Wood and Metal
A sequel to Avatar: The Legend of Korra redefining the balance of the elements.
(This story presumes the events of How The Legend Korra Should Have Gone, but doesn't really depend on them).
Book I: Wood
Over the first century of the New Age of the Avatar, the Foggy Swamp of the southern mainland has grown increasingly dry after decades of drought; though still considerably wetter than the desert lands to the north, the stagnant ground water has largely given way to a network of rivers dividing lush soil, and the Foggy Swamp has transformed instead into what came to be called the Cloud Forest.
Into this Cloud Forest, a boy named Senze (森泽) was born, 62 years after Harmonic Convergence. Descended from the line of the renowned plantbender Huu, his ancestors had all been strong waterbenders and especially strong plantbenders. But his branch of that family tree saw heavy interbreeding with recent Earthen immigrants over the past two generations, and Senze seemed for much of his youth to be a non-bender, presumedly due to that dilution. This made him a bit of a second-class citizen among his people, both being of foreign blood and especially being a non-bender on top of that. While not alone in this predicament, his other peers, the other non-benders and Earthen immigrants, generally tried to insert themselves into the culture of the Swampers (as they still considered themselves), even as that culture tried to reject them. But Senze shunned the mainstream of his culture in turn, just as it shunned him; so unlike the backwater yokels around him, he became a quiet introspective boy who took his joys in wandering the forest and escaping into the limited selection of books that were occasionally traded with the neighboring people, both the Earth states to the north, and especially with the Southern Water Tribe, the Swampers' closest relatives and allies outside the vast wilderness of the Cloud Forest in which they were otherwise isolated.
Despite a lifetime of being written off as a non-bender, when Senze reached his late teens he came to a sort of epiphany while reading beneath the great Banyan Tree, as though the plants themselves called out to him and showed him how to bend them. His family excitedly enlisted the instruction of the local waterbenders to begin teaching Senze, now that it was clear he had bending potential, but despite their best efforts they could not teach him even more rudimentary forms of waterbending. Senze showed little interest in it anyway, having written waterbending off as the domain of the type of person he did not admire — the yokels who were most of his countrymen, who shunned and mocked him — and instead he admired the living things of the forest and the connection with them that he found in plantbending.
Senze felt a similar connection, as he did with the plants, to the energy within animals, and wondered sometimes if that could be bent the same; but knowing that bloodbending was extremely taboo, he refrained from experimenting with it. His talent at plantbending quickly grew to exceptional levels, which temporarily made him more popular despite his weird lack of any other waterbending talent. But as the swamp grew dryer still year after year, the drought that had already drained the swamp accelerating, people began to notice something strange about his plantbending: he was able to bend even dry vines and branches that no other plantbender could. In fact he found dry wood easier to bend than wet, live plants; he described the dry wood as "lighter", and would often be seen reading a book hands-free, holding its dry, heavy, papery bulk aloft, and even turning the pages, with his bending abilities alone.
When Senze is twenty years old, he has an incident with some of the larger and more dominant of his peers, who harass and assault him for his strangeness, mocking him for being a "woodbender", with homosexual innuendo intended; and in the fight, in broad daylight, Senze resorts to that connection he can feel to the energy in the other boys' bodies, and bends their bodies to a standstill in self-defense. None are injured, but an emergency council of tribal elders is convened to investigate the matter, and his family and the elders of the tribe put a word out among the traders of the Southern Water Tribe that a master waterbender is sought to examine and train, and if necessary to control, a possibly dangerous abnormal bloodbender in their Cloud Forest.
In short order, a master waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe, an old man in his 70s named Anshui (暗水), arrives with a Southern Water Tribe trading party, and offers to examine and instruct Senze and evaluate his abilities. To the rest of the tribe he promises to assess any threat posed by Senze, but to Senze himself he is very warm and approachable, and clear that he is merely curious about his unusual abilities, having studied strange benders around the world for many years. Anshui tries to teach Senze waterbending from the ground up, to better assess his strengths and weaknesses, using the approach of showing him how the moon pulls the tides, to get him into the waterbending spirit. But Senze, in nerdy spirit, points out that the moon pulls everything equally, and water just gives way more easily; the moon pulls on the trees as well, and so will he. "The moon pulls the trees just as it does the water, and yet they do not yield to it. But the trees yield to me. Does that mean I am stronger than the moon? Or just that I care more for the trees than I do the water?" Anshui scolds him for his impudence and apologizes to the Moon Spirit Yue on Senze's behalf.
Anshui begins to suspect that maybe Senze is actually a strange kind of earthbender, because of the dry-wood "plantbending" thing, but he is eventually able to teach Senze some very rudimentary waterbending, after fighting against Senze's own disinterest in even trying. He throws Senze's own line about being "stronger than the moon" back at him, by demanding he prove he can even bend something as compliant as water with his oh-so-great strength that even the trees yield to. Senze tries and fails to waterbend at that challenge, but swears that at the next full moon, when waterbending is strongest, he will prove that he can bend the stupid water, if that will make Anshui and everyone else get off his case about it and leave him to his bookbending. Sure enough, Senze manages to pull off a rudimentary waterbending move under the light of the next full moon. Unsure of what to make of Senze, who seems to be in some ways an extremely powerful waterbender, with his any-time bloodbending and dry-wood plantbending, but at the same time in other ways almost completely inept at far simpler forms of waterbending, and possibly (with the dry-wood thing and all) also an earthbender, Anshui gets suspicious and confounded, and recommends that Senze's family and tribe send him to the Office of the Avatar in Republic City for further examination by better experts than himself.
Anshui asks Senze if he knows of the Office of the Avatar. Senze knows of Avatar Korra, and that she helped to establish the treaty protecting their forest. Anshui explains that Korra has been dead for two decades; yet her legacy lives on. Korra spent her life, working together with the Order of the White Lotus, the Air Corps, and the United Republic, building the Office of the Avatar to serve two purposes: international diplomacy and related global issues, and the preservation and refinement of all forms of bending.
Over the course of the past century, as technological progress marched on in the world outside the forest, bending became less and less relevant to day-to-day life, both because it was unnecessary when nonbenders could accomplish the same tasks with machines, and because things were increasingly being made out of unbendable refined metals and plastics. The Office of the Avatar thus focused on preserving and refining bending as an art, sport, and spiritual tradition, rediscovering many lost techniques and inventing still new ones, and are thus now the premier experts on all matters bending, and the best place to go to find out what is going on with Senze's weird bending.
But Anshui tells Senze that he cannot make the Southern Water Tribe traders that he has come with take Senze to the Office by sea, because of troubles with piracy in the southwest, especially of Southern Water Tribe ships leaving the Cloud Forest. He also cannot send him by land routes through the nearby Earth lands just to the north, because the Southern Earth Empire is not a safe place to be right now. Since there is no air travel possible in or out of the Cloud Forest, Senze will have to walk the long way through the forest to the west until he reaches the safe border with the United Republic.
Senze is concerned that the world outside the forest is so dangerous, but Anshui makes clear that most of the nations of the world are friendly and at peace; only the Earth states are something of a dangerous mess right now. The Air Nomads are especially close to the Office of the Avatar, hosting the Air Corps international peacekeeping force, who are the closest thing to an army the Office itself has, yet as pacifistic as possible by nature. The United Republic is also a close ally, hosting the Office headquarters. The Water and Fire nations are more distant allies, parties to the Treaty of Korra that established the predominant international peace, but mostly doing their own thing, and not on the greatest terms with each other, as the Water Tribes suspect the Fire Nation of surreptitiously being behind the persistent "piracy" of the south seas that has hampered their vital trade relations with the Cloud Forest.
But the majority of the Earth states retain only the most distant contact with the Office of the Avatar, generally associating them with unwanted attempts to create a Ba Sing Se-centric Earth Confederacy. Korra had spent most of her life trying to build some kind of voluntary confederate union between the independent Earth states left over after former Earth King Wu dissolved the Earth Empire, but most of the Earth states did not want any kind of inferior relation to Ba Sing Se after so long as subjects of it. Only Ba Sing Se itself, Omashu, the Metal Colony, and technically the Cloud Forest too (though more as a protectorate than a full member) had welcomed a confederacy, but with those few exceptions all geographically isolated, the Earth Confederacy never got off the ground.
So while the other four nations — Fire, Air, Water, and United Republic — remained at relative peace with each other, conflict began to escalate between the newly independent Earth states, mostly over resources including the raw materials (ore and oil) needed to refine the metals and plastics that the world was now being built out of, but also over more basic resources like land and water as populations bloomed. The latter manifested especially as encroachment on the Foggy Swamp, which was part of what turned it into the Cloud Forest instead, as its tributaries were diverted to irrigate southern Earth states. Lastly, spirit vines were an extremely valuable commodity for their use as an energy source, which made the Cloud Forest a special target of those who would exploit it. Korra spent much effort in her later years successfully fighting to preserve the Cloud Forest for its spiritual, environmental, and cultural significance.
Anshui continues to explain that things in the Earth states only got worse after Korra finally died of old age. It was expected that a new Avatar would be born as an earthbender, but as of 20 years after her death, the new Avatar has not yet been found. It's much harder now than it used to be to identify new Avatars, because as the Avatar Cycle was broken and reforged with Korra, the old tricks of infants repeating patterns from past lives don't work any more, and will need to take multiple generations of Avatars to re-establish. Senze asks if the spirits cannot be asked to locate the Avatar, or at least to confirm or deny potential Avatars. Anshui says that they have asked, but that the spirits in general are unhappy with most of humanity for how they have treated the world recently, and have said that if the Great Spirits to whom the Avatar is bound will not reveal themselves to humanity, then perhaps they want humanity to hoist themselves by their own petard, and learn their lesson the hard way; and the lesser spirits will not interfere in humanity learning that lesson unless the Avatar should reveal himself and ask it of them. Senze comments that he always thought the spirits must be backward-minded or anti-intellectual anyway, because while they seem to love the ignorant Swampers, they seem to avoid Senze himself. Anshui finds that interesting, noting how the spirits generally congregate in natural places like the Cloud Forest and Republic City's Spirit Wilds, and he would have thought them especially fond of someone so in touch with nature as Senze.
But, Anshui continues, all that can be done to find the new Avatar now is to find someone who can bend multiple elements. And with so much interbreeding between different kinds of benders in recent generations, so many old kinds of bending being rediscovered by professional archaeologists, and new subtypes being invented still, there have been a lot of plausible yet ultimately false claims to some baby or another being the Avatar because they're weird or special in this or that way. And some have begun to fear that the next Avatar has not been found because there is no longer a united Earth Kingdom, and that that has somehow broken the Avatar Cycle. Those fears have incensed several of the more powerful Earth states to begin projects of assimilating and annexing weaker states to "rebuild the Earth Empire", with themselves as the new capital state of course, ostensibly in the hopes of fixing this problem, but also as a flimsy pretense just to start building an empire with themselves at the head. There are two such states now in existence, both claiming the title of Earth Empire, but which are known internationally as the Northern Earth Empire and the Southern Earth Empire. It is the Southern Earth Empire that Senze needs to avoid just outside the northern borders of the Forest, necessitating the long walk on foot to the United Republic on the western border.
As Senze prepares to depart, Anshui slips him a secret, not to tell anyone else: that he thinks Senze might, just possibly, be the Avatar, because he evidently can bend water, however weak or disinterested he is in doing so, but the rest of his stronger abilities seem more aptly explained as some strange kind of earthbending; though as Anshui's not an earthbender himself, he can't really venture a proper explanation. Anshui notes that the legendary earthbender Toph Beifong spent some time later in her life right in this very swamp trying to figure out how to bend dry wood, as she thought it might be a kind of earthbending just like the metalbending she invented. Maybe, he speculates, Senze has succeeded where she failed, perhaps because of some spiritual Avatar insight he was born with, or perhaps just because of his own unique intuition. But also, he concludes, there is another small but important point: Senze's birthday is right. He was born the day that Korra died. Senze isn't really buying the idea that he, a social outcast from the most backward nation on the planet, could possibly be the Avatar; but he agrees to go to the Office of the Avatar anyway to see what they have to say about him.
Senze's family pack him days' worth of food to travel with, and the tribal elders arrange for transport by river as far west as it will take him. Anshui makes some arrangements with the Water Tribe traders he came with, to obtain some Republic currency that Senze will be able to use to make his way to Republic City and the Office of the Avatar after he reaches the border. A riverboat takes him as far west as it can go, and Senze stays a night at the port town there. In the morning he follows the headwaters further up stream until they vanish, and then continues to follow game trails west from there. He makes camp for one night in the forest, bending himself a comfortable wooden shelter for it, and then the next day continues west, emerging eventually out of the wild woods into a developed campsite in the United Republic, with paved roads and fire pits and garbage bins and the like. He follows the roads west still, reaching a small Republic town late that night, where he asks locals on the street about places to stay, and pays some of his Republic currency for a hotel for the night. The next morning the hotel staff help him plan his journey to Republic City, and he emerges for the first time into the bustling streets of the modern world, nearly walking into traffic before realizing how to behave on roads meant for heavy motor usage and not for pedestrians (and not empty as the roads he had walked the past night in this sleepy small rural town). As instructed by the hotel staff, he catches a bus to a train station and then takes a long train ride to Republic City.
Book II: Earth
Along the train ride to Republic City, Senze is witness to many fantastical things both within the train and without, not to mention the train itself, and the bus that took him to it: there are flying machines in the sky, towering buildings of metal and glass that gleam in the light and dwarf even the tallest trees of the Cloud Forest, brightly colored and electrically lit signs, whole cities aglow with electric lights at night, and people walking around with tiny electric devices that display moving images and play music and can communicate invisibly over vast distances. A friendly passenger on the last midnight leg of the train journey, adorned with strange piercings and tattoos and unnaturally colored hair and unfamiliar synthetic fabrics, shows him one of these devices up close and personal, and explains many of the wonders Senze has been gawking at, as Senze explains that he is from the Forest and has never seen such marvels of civilization outside of drawings in books before. But when they arrive at last at Republic City in the early morning, and leave the train, Senze sees that this "friend" has used Senze's awe and naivety to swindle him, making off with the bag of money he had thoughtlessly carried out in the open. Chasing after him and nearly losing him, Senze is sorely tempted to do as he had done to the boys back in the Cloud Forest, and force the thief to stop with his bending, but after the commotion that that had caused even in his small tribe, and being in this big, intimidating foreign city full of marvels beyond his comprehension and the unknown powers who built them, Senze resists the temptation, and the thief escapes with his money.
With no money, Senze must then walk the crowded and bustling streets of Republic City, sleep deprived and hungry, to find his way to the Office of the Avatar. Needless to say they are less than welcoming of a dirty disheveled person walking into this esteemed office, but when he explains himself and his journey, that he has travelled so very far to be evaluated by the White Lotus Council, because his people fear he is a — he hesitates to even say the word — a bloodbender, they become more attentive. After a brief interview with a junior member of the White Lotus to confirm details of Senze's story, an interview is finally scheduled with the Council.
The White Lotus Council is comprised of five members. Buwan (不弯) is a nonbender from Republic City in his 60s, who also heads the diplomatic mission of the Office. Ciren (瓷人) is the calm and stoic Earthbending Master from Omashu, who is in his 40s. Liang (亮) is the excitable and passionate Firebending Master from the Fire Nation, who is in her 50s. Opal Beifong is the Airbending Grand Master, who is the eldest of the order at almost 110 years of age; she is so old, and so enlightened, that she is practically a spirit already, accepting completely that death is very near her, able to fly by having no earthly attachments, ready to pass on to the spirit world at any time, and remaining behind only to see the next Avatar found and the world set at peace again. Lastly is Waterbending Master Eska, who is almost as old as Opal and is on sick leave at the time Senze arrives.
Senze is disappointed that the waterbender he thinks he needs most is not present, but Ciren takes a liking to him because of his novel form of "earthbending", which he dubs "woodbending"; over Senze's objections, as that term had only been used to mock him by bullies back in his homeland, but Ciren insists that if he can bend plants with no water in them, it's certainly not plantbending as they know it, and needs a different name. Ciren postulates an explanation of Senze's "bloodbending" as maybe "bonebending" instead, a known albeit rarer and equally prohibited technique. As for the minimal waterbending... "ehhh, maybe you're the Avatar", Ciren suggests, surprisingly flippantly. Senze is shocked at the suggestion and says that Ciren is not the first to say so, hesitantly mentioning that Anshui had thought so too, and had told him that his birthday was also the day that Avatar Korra had died, which piques the interest of the whole council.
Being so old, and being the Grand Master and thus standing in for the Avatar since Korra's death, and also direct liaison to General Kai, the head of the Air Corps, Opal is mostly very busy and very tired and not very involved in the evaluation of Senze, other than to approve of it happening, and to have food and lodging arranged for Senze for the duration of his evaluation. Buwan is likewise busy with international diplomacy and, being a nonbender, is not really apt to evaluate someone's unusual bending abilities. Eska being absent, it then falls on Liang and Ciren to evaluate Senze and his abilities. It quickly becomes clear that the two of them have something of an amicable rivalry between each other, with Ciren the level-headed "straight man" to Liang's more energetic antics. Even their unique bending abilities reflect this; Liang is a rare lightbender, and amongst other things this enables her to become effectively invisible, which she loves to use for playful pranks; but Ciren, with his earth-sight, is one of the few who can still "see" her in such a state. They explain that Opal, being able to fly and thus evade Ciren's earth-sight, sometimes likes to prank him as well, and that when Eska is around, she is Opal's regular "straight man", always seeming to see every prank coming, no one ever able to sneak up on her. Buwan is generally too busy taking care of world-shaping business to participate in such "childishness" as he considers it.
