The Fanfiction of Wan Shi Tong
"You have done well today, little Knowledge Seeker." Wan Shi Tong stroked a talon along the bundle of papers. Rough drafts of manuscripts were so rarely found by his helpers. Humans were quick to dispose of anything that might make their published works seem anything less than inspired. Which only served to show, the owl thought, the inherent foolishness of their nature.
Wan Shi Tong would shortly add it to the rest of the Pu-on Tim Collection, but for now he simply wanted to hold his latest acquisition and stare at its brushstrokes. What had been going through the author's mind as he had laid down each character? Why had his brush lingered here, or crossed out a word there and picked that word instead?
Wan Shi Tong did not know. Fiction was a baffling concept.
The play was unfinished, an ending to its first act sketched out in mere rough detail: the Moon bleeding, a conquest fleet smashed by a wrathful Avatar, but no dialogue yet. The owl hoped that Pu-on Tim would not leave this work unfinished as he had his satirical Blossoms of the Middle Ring, but then the playwright had been forcibly parted from that work. It was only the quick action of his foxy Knowledge Seekers that had saved the last surviving copy from a Lake Laogai furnace.
It occurred to Wan Shi Tong that as the play involved the current Avatar, perhaps it would do well to include a copy in the Air Nomad (Air Nation) wing. He hadn't had the occasion to add anything to that collection in over forty years, and when Avatar Aang inevitably died it would finally be time to seal the Air Nomad (Air Nation) wing forever. If the seasonal renewal of the Four Nations had taught him anything, it was to take advantage of the opportunity cataclysm presented for categorization purposes. Fire Lord Sozin's genocide of the Air Nomads (Air Nation) had been the cleanest break between eras since the cometary bombardment that had initiated the last ice age.
Wan Shi Tong disliked it when human nations lingered past their self-apparent demise. He was still having to occasionally update the Sun Warriors' index sixteen hundred years after their southern colonies, ravaged by the Sleeping Death, had risen up in rebellion and religious revolution.
"My, my. Another precious work, brother?"
The owl broke out of his reverie with a frown. From a patch of darkness the fell between book shelves, a sinuous body slunk into existence. The accomplished little Knowledge Seeker at Wan Shi Tong's feet, in whom he was most pleased, turned and fled at the first glimpse of Koh the Face Stealer.
"You," the owl said, "are not my brother. You are also not welcomed in this place, as I made very clear the last time."
It had been a mistake to allow Koh in that day, but the dark ages that followed nuclear winter always made the Knowledge Spirit supremely bored. That foul ennui had made him lock away the physics material in his library, if only so foolish humans wouldn't stumble into such disasters again so quickly.
Wan Shi Tong had been so young and hopeful, then.
"I'd hoped you'd gotten over that little accident after thirty thousand years," said the Face Stealer.
"Nineteen thousand six hundred and forty-one years."
Koh scoffed, "If you want to be linear about it."
"However you care to measure it, time alone will never replace the tablets you maliciously destroyed."
"Well, it's been long enough for me to have gotten past your overreaction." Koh slithered onto the walkway Wan Shi Tong occupied, then curled his long body loosely around the owl. They did not touch because, for all Koh's arrogance, the Face Stealer's flesh could still be savaged under Wan Shi Tong's talons. Koh enjoyed playing his word games far more than he savored pain. "You see, the Avatar recently came to me for a chat, and it got me feeling nostalgic."
"You've said your hello." Wan Shi Tong protectively tucked the rough draft under one feathered wing. "Now leave."
"But I have news! Tui is dead, and now she has a new name and face." Koh grinned with the pale face of a long-dead Avatar Noh. "I'll tell you about her, if you answer a question of mine."
"The Moon Spirit's new name is Yue." Thinking of the unfinished first act of Pu-on Tim's new play, Wan Shi Tong supposed that the author would have to incorporate that fact if he wanted his work to be fully accurate to reality.
Koh slipped on a dusky woman's face to pout. Water Tribe, judging by the bone structure. "Ttch. Someone wrote that down already? And here I thought I had a gift for a fellow knowledge spirit."
