Those Who Must Go On
“Varina…” the spirit said, as if she were feeling the word in her mouth. Her eyes fell closed, and she was silent for a long while.
Korra found herself holding her breath, silently pleading for her intuition to be right. Or even if not Varina, if this were another past Avatar, that would still be amazing. As she waited for an answer, Korra felt Asami’s hand grasp her own, giving it a supportive squeeze.
At last, the spirit opened her eyes once more. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve heard that name,” she said, a smile crossing her face, “but I will never forget it. Yes. I was called Varina when I was alive, and I was the Avatar of Raava. I am no longer the Avatar, but you may still address me as Varina if you so wish.”
“No longer…?” Korra began to say, but then she blinked and shook her head. Right now, she didn’t care. She grinned widely, trying to resist the urge to dash forward and hug Varina. Even if she was a past life, it was a bit early for that. “Varina,” she said, the smile refusing to drop from her face. “I’m so pleased to meet you right now.” She gave Asami’s hand a squeeze. “There’s so much I want to talk to you about, but right now I just hope you can help Asami. She lost her voice a few days ago, and we’re trying to figure out how to get it back.”
Varina slowly nodded her head. “Iroh has told me as much. I will of course do whatever I can to help you,” she said. She moved backward a few feet and turned to the side, her body hovering smoothly over the terrain. “Please, follow me.”
Crystalline swamp. Those were two words Asami had never thought to use together until she’d gotten her first good look at Zhi-Wen Valley. Before she’d seen the spirit world, she’d imagined it resembling the vines which had taken over Republic City, and so finding a swamp here wasn’t a surprise at all. But apparently the vines were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to spirit world weirdness.
At first glance, the area they came out into looked just like a swamp. There was dark, murky green water surrounding them, various plants, and a hint of deep blue sky peeking in through the trees above. Then Asami began to notice that at least half of what she’d thought were plants were actually made entirely of crystal, and their apparent colors shifted as she walked by. They often appeared green, matching their surroundings, but from the right angles the light split up, making some of the plant-like structures glow with a rainbow of colors. As they walked through, one plant or another always seemed to be emitting such a rainbow, resulting in quite the beautiful walk.
Asami’s heart felt lighter as the journey continued. Her voice wasn’t back yet, and there was no guarantee Varina would be able to help, but she had hope right now. Though more importantly, she was happy for Korra. After more than three years of being disconnected from her past lives, much of it spent in need of guidance, she’d finally found a connection again to one of them. Even though they’d come here to try to find a solution to Asami’s problem, she wasn’t going to complain at all if Korra wanted to take advantage of it and talk with Varina while they were here.
For now though, Korra seemed to be just enjoying the walk along with Asami. And Asami had to admit, the grin on Korra’s face was certainly infectious. This went double when Korra was holding Asami’s hand as they walked, pointing out some of most interesting or beautiful sights, occasionally playing with Light as he fluttered around, or greeting some of the local spirits who came by to meet the Avatar.
“Hey,” Korra said, pointing off toward some cliffs in the distance that had just become visible. “Doesn’t that tree way over there look like the Tree of Time?”
Asami followed Korra’s gaze, squinting off toward the cliffs. Korra was right. The tree at the top of them did look quite a bit like the Tree of Time. With how far away it was, it might even be just as large. Though with all the crystalline trees Asami had seen so far in the Valley, she found herself wondering if that tree might be crystal as well. With how far away it was right now though, they’d have to move a fair bit before they’d be able to see any change in how the light hit it.
After Asami nodded at her, Korra said, “Wonder if it’s like those roots we saw where we entered the spirit world. Oh! Varina?” Korra dashed forward, catching up with the spirit, who’d gotten a bit ahead of them now. “Do you know anything about that tree?”
Varina came to a stop, turning to face the tree. She slowly nodded. “Yes. It is called the Tree of Eternity. It is in fact a location of deep connection with the fabric of the spirit and human worlds.”
“Like the Tree of Time then?” Korra said. “Is it connected to it? Like, is it just a different part of the same tree?”
“It is connected, but it is not the same tree. Perhaps sometime I can show the two of you to it.”
Korra nodded, smiling at Varina. “I’d like that,” she said. “Asami comes first though.” And at this, Asami smiled at her love. She’d quite like to see this tree as well, but that could wait.
“Of course,” Varina said. “Then let us continue. It is not much farther to my abode.”
