Pieces Moved and Pieces Forgotten
Two weeks ago…
So close. But I had failed. And now, I was perhaps further from my goal than when I’d started.
Everything had happened as I’d planned it, at first. Zaheer had wreaked havoc in the Earth Kingdom, and he’d called enough attention to himself to force the Avatar and her allies to stop him. And once he’d been stopped, the Earth Kingdom rose up again: wounded, but angry. The target of their anger was already subdued, and so the anger was focused on the next easiest target: The Republic of Nations.
Kuvira, the Great Uniter, performed her role admirably. I cannot blame her for this failure. She had done everything to make her colossus nigh-impenetrable, and she would have succeeded if only I had foreseen the true threat to my plans and done something about it. But it was too late now. Hiroshi Sato had given his life to stop Kuvira, and so there was no more need to stop him. He had already done all the damage he was going to.
But he had taught me a valuable lesson. I cannot ignore the potential for certain factors to get in my way as I enact the next stage of my plan. It is more critical than ever that I succeed in this, and I must take care to limit the potential damage that other agents of change might do.
The biggest threat right now is clear: Asami Sato. She cannot be safely eliminated without the risk of turning the Avatar against me. Perhaps the threat she poses can be neutralized, though.
“You would be well advised to save your energy, Avatar,” came a voice from off to Korra’s side. She’d heard that voice before. It was the voice that had spoken to her and Asami through the black-wire creatures they’d encountered on their first night here and at the entrance to Master Sheng’s lands.
Korra let out a groan, and she forced herself to relax. She wasn’t getting anywhere by resisting right now. It was probably more useful to take stock and try and figure out what was going on right now. All her resistance had been able to gain her only minor control of her body, and it hadn’t prevented her from being forced asleep by whatever was controlling Raava.
Korra narrowed her eyes, looking around where she was. It looked like she was still in the tree’s hollow, though it was colored purple, as if she were in Master Sheng’s lands again. This wasn’t at all like the type of sights she’d seen whenever she’d meditated in the Tree of Time. Though was she even meditating right now? She could just as well be dreaming, for all she knew.
“What is this place?” Korra said, looking over at the other spirit who was here with her. The old frog-man spirit appeared just like he did when Korra had seen him in the hollow before, except for the fact that he appeared to be awake right now. Barely. He still sat in exactly the same position, but his eyes were… okay, his eyes weren’t even open. But he’d spoken earlier, so he was probably awake.
“This is a realm constructed from human minds,” said the spirit, who was most definitely awake, even though he still kept his eyes closed. “The realm itself consists of ideas which exist in the mind, but not in a pure form within the physical world. It is the native realm of thought, where dreamers from the physical and spirit world might occasionally find each other.”
“Dreamers…” Korra said, looking around once more. It didn’t look much like her dreams, but then again this wasn’t how she usually went to sleep. Perhaps her senses were working differently since she’d entered it this way. “So, are we asleep now? Or something different?”
“It is slightly different, as I believe you have surmised,” the spirit said. “Our minds have fully passed into this realm, and so we see its full, true state. If you were simply dreaming, you would see only glimpses of this realm, mixed with images from within your own mind.”
“Hmm, okay…” Korra said. She looked back at the spirit, narrowing her eyes at it. Something was nagging at her mind now, with this conversation. She couldn’t quite put a pin on it yet though. But there was something else she had to find out. “Can I ask: Are you Master Sheng?”
The spirit’s hands moved now, reaching out to either side of the staff which lay across its lap. They cupped either end of it as he spoke. “I am indeed,” he said. “I apologize that I was not able to make our engagement, Avatar Korra. As you can see, I have been detained.”
The edge of Korra’s lips pulled outward at this, grimacing in sympathy. “Yeah. I can see.”
Korra let out a groan, looking over toward the exit of the tree hollow. There didn’t seem to be anything preventing them from leaving that way, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t any. And besides, it wasn’t the direction she wanted to go. She wanted to wake up. But that wasn’t going to happen now, was it? If she were awake, she’d be grilling Master Sheng over everything imaginable related to Asami’s voice, starting with asking him if he could restore it. But he wasn’t in any position to do that now, it would seem. And Korra wasn’t in any position to do anything with whatever she might learn.
