The path to redemption begins with a single step.
Amon was confused, a position he was finding himself in more frequently. He distinctly remembered sensing Tarrlok reach for some of the Equalist equipment—the gloves—then move to unscrew the gas cap. Without turning, he knew Tarrlok's hand was over the tank. His brother's goal was evident.
"It'll be just like the good old days."
He braced himself for the inevitable: the split second explosion and the feeling of unbearable heat as the boat exploded, before death came to claim them. But it never happened. Instead, when he opened his eyes he found himself in a completely unfamiliar place filled with trees, moss weighing down their branches. Their roots poked out of the earth and wrapped around the few rocks scattered about, the ground covered with an unmoving fog.
Too many questions ran through his mind. With some effort, Amon pushed himself up and started massaging his temples, hoping to quell his growing headache.
How could he have survived? And unscathed at that, if the smooth skin of his forehead and the lack of pain elsewhere on his body was any indication. He decided not to dwell on that question, at least for the moment.
Where was he? Judging by his surroundings, definitely not near Republic City. The realization unnerved him more than he would ever admit. He would've needed to be unconscious for some time for someone to bring him out this far; at least a day, considering the yellowish-brown hue of the sky.
But most importantly, how did he get there? Amon couldn't imagine who would've brought him to this place. He had made an enemy of benders and non-benders alike. The only person who cared about him anymore was—
Had he survived the blast too? Amon called out to his brother and searched the immediate area for any signs he was there. But he found nothing. There were no footprints, no signs that Tarrlok had been with him.
He was alone.
Something about the place didn't feel right. It was far too quiet for his liking. He couldn't hear the sounds of wildlife, the creaking of the branches in the wind, or anything. The silence grew oppressive with each passing second, until it was a tangible weight on his chest.
Amon spun around, to where he thought he heard the voice.
His eyes had to be playing tricks on him. He was sure of it. Lying before him was a distinct path, cut through the tangled roots and rocks, leading to a stone-like structure in the distance.
That path wasn't there before. It wasn't!
Not only that, but he knew he heard someone cry out to him. They couldn't have gotten far. And even if they did they would've left some mark, either on the path or in the surrounding area. At the very least he would've heard them running away. It wasn't as if they could have simply vanished out of thin air.
No, there had to be some rational explanation for what was happening. He wasn't going crazy.
Deciding there was no better choice at the moment, Amon followed the path. With any luck, he would run into whoever had brought him there or the one who had called out to him—assuming they weren't the same person. Once he found them, though, they would have a lot of questions to answer.
Without the sun as a guide, he couldn't tell how long he traveled. An hour? Three? It didn't help that the sky remained the same yellowish-brown hue. Anything was possible. Eventually the landscape started looking the same: roots, rocks, and the occasional puddle he would have to sidestep. Even the stone structure didn't seem to be getting any closer.
The last shred of his patience disappeared.
"I don't know what game you're playing," said Amon, his fists clenched, "but I know you're here. Who are you?"
He waited for half a minute, but didn't receive an answer. A faint sigh escaped his lips. Perhaps he was going crazy.
"I'm surprised you need to ask such a question, Noatak of the Northern Water tribe," an ethereal, feminine voice said. "Considering you claim we've spoken to you before."
His eyes widened. Not because he had been answered, but by the words. Slowly he turned to his right. The form of a woman hovered above the ground, her white hair circling around her. She literally shone, as if she were reflecting light from some unseen source.
"Yes," another voice added, a masculine one. "I do feel as if we should be the ones asking what 'game' it was you felt you were playing."
Amon looked behind him. An owl, white-faced with black feathers covering its body, towered over him. It peered down in what could almost be called disapproval, had it been human—or maybe it always looked that way.
A discreet glance told him they weren't the only figures. Encircling him were a number of other animals including a panda, sitting with a piece of bamboo in its paws, and a monkey, dressed in robes.
Yue, the moon spirit. Wan Shi Tong, the ancient spirit who collected all the information of the world in his library. Hei Bei, the spirit who protected the forest near Senlin Village. The monkey—well, he couldn't remember it from the legends he heard as a boy, but it appeared irritated.
So, he was in the Spirit World. But how? There were only a few known passages, and since he was decidedly not the Avatar, had not passed through the Spirit Oasis, and the solstice was some time away . . .
"Why am I here?"
Yue narrowed her eyes. "We brought you here. As you've mostly likely guessed, this is an unusual situation."