When they settle down to start teaching and testing Senze, Liang and Ciren tell him that he can join their lessons with their other pupil of the moment, another possible Avatar, named Lunzhen Lu (錀真炉) or "Luzi" for short, who has become something of an international sensation recently for having, like Senze, a unique earth-like bending ability, and for having the same birthday as him, the day that Avatar Korra died. She, and prior decades of evaluating other potential Avatars like her, are why Ciren could be so flippant about the possibility that Senze also could be the Avatar. Luzi likewise had a history of being thought a non-bender, until it was found that she could metalbend, though not earthbend, but more strangely still, metalbend more refined metals more easily than less refined ones, including bending the supposedly unbendable pure metals that the world was being built out of these days. She dismissively calls traditional metalbending "orebending", as it depends on unrefined impurities remaining in the metal, and insists that hers is the only true metalbending. She also claims to have deliberately invented this form of metalbending from whole cloth by combining energetic skills that many supposed "non-benders" may have, and expressed an intent to teach it to those willing to learn it.
Lunzhen was seen as a huge threat by many in the world, whose security had come to rely upon the unbendability of such metals. But others thought that perhaps she was the Avatar, either because she was some strange and unusual "earthbender", or because perhaps, some speculated, Harmonic Convergence had created a true fifth nation, one of metal — the United Republic — and that she was the first Avatar of that nation. Those people were divided on where in the Avatar Cycle this fifth nation would fit; if their new Avatar was in it after a water Avatar, then it would seem to fit between water and earth, but given that the United Republic was formed from Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom, it would make more sense for metal to be between earth and fire. Some thought perhaps there had in fact been an earth Avatar born, who died young before being discovered, and the cycle had moved on to metal afterward; though it was criticized that the earth Avatar would have had to die the day he was born, if Luzi was supposed to be the new metal Avatar and had the same birthday as well. Some people argued that the independent "Earth" state of the Metal Colony was the more logical choice for a metal nation, and that that solved all the odd problems with metal being between water and earth while the United Republic was born of earth and fire. Luzi's dual citizenship between the United Republic and the Metal Colony only complicated the question; she was born and raised in Republic City, but her family lineage is automatically granted Metal Colony citizenship by birth, and much of her extended family lives there. Still others see that entire argument as pointless because they dismiss the concept of a new elemental nation arising out of nowhere as obvious bunk.
Liang and Ciren joke that as much hype as has been building up around Luzi, if Senze's powers prove to be anything like he's said they are, Luzi may have some competition. And sure enough, as training commences, Ciren attempting to teach both to master their supposed "native" element of earth, and Liang simultaneously attempting to teach either the supposed "next" element of fire to see if either of them is really the Avatar, competition develops between Luzi and Senze over who will master both elements first and prove themselves the Avatar. But in truth, the competitiveness is really more between their teachers Ciren and Liang. Ciren was always more dry and cynical about the parade of possible Avatars brought before them over the years, and never really expected Luzi to pan out any better than the others, while Liang remained passionate about the possibility of each potential, currently putting everything she's got on Luzi proving she is the Avatar. After Senze joins the class however, Ciren takes a liking to him more quickly than Liang does, being fascinated by this woodbending skill that even the legendary Toph Beifong couldn't master, and starts thinking more and more that Senze is more likely to be the true Avatar. Their preexisting playful rivalry already in place, Liang in turn more and more becomes a cheerleader for Luzi's potential, to counter Ciren passing her up and taking more of an interest in Senze; and Senze and Luzi become pawns in that competition, the metaphorical horse-hounds they're each respectively betting on in this race.
But there can't be much of a race when both horse-hounds are lame, and despite their unique and different abilities, neither Senze nor Luzi can manage to master even the most rudimental bending forms of their supposedly "native" element of earth, much less move on to make any progress with fire. Something even more odd than before is discovered about Senze's abilities though, as Ciren experiments with both students. The first clue comes from the known oddity of how Luzi can bend purer metals more easily, exactly the opposite of a normal earthbender. Ciren has already experimented with her thoroughly and found that the chemical proportion of metals to nonmetals in the material she is bending directly controls how easily she can bend it, but that normal earthbenders like himself do not have an exactly inverse curve to that, unless the nonmetals are first controlled for organic compounds. With organic compounds excluded, normal earthbenders are strong exactly against what Luzi is weak against, and vice versa, but normal earthbenders are additionally weak against organic compounds. Ciren decides to test Senze on the same scale, and finds as expected that he is weaker against metals, and stronger against nonmetals, but furthermore, much stronger against organic compounds than inorganic ones. In effect, normal earthbenders can only really bend inorganic nonmetals, and other substances by the proportion of those they contain; while Luzi can only really bend metals and other substances in proportion to the metals they contain; and Senze can bend only organic compounds, and other substances in proportion to the organics they contain.
So it seems Senze's ability is not so much woodbending, as it is organic bending, which also explains his apparent bloodbending-or-maybe-bonebending ability despite the lack of any aptitude for water or earth: he is not bloodbending or bonebending at all, but rather, he is fleshbending, manipulating the living tissue itself. Everyone in the room clearly agrees that that is a terrifying concept, but just to be clear Ciren calmly instructs Senze not to do that to anyone ever again. This is the first time Luzi has heard of this happening, and she is initially shocked, so Senze abashedly explains that it was self-defense and nobody got hurt badly and it was just this one time after he spent years keenly aware of the potential ability to do it and resisting ever acting on it other than that one time, and he even resisted doing it to the scumbag who stole his money on the way here, and at that point Senze realizes that he sounds kind of creepy talking about how tempting it is to fleshbend people and stops talking, just reiterating once more, sheepishly, "self defense, nobody hurt, just one time".
Ciren assuages Senze's apparent distress about himself by pointing out that all the traditional bending arts have scary forbidden forms, so his power is nothing to be ashamed of unless he misuses it. Bloodbending is well known already. Breathbending was used to assassinate the last Earth Queen a generation ago. Bonebending is a rare and once long-forgotten earthbending technique which is as terrifying as it sounds, and what Ciren initially feared Senze might have been doing in place of bloodbending or, as it turns out, fleshbending. And firebenders have an even more disturbing technique, related to combustion bending, that can overload an enemy's own chi and cause them to burst into flames from the inside out. But, he says, variations of these techniques can all be used to heal as well. Waterbending has well-known healing applications. Breathbending can be used for cardiopulmonary resuscitation even of people who would once have been declared dead. Bonebending can be used to set broken bones as well as to break them. And there are lesser-known healing applications of firebending's chi-manipulation that Liang could tell more about. Ciren believes that perhaps Senze's fleshbending could have remarkable healing powers as well as its obvious offensive power. It is terrifying in its potential, yes, but that same potential could also be turned to wonderful ends, perhaps even something like reviving the dead.
Luzi jokes that Senze could at least animate them like zombies, and makes mocking zombie motions and sounds. Ciren scolds her for that for the sake of Senze's feelings, but it just makes Senze laugh, which in turn concerns Ciren, which in turn embarrasses Senze, which relieves Ciren, and makes Luzi laugh. Luzi asks if Ciren thinks her metalbending has any kind of scary or promising applications like that. Ciren hesitates to even discuss it as he wonders about the answer himself, then says no as he thinks there is no metal in the body. But Senze says he read in a book that the electrolytes that mediate nerve function are alkali metals, so Luzi could probably disrupt nerve function and cause muscle spasms or relaxation, even causing or stopping heart attacks and the like, with a refined application of metalbending to the human body. Luzi is playfully intrigued by that idea, but Ciren doesn't like how morbid this conversation has become and redirects it back on topic, after warning Luzi not to experiment with "nervebending" under any circumstances.
Ciren continues explaining that almost as or possibly even more significantly than fleshbending, this discovery of a tripartite division of solids into metals, inorganic nonmetals, and organics means that Senze can bend even wholly artificial organic polymers -- that is to say, plastics, the last bastion of supposedly unbendable materials that those worried about Luzi's pure metalbending have been rallying to reinforce their security measures with. Luzi jokes to Senze that the two of them together could "bend" the world to their whim. Ciren gives her the same "never ever do that, I know you know better than that" face he had given Senze earlier.
Both Luzi and Senze wonder if this means that the "fifth nation" people were right, except it's really "six nations", and that their abilities are reflective of scientifically separate "elements" distinct from earth. But Ciren is still convinced that both of their abilities are just weird forms of earthbending — after all, they are still solids, clearly nothing that could count as air or fire or water, and both metals and organics of all sorts are in one sense or another refined from the earth, whether by man or by natural processes. He is just perplexed as to why neither seems to be able to bend normal earth; that is to say, inorganic nonmetals.
Frustrated with what he perceives as his own failings as a teacher, Ciren eventually takes them to study under the greatest earthbenders in the world, even greater than he, the Earthbending Master of the White Lotus Council. He takes them to see his own masters: the Badger-moles beneath his home city of Omashu, to see if they can teach earthbending to these two impossible students any better than he could.
The four of them, Ciren, Liang, Senze, and Luzi, travel together to Omashu by airplane. It is a harrowing experience for Senze, for whom heavier-than-air travel was practically fantasy from magical far-off lands in the books he had read, who only ever even saw an airplane for the first time on his recent arrival in the United Republic. For Luzi it is difficult in another way, as some passengers recognize her as that girl who can bend unbendable metal, and they don't want her on the same plane as them in case she bends it and it falls out of the sky. They end up having to charter a private flight to avoid the commotion. This has its benefits as Senze is allowed to sit in the cockpit and marvel at the high-tech wonder of it all, all done without any bending needed at all. He realizes now why the Office of the Avatar needs to preserve the bending arts from being lost to history, in a world that is increasingly capable of doing amazing things beyond the power of any bender, with no bending required. Luzi cynically and sarcastically adds that one loose cannon bender — here she gestures to herself — could still bring the whole thing crashing down, and Senze here could probably just turn the pilot inside-out with a wave of his hand. The charter pilot, overhearing this, is made very uncomfortable, and has to be assured by the adults that the kids are really no threat and nothing to be worried about.
They arrive in Omashu, and early the next morning hike down the mountain to the Cave of Two Lovers, the place where the very first earthbenders, Oma and Shu, namesakes of the city, first learned to earthbend by studying the ancestors of the very same Badger-moles living there today. Venturing into the darkness of the caves, they reach a point where it is too dark to see, and Ciren explains that learning earthbending the Badger-mole way starts with listening, and being internally quiet enough to hear what you're listening for. So they all sit very still in the darkness, saying nothing, only listening, for hours on end, just embracing the darkness and stillness and reaching with their other senses to pick up anything that they can, until it is time for lunch and they leave the caves again. Ciren explains that this quiet and still listening extends gradually into earth-sight for someone with the potential for earthbending, and that once you have a sense for the pulsed vibrations that you pick up with earth-sight, then you begin to understand how to send pulses back out yourself through your chi, and by strengthening these pulses you can eventually start knocking whole rocks around. So their training is to consist of sitting in the dark in the caves for hours every day, until they can feel their way around in the dark, and find their earthbending teachers, the Badger-moles who dug these caves and continue to dig and change them every day with earthbending. This long process will also teach them the stillness and patience they need to master earthbending techniques. Once they can see the Badger-moles, they can then train by mimicking their motions, and in that way learn how to earthbend with eyes wide shut, as it were; that is, with their other more relevant senses awakened and their earthbending potential unlocked.
The sitting in the darkness gets through to Senze eventually, after many long weeks, and he follows off after the Badger-moles in the tunnels to study their motions. But by the time he is beginning to master the fundamentals of the art and actually move rock around and earthbend tunnels of his own, Luzi realizes that she just doesn't have a strong enough earthbending knack to do this. Her hearing and tactile sense of vibration have gotten way more sensitive, and that might even be useful to refining the kind of pulsed chi-actions required to do her metalbending, but she still can't in any way "see" with earthbending, much less start shoving rocks around. She concedes in frustration that she just isn't an earthbender, and spends the rest of the trip with Liang on the surface in Omashu while Ciren completes Senze's earthbending training in the caves. She wants to give up on the idea of being the Avatar, because if Senze can already waterbend and earthbend then it's pretty clear that he is and she isn't. But Liang doesn't want her to give up that quickly, and reminds her that Senze has only supposedly waterbent just once, and that no credible source available to them has ever witnessed it, so maybe Senze is just a weird earthbender after all, and maybe Luzi isn't an earthbender at all. After all, by her own admission it takes a firebending knack to do her fancy pure metalbending, so maybe she's actually a firebender at heart; or maybe those fifth-nation people are right and she's the first of a new kind of bender. In either case, she might still be the Avatar, and Liang doesn't want her to give up just yet; in either case, she should be able to master firebending if she is either the Avatar or just a weird firebender, so they should at least give that a whole-hearted effort; and if Senze can't master that, then he is clearly not the Avatar, and this earthbending victory may not mean much of anything.
Book III: Metal
While hanging out with Liang in Omashu as Senze completes his earthbending training with Ciren, Luzi receives an urgent message from her family in Zaofu, the capital of the Metal Colony. The Northern Earth Empire are preparing to make moves against them, because they want to be able to claim that the new earth Avatar, still expected by much of the world to be Luzi, is from lands under their control, and thus legitimize themselves as the one true Earth Empire. Luzi's extended family have called a meeting about formally disowning her, to distance themselves from her and hopefully get the Northern Earth Empire off their back. They suspect that she will be OK with the plan, since her mom already semi-disowned them herself, and Luzi participates very little with her family in the Metal Colony anyway. But they want Luzi present to discuss it, since they don't actually want to disown her for their own sake, they'd really rather her and her mother be a part of the family again, but it might be politically expedient for everyone to put on a show of disowning her for the world, and they want her input on the matter. Ciren and Liang, keeping an eye on her as the potential Avatar, have to accompany her there to see that she remains safe, and also to arrange for covert transportation there so that nobody knows that she is visiting them, as that would ruin the impression that formally disowning her would be intended to give. As Senze is also their ward, he has to accompany them too, but he's not party to what's going on there and only knows that Luzi is having some kind of family trouble.
Luzi thinks she should just announce to the world that she is not the Avatar, and Senze is, rather than have to separate from her family; but while Ciren is increasingly convinced that that's true, Liang still protests it, and the White Lotus Council as a whole won't let Luzi make that announcement until they are sure that it's true. She thinks maybe then she should claim that she really is the Avatar, and threaten to come down in force on the Northern Earth Empire if they touch her family or their homeland, or maybe even make that threat regardless of being the Avatar or not because they're all afraid of her true metalbending anyway; but both the White Lotus and the Metal Clan agree that that would be a really bad idea politically, even if it were known to be true. In the end, Luzi reluctantly agrees to formally sever ties with her family, but asks to stay in Zaofu some time while nobody knows she is here, since it's probably the last time she'll be able to visit for quite a while. The Metal Clan allow it, but ask the White Lotus masters to keep her out of sight, and unassociated with them in public in case she should be spotted anyway.
She ends up basically quarantined in a nice resort selected by Ciren and Liang, with only them and Senze to really keep her company. Because the Masters are her teachers and authority figures, she ends up spending most of her time with Senze, and the two of them bond during their time there. Senze is already thrilled with the luxury of their surroundings, which are astounding compared to his poor background, and is very grateful to Luzi for whatever business of hers brought them here. Luzi, unable to really appreciate the luxury of it all with everything else on her mind, explains a little bit of what has happened here, though in a way that takes for granted that everybody knows who she and her family are, which Senze does not. But Senze does empathize with how the Northern Earth Empire wants to annex her family's homeland, because the Southern Earth Empire has been encroaching on his homeland for years. What little actual competition she had with Senze fades away over their time here, where she confesses that she thinks he's probably the Avatar and she's not, and that that's fine, and that all of their competition was really Ciren and Liang's competition anyway; something their teachers bashfully deny, while exchanging playful, knowing looks with each other.
Liang suggests that maybe while they are here they can practice their firebending to take Luzi's mind off things and help her enjoy this glorious place while she can. But Luzi has a better proposal of her own: she offers to teach all three of them, Senze and their teachers, her pure metalbending technique, just to prove to herself that Avatar or not, she is right about her discovery of a bending art that can be taught to those not born with a knack for it. She after all figured out this kind of pure metalbending on her own, as a "non-bender", by studying the known metaphysics of bending and applying them in novel ways. Ciren is hesitant to give this another try, having already tried and failed to figure out what exactly Luzi was doing and how to do it himself, but at Luzi's insistence that they all participate together, he reluctantly agrees. Liang is excited to give it a shot, just for the sake of encouraging Luzi, although she doesn't think it's likely to work because she's a firebender and not an earthbender, apparently missing Luzi's point that this is not an earthbending trick, it's something else entirely, and they've all got at least one of the knacks needed to pull it off. Senze is just curious to hear what Luzi has to teach about the matter.
