Surprise and awe. Surprise and awe run through him as he stood atop the back of a massive hand, his feet prickled against hardened skin. He, a child, stood before this being that was gigantic as it looked ancient. It stared back at him, its eyes carrying the weight of centuries of knowledge.
Merely a day ago, he had been on an island filled with trees and ground made of an unfamiliar material. Now, the trees had risen and rested atop of a turtle shell, and a lion’s mane surrounded a large head.
He wasted no time. He pleaded his case to the creature, asking to defeat his enemy. Many others had given advice, telling him to take the life of the man he was meant to fight. He knew his enemy was evil; he had seen it in rule of his people and the effect he left on his offspring, but he knew that man was human, and he could not go against all he leaned.
He needed help. He needed a way to win without sacrificing anyone, or his beliefs.
Immediately, the answer came. There creature’s fanged mouth and whiskers did not move, but a low voiced echoed in his mind.
“True intelligence can dispel all the lies and illusions... A true heart can take the poison of hatred without being harmed...”
The tips of two claws rested on forehead and chest, and it continued to speak with its long-told wisdom. “From the beginning-less time, darkness thrives in the void, but always yields to purifying light…”
As the voice trailed away, the tips of two claws rested on forehead and chest, and everything glowed…
A soft breath escaped an aged-old mouth, and bagged eyelids rose and blinked over a pair of an old man’s green eyes. They pained from the surge of sunlight that the old man shielded his eyes with a hand. It took another moment for his other hand to reach down to the grass. His fingers grazed the soft blades until they finally touched a familiar rim of a hat resting by his feet.
The old man grabbed it and rested it atop his head, finally protected from the assaulting sunlight. He rested his hands on the armrests and leaned against his chair. It creaked until his weight, but remained firm, thanks to its sturdy legs and fine craftsmanship. His back rested, he looked up to the blue sky…
… only for his attempt to be blinded once again, forcing him to looked back down with shut eyes. Curses, everything was too bright! He almost wished to be seeing the dark and dreary roof of his home. He certainly had done that for many years, being the hermit he was, and no doubt it was just a few feet behind him.
“Are you alright?” a warm voice entered the senior’s ear.
After blinking away the haze, his cleared vision turned to see a white shirt and the lithe figure delicate woman standing beside his chair. The woman was so close he had to crank his neck up to meet her gaze. “Fall,” his scraggly voice commented, “didn’t see you there.”
Fall’s calm eyes held a hint of curiosity in them. “Is everything alright? You seem a little…” her voice trailed off, and the old man caught on.
“I’m fine, really. Must’ve dozed off,” he assured Fall with a little yawn.
“You seemed to enjoy yourself,” she remarked. “What were you dreaming about?”
“Just something from my past.”
“Really?” intrigue inflected in Fall’s voice.
To that, the old man gave her a patient glare. “You shouldn’t worry about it. It was another time, another life,” he responded, white hairs of a great beard frisking his ancient lips as he did so.
Fall’s large bangs framed her confused face. “What-”
Before Fall could ask, three voices screamed:
“Put it out! Put it out!”
“Ugh! I’m all wet!”
“You?! You got mud on my clothes!”
The two heads turned. Not far away, three young women crying out frantically at their own predicament. The first one smacked away at a small fire on a sleeve of her blue robe; the second moaned at her soaking green dress; and the third’s face, usually giddy with pink, looked in disgust at the mud covering her outfit. The small patch of dirt the trio surrounded, filled with various plants, was the only thing untouched.
The old man gave a quick side-glance to Fall, a smile adorning his face. “You should go. Your sisters might ruin my garden, if you don’t stop them.”
“They might,” Fall replied with her own smile, and she head off.
The old hermit relaxed in his chair and watched Fall head off to her sisters with a smile. It had been years since he felt at peace. Before, he remained indoors and watched the world from his cracked window. Then, the four girls–Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall–appeared one at a time, and they each gave him a gift while waiting for the next to appear.
Winter was the first to appear, meditating beneath the tree and acted as calm as water, flowing curiosity and serenity into the hermit whilst he watched and pondered.
Spring came next, and she rooted the plants in the earth, rejuvenating his garden that had been ravaged by time and with it, a sense of wonder.
Summer arrived as joyous as her personality, and she brought him outside to interact with the world beyond his home, reigniting a lost fire inside of him.