With every motion Varina made now, the wind seemed to sing. She’d likely been living here for thousands of years, and so she’d had plenty of time to make her home exactly to her liking. It looked like she’d started with a cave, where the web of small tunnels connecting to it and outside would have allowed the wind to echo when it blew in the right direction, much like a natural pipe organ.
But that was just the beginning. The interior of the cave was filled with crystals collected from outside, most of them carved into shapes resembling wind instruments, but with large openings instead of mouthpieces. The walls had been smoothed over, likely to help enhance the acoustics within the cave. While Asami’s logical mind told her that such a design should have been more likely to produce a simple cacophony of sound with every gust of wind, somehow it worked to create a beautiful experience. Perhaps it was the years Varina had put into perfecting it, or perhaps some form of spirit world magic helped ensure it followed Varina’s will and expressed the beauty she intended.
“Avatar Korra, young spirit of light,” Varina said. It was the first time she’d spoken since leading them into her home. Her voice sounded so much richer here, without the airy sound to it that it had had when she’d spoken outdoors. As beautiful as the sounds were when she simply moved through the cave, her voice in here was even more so. “Please, have a seat, and try to remain still and silent. I wish to listen to Miss Sato attempt to speak.”
Korra nodded at Varina. She mimed zipping her lips closed, and then found a spot on the floor to sit on. After she patted her hand on her lap, Light came down to a landing on it. He morphed into his puppy form, then curled up in Korra’s lap. For a moment, Korra’s hand reached out to scratch the back of Light’s neck, but even this seemed to be making a noticeable sound, and so she soon stopped, an apologetic expression on her face.
Asami turned her gaze to Varina. She hadn’t been asked to say anything in particular, so it most likely didn’t matter what she said right now. “My name is Asami Sato,” she first tried to say. As ever, no words came out of her mouth, but the breath she used in her attempt to speak did seem to resonate with some of the instruments around the room. Varina seemed to be waiting for more, and so Asami continued. “I came to visit the spirit world with Avatar Korra. Sometime during the first time I slept here, I lost my voice.
“I believe it may have something to do with a dream I had, in which I found myself talking to a younger version of myself who claimed to be my subconscious. I couldn’t wake up from this dream. I guessed that some spirit might be trapping me within it, and trying to guide me to confess my romantic feelings for Korra. I defied it, saying I chose not to speak, and then I woke up, finding my voice to be gone. Since then, I’ve become open about my feelings toward Korra, but my voice still has not returned.
“I was once able to briefly speak a few words to Korra in a moment of desperation, but I haven’t been able to do so again since. Korra tells me that she believes the issue is with my sound chakra. From a memory of yours she saw in the Tree of Time, she knows that it can be blocked through the lies I tell myself. I’ve tried to solve this, thinking on what the lies could be, and trying to face some hard truths.”
Asami closed her eyes, feeling her throat swell up a bit as she thought back to some of what she’d tried to face in herself. The hardest part to face was her true feelings about her father, and if she could truly forgive him for what he’d done to her years ago. When it came down to it, her willingness to forgive her father had felt more like a simple wish to do what was necessary to have family in her life again. Perhaps she couldn’t forgive him, or perhaps she’d been rushing things. And now, with him having only recently perished, she didn’t know if she could ever give him a chance to truly earn her forgiveness.
The truth was, her feelings were complicated, and she didn’t know what she felt about her father right now. She didn’t know what she felt about Kuvira over the fact that she’d killed Asami’s father. The only thing she was sure of was that it was all still painful, and it would take time to sort everything out. At least she could trust in Korra to be there to support her now. When Asami had first faced this fact, she’d nearly broken down, but Korra had been able to hold her together.
“It hasn’t worked,” she said at last. After all of that, her voice still hadn’t returned.
The room was silent for a minute, until Asami heard some tones coming from nearby instruments. As she opened up her eyes, she saw that Varina had approached her, an inscrutable expression on her face. “This is quite unusual, Miss Sato,” she said. “I cannot sense your sound chakra at all when you attempt to speak. When I have talked with humans before, I have always been able to sense it projecting their speech. But now, even here, where I am at my most powerful, I can sense nothing.”
Asami furrowed her brow, looking downward. After a moment, an idea struck her, and she looked up at Varina once more. She couldn’t explain what she was going to try, so she simply went ahead with it. She began to hum, just a solid note right now. After a moment, she switched to a different note, and then another, making her way into a simple tune. The instruments surrounding the room caught the notes, amplifying and holding on to them. Even once she finished her tune, it took another few seconds before it finished echoing through the room.
