, unintentionally increasing the power of the blasts. He was angry at himself more than anything else. It was his responsibility to find and stop Alexander, yet he couldn't even do that with a nuclear blast.
After a moment, he drew his new sword and began to twirl it around in a practice form. Even while moving and twisting, he added an occasional fire blast. Finally he came to a halt, twirled the blade once, and returned it to its place on his hip. They still had many miles to cover through this God forsaken storm before they reached their destination.
"There it is." They were on a ridge overlooking a forest encased in ice. The heart of the storm was considerably less powerful than what they had passed through already. Earlier, Korra and her father had gotten into an argument, ending with her sending Tonraq home. John thought it best to stay out of the argument, unwilling to get into it with his girlfriend given his mood.
"The Portal lies at the heart of the forest. You must go in and open it if balance is to be restored," Unalaq said. Korra took a breath as she looked the trees over. They appeared to glow with a strange, almost inviting light.
"Alright. Stay here, I'll be back," she said as she started for the trees. Instantly John, Mako, and Bolin started forward.
"We're not letting you go alone," Mako said.
"This is something the Avatar has to do alone," Unalaq countered.
"She's not going alone," John said, shooting daggers toward the Chief. Korra looked toward her boyfriend.
"I can handle myself, John."
"I have your back, and you've got mine. Two stand a better chance against spirits than one." After a moment, the Avatar gave in, and together they started off into the frozen trees. With the layers of ice, it was more like walking through a cave than a forest. John kept his hand on the handle of the revolver, ready to draw and fire at the first sign of trouble.
Korra shivered and looped her arm through his, standing closer to him. Although she would never admit it, Korra was glad John had come with her. His presence calmed her already jittery nerves.
After walking a moment, an unearthly screech came from behind them. They spun on the spot, with John drawing the revolver in the processes. Two dark snake-like spirits crawled out of the icy ceiling and charged them. The firebender fired, drilling the lead spirit dead on and causing it to vaporize into a cloud of blackness.
"Go!" he shouted as fired again, striking the ice next to the second spirit. They turned and ran, diving through a narrow slot of ice which Korra quickly closed with her waterbending. The rampaging snake smashed into the other side, battering against the ice in an effort to get to its prey. Korra stood, breathing heavily as she looked at the outline of the spirit.
"I'm glad Carter's not here right now," John muttered as he began to stand, looking around the wide open room they had stumbled into.
"You do not want to know the amount of perverted references he'd be making right now." Korra knelt down in the center of the room, rubbing her hand over the ice. A glowing ball of light radiated under the ice. It seemed to radiate under her touch.
"I think we found the portal," she said, standing and sending a blast of air into the ice. John threw up his hands, protecting his face as the air rebounded off of the ice and swirled around the room.
"Korra that won't work. If it did then your uncle wouldn't have made us come all this way," he said, bracing as she began to move for another strike.
"Then what do you suggest?"
"Try using the Avatar State." Korra's face melted into thought. After a moment, her eyes began to glow as she knelt and brushed her finger against the ice just above the orb. Instantly the room shook with the violent force of an earthquake. The ice cracked, allowing beams of light to escape from the orb. After a moment, the ice exploded with the violent shock wave sending the pair flying A pillar of light erupted from the trees, parting the clouds of the storm and branching off into several multicolored beams.
"The Spirits are dancing in the sky," Korra whispered, looking up at the Southern Lights. The beam from the portal had shattered the ice over their heads, allowing them to look up into the night sky. Reaching into his pocket, John pulled out the necklace and looked it over. Looking up at Korra, he took a breath of nervousness.
"Korra?" She took her eyes away from the lights to look at him. John slowly took a knee and looked up into her sapphire eyes. In his hand, he held the necklace so that the disk rested against a knuckle.
"Would the powerful and beautiful Avatar ever consider marriage to a poor United Forces Captain?" he asked, nervousness radiating in his voice. Tears shone in the corners of her eyes and her mouth twisted upward into one of the largest smiles he had ever seen on her face.
"Yes!" she said, throwing her arms around his neck and pulling him up into a spine crushing hug. They held one of the longest kisses they had ever had before John set to putting the necklace around her.
"Come on. Let's go home," he said as he put his arm around her shoulder.
Notes & Trivia
- The chant that John uses on the spirit is the same one used by the character Khan in the video game Metro 2033.
- The Ninth Spanish Legion was an actual Roman unit that vanished north of Hadrian's Wall sometime in 117 A.D.
- The Sword of Attila, otherwise known as The Sword of Mars was lost after its owner's death. Many places claim to have it, but nothing has been verified.
For the collective works of the author, go here.