"What's going on?" Sokka asked, when he joined the scene. Aang was sitting on the ground, his head in his hands, looking about as miserable as he'd been when he first reached the Ghorkalai. The Tribesman stooped. "What happened? Are you alright?"
"No, he is not alright," Nila's brother answered, sounding a lot more coherent, a lot less stammery, and a fair bit more arrogant than usual. When Sokka looked at him, and offered a grunt of alarm at seeing somebody who was doing a fair emulation of the Avatar State, before getting himself pulled together. "He is overwhelmed by the prospect of defeating Imbalance."
"Which I presume isn't a happy thing?" Sokka asked Nila, who was standing next to her brother. She shook her head slowly.
"There's got to be another way to do this," Aang said, slowly at first, but increasing with force as he slowly got to his feet. "If there's nothing left, then beating It's pretty much the same as losing to It. What if..."
"What if what?" Sharif asked. He then paused, and looked past Sokka. "Ah. Mother, we meet again at last."
Sokka turned, to note that Sativa had missed a step, her face one of open surprise. "Sharif? What has happened? Why do you sound so..."
"One of the few upsides of the end of the world, Mother," Sharif said with a shrug. He tapped his scar. "The capacity to think with an artificial brain is not to be overlooked," he then turned right back to Aang. "There is no alternative to this. Sacrifice is required, and a mighty sacrifice it must be. All of us have seen what Imbalance is capable of. Even what Its Shards are capable of! Now factor them working together!"
"But..." Aang began, and trailed off.
"This is for the best, Avatar. A fragment of reality is far greater than no reality at all," Sharif said.
"This is ludicrous," Sativa said. She turned to Aang. "You are right, boy... Avatar... That a sacrifice made foolishly is worse than treason. What are you not asking?"
"You're on his side?" Sokka asked, pointing at Aang.
"I know a bad idea when I hear one," Sativa said.
"Usually," Piandao seemed to appear in her shadow. She shot him a flat look, then returned her attention to her family members, and those that they'd gathered.
"I was thinking that maybe the sacrifice doesn't need to be the world. Not the world itself," Aang said. He took a deep breath, and raised tired, unhappy eyes to hers. "But... instead... the spirit of the world."
"Are you mad?" Sharif asked.
"What do you mean?" Sativa asked.
"The Avatar is the spirit of the world. I am the embodiment of Balance," Aang said, his words a little uneven, as though he were afraid of them even as they exited his throat. "If I sacrifice myself... It's like Nila says. Collide anything with its opposite, and both are blown up."
"Annihilated," Nila corrected.
"That isn't her name," Sharif muttered testily.
"Aang, you can't be serious," Sokka said. "If you die... No. There's got to be another way."
"The death of the Avatar Spirit would cause unspeakable harm to What Is," Sharif said, stabbing at his palm with a finger. "It would be worse than loss!"
"What would be worse than losing?" Korra interjected, as she leaned into the conversation. Sokka wasn't too proud to admit that he flinched a bit at her sudden proximity. Having dead-but-not-yet-born people floating around was both spooky, and defied his view of the cosmos.
"Who are you?" Sativa asked. Korra's face pulled into a smirk.
"Avatar Korra. Aang's next incarnation. Good to meet ya," she said. Then, she turned to Aang. "Who is this lady, anyway?"
"My mother," Nila said.
"WHAT IS THIS MADNESS?" Sativa demanded, her voice filling the courtyard enough that the disarming army behind her halted completely, and her own force of Blue Turbans flinched slightly.
"She's from a different future, one where Azula murdered me," Aang said off-handedly. And Sokka was a little impressed that the little-guy could manage to say something like that off-handed. Sativa nodded at that, as though it made perfect sense.
"Sacrificing yourself to end Imbalance might not be required," Sativa said.
"Why not?" Aang asked.
Sativa turned to Korra.
"What, me?" Korra asked, pointing at her spectral self.
"You are the Avatar as well, are you not? From a world where you have already passed into your next incarnation? Then what harm is there in this?"
"Oblivion?" Korra asked. "Hey, I like the guys that come after me. You should see this military-chick I get reborn as two hundred years from now..."
"Would it work?" Sativa asked, cutting her off.
"...Perhaps," Sharif admitted. "But it will be an incomplete solution. She is a dead Avatar. There are shades of difference that will be very meaningful."
"Then what about... oh, right. Aang, take a step to your left," Korra said, cutting herself off. Aang looked a bit confused, but did as she asked. And not three seconds later, there was a bolt of lightning that seared down from the grey clouds overhead, causing all to flinch and shake away the ringing of several sets of ears, only to turn back to see a beautiful Tribeswoman in a blue dress, albeit one who looked absolutely gassed out. She breathed heavy, sweated profusely, and was closer to grey than a healthy brown.
"Little Avatar? Big Avatar? Good. Didn't have... to find both... of you," Irukandji said. She took a deep breath, and regained a somewhat more dignified stature "If you've got a way, I've got the place."
"What?" Aang asked.
"The Black City," she said. "I've made a road there. Whatever you're going to do, you're going to have to do it there; it's the only place that the Shards are 'tied' to."
"But that still doesn't help us very much," Sokka said. "We're still not sure what we have to do... and who's going to have to do it."
Sharif took a step inward, and nodded. "I do," he said.
"What?" Aang asked.
Sharif slammed his fist into the Avatar's jaw so hard that the airbender flopped down into the drifting snow, instantly unconscious. All around him gave clipped yelps of shock, Sokka even going so far to have his Space Sword half out of its scabbard by the time Aang hit the ground.
"What the hell was that!" Sokka demanded.
"I am doing what I must," Sharif said. He turned eyes that glowed with mellow light first to his mother, then to his sister. "Sister? Sleep."
"What are you ta..." she began, then slumped. Sokka grabbed her before she hit the stone as well.
"Sharif, what are you doing?" the boy's mother demanded.
"Mother, please don't try to stop me. You know that you can't," Sharif said. He took a deep breath of his own. "I have no life, after this. Only brain-stricken stupidity, to be a burden on my family. But this? This is purpose."
Sativa's eyes started to dampen. "No. No you cannot. I forbid it!" she said.
"I'm sorry, Mother. I was born for this," he said. She reached forward, trying to grasp him, but he pointed at her, still half turned away. "STILL!" She was locked in place, the tears beginning to leak down her cheeks. Sharif turned one look back to her. "Tell my sister..." he began. Then, he looked at her, where she was sleeping in Sokka's arms. "...tell her something. Something better than I can give."
"Sharif, you can't..." Korra began, but with a wave of his hand, she crumpled to the ground and drifted away as a waft of smoke. He took two steps, and then, disappeared from sight entirely. When he did, Sativa was freed from her paralysis, and she took that lurching step forward, staring after where her son had gone. Her face pulled into a rictus, and she fell to her knees, weeping, with the swordsman unable to anything but hold her close. Irukandji looked at the whole thing, her head shaking faintly, before she vanished as well, to a much quieter electric snap.
It was the last time that Sokka ever saw Sharif Badesh bin Seema din Nassar.
"You've thought this through, kiddo?" Irukandji asked, as she walked almost uncomfortably close at Sharif's side.
"Thoroughly," Sharif said, walking along the road only for a handful of steps, before turning, to where the baked mud ended in a black abyss. "And I was right in assuming that the Avatar would leap to the wrong conclusion."
"What'd'ya mean?" Irukandji asked.
"Killing the Avatar State in this manner kills all that is. Reality will no longer be real. All that will be left is what Koh wills there be. But this...?"
Irukandji leaned closer, such that he could feel stolen breath on his ear. He turned a faintly glowing eye toward her.
"This will work. Now please, step aside; as euphoric as I may be, if you remain close, then you will be a part of this. I think you too intelligent and too craven to volunteer for it."
Irukandji's eyes widened. "No way," she said. Sharif nodded. "Really?" he nodded again. "What about the big guys?"
"Keep them out of this," Sharif said. "We shall need desperately the sun when this is over, and far more forgiving seas."
"I'll keep them on the sidelines. Birdbrain, too," Irukandji said with a gesture toward where the threshold to Wan Shi Tong's spirit library listlessly drifted. "How long will this take?"
"The Avatar will know when all is ready," Sharif said. He took a deep breath. "It is a small part of what he is for."
The world vanished around him, as he took a step forward. There was a dropping sensation, but it didn't last long. After less than a second, he landed – unsteadily – on cracked stone, the darkness pushing in like a living and unsavory beast. His eyes opened, and he beheld all that was.
A chain shackled this place, this lower den, this place of death, to the Black City that lay above it. Below, it looked much as the neurons of a brain, viewed under intense magnification. Cells of reality, adrift in a sea of nothingness. It was apt that he called the dark hungry and vicious. It was.
The darkness was the hunger of Imbalance.
He stepped forward again, and his foot sloshed into water. Another step, and this time, there was a crunch of shattered clay bricks. The walls around him stretched on into infinity, a great factory, its mad machinery finally silent. Another step... and he stood in a garden. Something like music, the sense that he'd had all of his life, was strong here. The warp and weave of the spirit danced, made a proud noise, desperate and afraid. A gentle breeze tugged at red silk drapes, that ran over untended and overgrown bushes. At the center, an island in a shallow pond. Upon that island, a house. He walked, and when his toes set into the pond once more, they dragged spirits with them.
