The Spirit World
EDIT: Something strange happened to the formatting when I posted it. I'm trying to fix it up, but apologies for anything wacky. Its not liking italics and some words that are fine in the word document are running together.Chapter 14December
The next day Iroh ordered the crew to stop in a small bay surrounded by familiar forests. He took Dawn with him when he set off into the pine grove. When they came to one of the many springs fed by the clear streams from the mountain he left her to soak in the heated waters, hoping they might help ease some of her pains. The pools were frigidly cold this close to winter but it mattered little to a master fire bender. In only a matter of seconds thick tendrils of steam were wafting up to meet the cool morning air.
With a promise not to go far, he left her to her solitude. Alone in the sheltered space at the base of the mountains, Dawn stripped down to her under things and sank into the steaming waters. The water line reached to her neck and, almost completely submerged, she closed her eyes, leaning back against the stone basin. She tried so hard to forget everything.
As the sun rose in the sky she slowly began to relax. Her breathing steadied, then slowed and before long she slipped into sleep.
But that day, when the walls between the spirit world and her own thinned and blurred, still a night before the true solstice, with her being what she was, it wasn’t hard for her spirit to rise from her body. Pulled by some unseen force her spirit form emerged, blue and ethereal, to hover above the mountain spring. She had time to wonder at her sleeping form with wide eyes for only a moment before she was spirited away, vanishing in flash of light.
She reappeared in a veil of fog, blocking her sight from every direction, with nothing to convince her she wasn’t about to fall except the feel of solid ground beneath her feet. Below her a mass of dark clouds swirled lazily and she felt the rushing sweep of vertigo, praying fervently that whatever was holding her up would continue to do so.
As she took several tentative steps, calling out softly, a voice unexpectedly answered her.
She felt her heart stop.
Her sister smiled back, her golden tresses tugged by the breeze so they danced around her face.
Complete, soul-wrenching joy ripped through her and she wasn’t sure if she was smiling or crying.
“Buffy!” Dawn cried, flinging herself at the blonde.
Who caught her and held her at arms length, saying quickly, “Whoa, hold it kiddo. I don’t do touchy-feely.”
Freezing, Dawn stared at the other girl uncertainly. “Buffy?”
The face curled into a smirk that looked nothing like her sister. “What, you don’t even recognise your flesh and blood?”
Dawn’s eyes narrowed and she struggled to escape the iron hold. “You’re not my sister!”
The figure let go suddenly and Dawn stumbled backwards, hastily straightening up to glare with poorly concealed fright.
The stranger wearing Buffy’s face barked a sharp laugh, gazing at her in amusement, the green eyes turned solid black and the whites bleeding red. “Well, aren’t you sharp? Caught me.”
Her sister’s form rippled, the air around her shimmering, and in her place a fox appeared, its coat a deep red and seven tails curled round its paws. Its lips were pulled back in a grin, the expression on its face disturbingly human, sharp intelligence and mischief in its gaze.
“Who are you?”
It practically purred. Its voice was distinctly masculine. “I’m the fox spirit.”
Years of kidnappings and too many Tuesdays taught her that there was little doubt whatever it was, it was evil. But as she looked at it, no matter how many times she repeated her sister’s lessons in her head, she couldn’t make herself believe it. There was something about this place that let her see more clearly than she ever had before. In this place, she somehow knew with an unsettling certainty, one wore their true nature on their sleeve. This was not a place where evil could hide behind a guise of pretense. Not from her. Not when she was looking at their true essence.
And how the heck did she know this?
“Are you a demon?” She asked with no conviction.
The smile remained on its sly face but there was no laugh this time. “You already know the answer to that, little Avatar. No, there hasn’t been a demon in these planes for a very long time. Not since the Watcher’s Council turned their attentive eyes from Slayers to Nations. Balance
. At least they’ve remembered that much.”Avatar.
That word again. She had heard that before. That voice, the one after the portal. No matter how much she strained though, nothing else would come. She knew with every fibre that she was needed
, that her destiny lay here and no where else. But there was nothing else there, not even a hazy memory, just blankness from the moment she fell through the portal to waking up on the ice.
“Don’t strain yourself, kiddo. Of course it’s all gone. Sending you here was the act of the desperate. They bent nearly every rule in the book to get you. They couldn’t risk even the slightest chance.”“Who?"
“The Powers.” The fox spirit sighed. “You really don’t know anything, do you? This is going to take longer than I anticipated.” His tails twitched in agitation.