Once the room had quieted once more, Asami opened her mouth to let out a solid note. Once she was sure she could hear it, she tried to slide it into speech, turning the note into the beginning of “I am Asami Sato.” As she’d been expecting, the sound from her mouth cut off as soon as she tried to turn the note into a word, but this did seem to prompt a glimmer of understanding in Varina’s expression.
Varina let a slight smile spread across her lips. “I see. Thank you very much, Miss Sato. I believe I have a good idea of what’s going on, though I fear that it may be difficult to explain.”
Asami nodded, smiling in relief. However difficult it was, she was willing to give it a try.
“In a general sense,” Varina said. “I believe that the problem is not with the nature of your sound chakra. When you hummed a single note, I could sense its presence, and I could sense no issues with it. There was resistance when you hummed a tune, but not from within the chakra. Finally, when you attempted to speak, the resistance overwhelmed it, cutting it off from making even the slightest sound.
“Which is to say, the problem lies not in your sound chakra itself, but with how chi flows between it and the other chakras within your body. It is possible your sound chakra has become misaligned, causing chi to flow incorrectly through it, or possibly missing it entirely.”
Asami nodded once more. She looked up into Varina’s eyes and made a questioning expression, shrugging at the spirit, as she tried to get across the question of what they could do about it in this case.
“You wonder what you can do about it?” Varina asked. After Asami nodded, Varina was silent for a moment. She then spoke up, saying, “I may be able to help realign your sound chakra. But to do so, I would need to know exactly how it has been misaligned, which may be beyond my power. We know what the problem is, but this doesn’t tell us why it is. Only by fully understanding this can you begin to correct it.
“I will, of course, do everything in my power to help you,” Varina continued. Her face seemed to glow just a bit right now. “Both in your search for an answer, and in realigning your chakra once you have this answer.”
Asami smiled at this. Even if she could speak right now, she couldn’t thank Varina enough. She gave a polite bow, her grin growing just a bit wider. After a moment, she glanced over at Korra, and she almost burst into laughter as she caught the expression in the Avatar’s eyes, which were currently showing a quite-cute pleading expression. Apparently Korra wasn’t sure if she was allowed to speak yet. Asami glanced from Varina over to Korra, hoping to get the spirit’s attention so she could let Korra speak now.
Varina’s eyes moved over to look at Korra, and she let out a soft chuckle. “My apologies, Avatar Korra. You may of course speak now if you wish. I appreciate your efforts to refrain from making any sounds.”
Korra traced her hand slowly along Asami’s upper arm, gazing at her girlfriend’s sleeping face. Maybe it was just Korra’s imagination, but Asami looked a bit more content now than she had the previous night. Well, the previous time she’d slept; it wasn’t actually night here right now. But in this room in the back of Varina’s cave, where almost no light got in, it was just as good as night.
Asami deserved her rest right now. She’d had a long, mentally exhausting day. Korra still didn’t understand exactly what Varina had done, and she doubted Asami did either, but Varina said it would give Asami the ability to realign her own chakras once she figured out how they’d gotten out of alignment in the first place. Korra certainly had no reason to distrust Varina; she was one of Korra’s past lives, after all. Though the fact that she was still around and not just a connection within Korra’s mind did make it feel a bit odd to think of the present Varina as being a “past” life of Korra. She was very much present.
Though, if Raava hadn’t been destroyed by Unalaq three years ago, and Korra still had her connection to her past lives, how would that relate to the present Varina? Korra had never talked to Varina before, so she didn’t know if she’d had any of Varina’s memories from after she became a spirit. For that matter, she didn’t know if she’d had any of Varina’s memories from before she became a spirit. Had Varina ever actually become connected to any Avatars after her?
“Hmm…” Well, Varina didn’t seem to need sleep, and Korra wasn’t particularly sleepy right now. So perhaps now, when Asami was asleep, was a good time to pick the spirit’s mind about Avatar stuff. Korra turned her head, looking over at Light, who was relaxing at the foot of her sleeping bag. “Hey, Light?” she said softly. “If Asami wakes up, mind telling her I’m talking with Varina?”
Light nodded at her. “Of course,” he said. He flapped his ears, fluttering over to Asami’s sleeping bag and lying down near her legs.