"This is why I am here," he said, to the spirits which made up the entirety of this place. Every droplet of water was Water Spirit. Every gust of breeze was Wind Spirit. Every speck of mud, every inch of cloth, every whisper of sound. And as he walked, the whole of this garden began to warp, pulled behind him. Following him. To a man observing him walk, it would look evil, that he was consuming it as he came. The truth was far more complicated. But the house? The house was what he'd come here first, for. The water of the pond began to drain, circling him in a storm of spirits, following him. Bathing in him. He moved to the door, that was set of something not spiritual. It was hard. It didn't beg for his presence. It simply was. A twist of a knob, a push.
"As I would have expected," Sharif said sadly.
"What's going on?" Ashan ibn-Ali din Ababa asked, a hand raised before his face in confusion, in surprise at the light which reached into an otherwise featureless and dark room. Ashan leaned forward, peering through the glare, trying to get shade under his palm. "Wait... Sharif? Sharif is that you?"
"It is," Sharif said. He stepped forward, holding his hand toward his oldest friend. Ashan reached for it... and his fingers passed through Sharif's palm. Ashan stopped, staring at his own extremity, horror dawning on his face. "And, so it is with this as well."
Ashan looked to him. "Am I dead?" he asked.
"Yes," Sharif said. "You have been for some time."
"But... you still look the same! Is this some sort of punishment, or purgatory? Where is my family? Grandfather? Mother?"
"She is not here," Sharif said. "But she is... nearby, I believe."
Ashan took his feet, looking down at himself. "Why... don't I feel dead?"
"Would you know the sensation if it came upon you?" Sharif asked, motioning for the Si Wongi ghost to follow him. As Ashan passed the threshold of his prison, said prison broke apart into shadows and dust. "Also, why you do not remember your demise. It is a physical impossibility for a ghost to know his murderer in the moment of murder. For you, I hope, that is a kindness."
Ashan looked beside himself. "Wait!" he said, reaching for and grabbing through Sharif's arm. Sharif did stop for him, though, mostly out of respect for the dead man. "What about Nila? Did she get away?"
"That is not her name. And yes, she did," Sharif said.
"I know full well what her name is!" Ashan snapped. "I do her respect by calling her as she wishes to be, rather than the embarrassing, uncommon, and unusual name her mother saddled her with!"
Sharif looked at Ashan, how the dead youth, clad in the last clothes that he remembered wearing, almost quivered with anger. Anger was a bad thing to have in a ghost. But Sharif knew that Ashan's anger was a thing short lived. "So be it," Sharif said. "She has survived. Grown strong. And, while it might hurt you to hear it, she has moved on."
"She moved on," Ashan repeated. "How long?"
"Months of grieving. Then... well, she was unspecific about the method or madness that she and her paramour connected by."
Ashan nodded, his eyes to the water, which had once been half way to Sharif's knees, but now pooled listlessly at the level of his toes. "Is she happy?" Ashan asked.
"My sister is never happy," Sharif said with a roll of his eyes.
"Aha! Only now to I believe this thing to be true," Ashan said with a chuckle.
"Please, come with me," Sharif said, holding out his hand, this time, with a focusing of his will so that when he caught Ashan's wrist, there was something physical – or as close to it as a man to a ghost could be – in the connection. "The time is short, and I will have no time or ability to make a second attempt. Even spending such time in this kindness is a luxury that comes with a high price."
Ashan took a breath, and gently pulled Sharif's fingers from his wrist. "You are fighting the Eye of Terror, yes?"
Sharif gave a surprised look to Ashan. "How could you deduce that so truly?"
"I know the things that I see, and I see much. Even in death, apparently," Ashan said. His eyes locked onto Sharif's own. "You expect you will die."
Sharif looked at his old friend. The nodded. "I hope only that I die with purpose, that I die with meaning."
"How did I die?" Ashan asked.
"With the greatest meaning of all," Sharif said. "You died keeping my sister safe."
Ashan nodded, and began to walk, at Sharif's side. "Then I die content."
Sharif walked, towards the edge of the garden, pulling all of the matter, all of the spirits which built it, behind him. When he and Ashan together stepped out the boundary into the black non-space beyond it, the great swirl had narrowed to a point, a singularity of spirit, one that dug under Sharif's skin with that terminal step.
When the two young men left the garden, there was no more garden to leave.
"Are you going to talk about it?" the waterbender asked, as Azula sat in the howdah with the crazy fire/waterbender, who remained both unconscious and tied up to within an inch of her life.
"Would you want to talk about that?" she asked, tilting her head slightly toward the Tribesman's sister.
"Probably," Katara said anyway. "I know it doesn't seem much... but I know what that feels like. Losing a parent..."
"Just... stop," Azula said, her tones very tight, coiled tighter than a spring that was on the verge of snapping.
A complete lie; Azula was upset, yes, but one couldn't mourn a living man.
Katara accepted Azula's act at face value, turning toward the fore once more. When she did, though, she let out a noise in the back of her throat. "What?" Azula asked of her.
"I feel... water in the air," she said. "Do you feel fire up here?"
Azula stared at the waterbender, baffled at such an idiotic thing to say. Of course there was water. The clouds never parted above the Fire Nation. But when she did turn her senses, rarefied from so long amidst the flames that were part of her soul... yes, she did feel fire out there. Globs of it. Ribbons of it. Like lightning-bolts frozen in place, invisible amongst the grey murk.
"We should get under these clouds," Katara said, and there was that sinking feeling that Azula always got when they dropped. Her hands tightened around the wood of the howdah to the point that it creaked, before the grey parted... and the ground looked completely wrong.
"What is this?" Katara asked.
Directly under them was Kyoshi Island.
About a hundred yards past its shores was the collapsed statue of Azulon which ought stand in the eponymous bay.
To the south she could see the unmistakable shape of the Northern Air Temple. Azula turned, to look behind her.
Caldera City, directly behind them.
"Turn around," Azula said. "Something is very wrong."
To her credit, the waterbender did heed instructions, turning, and letting out a gasp when she saw her destination before her, two and a half days ahead of when they should have been able to reach it. The beast descended, moving lower and lower, toward the city of Azula's birth and youth. She was about to speak, the air just ready to leave her lungs, when a sensation hit her like a brick to the face, and her eloquence was undone completely, and a ragged grunt came out, as she recoiled, her entire body convulsing slightly.
She didn't see, but Katara did exactly the same.
"What was that?" the waterbender asked.
"I don't know," Azula said. She looked behind her... and saw the base of the Ashfall Ward, where a few seconds ago, the ocean stretched. "I'm starting to think I know what's wrong with the world."
"How?" Katara asked.
"Call it an educated guess," she said, as the beast zipped over the Periphery, past the ruins of one side of the Upper City, which was now a slope that terminated in a flow of lava. Into the courtyard, where even yet, soldiers were being disarmed and quartered away. The beast landed with a grunt, the snow wafting away from its six feet, and Azula was very quick to leave it's back. She would never become used to flying on that thing. Ever. The worst part about this, was that there was a road that led off into the distance, beginning not far from the edge of the courtyard. It was made of baked mud, and Azula knew from personal experience that it did not belong there.
"Hey, Azula. Hey, Katara," Toph's voice came through the din of metal and voices. She was striding toward them without her usual swagger. In fact, the blind earthbender had a furtive quality about her, as though she found herself out of her element – pun not intended – and didn't know how to react to it. "How'd you get back so soon? Did you call it off?"
"No. The world is broken," Azula answered. "I see you managed to win the war."
"Yeah," Toph said, a smug smirk coming to her face for a minute. "Sure, having two Avatars made a difference... but it was mostly me."
"Where are the Avatars. Wait, Avatars?" Azula asked.
"Yeah, Korra's here, too. And Aang, well," she shrugged. "They had to carry him inside, after he got laid out."
"Somebody hurt Aang?" Katara asked.
"Yeah, Sharif, if you could believe that," Toph said.
"I can't," Katara said.
"I can," Azula said. Blue eyes turned to her. "What? I can."
"Come on. I want to get out of these boots, and it's warm in there. Well, warmer," Toph said, casting a thumb toward the Royal Palace. She had to agree. The weather hadn't gotten worse only because there was no worse it could have gotten.
Azula found herself watched, as she moved past the soldiers of so many different armies, gathered together. The ones who watched her the hardest were the ones which bore no uniform at all, save a sash or turban of dark blue. She wasn't above admitting that her eyes had a suspicious turn to them, having herself being so noticed simply for walking into a building. Yes, she would have said it was her just due, but that was back when she was eight, or a psychopath, or a spoiled brat. And as she'd had experience being all three...
"What are they all staring at me for?" she asked, as Toph kicked her boots off and let them sail into a corner of the antechamber. Her toes flexed and worked, even as she continued inward. Doors opened with a wave of her hand, instead of the unsung work of a pair of servants. Passing from one room into another payed well for heat; she found herself starting to shrug off her jacket even then. And the path they were walking... it ran near the Burning Throne. "And where are we going?"