Dawn felt panic bubbling up in her belly and spilling past her lips. “Where am I? What am I doing here? What do you want?”
“So many questions. Relax,” he commanded. The mass of clouds beneath her feet began to move, swirling and picking up speed.
“We’ll begin with a brief history lesson.”
The grey clouds parted and she was standing above the world. It spread out below her, a tableau of blue oceans and lands she didn’t recognize.
“This is the Earth,” he said. “Five thousand years later.”
She gaped in disbelief. “No way!”
“Way,” he said in amusement. “Do you approve?”
Dawn was too captivated by the slowly turning planet below to reply with anything coherent.
“The World is divided into four Nations.”
As he spoke the snow covered continents of the North and South poles glowed softly. “The Water Tribes.”
A giant land mass, by far the biggest on the globe, dwarfing all others in comparison, shone brightly when named, “The Earth Kingdom.”
Four mountain ranges, one for each corner of the globe, were the next to light up. However this time the glow was dim, struggling to shine at all, and there was a note in the fox’s voice that wasn’t there before.
“The Air Nomads.”
Staring down, she felt a brief flash of deep sadness.
The spirit didn’t stop though. The final unnamed land was a group of many islands, large and small, west of the Earth Kingdom. The earth there had a ruddy look, even from this high up, leading her to imagine red soil and volcanoes dotting the islands. The spirit named it, “The Fire Nation.”
It glowed as brilliantly as the first two.
“The four nations are meant to live together in harmony and balance.” He spoke by rote, as if he was quoting, but there was a dry tone to his voice. “Of course with you humans, nothing is ever completely harmonious. It goes against your natures. There’s a spark of chaos in you that no amount of plotting can extinguish. Although the higher ups, for all their hands-off philosophy now, just can’t give up trying.”
“Every century or so, give or take, a spat will crop of somewhere, usually over something trivial. Someone will try to take advantage and war will break out. The pattern becomes clear after centuries of observing. I do love you apes, but you are disappointingly predictable sometimes.”
His voice changed as he spoke now, his words booming all around her, coming from all directions. He spoke with many voices, the sounds ringing inside her head as well as her ears.“When the balance of power shifts and hope gives way to despair, only the Avatar, master of all the elements, can restore peace to the world.”
A shiver ran down her spine. The spirit stared at her for a long moment, its obsidian eyes bearing into her, assessing her. She shifted uncomfortably; keenly aware she was being evaluated in those moments and not at all sure she was measuring up.
Its resigned sigh wasn’t at all reassuring.
“That would be you, kiddo. You’re not off to a very promising start.”
Indignation and anger swelled up in her.
“What do you want from me?” she cried. “I’m trying! You haven’t told me anything. I landed in the middle of the North Pole, half naked and bleeding. I nearly froze to death!”
Her breathing picked up as well as her volume as she felt angry tears building up. Her eyes were overly bright and her face twisted into a look of pained betrayal.
“Do you even care? You left me there after taking away everything! You didn’t even throw in a translation guide. How do I save the world if I can’t understand what they’re saying?! It’s not fair!”
She glared at him bitterly. “If I’m doing such a bad job, why don’t you send me home?” Her voice broke on the last word.
“There are many things I pity you,” he began, his face unreadable. “But don’t stand there and whine about how hard you’ve been trying. You cannot lie to me.”
Her eyes were bright with unshed tears she struggled to hold back. The spirit’s face softened as he continued. “Kiddo, I care. I might be the only one in your corner. But the truth, little Avatar? You’re more alone than you think.”
The ground beneath her feet shook, throwing her off balance. She stumbled back a step and her eyes snapped downwards. The rotating planet melted away, the clouds spun furiously and another image took its place.
“The war is a century old.”
Far below her a series of battles bled from one to another, fiery and bloody, she watched as thousands fought and were slaughtered. Watched as fields burned. She could feel heat scorching her face; she could smell the smoke and taste ash. The charred remains of a body stared up at her, its face blackened and the eyes gone.
Her stomach turned at the sight.
The clouds shifted again and suddenly she was staring down at a mountain range, then another and another. Four different sanctuaries she saw, all nestled atop the highest peaks, beautiful and majestic, their slender towers reaching into the skies. Every one of them was burning. Metal machines, much like tanks, crawled up to impossibly high places, like a swarm of dark insects. Destruction and death came with them as the towers blazed and high overhead a ball of fire arced across the sky.
