Chapter 32
Demon of the Forgotten Mirror

"So, all this time, you _were_ here..." chuckled Ursa, at the joke only she and perhaps the dead gods understood. "I see. Finally, at the bottom of deepest night, I see..." A dark secret gleamed within the madness, hidden in an unfathomable depth which Katara felt would swallow her whole if she met it too long, yet unable tear her gaze from those terrible, transfixing, transfixed eyes. Was this like the moon-madness, when the Spirit's touch was too strong for mortal mind to bear? Yet the Fire Lady seemed to bear it without burden or breaking; cracked yes, but not weakened; like a sharp and clear day on the austere fields of ice when unknown powers below suddenly with a great *ka-crack* open up the crevasses. Whichever Spirit had touched the She-Bear still seemed to be lurking in those shadowy depths; Katara had seen the God break through shaken mortal psyche before, but unlike when Aang shone with the light of the world, this was its opposite; the inverse shining of a black hole, the collapsed Sun turned in on itself, whose light is now the light it devours, making itself frightfully unseen, but still with it's powerful gravity, undeniably felt.

"Can you see it, Water Child?"asked the Queen, with a lopsided smile which pulled her whole head along to the side and made Katara's skin crawl. "The other side? No, you can't, can you. You have not suffered enough to make it through. It is right here. This, this is reality!"Declared the Fire Lady as she swept her arm to the hell around them. "I thought I was dreaming all these years, while the Truth was right before me. And now I have finally awakened to it!"Declared Ursa triumphant as one who has overcome, her bending locking onto her daughter.

Stunned and aching where she'd fallen into the flames, Azula felt her Mother's chi welling up inside her own again, this time with a far more powerful rough intensity. Was this her Mother's true strength?! It was hopeless, there was no way she could resist it! Her own bending was just too weak in comparison. For a moment, she felt helpless before her assaultant's greater power.

"Increased power is only a liability if you can't control it."

Rough surfaces were easier to grab hold of. Reaching through the pain and into herself as she curved her fingers and clutched toward her chest, Azula grabbed the rough edges of her Mother's bending, using it's own immense force and momentum against it as she tossed it out of her like a lithe judo fighter throwing a much larger opponent, the movement of her arms as she did so also sweeping the flames outward from her in a flaring corona, opening up the line of sight between her and her Mother; eyes both narrowed and locked into the opened space.

Something had drastically changed in her Mother. Her bending had been as smooth, sharp, and precise as one of Mai's expertly placed throwing spikes; counterbending it was, at best, like trying to grab a cheetah-fish darting through an oil slick. At worst, well, Azula could still feel where the near fatal hole in her abdomen had been. Where had that focused elegance gone? That pure marriage of intent with flawless execution, now sundered? Yes, there was power here, power greater than Azula knew she could reckon. Yet it stirred not the usual admiration, but a dread alien ambivalence. The uneasy alienation which only the familiar, but not quite right, can induce. Who was this mocking stranger standing, smirking before her, with infuriatingly arrogant eyes, the false pity of condescension looking down upon her? The flames shifted, red interlaced with white as light and shadow danced, and suddenly Azula's eyes widened in disbelieving realization; knowing finally who's child she was.

This was what you always wanted, wasn't it child? Mocked the dark god/Nemesis, who's delight is to upturn hubris. The great power; the royal robes and crown throne; the height of mature beauty; great enemies reduced to helplessness before your awesome might. Gaze upon it well; is it everything you thought it would be? Would you have ended up any better? Azula shivered as the touch of madness brushed against her; was it only an after image from her mother's chi, a premonition, or imagination of another self she might have been in some parallel world? In this realm time self imagination and other blurred against certainty, and Azula had to fight to regain sight of her ego. She remembered; she had been descending into this pit herself, but the Witch had been there and pulled her back from the abyss. The thought itself helped Azula steady herself. No one had been there for her Mother however, for years to her months. And she hadn't succumbed for far longer; til now.