But that might change in the future. And besides, Master Sheng was right. She was wasting her energy trying to get out right now. She had to go back to her earthbending training. Neutral jing. Wait for the right moment; don’t fight when it’s a losing battle. Wait until there’s an opening, and then act. And while she was waiting, there was no harm in asking a few questions about what had happened with Asami’s voice.
Asami nearly collapsed as she entered Varina’s cave. She didn’t know if the spirit was back yet, but if she wasn’t, then Asami was going to damn well find a way to summon her back, just as she’d done with Iroh. Varina might not have the Avatar’s power anymore, but she was the closest thing Asami had right now. She was going to need some serious power on her side to save Korra, particularly if Korra’s bending was being used against her.
“Miss Sato?” came Varina’s voice from deeper in the cave. The sound of her voice was always musical in here, but right now it was one of the most beautiful sounds Asami had ever heard. Asami looked up, catching sight of the spirit hovering in to the main room. “What is the matter?”
Asami opened her mouth, then closed it, trying to think of how to explain it without words. Then she blinked. She held up a finger, asking Varina to wait. Of course. This must have been why Light had been asked to remain outside of the tree when they returned: so he could explain to Varina what had happened. He’d said that the first time he’d gone there he’d been forced to fall asleep when he was inside the tree, but this time he’d been fine. The spirit being kept captive there, who’d given Light his necklace, must have anticipated this, or at least the possibility of this.
Even with his ability to fly, Light wasn’t quite as fast as Asami was in a mad dash, so it did take a minute until he finally flew in through the cave entrance. Asami looked back at him with relief, and he returned her glance for a moment before looking over at Varina. “Miss Varina!” he said. He flew in and came to a landing on the table, looking up at her. “Something horrible has happened… Avatar Korra is… being controlled. I think. Or maybe Raava is. I’m not quite sure. But we need your help!”
“I see,” Varina said. Her voice didn’t show emotion like a human’s might. Instead, as the wind of her breath filled the instruments throughout the room, it played a more somber, haunting tune to accompany her speech now. “Please, young spirit. Tell me all you know.”
Light nodded at Varina. He took a breath, and then began to fill her in on what she’d missed, starting with his first experience in the tree. As he spoke, air currents in the room seemed to gradually built up, causing haunting sounds to be played from the instruments throughout the room. By the time he was finished, they were practically playing a full song expressing Varina’s worry.
“I am… so sorry…” Varina said as Light finished. At Asami and Light’s confused expressions, she continued, “I never expected it to do this. I… did not expect it to do anything. If I had, I would have told you to avoid that tree when you first noticed it. But it has never done anything like this before. I…”
Varina trailed off. Asami blinked at her in confusion. She stepped up, trying to get Varina’s attention. She didn’t know how much time they had, so they really couldn’t afford to waste any right now. She needed to know what Varina knew. All of it. As Asami got the spirit’s attention, she held her gaze, trying to get this message across. “Start from the beginning,” she tried to say. “Tell me all you know.” No sound came from her lips, but she hoped that Varina would be able to sense her intentions.
Varina held Asami’s gaze for a minute, then slowly nodded. “My apologies. We must formulate a plan, and so it is important that you understand what you are facing. I will try to keep this as brief as I can, but I am afraid it still may require some time to explain. I recommend you have a seat while I speak. You appear as if you require rest.”
This was certainly true. Giving the spirit a thankful smile, Asami found a suitable chair nearby and took a seat in it. She reached out a hand and casually stroked Light’s back as she looked up at Varina.
“Let me start with the trees,” Varina said, turning to face where Asami now sat. “You have seen both the Tree of Time and the Tree of Eternity. The two trees are tied together intricately. As the Tree of Time grows, it pulls the world into the future. As the Tree of Eternity grows, it holds onto the past, slowing the passage of time. The two trees are in a delicate balance, which is why they appear so much alike. If the Tree of Time were to grow faster, the world would change too rapidly for any living in it to prosper. If the Tree of Eternity were to grow faster, the world would stagnate.
“The trees themselves each have some form of consciousness, but it is nothing like what you or I have. Nevertheless, they seem to have come to an accord with each other. They grow at precisely the same pace, keeping the world moving at an acceptable rate into the future. This is why the two trees always appear identical; they ensure it is so.