Master Lunzhen, as she insists on being called for the duration of the lesson, begins with a lecture. As is already well-known to bending scholars like Ciren and Liang — who point out as much as Lunzhen begins her lecture, but she continues because Senze has no idea about any of this — even nonbenders can do weaker versions of the chi-actions that underlie all forms of bending, but those chi-actions have no macroscopically measurable effect below a certain threshold, though they can be measured by refined scientific instrumentation. Firebending works by exciting the spirit to produce high quantities of chi, and then releasing it wildly in a concentrated stream, which comes out as raw energy and bursts into flame. Airbending works by creating a flow of chi through a medium, which in sufficient strength can then entrain a light enough medium, like air, to follow along with the chi; sustaining this flow steadily enough to entrain the air requires something like the chi equivalent of circular breathing, drawing chi back in from the air with the breath, and then focusing it back out into the stream again. Waterbending works by feeding chi into a medium and then harmonizing that chi with the ebb and flow of the medium's own resonant frequencies, which again entrains the medium to the chi if it is sufficiently fluid, but only works if it is sufficiently dense in the first place to contain the chi; it will simply dissipate in gasses like air. Earthbending works by storing up a bunch of chi by suppressing the body's natural expenditure of it, becoming still, and then releasing it in a concentrated synchronized burst, which knocks around most solid objects, but just dissipates in fluids. The chemical structure of metals and organic materials also interfere with it somehow, as the metals conduct the chi-burst away throughout their structure, and organics just seem to absorb it and take it away into themselves somehow, which makes some sense as chi is originally produced from organic processes in the first place, and so could reasonably be consumed by them.
People tend to have a heritable knack for chi-actions of one sort or another, but not everyone has a strong enough knack to cause any noticeable effect; and even if they do, they have to learn and practice how to do it to actually be able to bend effectively. By using specialized scientific instruments to study her own not-visible-to-the-naked-eye chi-actions, both fire-type and earth-type, for which she has both knacks (having both ancestries), Lunzhen was able to combine a series of otherwise ineffective chi-actions of both types in a way that was effective on metals, but not anything else. By feeding a continuous stream of chi into the metal, like fire but less intense, which was conducted away and throughout the metal, the metal would become "charged" with chi and interact more strongly with other chi fields; when striking that chi-infused metal with many small but intense bursts of chi like earthbenders do, more weakly yet more rapidly, the metal could then be bent.
Senze is very impressed with her ingenuity to be able to figure all this out. Master Lunzhen asks him how he invented woodbending. He responds that he didn't really invent it, the wood itself just sort of taught it to him. She asks what kind of mental practice does it take to do woodbending, what kinds of chi-actions does he have to do to make the wood move. He says that the epiphany that came to him that enabled him to do it was to listen silently to the wood, and to empathize with it, and then when that rapport is established, just ask it straight — don't beg and don't demand, just ask as you would a peer — and it will do as you ask. Lunzhen thinks it over and says that that sounds like a combination of water and earth chi-actions; in the stillness, he is building up a chi reserve like an earthbender, and listening like an earthbender would, to find the resonant frequency of the wood, attuning to it like a waterbender would attune her chi to the water, but before pouring the chi into it, and only then when his own built-up chi is attuned to the frequency of the wood, releasing it in a focused burst like an earthbender would, which might then entrain the resonant wood to follow with the chi-burst instead of just absorbing it like it does to earthbender chi-actions; and maybe a woodbender could even recall and flow the resonant burst of chi back and forth through the wood much like a waterbender does, instead of just letting it fly like an earthbender. Senze is even more impressed with that analysis, and asks if that means that Master Lunzhen thinks she can replicate his ability. She brushes the notion off quickly however, saying that she doesn't have the knack for that empathic resonant frequency stuff at all; that's waterbender schtick, and it would take someone with waterbending and earthbending heritage to pull it all off. She adds that trying to approach woodbending by brute force analysis probably wouldn't work anyway, because it sounds like that kind of hard-minded critical thinking would interfere with the whole listening and empathizing thing. But, she concludes, it probably is something that someone with a heritage like Senze's could learn to do, if they could just be still and caring and listen to the trees themselves like he did.
Liang and Ciren both struggle unsuccessfully to replicate Lunzhen's technique, both failing in the precise ways she had predicted: Liang only manages to scorch or at best electrify the metal, which is of no use to bending it; and Ciren can try all he want to "charge" the metal with his chi first, but his earthbending strikes are still ineffectual against it. Master Lunzhen is successful in teaching Senze how to metalbend though, after much hard work. She compares it to math class, an analogy Senze doesn't quite understand, but which makes sense to the other Masters: you have to have a solid intellectual understanding of the kind of problem you're doing, know all of the little tiny easy steps that anybody could do one of, but also know how to string them all together in long chains to accomplish amazing complicated things. And then it's not enough to just be able to follow along on such a problem when the teacher walks you through it. You have to drill it over and over and over again, pages and pages of problems until you see the problem ahead of you and you just automatically start stringing out all the steps it will take to solve it, and with patience and determination you take all those tiny trivial steps with precision and exactitude, never making the tiniest error or the whole end product will be off, and suddenly you've accomplished something amazing. It takes patience, dedication, passion to keep driving you through it all, and a razor-sharp clarity of mind held straight and true through the whole process. Senze has great difficulty with it, but Ciren and his earthbending training taught him patience and dedication, and with Luzi's encouragement (and some of Liang's earlier firebending lessons) he finds the fire he needs to light the way and eventually master the difficult art that only one other bender in the world had ever accomplished. She compliments him that he may come from a "watery bog" but he's got fire in his soul to pull that off.
It is because of her ability to mix earthbending and firebending chi-actions that some suspect Luzi of being the Avatar, though she insists that the science behind it would allow anyone with sufficient firebending and earthbending heritage, who was not a full firebender or earthbender themselves, to do this in theory, if they learned the right techniques. Senze's ability to learn from her seems to confirm that it is not a special Avatar power she possesses, but more than that, it confirms that this boy of merely earth and water heritage somehow has the knack for the requisite firebending chi-actions, on top of demonstrated earthbending ability, and so is clearly the Avatar as far as Luzi is concerned. Ciren is happy to hear that, but Liang, still hesitant to call anything until they've given proper firebending a try, suggests that Senze could have some small bit of unknown Fire Nation heritage, probably from the Earthen side of his family; Luzi has very little Earthen heritage herself, with mostly all firebenders in her ancestry besides the "obvious exception", and she still has the earthbending knack. So, she argues, it's not beyond the realm of believability that Senze should have all three, without having to be the Avatar. Nobody wants to argue the point with Liang again, and the matter is again left up in the air until both potential Avatars can face their "trial by fire".
With the accomplishment of finally teaching someone else her new technique, Luzi feels satisfied with herself, and decides that she is ready to leave Zaofu now, for possibly the last time in the foreseeable future. Liang and Ciren arrange for covert transportation back to the Office of the Avatar, and the four of them leave the Metal Colony behind, hopeful that the Northern Earth Empire will do the same once the Metal Clan announce that they have formally disowned Luzi.
Book IV: Fire
Despite Luzi's own resignation, Liang continues trying to teach both her and Senze firebending at the Office of the Avatar, but continues to meet with little success. Discussing the possibilities of why with Ciren, the latter offers a possible explanation, for Senze at least, contingent on him really being the Avatar and this "six nations" theory of new wood and metal elements really being true. Since the Avatar Cycle was broken with Korra, the only element Senze would have in his history to call upon would be water; he's learning basically everything else new, which is why earth was so hard for him even though that should be just as if not closer to his wood element, if there is such a thing, as water is. If wood really is a new element, he reasons, clearly it comes after water, if Senze really is the next Avatar in the cycle, so between water and presumably earth. Metal, he reasons, must also be close to earth, and so is probably on the other side of it in the cycle, between earth and fire, which is why Senze was able to learn metalbending from Luzi after he got the hang of earthbending. But that would put fire as Senze's opposite and most challenging element, and still one he has no past lives to call on for guidance, and in fact the most opposite element of the one past life he does have available to call upon.
Liang accepts that that is a plausible theory, if Senze really is the next Avatar, of which she is not yet fully convinced, as it's still possible that everything he has demonstrated to them here has been some strange form of earthbending as Ciren has thus far insisted. On that tangent, Liang advances a theory she has been mulling on for some time, to explain why there are two unusual benders both with plausible claims to be the Avatar, down to being born on the right day. She posits that maybe the two spirits of Raava and Vaatu, bound together inside Korra after Harmonic Convergence, did not reincarnate together, and that that is why instead of a single new earth Avatar, we maybe got two Avatars, a wood one and a metal one. Ciren is intrigued by that idea, and wonders, if that really is the case, which one is which, the Light Avatar and the Dark Avatar, and does that mean that Luzi and Senze are destined to be enemies, because he doesn't like that idea, and doesn't think they would either. Liang reminds him that Korra spent her later life trying to achieve balance, including the balance between order and chaos, light and darkness, not the triumph of one over the other, and even if this theory is correct, it doesn't mean that Luzi and Senze have to be enemies; they can be complementary, and balance each other. Ciren acknowledges that point, but wonders if there is an implication of this two-Avatars theory: if the element of earth was fragmented into wood and metal so as to separate the two Avatars, would the next cycle move on and split fire into two as well? Are there two fire-like elements that are so far thought to be unbendable? Liang can't think of what they would be... maybe electricity, between fire and metal, and light between fire and air, but those aren't exactly unbendable, and it would be very strange if suddenly, a generation or two from now, no firebenders could lightningbend or lightbend, and vice versa, whereas at present people like her can clearly do all three.
On a further tangent still from that topic, Ciren proposes a different theory of the origins of woodbending and metalbending, if they are in fact wholly new elements and not just new subtypes of earthbending. He wonders if the emergence of wood and metal nations might simply be an evolutionary process, coming from a mixing of existing bending abilities, which is how Luzi seems to see it. Senze is from a waterbender tribe, but his heritage includes not only the greatest plantbending waterbender in living memory, Huu, but is otherwise three-fourths full of earthbenders, and Ciren suggests that such mixing of waterbending and earthbending could give rise to woodbending, both scientifically in the ways Luzi has postulated, but also more poetically, as "water nourishes the earth to bring forth wood". Likewise, Luzi's heritage includes the greatest and first "orebending" earthbender (as Luzi would put it), and is also three-fourths full of firebenders otherwise, so to put it poetically again, "fire forges metal out of the earth". Liang notes that the new set of oppositions make poetic sense as well; fire burns wood, water corrodes metal; and a new set of semi-oppositions seem to rise out of the pattern too, as water extinguishes fire, fitting that old well-known opposition, and metal cuts wood... and flesh. Ciren seems disturbed by the implications of that, and hopes Liang is right that Luzi and Senze can complement and balance each other, rather than opposing, even if they aren't Light and Dark Avatars respectively. They agree that the playful competition they have been fostering between the two should be downplayed, and both should be given an equal and independent shot at actualizing their full potentials.
Breaking the uncomfortable silence that ensues, Ciren notes that a six-element cycle would have some nicer symmetries than the traditional four-element cycle. The three solids of wood, earth, and metal would contrast the three fluids of fire, air, and water. Each of those groups proceeds in the cycle in increasing density, organic compounds being generally lighter than inorganic nonmetals, and metals being heavier still; while plasmas like fire are less dense than gasses like air, and liquids like water are more dense still. Metal and fire group together as "hard" or "active" elements, the elements of industry and civilization, while water and wood group together on the opposite end of the cycle as as "soft" or "passive" elements, the elements of nature and wilderness; and air and earth remain neutral between them in their own respective ways, earth in its patient steadfastness and air in its aloof freedom. Both masters marvel at the beautiful symmetry of this new image of the elemental cycle, and wonder if there weren't really six elements all along, and the Lion Turtles just never taught two of them to mankind. They speculate that maybe that was on purpose, as metal is perhaps the most powerful element, enabling industry and the domination of the world; and woodbending, as organic bending, gives direct power over nature and the flesh itself. They worry that maybe those who feared Luzi's pure metalbending for its power were on to something, and as pure metalbenders and woodbenders... fleshbenders... emerge into the world, things might possibly get quite hairy indeed.
But back on the topic of why neither of their students can seem to pick up firebending, Liang comments that while Ciren's first explanation works for Senze, it doesn't explain Luzi. Ciren offers that maybe she just isn't the Avatar, and isn't a firebender — and Liang reprimands him and reminds him of how they just now agreed to give both of them every chance. Ciren apologizes, and then considers that, if Luzi is the Avatar, and even if their picture of the new cycle of elements is correct and metal is closest to fire, still Senze had enormous trouble picking up earth, and even greater trouble that he still hasn't overcome with water, so it's possible that Luzi may have some kind of trouble with earthbending — maybe the same kind of psycho-cultural hangups that Senze has with waterbending — and then still have some trouble with firebending, that she could overcome just like Senze overcame his trouble with earthbending. This inspires Liang, and she decides that she will try the same kind of trick that Ciren did, and take the kids to study under the original firebenders. Ciren is concerned that she means the Dragons, who are dangerous to approach even for a firebender who they might deem worthy to witness them and learn their secrets, but Liang clarifies that Dragons are a still a few steps away in her plan. She wants to take them to visit the Sun Warriors with whom she studied in her youth.
Liang has to beg special permission from the Sun Warriors to bring her students there, as they are a very reclusive people. Liang tells the students that it is lightbending like hers that has let the Sun Warriors keep their civilization hidden since before there was even a Fire Nation, and they will only allow the most respectful and significant of people into their isolated world, much less teach them their ways. Liang in her youth as an archaeologist managed to convince them that telling the rest of the world about them from their own perspective, by living among them and learning their ways, could let her convince the rest of the world to consider their lands a protected region and leave them alone more, which she did and which worked as hoped. In the process she learned secrets of firebending unknown to most outside of their ancient civilization, which helped to secure her mid-life career, and her eventual acceptance to the White Lotus and appointment as a Master of its Council. She is only able to convince them to let her students come visit by appealing to their past history and explaining that these students are both potential Avatars, and that they are perhaps the only people worthy to teach them. Ciren is allowed to accompany them as well, merely as an additional chaperone of the students.
En route to the Sun Warrior island by way of the proper Fire Nation, Senze learns what the others already knew, that the Fire Nationals are not super thrilled with the supposed new earth Avatar — either him or Luzi — coming to visit them, as a theory has become quite popular within the Fire Nation that the next Avatar may be someone among their own people. After the new earth Avatar could not be found for some time, the other nations began scouring their populations for possible Avatar children as well, on the chance that perhaps the young earth Avatar died somehow before being discovered, and the cycle has moved on like usual. But as the Air Nomads are still few and very spiritually aware, and are certain that the Avatar has not been reborn among them yet, many people in the Fire Nation are pretty certain that somewhere hidden amongst their population is the next Avatar. As two decades wore on, advocates of that theory came under increasing ridicule as the odds of a fire Avatar not making themselves known yet seemed increasingly implausible, but that only caused the theorists to double down on their convictions in the face of such criticism. Growing more fanatical than ever, they were not keen on the idea of some new upstart "metal nation" maybe stealing their thunder, much less of this new backwoods swamp-rat maybe being the Avatar, putting them not just one or two but three whole lifetimes away from finally having their own Avatar again, for the first time since Avatar Roku, already over two and a half centuries ago. So the two Masters and their students make way as quickly as possible through the harassing environment of the proper Fire Nation, and board the boat that will take them at last to the hidden island of the Sun Warriors.
Once there, the Sun Warriors want to get the training of the students over as quickly as possible, and send them with flame in hand to be judged and possibly enlightened, or else destroyed, by the Dragons themselves. Liang has to explain to them that her students cannot even produce the weakest flame at all, and that is why she has brought them here; not to be taught the masterful secrets of firebending, but to learn the art from the very beginning, from the people who first discovered it, beginning with lightbending. The Sun Warriors are hesitant to commit to such a lengthier process than the one they had anticipated, but as Liang impresses upon them the importance of this task to the spiritual future of the world, if either of these kids is really the Avatar, and again emphasizes her history with them and how influential she was in getting the rest of the ever-shrinking world to leave them alone here on their island — with slight shades of implication that her influence could swing the other way instead, as the world's tourism industry is more interested than ever in exploring the few remaining less-developed corners of the world, and greater contact with the Sun Warriors would be quite educational for the Fire Nation especially — they reluctantly agree to teach the kids the long way.
The Sun Warriors, with Liang helping to mediate the lessons, teach Luzi and Senze of how the earliest of their people learned to bend the energy of the sun to their own purposes; to take its energy into their own bodies as chi, using it to enhance their own vitality and heal their wounds, concentrating and channelling it as chi into their plants to improve their harvests, and redirecting it back out as light again, bending the light, focusing it, or projecting it from their own bodies, to illuminate the night, or use as a weapon of war — hence their eventual name. It was from this last practice, enhanced and amplified, that firebending proper first emerged, inspired in lightbenders who had witnessed the great dragons and their breath of fire. Senze and Luzi must practice all of these arts in this order to be able to produce a flame, and only then can they approach the dragons, be judged worthy, and learn the secrets of firebending — or else be judged unworthy and destroyed by the serpents' power.
