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|The Northern Air Temple, Part 1: Arrival|
July 25, 2010
Tengu finally arrives at the Northern Air Temple.
Climbing the stairs was exhausting. It took Tengu almost three hours to fully clear them. The wind and the thinning air were no help either. He had not had a proper meal in two days, and had spent the last of his tea in the cave, so he was hungry, thirsty, and tired. If any final test of determination and will was needed, he hoped climbing the huge staircase would suffice.
“The Pathway to Illumination” was a gift from Earth King Kuei to the New Air Nomads. The 6,575-step long staircase was a truly grand example of Earth Kingdom architecture at its finest. The entire project had taken eight months to complete and was the easiest way to the Northern Air Temple on foot, especially since a huge explosion had changed the face of the mountain during the siege of the temple in The Great War.
Designed on commission by the Royal Architect, the staircase was bent out of the mountain rock and adorned throughout with Air Nomad motifs. A pair of ornate Badgermoles (resembling those in Ba Sing Se's Royal Palace) stood at the base of the stairway, whereas a pair of similarly ornate Air Bison was at the top. The placement of these icons was meant to symbolize a bridge of peace and cooperation between the two peoples. However, since the new monastic nation had emerged, most people had made of the new edification a metaphorical bridge between Heaven and Earth.
Under different circumstances, Tengu would have certainly showed more respect and decorum upon his arrival. However, he was both emotionally and physically drained from the journey. He sat down on the stone courtyard to rest his legs and catch his breath. Scanning around, he noticed a water fountain. He immediately rose and went to get a drink. The water fountain was also new: another gift from King Kuei. Previous to the renovations, the temple’s residents had to glide to the valley below to fetch water from the river. Kuei had his engineers drill straight through the rock down to the water supply, and finish the tunnel with an ornate fountain.
Tengu was indulging in the pleasures of clean, fresh water: drinking, splashing his head, washing his face… He was so immersed in the process (quite literally), that he did not hear Kuen Yin step into the courtyard:
“We usually draw the water in buckets for washing, since we all drink from the well.” She said, giving Tengu a warm smile.
Tengu was both startled and embarrassed – “I’m so sorry, ma’am. It won’t happen again – it’s just that the journey has been long and…”
“I know. We all know.” She reassured Tengu. Her warm, green eyes were glowing with a mixture of joy and compassion. “I knew you would come.”
Tengu caught himself staring clean into her eyes and felt embarrassed. He changed the subject, looking for a way to subdue the awkwardness. “I have something – I believe it's from you.” He opened his knapsack and pulled out a small piece of parchment.
She smiled again when she recognized her note.
She motioned to one of the children practicing in the adjacent yard to come. “Tell Master Chang we have a visitor.”
The child took the note and sped off to run his errand.
She turned to Tengu: “Please, come with me.”
He would never figure out why he had not seen them before, but all of a sudden, his eyes became aware of the people: children practicing their gliding and their bending; people tending to the gardens, watering the plants, sweeping the stone paths, praying, meditating, or just going about on other chores. Most of them wore the same orange colored tunic, but had no arrow tattoos.
As they walked towards the yard, Chang came out to greet them. His usually stern expression was replaced with a glowing grin. He bowed to the child who had escorted him and then to Tengu:
“It gives me great joy to see you have found your way here. Welcome to our home.”
Meanwhile, the water and the rest had given Tengu a chance to recover some of his mental clarity.
“You must know I am very honored to be here.” He mentioned as he scanned the place once again. “It is truly a dream come true.”
He then turned to his hosts and made a deep bow. “I must thank you for taking care of me back at the inn. I would probably not be here if it you had not helped me.”
Master Chang bowed back as he replied “It is always our honor to serve.” He continued after a brief pause. “Will you join us for lunch? You must be famished after that climb.”
Kuen Yin added “You will most surely want to wash and change before your meal."
“I would take you up on the offer, however I really have no proper change of clothes.” He replied.
“Not a problem. We make our own clothes, so there’s sure to be an extra set of clean clothes somewhere. I’ll have one of the boys bring you some. What happened there?”
Tengu looked at his legs “Oh – Boarcupine...”
“Yeah – it has happened before. I'll send some ointment. Be sure to wash well before applying, ok?”
Tengu was shown to his room. The accommodations were rustic and humble, but sufficient. There was a small chest, a bed, a pail with clean water, a mirror and a small tub. There was also a small altar for quiet meditation. Once alone, he indulged in a proper bath. When drying himself, he noticed a bundle had been left on the bed. It was a tunic, not unlike those worn by the nomads. He dressed. It felt right.