"Aang's sitting in one of the rooms over thatta-way," Toph pointed straight through a wall. "And for these guys? Well, that's a doozy."
The three young women were brought to a halt by a small group of soldiers, in the Blue Turban, stepping before them. One was rough and unshaven, with the look of an Embiar fisherman. Another was a greying-auburn woman... whom Azula had sent to prison at the beginning of winter. Oh, so this was how it was going to go, was it? The other the swordsman Piandao, who'd taught her brother those years ago. Or didn't. It was hard to remember which. She raised an eyebrow when she noted how he was now missing a hand. That didn't seem right. Then again, it was snowing in the Fire Nation.
"What is this?" Azula asked evenly.
"We were wondering when you'd get back," the fisherman said. "The soldiers... They were going to get restless, if they had to wait as long as they said."
"And this means what to me?" Azula asked.
"They're here to find the person that they've done all of this work for," the Matriarch of Kyoshi Island said.
"Well, Zuzu's got to be around here somewhere," Azula said with a shrug, and made to move past Toph and the adults both. Piandao skirted aside, and barred her path once more, with a ragged stumped arm.
"We didn't come here for the Prince," the fisherman said. "We were fighting for you."
"...me?" Azula asked. "You must be joking."
"Nope," A new voice came from beyond them. It was flat and emotionless, and had an undercurrent of unshakable boredom. In other words, it was absolutely familiar and absolutely Mai Loyo Lah. The Azuli girl herself appeared from a door-frame that she'd evidently been leaning on, and in her wake came the wild-haired boy that she'd taken up with. "As we see it, you've suffered as much at the hands of the Fire Lord, Ozai or Zhao, as anybody else. One of them banished you. The other imprisoned you, obsessed in a fairly creepy way over you. You are a Blue Turban, even if you haven't worn one."
"You're... what?" Azula asked. "Going to put me on the Burning Throne."
Silence, as all stared at her.
"Me?" Azula stressed, flattening a hand against her breast. "The woman who tried time and time again to kill the Avatar, the woman who lost her mind at the age of eight, the woman who..."
"Suffered, and struggled," Piandao cut her off. "And grew."
"You've seen things I reckon most wouldn't believe," the fisherman said. "But at the same time... we know who you are."
"I've heard it said," the Matriarch of Kyoshi added, "that you can get a very good measure of somebody by taking a long hard look at her enemies. And everybody's gotten a good look at Ozai and Azulon and Zhao. Anybody that they hated, victimized, and marginalized so powerfully has to be somebody worthy of their attention."
"That's insane," Azula said. "This is insane."
"How is this news to you?" Mai asked. "I sent you the plan months ago."
"I was living in Azul," Azula pointed out.
"...oh," the wild-haired youth – Jet – muttered. "Guess would should'a sent three birds, huh."
Blindsided by the predators of Azul. How very Fire Nation. Even in politics, it all came back to that. "Like I said, the people are getting antsy. Even something spur-of-the-moment will help," the fisherman said, running a thumb along his jaw.
"You're going to crown me today?" Azula asked. "There are..."
"A lot of formalities which in times of emergency have been overlooked," Piandao said. "And I would certainly say that this is an emergency. I'm sorry if this has come out of nowhere, but this is going to have to happen. And besides... I've got a fairly good idea of what kind of Fire Lord you'd be," he said, with a shrug. "If only because you had a good teacher."
"You're not afraid that I'd be a tyrant?" Azula asked. Valid question, given that in two lifetimes, given the opportunity, she absolutely would have been.
"If you are, we'll just overthrow you," the fisherman said with an easy shrug. She turned a heated look at him. "What? We've gotten pretty good at it."
Azula stared at them. Insanity. Offering her everything that she wanted, once upon that time. What she had clawed and scraped for when it was wrested from her hands. And now, she didn't want it, but they were giving it to her. She took a breath, and forced herself to look at this logically. Zuzu was welcomed back to the Fire Nation, however briefly. That made him a political liability. Azula was a sympathetic figure, now. Somehow. Against all common sense. She knew what was going to come, more or less. She knew the conflicts that came. Hell, she even knew the solutions which had changed the world into a very different place from her youth.
She had decent knowledge of the future on the macro scale, and they were giving her the authority to do something with that knowledge.
And she was balking.
"I'll do it," Azula said. "As long as it's done quickly."
"I figured you'd be up for it," Mai said with a very uncharacteristic smirk. She leaned forward. "Did somebody try to strangle you?"
"Tried," Azula answered. She turned to the doors which lead into the Burning Throne. They were lined with Blue Turbans. Another breath. "Whatever this is, it'd best be quick. I have words with the Avatar."
"Won't be more than five, ten minutes," the fisherman said. Azula rolled her eyes. Only when the world ended would she be the Fire Lord.
So the universe did have a sense of humor after all.
"Are you alright?" Ashan asked, as he pulled Sharif up after his stumble. He recoiled a bit, when the skin slid in his grasp. He stared at his hand for a moment, as Sharif pulled himself upright, standing at the edge of the moorage, its great and rusting ship disappearing into the oblivion of Imbalance's hunger. "...I just touched you."
"That will become more easy as this continues," Sharif said, breathing at a wheeze, as more and more of the spirits which made up this place began to break free of their own respective moorings, and floated toward him. They caught and spun, but intead of forming an orbit around him, they slipped into his pores, drifted up his nose and into his ears. Streamed under his fingernails.
"You're harming yourself," Ashan said.
"I am doing... what needs to be done," Sharif said, even as he slowly took his feet. He coughed, and blood drifted out of his lips for a moment, before it lifted up, and began to flow back into him. Not as the blood of his body, though; this was blood itself.
"You are going to..." Ashan caught himself, and stopped. He turned his friend toward him. "This is how you plan to die, isn't it? To be cored out by these things?"
"It. Must. Be. Done," Sharif said. Ashan looked him in the eye, and gave a slow, very uncomfortable nod.
"Then it must be done. But I will still grieve for you."
"No, you won't," Sharif said, his gait slowing to a limp, one that Ashan had to help him with, as they stepped off of the cliffs which unmade themselves with the pair's passage. They walked along the metal, shining void rising up to pound through his eyes, to join their ilk inside his skull. The void had only been here, because they sensed that at some point the Avatar had walked these rusting panels. For all their wisdom, today, they were as terrified babes. A final hiss of discomfort, as Sharif's brain now moved a little bit faster, thought a bit deeper, spun a bit faster. The two walked, and the ship unmade itself into metal and decay spirits, which slipped under his skin, and waited for when they were needed. Two stepped into oblivion, and passed out of a realm which no longer existed.
"So... what do we do now?" Malu asked.
"More ice," Aang mumbled. Despite their uncooperative geographic location, ice was something that there was no short supply of. He held the bag of it to his jaw, which still rightly smarted. At least his head didn't spin anymore, and he didn't have the nausea that any real concussion found itself paired with. And most of that, was because of the waterbenders in front of him.
"I could deal with the jaw, too," Kori said, looking fairly out of it himself.
"No," Aang said, and honestly, he couldn't have said why he said no. "I just don't know what happened. Why did Sharif do that?"
"Because he didn't want you to follow him, obviously," Kori said. All turned to him. "What? I'm pointing out the obvious that you're overlooking."
"He's right," Malu said. "Aang, if you knew what he was about to do, I know you wouldn't let him do it."
"There has to be..."
"He found another way," Malu said, quietly. "And he took it."
"But... but he's going to..."
Katara, who was silent at the side of the room, gave a slow nod.
"Nobody forced him into this. Nobody told him 'this is what you have to do'. He saw a need, and he fulfilled it," Malu said. A sad smile came to her face. "If I was half that brave, who knows what would have happened to us all?"
"Don't put yourself down," Aang said. "There's probably still a way to save him."
No. There is not.
"G'eh!" Kori full body flinched from the knot of silver light which descended through the ceiling to join them in the room.
"Void?" Malu asked.
"What are you doing here?" Aang asked.
I was chosen to remain. To be the last of us.
"The last... Void spirit?" Malu asked.
"Why does that sound so ominous?" Aang muttered. Then, he shook his head. "Wrong question. Why were you chosen to be the last?"
I was to teach you the secret of the Avatar State. Then, you learned on your own. You defied what was. I was to show you Connection. You have discovered it on your own. I was to teach you the meaning of Balance. You have brought it into yourself... on your own.
"So what are you doing here now?"
"What are they saying?" Katara asked Kori, who gave a baffled shrug.
"It all sounds like fog-horns and gibberish to me," the other Tribesman answered. The shifting silver spirit 'half turned' toward those in the room with it, before returning its attention – an impressive feat considering it had no physical features to speak of – to Aang and Malu.
We are not alone. The smooth-souled are here. They see me.
"Yes, they do," Aang said with a nod.
There was a long moment of silence. Then the heart has gone cold. The world has dimmed. Families reunited and sundered. The time... has come.