"Most humans never lay eyes on this realm," added the monkey spirit.
"But then," Wan Shi Tong said, "most humans do not claim we have spoken to them, chosen them for a mission that goes against what we believe, and granted them a power that is reserved for the Avatar alone."
Amon scoffed. "Is—is that what this is all about?" he asked, disbelieving. "I've been brought here because of my speeches?"
"You say it as if it were nothing. Your crime is more severe than you think. For you, a mere human, to lie about acting on our behalf," said Yue. "But instead it was for your own misguided reasons."
"I still believe everything I said about bending," Amon said, his voice raised. "In the hands of humans, it brings about unbalance, oppression. A world without bending would be—."
The feathers on Wan Shi Tong's body puffed out, his wings outstretched, ready to strike. "If we felt humanity could not handle the power given to them, we would've taken it away. That is not for any human to decide!"
Hei Bei stared impassively at Amon, then growled.
He took a step back. Why couldn't he have died in that explosion? Death would be much simpler to deal with than a group of enraged spirits. Unfortunately, it seemed they had spared him for a reason.
"Why am I here?"
Yue smiled, but it was neither kind nor pleasant. It reminded him a bit of the smiles he used to have while cutting someone from their bending. "Since you seem so inclined to act on our behalf, we will make an honest man of you."
"Consider this your retribution, if you wish," said Wan Shi Tong.
In spite of himself, Amon couldn't help finding his situation hilariously, almost cruelly, ironic. Now he really was on a mission from the spirits. "What must I do?"
"Set right what you've made wrong," Yue said. "Rid the world of your Equalist movement."
"I believe that responsibility falls to the Avatar," he said sourly. His thoughts drifted to the waterbender with the will of fire. "Shouldn't she—?"
"Did you not proclaim we had chosen you to bring a new era of balance to the world?" the monkey spirit asked. "We're merely giving you what you desired."
Amon gritted his teeth. "And if I refuse?"
"Oh, I'm sure I could think of another punishment befitting you."
A cold chill ran up his spine as he felt something slither past the side of his legs. There was a patch of black, a flash of spindly legs, and then suddenly he was staring at a white face with painted lips. It took all of Amon's control to keep his face as expressionless as possible.
"It's been some time since I've added to my collection," said Koh. "True, you're no Avatar, but I believe your face will serve quite well."
The choice was obvious, even if it did cost him his pride. "I'll do it."
"Very well," Wan Shi Tong said, his claws digging into the earth. "Once you've completed your task, you will be brought back here and your ultimate fate shall be decided."
"Ultimate fate?" Amon's voice was as emotionless as his face, but his shock lay just below the surface.
Yue nodded. "You were not supposed to survive. But I'm sure you already know that."
"Yes." That meant Tarrlok was . . .
"In the end, you will be the one to decide your own fate, Noatak."
Amon flinched. "That person," he said slowly, "has been dead for a long time."
"We'll see," she said, a knowing smile on her lips. She glowed brighter than before, forcing him to cover his eyes. "Until we meet again."
The next thing Amon was aware of was water and the lack of oxygen in his lungs. And pain. Lots of pain. He tried waterbending, but to his dismay—although not necessarily to his surprise—he couldn't. The spirits knew better than to let a bloodbender keep his bending. So he forced himself to the surface the old-fashioned way, kicking as hard and as fast as he could.
When he broke through the surface, he scanned around him for anything familiar. He half expected to see debris all around him, but he wasn't anywhere near where the boat had exploded. The buildings on the horizon told him he was still near Republic City, only on the other side, the worse side, of town. That worked to his advantage.
He removed his shoulder pads and hooded top, leaving him with his black undershirt, pants and boots. But would people still be able to identify him, even without his trademark clothing? Well, it would have to do until he got to shore and changed.
Unless . . .
His mask wouldn't be any good in this situation, even if he had it. It was too recognizable. He placed a hand to his face. This was probably the only time anyone hoped some damage had been done to them.
Unscarred. Damn. This would make things more difficult. Too many people saw him unmasked, and after his escape with Tarrlok, there was no doubt in his mind the police made sure everyone had.
There was no point in worrying about that now, he realized, as he made his way to the shore. When he reached the city he would have to figure something out, so long as he didn't get captured. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice or care about the soaked man in black.
For the first time that day he felt the spirits were truly with him.