I saw them coming, saw them half a mile away.
She didn’t need to be here. I should have hidden her. Hidden both of us.
I thought I could protect her. We couldn’t run. Where would we go?
So this is the price of an island paradise… no escape…
Aang lay still, his eyes closed. He did not want to open them.
A cold something slithered over his face. He shivered, but refused to open his eyes. Why, he could not say. Only that he knew that when he did, he would not like what he'd see.
Avatar, we need your help...
It is your duty...
The voices became more eerie, more insistent. The cold drifting things brushed over his arms and shoulders, raising goose bumps all over his body.
Oh, for gods’ sake... HEY AVATAR!
The shout came so loudly in his ear that Aang jumped straight up from his prone position on the hard ground. He looked around in panic.
"I... I'm in the Spirit Realm..." It came out more of a question. But the Avatar's spiritual sensitivity told him this wasn't the Spirit Realm at all. It was colder, harder, yet more dreamlike.
As he glanced around him, he yelped.
Ghosts! Not spirits, but wraiths, the degrading shadows of the formerly living. He was surrounded by them, hundreds of unrecognizable human forms, hollow-eyed phantoms, their ghostly flesh peeling away from their skulls, their shredded spectral clothing fluttering on a non-existent breeze.
But that wasn’t all. The forms of other creatures - bears, cats, badgers, and things he couldn't recognize, all drifted about, moaning or grunting or making ghastly animal noises.
One hideous figure approached, a man in Fire Nation armour.
"Waaaahh!" Aang leapt away and into a cluster of long-haired wraith women. Their misty forms felt like spider webs clinging to his skin and he panicked, brushing them off with flailing arms.
A strange quadruped creature came snuffling along, grunting and screeching hollowly. Aang backed away in terror.
"Oh will you bunch stop scaring the poor boy and let me talk to him?" A rough voice shouted in exasperation.
Aang turned. The other wraiths parted to reveal a single ghost, oddly dressed in leggings, high boots, and a knee-length tunic. His salt-and-pepper hair was bushy and stuck out at odd angles. He was mostly whole, except for a gaping hole in the centre of his chest.
"Wh-What... who are you?" Aang stammered, backing away.
"My name's Fonquay. Lord Fonquay. How do you do?" The mostly-whole (mostly hole!) ghost tipped an imaginary hat. Aang wasn't sure whether or not to laugh. It just wasn't kind to laugh at the dead.
"I'm Aang," he introduced himself hesitantly. "Listen, I know I'm the link between the Spirit Realm and the land of the living and all, but this isn’t the Spirit Realm I’m used to. Where am I, and how'd I get here?"
"Ah, you're a bright one! I can see that now." Fonquay said. "You're right about this not being the Spirit Realm. We who live here have no name for it..." The strange wraith intoned spookily. “...And let me tell you, it’s hard to tell folks where you’re from when there’s no name for it.”
Aang stared at him quietly. A stray ghost in the distance coughed.
"Sorry, hanging out with this bunch tends to make you a little weird after a couple hundred years."
Just a little? Aang thought, eyeing the strange ghost man up and down.
“You’re in what I like to call the In-Between,” Lord Fonquay continued. “It’s not anywhere close to the Spirit Realm, but it’s a whole ’nother world away from where you come from.”
Aang looked around. He was not standing in the camp as he would have been if he were in the Spirit Realm. Here, the space the specters filled seemed to be a grey mass of fog. He could see no horizon, only the never-ending clouds of translucent bodies hovering inches above the ground.
At least in the Spirit Realm, there was a change of scenery. Since it co-existed with the realm of the living, you could move around the world and see new things without suffering the laws of physics and boundaries of the real world. Here, there was nothing but greyness.
“I don’t understand. Are you all… uh…” Aang hesitated.
“Dead as a doornail, my young friend,” Fonquay announced. He grinned and bent to whisper lowly in his ear. “It’s okay to say it to me, though some of the folk here prefer the term ‘Living Impaired.’”
“Oh.” For a second time, Aang wasn’t sure whether or not to laugh at the “Living Impaired”.
“Here’s the thing, Avatar,” the ghost Lord sat as much as his floating body would allow him. Aang followed suit. “We’re all tired of being here, and want to move on. This place is big, but it’s getting a little crowded, as you can see. We need your help to leave this place.”
