He sat at the kitchen table, alone in the near-darkness. A dull light had slipped into the room between the steel bars of the window, painting crooked lines across his face. The Lieutenant's head was bent and his eyes, fixed upon the Khali sticks he was holding in his hands. He stared incredulously at his weapons, as though he questioned their very existence.
I did not dare to walk in. I stood in the doorway, searching for the courage to speak to him. He was aware of my presence, but did nothing about it. Like he had drifted far, far away into indifference.
"It is very late, Lieutenant," was all that I could say to break the silence.
Not taking his eyes off the Khali sticks, the Lieutenant replied:
"Tell me, Amon. Did you... did you ever use hypnosis on me?"
His voice was soft and melodic, like his words had been the verses of a song.
"No," I answered. "I never needed to."
He closed his eyes and exhaled.
"So I have served you well."
He rose, interrupting me.
"You're right. It is rather late. I better get some rest now, my leader."
"Listen to me," I said. "When I told you of my illumination, I... left something out."
"Good night," he insisted.
Oh my mortal, human weakness. It was all it took to dissuade me. To stop me from saving him. Part of me had wanted to tell him, to let him know that what he had done that day was not his fault. That his regret was not to be supressed. I could have told him that his leader was not the pure, irreproachable man he had admired for so long. But I could not do it. I preferred to leave things as they were, for deep down I selfishly hoped the Lieutenant would help me please the spirits, whatever their true goals, so that I could one day be free.
I had indeed begun to suspect that they did not share my ideals. That the spirits wanted something more than a world without benders. What I had done to the Lieutenant had been allowed by them. They had not stopped me. Perhaps they had even helped me. The possibility that my cause had been used by them, used for their own purposes, revolted and despaired me. I could not accept such an idea, despite all my doubts. I needed to hear it from them.
But as I walked to my room, it was the snake from the mountain who spoke to me again.
"You couldn't do it, could you? He was so close to release. But you like seeing people being held captive, don't you? It makes you feel less alone."
I should have killed you when I had the chance, Tao.
"But I am dead, Amon. Don't you understand? My soul belongs to them now. I wanted to become the greatest illusionist that had ever lived. What did you give them in exchange for your powers?"
So you are in the spirit world.
"Yes, that I am. I will never reincarnate. I am trapped here, I am their slave. And so are you."
No. I have the chance to prove myself to them.
"Do you not wonder how it is that you can communicate with me? That you can hear my voice in your head, slave? You are not even meditating."
I stopped and placed a hand on the wall of the corridor, balance eluding me.
"You are bound to them. Can you not feel the chains, pulling you? Hear them, how they rattle. You are linked to the spirit world. It is as though you were half-way here and half-way there. Stretched out between two overlapping realms. You hear me, because they do. What did you give them, slave?"
I told them that they could do what they pleased with me. That they could mold me according to their will.
"And you gave them your body. You will be the first of your kind."
What do you mean? I know that I am to become like them if they see it fit. To live forever, as the terror of benders.
"Oh, yes, but more, much more than that. You are an experiment. An abomination. Six different beings, stitched together in a body of eternal fire. But why ask me? Ask them."
How do I find them? You say that I am in direct contact with the spirit world, yet all I hear is you.
"You need not search for them in the spirit world. Look deep within, slave. Find them, speak to them, for a part of each of them lives in you."
The light that had flooded me in the desert. All this time, they had been with me, and I had been blind to it. Blind to the evil cradled inside me.
I stumbled towards my room, and there, I immediately sat on the floor in the lotus pose. I took off my mask and cast it aside to wipe the sweat off my face with my sleeve. I touched my mouth and felt the scars. I was still myself, but somehow it felt like my body was slowly dying. What were they doing to me?
Tao spoke again, from the depths of the unearthly prison he now called his home.
"They wanted me to create illusions that would bring chaos into the world. But I disobeyed. And the world rejected me anyway."
I shut my eyes, trying in vain to block him out.
"I had a chance to redeem myself. A chance for revenge. When you came to the mountain, they told me. They told me to make you my apprentice. To reel you in. But here I am, despite my loyalty."
I am not like you, Tao. They said that I could be free if I rid the world of bending on my own. I still have time. They will only transform me if they conclude that I cannot do it as a man. I can still earn death. I am so close.
"Deceivers. You shall be their vessel."
There was a moment of silence. I felt myself drifting away in meditation, sailing towards the center of my being. Where the spirits had begun to live, like silent invaders. I would speak to them, and they would answer all my questions.
I heard Tao's voice once last time before I finally reached the shore.
"Amon, what do our masters thrive on?"
And soon, all was revealed to me.