It is explained that all of the four original bending arts had primitive forms discovered between the Great War of antiquity, when the bending knowledge of the Lion-Turtles was lost, and when it was relearned from the great animals. These forms were used mostly for agricultural purposes: the Lightbending of the Sun Warriors to channel nourishing light into their crops, the Rainbending of the ancestors of the Water Tribes to summon rain to water their crops or to calm a stormy sea, the Soilbending of ancient Earthbenders to make the lands fertile to grow their crops, and the Windbending of the ancient Airbenders to concentrate around their crops the carbon dioxide they needed and take away the waste oxygen that they produced. All of these manifested as various crop-fertility dances, and the forms of those dances became the basis of the later bending forms. They were each danced at a different time of day: the sun dance at midday, the rain dance at midnight (preferably under a full moon), the soil dance just after dawn, and the wind dance just before dusk. Luzi jokes about how there are no dances to perform just after dusk, which is when all the good parties are always getting started, to which Senze suggests that she can invent a metal dance to perform then, in the fashion of a "metal man", which Luzi recognizes as something that already exists in the civilized world's pop culture, "The Robot". In return she jokingly suggests that maybe Senze can do a new-agey interpretive dance where he pretends to be a sprouting tree welcoming the dawn in the wee hours of the morning. Senze doesn't understand that reference and thinks that that's actually a really good idea, as he loves that time of night, when it's still and quiet before the rest of the world awakens.
Unlike with their earthbending training, Luzi is quickly able to figure out how to charge her chi, and Liang finds this a very promising development. Luzi herself is not surprised; she has already been able to imbue metals with an electrostatic charge as part of her bending of them, or to pull a charge out of a metal back into her own chi, and pulling chi-energy from electromagnetic radiation — light — is not all that different physically or metaphysically, it just hadn't occurred to her before to try it. Senze, on the other hand, is much slower on the uptake, and for a time it seems like Ciren's hypothesis might be correct, that Luzi may take to firebending like Senze took to earthbending, that she may only have had trouble with earth for the same reason he has trouble with water, and that fire may be his most challenging element — and that perhaps they are both Avatars, a Light and a Dark.
But, after much practice standing in the sun, Senze eventually picks up the channelling of light into his own chi, by "pretending to be a tree welcoming the dawn" just as Luzi had joked, a tree nourished by the sunlight, and just doing what he can feel the real trees doing all around him. And beyond that stage, Senze begins to outpace Luzi. She still cannot pump out chi in hard enough concentrations to re-emit it as light, much less flame, although the ability to channel chi from light does boost her resources to "charge" metal with chi and then to bend it more easily. But once Senze has a feel for absorbing chi from light, reversing the process comes naturally to him, especially with the passing familiarity with the concept he's already picked up from learning Luzi's pure metalbending, and in short order and he is able to bend the light as well.
As Luzi in frustration attempts to replicate even that, Senze moves through the further steps of the training, using the light-energy first to nourish plants, then to enhance and heal himself and others, then to project the light from his own body. Producing actual flame still stumps him for a time, during which Liang hopes that Luzi can catch up to Senze again, but soon Senze finds a well of great emotion with which to fuel his flame. Recalling the fear and anger and torment of his bullying in his homeland, and how he had wished he could fight them back, but couldn't, and then later really really shouldn't, and just had to sit and take it — he is eventually able to produce a small burst of flame.
With direct confirmation that he can not only earthbend, possibly in two weird ways in addition to the normal one, but also firebend, it is clear that Senze definitely is at least an Avatar. Ciren and Liang are both excited, and Luzi figures that it is over; but Liang and Ciren then reveal Liang's theory of two Avatars, a Light and a Dark, and ask Luzi to continue her training, as they will hold off any announcement to the world of Senze's accomplishments until they are sure that he is not only an Avatar, but the Avatar; or until they are sure that Luzi is one too, if she proves herself as well.
With practice, Senze is able to maintain his flame, but only by stewing in the dark feelings he had long suppressed, the righteous indignation at how backward, intolerant, arrogant, insular, parochial, dismissive, and generally terrible the bulk of the people in his homeland were, both to him and to others like him. He expresses to Liang, Ciren, and Luzi that he doesn't like what he's having to become to accomplish this, that he feels on the edge of a great emotional abyss that he fears he may fall into and never return from if he continues to stir up these dark feelings within himself to fuel his flame. He expresses a concern that perhaps going off into dark mental places to accomplish firebending is not a good idea, for what if Liang's theory is right, and he is the Dark Avatar, and this is the beginning of his road into darkness. He wonders if that is maybe why the spirits have avoided him his entire life. He says that he had begun to fear that when he was sent to be judged by the Dragons, they would judge him unworthy because of this darkness, and they would destroy him; but now, realizing that perhaps he is the walking embodiment of evil, he resignedly adds that maybe that would be for the best.
Liang explains to Senze that even if he were the Dark Avatar, darkness is not evil any more than light is good — and to lighten the mood, she jokingly adds that she says this as a literal lightbender herself. The Dark Spirit Vaatu is an embodiment of chaos, yes, but chaos is not evil either; freedom is chaotic, and freedom is good, isn't it? Ciren is shocked to hear Liang speaking positively of chaos and darkness and even Vaatu himself, but she is quick to add that it's all about balance, about neither vanquishing the other but rather them working together, and reminds him again that Avatar Korra spent her life trying to achieve such balance, and if either of their students are the (or an) Avatar too, they will have that task put before them as well.
Senze begs Liang, now that he can produce a flame, not to send him to the Dragons but to teach him herself, and help him to find some other emotional source for this fire, or else just be happy that he's proven he can firebend in principle and let him put this horrible phase of training behind him, and move on to airbending, which seems like it would be an emotionally healing practice in comparison. But Liang assures him that this darkness will pass; that when he sees the Dragons, they will see that his anger and pain is righteous and justified, and then they will show him... something wonderful. Something that cannot be put into words, that simply must be experienced itself. She confesses that in her youth she struggled with a darkness herself, an overzealous yearning for chaos and destruction, and though she did not come here because of it, her experiences in this place, and her judgement by the Dragons, is what enabled her to finally move completely past it and temper it into something positive. She implores him to hang on to that pain and righteous anger long enough to keep his flame alive on the harrowing journey to see the Dragons, and then they will ease that pain for him and show him another source for his flame.
He reluctantly agrees, and soon takes that journey; and sure enough, the Dragons judge him worthy, and show him a vision of multi-colored flame, the secret truth of firebending, its roots in passion of all kinds, including love, not just anger. When he returns, Senze is able to channel his full emotional being into respectable columns of flame. And then his training in actual firebending forms can begin.
But throughout all that, Luzi still has not managed to redirect even a single beam of light, and though Liang continues to urge her to try, she gives up, and tells Liang to give it up, and accept that she just isn't a firebender, just like she isn't an earthbender, and she isn't the Avatar; Senze is. What she is is a metalbender — a real metalbender, not those "mere orebenders" who've been using the term for a few generations now — and the first person to ever actually invent a wholly new form of bending out of whole cloth by learning and analyzing it with science, and that is still damn impressive. Liang is about to correct her, but doesn't get more than "What about your..." out before Luzi clarifies, "she only realized there's earth to be bent in unrefined metals. She couldn't bend pure metal any more than great-grandma or grandpa or even mom could. She was still just an earthbender, even if she was the self-proclaimed 'greatest earthbender who ever lived'. And I'm proud of her, sure, her evolution of earthbending was impressive, unprecedented even, but still just evolutionary. I'd like to think if she was still here she'd be even more proud of me, because what I've accomplished is going to be revolutionary."
When Senze's training with the Sun Warriors is complete, a special ceremony is scheduled before the Fire Nation Royal Palace. The other Masters of the White Lotus Council, even including Eska though she is wheelchair-bound and largely non-participatory, arrive for the ceremony as well. There, Senze and Liang together perform the Dancing Dragon form before the Fire Lord, which is met with great cheers of national pride; followed by a demonstration of Senze's earthbending abilities as he and Ciren spar while blindfolded, which is met with stunned silence. Grand Master Opal then announces, for the Fire Nation and the world, that Senze has clearly demonstrated his ability to both earthbend and firebend to the satisfaction of the White Lotus Council, and they are confident to now declare that he is officially the next Avatar.
The crowd erupts into a mix of cheers and boos, and it seems as though a riot might erupt, until the Fire Lord himself calls for silence, and beckons Senze to come before him. He asks what nation Senze comes from, and Senze says he is from the Cloud Forest, which the Fire Lord loudly declares "an Earth state" for the crowd. He inquires as to how Senze came to learn firebending, coming from "such a wet and dirty place", his words dripping with obvious derision. The crowd who had been booing laughs, and those who had cheered murmur among themselves, until Senze answers, swallowing the insult, that he learned from White Lotus Master Liang, and from her masters the Sun Warriors, and from their masters, the great Dragons. Seemingly bemused by this, the Fire Lord beckons Senze closer, and peers into his eyes, like peering into his soul; as he does so, the arrogant smirk theatrically melts off the Fire Lord's face, and then he loudly declares to the crowd, "This man has seen dragon fire! He has faced their judgement, and he has been deemed worthy, else he would not stand here before me today. Who among you would question the judgement of the Original Firebenders, who have not faced it yourselves?"
Loud murmurs roll like waves through the crowd, but from among them emerges a voice, Luzi's, chanting "Senze! Senze!", which is joined by more voices, and soon drowns out the murmurs of dissent. Some parts of the crowd peel away and leave the ceremony disgruntled, but the chanting remainder huddle more tightly around the Fire Lord's stage as he commands, "My people, welcome your new Avatar Senze!" to thunderous applause.
Book V: Air
After the ceremony, Grand Master Opal invites Senze to come visit the Northern Air Temple and study the Sky Bison with her. She says she likes this pattern that's emerging of learning the elements from their original sources, earthbending from the Badger-Moles and firebending from the Dragons, and thinks that this should be laid down as the pattern for all future Avatars to follow. The natural next step would be to learn airbending from the Sky Bison. Senze graciously accepts the offer, but asks if his friends who have accompanied him thus far, Liang and Ciren and Luzi, can continue to accompany him on this new leg of the journey. Opal says that Liang and Ciren really should be getting back to their duties as Masters of the White Lotus Council, especially if she is also going to be absent to guide Senze on this part of his training, but that if Luzi would like to accompany him, she is more than welcome.
Senza asks Luzi if she would like to come, and she enthusiastically agrees, which makes Senze excited as well because he thinks she is just excited to continue hanging out with him... and then she mentions that it will be great to actually get to interact with her aunt Opal for once. Senze is at first merely disappointed but then confused, and Luzi has to explain that she really means grand-aunt. Senze is still confused and asks Luzi to clarify if she means grand-aunt by marriage, or what, because how is she related to an airbender? Did Opal marry an earthbender? Luzi explains further that yes in fact she did, although uncle Bolin's been dead for a while, and he was only an uncle by marriage; Opal is her grandpa Huan's little sister. Senze is still confused about how she has airbender family, until Luzi explains about how Harmonic Convergence turned some non-benders of various nations into airbenders, and though that side of her family were mostly earthbenders, Opal was one of the non-benders who got the airbending knack bestowed upon her. Senze thinks he gets it, and elaborates "Ok, so then she married Bolin Beifong and..." before Luzi cuts him off to correct "No, we're the Beifongs." Senze states the obvious: "But you're a Lu." Luzi explains that her father's side of the family, the firebenders, are the Lus. Her mother was a Beifong and gave up the noble name after a falling-out with grandpa Huan. Senze is shocked as he realizes... "No relation to the Beifongs though? The Metal Clan, archons of Zaofu, children of the legendary...." "...great-great-grandma Toph, yeah. Those Beifongs. I thought everybody knew that."
Senze is somewhat shocked to learn that he's been... he hesitates to come up with the words, and decides on "best friends"... with basically royalty. But Luzi corrects him that the Beifongs aren't technically royalty, they don't even really like the title of "archons", as the Metal Colony doesn't really have a proper state behind its government, it's all private arrangements and public charities... it's just that the Beifongs built and own most of the Metal Colony and basically all of Zaofu. It's more like a large family business than proper royalty. And while her and her mom were technically still "on the board", so to speak, until the recent goings-on in Zaofu at least, they basically didn't ever participate, so she's just... ordinary folk, just like Senze. He complains that she's probably never had to worry about making ends meet like "some people", but hey, good for her, and good on her for keeping it real. And, he adds slightly bitterly, no wonder she got such attention from the White Lotus Council so easily, having a grand-aunt for Grand Master. Luzi is offended by that remark and angrily defends her achievements in metalbending and decries any kind of nepotism because she didn't even think for a second that she might be the Avatar until Aunt Opal heard about her from Mom and insisted on testing her, and that she never wanted any of that attention at all and it's done nothing but bring unwanted troubles for her family and their homelands... and her rant trails off as she is still angry but doesn't know what else to say about it.
Senze apologizes sincerely, saying that he just comes from such a poor background, a poor immigrant family in a poor backwards country and himself an outcast even from all that, that he found her talk about being "ordinary folk" despite being part of a "family business" that basically owns an entire country... well, it just hit a nerve with him, and he's sorry. He acknowledges that her accomplishments in metalbending are truly amazing and she totally deserved the attention of the White Lotus Council for that alone, no nepotism required, even if she weren't a potential Avatar; and that even as it turns out that he is actually the Avatar, not her, he thinks what she's done is way more impressive than that. There have been lots of Avatars, but nobody's ever singlehandedly invented a new form of bending before, not even "great-great-grandma Toph" if Luzi's account of her "orebending" is right, which Ciren seems now to agree it is, and who is Senze to question them both. Luzi cools down and accepts his apology, and he thanks her for coming with him to the Air Temple as it wouldn't be the same for him without her there... even if she is just coming to see her family. She begins to realize that Senze was disappointed that she wasn't coming along just because he asked her to, and what that could mean, and she clarifies that she is coming there to be with him too, not just to see aunt Opal. Senze is happy to hear that.
When they arrive at the Northern Air Temple, Opal introduces Senze to Monk Rohan, the head of their order, and the only surviving senior monk who was born an airbender, the grandson of Avatar Aang no less, rather than granted the knack at Harmonic Convergence. Rohan jokes that this makes Senze, in a sense, his grandfather, even though Rohan is old enough to be Senze's biological grandfather; and Rohan continues to jokingly call Senze "gramps" for the time that they are there.
Together Opal and Rohan explain what Senze is to expect in his time here. The essence of airbending is freedom and detachment, and to those ends life as an Air Nomad aims to be simultaneously ascetic and fun; to enjoy a carefree unstructured life yet without indulging the body's many appetites, so as to train the mind to be independent of those desires and to find goodness and joy in even the simplest and most empty life. As such, their quarters here provide only the most basic shelter from the elements, with hard bed-boards and structures largely open to the outside air at all times, and food and water to be gathered as needed from the surrounding landscape, picking fruits from the trees, vegetables from the gardens, and water from the streams. If he likes, Senze may spend some time tending the gardens and trees so that they may bring forth more food — Rohan says he understands that Senze is quite fond of plants — but he is encouraged to spend as much of his time as he should care to playing with the young airbender trainees, most of whom are much younger than him and much better at letting go of material concerns than a young adult like Senze is likely to be, and who can probably help him remember how to do so too.
Senze wonders when he is going to receive actual airbending training, and is told that the foregoing activities are a major part of his training. The ascetic lifestyle will help get him into the right empty state of mind, and the games taught to their children here are all forms of airbending practice, that precede the formal martial arts aspect of it once the knack for airbending at all has been demonstrated. They play an instrument, a kind of long wooden horn that produces a trance-inducing drone sound, which not only helps entrain the mind into a peaceful meditative state, but requires a special kind of circular breathing to produce, the chi analogue of which is an essential skill in successful airbending. The children race through the unpaved wilderness, jumping, ducking, and swinging over, around, and through natural obstacles in a way that teaches the quickness and agility an airbender will need, and which is enhanced by airbending itself. They love to fly kites and paper airplanes, which teaches them to understand the way that air flows, and how to interact with it. When they are more experienced, they take to hang-gliding, and learn the feel of the wind even better there. Once they have reached that point, they can glide among the herds of Sky Bison, the original airbenders, who love to play with the Air Nomad children and teach them how to not only passively coast in their gliders, but to actively soar with the use of airbending. Once Senze has demonstrated that ability, then he will be taught the circular forms that comprise the basis of martial airbending.
In addition to that, he is encouraged to meditate every morning and evening, to try to clear his mind and enter a state of emptiness. Opal believes that he will find much difficulty in this at first, because she can see that many of his chakras are cloudy and obstructed, and the negative energy pooled up in them will keep his chi from flowing clearly and smoothly. She also notices that the spirits still seem to be giving him quite a wide berth, but not like they are afraid of him... more like they are watching from a distance and trying not to get involved with him. She noticed this immediately when Senze arrived at Republic City, but thought that it was because the spirits were intentionally not intervening in the identification of the Avatar, as a way of testing humanity. Now that Senze is publicly known to be the Avatar, she is surprised they they continue to keep their distance. Senze is concerned about the darkness that was brewing within him while learning firebending, and worries still that maybe Liang's theory was correct, and even though Luzi has already given up on herself being an Avatar, maybe there really are two Avatars now and he's the Dark one and the spirits can sense that in him.
