Aang Earns His Arrows
Aang looked out into the vast audience. In deference to the seriousness of this event, everyone was quiet, but there was anxiety on the faces of his friends. Others showed their jealousy of his young age - just barely 12 - and immense talent, and were hoping he would fail.
He didn't really care how anyone felt. This was not about them.
More important were the stern faces of the seated Council of Elders, his ultimate judges. He tried not to dwell on them. It would distract him. He was confident, but he had only a fraction of their experience.
If he failed today, it would probably another year before he could test again. That was too long for him. He was ready now. Today was his day to prove his excellence. That he was being given this chance now, so young, and a degree short of where he should be to be tested, was unprecedented. Something motivated the Elders to let him test early - something they were not saying, but he could feel.
"Are you ready, Pupil Aang?" said Head Elder Pasang.
"I am," Aang said without hesitation, signing and bowing deeply before them.
He began the mandatory beginning moves – long stretches, deep knee and back bends, with precise hand, arm, and head positions aligned with his feet and legs. Each movement had to be perfect– regardless of how mundane - even the breathing with each action. Fail those fundamentals and he went no further. Everything, no matter how small or insignificant, was judged with equal severity. Getting sloppy at the earliest levels meant injury or even death at the higher levels. He "stuck" every move, and bowed.
"Do it again." Cranky old Elder Tashi threw handfuls of nuts and shells on the ground before him, and closed his eyes. A surprise move!
Aang knew that the sound of a single cracked shell would mean the end.
With exquisite fluidity, he repeated every stretch and motion, each time alighting like a feather between the spaces between shells. Had Toph been alive to witness to this, she would have coined the phrase "Twinkletoes" a century sooner.
He finished and bowed.
Elder Tashi said, "Whenever you are done, tell me Aang."
"But I am finished, Elder," said Aang humbly.
The Elder harrumphed, blushed at the embarrassment, and bowed back, but said nothing. Stifled snickers came randomly from the crowd.
For Elders, silence was acknowledgement of passage. Praise was non-existent during the test. You either failed or moved on.
The next requirements were basic air thrusts, from each hand and foot, then both hands to move objects, and then both feet with timed back and forward flips.
Elder Pasang yawned.
"Is he bored, or was it something to throw me off? Every Master does something for a purpose. What was the lesson in that?" wondered Aang.
To finish the set, he performed a rare move. He stood with his back to a damaged stupa, did an arching back flip, and as he came over the top inverted, he aimed both feet and hands at the stupa and thrusted hard. The stupa teetered and crashed to the canyon below. The crowd startled. He alighted and bowed.
Elder Pasang lifted an eyebrow as they all bowed back.
The next stage was to examine agility and balance.
He was poised on one goal of the air ball field, below the Elders and audience. This was unusual, as air ball was not part of the test. Normally, agility and balance testing was performed on the forgiving flat surface of the temple square. Aang deliberately chose the ball field as his venue for this test. There was a danger. Any missed move and he would fall to the ground below the field. It would be an instant failure.
Knowing this, Elder Pasang said seriously, "Proceed."
One of Aang's friends put a wide, shallow pan of ink before Aang. He signed the Elders, indicating his readiness.
There were unsettled murmurs among the crowd, "What's he doing?"
There was nowhere to lay his staff. This test must begin and end with staff in his hand. Anything less was unacceptable. He popped his glider open, tossed it like a toy into the air in a huge arc accelerated by a strong huff of air. He cart wheeled across the ink pan, putting ink on his feet and hands and top of his head. Then he jumped on to the poles. He hopped, twisted, flipped, soared – somersaulting, spinning on his head, and turning. At each pole top he touched, a single hand or foot or his head made a single ink mark. He did not waiver or fall.
When he completed all the movements, he pushed off the last pole with one hand, and landed lightly atop the opposite air ball goal to the one from which he started. He reached up without looking and caught the glider as it passed just above his head. He closed the glider, stood, and bowed to the Council. Not a drop of ink spoiled his clothing and not a spot remained inked on his head or any hand or foot.