Malu leaned back. "But... you said that you didn't have anything left to teach him," Malu said.
All flinched back a bit, when the thing snapped outward, exploding like a spring bursting from containing too much pressure for too long. And then, it did have Form, a body, limbs and features. No face, but hands. The hands only had three fingers, as though they barely knew how to be hands, only knew the basest requirements for it. It reached those hands onto the chest of both Aang and Malu, fingertips pressing ever-so-lightly against their sternums, right above their beating hearts.
There is still one lesson. That the true heart can touch the poison of hatred, without being harmed. Can feel the fires of wrath, without being consumed. The almost-hands drifted higher, touching both at the front of their throats. That the true voice can speak the purest truth, without betraying to the cunning and the cruel. That the true word can shed light where once there was only darkness. The hand then reached higher, touching both airbenders right at the points of the arrows which pointed down at two respective noses. That the true mind can weather all of the lies and illusions, without becoming lost.
The two airbenders, children of the same age and time, separated from it by circumstances entirely outside of their control, stood stock still and not even daring to breathe.
The void, which has become Imbalance, has no true beginning... but like shadows burned away by a candle in the dark, it will have an end; what cannot be, will not be, and all else will fall to the purifying power of the Real.
All stared, even if they didn't understand the words. They understood power.
"This is..." Aang began, but he didn't have words for the... the pure comprehension that he felt at that moment. The oneness, of himself, of his body and his mind and his soul, of his purpose. He didn't know it, but Malu shook with that same awe and awareness. Two airbenders, one host to destruction, the other hope, now, fighting together for the future itself.
You will know when the time to follow the path of the fallen has come. And when it comes... you will not be alone. The time of endings... is at hand.
The fleck of silver folded up on itself, its features fading away, its hands vanishing into the mass of light and Form, twisting until it was no longer visible. It gave a single word...
And then, like a candle burning out, it was gone from sight. Not vanished... just nowhere nearby, somewhere far away. Waiting.
Irukandji was damned uncomfortable standing here. No big surprise. The chittering of legs tapping against old, dead wood was a horror-show in and of itself. Having Koh the Face Stealer asleep through the end of the world was frightening. Having him awake? Just as frightening, for different reasons. "Koh!" Irukandji shouted, keeping its face completely featureless, and only then, by electrically paralyzing it. "Come on, I know you're in there."
"So why does the little fly walk into this dark web?"
Irukandji watched, impassive, as the face-bearing eye of the Face Stealer appeared out of the darkness. "I'm delivering a message. That you must stay away from what the Avatar is about to do."
"I know fully well the perils that he will face. The sacrifices that they will have to make. That you will have to make."
It took everything Irukandji had to not scowl at the demon-masked face that hovered before it. "You've obviously got your eye on the wrong spirit. I don't sacrifice."
"In a time of desperation, the small and weak are capable of great things. The coward is capable of bravery... and the hero is capable of evil. What, then, is the villain capable of?"
"You can stop talking in riddles, Koh. I'm not human, and I don't have time to learn the way that they do," the spirit demanded. The eye before Irukandji blinked, and showed the glowing visage of a spirit ancient and powerful, yet every bit as trapped as the mortals and others in Koh's 'Collection'.
"All have parts to play. Some will be heroes. Others, made into villains. And all must sacrifice. Even I. Even you."
The head pulled away, and chattered back into the darkness, leaving Irukandji standing in the heart of the dead tree, with sweat beginning to roll down a borrowed face. It couldn't mean... No. No, that'd just be crazy. There was a snap of lightning, and Irukandji disappeared from the realm of the Face Stealer.
She threw the doors open as she reached the room, finding most of the whole gang clustered up together. She could feel the five-point flame nestled in her hair, but the whole thing just felt... unbalanced. Uneven. Unready. The very brief 'coronation' had been a few old men admittedly and begrudgingly truncated words and ceremony. No rousing applause, no words of deeds and bloodline, and honestly, Azula was a little relieved for that.
It still hadn't sunk in that today, Azula was the Fire Lord.
Golden eyes swung through the room, and took in the Tribesmen and the earthbender, and the airbender, and the Avatar. "You? Out," she said, her voice clipped and cold.
"Azula, it's..." Katara said, with genuine sympathy in her voice. Sympathy in exchange for a lie. How very typical of Azula's life.
"Go," she said. Aang gave her a confused look, and rose. "Not you. You, I need to speak to."
"...okay," Aang said, squatting down once more. The others filed out, one after another. The waterbender gave Azula's hand a squeeze as she went, one that Azula didn't return. She just looked tired and depressed. The looking wasn't too far from the feeling. When the last had left, and pulled the door closed behind him, Azula took a breath, and walked to the brazier, hovering her hands over it for a bit of added warmth. "So... what did you need to talk about?"
"What happens now?" she said. She slowly shook her head. "I know how to fix the biggest mistakes of the next twenty to thirty years of history, but I don't know how to survive until next week," she puffed out a breath. "...that scares me a bit."
"Azula... are you alright? You look hurt," Aang said, as he moved closer. He looked like he wanted to touch the bruises on her neck, but she shook her head.
"I'll be fine," she said, "I've had worse."
"That doesn't mean that you don't have a right to complain," Aang said. There was a long silence. "...do you want to talk about what happened yesterday?"
"...shockingly, yes," Azula said. She stared into the flames, if simply because she didn't know if she had it left in her to stare him in the eye right now. "I'd been putting thought into why I did that. And there's only one answer that makes sense. You're a good person. And... I need that."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"My husband, in the longest of my lives?" she said. "A bottomless font of enthusiasm and optimism. He made my life better, by forcing me to stop only seeing shadows getting cast by every lamp. And you do the same thing. So yes. I am attracted to you. I know I shouldn't be. Hell, politically, if anything comes of this, it'll be an absolute nightmare... but there it is."
"I see," Aang said. He was quiet for a moment. "I... I heard about your dad."
"You did," Azula said.
"I'm sorry. Even if he did what he'd done the last few years..."
"Aang," she cut him off, without even referring to him as 'avatar', as was her custom. "If you swear to absolute secrecy, I can tell you something."
"You must reveal what I'm about to tell you to nobody. Not your Tribesmen, not your fellow Airbender. Not my brother," she said. Aang leaned over the fire, looking at her. Then, his grey eyes widened a bit.
"Your father's still alive, isn't he?" Aang asked. She looked him in the eye, then.
"Yes," she said.
Aang stared at her, then nodded. "I won't tell anybody, if that's what you want. But why?"
"Because I want him to be safe," Azula said quietly. "He's... a broken man. He was so guilty over what he did to my family, to me... it just tore his mind to shreds. I don't want anybody to hurt him, and the only way I can think of doing that, is for them to believe he's already gone."
"What if somebody else finds out?" Aang said. "I'm not the most perceptive, after all."
"You had all the clues," Azula said. That he put them together on his own was mildly impressive. It showed that he did in fact have a working brain. "Other than that... I'll have to deal with it, case by case. If I have to."
"I'm honored you trusted me with this," Aang said.
"You're the only one who wouldn't judge," she answered. She turned back to the fire. "I imagine that you're going to go save the world, soon."
"...yeah," Aang said, sadly. "But I couldn't save Sharif."
"He made his choice," Azula said. "But now, I'm..."
She gave a shiver, honestly and terribly uncertain. This was so outside of her knowledge, so beyond the horizon of her understanding. She might as well be blinded trying to walk through a mine-field. She felt a hand on her shoulder, as he'd moved to her side. "Hey. Don't worry. We're going to figure this out."
"I hate feeling this... useless," Azula said. She shook her head. "I wish there were something I could do to kill this thing. Or even just to fight it, but I can't do anything! Damn it!"
She kicked the brazier over, spilling it's coals onto the ground. The catharsis was poor substitute for warmth. With the outburst out of her, she just felt tired. She slumped into a chair, and cradled her head in her hands.
"It'll be fine," Aang reassured her. And she also didn't like that she found herself in a position that she needed reassurance. "When I–"
A thundercrack sounded, and two became three.
"Aang?" the spirit which made her life so hellish said. "If it ain't time, it'll be time soon."
"I'll go," Aang said. He gave Azula one more look, then moved to the door. Malu was waiting just outside it, sweating despite the cold. The door blew shut with a bang, and Irukandji turned to her.
"What do you want now?" she demanded.
"Still a bitch, huh?" Irukandji asked. "Well, I guess being civil was too much of an ask."
"I'll show you what a bitch is like," she said, pulling a curl of lightning into her hand.
"How delightfully tautological," Irukandji said flatly. Then, she leaned forward, toward Azula, heedless of the lightning. "Now, you're sitting here like a baby in a soiled diaper 'cause you don't know what you can do? Well, think about it real hard. Think about what you know about this thing. It'll come to you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go save the universe, somehow."
A fresh electric zap, and Irukandji was gone. Azula did sit there, and she did think. She thought about everything that had happened since she regained the use of her mind. She thought about the things which she'd seen. The things that had happened. She thought about the Shards. About Imbalance. She thought... about the fight in the Western Air Temple.
