Chapter 3 - Redeeming Values
Despite herself, Azula ran angry and crying into the towering rock wall entrance to Forgetful Valley, to escape the reality that she was still deeply cared for by her brother and by the transformed identify of her mother Ursa, now known as Noriko, who - despite only knowing Azula as her would-be killer - had unexpected compassion for Azula, a complete stranger to her. That had stopped Azula cold in her tracks from murdering Noriko, and allowed Zuko to intervene by defending Noriko from harm, and to try to reach out to help and calm his sister.
It was too much for Azula to take. She didn't want to feel anything, nor accept help from anyone who had any compassion for her. Compassion and love were weaknesses to her. But the shock of the encounter with Noriko took the fight out of her, so she just ran away from her family.
Staring death in the face by Azula's flaming hand, Noriko's tearful final wish for a daughter she did not even know she had resounded in Azula's head over and over, "If what you say is true. If I really am your mother, then I am sorry I didn't love you enough."
Those words had cut Azula to her soul. Even innocent – but perceptive - Noriko understood that the hatred in Azula's heart for her estranged mother was due to something known to be lacking in Azula's life. Everyone who cared for and loved others thought that way – of others before self.
These kinds of feelings were sickening to Azula, and showed a further sign of weakness of those around her, especially from her family. And yet she fled, rather than kill everyone in the house and leave nothing but the ashes of retribution in a quiet corner of Hira'a. Something deep within her prevented her from that. Her father would be ashamed of her cowardice and hesitation in the confrontation just minutes ago.
"Am I weak too?" she thought - with a resounding 'yes' pounding in her head in her father's voice.
But Azula also knew deep inside that she was the one who needed to return the love to her mother that she had rejected time and again for what her Father encouraged and often forced her to do. She could not quell the tears in her eyes and she detested that.
The tears stayed and came back worse when Zuko had reached out to her.
"Shut up!" she screamed at her brother, and in her anger, she dropped her mother's incriminating letter placing doubt on Zuko's royal heritage. Even she was not sure if she dropped it on purpose.
Zuko called out again and again to Azula, but she ignored him.
Finally she turned and sneered in total defiance, "Always the same, Zuzu. Even when you are strong, you are weak."
It lacked the conviction of her past threats with her eyes bloodshot from crying.
She ran past the rock entrance of Forgetful Valley and deep into the woods. She ran for hours, not caring where she was or where the trail led her, or whether she was being followed. She prayed for a sheer cliff to abruptly end her running. It seemed to her every trail in life since the day of Sozin's Comet took her to a bottomless canyon.
"Why didn't you just let go of me, Zuzu?" she sobbed, remembering that in Zuko's own consuming anger only a few days before, he let her dangle helplessly over the precipice.
He'd never put her in a life or death situation until then. But he didn't let go. It actually frightened her that she had pushed him that far. And he didn't actually hurt today either.
She realized that she had wished for death over continued torture in this life. She shuddered. She'd threatened and caused the deaths of many people in her short life, but never considered that thought for herself until the past few days. Her life had been all about threatening, surviving and prevailing – always victorious and proud. She hadn't been victorious and proud of anything for over a year.
"What has happened to me?" she finally asked the question of realization.
Even the one sure thing that drove her since the fall of her father and her defeat in the Hundred Year War - the voice and ethereal image of her mother - turned out not to be real. For nearly five years, Ursa lived as Noriko and she loved her family in absolute anonymity with her also-changed childhood sweetheart and their little girl – Azula's half-sister. During that time, Noriko was completely ignorant of the existence of her first two children. Azula realized that Noriko could not have been Ursa in her head all this time. Noriko didn't even know Azula existed until a few days ago, and not learned she was her daughter until only minutes ago, and that she was another person herself five years ago.
Azula was shaken to her core, "Mother didn't do any of this. The visions… the conspiracy… were all my… imagination…"
She finally realized that the voice in her head was not her mother's spirit calling out in compassion to quell Azula's daily inner turmoil, but was her own internal creation. More distressing was that her imagined vision had been there, personified as Ursa, since the day her only friends turned against her at Boiling Rock prison. Her only defense against the consequences of her self-loathing manifested itself as her mother's image - telling her to turn back from her internally destructive ways.
It finally dawned on Azula that voice and image of her mother was none other than her own inner conscience calling out to save her from herself, but she ignored it at every turn, thinking everything and everyone in her life was part of a conspiracy against her.
"No wonder they thought I was insane."
She needed to run faster, to leave that image behind, but she could not run away from it.
"Get out of my head!" She screamed, clutched her temples, and tried to squeeze it out.
