Author's Notes: I have completely rewritten the prologue (for the first time since I wrote it almost 15 years ago!) but there are no official plans to rewrite any other parts of the story. At least, not quite yet. Honestly, in all these years I've barely been writing so I can't even say the quality would have even improved all that much. And for the first time in ten years I'm continuing the story!
At any rate... let's begin!
It had been three years since Aang last journeyed to the Spirit World.
Three years since he spoke to any of his past lives.
Three years since the coming and going of Sozin's Comet and his failure to defeat Fire Lord Ozai.
It wasn't that he hadn't tried to speak with Roku or Kyoshi or anyone else. He meditated whenever he had time, whenever he had enough safety to do so. Infrequent, constantly interrupted meditation was not enough to get him in a deep enough trance to project his spirit to another world or dig deep enough to unearth the wisdom of his past lives. How could he, when his mind wandered so much? When he thought about all of those people he had failed or abandoned or was unable to protect?
This time, apparently, the stars must have aligned or he meditated in a place of power where monks had attained spiritual enlightenment long ago. He didn't think there was an equinox or solstice, but it was hard to keep track nowadays. Or perhaps he was simply at his lowest point.
He knew he had done it this time before he even opened his eyes.
The Spirit World stretched out before him, an open field of strange, twisting trees with orchids instead of leaves and jade instead of bark. The sky was bright and blue - unnaturally so - without a single cloud. Aang had never been to this part of the Spirit World, but he had only been here once before. For the first time, he wondered how large it could be, if it could be mapped and explored or if he and his friends could one day escape here in safety.
He stepped forward, his boots sinking into spongey moss that wasn't actually moss because it dispersed into fuzzy green creatures, spirits upset at being disturbed. He examined them for only a moment before proceeding onward, careful to step only on the softly swaying grass. He had no time for idle curiosity. He needed to find his past lives.
"Roku! Are you here?" he called out. "I need your guidance."
"I am always here with you, Aang," said the voice of an old man, behind him. "None of us have ever left you."
He turned around to face the wizened man in red robes. The boy remembered him as being much taller, but Aang supposed he had grown a lot in three years. "Then why haven't I been able to connect with any of you? To use the Avatar State?" Not since that time so long ago, beneath Ba Sing Se, when Azula…
"The energy within you is blocked," said Roku, hands folded in his sleeves.
"I know," said Aang. "And I've tried to unblock it. I've tried so hard, but I failed. I've failed and I've failed over and over again and now the world is more out of balance than ever before and I don't know what to do anymore." His voice shook and he stared down at his clenched hands, hoping that Roku wouldn't see his eyes getting wet.
Roku sighed. "I understand, Aang," he said. "Truly. I trust you remember the story I told you of my time with Fire Lord Sozin. Our friendship and my failure to stop his dreams of conquest."
"I do remember."
They were silent for a moment. Sometimes, when he lay in his bedroll trying in vain to sleep, he silently blamed Roku for everything that had happened. Sometimes it was tiring to only blame himself. Then again, he supposed, Aang and Roku were one and the same, so he only had himself to blame to begin with.
"Perhaps you should seek the wisdom of our other lives," Roku said finally. "Others who have not made the same mistakes as you and I. You have spoken to Kyoshi before, have you not?"
"I have," said Aang. "Well, not directly. She did make me admit to murder once as I was on trial for it."
The corners of Roku's mouth quirked up. "Indeed." It flashed away just as quickly. "I am sorry, Aang, that I cannot provide more wisdom for you and only leave you to clean up and suffer from my mistakes. Just remember… be decisive. Learn from what I have done so the same does not come to pass yet again."
The old man vanished, leaving Aang alone again with orchid trees and living moss spirits. But the scene around him dissolved as if splashed with water and he fell deep into the earth, landing within a bamboo grove. He did not feel as disoriented by it as he would have expected to feel.
Avatar Kyoshi emerged from the bamboo, her makeup and clothing making Aang ache for the familiarity of a friend he had lost. "Aang," she said. "I am sorry for nearly getting you killed that time."
Aang almost laughed. "It's okay. We got out."
"You've changed. There is hardness in your eyes now, grey like stone instead of the sky."
He wondered if that had to do with the fact that he didn't find her so intimidating before, so unlike him in her directness and willingness to carry out justice. "I have changed," he affirmed. "I need help. I need the power of the Avatar State so I can finally end this war. I need to make up for my failures."
"You may never make up for your failures," she said. Her tone was flat, hard enough to make it seem like she struck Aang in the chest.
"They can take lifetimes to be fixed. Anything you do here and now can one day affect your successors, just like my failures have. Did you know that I was the one to establish the Dai Li? In my time, they were meant to preserve the cultural heritage of Ba Sing Se, to root out the corruption of the Earth King."
Aang's mouth dropped open. The Dai Li have caused him no small amount of grief, even now. "But they're the most corrupt part of the Earth Kingdom!"
