“Easy is the descent to hell, for the door to the underworld lies open both day and night.
But to retrace your steps and return to the air above—that is the task, that is the toil.”
“Death twitches my ear; ‘Live,’ he says. ‘For I am coming.’”
IT BEGAN WITH a tug at his navel, and suddenly he was being thrown up into the air. The icy wind sung in his ears as he sailed, like ephemeral music curling around his thoughts. When he finally reached the pinnacle, he exhaled, watching as his breath clouded and crystallised in the air.
There was an annoying pulse beating at the back of his eyes, like the percussion of war drums, and his vision blurred. Then there was this sharp, hot pain in his throat; drops of blood burst before his eyes and fanned out like delicate red tendrils. He gasped for air, but all he could do was gargle; tiny red bubbles surfaced and stained his lips.
It felt as though he was being pulled in another direction—out onto the edge of something terrifying, over a cliff he could not climb out of. The music in his ears changed, its final notes becoming shrill and tinny. The beating of the war drums only grew louder, deafening and incessant. They would not stop; they would only burn like a tattoo on his heart until—
INSIDE THE CAVE was no warmer than it was outside in the vast, frozen tundra. But it was relatively dry here, free from the icy wind that howled all too close to her ears.
Katara poked aimlessly at the fire with a stick while the storm raged its ceaseless anger, filling the opening of the cave with yet another fresh blanket of snow. The sky had become dark and the cave too, save the flickering fire at her feet that cast dancing shadows along the wall.
It had taken a few minutes but her heart had finally stopped racing. It was a relief to breathe normally again, no longer having to suck the air into her lung in short gasps. She felt oddly calm; huddled around the fire as the light from the flames rolled over her face and hair, giving her features a rusted, haunted glow.
His body lay cold beside her; his mouth was open in a faint O of shock. His hair was already drying; some strands had fallen loose from the knot, feathering over his closed eyes in wisps. That fair skin of his, that fine black hair, that painful red scar—everything was so stark and contrast, calling out to her.
He looks so young, she thought. He looked so young.
The fire hissed at her feet, creating its own melody with the burning wood. It popped and crackled, and she shivered, drawing her coat tightly about herself as she awkwardly shuffled away from the body. She was dressed warmly, but it was the North Pole and the night (or was it day now?) was cold.
A pack of wolves howled in the distance, and she shuddered. She had no idea how to get back to the city from here on her own, but she reckoned someone would come for her soon. Truth be told, she didn’t want to go back quite yet. She couldn’t, anyway. Not with him, not with the body.
She hugged her knees to her chest and glanced down at Zuko—so still, so motionless. Her eyes began to water and she quickly turned away.
The sky pulsed a dull red and she caught a glimpse of the moon hanging blood red behind the clouds. Something was wrong. She could feel it. She wondered if her brother and Aang were okay, and on the heels of a second set of howls she realised that it was not wolves she heard but the screaming of people from the frozen city below. Frightened screams carrying on the wind; fear was in the air. People were afraid. People were dying.
Katara’s stomach churned in fear. She should run outside to see what was going on. She should abandon the cave’s protection and help her friends. But the body beside her refused to let her leave. It weighed her down like the guilt in her heart so she could not move.
Yes, people were dying.
Katara should know; she had also killed today.
She turned back to the fire, blinking back the tears that had once again threatened to well. Her mind strayed as she stared at the bright red fire, hypnotised by the dancing flames. She remembered thinking that they would have been safer staying at the Spirit Oasis, but she was wrong—dead wrong . . .
“WELL,” A SARCASTIC voice drawled, “aren’t you a big girl now.”
Katara turned towards the familiar voice in dawning horror. “No!”
The fire prince slowly made his way down the steps. His hair was dark, pulled back in an unkempt ponytail as rebel strands broke free in wisps about his face. There were deep black circles beneath his eyes; the right one was bruised. He already looked beaten and exhausted. But those same golden eyes were just as bright and keen as she remembered them, and they were fixed solely on her.
His nostrils flared and his mouth worked into a thin scowling line, the muscles pinching painfully at the red scar that stretched all the way to his left ear. Despite the scar his face was incredibly pale, whiter than any face she could ever remember seeing.
His face scared her.
“Yes,” Zuko rasped. “Now hand him over and I won’t have to hurt you.”
Katara hadn’t even noticed that Yue had already run away. All of her attention was fixed on the enemy in front of her. Their eyes locked for an instant and Zuko’s bright golden irises briefly shifted to a meditating Aang, eyeing him as though he was some sort of prize. Katara swallowed back the sick, frozen feeling swimming in her gut and deliberately shifted her body into a defensive stance, ready for anything.
Zuko was the first to move, leaping down the stairs as he kicked up his leg, sending a wide arc of fire her way. Next he moved with his fists, striking out like a boxer with rapid, successive movements.