“Already the Air Nomads have fallen. The temples, long havens of tranquility and learning, stand empty. The bodies of their monks litter the mountains.”
There was a lump in her throat and a grief in heart that she didn’t understand. She didn’t know those people, this wasn’t her world, but she felt the loss of them cut her like a knife, the wound raw and so painful. The sound of children’s laughter filled her head as the image of an arrow was imprinted on her, the feelings of love and peace underscoring it, and she had a sense of what the world had lost. A part of its light went out with their absence, irreplaceably gone, and that it should be so was a great injustice that could never be righted. The world was forever a darker place.
“Who did this?” She demanded angrily, righteous indignation taking root deep inside her. These deaths were undeserved. These were human lives
. No one had the right to take them away and she demanded
to know who was responsible for this.
The fox spirit seemed to approve of her reaction. When she heard the answer it was like a blow to her stomach.
“It was the Fire Nation,” he said, and the dark specks ravaging the temple resolved into men and women wearing a familiar red uniform, their faces hidden behind white skull masks. Above the tanks flapped a flag with the same standard that hung on the tapestry in her room; a black flame emblazoned on a red field.
“Why aren’t they fighting back?” She asked in horror.
“The nomads were a peaceful people. They had no standing military. When the Fire Nation attacked there was no warning and they were slaughtered. With the comet at their backs the benders power grew unimaginable. They were outnumbered, over-powered, and already facing crisis. Only a week before their twelve year old Avatar had vanished.”
Dawn felt herself trembling. Was it anger, shock, betrayal? She didn’t know. She felt sick to her stomach and this time it had little to do with the swirling below.
She knew, but she said it anyway. “They’re all gone.”
He gazed at her, completely still as he replied, “In all ways that matter.”
“I was too late.” Remorse was the only thing she could feel though, no guilt. No matter what the Powers had decided, she still didn’t believe it. It couldn’t all fall on her. The weight of the world was being placed on her shoulders and if they were going to send her here, strip away her world and her home, the least they could have done was make sure she was on time.
How useless were they, to send a teenager with no instructions to put a stop to what they had shown her?
“You can’t be blamed for what you didn’t know, but kiddo, you’ve been here a month. You didn’t even bother to try and find out what that niggling worry worming around was about. You may have forgotten the why, but you knew something was up. You could feel the call plain as the sunrise, feel that you were needed.”
And then Dawn did feel regret because it was true. All her weeks on the ship she’d gone out of her way to stay ignorant. The only real effort she’d made was learning the lingo. She pursued and stuck to it with stubbornly. She always had a knack for languages, but the drive was born from the hollow ache in her chest. She didn’t want to be alone, to be kept forever in her pocket of isolation cut off by everyone around her. The space was filled with the inability to communicate, five thousand years of difference in speech and culture and she did the best she could to bridge the chasm.
But she avoided the maps that looked all wrong; ignored the board with the tanks and warships set up in the bridge. She pretended she didn’t feel the unease and thick tension the few times they docked in port.
She didn’t try, didn’t let herself see anything beyond the world of Zuko’s ship. The rest didn’t matter to her; she could barely handle the plate she already had. But there was war. People were suffering, lands were falling and she couldn’t shut her eyes anymore.
“But Zuko and Iroh...” They had taken her in. She couldn’t reconcile what she knew with what he showed her.
The pictured formed this time showed a large hall, the roof rising up several stories, supported by an evenly spaced twin row of red columns. Between them, running from the grand entrance to a raised dais at the opposite end was a red carpet. Flames separated any who entered from the figure seated on the stage. His face was illuminated one moment then hidden in shadows the next.
“The Fire Lord,” the spirit said, “rules from the throne room of the Fire Nation Capital. He is commander of all its forces and his power is unchecked. Fire Lord Sozin began the war a hundred years ago under the comet’s glare. His son and now his grandchild see his vision endures; a world united under Fire Nation rule.”
The image below her seemed to zoom in as he spoke, “That’s Fire Lord Ozai, his grandson.”
The pale face he showed her was handsome. The black hair was half pulled into a top knot secured by a piece shaped like a flame. His jaw was square, with a straight nose and thin lips. Something about his cheeks, the bones high and well defined, seemed familiar, as did the golden eyes. He looked in his early forties and he was undeniably attractiveness, in an old people kind of way. But his face was hard; the feature too sharp, and the minute smile curving his lips was cruel.