“Of course, the trees are places of great power, and so they attract others. When the spirit portals were open many thousands of years ago, humans meditated beneath the Tree of Time, as they could feel its power. When they did so, they were able to communicate with a powerful spirit who made its home in the Tree, but in a realm outside the eyes of both humans and almost all other spirits.
“This spirit is known as ‘Time,’ ‘Change,’ or ‘Death,’ which it insists are one and the same. Representing such a fundamental force of nature, it is surely one of the most powerful spirits in existence, perhaps more powerful than even Raava or Vaatu. But as with most spirits, it has its role to play, and it does not stray from it, and so humans need not fear it using its power for ill. It is, however, most amenable to talking with those who seek it out, and is quite willing to provide its wisdom. In my life, I was one such human, and I learned much from it.”
Varina held her hands out to either side now. In her left hand, she formed a ball of swirling white energy, and in her right, a ball of swirling black energy. “Spirits thrive on balance,” she said. “Just as the trees find counterparts in each other, so does Time find a counterpart residing in the Tree of Eternity. ‘The Eternal’ it calls itself, or ‘Fate.’ It is in many ways Time’s opposite. Instead of collecting souls at the ends of their lives, it sets them on their path at the beginning. And unlike Time, it is not a spirit which has ever responded to those who wish to communicate with it - it only ever speaks to others when it wishes to do so.”
Varina closed her hands, the balls of energy winking out of existence. “This is the spirit which now holds Avatar Korra captive. This is your foe. From what you have told me, I fear that the Eternal has the ability to control other spirits, at least when they are within the hollow of its tree. This is how it put the captive spirit and the spirit of light into a slumber, and this is how it took control of Avatar Korra’s body - through controlling Raava inside of her.
“But its power may be limited. It showed no sign of controlling you, Miss Sato, did it?”
Asami shook her head. She was still taking it all in, but Varina was right. She’d felt no indication at all that the spirit was trying to control her. In fact, from the way it had used Korra’s voice to speak so she could hear, it was quite likely that it simply couldn’t do so. But it could control Raava. Which unfortunately meant it might be even more powerful than her, which gave them limited means to fight against it.
It would take someone with bending to fight against Korra in the Avatar state. There was simply no way Asami would be able to get close enough to subdue Korra without help. Kya was likely on her way, but she probably wouldn’t arrive fast enough, and even then she might not be enough. It would be a while before Jinora checked in again, and probably too late by then.
Asami glanced over to the wall, where they’d left the necklace for Varina to find. Perhaps it could work again to contact Jinora and tell her it was an emergency. Or perhaps… perhaps there was some other use for it. The captive spirit had a good reason for telling Light to remain outside the tree’s hollow. There was probably a good reason for the necklace as well. Grinning slightly, Asami got up and headed over to it.
Master Sheng slowly shook his head. “The loss of your friend’s voice was a dreadful mistake. I must apologize to both you and her for this. It was never my intention for this to come to pass, but I must take responsibility for it,” he said. He was silent for just a moment, and then let out a deep sigh. “I knew there was a possibility that things might not go as planned. Such is the nature of humans. I expected that were such to happen, I could fix the matter when your friend awoke, before either of you noticed something was wrong. I did not anticipate my imprisonment.”
Korra narrowed her eyes at Master Sheng. She took a seat in front of him and said, “What did you do? And why?”
“If you do not mind, I will answer your second question first. This will make it easier to explain what I did,” Master Sheng said. Even now, his eyes still didn’t open as he spoke to Korra. “I am a spirit of humanity, but most of all a spirit of speech. I can sense every word spoken by a human when they are within the same realm as me, though I cannot hear the meaning unless I will it. Humans value privacy, and so I do not intrude unless invited.
“It is not just spoken words that I can hear, however, but those that might have been spoken. Whenever one considers speaking a word, even if it never passes through their lips, I can sense it. The context gives each word a different feeling. Spoken words are a delight. Words imagined in rehearsal for a future speech are as well. But words withheld out of fear… are painful.”