"You know nothing, Koh. You are a parasite. I remember a time when you were a squirming grub to be crushed underfoot. Would that I had!"
"Mmmm... I remember those days. When lion-turtles were plentiful and walked freely among Man, and our kind lied to ourselves that the stars in the heavens were new." Koh smirked. "Although I'll show my brother spirit respect by not laughing at him calling me a parasite."
Wan Shi Tong ruffled his feathers. Unveiling one wicked talon in the dim lamplight, he said, "Leave. Or I will remove you from my library."
Casually, Koh replied, "Perhaps I should remove your face."
"Your threat is as empty as your head." This library was his domain, the seat of Wan Shi Tong's self and of his essence. He could not be defeated here, and would not stand for being insulted.
"You're right. Why would I want your face? So boring. So... factual." The Face Stealer raised his segmented body high, insectile legs spread wide in grandiose fashion. "All these stolen works, culled from every mortal aeon, gathered to satisfy your own clutterbug impulse."
"Knowledge for knowledge's sake is a virtue."
Koh hunched over and came nose-to-nose with the owl spirit. From the stolen lips of a woman, he said, "You know nothing, brother, that the humans haven't written down for you. If every scroll in this library were burnt, every tablet smashed, every punchcard ripped up, you would be reduced to less than the grub I once was.
"I steal from them too, but at least I try to understand humanity." Koh shifted through half a dozen faces in rapid succession. "All you need to do is try to see things from their perspective. Try to imagine what -- oh, wait." The Face Stealer chuckled. "You can't."
Bored, Wan Shi Tong cocked his head to the side. "If you're quite finished, I have some indexing to handle."
Koh clattered aside, allowing the Knowledge Spirit passage on the walkway. Wan Shi Tong was nearing the end of the bridge when the parasite's voice chased after him. "I was there. When Tui died."
The owl paused. He stood still for a long while, his back to the Face Stealer, debating if he should rise to the bait.
Many humans had written of the Red Moon, but none had yet detailed the exact sequence of events surrounding the death of the Moon Spirit's previous incarnation. It was an important historical event, and Wan Shi Tong did not use that term lightly. So far the Knowledge Spirit knew of only two attempts to record that moment in time; both failures.
The first, several unfinished letters written by Chieftain Arnook, had passed into and out of Wan Shi Tong's mind before he'd had a chance to transcribe them. Why Arnook destroyed his own letters, Wan Shi Tong cared not. Arnook could have burned a thousand letters if only he'd given Wan Shi Tong time to record their contents. Destroying the originals without a finished copy in the library robbed Wan Shi Tong of the knowledge they had contained. Only the memory of remembering their loss remained.
The only other record was a tear-stained apology note of such poor penmanship that Wan Shi Tong could barely decipher it in his mind's eye, save that it had obviously been written by a lovesick human. That apology contained gushing sorrow, but nothing of factual note.
Turning to face Koh, the owl growled, "Elaborate."
Koh changed faces.
For the first time in eons, Wan Shi Tong found himself shocked. The stolen face staring back at him was a familiar one. It was the Criminal, the human who had burned Wan Shi Tong's precious texts on the contemporary Fire Nation.
"Do you like it?" Koh asked, his voice spilling from Zhao's lips. "La granted me this one as a gift, for helping the Avatar learn what he needed in order to preserve La's cult city of bodyguards."
Wan Shi Tong, claws trembling with anger, glared at the Face Stealer. "You said you were present for Tui's death. I have no need of stolen knowledge gleamed from the human spirits you consume."
"But I was there," Koh insisted with the Criminal's face. "You don't appreciate what it's like, brother, to see the world with human eyes. How strange and wonderful it is. Take this one. An ambitious military man. Hungry for glory. Ruthless. Smug. Sadistic."
A snort. "Typical human, then."
Wan Shi Tong waited, patience thinning.
Koh's stolen flesh frowned thoughtfully. "There was a moment in this human's life, right at the end, that I don't understand."
There was something unnerving in Koh's tone. It took Wan Shi Tong a moment to realize that the Face Stealer sounded...