“How did you get here?” Aang asked.
Fonquay folded his arms, thinking. “That’s a long story. Let me try and shorten it for you.”
“A long time ago, before the four nations were formed, the peoples of this world lived in bitter rivalries against one another. Villages fought each other, brother against brother, element against element. War and violence and intolerance were the only things people knew. Progress was slow, and life meant staying alive for another day to fight.
“The Water Tribe villages in the south warred with each other just as much as the Fire Nation cities warred with each other. And that is where our story begins.
“A young southern Waterbending woman who hated the wars left her homeland to seek a place where there would be no more cruelty or pain or violence. She took a small and sturdy boat and sailed north, never turning back, hoping to find some place she could call home.
“After a long and arduous journey, she found this island. It was paradise, warm, uninhabited, and virtually untouched by the wars raging around her. Here, she made her new peaceful home.
“Some time later, while she lived on the island, she received a permanent guest: a young man from the Fire Nation cities. He, too, had stolen away on his own boat, seeking refuge from the never-ending wars of his fiery homelands. The two fell in love at first sight, and together they made their home on the island.
“Sadly, paradise did not last. The young man was a noble warlord’s son and heir, and was slated to take control of his father’s army when the great warlord passed on.
“The young man wanted no such life for himself, wanted nothing to do with the war, so he had slipped away in the night, promising never to return. Unfortunately for him, a crafty and ambitious general had the warlord’s son followed to the island. The General wanted to lead the army himself, and become the second in line for the warlord’s great fortune and power.
“After only a few short months together, the water woman and fire man were seized by the general and his troops. They executed the noble warlord’s son and would return with his ashes, claiming the boy had drowned. They were going to take the exotic-looking woman back with them as a present to the warlord, but in her grief and anger, she cursed them all, and with mighty Waterbending skills the likes you can barely imagine, she drowned them, taking her own life with theirs.”
Aang gaped. “That’s terrible,” he said. “So… why are you here?”
“There’s more to this story, young Avatar. Be patient please.” Fonquay assured.
“The young couple lived on the island’s main mountain by a lake. This is where they built their home, their lives. It was this lake the water woman used to drown the General’s soldiers.
“But she didn’t just drown the men: oh no, that would have been far too lenient a punishment. The water she bent crushed them to a pulp, liquefied them, if you will. And when their armour was nothing but sand, and their metal weapons turned into sparkling confetti, she froze them into one giant glacier, cursing them to suffer for eternity together. Yup, one big, bloody, meaty glacier.”
“Bleach! Gross!” Aang squirmed, screwing up his face. He was suddenly glad the iceberg he had been trapped in for the last hundred years was meat-free.
“Of course, the woman didn’t know her curse would be so powerful. As time went on, the glacier melted to reform the lake, but any creature that drank from it would pass into the In-Between. Here, that is,” Fonquay gestured around him. “That’s how I got here, two hundred or so years ago. I was traveling around, exploring the world, and I came upon this island and found the remnants of the couple's cabin. I took a bath and drank from the lake and next thing I know, poof! Here I am.”
“So, all these people here are people that have been to the island and drank the water?” Aang asked.
“More specifically, they’re all benders. For some reason, non-benders aren’t affected by this curse. It might be because all the soldiers were Firebenders, but I can’t say for sure.”
Aang chewed his lower lip in thought. “Wait a sec. I didn’t drink any water.”
Fonquay stopped him. “Let me tell you some things about this curse first, Avatar. One: the glacial lake in the mountain is cursed. Anyone who drinks directly from it will immediately die and come to this place.
“Two: the glacier has been passing through the rock and earth of the mountain. This filtration process has weakened the potency of the curse in the water, but it is still very dangerous. The cursed glacial water runs like poisoned blood throughout this island, feeding the trees and flowers and—”
“The berries!” Aang exclaimed, eyes wide. “Am I going to…?”
“Don’t worry, Avatar, I think you’re a special case. Though I imagine you’re going to have a mighty headache, maybe a bit of a stomach ache. And maybe some difficulties… but never mind that…”
Another thought struck him hard. “Katara! She was going to wash and get drinking water before I fell asleep! What if she…?”
“What if I what, Aang?” Katara floated up next to him, a sad smile on her face.