Master Sheng’s eyes finally opened as he said this. Despite his frog-like body, his eyes were perfectly human, though they appeared a fair bit too large for his body. His gaze fixed onto Korra, making it impossible for her to look away. “Each individual word withheld is a tiny prick of pain, easily manageable. But with you and your companion when you first arrived in the spirit world, so many words were withheld in so little time that I felt I must do something. Without intruding on your privacy, I could not act to resolve the problem myself. One of you had to do so. Of the two of you, your companion seemed to be the one withholding more out of fear, and so it was her who would be in a better position to receive my gift.”
Korra wanted to look away as Master Sheng said this, but she wasn’t able to, not with how firm his gaze was right now. She knew full well what was going on then. She and Asami had both been struggling with their feelings for each other, and neither had been willing to speak up about it. Asami certainly hadn’t been the only one guilty there, though. Korra could have spoken up about it herself. But no. This was a mistake. She couldn’t be blamed for this, nor could Asami. Perhaps Master Sheng could be blamed for it, but she’d have to at least hear him out first.
“Your gift?” Korra said, trying to get back to the conversation at hand. “What was that?”
“Humanity,” Master Sheng said. “It is the gift I grant all humans early in life, and many spirits as well. As a young child’s mind develops, my gift first lets them develop a voice, allowing them to connect with others. They are able to state their needs and desires, allowing others into the mystery that has been their mind until this point. Humans develop slowly, though, and so it takes much time before my gift is fully realized.
“Adults will easily recognize a young child is human as well, but at a young age, the child sees only their own world. They believe everyone else sees as they do. Such a child will not believe you know something they do not, and they will not believe there is something they know that you do not. Such a child will never ask a question, for they never see the need. It is only with true insight that one realizes that others see the world differently.”
Korra’s eyes widened. “So that’s why the ward protecting your lands just wanted me to ask a question!” she said, grinning slightly now. “You were looking for those who could fully communicate. Okay…” she furrowed her brow as she thought of this. “That talking cat owl couldn’t ask any questions though… I’m guessing you gave it your gift, but it didn’t develop all the way, right?”
Master Sheng nodded. “Indeed. Humans are nearly unique among animals. They are among the only ones who have ever developed the insight to ask a single question of each other. Before humans, there was no need of me. I wasn’t born until the first question was asked. Since then, I have guided humans on their path, helping them develop their voices and abilities to communicate. For those who cannot use their voices, and for those who cannot hear, I help them find other ways.”
Korra nodded slowly now. “But it’s not just Asami’s voice that’s missing. She can’t write, either. And we’ve been having a hard time even communicating through gestures. Everything you say you’re responsible for… that’s what she lost.”
“...I would not say she lost it,” Master Sheng said. His eyes slowly began to fill with sadness as he spoke. “She suppressed it. She can yet regain it, even without my help, but she must understand its importance. However, I have been unable to grant my gift to those who have been more recently birthed into either the spirit or physical worlds. It is them that I am most sorrowful for. If I am not released, they will never know the ability to communicate.”
Korra shook her head. “You’ll be released. Just leave it to Asami. I trust her. You should too.” She curled the edge of her lips up into a grin at this. Honestly, she had no idea what Asami would or could do to help her, but she still trusted her friend.
Master Sheng was silent, though his eyes did begin to regain their earlier calm. “Very well, Avatar Korra. I will trust your words.”
Smiling, Korra nodded at Master Sheng. “Okay. Um, I’m still not quite clear though. How did Asami lose her ability to communicate? Er, I mean, what happened to suppress it?”
“I do not know the details, as I am not privy to the happenings within her own mind,” Master Sheng said. “I can tell you what I intended. I gave her my gift again, but only for a short while. I intended that while she sleep, her mind would be lit up with my gift, allowing her to communicate with herself. I hoped that she might gain insight from this, and that the part of her mind she had been denying would make itself clear to her and help her to find a better path.
“This involvement granted more power to her body’s chakras than they usually hold. The human body is more than capable of handling this power, but your friend did not come upon it gradually, and so she was not ready for it. It is possible she mistakenly directed this power in a manner which caused her sound chakra to fall out of alignment. The desire to not speak could do this if powerful enough. If she still had that power upon waking, it would have realigned itself, but my gift was intended to fade when she awakened. This would have left her sound chakra stuck out of alignment, and her will to speak would not have been sufficient to realign it.”