"He was standing across from this princeling, no further than you or I stand here, when La scooped him up. The prince cried out for this man, his enemy -- the man who had tried to murder him -- to take his hand." Koh extended a single segmented foot towards Wan Shi Tong. "For a moment, Zhao reached out for his enemy's offering." Koh retracted his claw. "And then he took his hand back."
"Why? Was it spite? Or was he trying to save the prince's life?" Humans were contradictory creatures. Both their history and their literature attested to that much. They were maddeningly hard to anticipate because so much of them went unwritten. As a rule, it was smarter to assume humans were destructive until proven otherwise.
"I don't know," Koh admitted. "Both. Neither."
"His face is yours. You must know." It was Koh's domain as a spirit of empathy, as written knowledge was Wan Shi Tong's.
"I see through his eyes with mine, but they are still his eyes." Koh draped his long body over the bridge railing, gazing down into the receding depths of Wan Shi Tong's library, where the remnants of bygone ages were safeguarded. "He hated the prince. He wanted to kill the prince. He had unending pride. He knew there was no future for him in escape. He hated himself for failing. He hated the boy's uncle for being right about the Moon Spirit. He revered the prince's father. He had been instilled with love for the royal family all his life. He wanted to live. He wanted to die." Koh glanced aside at the owl. "A good face. I haven't understood so many truths in a long, long time."
"Truths? You talk nonsense and call it knowledge."
"Knowledge is a limited concept, like you, brother. After all, my mind is my own. It is not swayed by propagandists and the badly scrawled essays of schoolchildren."
"Read any good books about the Air Nation lately?"
(Air Nomads) sang the contradictory echo in Wan Shi Tong's mind. The owl squashed it. Yes, it was a fact, but it was also an untruth. He had to remember that. He had to remember that. "Stop."
"I know humanity better than you," said Koh, "and, unlike you, I understand them."
"Yes," said He Who Knows 10,000 Things, "just like a rapist understands love."
"Understanding isn't something that can be written down," Koh said, steamrolling past the counter-argument. "It can only be found in empathy... by seeing things from another's point of view. Why, take that manuscript you're fearfully cradling against your feathered breast! Would that playwright's audience care if he merely reported what he learned from others about the Avatar's pilgrimage?" Zhao's face sneered. "It would be boring! A waste of time! Only by culling unnecessary details and smoothing the rough edges can a compelling narrative be created. Base facts are forged into something greater than its parts, and each human who sees that play will come away with their own unique understanding of the events it depicts."
When the Face Stealer put it that way, Wan Shi Tong felt a little dirty for holding the rough draft. Still, he would not have his library collection put down. Put a certain way, yes, he and the Koh collected facets of humanity, but Wan Shi Tong shared his knowledge freely with the wise. Koh was a selfish thief, interested only in his own grandiose satisfaction.
"Mortals may be impressed by your warmed over insights," said Wan Shi Tong, "but I am already familiar with the concept of the death of the author." It had been invented several times by literary critics of civilizations past. He had copies of each iteration of the theory, in their original languages. "So let me enlighten you with my own understanding. You've let yourself be stolen by the face you wear. That's why you came back here, isn't it, brother? Because the new human inside you compelled you to return to where he learned La and Tui's true identities, the very start of his grand failure!"
Quick as lightning, Koh threw himself at Wan Shi Tong. The Knowledge Spirit, claws already extended, batted the attack aside with a slash across Zhao's face. Red blood - human blood - sprayed across the owl's feathers. Koh shrieked. The lid over his face reflexively snapped shut, but the damage was done. A piece of his newest prize had been torn away from his mind; a scattering of thieved memories and emotions of the Criminal Zhao were no more.
Koh was less, now.
Scuttling away back into the protective shade of the bookshelves, the Face Stealer called out from the shadows, "My imaginations are stolen, but at least I have them. You do not even have one, and for that I pity you!"
Wan Shi Tong waited.
The shadows were silent.
A Knowledge Seeker crept up fearfully to the owl. Wan Shi Tong looked on his assistant with pity. Koh's last rampage did not go unremembered despite it being ages past. Next time, Wan Shi Tong resolved to throw the Face Stealer out of his library at soon as the parasite slunk into sight.