Turning back and forth, Katara drew from the spring and met Zuko’s every volley of fire with a wall of water, narrowly dodging the deadly flames. Then she gathered her chi into a tight cord and drew water from the pool again, shooting the powerful stream in his face. The force from the blast sent Zuko flying backwards and he twisted in the air before falling to the ground with a listless thud.
“I see you’ve learned a new trick,” he said as he lifted himself back up to his feet, spitting the water out of his mouth. “But I didn’t come this far to lose to you.”
Whirling around, Zuko fired another blast. Katara blocked it easily, summoning yet another shield of water. The water hissed at the contact of his fire, but she pressed on, trying to drive him back.
She wasn’t scared; not anymore. She felt the same as if she got caught at the top of a very high tree and there was nothing to do but just climb back down the best way should could. It was a dead calm feeling. And though she had no idea where Zuko’s next attack would come from, Katara knew that she could deflect his every attack. In fact, she met and matched his every thrust, even surpassing him.
Now she was pivoting, using the momentum of the water to encircle and ensnare the prince. The avalanche of water blinded him, reeling him back towards the icy walls. Each jet collided into him, never missing, and even as he attempted to steady himself from another impact, small juts of ice formed around his feet.
Katara’s arms were moving fluidly through the air, gathering speed until they were whirling, forming the water into a giant ball with Zuko trapped inside it. There was a loud snap followed by a series of pops and crackles as the water quickly froze over, encasing the prince in the ice. Large silver drops of water scattered all around her, hovering in the air, and Katara smirked triumphantly.
“You little peasant!” Zuko spat indignantly from inside his icy prison. “You’ve found a master, haven’t you?”
The globule of ice began to glow a bright orange with heat and the ground around them rumbled. Katara ducked as the ice trapping Zuko exploded into a thousand shards. He was already on his feet; he had broken free. Though tired and out of breath he somehow looked strong, fanning the fire hot and bright as he resumed his attack.
This time there was an unmasked fury to his assault, rage pounding in his fists and feet as he volleyed the fire. Wave after wave, Katara countered his attacks. She could feel the pressure drum in her ears and she became relentless too, building momentum as she went.
Now they were directly in front of each other, so close she could feel him trembling with white-hot rage. Her fists tightened painfully enough to crack, and suddenly they were launching themselves at each other in this now familiar battle for control in the midst of the chaos they had created. Fire licked, water roared, and steam rose from the ground, from their clothes, from their skin.
Drawing a thick jet of water from the pool, Katara continued to deflect his attacks. She was prepared to strike when Zuko manages to slip past, skin grazing against skin. She turned in horror to see his fingers grasp at Aang’s collar.
Now there was a fire burning in her own chest and she roared out, striking Zuko with a mean blast of water that sent him tottering. With a deliberate flick and rounded arc of her wrists, she summoned forth a monstrous wave from the spring and threw it at Zuko with all she had, knocking him upside the icy walls of the cliff. Her fingers curled and the water froze, pinning him against the wall and encasing him in ice once more.
Katara backed up towards Aang, her arms still raised in case the Fire Prince should attack. But Zuko’s head hung limply to the side, his chin resting on the ice. She let out a shaky breath of relief and lowered her guard. She turned to look at Aang; thankfully, he was all right.
She glanced up at the sky to see that it was almost dawn. The early morning sky was a deep, silky blue and the moon had turned from silver to white. All was still. The only sound was her breathing and the gentle ripples of the waters as the fish swam in circles in the pond. Then she saw it—the flash of the sun peeking over the horizon—and suddenly she felt fear.
A scream of fury erupted from behind her, and she whirled around in shock. Instinct took over and she tried to deflect the inevitable fire blast with a water shield, but it was too late. The force from Zuko’s fire sent her flying backwards and she slammed into a tree. Dizzy, her vision dimmed as the sun burned brightly behind the silhouette of the Fire Prince who was now looming over her. He was holding Aang up by the collar.
“You rise with moon,” Zuko said roughly. “I rise with the sun.”
Vision fading, Katara shook her head and yelled out. But there were no words. She could not speak, could not move. It was no use. It was like yelling at a dam that was breaking; she could not prevent the inevitable flood. And with Zuko’s words still ringing in her ears, Katara slowly drifted into darkness.
“I CAN’T BELIEVE I lost him.”
It was all she could think of the moment she woke up: she lost Aang and now their enemy had him. The Avatar was vulnerable, and it was all her fault.
“You did everything you could,” Sokka gently assured her. “And now we need to do everything we can to get him back.” She glanced up at her brother, tears shining in her eyes. “Besides, Zuko can’t have gotten far. We’ll find him. Aang’s gonna be fine.”