They could be restrained physically, but only by people who weren't shamans. If they touched a shaman, that shaman was toast, in a pseudo-literal fashion. They couldn't be physically hurt, of course. Bullets hit them to no effect. They had no skin to flay, no muscle or bone to pierce, no blood to spill – that she was aware of.
But they did recoil, they did retract when struck by lightning. It didn't harm them... but it did hurt them.
She ignited a blue flame above her palm, rolling it around as though a marble as she thought. How could she use that to her advantage? It wasn't like she could enter the Spirit World and throw lightning bolts at the world-eating monster.
Or could she?
She got to her feet, as it all became clear.
She threw open the door, looking at the surprised faces of Toph, Sokka, Katara, and Kori. Then, she looked down the hall, to where one of the Blue Turbans was waiting for her return. "You!" she pointed to him. "Gather the Ghurkas! We are marching to war!"
There was a new stumble, as Sharif entered the last bubble of the Living Spirit, the bottom of the chain, below which hung oblivion. He fell to his hands and knees, coughing hard, painfully. When he slowly raised a hand off of that baked mud and dead earth, he saw that the skin on his hand had torn apart completely. Beneath it was not muscle and bone and sinew, though. Instead, a storm of spirits, mimicking the color of his flesh even as they overtook it.
"Sharif! Are you alright?" Ashan asked him.
"No. But I am content," Sharif answered. Ashan hesitated to help him up, but did so anyway. There was a faint tearing sound even still, as the movement of his robes against his back tore the dry and dead skin away. Sharif looked more than alarmed. Sharif shook his head, and pointed. "There is your destination. The final destination."
"What is it?" Ashan asked. He stepped forward with his old friend, and the two left the blackness, and entered a place where there was a faint golden cast to the sky. Waves washed gently against the shore, but the waves were not of water. A fog hung, indistinct, above the surface. Behind them lay a tree, which collapsed onto a greenhouse, and before them...
"The Sea of Souls," Sharif said. He turned away from it. "When you touch that surf, you shall become one with it. You shall pass completely into the hereafter. But I ask that you not do so... not quite yet."
"Why?" Ashan asked, inching back from the lapping of grey waters.
"Because..." Sharif trailed off with a low moan, as he felt his innards burning. It was a twisting pain on par with a rotting of the guts, but with little more than a rictus of pain, he continued walking forward. After all, having his intestines replaced by spirits was neither a clean nor gentle process. "... because there is somebody who must go with you."
"What do you mean?" Ashan asked. His spectral form grew paler. "You said that Nila lives!"
"She does," Sharif said. So he walked to the crushed greenhouse, and reached in a hand. He looked in, and hummed the song which was mounting ever higher in his ears. It was the song of a spirit world in quiet mourning. A song of a man who knew that his death awaited him, but chose to face it standing with dignity. It was a song of endings, that had been playing his entire life. He heard it now, and he understood it now.
He heard the song of Sharif Badesh bin Seema din Nassar.
He felt a hand fall into his, one that ignored the sliding skin and the spirits under it. Gently, he drew that hand toward him, out of the ruins of the greenhouse. Finding her was not easy, but... he had.
"...Mother?" Ashan asked, as she finally came into view.
Latifah looked as Sharif had never known her in life. She looked perhaps a year or two older than Sharif himself, a teenaged girl just past the cusp of adulthood. A girl of smiles and dancing, long, shining black hair. Before the twisted master of Ababa saw her. Before he broke her. "What is... I know that voice," Latifah said.
"Mother!" Ashan said, moving closer, as though unsure what to do.
"Is... is that my son?" Latifah asked of Sharif. She looked at Ashan, as though she almost recognized him.
"You know his voice, do you not?" Sharif asked.
"I do," she nodded.
"Mother, how is this possible?" Ashan asked. Only with that, did Latifah let go of Sharif's hand, and pull her son into an embrace that the lad had never gotten in life.
"She only had sanity in death, what had been stripped of her in life," Sharif said, his voice wheezy and thin. He tried to cough, but air-spirits bubbled past his lips when he did, before pulling themselves back through his lips and into what were once his lungs. "But she deserved to meet her son, and her son deserved to meet his mother. The spirit world is many things... but with effort, it can be made not cruel."
"I wanted this... for so long," Ashan whispered.
"I know. So did I," Latifah said. Sharif gently gathered the two, and guided them away from the ruins, and toward the beaches. The stood, hand in hand, at the end of existence.
"I could do you this one final favor," Sharif said.
"And I could not thank you more for it," Ashan said. "I... have my family."
Sharif simply watched, as the two stepped forward, together, into the sea. They waded out deeper, into the faintly golden darkness, vanishing into the fog which rolled forward to gather them. In a matter of moments, it was over, and they were gone completely. No ghosts. Nothing but memories above the Sea.
Sharif nodded, as he listened to the flow of the song. "Farewell," he said to Ashan and his mother. And then, he started to walk. "And now... an ending. Once and for all."
Sharif walked, and the beach flowed with him, eating his bones and shoring them with their own spirit flesh. Only the sand of the beach remained when he left. It would remain, eternal as the seas it overlooked, until the end of time. Which, if all went poorly... would be this afternoon.
"You don't need to keep staring at me like that," Aang said, at the pair of shamans in the partial uniform of the Children.
"You almost got us killed!"
"You launched us... I don't even know what to call that place!" brother and sister answered at a shout, respectively.
"That was... sorry," Aang said, rubbing the back of his neck. He gave a look to Malu, who shrugged bemusedly. It was strange, seeing her with no hair. And it was probably strange for her to see him with hair. All told, strange days. "But if you can help, we can use everything we can get."
"We'll do it," sister and brother said, respectively. Only this time, it ended with her shooting a surprised look at him. He shrugged. "I want there to be a world tomorrow."
"Then we need to be ready, because when... when..." Aang said, trailing off, as a sensation swept through him. He turned, facing through the wall and across a distance both infinite and finite, a place nowhere and yet the only place that really existed anymore. It was like a chime, ringing across the cosmos.
"Now," Malu said.
"Yeah," Aang answered. "Did you hear that?"
Both nodded, looking deeply unsettled.
"Then it's time to go," Aang said.
He took a step, and walked through the ripple in space and time. The Spirit World, as he knew it, didn't exist. There was only a chain, one that ran down into the infinite blackness below, and up into an equal blackness above. He stood on baked clay, a path leading inward... toward the Black City.
"What is this place?" Hisui asked Aang.
"The Black City," Aang answered.
"Sentinel Rock," Malu added.
"...it's both," both finished.
Aang didn't say another word, as he walked along baked clay. There was nothing. Only destination. He could barely even feel the other Shamans behind him. Only Malu even registered in his sight, and only then, because she was so much a part of this. He almost walked in a fugue, his feet finding the paths between the tears in reality that would have killed him in a myriad of ways. He walked, and the Black City grew closer. The twisted streets of a place which was once a home to thousands mounted up, an abscess in the world, like so much else that Imbalance created.
"Agni's blood, is that...?" Hai asked. Aang looked. Yes, it was. Floating above the black, red eyes staring inward, toward the heart of that place, was a Shard. It didn't even note them in the slightest, so focused was it on that spot beyond. And as they moved further in, they saw more and more Shards. At first, they merely stared, pulsing red eyes wide and unflinching. Then, when Aang set his first foot onto the broken bricks of Sentinel Rock, they began to walk. They walked upon nothing itself, advancing inward, pressing in from all directions, save directly up, moving toward the center, where all things lay.
"Stay in my footsteps," Malu said, her voice distant and booming in the empty city. Then, came a metal crash. A boom, that both shamans behind flinched from. "Do not be afraid."
"That's... a blowout!"
"No," Aang said. "Not a blowout. Something else."
Their path took them higher, mounting up the broken outpost, until they passed that great lip, and saw the insane morass of the Black City at its very heart. And that heart was beating.
It stood as a temple, one Aang had overlooked every time before now. It looked like it was made out of age-stained lead, dull and lusterless, but nevertheless metal, physical, and heavy. Every minute there came a new crash of metal against metal, as the form of that building buckled in and out slightly. Every time it buckled, a waft of sparking smoke, of mad colors drifted up from it. Inward he walked, down the banks of that place. Past buildings that had no doors. Past palaces without windows. Past libraries without books. Towers without bases, bridges without purpose, waterwheels standing in still, dead ponds. Towering structures, like the ones Aang had seen in Koh's nightmare, almost leaning over, imposing on those that stood below them.
And at the heart of all that, standing in the wide, empty clearing before the beating heart of the dying Spirit World... was Sharif.
The two shamans stared, bug eyed, at what they beheld. "He didn't," she said.
"He obviously did," her brother answered.
Sharif turned, slowly, and when he did, it was obvious to Aang why he moved so slowly. His skin was worn through, sloughing away where it wasn't outright burning. Below that mortal flesh was a roiling mound of spirits, so many pressed so tight that any normal man would simply think Sharif sunburned, that a new layer was healthy below. But Aang, Malu, and the rest? They saw the truth. There was almost nothing left of Sharif. His skin? Spirit flesh. His bones? Spirit flesh. His brain?