The vegetable dumplings were delicious, as was the moon-peach juice. He thought the bean soup could have used some komodo sausage in it, but he figured that leaving meat behind would not be that much of a challenge, especially after giving up drinking and organized crime.
The table was filled with lively conversation, warmth and something he had not heard much of in a very long time: laughter. It reminded him of dinner with his family, or Pai Sho and tea with Lu-Ten and Iroh.
His eyes would sometimes cross with Kuen Yin’s of Chang’s, who would always smile a big, warm smile. Tengu smiled back politely, or at least, he thought he did. In reality, his “smile” looked more like a stiff, painful smirk. Kuen Yin and Chang could sense the conflict and the suffering simmering beneath his smooth façade.
Masters Yao and Lin could sense it too…
After lunch, one of the older teenagers escorted Tengu around the temple. Tengu was perplexed at the mechanical additions he saw throughout. The boy told him the story of the mechanist, and how he modified the place to better suit the needs of his family and community at large. Master Aang had wanted to remove them after the mechanist had left (expressing no desire to live a monk's life), but found himself quite lost when facing the actual task. He even managed to burn his hands once, trying to handle a steam pipe. During a visit, his brother in law, Chief Sokka remarked that the technology was reminiscent of Fire Nation engineering, which gave Master Aang the idea to ask his friend, Fire Lord Zuko to help him with renovations. Peace among the nations – amazing...
The Fire Lord sent his top engineers for the task, who did a careful diagram of all existing modifications, along with a proposed final design. Master Aang was upset to learn that the proposal was a compromise which still retained a fair amount of the steam supply system. He approved to proceed only after hearing from both the Fire Lord's and the Earth King's engineers that some of the piping could not be removed without further damaging the already ancient structure. Besides, the heating system had an undeniable usefulness during the wintertime. No kidding...
After they had covered most of the temple, the boy led him back to the courtyard, as he had been instructed by Master Kuen Yin. Having reviewed most of the structure, Tengu thought the temple looked more like a fortress than a monastery. Between having the exclusive ability to fly, and being favored by the rugged landscape, he reckoned the sanctuary should have been fairly easy to defend for the airbenders, even if they had no formal military organization. Surely, he thought to himself, there had not been a General How around 100 years ago to help repel the firebenders' attack. He found himself staging battle stations in his mind and tracing counterattacks with his hands unconsciously, when a voice startled him:
“If you are doing what I think you’re doing, you should take into account that historical records say that a typical firebenders’ range was increased tenfold during the comet. In some cases, that would be at least half a mile.”
Tengu was puzzled at Master Chang’s observation, which was almost psychic in nature.
“Almost thirty years in the service – can smell former military a mile away. Where did you serve?”
“The Siege on Ba Sing Se.” The words came easily, but the memories trailed like a bitter aftertaste.
“How. Heard he was a very strong man.”
“Very much so, but I served under Iroh, actually.”
Master Chang was perplexed.
“Colonial. Mining Town. Coal.”
“I see…” Master Chang let the words come out slowly, closing his eyes nearing a slit, as he then scanned Tengu’s features intently for a few seconds.
“Well – we can catch up later, I guess. I really am in no hurry to speak of The War again. Come, the council wants to meet you.”
Tengu followed Master Chang into a small garden, where four people sat on separate benches. He could not help noticing that a fifth seat was left empty in the middle. It was rather obvious that it was the Avatar's seat. He wondered where he could be and what would happen in the case of a vote, since even numbers could mean a draw, but he kept his peace at the moment, since he did not want to be rude.
Masters Chang and Kuen Yin sat one in each corner, at the farthest seats from the center. Another man and another woman, both into their golden years, sat closer to the center. They introduced themselves as Lin and Yao. These four characters, he had noticed, were some of the very few tattooed individuals in the new nomad tribe, and together, they exuded a powerful aura of both wisdom and authority. He should have felt intimidated, scared or nervous. However, there was a deep sense of peace in this place. He felt welcome and secure, but it would not last long...
Master Kuen Yin began:
“Tengu, when Master Chang and I found you, you were faced with dire circumstances. We felt compelled to help, and so we did. Coming closer to you, we felt – and still feel – a special aura about you. Perhaps some strange bond, connecting our spirits and our destinies. Therefore, we extended you an invitation, and now you are here. You have seen our lifestyle, shared our bread, and sampled our hospitality. How do you feel now that you've seen firsthand what we have to offer?”