This is the first Opal has heard of this two-Avatars theory, and she dismisses it as nonsense; she insists that Senze has both light and darkness within him; that his chi is cloudy and obstructed, but she will help him find balance and clear it, and then maybe the spirits will feel more comfortable approaching him. She invites him to guided meditation with her daily. She says that this is important not only for airbending purposes, but also to help him unlock the Avatar State. Senze has read about the Avatar State, but he thought it was a defense mechanism that happened automatically when the Avatar is in mortal danger. Opal confirms that that is one function of it, but that Senze should not want to know the Avatar State only in that context, because when it is brought about like that, the Great Spirits and his past lives take over him to protect the Avatar Cycle, and Senze himself will no longer be in control. Much better, she says, to meet with the Avatar State on his own terms, by becoming spiritually clear, connecting with his inner cosmic consciousness, and bringing forth the power of the Great Spirits bound to him, and the wisdom of his past lives, at his command, rather than them simply acting through him.
And so life goes at the Air Temple for some time. Luzi joins Senze in his play with the kids, even though she has no aspirations of being an airbender herself; fun is still fun. She is less than thrilled with the ascetic living conditions here, but Senze helps her adjust to it; he's slept in trees on cold foggy nights and woken up covered in dew, and picked wild fruits and vegetables to snack on, for much of his life in the Cloud Forest, so living like that here is not that different for him, except the blanket of clouds at night is substituted by the howl of winds, and there are more rocks and roaring waterfalls and fewer trees and mossy rivers. Luzi on the other hand has always lived a life of comfort, something she never really appreciated until realizing that this hard ascetic lifestyle of these nomadic monks, something she'd always known of but imagined the distant plight of other people who chose that life, was not so unlike the life that people like Senze were simply born into and had to live with, whether they liked it or not. His offense at her "ordinary folk" comment earlier begins to make much more sense to her.
Senze learns the circular breathing, and plays the wooden horn to help himself meditate each day. He picks up the basic knack for airbending more quickly than he expected, given the difficulties that he'd had with firebending, and in a decent amount of time is hang-gliding and soaring with the Sky Bison. Monk Rohan begins to drill him in the circular forms. And meanwhile Grand Master Opal has guided him in his meditations, day after day, and cleared nearly all his chakras, except for one. The crown chakra, at the top of the head, the last gateway to one's inner cosmic consciousness, is opened by giving up all attachments, and like many before him, Senze simply cannot see how this can possibly be a good thing. How can it be enlightened to not care? Opal tries to explain to him that letting go doesn't mean not caring, it doesn't mean apathy or despair, in fact it provides a defense against them both. Someone with no attachments can still appreciate the good when it is there, and act to preserve it and create more of it; detachment simply means that if such action should fail or prove not possible, even if there is no good left and all hope is lost, one simply accepts that for what it is and moves on from there, without dwelling in defeat. It means to always keep moving forward, no matter how far back you are, even if you're sliding further back, even if all seems hopeless, it means you just always keep trying your honest best despite your expectations of hopelessness. It means accepting the hopelessness, and then trying anyway. Despite Opal's best efforts to explain it, Senze struggles to understand and accept this. How can one try without hope? Doesn't the very act of trying imply hope of success? Opal tries to explain that the act of trying creates hope, where none was before, and that dwelling in that hopelessness will prevent one from trying and so perpetuate the very hopelessness itself, which is what detachment is meant to overcome — but try as she might, getting through to Senze on the matter is proving increasingly hopeless.
In the midst of these frustrations, dire news reaches the Grand Master from the Office of the Avatar. Tensions between the Northern and Southern Earth Empires have risen since the announcement that Senze was the Avatar, presumably because their propaganda rhetoric about their necessity to perpetuate the Avatar Cycle has now been proven false, and their more base political ambitions are now laid bare, with each the only major obstacle to the other simply conquering the remainder of the Earth states and setting themselves up as the true Earth Empire by force. As they agitate on the brink of war, each has taken actions they have long threatened but held back on to preserve political capital: the Northern Earth Empire has annexed the Metal Colony by force, and the Southern Earth Empire has begun clear-cutting the Cloud Forest on their southern border for resources in the impending war. That last bit of news alarms the Grand Master most of all, for unspoken reasons Senze doesn't yet understand, but he is understandably upset about it for his own reasons as well, and about Luzi's family being in jeopardy as the Metal Colony is conquered. The Office would like their Grand Master to return to handle this situation, but Opal insists that it is all the more urgent that she now complete the new Avatar's training, as he will be essential to handling a global crisis like this. She appoints General Kai of the Air Corps to stand in her place on the Council while she is gone, to coordinate directly with Ciren, Liang, and the others on how best to stall for time while Senze's training is completed.
But this pressure only increases Senze's difficulties in giving up his attachments to the world; he cares more than ever about his and Luzi's homelands under siege and the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Opal tries to get him to put that out of his mind but he just isn't having any of it. Then one day, while hang-gliding with the Sky Bison and trying to clear his mind, a terrible idea occurs to him. He glides high into the air, separates from his glider, and with a burst of flame destroys it, leaving him plummeting into the chasms below. Grand Master Opal senses this danger and flies as quickly as she can out to save Senze, but she is too far away and too late, and cannot possibly catch him in time. But just as Senze had intended, the Avatar State kicks in, and with a burst of airbending more powerful than any witnessed in over twenty years, the Avatar rises slowly up the cliffside, eyes aglow, to stand beside Opal outside the Air Temple.
The Avatar recognizes her and addresses her, not with the formal "Grand Master" that Senze had thus far used, but with a familiar "Opal?" Then, still glowing and surrounded by swirling winds, the Avatar asks "What's wrong with my voice?" Grand Master Opal explains to Senze that he is in the Avatar State now, and that the voices of his past lives — of Korra, his only past life since the line of Avatars was broken and reforged — are speaking together with him. The Avatar repeats the name, "Senze?", as though it is unfamiliar, and then Senze's own voice fades to a whisper, and the other voice states more clearly, alone, "I am Korra. Opal, is that you? Am I... am I dead? Is this my new life?"
With tears in her eyes, the Grand Master hugs the Avatar, and says it is good to see her again, and... yes, she died twenty years ago, and was reincarnated as this young man, Senze. It's only then that Korra realizes she is speaking through a male body, which she finds very amusing. "A cute young man", she elaborates, looking down over Senze's body. "Asami and I could have had some fun with this..." she trails off. "But, I can look like myself, can't I? I know other Avatars have done that before, Roku and Kyoshi appeared through Aang..." and as she contemplates the matter, Senze's image fades away, and an aged Korra appears in his place, eyes still aglow, but voice now unmodulated, natural as her own.
She beckons Opal to sit with her and tell her everything that has happened, as she has so few images of the world at large accessible to her in the mind of this Senze, mostly images of the Cloud Forest, and the boys who were Senze's peers there, and not much else. But Opal doesn't want to catch up, not now. She implores Korra to leave Senze to be himself again, as there is a major crisis brewing in the Earth states and he must complete his training, finish his mastery of airbending and waterbending, and learn to access the Avatar State of his own accord, so that he can assume his duties and mediate this crisis. Korra suggests that since she is here now, while Senze is in the Avatar State and she is able to act through him, maybe they should take advantage of the situation and have her mediate the crisis in his stead. But Opal insists that Korra's time has passed, and she cannot go running around in the body of another person, living and risking his life as though it was her own. She had her own life, and it ran its course, and now it's time for a new Avatar, one the world has long waited for since her passing. Korra is frustrated; she feels like she left her life unfinished, the Earth states still separated and on the verge of a war that sounds like it has now come, so many esoteric kinds of bending still unmastered... and she realizes then that Opal, still hovering before her, learned to fly some time in the past two decades, and finds that very impressive.
But Opal reminds Korra that all things come to an end. Every life feels like it ended prematurely, because there is always more that could have come after, always more life that could have been lived. But nobody lives forever, and we all have to accept what life we have for what it is worth. As the Avatar, Korra is uniquely privileged in that she does get to live on forever, in a sense, reincarnating over and over again so long as the line of Avatars is unbroken. Korra seems remorseful, and mourns that when she lost to the Dark Avatar at Harmonic Convergence, and Raava was torn out of her and destroyed, she didn't only lose her own access to all her past lives, but in a sense, that was when they all really, truly died. But Opal emphasizes again that that is the fate of every living thing, that all things come to an end, and what matters is what is done with the time that is given to us. On which note, she implores Korra not to take any more of the time that has been given to Senze, but to let him live on in her place, and to be grateful that as the Avatar she gets to live on in some manner through him. And she promises that when her training of Senze is complete, and he is able to master the Avatar State, that they will meet again, on better terms; that this still is not goodbye. Korra slowly acknowledges the wisdom of Opal's words, and hopes that she can teach Senze as well as she's taught her today. Then, as her image fades and Senze's returns, and the Avatar State passes away, she says "See you soon, I hope."
Senze sits silently, blinks, and seems very disoriented. He quietly mutters, "Am I dead? Did I die? What... was that?" Opal explains what just happened, that the Avatar State took over him in his time of desperation just as she warned that it would, and that as he has only one past life to emerge in that state, it was a little different than it's usually been since probably the second Avatar some ten thousand years ago. And that Korra has always had at least as much trouble letting go of her attachments as Senze does, and didn't want to "go back to being dead" given the chance of resuming her life in his stead. She adds that air was the hardest element for Korra to learn, not because it was her natural opposite but just because of her personality, her way of approaching things being so different from the airbender way; not so unlike how Senze has difficulty with waterbending, though it should come easily to him given his place in the Avatar Cycle. Opal notices that the spirits are no longer keeping their distance from Senze anymore, but have swarmed in to encircle them, as though watching this conversation intently.
He asks her what she said to Korra to make her give up the possibility to live on again through him, and Opal repeats her message of accepting that all things end and making the most of what life we have to work with. Something about that seems to click with Senze, and he harkens back to Opal's earlier efforts to teach him about detachment: he paraphrases that just because we know that nobody ever "wins at life", everyone always dies in the end, in a sense that everyone's life is always "hopeless", that doesn't mean that we just give up on it from the moment we realize that, but we try anyway to make the most out of it that we can. That not trying, dwelling on that hopelessness, will actually make a life a hopeless waste; it is only by accepting that "failure", in a sense, is inevitable, and yet trying to do something with life anyway, that there is ever any chance of any measure of "success", however incomplete it may always be guaranteed to be. Opal is enthusiastic that Senze is finally getting it.
Senze seems to recall now something of Opal's conversation with Korra, and he repeats what Opal had said to Korra about living on through him, and being reincarnated, and how the Avatar is special in that regard. But Senze recalls things that he has read in his books before, and rebuts that the Avatar is not special in that regard. Matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, but are only recycled into different forms. The fruits of the trees become the bodies of the animals that eat them, which die and become the soil, which becomes the trees themselves again. Opal, not entirely sure where he is going with this, agrees with it nevertheless. Senze continues elaborating that although entropy still means that everything will wind down to dust eventually despite that conservation of energy, that's just back to the topic of hopelessness again, and what matters is what you do with the time that is given. And, Senze gets to his point, growing excited with the epiphany forming before him, we've got all the time in the universe to do what we can with, because through this cycle of more mundane reincarnation, everything is a part of everything, we are all made of the same stuff as the stars themselves, we were all once parts of stars ourselves and will go back to being one with them again some day, and like the roots of the great Banyan Tree that tie together through the whole Forest and stretch around the world, everything is always intrinsically connected, so there is no need to ever be attached to things out of fear of losing them, because nothing is ever really separated. "All is one, and loss is impossible" he says, as he enters the Avatar State again and begins to levitate like Opal herself, much to her surprise.
In the Avatar State, the voices of Senze and Korra speak together: "Even darkness and light, order and chaos, are one with each other within me. I am man" he says, as Korra's voice fades away leaving only Senze's, "and woman" as Senze's fades in turn and Korra's becomes more prominent again. "I am dead" she says, "and alive" Senze finishes. Others at the Air Temple who had watched from a distance since Opal took off to save Senze begin to crowd in closer to witness this spectacle now, as a torrent of spirits swirl around them all. Together the combined voice of the Avatar continues: "I am fire and water, earth and air... wood and metal... matter and spirit. I am everything!" The Avatar begins to sound almost dangerously maniacal on that note, but then the Avatar State drops suddenly away, and Senze himself remains levitating, and concludes quietly, humbly, speaking more to himself than to anyone else present: "Yet I am nothing. I am just myself. Just one person. Just... ordinary folk." He makes eye contact with Luzi on that point, and puts his feet down to stand instead of levitating. He elaborates, in his own manner of speech, that all of that goes for all of the rest of the world too. We are all one with the cosmos, we are all wells of greatness and contradiction, but we're all, also, just ordinary folk. "Even royalty", he winks at Luzi. "Even the Grand Master", adds Opal solemnly, herself stopping her levitation to stand again, like ordinary folk. "Even the Avatar" concludes Senze, then looking at Luzi he asks her, the slightest tinge of worry in his voice, "Please don't ever let me forget that."
Visibly shaken by the experience, Senze begins to walk away from the gathered crowd. Opal follows him and comments on how rare an ability flight is, with only two known practitioners in all of history prior to herself, and how amazing it is how quickly Senze picked it up. She says she studied it her entire life through the writings of Guru Laghima, and was only able to let go enough to accomplish it after the last of her immediate family died over the past few decades, and she approached death's door herself. Laghima himself is the only one known to have ever accomplished it without losing everyone he ever loved first... until Senze apparently.
Senze explains that Korra is the one to credit there. She had already learned its principles from someone who had mastered it, but could never quite get over the "give up all attachments" part of it to really master it herself. Opal helped her learn that last step -- if she can let go of her very life itself and accept being dead, she can very well let go of anything else too -- and then when Senze was able to enter the Avatar State himself, willingly and without jeopardy, Korra's training and that last step came together and they saw how it was possible.
Opal is very surprised, and asks who Korra could possibly have learned it from, with suspicion in her voice like she already knows the answer. Senze isn't able to say much, saying that he didn't see much that made much sense to him of Korra's experiences while it happened, but that he saw that her body looked aglow and transparent, like a spirit — Opal concludes, "astral projection" — and that she was meditating like that in a cavern deep underground, with a old man who was floating yet chained to the floor. Opal is very disturbed by this, her fears appearing to be validated, but she will not tell Senze more about why just yet, not until she understands what this could mean.
After Opal departs, Senze has his first conversation with the spirits, who confirm that they have been keeping their distance from him as part of waiting to see if the Great Spirits of Raava and Vaatu will redeem mankind or not; and now that Senze has reconnected with them in the Avatar State, it appears to the spirits that they have. Senze, realizing they have known his entire life that he was the Avatar, wishes they would have just told him so; but they thought he was waiting and undecided on whether to save mankind or let them destroy themselves, because of the way he distanced himself from his own people. He asks them if they can tell whether Luzi is an Avatar or not, if the two-Avatars theory is correct and if so, which spirit is he. They confirm that Luzi is not an Avatar, and that the Great Spirits of Raava and Vaatu are both bound within himself. He asks them, and asks to make it known throughout the Spirit World, that the Avatar wishes that in the future they would always aid humanity in identifying his next incarnation, both for his sake, and for the sake of the whole world.
In private later that night, Opal and Luzi are catching up, and Opal says that she's honestly kind of glad that Luzi didn't turn out to be the Avatar, because that Avatar business can get pretty scary and she wouldn't want that to come between family. Luzi agrees, and describes Senze in the Avatar State as "glorious and terrifying". On the subject of not being the Avatar, Opal tries unnecessarily to console Luzi that she is still extremely special and unique even if she isn't the Avatar; even great-great-grandma Toph would be impressed with bending pure unrefined metal "like it was plain dirt". Luzi is a little let down by this attempted consolation — a little upset that people kept trying to build her up when she was pretty sure before they even left Omashu that she wasn't the Avatar — and points out, almost sarcastically downplaying the significance of her achievement in a begrudging attempt to "play along" with the consolation by acting humble, that Senze was able to pick up metalbending from her pretty damn quickly, and that he also singlehandedly invented woodbending which had completely stumped even great-great-grandma Toph. Opal, warm-heartedly but somewhat blindly, attempts to console Luzi further by pointing out that even if Senze did invent another form of bending himself, she's still one of only two people who've ever done that, and that's still really damn impressive, even if she's not the Avatar. Luzi is frustrated that her aunt just doesn't understand, and excuses herself to go brood alone.
While she's sitting in a funk over that matter — more upset that people expect her to be special in a particular way than upset that she's not living up to those expectations, and upset that they're treating her historic achievement in metalbending like it's just a consolation prize — Senze comes across her while walking about himself, trying to wrap his own mind around the events of the day. She greets him, and says that "that was something" earlier, at a loss for words otherwise. He is similarly at a loss, and just responds "something, alright", still unsure what to make of it himself. He asks her if she's out here mulling over that, over him, or if she's got something else personal she's dwelling on. She tells him how tired she is of the pressure to be the Avatar, and the lingering after-effects of it even now that it's clear that she's not — and she thanks him for being the Avatar instead, so that she doesn't have to deal with it anymore. She explains how, no offense to Senze, she's sick of everyone acting like the only way to be special and important is to be the friggin' Avatar, and that her completely unprecedented revolution in bending is being overlooked as just some curiosity, maybe something that would indicate that she was the Avatar, but nothing really important in its own regard if not.