"You heard me," Sharif whispered. Or rather, the spirits which made up his body whispered for him.
"You didn't have to do this," Aang said. Sharif smiled then, a distant and numbed smile.
"Yes. I did. It had to be me," he said. He slowly raised his arms, his robes burning away as he stood, unable to withstand the pressure of being in contact with so many spirits. Aang could see the Form of them. And their number? Almost incalculable. Billions. Aang flinched aside, as a Shard walked past him, eyes locked squarely on Sharif. "I am the distraction. It can eat only of me. And while it chews... you will be able to hurt it."
"Sharif..." Aang said.
Other Shards gathered, pressing closer, sometimes slipping into each other as they came. Soon, there were only nine that had walked past the shamans or simply walked through the thresholds of the city around them. They pressed tighter, walking up to Sharif. One of them reached a hand forward, its maw opening. The eyes grew, pulsed, the body became indistinct... and when it touched Sharif, it burst into flames, eaten from within. All of the Shards backed away, eyes turning to one another.
Then, the Shards began to change.
One became a lanky young man, hair unruly, eyes wedged as though an arrow lay through them. Another became older, more statuesque, taking the silhouette of Irukandji. Others took other forms. The Mountain King. Azula. Ozai. Zhao. There was even one with the beyond-black 'hair-loopies' of Katara.
"What are they doing?"
"Opening the Maw," Sharif said. "Malu? Aang? Minions? You will know what to do."
There was a grim nod from the first two. The second pair, though, glanced between themselves. "Who said we were minions?" he asked.
There was a fresh bang of metal against metal, and the sky turned a bruised color. Aang took a deep breath, and looked into his soul, to find the answers that he would need there. The true voice. The true mind. The true heart.
And at the same time, Aang felt something was missing. The Shards pulled together, fusing, becoming something less human, more grotesque, more indescribable. A beast of red eyes and darkness. Of infinite maws leading into infinite darkness. Then, with a crack of buildings crumbling, being ripped apart, a red line ran across the side of a concrete dam – one greater than any Aang had ever heard of.
And the Eye of Terror looked upon them once more.
"Am I being clear?" Azula asked.
"Perfectly, ma'am," Savir said with a nod. "Just tell us when to follow."
"We found her, Fire Lord," a new voice intruded on Azula's briefing with the Ghorkalai. She turned a hot glare at him, one that grew positively glacial when she saw who exactly the comment was intended toward. The guards came in, flanking and holding the arms of Akemi Fujitsuna. Ozai's mistress, then Zhao's. A faithless whore, in Azula's opinion.
"And there you are," Azula said. "I was wondering where you'd holed up."
"I am shocked at the treatment I face here," the courtesan said with only mildly ruffled feathers, as though this were a social faux-pas rather than... well, what it was. "I should think that the mother of the Fire Lord's heir would be treated with a bit more decorum."
"And she will be. When she is returned from Ba Sing Se," Azula said. "You, on the other hand? You aren't mother to anything. I found your daughter – my half-sister – in the care of a nurse in a dingy corner of the palace. You discarded her the instant you switched your allegiance to Zhao. That is not the act of a mother."
"It was a matter of political reality," Akemi said smoothly. "I had to protect my child, and the only way I knew how was to keep her out of Zhao's sight, while I kept him distracted from her existence and fate."
"You're a decent liar," Azula said. "But I'm a better one. And a liar always knows when another liar is lying. I know what that girl is to you. She was a means to political power while you worked at my father's side," she leaned back, inspecting her nails with a bitter look on her face. "And if you had truly been faithful to Father... then you would have been there with him, in his imprisonment. You would have been there when he died. And if you'd done that, if you'd been there, like you claim you wished to be... then I would have had pity for you. Even sympathy. I would have found a place for somebody... close to Father's heart."
Fujitsuna began to shrug, a difficult gesture given that both guards still had her by the elbows.
"But," she raised a single finger, with a glare, "you left him to his demise without a second glance. You betrayed my blood, both in my father, and in my sister. And for that, you will not be prized. No, you will only find punishment for being so faithless."
"Please, have mercy, I simply..." Akemi said, her tones groveling, and absolutely insincere to one as versed at insincerity as Azula.
"The only mercy I grant you is that I think enough people have died today that I don't wish there to be another one," Azula said, her voice the edge of a headsman's blade. "You are banished."
"What?" Akemi asked.
"You are no longer welcome in this city, or this nation, or any holding which is affiliated with it," Azula said, ticking off fingers. "You have until the end of the day to exit the city, which will be made all the easier for you, as all of your possessions in the city which would 'slow your exodus' have been seized in the name of Father's second daughter. You will then be taken off of these shores, and any return to them will be met with the immediate pain of death."
"Mistress, please..." Akemi said.
"This is the price of your conspiracy, woman," Azula said, leaning in toward her. "You will have to live with the knowledge that the child you bore will be given splendor and education and opportunity, will be given all of the power and prestige of a member of the royal family... and that everything that you sought through her will never happen. She will live the life you tried to leverage her for. She will not bear the stain of your presence, your name, or your schemes. If I can manage it, she will likely not even learn that she and I don't share the same mother. You will be erased from this place, Fujitsuna. That is the price of your faithlessness. Take her away."
"You can't do this," Akemi said, her tones slipping out of their usual honeyed beg, into indignant and afraid.
Azula reached up to the five-point flame in her hair, as she turned away. She tapped it, once. "I believe I just have."
She probably glared at Azula, as the men began to bear her back. "You will regret this decision, girl."
"Not as much as you will," Azula said, her voice a cheery sing-song. "And that gives me great joy."
"Harsh," Savir said from where he leaned in a doorframe. "But the right thing. You can't trust those vipers as far as you can spit at them."
"Have the Ghurkas assembled?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am, they have," he said. "Mine and the ones under Zhao."
"Will they learn fast enough?" she asked.
"Some of them. The rest are getting left," Savir said. "I wish I'd be going with you."
"Your people need you, and a non-firebender isn't going to be much use, sad to say."
"Still," Savir shrugged. She continued to walk, and he calved off, before turning to walk backward. "One more thing. Good that you brought in your sister," he said. She gave him a glance. "Enough families got torn apart in this war. Nice to see when one gets put together. More or less."
She continued, until she burst through the doors, out into the wind and snow, where almost a hundred Ghorkalai firebenders had assembled. She looked at them. They stared back. They swore to fight the unfightable... and she was going to give them a chance. Not a word said, but no words needed to be. They drew in behind her, as she walked toward the baked mud road to nowhere.
"Argent Void, word of the long forgotten tome, bearer of the open secret, threshold into oblivion, come to my call!"
"Aid in my vengeance! The great and misbegotten beast, black as death, false as doom, strike!"
The two shamans with Aang were already blasting out their litanies, and pulses of light lashed out of Sharif, where he stood, his arms raised, his body glowing. The darkness had moved in, surrounding them, reaching out with hateful claws, trying to reap them, to swallow them. To give it time to eat Sharif in peace.
"What do I do?" Aang asked Sharif.
"I don't know," Sharif said, his voice reflecting as though down a supremely long hallway. "Find the words."
Aang stared, his eyes drifting shut. And when they opened, they did so blazing white.
I BID YOU BACK.
The words were thunder, punctuated by a crash of the beating heart of the Spirit World. Again it pulsed, and Aang looked up, into the sky above it. He could see the Form, here in the heart of the Avatar State, he could see what it was. There was a tearing, a layer of spirits torn from Sharif as a claw rended through him, but his body, flinching, remained. His face was one of agony, but he stood his ground.
BEATING HEART OF THE SPIRIT REALM. THE HUB OF THE WHEEL. THE BEGINNING AND THE ENDING. WHAT WAS AND IS AND WILL BE, MANIFEST.
GEAR OF REALITY.
The two shamans had to move closer, pressed in by the darkness, which now gave them only a few yards of room. Only the great Eye broke that darkness, because it and the darkness were one and the same. When the darkness was whole, then all of them would vanish into oblivion.
SO BEATS THE HEART WITHIN YOUR BREAST, DESPERATE AND WEAK. LET SHINE ITS LIGHT INTO THE HEAVENS, LET SAIL ITS FORCE THROUGHOUT THE LAND.
The Heart answered Aang's call, beating once more. A pulse of light shot up, parting the darkness for an instant, showing a golden sky above, before the darkness closed in once more. He understood, now, what this place was. What everything was. He knew that the 'Blowouts' that had ripped through the Spirit World for the last half-century were the desperate spurts of a world in pain and fear, trying to kick-start itself back into life. But every time it tried, Imbalance was there, eating the power, eating it. Undoing it.
A Spirit world without Imbalance would have restored itself decades ago. Of course, without Imbalance, it wouldn't need to restore itself at all.
FULL OF THUNDER, FULL OF JOY, AN ENDLESS PLANE THAT HOLDS ALL THAT IS, WAS, OR EVER SHALL BE.
WHEN BEATS YOUR HEART, OUR HEART BEATS WITH IT.
WHEN STRUCK IN PAIN, OUR FLESH PAINS WITH IT.