Pasang unemotionally bowed back. The gallery of Air Nomads gasped collectively.
Pasang stood with eyes wide open and beheld what the gallery gasped about. On the top of each pole that Aang touched during his routine was a head, foot, or hand print in the exact pattern of the Air Nomad clan symbol air swirl symbol perfectly printed into the pole pattern.
Elder Pasang held up a hand to speak. Aang's heart was in his throat, expecting to be stopped.
Instead, Pasang broke all tradition by complimenting Aang, "Impressive. Continue."
Aang's spirits soared.
The next requirement was for air bending-enhanced running. Aang would be timed for a predetermined running course around the Temple. An instant less than the required time and it would be unacceptable. A monk reached for the ceremonial hourglass, and looked at Aang. He signed his readiness. The monk overturned the hourglass with a thunk, and said, "Begin."
Aang accelerated across the temple square, roared up the staircases, and over bridges. He careened around unexpected bystanders, apologizing as he went, but did not slow for an instant. He speed was breathtaking.
He returned to the Temple square, stopped for an instant, held up his fingers indicating a second lap, then doubled his speed. There was less than half of the sand remaining. Failing a second lap was still a failure. Not since the day of Avatar Yangchen had any Air Nomad ever made a successful second lap.
Gyatso frowned and thought, "What did I miss in teaching Aang the lessons on pride, overconfidence, and foolishness?"
At the back of the Temple, he rounded a blind corner to be faced with nuns and toddlers on a walk. He would kill them all if he crashed into them. Effortlessly he leaped, arched his back over them holding his arms out for added balance, and landed without breaking stride on the other side.
At the square, time was running out and there was no sign of Aang, who had rashly decided to run a second lap.
As Elder Pasang stood to declare the end of the test, a yellow/orange blur streaked through the far end of the square, generating a vapor trail behind him, the first time in centuries it had been witnessed. Just before the sand ran out, he tagged the hourglass, backed away, and bowed to the Elders.
He didn't even appear winded, though inside, his lungs were about to burst.
Breaking all protocol, a roar erupted from the crowd. Gyatso shot Aang a stern look, but Aang suppressed a smile.
The next phase was designed to demonstrate his skills in the air, first with his animal guide, and then with his glider.
Aang patted Appa and said, "Let's do this buddy!"
For the animal/rider combination, there were a series of required movements designed to show the precision of the two – determining how well their combined chi was shared, and demonstrating that the rider had trained his animal guide properly. Each action appeared effortless, especially impressive for a younger than normal twenty ton Sky Bison. The pair was utterly silent as they progressed.
In a free-form demonstration, they climbed breathtakingly fast, performed a very high speed pass with a sudden stop for Appa to eat an apple balanced on a ring. Taking off again, they performed loops, and rolls, and sweeping turns. They climbed vertically as fast and as high as they could, and they descended back down in lazy, spiraling circles, with Appa's legs splayed outward to further slow their speed. Their descent traced an Air Nomad swirl symbol in the air for the bystanders below.
It was pure artistry as they owned the third dimension, having learned well from Gyatso that Air Nomads dwelt beyond the everyday world of two-dimensional thinking. Only the Fire Nation's Dragon Riders shared the realm of flight and understood the advantages of the high ground.
At the top of a huge loop with Appa upside down and Aang clinging to his neck, the crowd gasped. Aang let go of the reins and started to fall - by design. He opened his glider, and flew with Appa, following first in trail to one another in a series of graceful slow turning rolls, then side by side in a much harder series of formation flight aerobatics that were precisely timed. Their choreography in the air was flawless. To finish their routine, they flew together spiraling each one around the other in a series of corkscrew rolls – a small boy in unison with his gigantic companion.
They alighted noiselessly on the square in front of the Elders, both Appa and he bowing to the Air Nomad leaders.
The head Elder rose again, and spoke, "Pupil Aang. You have demonstrated before this assemblage your profound air bending skills. One task remains. You are tested early here by our request by virtue of your creativity. What new skill do you bring to us today?"