Senze reveals that the spirits confirmed to him that she is not in fact the Avatar, and that they knew all along that he was, and expresses how this whole business has been a headache for him too, and how he wishes the spirits would have just set things straight to begin with and spared everyone a lot of trouble... including even the war brewing between the Earth states, which had the absence of an Avatar as a major pretense... and including with that the threats now hanging over both their homelands as a consequence.
He also sympathizes and agrees that everyone's attitudes about Luzi's metalbending are bullshit, and then realizes something that might cheer her up on that point: if Opal's idea of all future Avatars learning about the elements from their historical sources pans out, then every single future Avatar will be studying her life as part of their training for all of future history. She's up there now with Sky Bison, Badger-Moles, Dragons, and the frickin' Moon itself in the pantheon of Original Benders. He suggests that future Avatars will study the line from Toph Beifong to Lunzhen Lu as the people who conquered metal, the element that had to be wrested control of by human ingenuity, unlike all the others. Luzi points out that Senze himself would be a part of that pantheon as well, but he reminds her that he learned it directly from the trees, especially from the great Banyan Tree itself, and suggests that future Avatars will make a pilgrimage there to learn their woodbending from the roots up — pun intended.
With the Avatar State mastered, Senze makes quick work of mastering the rest of airbending, being able to recall it expertly from his past life as Korra now. He practices his earthbending and firebending as well, and finds that they are likewise refined and perfected easily with just a quick drop into the Avatar State. With those more perfected bending arts, he feels that he can further refine his metalbending as well, and requests special extra lessons with Luzi to do so. Working together with him, and with her own earthbending and firebending knacks strengthened from her nevertheless-failed attempts to learn those arts, she finds that she is able to refine her metalbending to an art-form comparable to the traditional bending arts, and Senze is able to keep up with her and push her further still. The two of them bond even more closely through that experience.
Book VI: Water
When Grand Master Opal is satisfied that Senze has mastered his airbending, she schedules a flight to the Northern Water Tribe to visit Master Eska and complete his training. Eska's caretakers warn that she is very ill and will not be able to engage in much actual bending herself, but she would gladly meet the new Avatar at least and oversee his waterbending training, which she expects will come easily to him as it is the closest to his native element and he now has Korra's experience to draw upon through the Avatar State. Opal will accompany the Avatar there and greet her old friend Eska again, but then she must leave him to the care of Eska's entourage, as Opal must return to the Office of the Avatar as soon as possible to help mediate the growing conflict between the rival Earth Empires. Luzi asks if she may be permitted to travel with Senze as well, and Opal says she will arrange for that, if it is what Senze would like. Senze says he would like that very much, as she has been his constant companion through this whole journey and it is only fitting that she be there as he completes his training.
So they depart from the Northern Air Temple to the Northern Water Tribe, only to find upon arrival that during their time in flight, Master Eska has finally passed away. Opal is saddened to learn of her friend's passing, but accepts it as the inevitable outcome that has been nearing for quite some time anyway. Senze is sad to hear that she's passed, and feels some personal connection there when he learns that Eska was Avatar Korra's cousin and so in a roundabout sense also a relative of his own, but he still has the pressing matters of the threat to his real family and homeland on his mind, and wonders who will train him in waterbending now, or if he can't maybe just skip that and start dealing with real problems. Opal insists that Senze must complete his Avatar training before he can take his place — in her place — as the head of the Office of the Avatar and involve himself in these affairs, but she assures him that they will find him a new waterbending master in short order, as there are plenty to choose from here at the north pole, but they must pay brief respects to Eska first before they can move on to replacing her. Senze has an idea for who might be able to teach him instead, though he's from the Southern Water Tribe, not the North, but Opal says discussing that can wait until after the funeral.
The other members of the White Lotus Council fly to the north pole to attend and speak at Eska's funeral. Senze and Luzi are both pleased to see Ciren and Liang again, though not in the circumstances they would have hoped for. They have both heard of Senze's mastery of the Avatar State and are impressed to see him progressing so quickly now given the difficulties he had with his first two elements. Luzi is quick to correct them to "four elements" — wood, earth, metal, and fire — and to point out that it is not surprising that he has mastered one more element more quickly than it took to master over half the cycle, including the most challenging opposite element. Senze nods in agreement, and reminds them that they are speaking not only to the latest Avatar, himself, but to the Original Metalbender, Lunzhen Lu, whose legacy all future Avatars will study alongside the other Original Benders. The Masters take the Avatar's word for it that there are officially six elements now, without further question, and give Luzi the respect she is due as well.
Another unexpected guest shows up at Eska's funeral: Anshui, Senze's first waterbending master. Anshui has been following Senze on the news and is impressed with his progress, and happy to learn that his assessment of Senze's potential was correct; and happy to have helped the world to find its new Avatar. Senze is surprised to see him there, but Anshui asks why it is so surprising that one elderly waterbending master should have been acquainted with another, or even if not, that he should show up to pay his respects to the former Chief of the Northern Water Tribe, and grand-niece of Yue the Moon Spirit herself. Senze is surprised to hear that someone was related to the moon, and Anshui explains how over a century and a half ago, near the end of the Hundred Years War, Princess Yue of the Northern Water Tribe sacrificed her life to save the world after the original Moon Spirit, Tui, had been destroyed by the Fire Nation. Senze is confused as to how it is possible to kill something like the Moon Spirit, and Anshui promises that while they are here at the north pole, Senze must be taken to see the Spirit Oasis where the Moon and Ocean spirits reside in corporeal form, where all will become clear. Senze is excited to have that opportunity.
The first speaker at Eska's funeral is Opal, who speaks fond words of her old friend, and reminds the rest of those in attendance that Eska would not want them to mourn. The other Masters of the White Lotus Council all speak in turn of how her presence at the Office of the Avatar has been missed as her illness took her from them, of how she will be missed in the future, and of what big shoes she has left behind to be filled. Others of Eska's family and friends speak as well, and then the congregation disbands in a solemn, yet not dark, mood.
In the aftermath of the funeral, Senze introduces Opal to Anshui, his first waterbending master, and suggests that he is the one who could finish his waterbending training as well. Anshui introduces himself and says that he had been acquainted with Eska and had the greatest respect for her, and hopes that he can fill her shoes as the new Avatar's waterbending instructor. Opal says that she will trust Senze's judgement if he truly thinks Anshui is the greatest waterbending master to learn from in Eska's absence, but asks why such an aged and apparently esteemed waterbending master has not applied to join the White Lotus, or even had distant contact with them, as Opal has never even heard his name to her recollection. Anshui simply replies that he has had other priorities in life. Opal seems slightly suspicious about that, and asks pointedly if his "other priorities" involved finding the new Avatar before they did. Anshui points out that he is the one who sent Senze to meet the White Lotus to begin with, and that he has always had the greatest respect for their expertise; their mission in life is simply not his own. Opal accepts that, but retains a kernel of suspicion still.
Anshui asks Opal if she can arrange a trip for them to visit the Spirit Oasis, so that Senze can witness the incarnate spirits of Yue and La first hand, and see how it was that Yue would need to make her historic sacrifice after Tui's death. Opal says that she can arrange that, and excuses herself to do so. While she is gone, Anshui notes that the spirits are no longer avoiding Senze. Senze acknowledges that and relates how they returned to his presence after he unlocked the Avatar State, and how they explained to him why they had kept their distance, and how much he wishes they had not. Then Opal returns, and escorts them both to an official Water Tribe state vehicle, part of the Chief's Guard supervising Eska's funeral, that will take them to the entrance of the Spirit Oasis. Inside, Senze witnesses the two koi fish that are the mortal forms of Yue and La, the Moon and Ocean spirits. Opal relates how the first waterbenders learned to waterbend from the push and pull of the moon and ocean, which is reflected in the swirling of the two fish around each other, and that this is thus the ideal place for Senze to learn his waterbending.
But Anshui had thought that he would teach Senze waterbending back in the Southern Water Tribe, where his usual school and other duties are. Opal isn't sure what she thinks about that idea, as she really likes the idea of the Avatar learning each bending art from the original benders of that element. But Senze points out that if it is the moon who was the original waterbender, then that means waterbending can be learned anywhere, as the moon is visible from anywhere in the world. Anshui finds that insightful, and Opal reluctantly agrees. She says she will arrange for transport for Senze to the Southern Water Tribe, but Anshui says that they can both come back with him the way he came: through the Spirit Portals. Senze is excited to have an opportunity to see the Spirit World, and Opal actually agrees that that would be an educational experience for the new Avatar. Anshui asks if they should be off immediately then, so that Opal can get back to her important business at the Office of the Avatar and Senze can complete his training as soon as possible, but Senze says first he has to find Luzi because he can't go running off without her.
Anshui is surprised to hear that Senze has "met a girl". Senze begins to rave about what an amazing person she is and the incredible things she has accomplished, before bashfully describing her as the best friend he's ever had, with some hesitation on exactly how to phrase that. Anshui says "I see" in a knowing tone, as though he has read between the lines of Senze's words and will not speak of the secrets hidden there. Meanwhile Opal excuses herself to fly off to find Luzi and tell her the news and ask her if she would like to accompany Senze to the Southern Water Tribe to complete his training there; the Grand Master would appreciate her taking up the offer, so that she will know that someone trustworthy is keeping an eye on Senze in strange territory. Luzi is more than happy to come along, and wouldn't think of leaving Senze to finish his training alone, and knows that Senze wouldn't like that either. Opal is glad, and the two of them return to Senze and Anshui, to accompany them through the Spirit Portal.
The Chief's Guard vehicle drives them to the true north pole, where the northern Spirit Portal lies. The four of them walk off into it together, and find themselves in the Spirit World. Senze is amazed at what he sees; Luzi less so, as she has ventured into the Spirit Wilds of Republic City and entered the Spirit World through there plenty of times before, but she is still impressed to be visiting this part of it, the site of the legendary Tree of Time. Opal and Anshui tell the story in turns of how these portals were opened by Vaatu over twenty thousand years ago, then sealed by the first Avatar Wan ten thousand years later after imprisoning Vaatu inside the Tree of Time, then reopened again by Avatar Korra during the most recent Harmonic Convergence. Though the two portals appear remarkably nearby in the Spirit World, they connect to opposite poles of the Earth in the physical world, and their reopening has allowed the northern and southern Water Tribes to grow closer than ever over the past century.
They pass through the other portal and emerge at the south pole. A Southern Water Tribe state park facility of sorts is there, and Anshui's vehicle is parked nearby. Senze and Luzi say their goodbyes to Opal, who implores them to keep an eye on each other. They remind her that they are two of the more powerful and downright feared benders in the world and that they could handle themselves even if Anshui were anything to be worried about, which he's not. Opal trusts them to their own best judgement, and to Anshui's care, then passes back through the Spirit Portal to return to the north pole and from there, back to the Office of the Avatar to resume handling other important world matters, as though the passing of a Master of the White Lotus Council and the completion of the new Avatar's training weren't important enough.
Anshui arranges accommodations for Senze and Luzi at his waterbending school at the Southern Water Tribe capital. He states his assumption that they would prefer separate dorms; Luzi ambivalently says she is OK with whatever is least inconvenient, and Senze shyly, hesitantly, agrees that maybe separate dorms would be best. Luzi seems slightly disappointed, but also seems to find Senze's shyness somewhat cute. So Anshui finds them two adjacent private dorms, in the quietest part of the most empty dorm building at the school, so that they can still keep each other company and be the least bothered by other students at the school as possible.
When his first private waterbending class beings, Senze apologizes to Anshui for being so reluctant to try waterbending before, but that now that he has mastered all of the other elements, including powering through some that were quite difficult for him, he thinks he can give a better effort at it this time. Anshui says that he believes Senze only has a mental hangup with waterbending, at least subconsciously finding it representative of the ugly culture he grew up immersed in and oppressed by, because normally water should be one of the easiest elements for him to bend, whether he is a waterbender or an earthbender or a... he hesitates to ask, "you're ok with the term 'woodbender' now right?", which Senze affirms, both that he is OK with that word now and that that is what he is, just like Luzi is the first true metalbender. Anshui finds this new six-element cycle intriguing, but back to the lesson: he hopes that he will be able to help Senze overcome his hangups with waterbending by showing him the elegant beauty of true Southern Style waterbending, which is very different from the deviant style of it practiced by the Foggy Swampers, just as his people are very different from them.
Senze says that he has heard that the earliest form of waterbending, predating learning it from the moon and ocean, was a kind of rain-dance, and that he thinks he would like to start there, as he thinks that sounds like a form of waterbending that he could best appreciate. Anshui is reluctant to teach it, as it is so weak and useless compared to other forms of waterbending that nobody bothers with it anymore, but he agrees to teach it to Senze anyway, if it will help ease him into the art better. And Senze, dropping a bit of Avatar State into it, actually gets a remarkably quick and powerful result, summoning first a snowstorm, that he phase-shifts into a rainstorm instead, which he then dissipates. Anshui notes that normally the effects of the rain-dance are not nearly so instantaneous; the ancient waterbenders would dance at the full moon to summon rain sometime in the following week, or dance it nightly to keep the skies clear for fishing parties at sea, and that once waterbending proper was rediscovered people generally didn't bother with large-scale weather control anymore since it was so much less effective than just bending the water immediately around them. Senze guesses that power like that is a perk of being the Avatar.
Over the following days Anshui moves on to show Senze the beauty of Southern Style waterbending, practicing in the crisp cold night air, out on the ice shores, pulling swells from the water, freezing it, thawing it, making it snow. As expected, Senze is able to pick it up much more quickly now, with his prior training familiarizing him with the principles, and the help of the occasional dip into the Avatar State. Applying knowledge from Luzi's more scientific analysis of bending, Senze also figures out how to boil water into steam on his own, something Anshui has seen before but is still impressed by. Senze inquires as to whether it is this waterbending ability to phase-shift water that allows the Moon and Ocean spirits to maintain the Spirit Oasis in the north, melting the snow around there into the pool they swim in, and allowing warm-weather grasses and flowers to bloom in the wet soil around it. Anshui confirms that it is so, but notes that it is not a uniquely waterbending trick to heat or cool an element, but that water is just the one where the effects are most readily apparent, as water is the only element that exhibits solid, liquid, and gaseous phases at moderate temperatures. But earthbenders, he notes, can heat or cool rock too; it's only the ones who are exceptionally powerful at it who can heat rock to its melting point and thus lavabend. Airbenders too can heat or cool air, though it would take even greater power to cool air enough to liquify even the nitrogen content of it, and to Anshui's knowledge that ability has not been exhibited in history.
Firebenders likewise can of course heat things readily, and though he's not aware of anyone doing so, he imagines they would in principle be able to reverse the process, and draw heat out of things as well. Senze reflects on his lightbending training, and how firebenders draw energy from the sun to power their firebending, and Anshui acknowledges that that is likely tantamount to what he is talking about. Lastly, Senze wonders aloud how this would apply to metalbending and woodbending; if a powerful-enough metalbender could melt the metal, which Anshui suggests would be easier than lavabending; and if a woodbender could combust wood or... other organic materials, which he hesitates to speak of out loud, although Anshui looks aghast like he knows what Senze means anyway. Senze is quick to add that such an ability would help to extinguish such fires as well.
When Anshui tells Senze that his waterbending training is complete, and that he had better be off now back to the Office of the Avatar to take his place in charge of it at last, Senze asks first if there is any kind of... secret elite waterbending technique known only to the original masters. Anshui says he doesn't understand, and Senze gives the examples of earth-sight used by Badger-moles, invisibility used by the Sun Warriors, and flight used by the Sky Bison. He demonstrates the latter two of these for emphasis, touching the Avatar State, levitating, and then vanishing from sight. As Senze floats invisibly in circles around Anshui, Anshui hesitates to give such a powerful bender as Senze even more power, but reveals at least that there is a technique that can counter his own skills -- and without even searching with his eyes, Anshui gently punches Senze in the gut, even while he is invisible and levitating and off to the side of Anshui, simply to prove that he knows where he is nevertheless.
Senze wants to know how Anshui knew that, but Anshui can only say that it is a closely-guarded secret ability the practitioners of which don't even want the existence of it generally known, and he especially hesitates to make it known to the Avatar who will then remember it in all his regenerations thereafter. It is something that nobody teaches, that won't be found in any waterbending text or history book, an ability that nobody will admit to having, but something that he suspects most old advanced waterbenders at least develop an inkling of. He notes that Master Eska had this ability as well; not that they learned it from the same source, but those with the ability can tell when others have the ability, and then they needn't speak of it. It's why Opal could never prank Eska; Anshui says that Opal suspected Eska of having the ability, even though she doesn't actually know for certain that it even exists, as it's kept so secret. Senze wonders how Anshui knows so much about the interpersonal relationships of members of the White Lotus if he's not one of them and doesn't really know them all that well, and he says that he can just tell after meeting them. Anshui expects that Senze may likely discover this ability on his own sooner than others would, not only because he's the Avatar but just because of his own unique characteristics, but that he cannot teach it to him outright, as that would require to say aloud what the ability is, and thus to make it known to the world. Senze is impressed and extremely curious, but respects the secrecy, for now.
