The seafarers tell of the Eastern Isle of Bliss,
It is lost in a wilderness of misty sea waves.
But the Sky-land of the south, the Yueh-landers say,
May be seen through cracks of the glimmering cloud.
This land of the sky stretches across the leagues of heaven;
It rises above the Five Mountains and towers over the Scarlet Castle,
While, as if staggering before it, the Tien-tai Peak
Of forty-eight thousand feet leans toward the southeast.
So, longing to dream of the southlands of Wu and Yueh,
I flew across the Mirror Lake one night under the moon.
The moon in the lake followed my flight,
Followed me to the town of Yen-chi.
Here still stands the mansion of Prince Hsieh.
I saw the green waters curl and heard the monkeys' shrill cries.
I climbed, putting on the clogs of the prince,
Skyward on a ladder of clouds,
And half-way up from the sky-wall I saw the morning sun,
And heard the heaven's cock crowing in the mid-air.
Now among a thousand precipices my way wound round and round;
Flowers choked the path; I leaned against a rock; I swooned.
Roaring bears and howling dragons roused me—
Oh, the clamorous waters of the rapids!
I trembled in the deep forest, and shuddered at the overhanging crags,
one heaped upon another.
Clouds on clouds gathered above, threatening rain;
The waters gushed below, breaking into mist.
A peal of blasting thunder!
The mountains crumbled.
The stone gate of the hollow heaven
Opened wide, revealing
A vasty realm of azure without bottom,
Sun and moon shining together on gold and silver palaces.
Clad in rainbow and riding on the wind,
The ladies of the air descended like flower, flakes;
The faery lords trooping in, they were thick as hemp-stalks in the fields.
Phoenix birds circled their cars, and panthers played upon harps.
Bewilderment filled me, and terror seized on my heart.
I lifted myself in amazement, and alas!
I woke and found my bed and pillow—
Gone was the radiant world of gossamer.
So with all pleasures of life.
All things pass with the east-flowing water.
I leave you and go—when shall I return?
Let the white roe feed at will among the green crags,
Let me ride and visit the lovely mountains!
How can I stoop obsequiously and serve the mighty ones!
It stifles my soul.
'His Dream Of Skyland', Li Po (701-762AD)
The seconds and the hours bled into each other. He couldn't tell them apart. It was as meaningless as forwards and backwards, light and dark, hot and cold. When he could move, it felt no different from lying still. When he had sight, the snow-covered mountain was no different from the blizzard-filled sky. When he could feel, the cold breeze burned him. His dreams were no different from his waking. All he had to go on was himself. His own meagre signpost of a personality that could barely keep its memories in order. The mountain and the sky worked together to blast what remnants remained of his being. For all he knew, they were gone already. Time had vanished, after all. He felt capable of skipping ahead and getting to the end of the process. Anything would have been better than this.
All of a sudden, his skin felt aflame. Warm, fur-covered fingers clasped around his frail body. Gloomy figures shuffled through the brightness...or was it bright figures shuffling through the gloom? Whatever way round it was, he felt gravity at once reasserting itself on his senses and lifting, as his body left the ground in the arms of the things that had approached him. Sound and vision swirled in chaotic eddies and currents, and the only moment when he could hear the wind howling was when another sound emerged. A soothing sound, indecipherable to his ears, but it was a sound of human lips. A sound he thought he'd never hear again. A furry palm padded his forehead, and the girl's voice soothed, bringing the boy back to the world of the living.
Time re-emerged, and the boy snuggled inside it like a warm blanket. The figures trampled through the blizzard, crunching the snowy mountain, and the boy felt happier than he'd ever been. His senses returned, and he finally knew now whether he was awake or dreaming. Realising his eyes were barely open, he gleefully closed them, cradling into the arms of his carrier and dreaming of home. The roof of the world. The door to heaven. The land of everlasting sky.
Time disappeared again, but that was alright. He knew he could get it straight back.
Something had changed in the bandwidth. Something new had emerged. They were close, he could feel it. Agonisingly close. He had been searching for so long that he could feel the shifting fortunes and mutating opportunities like a sixth sense. The signal had been faint and weak ever since they'd started searching, so it was only with back-breaking effort that they'd narrowed it down to even this hundred-mile range. But as his young lieutenant hunched over the equipment, huddled in the corner of the vehicle that encase them, pressing switches and tuning knobs, he could feel a change. A burst of activity from the convoluted electronics, a scramble of signals, a swirl of graphs. Something had come alive, and he knew what it could only be.
The young spectacle-wearing soldier spun around excitedly, taking his head-phones off to address his superior, "Shosa-sama! Kiite kudasai!" He had entreated the commander to listen, but the humourless teenager could already tell what it was he was listening to. The commander ducked over to listen more closely.