He was right; and though she’d never admit it, he almost always was. This was no time for her to wallow in self-pity. They had to find Aang, so she rose to her feet and nodded confidently. “Okay.”
Jumping aboard Appa, the three teenagers immediately took to flight, looking for Aang and the Fire Prince. But as they climbed high above the protective walls of the oasis, the frozen tundra unveiled before them was a vast and unforgiving terrain. A blizzard raged, obscuring both sky and land, but Appa would not be discouraged and neither would they.
“Don’t worry,” Princess Yue told Katara encouragingly. “Prince Zuko can’t be getting too far in this weather.”
“I’m not worried they’ll get away in the blizzard,” Katara intoned softly, looking down at a large crack of ice on the tundra below. “I’m worried that they won’t.”
“They’re not going to die in this blizzard!” Sokka said, exasperated. “If we know anything, it’s that Zuko never gives up.” His grip on the reins tightened as he blinked through the howling storm. “They’ll survive, and we’ll find them.”
Again, Sokka was right. Zuko never gave up, and as long as he was alive so was Aang. Katara just had to be as patient and determined as her enemies. For it was patience and discipline she lacked; all her life Katara had known this strongly.
She was a passionate person and her passion and her beliefs were why she fought. In her heart she knew her cause was the noble one, the right thing to do. Even through all the toil and the heartache she had endured she knew it would all be worth it. At the end of the day she was happy in the knowledge that her life had purpose. And at the end of the day she knew she would find Aang alive. She just had to be patient and dedicated, like Zuko.
Suddenly through the thick grey-white blizzard Katara saw it: a wide arc of bright-blinding energy cutting upwards through the air. “Look!” she yelled, following the light with her finger. “That’s gotta be Aang! Yip yip!”
Sokka immediately pulled on Appa’s reins, and the sky bison banked a hard left, following the light as it sped across the sky and landed on the ground below. Soon the light was lost and so were they, searching for any sign of Aang. Shortly thereafter the monk himself came barrelling out of what looked to be a cave buried in snow. His entire body was bound in rope and Zuko was already on top of him, pulling him up by the collar.
“Appa!” Aang happily cried at the sight of the sky bison and his friends.
Appa quickly landed and Katara slid off, ready to face Zuko yet again. During these past few months of travelling with Aang and constantly fleeing from Zuko and the Fire Nation, there had arisen within Katara this black, terrible feeling. It wrestled with her very spirit. There was hatred for the teenager standing in front of her. How could this prince be so cavalier in his destruction? How could he not see the evil in what he was doing?
“Here for a rematch?” Zuko let go of Aang and raised his hands in a defensive-offensive manner. He already looks tired and beaten, more so than before.
“Trust me Zuko—” Katara effortlessly blocked his fire attack before gathering an avalanche of snow and ice “—it’s not going to be much of a match.”
The plan was to launch him up into the air with snow and ice before allowing him to plummet to the ground. But with just the slightest miscalculation and haphazard slip of her wrist, the ice she had meant to encase him in shattered, breaking off into a dozen deadly shards that fanned out and inwards. A blade of ice the length of her finger spun in, slicing across Zuko’s throat like a warm knife carving through butter.
Horrified, Katara screamed; stretching out her hand as though she could catch him. But she was helpless, unable to do anything but watch the entire scene unfold in front of her as if it was happening in slow motion. She watched as his face contorted in shock and then crumpled; watched as blood spurts from his neck and landed like crimson tears beneath his fading eyes; watched as his body fell with a thud onto the snow and ice beneath his feet; watched as he disappeared beneath that snow without protest, his body twitching while he died.
When she finally realised what had happened, when she finally gathered air into her lungs, she glanced up to see Aang staring at her with clouded, mystical eyes. He wasn’t looking at Zuko. He was looking at her, as if to ask her what she had done.
What had she done?
Sokka was already running towards Aang, untying his knots while the young airbender numbly stared ahead at the lifeless body half-buried in the snow. Katara hadn’t even noticed that her legs were already moving, stumbling across the tundra before she was kneeling in front of the fallen prince.
She turned him over and checked for a pulse, but his face was already that deathly pale colour, whiter than the snow. The only colour was the red scar on his face and the blood-stained snow beneath him.
But she wouldn’t give up on him that easily, not Katara. Maybe she only knocked him out, she reasoned. So she summoned a thin stream of water and placed it over Zuko’s torn neck, watching the liquid glow a pale blue. She closed her eyes and breathed in, concentrating. But she felt nothing. The chi in his body was gone. There was nothing left.
“Katara . . .” a distant voice called out to her. “Katara!”
A strong hand clamped down on her shoulder, squeezing gently. She opened her eyes and glances up. Her brother was looking down at her with such sad blue eyes. How long had she been kneeling in the snow with her eyes closed?
“It’s too late, Katara,” he said slowly. “I’m sorry.”
