Fore Note: There's a bit that is inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit'. Let me know if you spot it. Also, a lot of thanks to Retad and StoryBender and Helium Lost and Kata Geisha.
This is the last chapter. Please leave a review, okay?
The kitsune remained fearful of me for days after. Their burrows were empty when I returned to the kitchen to undo the damage I had caused in my anger and to retrieve the human's belongings, for still to my annoyance - I could not bring myself to simply throw the professor out of my library without first allowing him the means to survive the trek out of the Si Wong Desert.
As water refilled the pouches, I sensed my assistants observing me in secret. Without turning their way, I knew they were startled when I ordered for one of their number to lead the human to the nearest settlement.
Though I was no longer angry, I could not trust the human, any human. Their kind not only misused knowledge but sought to destroy it as well.
Humans simply could not be trusted.
In their hiding places, the kitsune quailed in renewed fear as palpable fury took hold of me yet again. Against my will, I recalled how the entire wing housing the knowledge gleaned from the Fire Nation had been destroyed by the very citizens of that same country.
"Why didn't you repair the Fire Nation wing?" the human professor had asked. Such a simple question yet managing to trigger such profound rage in me for it brought to mind the same helpless anger which overcame me when I discovered the firebenders' betrayal.
I remembered the kitsune's mournful cries neath the roar of the fire; hungry flames everywhere turning every bookcase, every shelf, every tome, every page into ashes. Though I knew and remembered every portion, every modicum of knowledge ever added, ever donated to my library - I could not undo the destruction the firebenders had wrought. My power to restore, to shelter knowledge did not extend to recover that which others had thought too dangerous and thus willfully destroyed.
When the human reminded me of that particular painful limitation of mine, truly - I had every intent to kill him.
Zei woke up from a most surreal dream of finding another person in the library to finding himself lying underneath a lean-to in the middle of the desert under a moonlit night sky.
Still weak, his long sleep barely restful, the professor didn't notice the gray kitsune curled up against his side nor that the lean-to which shielded them both from the biting cold desert wind was actually a slab of rock rising at an angle out of the desert sand.
The kitsune woke up when Zei slowly began pushing himself to sit up on the tarp beneath them. The blanket lying over him fell down to his waist as he did so.
"Oh, hello," said Zei softly to the kitsune when it yipped a greeting, and in the long moments that passed next - he did nothing other than pet the knowledge-seeker's head in meditative fashion. His mind seemed soothingly blank though, soon enough and with growing dread, he began to remember.
The library, the terrible sight of the furious Knowledge Spirit, its claws pinning Zei to the floor and forcing life out of him. The kitsune looked worriedly as Zei pulled his hand away from its skull to cover his face as he sought fruitlessly to drive back the nightmarish memory of bottomless black eyes reflecting Zei's own frightened face.
Am I dead...? ... I am not dead. Zei did not know how long he just sat there, covering his face, when all of sudden his four-legged companion barked at him once, twice, thrice until finally the kitsune got up on all fours, bit down on Zei's sleeve and pulled the professor's right hand away from his face.
When finally the kitsune got Zei's bewildered attention, it let go of Zei's sleeve, barked at the professor once more, spun around once before assuming a playful crouch and succeeded in drawing a tired chuckle from the beleagured professor.
"You are correct, I suppose. I should at least be thankful I am still alive," Zei said wryly to the kitsune, which wagged its tail to show its agreement. Its expression turned quizzical when Zei, who could only think that the kitsune had saved him yet again from their master's wrath, thanked it all of sudden.
"I am sorry for causing so much trouble," said Zei, trying to keep pain and disappointment out of his voice. He could not help but be devastated that Wan Shi Tong had deemed him unworthy to stay in the library.
As his vision turned hazy, Zei heard the kitsune let out a plaintive noise before he felt its nose nudge gently against his arm. Unsuccessfully, the professor attempted to hide his tears by turning his face away from the worried kitsune and instead towards the eastern horizon, still dark.
In a muffled voice, Zei observed that there should still be several hours before daybreak.
"Well, I best get going," he said as cheerfully as he could in a leaden tone. "When in the desert, it is best to travel during the night."
The kitsune whimpered; Zei couldn't tell whether it agreed or disagreed with him. He managed to get to his feet without untoward delay; small relief coming over him when he spotted his backpack and the rest of his gear close by. The waterpouches were full and enough food rations to last a while.
Despite all that had happened, Zei felt his chances to survive the Si Wong Desert were high. This certainly wasn't the first time he had nearly lost his life in the infamous Desert of the Dead.
When he was set to travel, Zei noticed that the kitsune appeared keen to travel with him and confirmed that supposition when it followed him out of the stone lean-to.