"Sore wa doko?" he asked for the signal's origin tersely and determinedly, eyes fixed on the swerving and shifting electronic graphs. The soldier spun back to his desk and hurriedly triangulated the pattern he was picking up. Mere seconds later he held a piece of notepaper towards the stern teenage commander, on which was scribbled a list of co-ordinates. The commander narrowed a scarred eye at the pencilled numbers. Having followed traces and dead-ends for years in search of the signal's origin, he had learnt to tell instinctively what the numbers meant without needing to look at any map. The commander tapped on the side of the driver's compartment, shocking the man in front awake with his instructions, "watashitachi wa hoku ni ike."
The driver pinched himself awake and uttered a guttural "hai!" before starting the vehicle. A loud rumble coursed through the armour, and the engine revved into gear, preparing to embark on the journey north. The young commander squeezed back through the car's narrow spaces as he grabbed onto the small ladder that led out into the cool morning air. He paused as he heard an irritated groan from the back of the car, a large figure squished into the confined space whose nap his activity was interrupting. The commander was almost reluctant to have awoken his uncle in such a fashion, but the mission came first, and nothing was going to get in its way...not even his uncle's desire for a good night's sleep.
The officer popped his head through the porthole and yelled commandingly at the small flotilla of trucks that constituted his unit. Some had awoken at the sound of the armoured car starting up, but the commander's voice got everyone's attention, "watashitachi wa hoku ni ike! Shitagaimasu!" The darkened muddy roadside rumbled with vehicles braying and moaning, and soldiers started from their slumber to leap aboard their canvas-covered trucks. The teenage commander squinted his scarred eye again, this time down the tree-lined road towards his destination.
Soon, he repeated in his head over and over again, as the armoured car surged forward. Soon he would find that elusive prize, the source of the tear in time and space he and his predecessors had been tracking for half a century, the greatest prize his nation could ever grasp. And soon, above all these lofty ideals, he would be able to go home.
The gentle sound led the boy out of unconsciousness like smelling salt wafted under his nose. His eyes crept open, no longer buried under the white fluff of blizzard and ice but looking into the fuzzy, warm face of someone above him. He felt warm and enclosed, and flickering orange shapes danced across the dark thatched ceiling. The fuzzy shape drew into focus, and the dark-skinned face became topped with black hair, and grew a pair blue eyes and a wary, honest smile. The young girl focused on him and asked again in that soothing voice of hers, "sain bainuu?"
He realised she was asking how he felt, and nestled deep inside a warm, furry blanket with a beautiful girl watching over him, only one answer came to mind. He whispered the first word he'd spoken in what felt like days, "...wonderful..."
The girl's eyes lit up and her smile drew wider, as she looked excitedly up at someone else in the dark room, calling "Sokka! He's awake!"
"You don't say?" grumbled the surly, sarcastic teen, similarly dark-skinned and leaning up next to the hearth in which a small fire crackled, arms crossed, "is he well enough to get up yet? I don't want to go to bed tonight and find that bald-headed freak still in it."
The girl rolled her eyes and looked back down at the boy curled up in bed. The bald-headed boy had noticed the both of them were wearing felt clothing, practical wear, with a length of cloth wrapped around their waists. From his position he could see Sokka was wearing trousers and boots, and guessed she was wearing the same kind of attire. It wasn't like the sort of clothing he thought people wore around these parts. The girl smiled again, "don't listen to my brother, you can take as long as you want. You had a bad case of hypothermia from that blizzard..."
"Katara, I know you'd feel sorry for Siberian Tigers with stubbed toes, but far as I'm concerned, soon as he's got his eyes open and ain't speaking in tongues, our responsibility ends," Sokka asserted to the girl's chagrin, "we need to know what he was doing in the Khingan Mountains. If he was up to trouble, molly-coddling him ain't gonna make him open up!"
"Sure, Sokka, be a jerk, it makes you look real mature," Katara argued back, starting a cross-fire that the boy wasn't too comfortable with, "if he goes and relapses I doubt you'd be able to 'interrogate' the poor boy much..."
"Actually, I feel great!" the boy decided to end the argument by pushing the covers aside and getting up, swivelling his legs around to hang off the side of the bed. He planted his hands on the edge of the mattress, looked at Katara and beamed, "it's something I'm good at. I can rebound real fast...literally! Throw me at something and I'll bounce straight back, usually. Sometimes I think I'm made of rubber..."