Korra’s eyes widened, and she nodded. “I think that’s it! Varina said that Asami’s sound chakra was out of alignment. She must have pushed it out herself, not realizing that she could do so. But… can she put it back in alignment?”
“If I am able to help her, with ease,” Master Sheng said. He was silent for a moment, as he appeared to think. “Without my help, she will have more difficulty, and it may take time. She will have to find the path on her own, and she will have to be willing to walk down it.”
Korra’s lips pulled into a confident grin once more. “As I said. Trust Asami. She can do it.”
“I recommend you be cautious with that necklace, Miss Sato,” Varina said, just as Asami’s hand was about to touch it. When Asami turned back to the spirit, raising her eyebrow questioningly, Varina continued, “It appears to have been intended for use by a powerful spirit. It is capable of drawing an immense amount of energy from the user.”
Asami quickly pulled her hand back and stepped away from the necklace, making sure she was farther away from it now than she had been when it had activated earlier. It didn’t seem like it had drained her energy when she’d used it then, but it might have been some type of energy she wasn’t used to sensing. Maybe something like the energy used for bending. She didn’t know what it felt like to run low on that energy - or “juice” as pro-benders called it - so she might run out of it without noticing. But would it really matter if she did? Well, perhaps if she needed it to use the necklace, and she needed the necklace for something.
Or she could simply be completely wrong about it. Probably best to get more information before worrying too much. Asami nodded at Varina, then looked over at Light. She gestured to the necklace, then to herself, hoping Light might get the message. As he looked at her quizzically, she held her hand out, palm down, at the height of Jinora’s head, and tried to trace out a rough outline of her body below it.
Light’s face finally showed a glimmer of understanding. He smiled at Asami, and then turned to Varina and said, “Mistress Varina, Asami actually used the necklace by accident earlier. She was able to communicate with a friend of hers in the physical world.” Light was silent for a moment, looking between Asami, the necklace, and Varina. “Do you think, maybe I was asked to bring the necklace here so she could use it? I thought it might just be for safekeeping, but… Well, even if that is all it is, it might be able to help her anyway.”
Varina was silent for a long while. At least, she didn’t say anything. The winds generated by the motion of her robes still reverberated through the instruments placed through her cave, and the sounds seemed to slowly become less random, and more meaningful. Varina was worried, judging by the sounds, or something close to worried.
Eventually, Varina spoke. “Yes. I believe it could,” she said. “Perhaps this was even the plan of the spirit who asked you to bring it here, spirit of light.” Varina floated over to the necklace and picked it up. Turning to face Asami and Light, she said, “I would not recommend this in normal circumstances, but with the possible rebirth of Vaatu imminent, our choices are limited.”
Varina held the necklace in one hand, and she pointed to the crystal on it with the other. “As you’ve seen, this crystal allows communication with the physical world. Such items are exceedingly rare. It is likely the spirit who made this has a task to perform in the physical world, and decided to create this crystal over the course of millennia to make his task easier. Now, it allows any who use it to communicate with the physical world from here. With it, we could perhaps summon help, but I do not know if we have enough time for them to arrive before the Eternal is finished drawing out Vaatu.”
Varina exchanged the necklace between her hands, and gestured to the brown stone attached to the other side of it. “This, however, may allow Miss Sato to confront the Eternal on her own, even if it is able to control Avatar Korra. This will not be easy, however, even with the aid of this necklace. There are few humans who could even come close to defeating Avatar Korra in combat alone, even were she not to enter the Avatar state. But my plan is not for any one of them to face Avatar Korra alone.
“This,” Varina said, lifting up the brown stone, “is a fragment of the claw of a lion turtle. In millennia past, they were hunted for their claws, which were used to grant bending to nonbenders. This fragment on its own does not have that power any longer, but it has been nurtured by a powerful spirit for thousands of years. It has been reshaped into a conduit.” Varina reached around and grasped the crystal with her other hand. “There is a reason this necklace holds both this fragment and crystal. It has been used as a conduit of power to the physical world. And now, we can use it to bring power back here.”
Asami’s eyes widened as she realized what Varina was getting at. It could bring the ability to bend from someone in the physical world to the user of the necklace. To Asami. But that would mean taking it away from someone. And even then, Asami had no practice with bending. There was no way she’d be able to use it skillfully enough to hold her own against the Avatar. She shook her head. It wasn’t going to work.