"Maybe if I burn it out," she said as she started a flame. But she hesitated, and quickly doused it.
She almost killed the two people she needed the most in her life, but that conscience masquerading as her mother would not permit it. Maybe it was worth ending it all to never let herself get out of control to do so ever again. In Noriko's house, she would have slaughtered all of them, but for Noriko's haunting words and for Zuko's powerful defensive moves.
The stun of her very own lightning redirected back at her not only stopped her, but it opened her eyes to realization. It was stopping her now from ending her life. She was keenly aware that Zuko had redirected the lightning back at her at a fraction of its true intensity. It was intended to kill Zuko, and it would have killed her too, had he not tempered the bolt. She had no idea how to defend herself against lightning as her brother did.
Conversely, the 'old Azula' within her knew that she hesitated. Her father would have punished her severely for not having the will and discipline to go out of this world in honor. He would have not blinked in putting the flame to her head. He did burn Zuko in the agni kai, and would have followed his own father's orders to kill his own son but for her mother's treason against her grandfather. She had been gleeful as a little girl knowing what was about to happen to Zuko to make her an only child and the heir.
Now she just felt ashamed.
She asked the fundamental question that she would have never asked before, "What then is the stronger emotion? Compassion and love – or fear? For all your bending skills, cunning, and bravado, what had it gained you, Father? A lifetime in prison with absolutely no power. You were defeated by people of mercy and peace: the 'weak' ones - Mother and Zuko and the Avatar - and his peasant lover."
Even after a lifetime of service and obedience to her father, thinking that would gain his acceptance, he wouldn't let her see the final victory over the Avatar and the destruction of the Earth Kingdom by fire. He was too selfish, too self-imbued with his power to ever share, which was her dream – to share world rule with her father. It was a bitter disappointment not to fight by his side. That too, triggered her unraveling. That was absolute rejection to her.
She knew then he was not capable of loving her any more than he was capable of loving her mother. They all were just used by him in one way or another.
"It's not fair!" she screamed.
She trained constantly for perfection and pushed compassion and caring out of her life, using fear and coercion to get everything she wanted, because that's the example her Father provided as the way to live her life. The voice in her head of her mother's caring had been useless to her.
"But what has all of that gained me?" she noted as no one in the palace wanted to follow her as Fire Lord. Those she didn't dismiss had resigned or fled. She was so shallow in her relationships that she couldn't even tell the difference between Lo and Li who had trained her for years.
Her own friends had turned on her at Boiling Rock because of love. And now she was totally alone, lost in a great forest. It seemed appropriate. She was completely isolated in the world, completely out of step with what it was becoming. Love seemed so needless before. Now it was essential. And she couldn't draw upon anything within her to express it.
"I love Zuko more than I fear you." The words of Mai were chilling. And Mai was right.
Mai never loved her as a friend or sister. She merely followed orders, or acted out of fear or coercion, until those orders became too unbearable. So did Ty Lee.
She felt totally empty.
"But if I can't end it, then what good am I? I can't even do that right. There's nothing left inside me."
Love was something she didn't have in her. She saw it constantly between the two other people she had hated more than her mother – Aang and Katara – two people so much in love, and yet the two most unlikely people to have saved the world. They and a handful of misfits thwarted her and her father's plans. She looked at them derisively every time they were affectionate to each other, dismissing their devotion as idiocy. Nevertheless, the image of Aang and Katara's constant care and affection for each other, and what it meant to them, stuck in her mind.
"No one is that happy," she tried to remind herself in the argument with Katara about Noren and Noriko as well as her and Aang, but knew it was hollow.
The fact was - they were that happy together.
She laughed ironically, "These people couldn't, no shouldn't love me. I tried to kill all of them - several times. I don't deserve and I can't accept their love, not for everything I did or tried to do to them."
What was worse was she was not sure she wouldn't do all those things again, so that is why she fled. She decided would never come back to Hira'a ever again. Her only escape was to flee, so she wouldn't accidentally or on purpose hurt these people.
The truth came to her, "I told Zuko he was weak because he cared. But am I weak because I don't care?"
But she battled herself again.
"Caring takes too much commitment. It's just easier to order people to do things without feeling," she tried to say self-righteously, but knew it was shallow.
But she was losing the battle with her old self and her old ways.
"Who's the idiot now, Azula?" she scoffed at herself, realizing that love made them stronger, not weaker. It was the only explanation for Aang recovering from her fatal attack against him in the old Ba Sing Se catacombs.
She went still deeper into the woods. The spirits in the forest felt her fear, confusion, and self loathing, and recoiled from her dark energy. She was not simply lost in the woods, but lost in her ways and her life and convictions about everything.