Before returning to Republic City to assume his place in the Office of the Avatar, Senze asks Anshui one more favor. He would like, as his first action as the official fully-realized Avatar, to bring a proposal before the Office to have the Southern Water Tribe, the closest relatives and allies to his own people in the Cloud Forest, come to the aid of his people in enforcing the treaty protecting the Forest from the Southern Earth Empire's encroachment. So while he's still here, before he makes this proposal to the Office, he would like it if Anshui can use his influence to get him an audience with the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe, so that at the Office he needs only to seek international approval of the action, and has the Water Tribe already backing him. Anshui says he will see what he can do.
Book VII: War
Anshui himself has little in the way of political connections, but with Senze already internationally known as the new Avatar since his big presentation in the Fire Nation, Anshui is able to arrange a meeting with the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe simply by revealing that he has been secretly training the new Avatar at his school for soem time now, and that said new Avatar wishes to meet with the Chief first before returning to Republic City. Not to let the Fire Lord have more connections to the new Avatar than himself, and happy that it is the South rather than the North to whom Senze is coming, the Chief is glad to meet with the Avatar. As to Senze's actual request, the Chief is hesitant to commit to unilateral action against the Southern Earth Empire, but he does pledge his nation's support to any international action taken in defense of the Cloud Forest and the upholding of the Treaty of Korra that protects it under international law.
The Chief is also happy to escort Senze, and his waterbending master Anshui, to their next destination, the Office of the Avatar in Republic City, via the Southern Spirit Portal and Republic City's Spirit Wilds. Senze requests that Luzi come as well, and the Chief says that course "his friend" can come, though Luzi is quick to correct the Chief that she is not just some friend, she is the Avatar's metalbending master, and Senze adds that she is in fact the Original Metalbender, clarifying what they mean by that when the Chief asks about Toph. As they travel the portals, Senze asks Anshui why he had to walk all the way through the Forest to the United Republic instead of just coming here and taking the spirit route. Anshui explains that the spirit portals are national parks of the Water Tribes, with travel to them regulated, and some random waterbending teacher with yet another claimant to possibly be the Avatar doesn't have the kind of clout to arrange for such a thing. The Chief confirms that had Senze not been vetted by the White Lotus already, he probably never would have been able to meet with the Chief or get access to the portals like this, though the Chief does apologize for the hardships Senze had to endure in lieu of such conveniences.
When they arrive in Republic City, the Chief identified himself to the park staff on the borders of the Spirit Wilds, and requests they arrange an escort to the Office of the Avatar. There, at last, in a ceremony broadcast to the whole world, before the President of the United Republic, the Fire Lord, the Chiefs of both Water Tribes, Monk Rohan, the heads of the various Earth states, and the Order of the White Lotus -- with Luzi and Anshui also present as his metal- and waterbending masters -- Senze is officially dubbed the fully realized Avatar, and offered his official seat as the head of the Office of the Avatar. After the ceremony, off camera and away from the rest of the world leaders, Senze says that he also wants to be on the White Lotus Council, as the world's only and thus premier woodbending master; and he wants Luzi on there as well, as the world's only and thus premier metalbendiing master. There are protests, both about the new elements but especially about their age. Liang and especially Ciren vouch for the new six-element system, over Opal and especially Buwan's objections. The latter object most to their young age, and Ciren and especially Liang can't really argue with that, but Senze asks if they would do it had Avatar Korra asked. Opal says she probably would have deferred to her judgement, then realized the trap she's walked into as Senze drops into the Avatar state and lets Korra herself speak through him. She convinces the council, and Senze and Luzi are both appointed as Masters of the White Lotus, and given seats on its Council.
Senze and Luzi together segue discussion of the new six element cycle into the importance of protecting the Cloud Forest and Metal Colony from being absorbed into any Earth Empire. They are to be the seats of two new nations, and must be kept independent. After the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe conveys to the Office of the Avatar his nation's conditional support of an international effort to defend the Cloud Forest from Southern Earth Empire aggression, a conference is held at the Office of the Avatar to seek international approval for such a joint action. Approval is granted by the Air Corps and the United Forces, the Army of Ba Sing Se, and a mix of the still-independent Earth states including Omashu. But the Fire Nation thinks this is a terrible idea because the Southern Earth Empire have spirit weapons. The others argue that that's why it's so important to keep them out of the Cloud Forest, which they're seizing primarily for access to its spirit vines. The Fire Nation still votes against action, but pledges they will not act against the others in their international effect.
Luzi, speaking on behalf of the Metal Colony even though she has been disavowed by them because they have no representatives present -- having recently been seized by the Northern Earth Empire, who do not engage with the Office of the Avatar -- asks what anyone plans to do about that situation. But while most everyone agrees that it's important to keep the Southern Earth Empire out of the Cloud Forest, because of the balance of power that would shift if they had that kind of access to spirit vines, the Water Tribes and United Republic don't think liberating the Metal Colony is high enough priority to be fighting that fight at the same time as the war for the Forest. Omashu and Ba Sing Se would commit to an international effort to help liberate a fellow Earth state from an empire that threatens them both as well, and the Air Corps inherently oppose all wars of aggression, but without the backing of other major powers none of them can commit to unilateral action. The Fire Nation thinks that of the two conflicts, a war for the Metal Colony is the much safer fight, but with the other major military powers backing out of that (the smaller Earth states and the Air Corps being comparatively minor military powers), the Fire Nation does not want to bear the brunt of that fight all by themselves. So the invasion of the Metal Colony, while officially condemned by the Office of the Avatar, is not scheduled for large-scale military intervention.
As the joint military operation is deployed to the northern border of the Cloud Forest, Senze himself returns at last to his home to personally deliver the news of their salvation. He requests that Luzi accompany him, and though she would prefer to stay at the Office and continue urging some kind of action to liberate her homeland, when it is clear that that is going nowhere for now, she accepts Senze's invitation to see his homeland the way he got to see hers before. Senze is hailed by his former tormentors as a returning hero, and he graciously accepts their apologies for their mistreatment in the past, including the "woodbender" remarks, though Senze clarifies that that is in fact the proper name of his new style of bending, and should not be considered a pejorative. In private later, Luzi asks Senze for clarification of why "woodbender" would be pejorative, and he awkwardly explains the innuendo in it, and that it was meant to insult his homosexuality. Luzi is taken aback by this revelation, because all this time, she thought that romance was slowly blooming between her and Senze. He is surprised by that revelation in turn, and awkwardly explains that he just really likes Luzi as a person, a friend, a colleague, even a teacher, she's sort of the first best friend he's ever had, and he's sorry if he gave her the wrong impression. She asks, uncomfortably, if Senze will not then breed any more woodbenders; will he be the first and last and only one? He in turn points out what Luzi said before, that the other half-breed "non-benders" back in his home country could probably learn woodbending just like he did if only they could stop and listen to what the wood had to teach them itself. He asks Luzi if she plans on singlehandedly breeding a whole metal nation herself, and she realizes the ridiculousness of that line of thought, and her own plans to teach the eligible "non-benders" of the world how to bend pure metals, and they laugh it all off together.
As the war for the Cloud Forest wages on, the Northern Earth Empires takes this opportunity to launch its own long-planned war against the Southern Earth Empire, now that the south is distracted by the war on their own southern border. But with the north now distracted by that, Luzi once again brings up the topic of liberating the Metal Colony with Senze and the rest of the White Lotus, hoping they will reconvene a meeting of world leaders to reconsider the matter now that the Northern Earth Empire is weakened by a war on another front. Liang seconds Luzi's motion, and Senze backs her as well, but Opal, Buwan, and Ciren object. With Eska gone, that is a tied vote, and Senze as the Avatar breaks the tie, so the White Lotus officially moves to call a meeting of world leaders again to reconsider the matter. At that meeting, aside from the updated strategic situation thanks to the war between the rival Earth Empires, Luzi argues that unlike most of the independent Earth states, the Metal Colony is itself a party to the Treaty of Korra, the law uniting the nations together under the Office of the Avatar, in mutual diplomacy and defense. So when the north attacked the Metal Clan, the rest of the world was already obligated to intervene. The General of the United Forces argues that the invasion of the Metal Colony was officially condemned by Office, but the war for the Cloud Forest had to take priority, so their non-intervention was justifiable; but, with this change in the strategic situation, he is willing to commit some of the United Forces to a joint international action, if the previous supporters of such action are still willing to commit as well. Omashu, Ba Sing Se, and the Air Nomads are as eager to come to the Metal Colony's defense as ever, and the Fire Nation happily agrees to coordinate with them all now that another heavy hitter like the United Forces has committed to action. The Water Tribes decline to assist, still concentrating the bulk of their efforts on the war for the Cloud Forest and lacking sufficient resources to contribute to yet another front.
In time, both that operation for the liberation of the Metal Colony and the defense of the Cloud Forest are successful, as the North and Southern Earth Empires turn their war efforts mostly on each other and abandon their expansionist enterprises to instead focus on holding their core territories. But the rest of the Earth states are then caught in the crossfire, and the new Avatar has his first global crisis on his hands. Conferring once again with the rest of the world leaders, Senze suggests that the old Earth Confederacy idea be reimplemented amongst the still independent Earth states, but rather than centered on Ba Sing Se, it be centered on the much smaller and less aggressive Omashu, a city which was founded on ending a war between neighboring Earth states. The six nations of the world -— including not only Fire, Air, and Water, and the United Republic, but also the Metal Colony and the Cloud Forest now —- all swear their military support of this new Earth Confederacy, if it should come to be, against both the northern and southern aggressors. Mostly because Ba Sing Se agrees not be in charge, the proposal is gradually accepted by the various smaller Earth states, and the Earth Confederacy, Avatar Korra's last unfinished project, comes into being at last. A protracted war is then fought defending it, aided as promised by the other six nations of the world, as both the Northern and Southern Earth Empires fight each other to exhaustion around its borders.
But as the war between the rival Earth Empires grows more desperate, the international community fears that it may soon escalate to the use of banned spirit weapons, which would be a world-ending catastrophe, mutually assured destruction, with no winners. There has been over the past generation something of a spirit weapon arms race. The United Republic has always the foremost power in that respect due to their Spirit Wilds, and the Metal Colony retained some of it from Kuvira's army and from co-developing the technology with the United Republic. The Southern Water Tribe come to possess the technology as well due to their trade relations with their kin in the Cloud Forest, the world's largest source of the spirit vines that power the technology, and the Northern Water Tribe negotiated for it from Southern. The Fire Nation hesitantly joined the club as well via espionage (lightbending being suspected), and plausibly deniable piracy of materials from the Cloud Forest, because everybody else had world-ending super-weapons so they thought they probably should too. The Cloud Forest itself, despite being the home of most of the necessary fuel, have lacked the technology to weaponize the spirit vines; and the various Earth powers, while in principle understanding the technology, have not had access to the necessary fuel until the Southern Earth Empire's recent forays into the Cloud Forest. Only the Air Nomads, of all the peoples of the world, have had the means and opportunity to acquire such weaponry but have flatly refused to abuse spirit energy in that way. The mutually assured destruction should any one of these world powers deploy their spirit weapons has kept the world relatively safe from them until now, but with the unstable Southern Earth Empire now in possession of them and seeming desperate enough to use them, it is feared that there may soon be nothing that can be done, militarily or politically, to prevent what seems to be an inevitable catastrophe.
On the eve of such destruction, Anshui covertly contacts Senze, having had little contact with him since his christening, and invites him to a meeting in the spirit world to discuss a matter of grave importance in private. There in the spirit world, away from prying eyes, Anshui asks him if he is familiar with the Order of the Red Lotus. Senze remembers reading about them somewhere, but all he can recall is that they were some kind of terrorist organization that tried to kill Avatar Korra. He suddenly wonders if the matter Anshui wanted to discuss was something about the Red Lotus being somehow behind this long-standing conflict over the former Earth Kingdom, backing one or both of the claimants to the Earth Empire. Anshui quickly dismisses that hypothesis, and clarifies that rather than backing tyrannies like the Earth Empires, "we oppose them". It takes a Senze a moment to catch the implication, and they are quickly concerned for Senze's safety, alone here in the spirit world with a powerful member of a terrorist organization best known for trying to kill the Avatar. But Anshui quickly assures them that Senze is in no danger, that he is not there to hurt him, but to offer him help in these dire, world-threatening circumstances, and to ask for his help in that same endeavor. They must work together, Anshui says, to save the world, in a manner that the White Lotus cannot.
Senze is intrigued enough to at least listen to Anshui's story. Anshui tells him that while it's true that former members of the Red Lotus once planned and tried to kill Avatar Korra last century, they did so out of no malice to her personally, but out of a drive to rebalance the world, which had been out of balance ever since the Great Spirits of Ravaa and Vaatu were separated at the start of the First Age of the Avatar, over ten thousand years ago. They had aimed to sever the confinement of Ravaa within the human spirit with which she was bound in the Avatar, allowing her to be reborn again within Vaatu, still trapped here in the spirit world at that time, thus restoring the world to its natural order. But a defector from their order, Avatar Korra's own uncle Unalaq, instead aimed to accomplish that same goal by becoming himself an Avatar of Vaatu, to counterbalance the traditional Avatar of Raava. He failed in that mission, as did the rest of the Red Lotus of that time in theirs, but on the eve of their failure the last of the old Red Lotus realized that balance had been restored after all, in its own unexpected way: after Unalaq's defeat, Vaatu was instead reborn again within Raava, her once again bound to the human spirit of Avatar Korra; and so Korra, the last of the old Avatars of Raava, became also the first balanced Avatar of both Raava and Vaatu together, a legacy that Senze has now inherited. Senze says that he has heard this spiritual story before, and relates the time in his training when it was feared that the spirits had reincarnated separately and either he or Luzi might be just a Dark Avatar. Anshui says he has heard of those concerns during their training. Senze asks from whom, but Anshui evades the question, and instead says that his point in retelling this story is to assure him that the Red Lotus means no harm to the Avatar, because their only motive for opposing the Avatar back in those days has been gone since their old order, upon their defeat, realized the indirect success of Unalaq's plan. And furthermore, Anshui says, it is only because of the Avatar that their order still exists following the defeat of its former members.
Avatar Korra, he says, came to appreciate some of the values of the Red Lotus, and re-founded the order herself, in secret, after studying with the last of the survivors of the old order, Zaheer. She intended the order to serve primarily as a check on the concentration of power in the hands of the White Lotus and her own Office of the Avatar; but also, to be able to take necessary action against tyrants and other threats when the political reality would make it impossible for any above-board political power to do so, which is just the circumstances that the world now finds itself in. They are supposed to remain in secret, like the White Lotus of old, and only act as minimally as absolutely necessary to stop the most severe of threats when no other action proves possible, like now. That is why Anshui has invited the two of them here now: the world is in dire need of such covert intervention, and Senze and Luzi are the only two people in the world with the requisite skills to accomplish it, but only with the further assistance of the Red Lotus. Both of them can pure-metalbend now, and so they are the only people capable of effectively fighting against the pure metal machinery of the rival Earth Empires. Senze has also learned the ability to use lightbending as camouflage from Liang, which will be necessary for the secrecy of his mission. But as Luzi is unable to do that herself, Anshui offers to have a camouflaged lightbending Red Lotus agent accompany her for stealth, though she will never see who it is, for he cannot reveal who else may be in the order, especially this agent whose identity is a delicate secret. Senze is surprised that the Red Lotus have a lightbender at all, as he thought that was a very rare ability that only a few who have gained the deepest trust of the Sun Warriors, like Liang, ever learned. Anshui merely tells him that that is correct.
Senze wonders, given all of this, why Anshui sent him away to the White Lotus to be checked and evaluated instead of doing it himself with the Red Lotus. Anshui explains again that they are a secret order, and that they act only when ordinary diplomatic means by the White Lotus fail. Senze is still skeptical of Anshui's whole story, worrying that he and Luzi will be walking into a trap if they cooperate with him and his unidentified invisible secret agent. Anshui suggests that, while they are here in the spirit world, Senze goes to the Tree of Time meditates on his past life as Korra to see that she did in fact create this new Red Lotus for just such a purpose. Senze agrees to do so, and when he comes out of the Tree, confirms that what Anshui has told him is true true. But he still doesn't feel comfortable recruiting Luzi for such a mission, even less that he feels comfortable contemplating it himself. Aside from whether it should be done or not, it would endanger her life and he's not sure he can ask that of her. Also, even if he did decide it should happen and to ask her, her grand-aunt is a ranking member of the White Lotus, and she could blow the whole plan by leaking it to them. Anshui gently pleads with Senze to at least float the idea to Luzi, to confer with her about whether she thinks it is a good idea, and to trust her to know better than to spill it to Grand Master Opal. Senze tentatively agrees. When he speaks next to Luzi, back in the physical world, before he can even approach her about it, she tells him that she was visited by a cloaked lightbender using some kind of voice masking technology, and told about the Red Lotus and their plan, and to have Senze confirm it for her by meditating on his past life as Korra. She asks him to do so, and he says he already has, that they approached him too... and asks her what she thinks, without any indication of his uncertain feelings on the matter. She thinks it's a great idea, and persuades him into going along with it. He asks what about Opal and the White Lotus and... she says that they never have to know. He is grim: if they die doing this, who will ever know what became of them? She is certain that he will survive, as he is the Avatar, and that if she dies then at least he will know that she died doing something important, even if he can never tell anybody what it was. So Senze contacts Anshui again via the spirit world, and tells him that he and Luzi are both in for the mission.