Its ears flicked back against its skull in confusion when Zei, in an unusually gruff tone, told it to return to the library. He didn't wish for any of the kitsune to suffer being on their master's bad side; the Knowledge Spirit had made it all too clear that he despised humans and disliked the idea of his assistants assisting them.
"I appreciate your wishing to accompany me, but I will be fine on my own. I have already caused you and the others enough trouble with your master," said Zei. He repeated, his tone more stern, when the kitsune indicated with an upraised paw that it still wished to follow him.
But Zei couldn't stay mulish with the kitsune for long. Its tail wagged slowly; its eyes closing in delight when the professor bent over to rub its brow, whispering to it sadly that he would miss it and other knowledge-seekers.
"I am very sorry I couldn't stay," he said, pulling back his hand and straightening his posture with determination. He had a long trek ahead of him. But the kitsune refused to leave him and instead sat down on its haunches and continued to gaze up at him with mournful dark eyes.
Finally, with a sigh and wrestling down bitter failure, Zei, still shaking his head, unwillingly allowed a small but genuine smile to come over his face.
"Hmm...? Why do I get the feeling you are waiting for me to give you a treat?" Zei remarked, his smile widening when kitsune's face assumed an expression of vague insult. A laugh escaped from Zei when the knowledge-seeker barked at him, sounding rather miffed and giving the utmost impression that it was reprimanding the professor for thinking it didn't genuinely wish to assist him.
The kitsune's annoyance turned into approval when the professor pretended to be cowed and apologized to it most profusely for doubting its generosity. There was no more complaint from Zei as it accompanied him across the desert, only reluctantly leaving the professor's company when they reached the Misty Palms Oasis after several long days 'neath the torrid desert sun and freezing cold nights.
It cheered up, its dark eyes alit when Zei told it that it and the other kitsune would always be welcomed to visit at his home at Ba Seng Se.
"I'll have treats for you and the others."
At his promise, the kitsune yipped joyously at him. The pure happy sound detered sadness for a few moments when, in the next blink of an eye, the kitsune vanished without a trace from Zei's side.
From the once-celebrated oasis, Zei returned to Ba Seng Se without further incident and, as always, disappointed his colleague and lifelong rival Professor Tanish who had ambitions to replace Zei as Head of Anthropology at Ba Seng Se University.
Tanish didn't even bother to be tactful and conceal his disappointment that Zei had yet again somehow survived the perils of the Si Wong Desert.
"Either you're a favorite of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune, or the Si Wong Desert should be renamed into 'The desert that is not as dangerous as it's said to be'," mused Tanish; his lanky frame leaning with lazy grace against Zei's desk as the latter finalized his syllabus for the year.
Each year, Zei spent the spring break attempting to locate the legendary Spirit Library, and each year he barely made it back to the university in time for the beginning of the new school year. This year was an exception, for he was actually a week earlier than usual.
Knowing all too well that Tanish was attempting to annoy him, Zei looked up from the unrolled scroll on his desk, gave the other professor a small polite smile before returning his attention to work. Very much aware of the younger professor's ambitions, Zei didn't begrudge Tanish his numerous attempts to assume Zei's position. He knew Tanish to be a most capable expert in their shared field of Anthropology, which was a secondary interest of Zei while it was the Tanish's foremost area of discipline.
Zei had actually vied for the position of Head of the Department of Archaelogy but had instead been awarded Anthropology as the Administration thought his fervent interest in the legendary Library of Wan Shi Tong too fanciful and that he may misuse university resources to further his search for the mythical structure should he receive tenure as Head of Archaelogy.
"You know, Zei... if you resign, you can spend all your time hunting for your library."
Zei almost winced at Tanish's suggestion, but his brush never ceased its movements across the scroll. "It is not 'my' library," he corrected the other professor in an offhand manner. He didn't even want to consider the idea of the Knowledge Spirit's library referred to as belonging to any other than to the aforementioned. It seemed suicidal.
"Oh, of course. Of course," said Tanish with a sigh before ceasing his attempts to annoy the senior professor. He would have to be patient and wait another year for Zei to undergo another excursion into the Si Wong Desert.
Chaffing with little concealed impatience, Tanish excused himself and left Zei's office without learning that there wouldn't be another library excursion for Zei ever again.
The Knowledge Spirit's dismissal of him continued to weigh heavily on Zei's conscious despite numerous attempts on his part to ease his failure with constant reminders that he had at least stayed in the library for two weeks. It was already a tremendous honor, a once in a lifetime opportunity to even just set a foot inside the library.
Zei hadn't yet informed any of his colleagues, Tanish most especially, that he had already found Wan Shi Tong's long-thought-a-myth Library. He chose to keep it secret for he hadn't any physical proof that he had found it. He had not a book nor a scroll nor any material from the library.