She sat beside one of the tranquil pools, with her head in her hands, racked by sobs and huge tears. Azula's heart, mind, and soul were the antithesis of tranquility.
Despite her best judgment and desire to be completely finished with all the human affairs of the past few days, the Mother of Spirits sensed Azula's deep-rooted troubles as easily as she had sensed Ursa's. Azula was easier to sense actually, as this truly despondent young woman, the daughter of the one called Ursa, was negatively affecting all her fellow spirit animals in the forest.
But in this one there was some hope, though she could not see it within herself yet. The daughter Ursa wanted to forget, despite her self-hatred, was slowly reconciling her own terrible thoughts and feelings.
The Mother of Spirits had asked the butterfly bat to watch and to wait for this young woman since she entered the Valley, and to inform the blue wolf if something changed postively. It had not taken long.
As unaccustomed as the Mother of Faces was to resolving frivolous human issues, this issue was too close to her own situation.
She had been troubled for millennia at her son Koh's separation from her over his battle with her over his perceived lack of freedom and self-determination. It had caused a terrible parting of ways, with Koh literally opposing her creation of new faces by destroying faces. This young woman Azula had a similar situation to Koh and the Mother of Faces. Koh, like Azula, felt controlled by a parent, and wanted attention and acceptance through his own actions, only to feel like he was ignored and underappreciated. Both children - one human and one spirit - lashed out against their parents.
This human Azula reminded her of Koh's struggle and alienation which now resurfaced and was just as raw to the Mother of Spirits as it had been thousands of years ago. Why the Mother of Faces cared about this one very troubled human was beyond her understanding. But the Avatar had raised her sensitivities about human frailties and her ability to heal them. By her hands, two other broken human relationships had been satisfyingly restored. Perhaps another could be healed too.
She rose from deep waters of the tranquil pool, and with a renewed sense of purpose, confronted Azula, "What can I do for you human?"
Azula was too deep in her inner turmoil to be awed or fear – or have hope - in the huge spirit.
"What can you possibly do for me, spirit?" Azula scoffed.
The Mother of Faces remained cheerful, "I can change your face and your mind. I sense more turmoil in you than even your mother possessed years ago."
"Who says I want change? Suppose I am happy with my own destruction?" Azula sneered, trying to be defiant as always to anyone who even appeared to care about her.
The Mother of Faces smiled kindly across all five of her blue mouths, "You will not admit it, child, but the need exists within your heart to change. More than your anger and your desire to end your existence. You have always wanted to survive and prevail. But now you can do that in a different way."
Azula shook with how easily The Mother of Spirits saw into her heart. She was right. Far too right.
"You sound like my mother," she grumbled, trying to show her tough, uncaring image.
"Thank you, Azula. Your mother is a wise woman. I respect her. She was right to want to know you as her daughter again, having chosen to forget you for a time. Mothers always care for their children, no matter how old they get," the spirit reflected, confessing as much about her and Koh as Ursa and Azula in her statement.
Azula couldn't escape it. Even this spirit had love and compassion – as much as the people she hated did.
But Azula acquiesced, and inquired, "Why would you want to help me, Mother of Faces? Just look at the mess I have made of my entire life. And others."
The spirit explained kindly, "You have much to contribute to this life, young woman. You have unmatchable skill as a bender. More than any other I can sense in this world. Your blue flames are actually the flames of purity. You just do not recognize them as such."
For the first time in her life she said, "Thank you," and wondered how she could possibly know about her special fire bending skill.
Apparently the forest had many eyes in many places.
The Mother of Faces continued, "There are other ways to use that fire. Fire heals as much as it destroys. It can burn off the decay of the hidden life that is within you. It can illuminate what cannot be seen. It can purify that which is sullied. Fire can warm a cold heart, much like yours. The great Fire Warriors knew of this. The Dragons knew of this. You can learn too."
In all her life she had never heard such words, even from all the cowering sages who served her and her family.
"So fire can heal as well as destroy?"
"I thought only the water benders could heal."
"With the right heart and spirit, fire is more powerful than water in healing, and used together, nothing is impossible."
Azula was very curious now. This was something completely different. It was nothing like what her father, the fire sages, or her mentors had ever taught her.
"How can I find out how to do that?"
"You must let me change your face and mind to free your soul for this new knowledge. Your troubled heart and mind will not permit it now."
"Will I remember my past?"
"No. To accept your future you must turn away from the past. You must choose. You have come to Forgetful Valley to seek a change in your life. Choose this and thrive. Stay the same and die alone of regret for a path not taken, and of things you long for that can never be."