Fall entered the fray near the end of the day and spoke as gently as the wind, breathing in the final gift: to be thankful for all he had.
When all four were together, the old hermit was surprised. They came to him and showed him the beauty of the world he once forgotten. He asked them why they had bothered with him. He was nobody, an old man stuck in a shack that was decrepit as he was.
To that, Fall simply replied, “I beg your pardon, sir, but we did do these things for you because you were special. We do what we can for everyone because we are able.”
He had been taken aback by their words. It was something he had not seen in many centuries. Living alone for so long, had he forgotten what that felt like? How long had it been since he had given that to others, as these four had helped him, a complete stranger?
Then and there, he had made his decision. One at time, the hermit approached the four girls, placing his hands on their shoulder and forehead, and in bright flashes of white light, he channeled into them a piece of his own power. He told the four girls, their own turn to be surprised, what he had done, for them to bring joy and kindness wherever they went. They were grateful, and they soon left, promising to visit every year.
And the four did well on their promise. For the past few years, they came to hermit’s home and enjoyed the time they spent there. They would help him tend to the garden and fix the old rafters on his roof. Since gaining their new-found powers, the four sisters told stories of their travels. The hermit would laugh at their slight hiccups in using their powers and nod at how they helped people they came across, the good they brought to others.
The hermit’s musings were brought to an end by a gust of wind, so powerful his hand pressed his hat to his head. It was followed by screams of surprise, not panic, and once it passed, his eyes wandered to the three sisters, who were free of their predicaments. The fire had been put out to a wispy end, the green dress was dried, and most of the mud was removed, but the women themselves were left a little… untidy. As for Fall, she stood before them with a hand stretched out, from whence she had controlled the wind.
Fall lowered her hand and stood straight. “You have to be careful,” she cautioned. “What you just did was dangerous.”
The three younger siblings stood before their eldest, their faces were red with embarrassment. “Sorry, sis,” the long hair Summer apologized, wiping away some remaining dirt off her shirt and long hair. “We were testing if we could our powers on the garden.”
“Winter and I were testing,” snapped a dry Spring, “you just wanted to play with your fireball.”
“But you were–”
“That’s enough!” Fall cut in before Summer could finish. Once the two fell silent, she sighed. “Look, what you just did was dangerous. Using that power for a small thing is unnecessary, and worse, you could’ve hurt yourself.”
The two arguing sisters looked to each other, then at the ground. Spring, the youngest and shortest, showed more of her guilt, which she tried to hide under her wreath she had recovered from the ground. “It was a little reckless,” she admitted.
“We should have been more careful, yes, but we should’ve also been more aware of our abilities,” the collective voice of Winter, the tallest of the bunch, joined in. She managed to fix her white hair and put it back into place with her pins. “We haven’t had much time to practice, and this magic is difficult to master.”
Magic. Many before had called it that, and so did the girls, in spite of their blessed kindness. The hermit, watching the entire debacle, laughed, and it caught the attention of the small group of women.
“Is something funny?” Summer inquired, rather indignantly as she placed her hands on her hips.
The hermit held up a hand and held in a chuckle. “I’m not mocking you, just amused, that’s all,” he assured. He rested in his chair and studied their weary faces. “But I think a little rest would help. You do seem a little worked up.”
Fall’s curious stare went from the hermit to her sisters. “What do you think?”
“We have been working for a while. A little unwinding could help,” Summer said, and Winter nodded in agreement.
Spring only seemed to be against it. “But what about the garden?”
“It can wait,” the hermit told them, and a thought quickly crossed his mind. “In the meantime, how about a story?”
Four pairs of eyes went back and forth between each other, which was unsurprising for the hermit. He never told them a single story, not even when they tried to pry one or two from him. Now, however, was the best time for.
The hermit merely motioned for them to sit. “Please, take a seat,” he offered.
Slowly, the young ones strode and sat around the elder. Winter sat cross-legged in her usual meditative stance, as did Fall, albeit less restrictive, while Spring hugged her knees close to herself, and Summer spread her legs on the grass and leaning back on her hands. The hermit glanced at the wondering eyes on him, then, with a soft breath, he began.
“Water, earth, fire, and air… Long ago, these four elements were once abundant in the world. Many man and women could control one of these elements, turning them into a style of art and war. From these people, rose a nation for each element, who expanded the four corners of the globe.”