"Elder Pasang, I present to you the Air Scooter - for speed, for evasion, for carriage of heavy supplies, and to aid movement of the injured."
"Show us, then, what you have learned."
Aang stood in a wide stance, leaning forward a bit. His arms made the shape of a circle. He breathed deeply and rotated his arms, twisting the air into a spherical shape, imparting the spin, and the Scooter appeared. He balanced on one foot atop it, gave a whoop, and zoomed off at very high speed, kicking up little dust vortices as he went. He made a trail around the gallery, who were all laughing now, and sped across the square to the highest tower of the temple.
With extra energy, he went vertically up the wall. Everyone held their breath, as they had never seen Aang do this before. He travelled up the wall to the highest window where five fruit tarts were cooling on the window sill. In the instant he stopped climbing, Aang made a gathering air bending motion with one arm, encircling the tarts, drawing them into his grasp.
Descending at high speed down the wall face, he avoided crashing into the square with a last second braking action, and scooted slowly across the temple floor toward the seated Elders.
Suddenly, he uncurled the arm holding the fruit tarts, pointing straight at them, sending them zooming directly toward each Elder.
Gyatso looked in fear at his pupil, as this was no time to "pie the Elders". They would surely disqualify him. Practical jokes were never part of the testing.
Just before the pies hit their targets, Aang clenched his fist. The pies hovered in mid-air at eye level to the Elders. They reached out. As they did, Aang made a releasing motion with his palm. Each pie plopped into the Elders' hands.
Still astride his Air Scooter, he arrived in front of the Elders. As he dismounted, the Scooter dissipated. He knelt on one knee, placed one hand on the temple square tiles, grasped his staff where it had been left, and pointed his other arm and staff horizontally to the plaza, bowed deeply, head down and facing the tiles.
He had finished.
As the elders conferred and munched on the fruit tarts, he held that pose for what seemed an eternity. The crowd murmured. There were so many departures from tradition. What would be made of it all?
Elder Pasang rose and spoke, "Pupil Aang. Please stand before the Council."
He arose, hands beside him, head still bowed in supplication.
"Look at me Aang, and receive our decision."
He looked. For the first time that he could ever remember, a broad smile emerged from the head Elder.
"Aang. Pupil of Gyatso. Today you stood before us and took the Master's test of Air Bending."
"Never since the days of our beloved Sister Yangchen has air bending mastery been so thoroughly demonstrated with such precision, grace, confidence, and creativity."
"Pupil Aang, I have one final question."
"Ask, Elder Pasang, and I shall try to answer."
"Did you make these fruit tarts?" he asked as he took another bite of his.
Aang glanced at Gyatso, who mouthed, "Just answer."
"I did, Elder."
"Well then, Pupil Aang, never before has this test been conducted with such culinary skills as well. Pupil Aang, you are now an Air Bending Master. And a good cook too, I might add!"
The gallery erupted in cheering. His friends descended upon him and carried him off to celebrate. He rubbed Appa's nose and tossed him some fresh fruit to munch on.
Later that day, Aang laid on his stomach with nothing but a ceremonial towel covering him as his blue tattoos were applied by Monk Gyatso. He wasn't embarrassed, and never in his life did pain feel so good. All the dedication of days and weeks and years of training paid off today.
Nonetheless, the pain was terrible as he was decorated on his head, arms, legs, and down his back. The tattoos followed the chi paths of his muscles. It took hours. Ceremonial strings and pipes played to soothe Aang, and he meditated as Monk Gyatso went about his work.
It was a mentor's greatest honor to decorate his student. Pupil Aang was no more. It was Master Aang now. And yet for Aang, he felt that Gyatso would always be his ultimate Master, no matter how old he got. He felt so fulfilled and so grateful to Gyatso. Only a handful of Air Benders had ever been given the title of Master so young.
In Pasang's study, Elder Tashi turned to him and asked gravely, "Pasang, when do we tell Aang?"
"Give him a few days to celebrate his Master's title, then he must know. We are fortunate – his excellence is beyond any other. He will save the world, even if he can't save us."