“Please, Miss Sato, hear me out,” Varina said. “I do not mean that you should steal anyone’s bending, but that you should request to borrow it. In fact, this will be necessary. The crystal here is powerful. It can even bring one’s consciousness across worlds, as I believe you experienced when you contacted your friend earlier. With it, you can request the assistance of others from the physical world, and they can be brought to you, along with their bending abilities.
“No one alone would be able to defeat Avatar Korra, enabling her to be rescued and this crisis averted. But you will not be alone. You will have the experience and power of your allies with you. Together, you can do this.”
Together. Asami stared at the necklace, taking a slow breath. She’d run to this cave because she had no idea how to save Korra alone. So of course, the plan wasn’t going to be to save her alone. Not entirely.
Asami looked up at Varina. As powerful as she was, Varina would be no match for the spirit in the tree - the Eternal, she’d called it. She would likely be subdued the moment she got near. But she’d helped now, as had Light. Without them, Asami wouldn’t have the necklace available, and she wouldn’t even be able to attempt this.
A smile slowly crossed Asami’s face. She nodded at Varina, then stepped toward her. It hadn’t been easy to communicate through the crystal before, but maybe it would be easier now. Even if it wasn’t, she would do it. For Korra’s sake, and for the sake of everyone in the world who might suffer if Vaatu were to be released, she would figure out how to get the help she needed.
Three years ago…
I see it. Finally, a possible future where Vaatu isn’t released once more. But it’s only a possibility. Far from likely. Nearly impossible, even. Asami Sato can succeed, but she is not likely to make the choice needed. She will most likely choose someone familiar to ask for help, and by the time she realizes the problem, it will be too late to choose another.
Only my opponent and I can see the full Pai Sho board in this game. My opponent is doing their best to set events in motion such that their victory is inevitable, and there is nothing I can do but watch and plan. The outcome will hinge on Asami Sato, and my opponent knows this well. They have done much to try and hinder her, and it may well be enough.
Although she will be at the center of the game at its final moments, that does not necessarily make her the most important piece in play. The most important piece is whichever one can win the game, however important or unimportant it seemed to be until that point. My opponent seems to have the fatal flaw of focusing on the center of the game, and so they have forgotten about one piece they moved to the outskirts at the beginning, and another moved away just recently.
This will make Asami Sato’s task more difficult, when it is perhaps already at its most difficult point, but it cannot be avoided. When the time is right, I must make my move to ensure she has the help she needs, even if I have to intervene directly.
The clouds were moving in quickly. Ty Zen ducked through the crowds, making her way to the coffee shop. Hopefully she’d be able to get there before the clouds opened up and rain hit.
Thankfully, this turned out not to be a problem. Even as the skies noticeably darkened, no rain came from these clouds. A few people near the entrance to the coffee shop seemed to be looking up at them in confusion, but Ty Zen simply ducked through an opening in the crowd, ignoring the people who’d suddenly decided to take up cloud-watching in the middle of a busy sidewalk.
As she made it through the doorway, Ty Zen allowed herself a grin. She was finally going to see her twin brother again. How long had it been? Around five years? He’d certainly done well for himself, it seemed. She just hoped she’d be able to recognize him after all this time, as she scanned the people already seated in the shop.
In the end, that wasn’t something she needed to worry about. Apparently once he no longer had their father forcing him to put on a noble decorum, Izin had forgotten about the existence of combs, and so he stuck out like a sore thumb among the crowd. Grinning at him, Ty Zen waved to grab his attention.
Just as Izin looked up at her, a flash of light came from outside. A few people turned to look, but Ty Zen simply shrugged it off. It seemed she’d gotten in just before the storm hit. The only wonder was why so many people were so intrigued by it all of a sudden. Even Izin seemed to be looking curiously out the window.Her brother’s curiosity was finally enough to get Ty Zen to turn her head. The clouds had completely filled the sky now, and turned nearly black, but there wasn’t a hint of rain. There were, however, periodic flickers of light that remained around a bit too long to be lightning. Okay, that was strange. But strange could wait. Ty Zen turned back to her brother and smiled once more as she made her way to his table. It was far past time to catch up.