She looked back down at Zuko; his lifeless golden eyes were staring up at her. She let go of the water, watching it wash away the blood on his neck, and took in a shuddering breath.
No, she hadn’t just knocked him out. The body lying in front of her was dead. Dark-haired Zuko, who looked as though at any moment he would wake up and choke out the frozen water in his lungs, coughing and spluttering indignantly. But he didn’t; he wouldn’t. He never would again.
No, no, no, no! Her mind was screaming, yelling over and over again. It was like her head had broken off from her body and had been thrown away. She couldn’t stop screaming.
But this was how it was, right?
Right. This was how it was.
She turned to see the young monk crying silently beside her. It was almost unnoticeable. He stood very still and the tears rolled down his pale cheeks without protest. Katara felt a vice in her heart tighten, and she looked away. She could not dwell on why he was crying or it would make her cry too, and she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to stop once she started.
“Katara, we have to go.” It was Aang speaking now. His voice was soft and tremulous. She knew he didn’t want to leave Zuko there, but he was the Avatar and he had his duty. “We have to go back to the Spirit Oasis.”
“Go,” she said quietly. Her eyes were still fixed on the snow-white prince covered in blood. “I’ll stay here.”
“Katara,” Sokka spoke up, insistent. “We can come back for the bo—”
“I said I’m staying!” She didn’t bother to turn around, didn’t bother to look her brother in the eye.
Aang and Sokka stood silently beside her for a moment. They knew her words were final, her tone brooking no argument. And so they eventually turned away, leaving her with Zuko without protest. They took off into the air, and she was left alone.
Her hands began to tremble and her bowels seemed weighted with lead. She hesitantly reached down with her palm to gently shut the eyes of the sleeping prince—or at least that was what he looked to be doing. But this prince would never wake from his slumber.
The storm raged and roared around her, and Katara huddled around Zuko’s body for warmth. She waited for the black terror to come, as though waiting for some beast out of the night to attack her. But it did not come. Instead there was a sort of descent, as though she was falling into the black depths of nothingness, until she finally touched the solid bottom of despair—and now there was nowhere else to go.
THE CLOUDS OUTSIDE had turned an angry shade of red, and there was the smell of a storm in the air, much larger and more dangerous than the one currently brewing outside.
Katara involuntarily shuddered, pulling her coat about her as she shuffled towards the fire. She was all alone now, despite the audience of Zuko’s corpse, which she had dug out of the snow and dragged into the cave with her. She didn’t have to stay behind with his body; she could have waited in the cave alone, but she was desperate for company of any kind—desperate to face what she had done.
But where were the others? Were they still fighting? Do they care that she hadn’t joined them? Did they think she was dead, too? Maybe she was. Maybe that’s her body lying on the snow, no longer breathing.
The thought turned her stomach and she retched until there was nothing left. It felt as though she was purging her soul, and there was an emptiness inside her that she could not fill. It hurts. She could neither look ahead or behind because all she could see was the present; all she could see was the dead boy lying beside her, the dead boy she had killed. And there was no way to come back from this, no way to easily absolve her guilt—guilt that threatened to consume her whole.
Katara rubbed the back of her hand across her mouth, wiping away the spittle and bile, and choked back a pitiful sob. This was the way things were, she told herself, and she couldn’t change them. She couldn’t bring Zuko back from the dead; she couldn’t change his fate no more than she could change her own.
Turning back towards the fire, she watched as the flames danced before her eyes, hypnotising her. She yawned, trying to shake off the tiredness in her bones, but it was no use. Sleep beckoned her.
She stretched out across the snow-packed ground, shifting until her head was at Zuko’s feet. She buried her chin inside her coat for warmth and closed her eyes, waiting for the numb blackness of unconsciousness to take over. She could already feel the sodden heaviness filtering into her muscles, weighing her down until she could no longer move.
It was on the cusp of slumber when unrepentant thoughts assailed her, seeming to petition answers from the gods themselves. How could she carry on from here? How could she act as though nothing had happened? Why did she not just rest here upon the bottom of her utmost despair?
She did not know it yet, but in the great scheme of things none of these questions really mattered. What was meaningful was the guilt that resided deep in her heart, speaking to her of a task she had to undertake.
Even now all was not lost, her heart told her, and without question she believed that voice, willingly obeyed and followed it into the unknown. Maybe it was a fool’s hope she possessed, but she had already taken the plunge.
IT ENDED WHERE it began, in nothingness.
Whispering images unlocked inside his mind; unfettered, he veered out of time and space. A soul no longer bound, touched by others but never held, he drifted along a course charted by some unseen hand. The journey ahead promised him no more than his past reflected back upon him, having to once more endure the shame. Until at last he reached the end of that invisible coil and faced a truth he could no longer deny.
He was as alone as ever.