The boy looked down at his outstretched fingers thoughtfully. That entire chain of thought emerged wholesale from the depths of his brain without censure, modification or oversight. After a shocked moment from the siblings, Katara fell into a small fit of giggles. Holding a hand to her mouth to keep the laughter in, it was left to Sokka to drain all humour from the situation, "he's got bigger issues than frostbite, by the looks of it."
Katara gulped down her giggles to sit down next to the boy. The excitable and honest twelve year old had not a single blade of hair on his scalp, and was still largely undressed, his practical furry clothing having been soaked through with melted ice. There was something about him, a strange aura of...completeness, like the room revolved around him in some way. She spoke, "anyway, I'm Katara Hakodaya and that bundle of nerves in the corner is my brother Sokka Hakoday."
"Typical," Sokka scoffed, "I stick my neck out day after day looking after this place and all I get is abuse."
"I think you're doing a good job!" the boy grinned as he shrugged, "must've taken some eagle eyes to spot me in those mountains. I'm Aang, by the way. Aang Anil."
"What a weird name!" Katara expressed in pleased surprise, "so! 'Aang Anil'. What do you want to know first? You must have a lot of questions..."
"Yeah...I got one," Aang pointed a finger up to ask his first question, "how come you're all talking in Mongolian?"
The question wiped the expression from both the Hakodays' faces. What at first seemed to be straightforward rescue of a wayward/spying child in the mountains (depending on their point of view) in that instant became significantly more complex. Sokka ventured first into the minefield he just knew he was never going to come out of again, "maybe...cuz...we're in Mongolia? Where did you think we were?"
Aang was momentarily stunned himself, coming over with the same feeling that had infected the Hakoday siblings. Something weird was going on, as he knew that last time he checked he was supposed to be in "Tibet!"
The levels of confusion in Sokka multiplied to skyscraper levels, but the magical word cut through Katara's confusion like butter as she leaned forward with a glimmer in her eyes and enthused "you come from Tibet!?"
Sokka groaned and turned aside, "aw man! We'll never hear the end of it now!"
Katara pulled back and turned aside to glare at Sokka incredulously, asking "what's that supposed to mean?"
"So...just to make sure we're on the same page here..." Sokka ignored his sister's irritation, "you thought you were in Tibet?"
"Yeah!" Aang uttered in surprise, "I was walking through the Himalayas! I...I got kinda lost and...then I got tired. Next thing I knew, I was here."
Sokka looked over the boy suspiciously. He didn't believe a word of it. The Himalayas were a long way from the Khingans, and no one could collapse in one and just 'wake up' in the other. And if his story was impossible, then there were many more probable explanations, any one of which would require him to escort Aang to the nearest output in hand-cuffs. But Katara was still spell-bound, and asked eagerly "what do you do in Tibet!?"
"Oh...uh...heheh...not much!" Aang blushed, "mostly 'cuz I'm hardly ever in Tibet. I do a lot of travelling around! I been all over the place. It's a thing my...family does."
"Is that why you know Mongolian?" Katara relaxed into the bed, eager to lap up whatever nuggets of information this strange boy left behind.
"Yeah!" Aang perked up, "I've been from one end of Asia to the other. From the highland rainforests of Ceylon to the river valleys of Hokkaido."
"Where're those?" Katara was enraptured. Sokka's eyes were wandering off to the walls in boredom.
"Ceylon's off the coast of Southern India. They got these people, the Tamils, who have this really, really ancient vegetarian diet. Not 'cuz of principle or anything, it just turned out that way. Delicious stuff..." Aang was enjoying how this girl was lapping up his stories, "and Hokkaido? It's another island, in the north of Japan. You wouldn't believe the fun I've had in those water...falls..."
Aang's voice faltered as the atmosphere in the hut tensed up uncomfortably. The wide smile on Katara's face had fallen away and Sokka had returned to staring at him again, this time with drilling intensity. Aang looked around sheepishly and reached gingerly over to the blanket, pulling it slightly over himself as his eyes flickered from face to face, wondering "uhh...did I say something wrong?"
Katara looked momentarily pained, shaking her head to push it away and force a smile for Aang's benefit, "no! No! It's nothing! Keep going!"
Sokka grunted and muttered under his breath, "so the Japanese are sending bald-headed kids now? That's original..."
"Well..." Aang made his best effort to not let himself get unnerved by Sokka's dark mutterings, and shifted his geography a little, "...there's this place in Indo-China that's really fun. These massive old ruins called 'Ankor Wat'. It used to be a great civilisation, but with all the buildings just sitting there, I got together a huge number of other kids and had by far the most epic game of hide-and-seek you ever did saw."