Ursa's hand and chi whirled back around, ready for another strike. Her bending had narrowed with her eyes; she wasn't going to carelessly let Azula deflect her this time. No! I can't allow her time to set up her ultimate strikes! Thought Azula desperately, but as she tried to move a sharp pain in her broken ribs stole her breath away. She wasn't going to make it.

Then she felt another presence inside hers. It wasn't her Mother. A vitalizing power began to lighten heavy muscles, fresh strength flowing into weary limbs, sinew and veins visibly bulging as they swelled with fresh blood. "HAAAHHHH!" Yelled Azula, letting the strength flow through and out her in a sudden flame strike.

The Fire Lady was caught off guard by her daughter's sudden recovery. The corner of her mouth and arm angled downward as she was forced to abandon her attack to deflect her daughters'. Azula took advantage of her burst of strength for all it was worth, and with a war cry sprang forward into a round house, sweeping the surrounding flames toward her mother's bad side. Her broken arm useless, Ursa was forced to ground the flames with an outward ax kick, feeling acutely the irritation that her shortage of limbs kept her from launching a counterattack to break up her daughter's mounting offense. Where did the child's energy come from? She should have been too injured to launch such an attack, thought the She-Bear suspiciously.

The first kick was just the lead in; jumping forward as she spun, Azula's back foot snapped around in an aerial spinning round house; she was going after her Mother's weak spot with everything she had. The flames caught Ursa full force in the chest, knocking her off her feet and sending her tumbling across the ground. "Who can't land a scratch on you Mother?!" challenged Azula, weaving a spiraling flame cyclone with both hands as she reached the apex of her jump, sweeping it down toward her Mother as she landed!

"So there's still some fight left in you..." observed Ursa as she rolled into a one handed hand-spring, twirl kicking with both her legs, catching and dissipating her daughter's falling flames as she sent out her own. Azula was forced to land into a deep split to get under the arcing sheet of fire. Her eyes zeroed in on her Mother's right arm, flung up from being upside down. Sure enough, gravity claimed it, the pain being near unbearable as the broken joint fell back to earth. Azula's eyes gleamed like a jungle cat's about to pounce as she saw her Mother wince and her good arm tremble. Another opening! The Fire Princesses immediately struck forward with two outstretched fingers. "More than enough enough to defeat a worn out relic like you Mother! You belong on the ash heap of history with your dead "gods!""

"Gods can not truly die," instructed the Fire Lady as she watched the approaching flame bolt aimed straight at her heart. "They live on, as demons when we mortals forget their true names." Letting herself twist and fall to the side, the flame bolt missed her vital organ, instead puncturing through her already damaged shoulder.

"You can no more kill the Gods..."

In a deep split stance with her arm extended in it's final strike

"Than one can hold back the tide..."

Azula could not immediately follow up.

"Than one can placate the force that pulls the avalanche down the mountainside..."

The Fire Lady rose back to her feet

"Than one can stop the raging wildfire as it burns..."

Appearing unfazed by her roughing up and her doubly useless arm hanging precariously from it's socket.

"Or prevent the changing winds as the seasons turn..."

Cold sweat beading her forehead, Azula desperately launched a quick flame jab with her back hand as she hurried to her feet. The Fire Lady still had both her legs, and they were once again on firm footing, easily weaving around the attack as she laughed, her head being perhaps not so grounded. Losing her nerve, Azula had to break eye contact, unable to keep looking into those terrifying possessed eyes, which looked as if they could stare down the end of the world itself without blinking. Lowering her eyes, the little princess gulped as her gaze was caught by her Mother's mouth turning up, and suddenly the roar of the fire seemed to die away before that little knowing smile, speaking fearsome truth at the hidden center of the world:

"The Spirits are the only Immortal Forces which live forever. All else is mortal; loses momentum, and perishes. And your momentum has already ran out daughter."