Korra smiled at the young spirit. “Thanks, Light,” she said. She pulled herself slowly out of her sleeping bag, careful not to disturb Asami, and she made her way out of the room, in search of Varina.
Korra came upon Varina waiting at the entrance to the cave. She didn’t seem to be doing much at all as Korra approached. She was simply hovering in the air, facing outward, her robes slowly flapping along with every slight gust of wind, and perhaps generating some gusts of their own. Did spirits even get bored? Perhaps Varina didn’t mind doing nothing. She’d been a spirit for thousands of years now, so maybe it wasn’t surprising if she was fine doing nothing for a long stretch of time. Though... there was actually a fair bit to listen to right now. The swamp wasn’t particularly noisy, but there were certainly some faint sounds of spirits within it, so perhaps Varina was listening to that right now.
“Varina?” Korra said, slipping by the side of the spirit so she could face her. “I hope I’m not disturbing you, but I wonder if I could ask you some Avatar-related questions.”
Varina’s head turned down to face Korra, and she slowly nodded. “You may of course ask, Avatar Korra. I cannot promise that I can answer, however. I have not been the Avatar in quite a long time.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of what I wanted to ask about,” Korra said. She looked around for a moment. This could take some time, so a place to sit down would be nice. Not finding anything, she earthbent herself a quick rock stool and sat on it. “Er, so… how did that work then? You were the Avatar, but then you died, became a spirit… and so what happened with the Avatar spirit? How was it still able to move on? And did the next Avatar still have access to your memories?”
Varina turned her body, facing Korra directly now. Her face seemed to shift slightly, her features becoming more defined, and she somehow seemed to become just a bit more connected with the world around her. “I am afraid I cannot remember the specifics of it,” she said. “Much as humans cannot remember the moment of their birth, or recognize their first thought for what it is, so can I not remember how I became a spirit. I have memories from when I was young, learning from older spirits, but I know nothing of the moment I actually became one.”
“Oh,” Korra said. “I guess that makes sense.” Maybe Iroh would remember that part better, since it wasn’t nearly as long since he’d become a spirit. She’d have to remember to ask him the next time she saw him. He wouldn’t be able to answer what this meant about the Avatar spirit, though.
“I do remember some things I learned in my life as a human,” Varina continued, “including some ideas that might help answer your question.” Varina bent her knees, and her body lowered until she touched the ground. “I cannot promise that these ideas represent the truth. But perhaps they will provide a useful explanation, even if the truth is something neither of us can fully understand.”
“Heh,” Korra said, the corner of her lips pulling up into a grin. “Well, I’ll take what I can get. I’ve learned not to force these things. Sometimes a good explanation is enough.”
Varina nodded at Korra, her own lips pulling up into a slight smile. “When I was human, I was taught that everyone reincarnated upon death. I do not know if this is in fact true for everyone, but it is indeed so for the Avatar. I remember a good analogy used to explain this, though I cannot recall whether it was shown to me, or if it was something I came up with myself to show to others.
“Imagine that you have a row of unlit candles before you,” Varina said. She brought her hands up in front of her, and she traced her fingers through the air. As her fingers moved, they left behind the ghostly images of three candles. She continued to move her fingers as she spoke, illustrating her analogy. “Each candle is a human at birth. It represents their body, the basic foundation of their mind, which gives them the ability to think, and the environment in which they will live.”
Varina snapped her fingers, and a flame appeared on the wick of the left candle. “Somehow, a soul is born, though I cannot say how. It comes to reside within a human body, and the soul and body come together to form a human life. Here, the flame is this person. The flame came into being from some other source of power, but it draws strength from the candle, which keeps it lit. The candle shapes the flame, and the flame melts through the candle.”
The candle began to shrink a bit, ghostly tendrils of wax seeping over its edges. “As time passes, the potential of the human body is used to fuel a life. It does not go away, though, just as the wax of a candle never disappears. It simply changes shape. Potential is turned into experience, until at last…” the candle shrunk even further, with barely any of the unmelted wax or unburnt wick left, “...experience is nearly all that’s left.”
Varina picked up the candle in the middle. She leaned it over, touching its wick to the wick of the dying candle. The flame lit the new candle, and moments after she pulled it away, the flame on the old candle finally died off. “In reincarnation, the dying light of one soul is used to set alight a new soul. The souls exist in a continuum with each other, but they are nevertheless distinct, each shaped by the bodies they reside in and their experiences growing up. And so, although your soul was brought into being from that of the Avatar before you, and will always have a bit of them in it, it is still something new and distinct.”