His eyes, the same colour as Zuko’s and his uncle’s, shone with an inner fire that burned cold.
What he said next shattered her world views to the very core. “He is also father to Zuko, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation and brother to Iroh. You sure aren’t off to a very good start kiddo.”
Even while her head spun she defended her friends. She knew better than most that blood didn’t make family, didn’t dictate who you were. “But Zuko isn’t like that! He may have a few little,” okay, giant
, “anger issues to work out, but he and Iroh are good people!” Memories of Hank, and more particularly his absence, paraded through her head. “Just because his father wants to channel his evil overlord doesn’t mean zip. Zuko and Iroh didn’t choose to be related to him. And I don’t see them running around pillaging Earth villages or...or whatever,” she huffed.
She was so sick of everyone hating on her friends. First Spike, now Zuko...she couldn’t even lump Iroh in the group because the thought of him ever being like that was crazy.
“Don’t be fooled, little Avatar. Zuko is a part of this war and the Dragon of the West might be rounder than he was in his glory days, but don’t underestimate the lengths he would go to for his nephew’s sake. Now listen very closely; the key to all of this is the Avatar. His absence for the last hundred years is the only reason this war hasn’t been put to an end. But Ozai doesn’t believe the Avatar is gone for good and that’s partly why his son is sailing Earth Kingdom waters in a leaky tug boat.”
Dawn felt a chill of unease settle in her gut. It was the effect words had here; they carried more meaning than in the real world. The fox spirit continued.
“Your friend was banished. The only way for him to go back is with the Avatar locked in the brig and you better understand this; nothing means more to the Fire Prince than going home. Not you, not even his uncle. If he learns what you are, he will shackle you and drag you back to his father with joy in his heart.
“Be very careful, little Avatar, you’re very near the edge. Zuko must not learn what you are”You’re wrong!
But the words couldn’t come. This was the Spirit World and she was an Avatar; she couldn’t lie. Besides, even while she struggled to pin down the mess in her mind, she already knew there was something eating Zuko up, knew he was searching. She just hadn’t known what for.
Apparently it was her. She struggled for a long time, her face shifting through an array of emotions. Finally she asked, almost desperately, “What should I do?”
are the Avatar. What does your heart say?”
“I don’t know,” she snapped in irritation. “How can one person stop a war?”
“One person can’t.”
She gave a frustrated shriek. “Enough with the cryptic!”
The fox grinned, his tails wagging with mirth.
He just shook his head while she glared. She was beginning to understand why Buffy hated the Slayer visions. A vague warning was no help at all.
Her sister was just one person and she saved the world on a yearly basis. Dawn vaguely wondered if the comet had come in May too. But Buffy had super powers. What did Dawn have?
The Avatar is the master of all elements
“I can’t even fire bend,” she muttered.
Suddenly the fox spirit was directly in front of her and she blinked, startled. Before she could open her mouth though, one of its tails moved, the tip pressed to her forehead. He grinned at her.
“Got a present for you.”
And her mind exploded.
She remembered the frostbite, her black fingers and toes. She remembered the moon in the sky as she shivered on the ice. She remembered the tide and forces. She remembered the relief as the snow melted and her pains healed.
Dawn remembered she could water bend.
“You’re so much more than just a firebender, kiddo.”
“I’m the Avatar,” she breathed, as the remembrance of her own power returned to her, making her lightheaded.
A shadow played over the spirit’s eyes, before he nodded, still smiling at her. “You sure are. Or will be. You’ve got a lot to do and not much time left. You weren’t wrong; as you are you’re not much more than cannon fodder. You need to master the elements. Number one on the list is waterbending.”
“But—but,” she spluttered. “I can’t even manage to firebend and you want me to get started on water already? Nuh-uh, there’s no way this is happening. And time, is there a mystical count down or something? How much time have Igo?” She gaped at him, wild eyed. “And where the hell am I going to learn all this?”
The fox gave her a look, halfway between amused and annoyed. “At the moment I don’t care if you can’t manage to light a candle. It doesn’t matter. You’re the first and water begins the cycle, it is there you start. It’s in everything you are, no matter what else might clog it up. You’re a water bender, no doubts. You can see it in your eyes; ocean lights.”
“W...what?” she said in confusion.
He snorted. “Never mind. Water, earth, fire, air, that’s the order you need to learn them. You have until the end of summer comes.”
She licked her lips nervously then asked, “What happens then?”