WHEN BLEEDING DRY, WE BLEED WITH IT.
There was a shriek of pain, and a reaving claw of blackness raked through Hisui. Aang slammed a hand onto her shoulder, though. A part of him knew the price, but was willing to pay it. Even as Imbalance unmade her, Aang gave her something. Enough to live. Enough to survive. She faded away, her body grey as a man sick to death, disappearing from their battle.
Her soul was gone, destroyed beyond reclamation, but, with what he'd given her, she'd live.
"HISUI!" Hai shrieked.
"She will live," Sharif whispered, his back still to them, even as the layer of flesh was stripped away, so that he now stood as but spiritual meat, upon spiritual bones. Aang wished he could feel the sympathy for a brother terrified, for a woman who's life would never be the same. But the crush of the Avatar State forsook that. It had purpose. A purpose, one for which the Avatar State existed in the first place.
THERE STANDS THE DARKNESS, STIFLING, UNREAL. BEAT, YOU GLORIOUS HEART, AND LET YOUR MUSIC RISE.
THE DAWN SHALL COME, AND WITH IT, REBIRTH AND RENEWAL.
A NEW BEGINNING, AFTER SO MANY ENDINGS.
AND WITH IT...
WITH THE COMING OF THE SUN, ALL TWILIGHT CAST AWAY
That line surprised Avatar Aang. He stood, and saw that Malu was with them, grasping a rope of that blackness, that claw of evil and annihilation. She held it, and it didn't destroy her. She looked back at him, and where Aang's eyes were blazing white, hers, somehow, a blazing black. "I finally understand," she said, as she heaved that darkness into her again. "It can't hurt me. I'm immune to it."
"Then we shall fight it together," Avatar Aang promised. A fresh claw raked through Sharif, and he screamed in agony at it, as his body was being unmade, the glut of spirits filling a maw to capacity, keeping it from pressing that darkness those final yards and undoing all.
"Won't matter much if..." Malu began.
Then, a thunderclap reached Aang's ears. He turned, to the path that had lead him here. There was a blue flash, and Imbalance recoiled. Again, with a new 'grunt' of pain from the Eye that stared with cthonic hate at them. Then, another thunderclap, another pulse of blue, barely visible through the black. Azula. No...
Then, another. And another atop it. A third.
Aang's eyes widened all the wider.
The thunderstrikes began to mound and crash, an unending stream of them, ripping at the darkness. Tearing at it. Stinging it with a hundred needles, and forcing it to recoil from what was causing it pain, while it was too busy to benefit from their assaults. Azula was here. And she came with an army.
"Did you really think I was going to sit back and let you save the world?" She asked with a smirk on painted lips. Then, she thrust fingers, crackling with electricity forward. And as she did, so did a dozen others, mimicking her attack, some in her form, and others, in something new but just as effective. Until that moment, what Aang had felt for Azula was infatuation. Very strong infatuation, to be sure, but it was still something that, were the circumstances just the right sort of impossible, he could have set aside.
In that instant, in the depths of the Avatar State, Aang fell hopelessly in love with Azula.
"I... I can't..." Sharif whispered. A swipe, one that Malu caught. A second, behind her back, that she couldn't. It smashed through Sharif completely, striking all color from him, all spirits completely consumed, all things spent. Sharif was still there, though. He was pale and transparent, looking like a figure made of the clearest of glass, but left in place long enough to gain the slightest covering of dust. He wheezed, in pain, staring at his hands. "I'm... I'm still..."
And then, without any attack from Imbalance, or anyone at all, he drifted apart.
Avatar Aang knew that his time was now, or never. With Azula's army pounding the thing out from around them, into a single direction, it had definition. Instead of being an un-thing, which couldn't be attacked because there was no one way to do it, it had form. And with that, it had Form as well. So Aang raised his hands, which blazed with white tattoos and the power of all of the lives of mankind.
UNBREAKING EARTH. UNTOUCHABLE AIR. DEPTHLESS WATER. UNQUENCHABLE FIRE. BRIDGE BETWEEN WORLDS, HOLDER OF ALL KEYS. MARK OF DESTINY. SOUL OF POWER.
GEAR OF THE AVATAR
With Aang's words, he was no longer even close to alone. Korra appeared at his side, drifting together like coalescing smoke. She stood at Aang's side, her body dark of skin and full of flesh, younger than he remembered. Then, another version of her appeared at Aang's other side. Still dark fleshed, intact, as though alive, but it was this was the middle-aged woman who was Aang's fairly-well-known companion. Roku stood, beard blowing in the wind. Kyoshi glared down the Eye. Aang knew every Avatar, from the very beginning, who appeared in the space between Azula's army and Aang. And not simply the past. Men and women from possible futures. Daredevils and street rats. Spindly scholars and copper-haired soldiers. Azula pushed back the darkness. Malu pulled the darkness into her and away from those behind her. The National shaman held a blazing pyre above his hands, one made of every Void spirit in existence, just enough to keep those present inside its light.
INNUMERABLE ARE MY FLESH.
Despite every Avatar now standing in ranks that began to circle Imbalance, giving the thing a boundary – A body – more began to appear. Other Aangs. Other Korras. Other Rokus and Kyoshis and Vajrapatas.
INFINITE, MY INCARNATIONS.
The Avatars grew ever more numerous, first thousands, then millions. Then billions. Then more.
UNFLINCHING, MY POWER.
All Avatars, including the one invoking them, raised hands high. The infinite Avatars now hemmed Imbalance from all sides. No longer was it boundless and unceasingly protean. It had a shape. It had a size. In a way that was only understandable in abstract, Imbalance had been 'out-infinited'. The red eye had been pressed down, from a thing which stretched the whole horizon, to something only as big as Appa.
ABSOLUTE, MY PURPOSE.
All stepped in, and Imbalance wailed as it was reduced. As the force of all Avatars that lived, every version of them, every possibility of them, began to press in. It was a wall of absolute Reality, forcing the Unreal to follow its rules, and giving no other option.
WITHIN MY SOUL SITS THE HEART OF ALL THINGS;
BEACON OF THEIR NOW DESPERATE HOPES,
STEWARD OF THEIR NOW BOUNDLESS RAGE.
A fresh crash, as the heart beat once more, and with it, a blast of light raced up through the veil that Imbalance tried to put over it. It tore through the Beast, and reached into the heavens, where it burst with a crash, and a great wind began to blast out, away from the ruins of Sentinel Rock, and the Black City itself. It gained strength, speed, becoming a shockwave which would reach around the earth in two blows. The first, light and madness, tingling of ghosts on the hairs of the back of one's neck. Then, the second, when the uninhibited power of the Spirit World raced out, and seeded all that was. Power, once mad and frenzied, in the Blowouts of yore, now turned to its original and hopeful purpose.
AND WHERE THE ENEMY, TWISTED AND INSANE, HAS WROUGHT THE GREATEST OF ITS DAMAGE,
I SHALL RENEW.
The Avatars lowered their hands slowly, and took another step inward, pressing Imbalance down, even as the Black City around them began to shift and change. The despoiled almost-buildings changed, becoming whole. Becoming something real. Becoming something alive.
YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE.
YOU ARE NOT REAL.
Avatar Aang paused, the words stopping coming out. It was then that he knew the final truth. His pause was noted by those around. He couldn't kill it, even now. There was nothing to kill. And if they didn't destroy Imbalance in its manifest state, it would return, as strong as ever.
"I can't hold it much longer," Malu screamed at the Avatar who now stood only a pace behind and around her. The National had been pared off, standing now at the fore of Azula's army, which had relented from their lightning bolts only because they'd be striking Avatars if they tried. Avatar Aang looked to her, who would sacrifice anything to make right mistakes forced upon her. And he spoke.
AND YOU SHALL HAVE NO SANCTUARY.
I CAST YOU OUT.
I CAST YOU DOWN.
Aang took that final step, as the darkness was crammed, whole and complete, into Malu. She let out a low moan of agony, feeling what she had worked so hard to excise falling back into place. But it would not have any chance to dig in its claws. Not this time.
A blazing hand slammed against her sternum, right above her heart. The other slamming a thumb upon the point of her arrow, his fingers reaching to her crown.
With his mind, he slid into her. His soul fell into the great spaces of nowhere, that could extend to infinity. The difference between soul and flesh, so great it couldn't be reckoned, yet so small that the two were intricately linked. He saw Malu's soul, there. In his mind, he saw images, of other Aangs, of other times. With a twist of effort, he could seal Malu's airbending away forever, or restore a broken soul to strength and life. Destruction and creation. That was the Avatar. The shadow of Imbalance was a scum to the brilliance of her soul, something petty and base, something far below. It tried to hide, seek shelter in what had been so safe for it. When Aang spoke the Words, there was nowhere left.
And when the Spirit world crashed into Avatar Aang's perception once more, he was forcing Malu to the ground, where she slipped out of the veils of reality. He knew that she would appear in safety – the Spirit Oasis in the South – but something was left behind. It stood as Malu had, black beyond black, Its eyes the only color in them. But there was a change. It wasn't a Shard. It was All of Imbalance, standing perfectly still, tilted back as Malu had been when Aang cast It out. Its eyes were not pulsating fissures into madness, but burning red and anatomically correct. Its maw was not infinite and cruel, but hidden behind black lips.