However, the Avatar and his friends could vouch that the library did existed. With their testimonials, with Avatar Aang's in particular, Zei could formulate a credible report to his superiors. He had heard that the young Avatar and his friends were currently housed in the Royal Palace.
As soon as he had finalized and submitted his syllabus, as well as dealt with the paperwork that any head of a university department must endure, Zei began in earnest to plan as to how to meet with the Avatar. It was not as simple as it sounded; the list of notable personages awaiting an opportunity to call upon the Avatar was lengthy indeed.
Zei, though Head of Anthropology at Ba Seng Se University, was simply not an impressive enough figure in society to warrant even a place on that list of people deemed worthy to meet with the Avatar. It didn't help that he knew Avatar Aang and his companions personally. The chamberlain in charge of screening whom may be allowed to see the Avatar had heard one too many stories of how this or that unworthy (in his eyes) had once met the Avatar during his travels.
Fortunately, patience was a virtue Zei possessed in abundance. He was confident that he would find a way to meet with the Avatar. In the meantime, he had much to occupy his time. He had lectures to conduct, papers to grade, adjutant professors to supervise, an entire department to manage and in what little spare time he had left over - he spent on his 'magnum opus'- a book which he had worked upon for as long as he had searched for his life's ambition and into which he had compiled all known information about the Spirit Library.
Zei knew only that it was late when he felt his eyes itch. Suppressing the urge to rub at his tired eyes for both his hands were stained with charcoal, he instead forced himself to stand from his desk and go into the kitchen to wash his hands and face.
Ever since he returned to Ba Seng Se, he had been sketching the library's vast interior from memory. 'Attempting to sketch' was more accurate as his last sight of the Knowledge Spirit's terrible countenance kept interfering in his efforts.
In addition, Zei greatly missed the kitsune's company - to date, he'd produced more portraits of the knowledge-seekers than library interior sketches. He had even drawn out the features of the human he had dreamt was in the library with him.
He was still drying his face when he heard someone knock at the front door. His hands froze in mid-wipe, with the towel against his chin, Zei leaned sideways through the kitchen doorway and stared with a furrowed brow at the door.
Who could be calling after midnight?
When there was not another knock, Zei decided that he had just imagined hearing someone (he was very tired after all) and had just resumed drying his face when again - he heard someone knocking at his door.
Towel still to his chin, he approached the front door cautiously and called out, "Who's there?"
The professor's eyes turned round when he heard an answering bark. Hurriedly, he reached the door and opened it to see a kitsune of dusky somewhat greenish fur sitting rather primly on the step.
A long silence followed wherein Zei just goggled at his small visitor, still holding his towel against his face. When finally, with a hint of impatience, his visitor barked at him yet again and Zei abruptly remembered his promise that the kitsune would always be welcomed in his home.
Quickly he showed the kitsune into the main living area of his home, which served as his study as well.
All of sudden, the kitsune uttered a rather disapproving sound, and much to Zei's dismay - he realized why.
Now, Zei was the neat sort, not the cluttery sort of professor. The stacks of books and buckets of scrolls on the furniture and on the floor (which the kitsune was eyeing sternly) weren't there because Zei had dawdled in returning them back to the bookshelves but because he had more books than he had shelf space, despite having had bookshelves installed along most walls of his not so large home.
The kitsune didn't seem at all appeased by his explanation, and Zei, remembering how every book and scroll in the Knowledge Spirit's vast library had a proper place, found himself for the first time considering moving to a larger house before attempting to appease the annoyed kitsune by heading into the kitchen to fetch a treat for it.
Just as he had handed a strip of jerky to the kitsune, another knock came from the door. While the kitsune nibbled daintily at the jerky, the professor once again frowned with utmost puzzlement at his front door which upon being opened revealed yet another kitsune (this one, red in color) scratching at its left ear with its hind leg.
The first kitsune was done nibbling down its strip of jerky by the time the second kitsune had stopped scratching at its ear and proceeded into Zei's home. Fortunately, it wasn't as judgmental of Zei as its companion. Unfortunately, it appeared to have fleas, for it resumed scratching at its left ear soon after.
Zei had just returned from the kitchen with more jerky for the new arrival when there came more knocks on his door.
When Zei found a pair of identical blue-gray kitsunes with furiously wagging tails and hopeful wolfish grins at him, the professor knew then that his home was about to be invaded by kitsune.
Yes, Wan Shi Tong will be after his knowledge-seekers gone AWOL at Ba Seng Se University and Yup - Aang and co. will also get involved.
I do hope you now feel a LOT better about Zei choosing to stay behind at the library. Have fun with your imagination!