“Then, little Avatar, Sozin’s comet returns.” His eyes flashed as he stared at her, once more stripping her down to inspect her soul. She couldfee him doing it, as if she was naked, completely laid bare before him. He hesitated, then said cryptically, softly, “You may not have even that long. Be careful kiddo, if you don’t hurry, nothing you’ve done will matter.”
She shivered. “I had a month to learn firebending and I couldn’t even do that. And then something went wrong. Now...whenever I even think to try, its like there’s this wall blocking me out.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. Stay focused. Water first, remember? You’ve got a long way to go.”
Once again the globe appeared spinning softly beneath them.
A small beacon of light shone off the south western coast of the giant continent she now could name the Earth Kingdom. Another appeared at the top of the globe, glowing with a blue tint right on top of the North Pole.
“And up there is the Northern Water Tribe. Home of the best waterbending masters on the planet. Also, incidentally, the only ones. That’s the place you got to be pronto, as in three weeks past. You know anything about fox spirits?”
She shook her head. Vampires, she knew more than was probably healthy for her age bracket. You wanted to talk demons? She could hold her corner. She could write a book on the living habits of Slayers. But spirits? She was sailing new, uncharted territories.
“Fox spirits can’t lie about our ages. The more tails we got, the more years we’ve watched wile away. You reach a thousand, nine of the suckers will be the end of it, you never see more than that. One thousand years. After seeing so many lives, bearing witness to the rise and falls of names no one will ever speak again, it changes you on the inside. It has to. You spent too much time in the world. It’s bled into you, you’re infected and it’s never coming out. Thousands of bonds anchor you to a world in new ways, claiming you. So basically you’re the PTB’s bitch, but hey, your new slavery has an upside! Besides the shiny new coat, anything that is happening anywhere in the world is now open to your viewing pleasure.”
The grin on his face never faded but as he spoke darkness crept into his voice, bitter and full of hate. He seemed to physically shake himself to dispel it.
“You can see why they want to recruit us early.”
Dawn’s eyes flicked to his tails, counting only seven.
“I may not quite have..peake, but I’ve been around long enough to see a little. Tomorrow is the solstice, the day when the boundaries between this world and the real world are weakest. Since I’m such a nice guy, I took a peek for you. Tomorrow the prince is going to sail into Fire Nation waters for the first time in three years. If you follow him, he’ll lead you to the Avatar’s temple. Be inside the sanctuary at sunset. Someone will be waiting for you.”
“Who?” She asked suspiciously.
“Well kiddo, if I told you it might ruin the surprise. But I’ll give you a clue...” His eyes sparkled in a way Dawn immediately distrusted. “He’s old as dirt, he wears too much red and he’s bringing you a present.”
Her nose scrunched. “Santa Claus is coming to town?”
The spirit barked a laugh. Snorting, he replied, “Oh, kid, you’re a riot. I really hope you come out on top.”
“At least one of us gets a laugh.” Her voice was bitter and sarcastic. “’Cus that’s the important thing here.”
“Laughter is the cure for what ails you. Maybe you should give it a try sometime. Best wait ‘til after you get a bit further along though, I think you’ve wasted enough time already.”
It stung. “Do you have any more important pearls of wisdom for me, or am I just here to be your patsy?”
“I think we’ve covered the bases.” The fox stretched. “About time.”
The mist began to swirl up around her. The fox spirit’s form disappeared in the thick fog and she cried, “Wait! I still have questions!”
“Remember kiddo, stick to the boy like a tick on a bison-hog. Do not
let him get away. He’s your ticket to the temple.”
“Get back here you red-headed weasel! What happened to the Avatar? Why aren’t you trying to find him?”
But there was no answer.“What’s making me black out when I hear your voice?"
As she vanished back to the mortal plane, the fox spirit watched her with worried eyes. “Don’t worry about him, kiddo, you’re the one in trouble.”You’re losing.
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Oh god IT’S DONE!!! I’m never doing this again, next time the thing gets split in two and screw my nicely arranged story outline. I think I’m going to have to come to terms with the fact it’s never going to wrap up nicely in under 30 chapters. I just don’t have the stamina to churn out ones this long, as you can tell by the long wait. I’m way too optimistic when I set out my chapter outline...
So most of what Dawn learns we already know, but there a few hints to future plots floating in there too. I hope I didn’t forget anything, but knowing me it’s likely.
AGH! The next one will be shorter, and hopefully quicker. Look forward to some waterbending while you wait. Thanks to everyone who reviewed