To Aang's delight, Katara began giggling again, and all Sokka did was roll his eyes, which was a definite improvement on his previous attitude. He tensed up again however as someone else entered the hut, and the entrance of a cool and reserved old woman in the same attire as the other two led Katara to turn away from Aang and compose herself. She spoke respectfully to the elder "Gran-Gran, he's feeling better now. His name is Aang Anil, and he's from Tibet. He doesn't know how he got here."
Gran-Gran looked at Aang with eyes made of ice, to which Aang attempted to make a good impression by smiling disarmingly. Even though the elder's expression never changed, something obviously improved in her attitude because she said, "that is excellent news, child. He is very lucky to survive such a freak blizzard. A sign of strong karma. As for your predicament, son...we will do everything in our power to help you return home."
Aang reciprocated the gesture by pressing his palms together and bowing, "thank you. But if it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be here. You have stronger karma than me." He blinked and became momentarily self-conscious, wrapping his fingers around each other and biting his bottom lip, "although...I'd actually like to stay here a little longer. Never been here before, after all. I'd like to know the people who saved my life better."
"You can stay as long as you need. You are the honoured guest of Usutai village," Gran-Gran's icy gaze turned to Katara, "grand-daughter, you have responsibilities to attend to..."
"Of course, Gran-Gran," Katara obliged, nodding to her grandmother before getting off the bed and facing Aang, "your old clothes are still wet from last night. Do you have any spare clothes, Aang?"
"Ah, y...no! No, I don't. My satchel's mostly filled with...blankets. Yeah," Aang grinned uneasily, "sorry to be a burden, but I think I need to borrow some."
"It's no burden," Katara assured the boy, "I'll drop by Bolormaa's place and pick up some of her kid's old clothes. I think we gave her some of Sokka's some years back. They'd definitely fit."
"That's nice!" Sokka smiled mockingly, "and hey! While we're at it, why not give him his own house, a stock of weaponry and an unlimited food supply! The least a complete stranger deserves!"
"Grandson, we are not inhospitable people," Gran-Gran laid a hand on Sokka's shoulder and seemed to communicate something through her eyes, "now is not the time."
Sokka calmed, and nodded respectfully, though it didn't seem to Katara's senses that her brother was backing down any. He seemed to be a making a tactical retreat on Gran-Gran's recommendation. The cool glances Gran-Gran was giving were indication enough that she didn't trust the newcomer any more than Sokka did...she was just being tactful about it. Aang was largely oblivious to this silent conversation, and was keeping himself busy playing with his toes. The argument was going to take place elsewhere, she realised, as Gran-Gran turned to her, "come, Katara."
Katara nodded and gave Aang a parting glance on her way out. Aang smiled back as she shut the door behind her.
With Katara out of the room, the two boys were left without a means of starting a conversation. The still, stuffy, summer morning air filtered through the window of the hut and bisected the room with floating dust. Aang, left alone with a watchful Sokka, sat in silence for a minute until curiosity finally got the better of him.
"I guess you're a cloudy days sorta guy aren'tcha?" Aang ventured to guess, "if it was sunny you'd complain about everyone running around enjoying themselves, and if it was rainy you'd complain about being wet. So cloudy days must be your favourite days, right?"
Sokka was adamant that he was not going give the boy the satisfaction of an easy target, "I don't care what kind of days you are, so long as they're numbered, interloper." He pushed himself off of the wall, picked up a rifle that had been leaning against the woodwork, slung it around his back by its strap and stalked out of the hut, slamming the rickety wooden door behind himself.
Aang, left to his own devices, reflected on Sokka's words for a while before letting loose a small burst of chortling, leaning back onto the bed to remark, "good comeback."
To Be Continued…
Avatar: The Last Airbender Concept and Characters © Nickelodeon 2005-07
Author's Note: Yup, I have returned...briefly...to fan-fic writing. This is an idea I've had for a good long while, and one that has a longer shelf-life than I think my Book 3 fan-fic would have. It's an AU, as you can see, but instead of just doing another 'they're kids in high school!' knockoff (ironic, given that Avatar is probably one of the only cartoons on television to not be set in school) I thought I'd try something a little unique...a historical analogy. I had a gap in my dissertation work, so I've spent a week writing up 10,000 words of fiction. There'll be a long drought after this is spent, unfortunately, but I wanted to make a dent on it at least.
School's out for summer in the 'states, as far as I know. So here's some summer homework for you...figure out the analogy. It's a pretty big, obvious one considering its one of the real-world wars the Avatar 'Hundred Years War' is apparently based on. There will be two more parts after this, posted once an evening over the weekend, at the end of which it should be pretty clear. Basically, it's an AU retelling in a historical context. Like Indiana Jones meets Empire of the Sun.
There won't be much, but what there is...enjoy!