“There seems to be much peace and happiness in this place, both of which have been in short supply in my life, especially of late.” He bowed his head slightly.
“From experience I can tell you that a life of agitation and violence is not easily left behind. Anxieties have a way to cling to the spirit. Fighting back the urges will be hard.” said Master Chang authoritatively.
“I have fought other urges before and won.” said Tengu.
Master Yao was the eldest member of the council. He had been an Earth Kingdom priest ever since he had been a young man. It had been his lifelong dream to serve the Avatar in his years. Therefore, when he heard of Aang rebuilding the Air Nomads, he and his family, who were also ministers, traveled to the Northern Temple to join the new nation. He knew much of the matters of the spirit, and once he had mastered airbending, proved to be a worthy addition to the council.
“This is a place of refuge, my child, not to be confused with a place of hiding. In my days, I have seen many people trying to outrun their fears and their problems, failing to realize that if something haunts them, it does so from within.”
Tengu stood quiet, but he was only too aware of the wisdom contained in the Old Master's words. He had tried a number of things to make the pain and the madness go away, but it seemed to be that he wasn't able to do it on his own. His previous sense of comfort and security had left him, leaving in its place the lonely, confused, and utterly vulnerable little boy that had run away from his family's execution so many years ago. Memories of blood, violence and sheer gore flooded his mind, filling his heart with remorse and regret.
His breathing became labored and irregular, as he fought the lump back down his throat. He closed his eyes, seeking to regain his composure.
“Master Yao, I have been...I mean – I have tried...” his voice began to break down.
He took a couple of deep breaths and closed his eyes again. He leaned his head back and opened his eyes to face the vines hanging from the wooden beams above the garden. It was useless: he would not find a way to speak and hold back the tears.
“There is truly no better reward for my past life than death. The things I have done and the life I’ve led really merits nothing else. And sometimes I really feel like there is nothing left for me but to give destiny its fair share. But there's this feeling – way deep down inside – a voice, a hunch, something I can't really explain, that tells me I'm still useful. It tells me that I can somehow redeem myself. And I've tried to follow this tiny speck of hope in and out of any and all kinds of situations you could possibly imagine, but the memories...”
Tengu's tears streamed down his face “...the people I have hurt, the people I have lost, I mean...they follow me, you know?” Master Chang nodded as his eyes too, welled up. “They show up in my sleep. They show up when I'm awake.”
Tengu closed his eyes again, stifling a sob in his attempt to go on. “I have been everywhere – and no matter where I go, I'm never really welcome, or wanted, or useful – I would seem as if I'm only good at doing bad things. But that – I mean – I really don't want to believe that's all there is to me, you know?”
Tengu opened his eyes and saw the whole council standing up. “I really, really, have no place else to go. If I can't be here, I might as well throw myself down the mountain, since that would mean...there's really no place for me - at all...”
As Tengu gave in to his emotions, a young airbender came around from behind him and gave him a hug. He felt something powerful stir in his spirit. He cried on this boy's shoulder for a brief while. When they drew apart, he saw tears in his eyes and tattoos on his forehead. A young woman was with him – dressed too, in an orange tunic, but her features were unlike anything he had seen before. She had dark skin, almost olive in color, but she had bright blue eyes - a Water Tribe girl, no doubt. She too, was crying.
He then realized they must have been there awhile, listening to his confession. The boy turned to Master Yao. Master Yao smiled and nodded. He then turned to the rest of the masters. They all smiled and nodded.
The boy addressed him:
“What’s your name?”
“Tengu. They call me The Demon Bird.”
“You will no longer be known as a demon. You will now be our brother. Welcome to your new home.”
They hugged again. Tengu felt the weight of his past melt in this boy's embrace. His tears subsided and a smile – a real one – now lit up his face. The rest of the masters came down to greet him.
Tengu then noticed the boy and his companion were leaving, escorted by various other monks.
“Wait! Please wait...your name...”
The boy smiled
“Aang – this is my wife Katara. Welcome home.”
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|My Own Savior Chapters|
|Colonial Childhood - The Tailor of Gaoling - Jailbird - Ember Island - The Contract - Corporal Lu Ten - General Iroh - The Wall, Part 1: Daedalus - The Wall, Part 2: Icarus - The Wall, Part 3: Apollo - The Wall, Part 4: Minos - The Lady Of Death - The Last Airbender - The Pursuit of Peace - Stengah - The Northern Air Temple, Part 1: Arrival - The Northern Air Temple, Part 2: Rebirth - Pride - Prejudice - Freedom|