“Now,” Varina said. She placed the second candle down again. “Through meditation, it was believed we could all get a glimpse at the experiences in our past lives.” Varina motioned with her hand to the melted candle on the left. “But crossing the gap to find it is far from easy, and few claimed to be able to do it. The Avatar spirit makes this much easier. Each time one soul is lit afire from a dying soul, the spirit maintains a connection to the past soul.” Varina brought her finger to the burnt-out wick of the first candle, and traced a path of light to the flame of the second candle. “And so, even when the person is gone, their experiences can still be drawn upon by the next Avatar.”
Korra nodded. “Okay, I think I follow… mostly.” It seemed to make sense to her, but her history with spiritual matters had her suspecting she still didn’t quite get it. “So then, when you became a spirit, what happened with your candle? Er… body. Experiences?”
“I cannot say for certain,” Varina said, “but I believe it remained part of the Avatar spirit, and Avatars after me could communicate with it. What differed was what happened when my soul’s flame was about to die out.” Varina waved her hand near the second candle, and it burned down to the base. The flame on it weakened, and it seemed just about ready to die off. Varina picked up the third candle and dipped its wick into the flame, setting it alight. As she pulled it away, a golden thread came with it, connecting this candle to the previous one.
“After my soul gave birth to the next Avatar’s, it took a different path from most. Rather than dying as most humans do, and going where their souls go upon death, my soul slipped into the spirit world upon death and changed form into something similar to what you see now.” The faint flame from the second candle leaped off of it, and Varina caught it in her outstretched hand. The glow from where it landed slowly grew until it filled her body, and then it faded away.
“I see…” Korra said. She blinked. Something was nagging at the back of her mind. “So… if there is an afterlife for humans, does this mean you can never go there? You can never reunite with those people you lost in your human life?”
Varina’s head tilted to the side. Her eyes met Korra, compassion showing in them now. “You might be correct,” she said. She shifted, sitting back now, and the candles in front of her faded. “But my theories might be wrong as well. Perhaps part of me is indeed in that afterlife, reconnecting with those I cared for, and the rest of me is here with you now.”
Korra let out a slow breath, dropping her gaze downward. “I hope so…” she said softly, more to herself than to Varina. She smiled weakly, trying to focus on the latter possibility.
“Avatar Korra…” Varina said. She reached out a hand, placing it gently on Korra’s knee. “Please do not let this bother you. This would not have happened if it were not what I felt best.”
“Right…” Korra said, nodding. She took a slow breath. “I guess that applies to Iroh too, then… Well, even if he chose this path… I guess, I just hope part of him can reconnect with his lost son.”
“Is that what is truly bothering you?” Varina said. Her body drifted closer to Korra’s. Korra looked up at the spirit, finding a soft smile on her face. “Do not worry, Avatar. Iroh’s soul is at peace. The spirit who you’ve met might not meet his human life’s son, but Lu Ten will always be a part of Iroh. Iroh accepted this in life, and he embraced his new destiny. It was because of this acceptance, and because of his strong purpose throughout the remainder of life that he has become a spirit now. Death may be sad, Korra, but the toughest part is for those who must live on. Iroh has made it through that, and he is living on quite peacefully as a spirit.”
“Those who live on…” Korra repeated. Asami’s face flashed through her mind. She’d seen the brief reflection of pain in it as Asami was trying to speak to Varina earlier. Asami still hadn’t been able to move on from the death of her father. She’d been distracting herself, pushing it away. She’d only barely begun to face the truth. “Right. That’s what I should focus on, then.” After a moment, Korra let out a brief chuckle and shook her head, a slight grin on her face now. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to try to find problems you or Iroh should be having. I’ll focus on Asami’s problems.”
Varina pulled back. “That is a wise choice, Avatar. But be careful not to lie to yourself.”
“Lie to myself?” Korra tilted her head, narrowing her eyes at Varina. “About what?”
“They aren’t simply Asami’s problems,” Varina said. “Your voice gave you away in those two words. I can always hear a lie, even one spoken in the belief that it is the truth.”“Oh,” Korra said. She glanced down for a moment, then back up at Varina. With a nod, she stood up from her seat. “Yeah, you’re right. They’re my problems too. And we’ll solve them together.”