In preparation for this attack, Anshui decides to impart the secret that let him find Senze even while invisible and levitating, back during his waterbending training, in order to more thoroughly convince Senze that he is on the level. But rather than just telling Senze what this special technique is, Anshui shows him. He begins be recalling what Senze has previously said about learning woodbending directly from the trees, by being still and quiet and listening to them and attuning to their energy. He tells Senze to do that now, to close his eyes and be still and listen to Anshui's energy. Senze does so, and after closing his eyes he retains in his mind's eye a general image of where the things around him are, including Anshui, with a general notion of Anshui being more a living being than most of the surroundings, and a distinct feeling of being watched intently by him. That feeling of being watched makes Senze feel anxious, and he opens his eyes again, to see that Anshui is in fact watching him very intently. Anshui furrows his brows as though to say "hey you, come on, keep going", and Senze closes his eyes again. Again he feels an intensity in the figure of Anshui in his mind's eye, but as he resists the urge to open his eyes to look back at who is watching him, the figure of Anshui seems to soften in intensity, to fade, and then to vanish completely; Senze feels like he is in an empty room, and for all he knows Anshui might have somehow silently gotten up and left, because Senze no longer has any representation of him in his model of his surroundings. He is tempted to open his eyes again to see if Anshui is really there, but resists that temptation this time.
An auditory imagination enters Senze's mind, like many whispers echoing in a cavernous space, with roughly synonymous words discernible amongst them at any given time: first words like "yes" and "good", then afterward, a flurry of words like "stay" and "remain", then, "closed" and "shut". The overall message feels like encouragement and approval for Senze's will to not open his eyes when tempted, and it feels to Senze like he himself is doing that approval to himself. But more echoes of whispers flicker through his mind, first a clear and singular "now" with a sense of a call to pay attention to something about the present, then a mix of "still", "quiet", "tranquil", "hidden"; a pause, followed by another clear and singular "then" with a sense of someone about to do or reveal something, then Anshui's figure in his mental model began to reappear, accompanied by an increasingly intense barrage of echoes of words like "LOUD", "OBVIOUS", and "NOISE", and a cacophony of... voices maybe, or many instances of one voice, but not saying anything distinct, just a growing din of a loud crowd all talking over each other, plus white noise like wind and rain and shuffling feet and engines and machines and a rumble like Senze had only ever heard while inside of an airplane taking off, all of it growing to a roar, and then echoes of that roar, and echoes of those echoes, each louder and louder in the fashion of a phenomenon Senze would not recognize, the feedback of a microphone picking up the sound of its own recording being played back through speakers too near it, and as the cacophony grows to the high-pitched squeal all too familiar to those who have heard such a phenomenon, Senze shakes his head and opened his eyes again with a jolt.
Anshui is still sitting there calmly and still, though still with the intense stare like studying the contours of Senze's face. He says plainly, "It can't hurt you." Senze asks "What did you do!?" Anshui says calmly, "Close your eyes again, listen to me, and I will tell you." Senze calms himself, does as he is told, and closes his eyes and listens again. Echoes of whispers of words like "brace", "prepare", and "ready" come into Senze's mind, which make Senze very anxious, and then he thinks he can hear those echoes of his own anxious thoughts and feelings coming from his mental image of where Anshui sits, feeding back more and more loudly and quickly reaching the crescendo of that high-pitched squeal again. Senze winces, but keeps his eyes closed tight, and the sound fades away again, along with the mental image of Anshui. Senze relaxes again, and tries to "hear" Anshui the way he had listened to the trees before, but like moments before, he can find no sense of Anshui's presence in his mental model of the world. Until it fades back into being again, and those quiet echoes of whispers seem to return, this time seeming more clearly than before to be coming from Anshui's direction, like they are his words, though they are not audibly directed like sound in the real world would be, more just an omnipresent echo, but still somehow, clearly originating from Anshui, or at least tied to Senze's mental image of Anshui. The whispers come more quickly than before, instead of in a slow sequence of single-word-sense groups; Senze has the impression of a sentence, saying "now you can hear the difference", or possibly asking the question, "Now can you hear the difference?"
Senze reflects on what this phenomenon he is experiencing is, and begins to have an idea of what was happening. As though his mental image of Anshui picked up on that idea -- which would be consistent with the idea's truth -- another echo-whisper sentence comes, of the general sense of "pick a number"; though really, of course, a combination of words like "pick", "choose", "select", and "number", "numeral", "amount", etc. The first number that jumps into Senze's mind is three. Aloud, Anshui immediately says "The number is three". Senze's eyes shoot open and he stares amazed at Anshui, who continues to stare blankly back, unmoved. Feeling like that's what Anshui's blank stare was commanding, Senze closes his eyes again, and feels the sense of a sentence from his mental image of Anshui, roughly, "Tell me the number is seven." Hesitantly, without opening his eyes, Senze says out loud "The... number is seven?", and without missing a beat Anshui immediately replies aloud, plainly, "That is correct". Again Senze's eyes shoot open and he begins to shout aloud about how amazing this is and why does nobody know this is possible, but Anshui continues his calm tranquil gaze, and the sound of feedback begins to build up in Senze's mind again, cutting his excited rambling short, followed by a very loud and stern pair of echoing word-sense groups seeming to come directly from Anshui himself as seen with Senze's waking eyes, echoes with the meaning of, shortly put, "NOT ALOUD".
Feeling embarrassed, Senze settles down again, and begins to close his eyes again, but feels the sense of a "no" from Anshui as he begins to do so. Senze looks up at Anshui, who nods, and the rough sense of "listen eyes open" seems to echo slowly into Senze's mind from Anshui's general direction. Senze takes a deep breath, and stares back at Anshui. An imperative-feeling sense of "respond" comes at him, and as Senze tries to think of what to "say", or how to "say" it, general notions of the greater difficulty of doing this with eyes open roll through his mind, and feedback-like echoes of words like "hard" and "difficult" seem to bounce off Anshui, though stopping before the feedback loop builds up to painful levels again. A vague notion of words like "training" then comes back in Anshui's own "voice", though the voices themselves are not anyone's actual voices, more they are all Senze's own internal voice, but feeling somehow "tied" to himself or Anshui respectively. Senze understands: learning to listen to Anshui's thoughts with his eyes wide open is part of Senze's training, and training is supposed to be hard. A clear sense of approval, a word-sense group full of words like "good", comes from Anshui, acknowledging that Senze has correctly understood. Something vaguely like "close [eyes] briefly [if] stuck" comes from Anshui, missing the words "eyes" and "if" but seeming to imply them; Senze briefly closes his eyes and an echo of whispers more clearly meaning "close your eyes briefly if you get really stuck" is audible to him. Senze thinks back something like "OK". A sequence of ideas, roughy "listen", "restate", "ask", and something like "thus learn", come from Anshui. Senze is unsure what that means, and closes his eyes, but only hears echoes of synonyms of "try" coming at him from his mental image of Anshui. Senze reopens his eyes, and tries to parse the meaning of the last words... then, closing his eyes to help himself compose his own thoughts more than to listen, he thinks clearly in his mind as though he was rehearsing to say the words aloud, "I am to try to listen to your thoughts, to restate what I think I understand of them back in my mind in my own words, like this... to ask questions for clarification... in my mind like this... and in that way you will teach me... I will learn... what the heck we're doing here and how we're doing it." A clear approving "good"/"yes"/"right" comes back from Anshui.
Slowly and difficultly, Anshui tells Senze the story behind this technique, via the technique itself, in the process training Senze in its use: Through the kind of harmonic resonance necessary to do waterbending, especially similar to the sort used to manipulate the body's chi for healing, it is possible for an especially great waterbending master to attune to another living person's chi as well. This can be used in exceptional cases, such as with the Equalist radical Amon who terrorized Republic City a generation ago, to block or disrupt another's chi, though that requires the ability to bloodbend and so can usually only be done under a full moon by even those waterbenders powerful enough to bloodbend at all. But another use of a similar technique, usable at any time, is to attune to another person's chi and simply listen to it, in this way acquiring a sort of telepathy: chi-listening. It was listening for Senze's thoughts that lead Anshui to locate him even while invisible and levitating. It was also how Anshui knew right away that Senze was not a dangerous bloodbender when he first came to the Cloud Forest. And it just may keep Senze from getting ambushed while fighting a solo mission in the heart of enemy territory, and help him find the right targets to disable to be most effective in his attack.
Clear conversations like this are generally not possible except between those already skilled in the technique. The only reason that Senze can hear Anshui's thoughts so clearly so quickly, even with the difficulty he is having still, is because Anshui is making exceptional effort to clear his mind and present his thoughts in as clear and unambiguous a manner as possible. And the only reason Anshui can hear Senze's thoughts clearly at all is because Anshui himself is an exceptional master at this technique with lots of experience picking some sense out of the twisted mess of thoughts usually running through most people's minds. Senze can expect at most to pick up vague feelings from other people, and an unclear scattering of echoes of different overlapping thoughts and sentences that pass through other people's minds all the time, plus a sense of a sort of "aura" of living things visible in his mind's eye, even when he is not looking at them directly -- something many people not even versed in this skill have briefly sensed from time to time when someone else's energy is trained directly upon them, the feeling of "being stared at". You can only listen in on what they're currently thinking at best, not go digging around through their memories, and you can't put thoughts into someone else's head, unless they already know this technique and are listening in to your mind looking for those thoughts. Its real practical uses in most cases are slim, beyond a vague sense of other people's presence and more-or-less how they're feeling and the general subject they're thinking about, but it's very useful for things like being able to tell if someone (even someone you didn't know is there) is about to attack you, and roughly how they intend to do it, and that is something that Senze will need for the mission ahead of him.
The actual plan of attack for that mission is for Senze to fly in via airbending, cloaked with lightbending, and under cover of a rainbent thunderstorm -- unprecedented freak weather for the Southern Earth Empire -- and then to metalbend his way through as need be, fleshbend people to disarm them and breathbend them to knock them out, and... somehow take out the Southern Earth Empire's command center this way, in a manner that Senze will need to improvise on the fly. Luzi, meanwhile, is to be smuggled into the Northern Earth Empire's command center, again under cloak of lightbending, and use her pure metalbending to generally cause chaos and be a "ghost". They are basically just to distract and disable the leadership of both Earth Empires so as to stall the active war; meanwhile, Red Lotus operatives in the conquered parts of their two respective nations will start populist uprisings there, giving both armies an internal and an external front to deal with, and no leadership to coordinate them. Even without leadership the armies still manage to suppress the rebellions, but at the cost of abandoning the war against each other for the time being. But as the rebel conquered states declare their independence and intention on joining the Confederacy, and the leadership of both aggressors are silent and consequently the use of spirit weapons is not even being threatened, the Confederacy can then finally roll in to defend the conquered states as their own. This will then triggers the support pledged by the rest of the world to help defend the Confederacy, and the combined forces of the world roll in and besiege the capitals of the rival Earth Empires.
As the mission gets underway, Senze manages to disrupt the Southern Earth Empire's command center to great effect by use of novel combinations of bending techniques powered by the Avatar State. As plans, he flies in under cloak of lightbending, and rainbends up a storm. He uses thermal airbending to make it extremely and unexpectedly cold and inclement for the south, disrupting operations with a freak snowstorm there in the desert. He lifts the whole layers of atmosphere around the compound to breathbend whole platoons at once. As necessary, when enemy soldiers fire wildly at whatever unseen force is causing all of this chaos, he even stops bullets mid-air with metalbending. And to haunt them on an even larger scale, he makes their whole capital building seem to vanish with lightbending.
But things don't go so smoothly in the north for Luzi. The northern army focuses most of its efforts on re-securing its command center, which is good because the armies of the world are focusing first on the south because of its spirit weapons, and that gives the northern rebels more of a fighting chance than the south had. But it's also bad because the area where Luzi is causing chaos comes under heavy attack, and she and her lightbender accomplice are eventually spotted and cornered despite their lightbent camoflage. During this struggle, Luzi has to fight off someone who's not wielding any metal, coming at her with a wooden baseball bat, and she desperately resorts to an attempted "nervebending" by pushing "gently" on all the metal she can find in her attacker's body, causing him to have severe full-body muscle spasms and apparently a heart attack and possibly seizure. She is so overtaken with remorse as the terrible sight of that that her lightbender has to save her as she freezes up from it. She insists she has to try to fix the poor guy, but the lightbender has to get her out of there to safety immediately.
It comes out in the chaos that the lightbender was Liang all along, who was secretly a double agent for both the White and Red Lotus. Upon that realization, Luzi wonders if Liang may possibly have been, earlier in life, the agent who smuggled spirit weapon tech out of the United Republic to the Fire Kingdom, to maintain the balance of power, remembering a comment Liang made once as this war between Earth Empires began that that if the Northern Earth Empire had had spirit weapons, the Southern one wouldn't be so eager to threaten to use its own. In any case, she and Luzi must now work together to defend themselves, with Luzi turtling them in under an impenetrable shell of metal, and Liang lightbending essentially a giant laser out of the sky by concentrating sunlight from a huge area on their own location; an event which was remembered afterward as when the northern sky turned black and its capital spontaneously combusted. They fear for a time that that they may be facing their own end, getting roasted in their metal shelter as the capital burns, but then they are eventually rescued by allied rebels drawn to the capital by the spectacular light show.
Meanwhile at the southern capital, however, a dead-man's switch was unknowingly set to launch a spirit energy weapon at the northern capital in case the leadership here was compromised, and since they have been compromised by Senze's successful assault, the weapon is set to launch. The rebel leadership, having since stormed the capital, is able to identify the problem, but does not have the codes to stop the launch at this point and cannot find anyone who is both conscious and will admit to knowing them amongst the southern captives. Some of the rebel leaders beg Senze to metalbend apart the missile, but others caution that the unstable spirit vines inside the missiles are already going critical and if the missiles don't launch, they will just explode here in this capital instead. But upon being reminded that the weapons are powered by the spirit vines, Senze realizes what it is that he has been feeling here around these weapons the whole time, a building up of the same life-force within all organic matter that allows him to woodbend. Guided by intelligence from the rebel leaders, he metalbends apart the missile to find the spirit vine core at the center of it, and then against everyone's urgent warnings, he reaches out to touch the glowing bit of vine building up to explode... and makes it stop glowing. Technicians with their instruments report that the critical reaction has stopped.
All Senze can offer in a way of explanation for what he did is to explain that these spirit weapons apparently run on energy generated by life, which while not sentient per se still has something like moods and feelings. The "critical" process that was underway was the chi within the vine getting "angry", probably because it had been intentionally agitated. His woodbending works something like being sympathetic to the "moods" of the energy within organic things, and being able to influence it that way. All he did here was reach out and calm down the "angry" spirit vine. The stunned rebel leaders around him ask if he would be capable of making a spirit vine "angry" again, and he says yes he thinks he could, though he wouldn't. They are shocked further and ask if he could make just any old organic matter anywhere "angry" like this spirit vine was, and Senze says probably, but why would he. Everyone around is stunned silent, and nobody will tell Senze why, but those who understand the implications realize that this power makes the new Avatar effectively capable of rendering any living thing anywhere into a city-leveling super-weapon.
With both rival Earth Empires now in disarray, and the threat of spirit vine super-weapons neutralized, the Earth Confederacy rolls in as expected to aid in the rebel states' liberation, and the rest of the free world backs them as agreed. The former Earth Kingdom, sans the Metal Colony, United Republic, and Cloud Forest still, is finally reunited into the Earth Confederacy that Avatar Korra sought to build in the last days of her life. And with the business of the war finally settled, the empty seat of Waterbending Master of the White Lotus left by Master Eska's death is finally open to be filled. At a meeting of the White Lotus, Liang pointedly asks if Senze, as the Avatar, has any recommendations. Senze, having learned of Liang's double-agency from Luzi in the aftermath of the war, gets the point, and recommends his old waterbending master, Anshui, for the position. Liang thinks that is a good recommendation, and Luzi seconds it. Buwan and Ciren have no objections. Grand Master Opal is still suspicious of Anshui, but with the the recommendation of three other council members, including the Avatar himself, she is willing to go along with it.
With Anshui's appointment, four out of seven masters of the White Lotus Council are also Red Lotus operatives or allies: Anshui and Liang full operatives, Luzi and Senzi knowing allies, Buwan and Ciren oblivious to anything, and only Opal suspicious of anything. After the council meeting, Luzi asks Senze what the purpose of this is, asking if he sides more with the Red Lotus and wants them to secretly control the White Lotus or something. Senze he says that quite the contrary, he finds the Red Lotus rather scary, and would rather have the Red and White hold closer ties to each other, in much the same way that it is better for both Raava and Vaatu to be bound together within him than separate and potentially at war with each other. Luzi suggests that he what Senze wants is to create a "pink lotus". It's a joke, a bit of a gay joke at that, and Senze laughs at it... but he also thinks that that kind of name just might work. He's not sure how to actually go about creating such a thing, but that can be his life's work.