He had it.
It was here.
One by one, the Avatars winked out, returning to wherever, whenever, however they had come. Korra was the last, giving Aang a proud nod, before she drifted away as smoke in a breeze, quite unlike those vanishing before her. At last, there was only one. One, whose hands fell. One, whose eyes turned from blazing white... to exhausted grey.
"Aang?" Azula said, catching him the instant that he started to unbalance. "What was... that?"
"That's Imbalance, right there," he said. "I can't destroy it. It just can't be killed."
"Can not, or will not?" she asked.
"Can not," Aang answered, shaking his head slowly. "I don't know what to do, now."
"You stopped it! Yes!" Irukandji's voice came from Aang's back, as the spirit slipped through the lines of Fire Nation soldiers. They all looked at her with confusion, but their wariness was focused more on the black clone of Malu that was still, even yet, to the Avatar's back. Irukandji's grin fell away, though, when she saw Imbalance. She started to turn grey. "You didn't kill it!"
"I don't know how to!" Aang said.
Irukandji's eyes snapped with lightning, and she let out a roar, one that raked the buildings around her with bolts, before she stood, panting hard enough that one could be forgiven for thinking she might pop out of her dress.
"You? Leave," Irukandji snapped at Azula.
"No," Azula said.
"Did I give you a choice?" Irukandji demanded, as she came closer. "The important people need to talk now. Go away."
"You don't have..." Azula began, but Irukandji back-handed her. Aang's fist instantly lashed out with a punch – not firebending, not earthbending, just an honest to gods punch, that caused Irukandji to flinch a bit. But Azula was already gone. And with her gone, her army began to wink away as well, as the clay road fell away beneath them.
"You..." Aang began.
"I deserved that," Irukandji said quietly. Aang's outrage was cut short, by the haunted look on Irukandji's face. "Things won't be the same, I hope you realize."
"What do you mean?"
"The shape that the new Spirit world takes, it won't be anything like what came before it. The spirits will be different. Different places. Only the Sea of Souls will remain... because it has to," the spirit said, walking up to the petrified form of Imbalance. "And it won't be sunshine and roses in the physical, either," she began to circle, as Aang gave a bewildered shrug. "Every spirit is gone, Avatar. All of them. Sure, big ones like Agni, me, the fishes, Koh, they all stayed out of this, but everything else is dead and eaten. That's going to echo into your world in ways..."
"What kinds of ways?" Aang asked.
"Everything will be a bid more drab," Irukandji said. "Not darker, just... dimmer. Bonfires won't blaze so bright or so hot. Laughter will be quieter. Losses, less heartbreaking. It'll be... numbed. Diluted. And I wouldn't count on any humans being conceived for the next few years; the machinery of incarnation is... pretty destroyed. It'll grow back... everything will, in enough time, but still."
"Will the weather go back to normal?"
"Pretty much immediately," the spirit answered with a nod. "The last rains will fall in the Fire Nation, and the sun will come out. Storms will drop buckets onto the East. The seas will calm the hell down. This false winter? I give it a week before you see the grass again. But there's one thing... left to do."
"I'm ready," Aang said, straightening his back.
Irukandji stared at him for a long time, then shook her head, just once. "Not you," she said. "Me."
"...what?" Aang asked.
"Koh said, a long time ago, that I couldn't run from my fate forever. And he was right," Irukandji said. "I am one of the only spirits... no, strike that at this point, I'm the only spirit which can eat human souls. And that's... pretty much what it'll take."
"What are you saying?" Aang asked. He didn't like having so many questions, but this was all so strange.
"Do you know what happens when one kind of spirit eats a completely different one?" Irukandji asked. "It ain't pretty. You can't kill it... but I can eat it."
"You're going to eat Imbalance," Aang repeated. Irukandji nodded, slowly.
"It'll have the worst of both of us. Its hunger, my ability to eat your kind... but it'll be so crippled, so reduced, that it'll never be able to do something like this again. I won't be me, after I do this, Aang."
"If there was any way I could –" Aang began. Irukandji shook her head, patting him on the shoulder when she finished her circuit of Imbalance's still form.
"I know you would, kid," she said. She then reached toward the blackness, before pausing. "...right, I should probably get rid of the meat, first."
"Huuni," Aang nodded. Irukandji reached fingers to her temples, and there was a heady electric zap, one that stank of burnt flesh, before that flesh slowly pulled itself back together. "What was that!"
"Doing her a favor, and making her less of a brain-dead narcissistic bitch," Irukandji said. Gave a shrug. "I'm a giver."
Then, with a zap, like one of the capacitors outside Ba Sing Se blowing, Huuni was blown away, rolling to the ground and vanishing where those unable to keep themselves went – the South Pole, with Azula's force's exception. What stood before Aang was a spark in the vague shape of a man. "Funny," it said, with a much more androgynous voice. "I've spent what amounts to billions of years, staying away from things like this. Always running."
"Are... are you afraid?" Aang asked. Eyes which were merely darker points in its electric body pressed shut.
"Terrified," Irukandji admitted.
"You don't have to do this. There might be a–" Aang began, but Irukandji reached over and tapped him on the brow. Aang stood, stunned, for a moment. And when the stars left his vision, he looked upon Irukandji as he had before, but with one miniscule difference, one that Irukandji had put there. "I'm sorry I couldn't save you," he said, now perfectly accepting, if regretful, that this was going to happen.
"Just... remember who I used to be. You're the last one who ever will," Irukandji said. It turned toward Imbalance... and stepped into it.
A crash of thunder.
Then both were gone.
The next day, the clouds parted.
Sun streamed down, onto the snow-covered isles of the Fire Nation, blazing with heat that had for the last few months been denied to not simply this place, but everywhere in the whole, wide world. Snow melted, fast. Rivers became torrents. Floods were common. But still... it was sunny in the Fire Nation, bright and warm, for the first time in a generation.
The day after that, the sky burned red, as Sozin's Comet streaked close, dragging itself through the heavens and burning hard 'round the world, before being shot back off into space. Beyond the unusual sight, seen once a century, nobody even cared. But there was no celebration. There were no angry, spiteful losers in the Avatar's war against the Fire Lord, nor were there exultant victors. Everybody was just... tired. Nobody had it in them to be festive. There just wasn't the will to go around.
So found Aang, sitting on the roof of the palace of the Fire Lord. Fire Lady? What was the proper term for her, at this point? He just stared up at blue skies, at blazing sun that melted snow and showed a city transformed from his youth. Gone, the colorful roofs, painted scarlet, instead coated with dull tar to keep the rain out. Gone, nearly a quarter of the Upper City, destroyed in the near-eruption of the volcano. Gone, the milling crowds, so full of vibrancy and life that the then barely-thirteen-year-old Aang could never imagine them aggressors in a century-long war. The streets were quiet. There weren't many guards about, and those that were, looked half asleep in their posts. Not that they had anything to worry about. The same global lethargy afflicted would-be criminals just as badly. Too much effort to do... just about anything.
"I thought I'd find you up here," Azula's voice came from behind Aang. Her words had a very neutral tone to them. None of the sarcastic tweaking, the sing-song sardonism that she usually employed when talking to him.
"I was just... Watching."
"It's hard to believe," Azula said, as she sat down beside him, staring down just as he did, down that long drop and the wide open space beyond it. The great courtyard, and the villas of the rich and powerful. "It's over. And we won," she said. She then reached up, fiddling with the five-point flame still set in her hair. "And somehow, I ended up Fire Lord. The universe has a strange sense of humor."
"Yeah," Aang said.
"You're thinking about the scarred one, aren't you?" she asked.
"If he hadn't done what he did, that wouldn't have worked," Aang said. "And he's not even just dead, he's... gone. I never thought I'd see Nila cry, but..."
"Her mother as well," Azula nodded, so quietly. "She tries to hide it."
"What a weird family," Aang said. Again, Azula could only nod, but this time, there was a smirk that told she recognized the irony of that. "Your brother should be... about half way back by now."
"With Mother," Azula said, to a shake of her head. "There's a conversation I'm not looking forward to."
"It'll be alright," Aang said. "There's no way she's not proud of you."
"I know," Azula said.
"Have you checked in on Malu?" Aang asked, turning to her. "I couldn't..."
"Injured. Doubtful she'll flying around the world any time soon, but she'll survive," Azula said. "You airbenders always do."
"I'm not really an airbender anymore," Aang said.
"Not this again..." Azula said. "Just because you –"
"I can't afford to be. I'm the Avatar. That's bigger than just being an airbender. And I'm going to have to be... that guy. Somehow."
"You'll find a way," Azula said.
There was a long silence, as Aang felt Azula's hand cup his.
"What do we do from here?" Aang asked, grey eyes locking with gold for just a moment. It was a good moment. Then, she looked to the horizon.
"I couldn't begin to describe..." she said, staring into the distance.
of Book 3: Order
Epilogue: Thirteen Years