She thought hard. Using the example of her own mother, she had seen how much the Mother of Spirits could change a person and give them peace. Everything that currently troubled her would disappear – her knowledge of Zuzu, her mother and her father, and all the rest of the disappointments would be gone. Her unfulfilled desire for power, her envy of her Fire Lord brother, and her realization of a life of abuse by her father would disappear. Feeling the pain of those things well up again in her heart, and knowing there was nothing she could ever do to change any of that, she finally knew the right answer.
She sighed deeply, and closed her eyes, clasping her hands before her, not knowing that her mother had done exacting the same gestures, "Then I choose the change."
The Mother of Faces smiled at her wise choice, and held out her massive vine-covered hand. A sweet looking young woman's face glowed and floated above the hand, and displayed itself to Azula.
The spirit said softly, "Here is the face I have chosen for you."
It was a pretty face, but it was different than hers. It seemed to have a natural, permanent smile.
"I like this face, spirit. It will do. Thank you."
"Stand still," said the spirit.
The ethereal new face glowed from the left palm of the Mother of Faces, rotated, and drifted toward Azula, stretched, formed, and surrounded her old face and hair. The glowing face gently draped itself around Azula's head, completely covering her old visage. The spirit gently placed her sharply pointed wooden fingers under the new glowing face's chin, making sure it was placed correctly over Azula's old face.
The Mother of Faces reached both of her hands around the head of Azula, holding her head firmly and placing her thumbs over the fire bender's eyes to protect them from the brilliant light that grew intensely from the spirit's hands. The rest of her fingers enveloped and grasped the sides and back of Azula's head firmly.
Azula's head and face shone brightly, with shafts of intense light escaping between the gaps in the spirit's fingers. Azula gasped, and partially uplifted her arms and hands in surprise and helplessness. The glow began to die, and the Mother of Faces released Azula's face. The new face took its first breath, but her eyes will still closed.
The spirit completely removed her grasp from Azula, but instead of standing dazzled for a few minutes and recovering as others had done after the facial transformation, the young woman fainted.
The Mother of Faces turned to her wolf, and ordered, "Take her there, now. I will await your return. He will know what to do."
Gently the wolf nuzzled the unconscious Azula gently and securely on to his blue-furred back, and he ran through the edge of Forgetful Valley to the shore, swam into the sea a great distance. He approached a mountainous island isolated from any of the other lands of the Fire Nation archipelago. It looked devoid of life.
The great blue wolf laid his precious cargo on the beach, howled, and disappeared.
The head sage head of the Fire Temple refuge heard the call, and immediately ordered his junior sages to go to the beach. They left the towering ancient Fire Temple hidden in a beautiful tree-lined valley. The summers here were brief this far north but they were spectacular.
They found an unconscious, unknown young woman on the beach, and gently tried to revive her. She was pretty, had very long dark brown hair, and was wearing a Fire Nation pant suit that appeared to have markings of nobility. She awoke groggily, and whispered, "Where am I?"
One junior sage said quietly, "You are home now."
"That's good…" she said faintly.
She fell back into unconsciousness, and was placed gently by the sages rest in one of the residence hall beds, and was cared for, but not disturbed by several nuns.
She awoke from the spartan bed the next morning, and looked at herself in the mirror. She had had no idea who she was, and was still wearing her fire nation pantsuit. She ran from her room, very confused and panicked, but was met by some male and female acolyte sages.
She had an alarmed look, "I… I'm sorry… I don't know who I am or how I got to this place."
"We know someone who can tell you that. Please follow us," they all said calmly and escorted her to the main temple.
She was amazed at the huge ancient Fire Temple and the ornateness of its architecture. She had not seen a temple of this grandeur and antiquity before, but she didn't know why she knew that.
The head sage turned from his morning meditation before a golden statue of an ancient fire bending Avatar, bowed graciously to the young woman, and greeted her, "Good day. You were brought to us, young woman. We are pleased that you are here."
"Where am I?" she asked, looking around, anxious for some glimmer of recognition of this place.
The sage said kindly, "You are someplace safe and far from harm. A place few but the spirits know exists."
Somehow that was enough. Something within her unspoken thoughts needed that.
"Who am I?" she puzzled.
The sage replied, "You are a gift, child. No one comes to our shores by accident. You have a purpose in being here."
She strained to remember, "But I don't know what that purpose is. I cannot remember… anything."
"Do you wish a name until your memory returns?" the sage asked.
"I would be honored if you would select a name for me," she acknowledged humbly.
The sage requested, "Please show us your bending. Then I will know best what to call you for now."
"How do you know that I can bend?" she asked in disbelief.
"I can sense the energy within people," he stated simply.