Sighing, he handed the fox Pu-On Tim's unfinished rough draft of The Boy in the Iceberg. "See this is put where it belongs."
* * * *
That spring saw a momentous change to the library. After an encounter with scheming, warlike humans - descriptors that were redundant - the great Knowledge Spirit had at last extricated his literary collection from the human's plane and returned to his ancient home.
The aether of the Spirit World was a great relief to Wan Shi Tong. No longer would he be subjected to doublethink by the lies and contradictions the humans wrote down. The works collected in his library was his self, wholly and without any nattering interference. The Air Nomads were the Air Nomads, and any other name for them could be clinically noted as imperialist propaganda under the Revisionist History section.
More relieved than he had expected to be, Wan Shi Tong set his assistants to work on a long-delayed project: sorting and re-filing everything in his library. Everything needed to be checked over after several millennia of books being put back in the wrong place by patrons.
Each day his foxy helpers continued to clear up misfilings, Wan Shi Tong felt his own memory becoming clearer. Certain facts which he'd previously had to ruminate on for several minutes now came to him in a snap.
Yet as the shelves were sorted, the silence in Wan Shi Tong's mind became sharper as well. In the Spirit World, he was disconnected from the flow of contemporary written knowledge among the humans. It wasn't that he missed the boring minutiae of the modern era - the dryly noted horrors in war reports, the tedious reuse of wartime tropes in poems and literature, the endless bureaucratic paperwork that characterized the latest incarnation of the earthbenders' nation - but the lack of white noise felt... uncomfortable.
Worse, now that his heated anger at the Avatar and his human allies had cooled, Wan Shi Tong realized that there would be no new additions to his library. His foxy Knowledge Seekers could not cross back and forth between the Spirit World and Material World, and if Wan Shi Tong were to go his sense of self would be reduced to only what written works presently existed on Earth. There would be no past beyond the humans' hazy recollection of the single previous iteration of the cycle of civilization; no independent perspective for Wan Shi Tong. Storybook truths like Oma and Shu being the first earthbenders would become hard fact. He might even forget himself. He might never find his way back to the Spirit World before the arrival of Sozin's Comet and the inevitable burning of books that would ensue in the firestorm.
To be trapped on Earth during a dark age... he might as well be one of those faceless shells left in Koh's wake.
Walking along the bridge-ways and bookcases of his grand library, Wan Shi Tong saw only bitterness in his future. If he stayed in the Spirit World, he would be a static creature, never changing, never growing. But if he returned to the Material World, the humans would inevitably find some way to misuse the knowledge he had collected. Wan Shi Tong wouldn't be able to keep the humans out. If a parasite like Koh could sneak in, beings with true imaginations would be impossible to guard against.
Wan Shi Tong did not know what to do.
* * * *
Standing before the shelf storing the Pu-On Tim Collection, Wan Shi Tong contemplated the unfinished play concerning Avatar Aang. Residing in the Spirit World, he would never have a copy of the finished work -- if it was finished.
Yet... maybe he didn't need to go looking for the whole rest of the play. If Pu-On Tim was writing about Avatar Aang's journey, he would have to include a depiction of the wanton acts committed in the library. Wan Shi Tong could himself write that scene. He had lived it, after all. He could even prove Koh, unimportant irritation he was, wrong. There was no need to write down a literal transcript of that day when he could make the point more succinctly.
He could even do it in the style of Pu-On Tim himself. His library contained not only Pu-On Tim's collected works as a reference, but the critical reviews and analysis of his career. Imitating his style, his voice, in the recitation of true events would be the simple task of applying what Wan Shi Tong already knew about the playwright. Surely he could depict that irritating Water Tribe boy's words, convey his smug knowingness, his arrogance. All he needed to do was write as Pu-On Tim would. Yes.
Standing at his drafting board, Wan Shi Tong eagerly laid out fresh parchment, ink, and a brush.
Wan Shi Tong stared down at the blank sheet.
Blackest ink dripped from his hovering brush and splattered down onto the waiting page.
He watched it dry.