The hermit shifted in his chair, and so did his tone, taking a slow and low turn. “The four nations lived in peace, but they also were divided, not just by their elements. Many times, they would argue over many things, and this division allowed for... unsavory characters to strike. Someone, whether it’d be a mad leader of bandit, or a warlord, or even one of the four nations, would try to spread conflict in their attempt to conquer the land.”
Already, his audience, once uncertain, was now listening attentively. Good.
The hermit held up his thin index finger. “And yet, there was one could keep balance. One who could master all four elements, not just one like everyone else could. This one person was the avatar, the embodiment of balance and peace in the world, formed by the melding of human flesh in this world and the power of the spiritual plane.”
“Huh?” Spring interrupted.
“He means another world, inhabited by spirits,” Winter clarified, not noticing the hermit and his lips pursed in dismay. “Many scholars and monks believe that spirits are all around us, often coming from their own realm.”
“How come we don’t notice it?” the youngest wondered aloud.
“Perhaps you would if you allowed yourself to be in-tune with your spiritual side.”
“You mean meditate all day and do nothing else?” Summer teased.
“Well, it does work. It just takes hard concentration and some–”
The hermit’s cough turned three faces back to him. Realizing their mistakes, they silently apologized with a bow of their heads. Their sister, Fall, watched in amusement before she and her sisters went back to the hermit, who continued.
“Like I was saying…” he shot a quick glare at the unwanted interruptions before he returned to his story, “… the avatar’s power would pass from person to person, each born in one of the four nations. Time and time again, the avatars would bring peace into a chaotic world. Whether it’d mean aiding the sick or putting an end to wars and evil empires, they did everything in their power to restore balance.”
“But why?” Fall’s voice interrupted.
“Hmm?” the old eyes went to the oldest of the audience, who had a studious gleam in her eyes.
“Why would anyone want to conquer the other nations when the Avatar would always stop them?”
The hermit crossed his fingers and rested them on his lap. “Many reasons. Ambition, greed, even fear of the avatar,” Seeing confused looks on his listeners, he explained, “The avatar’s powers were beyond anything anyone could imagine; so terrifying that it could destroy entire armies, and even split entire lands apart, literally. For this, many tried to bring an end to the cycle of avatars. Once, the rulers of fire, in their conquest for power, nearly destroyed the people of air, just to prevent the next avatar from coming about. Their plans failed, of course, as the avatar eventually defeated them.”
“I see,” Fall simply said. Her gaze looked distant, almost like she pondering about something.
The rest, on the other hand, decided to speak up. “So if what you’re saying is real, how long ago was all of this?” Summer inquired.
The hermit looked to his inquirer. His ancient eyes met Summer’s glowing orbs, and he leaned forward. “And what makes you think any of what I just said was real?” he asked, deciding to humor the vibrant girl.
For Summer, another spoke. “Because you speak as if it was,” noted Winter, whose hands resting on her crossed legs. “There is a bit of sadness and weight in your voice.”
“And your eyes just gave it away,” Spring added.
The great beard thankfully, hid the hermit’s smile. How they easily caught on. “Yes, it was real. All of it,” he admitted with no amount of shame.
“But if it’s all true,” Summer said, “how come we haven’t heard of them?”
Now, the smile turned into a frown, and a wave of sorrow overcame him. It took the hermit a moment to answer, and when he did, his voice sounded was like a thousand mountains weighed upon it. “Like any great kingdom or empire, the four elemental nations fell apart,” he said wistfully. “No one really knew what really happened: war, disease, famine, perhaps a great cataclysm. What is known is that everything of that great civilization, even the powers of the elements and those ‘special individuals’ who used them, faded away… and one by one, piece by piece, those great nations were all gone.”
The hermit closed his eyes and fell into silence, as did his audience. Aside from Fall, who watched him carefully, the sisters looked to one another to speak the one thing on their minds. It came onto Spring to sprout the question: “What about the avatar?”
The four words made the hermit opened his eyes. Though sadness still lingered in him, he managed to keep his warm and soft smile. “Faded from history, for sure. I doubt there is any record about the four nations, let alone anything about the avatar. There’s not even a legend, so no one most likely would remember it.”
“No one except for you,” Winter stated, nonchalant as usual.
That brought a light chuckle out of the hermit. “Yes, except for me,” he agreed and waited for the oncoming swarm of questions.
“Then, you must have known something,” she prodded some more.