"I did not know that is possible," she reflected.
The sage explained, "Here you will find many things are possible. Those who are in touch with the energy with themselves can sense bending. The Lion Turtles knew this as truth."
She may not have known her name, but Azula still remembered all of her fire bending skills, and conducted all the motions with her blue flames. Not remembering her past or being troubled by anything else, her mind could focus and generate the most brilliant blue flames she had ever conceived. To her great surprise, she discovered that she could generate lightning.
"Oh, my," she exclaimed as it happened, with the halls of the Temple echoing with the thunder.
A number of sages looked at her and the head sage with concern. There were only a handful of people in the Fire Nation who could generate lightning, and all but one were bad people. The sage dismissed their concerns.
The head sage remained calm noting her special talent of lightning bending, "A rare gift... You have great skills, young woman. But you were bred and trained for combat. Fire has other uses here."
"I… I don't know how I acquired these skills. I cannot remember," Azula admitted.
"It does not matter, my dear. You have the skills. Here we come for healing and insight. And peace. Fire heals as much as it destroys. It can burn off the decay of the hidden life that is within you. It can illuminate what cannot be seen. It can purify that which is sullied. Fire can warm a troubled heart, much like yours. The great Fire Warriors knew of this. The Dragons knew of this. You can learn too," he explained.
Azula gasped in recognition, and knew that she had heard those words before, but could not place where or by whom.
She answered without hesitation, "I understand. I… I think that is why I am here. To be forgiven of a troubled heart. To heal."
"Yourself? Or others?" the sage asked.
"I believe that it is both," she bowed and confessed.
The sage confessed, "That is most wise, young woman. While you are here among us, I would like to call you 'Kaiyo', because you come here to seek forgiveness and new purpose."
"I accept the name Kaiyo as my own. Thank you," she said, making the fire sign, and bowed.
She heard an odd noise. It was lowing much more intense and deeper than any pig cow or other grazing animal. She looked overhead. It was a flock of sky bison.
Kaiyo smiled in amazement, "They are beautiful. I thought there was only one left."
"The spirits saw the wisdom to keep them alive, and left them in our care, even during the war, that air bending may return to this world.
"But you're fire sages. What has that got to do with sky bison and air bending priests?" she questioned.
"Sages of any kind are bound to maintain the balance between the bending elements, even in times when there is no balance. It is the only balance in times between Avatars," he noted.
"No spiritual leader I have ever known has said that… uhh… wherever I come from," Kaiyo observed, straining to remember, but could not.
"We are very close to the spirits here with all the elements, including air. The northern spirit portal is not far from here. It is said that when the souls of the air benders departed the Northern Air Temple, they resided here, within the bison."
Kaiyo dared to inquire, "But what now, wise sage, may I ask? What of my bending, and why am I here with you?"
He approached her and stopped an arm's length away from her. He placed his hands in front of her. His hands glowed an intense yellow, a color she had never seen. His fingers were engulfed in yellow flames but did not burn. Flames rose around his hands, but his face displayed the utmost calm and concentration. He looked serene, closing his eyes, and traced a rhythmic pattern around her head and body. She had no fear. He was content as one sitting around a beachside campfire with friends. She did not know where that analogy came from. The phenomenon was similar to water healing, but with its own unique aspects. She had never seen fire benders with a healing skill.
"Fire can heal and can allow us to see into everyone's very soul. I think you will have a special talent for it, Kaiyo," the sage encouraged.
"I wish to learn these new skills, honorable sage," she prostrated herself before him in submission to become an acolyte.
Seventy One Years Later
A teenage water bender was brought unconscious before the head sage in the temple by younger sages. They had found her washed up on their beach and recognized her immediately. They put her on a stretcher and with great urgency rushed to the main temple to the head sage. The aged, gray-haired, and heavily-wrinkled sage was in deep concentration at a shrine, but got up and met the four young sages carrying the limp figure.
One junior sage said as he bowed before the head sage, "Master. We found the Avatar washed up on shore, but she doesn't remember anything."
Korra muttered over and over, "Raava… Raava…"
The junior sages placed Korra on an altar-like stone edifice, and backed away. The head sage, a stoop-shouldered, ancient woman, looked at Korra with considerable worry. Her hands glowed bright yellow, and tongues of flame followed her in gentle circles as she moved her outstretched hands over the unconscious young woman with great concentration. She closed her eyes as she focused on finding what was within.
The head sage said with great urgency, "A dark energy has infected her. We must purge it before it destroys her."
To her sages she ordered urgently, "Prepare her immediately for spirit water immersion."
"Yes, Master Sage Kaiyo," another said and they went about their task quickly.