Kyoshi closed her eyes, her face impassive. "Every action has consequences. It is impossible to predict what the future may bring, and foolish to attempt to do so. All I can suggest is to be swift and decisive now, to mete out justice where it is due, and fight not to lose yourself in it. As I nearly did, so long ago."
"I don't see how that's going to help me now…" he said, crossing his arms.
"Go back further," she said. "Speak next with Avatar Kuruk."
She vanished. He vanished, too, before he could even say a word.
He found himself in a swamp next, his head on a stone as the rest of his body lay in brackish water. He pulled himself up, disgusted, the smell clinging to his hair and clothes. He wished he could bend it off him, but bending was impossible in the Spirit World.
With a start, he found himself recognizing this swamp. This was the only part of the Spirit World he had been to before, back when he visited Koh the Face Stealer. He wiped his face of all emotion. That was much easier for him now.
A form in blue and white emerged from the fog, a spear of wood and bone in his hands and the visage of a wolf on his head. It took Aang a moment to realize he was a man in a wolf helm like Sokka sometimes wore and not a man-wolf spirit hybrid. "You must be Avatar Kuruk," Aang said.
"And you must be Aang," said the man. He wore an easygoing smile. "Nice to finally meet you."
"Can you help me?" Aang asked. "I need your wisdom. I need a way to access the Avatar State."
"Hate to break it to you, kid, but I was never really known for my wisdom in life," he said, sticking the end of his spear in the mud. "I was a 'go with the flow' kind of Avatar. I was lucky enough to live in a time of peace where I didn't really have to do much. But my life was fraught with failure, too. I left the affairs of the world to my much more responsible and capable friends. But I was punished for my complacence. Koh the Face Stealer kidnapped someone very important to me and I've been hunting him down ever since."
"Even now." He hefted his spear again, turning away from Aang. "So I leave you with this… Fight for what's important to you. Never let it go, but never let it get in the way of doing what you need to do, either."
"And what's that?" Aang asked, but Kuruk disappeared again into the fog, perhaps in pursuit of his greatest enemy once again.
The fog thickened, obscuring his view so much that Aang couldn't even see his own hand in front of his face. When it finally dispersed, he found himself sitting atop a mountain in the lotus position beside an Air Nomad nun, her arrows displayed prominently on her shaved forehead. Not like Aang's own, hidden by his hair and a headband for survival.
"Avatar Aang," she said by way of greeting. Her eyes stayed shut. "I am Yangchen."
"Yangchen…" he said. "What wisdom can you offer to me?"
"What type of world do you want to leave for your own successor?" she asked him.
He stared ahead, deep into the fog and the rocky crags partially obscured by it. Far away, he could see colorful creatures soaring through the sky, like kites. They must have been spirits. "I haven't really thought about it much," he said finally. "I just want to have a successor, to leave them a world free of the war with the Fire Nation. And… failing that, I want to leave things so that they're able to pick up where I left off. To finish it in my stead."
"To finish what?" she asked.
He hesitated to answer for a moment. He looked away from the sky, as if afraid of what his own people would hear him say. He had never admitted this aloud to anyone before. "The Fire Nation itself," he said. "To do to them what they did to us, Yangchen. Our people."
She didn't twist in her seat to look at him, didn't so much as open her eyes. "I do not believe you truly think that, Aang." He was about to open his mouth to protest, but she continued. "You were raised by monks and taught to value all life, as I was. And I did value life, but also recognized the necessity of death. I put the needs of the world before my own spiritual beliefs, as any Avatar should. And the world needs balance." At that, she finally opened her eyes and turned to face him.
"With the way the world is now it may never achieve balance," he said. "Everything's different now. The airbenders are gone."
"They may come back, one day," she said. She smiled. "You never know. Have hope." She turned back to face the open sky. "Besides, don't you have a close friend who is a firebender? Do you mean to eradicate him, too?"
Aang bit his lip. "Of course not. Zuko's not like them." But obviously Zuko would never let him do that. He knew it was unrealistic and desperate and he did not have the power to make it happen, anyway. "I know, I know, okay? It's stupid and it'll only make things worse. I just…" He sunk down next to her again. "I just feel so helpless. Everything is so wrong."
"This is not how things were supposed to go," she admitted. "But to go further, we think it is time for you to see the world from another perspective. To take what you have learned and fix things so your successor can live in a time of peace and balance."
"Who is 'we'? And how? What do you expect me to do?"
"All of us." Roku appeared, floating in front of the great chasm before Aang and Yangchen.
Kyoshi appeared next to him. "We've decided together. You will do it all over."
Then he saw Kuruk. "Learn from your mistakes. And change them."
Yangchen turned toward him, placing a head on his forehead. All of his past lives cycled in his vision, floating past him and spinning and pulling him apart and putting him back together, hurtling through space and the stars and seeing unrecognizable faces from every nation that he knew better than anyone else, ending with a man with messy hair and blinding white light. He was unknowingly ancient and young at the same time, and his hand, like Yangchen's, was on Aang's forehead.
"Good luck, Aang."