“That’s right,” Summer spoke out. “You’ve said yourself, you’ve been around for centuries.”
“Yes, but this was before my time. Centuries, maybe even millennia,” he calmly retorted. “I can only tell stories, bits and pieces, nothing more.”
“But our powers, they ought to come from somewhere.” That was Spring, composed like Winter and Summer.
The hermit exhaled a tiny breath through his nostrils, barely noticeable to anyone else, and his eyes wandered around the three sisters, their need for answers in their own eyes. The hermit kept his mask against their piercing gazes, and a quiet standoff pursued. It was an uneasy stalemate with no end in sight.
Or it would have been had Fall not raise her voice. “Sisters, that’s enough,” she told them. “Noon will be here soon. We should get the food ready.”
All eyes went around to see she spoke the truth. The sun was nearing its zenith, and upon seeing it, the hermit pushed himself off his armrests. “Yes, we should,” he stood from his chair, catching everyone’s attention. “I am feeling a little hungry.”
Spring frowned. “But you didn’t really do anything,” she pointed out.
The hermit grabbed his cane and steadied his legs. “When you reach my age, you’ll find yourself doing less and needing more,” he said in a playful tone, “and that includes needing more food.”
A playful shake of their heads, and the sisters rose. Fall stood where she was and waited for her old friend to join her. Once he was beside her, the two of them watched the others went their own separate ways to prepare for the meal.
“Thank you for that,” the hermit whispered, low enough for only Fall and himself to hear. “I don’t think I would’ve lasted for long.”
“You’re welcome,” whispered a smiling Fall.
The hermit rested his hands on his cane and leaned on it. The three women went about his front yard , tending to their own duties, and the old one felt happy at the sight. Despite some of their questions left unanswered, the sisters looked as joyful as when he first met them. It never seemed to bother them, not in the slightest.
At last, Fall’s tone breezed into his ear. “I am curious...” He turned, seeing her staring off into nothingness. “... when you gave us those powers, how did you do it?”
The hermit held another smile for Fall’s pinpoint perception. “An old technique,” he responded, “far older than the avatar and the elements. What it was, well...” His voice trailed away for many seconds.
In that time, Fall never spoke a word. The hermit knew her well enough to know she had more than her fair share of answers. So when she spoke, she asked a different question: “Do you regret it?”
The question turned his face away, hiding an expression that was as solemn as his voice. “Sometimes, I almost do. You may help people, but your powers will attract attention from all over. You will be persecuted and hunted by some, and praised by others. For all the good you and your sisters will do, there will be evil that will match it. When I think that, I fear I put a burden on you four.”
“... And other times?” she added the question after a short pause.
This time, he happily said, “Other times, I hope.”
The hermit did not need to see Fall to know her gaze was on him. He could tell what was on her mind, and he opened his mouth to answer her unspoken question.
Fall and the hermit turned their heads. Spring waited ahead with Summer and Winter waiting beside her. She waved a thin arm, and shouted, “Are you two coming or what?!”
“We’ll be there!” Fall called back. She shot a glance to the hermit. “Are you coming?”
“Yes, yes. Best not to keep them waiting,” he laughed, hobbling over to his young friends with Fall.
“Other times, I hope... ” the hermit’s words echoed in his mind.
His old joints squeaked on each step, and his hands slightly trembled around his cane. Coming closer, many more words came to him: “Since the four nations ended, there is darkness that has appeared in this world and may soon strike.”
The hermit’s foot slipped and he stumbled, barely catching himself from falling. Staring down brown dirt and green grass, he let out a sigh of relief.
“The avatars of past have done their part for the world. They can do nothing more to face it.”
Laughter filled the air, and he glanced all around him. Winter’s tranquil pose calmed his spirits, Spring’s spryly legs sprinted towards him, Summer’s warm smile was there to greet him, and Fall’s presence was at his side to guide him. He welcomed it all with a smile.
“Now, there are four women, with untold power, who can carry on their work. Four maidens, who have so much to learn.”
Just as Spring’s hands wrapped around an arm, Summer too joined, grabbing his other arm. In less than a second, the hermit was being dragged over to his bountiful garden. Winter and Fall followed behind, laughing at the slight ‘misfortune’ of their friend. The hermit himself laughed along as he walked with the four maidens.
“But I believe the four of them will one day save the world, just as they saved me.”