|More from Harpalyce||Drama||PG-13||None|
|Parley to Parlay|
Aang had long since learned that navigating the Spirit World was not about physical endurance, but about willpower. It did mirror the physical in its own ghostly way, but once you knew how to do so, it was easy to let your feet slip over hundreds of miles with every step. Likely there was some part of a forest in the Earth Kingdom that housed a cave very similar to the one he had mentally marked as his destination, but Aang was in no hurry to pay Koh such a visit.
Koh's realm was certainly dramatic as ever. The thick, swampy air was nearly smothering, and in the distance, some great creature stalked among the rocky spires. The faceless blue-nosed curly-tailed monkey stared him down, ghosting his steps along the path. Now that he was older and wiser, Aang recognized the thing for what it was – one of Koh's spies. It scampered up into the trees and disappeared.
He was not expecting to meet someone on the path, but she was there nonetheless. The only polite thing to do was bow. "Avatar Kyoshi."
"Avatar Aang." She inclined her head along with her fan before seeming to almost hide behind it as she spoke. Her eyes were cold and distant, and the breeze from her fan barely made the tassels on her headdress bob – but that was all the movement her face truly held. "This is a dangerous path you have chosen."
"I know." He drew in a deep breath through his nose before offering her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "But it's the only path I can truly see to take. There's something very... wrong underneath all of this. And I think Koh is responsible."
She did not smile – or frown, or raise an eyebrow. "Very well. But remember..." Her fan pointed towards him, almost accusingly. "Here you risk not only yourself, but the Avatar Spirit as well."
Kyoshi did not reply, instead snapping her fan shut and turning her back to him. A few more steps and she dissolved into the mist. Aang frowned at his own fear starting to creep into his throat. Something about this visit was far more dangerous... or maybe he was just not as naiive as he had been before. Or perhaps that was not Kyoshi at all, but instead a trickster spirit sent to plant doubt in his mind.
No use analyzing it when he had somewhere to be.
The steps were just as worn as Aang remembered, leading down into a shadowy cavern. He concentrated on feeling each muscle in his face go slack, leaving his expression as truly neutral as possible. Something skittered in the darkness – many pairs of clawlike feet -
A grinning face on a centipede-like monstrous body leered at him. "So lovely to see you again, Avatar Aang. I wasn't expecting another visit from you so soon. After all..." The black and grey mask disappeared with a wink to be replaced by the face of a beautiful woman, her long brown hair unfurling and drifting as if to frame her pleasant countenance. "I already have one Avatar's Water Tribe beauty in my collection. I don't need another quite so soon." Koh twisted the woman's lips into a cruel smile before her face disappeared, replaced with the one stolen from the monkey outside. "Oh, my apologies. I forgot. She isn't yours any longer, now, is she?"
Aang's hands clenched into fists, but as he took another deep breath, he let them relax and slacken. "I'm not here to speak of Katara. I want to know what you've done."
"What I've done?" Koh clucked his tongue. "So accusing! Perhaps you merely need a friendlier face to talk to." A slick sound, and another face came to replace the monkey's. Cocky smile, tousled brown hair, sharp eyebrows, a sprig of some plant between his teeth... But something was terribly off. It was Jet's face, but his eyes had clouded over, and the flesh had started to decay. A maggot burst from his cheek, starting to crawl across to his eye. The smell of rot was thick on Koh's breath. "Here. Surely this is much better."
Aang said nothing for a few long moments, focusing on keeping his face neutral. He couldn't help a bit of emotion filtering into his voice, making his tone oddly strangled and tense. "What have you done, and why do you have Jet's face?"
"You're mistaken, Avatar. I've done nothing. This..." One of Koh's centipede-like legs went to tap Jet's face, brushing away the maggot. "Was a gift. People are so quick to say I steal faces when, in fact, I never do anything so crass. I am merely given them... by people who violate the rules of the game." Koh twisted Jet's face to show a cruel grin.
"Koh... my friends are being attacked by faceless assassins." It was hard to say such words while keeping his face perfectly calm, but Aang managed. "I can only think of one spirit responsible."
"Responsibility is such a slippery thing," Koh cooed. "But I have done nothing, Avatar. Nothing directly." Another wolfish, fanged smile. "At most I have acted as, oh... an official. A lawyer, if you will."
"I'm here to make sure the attacks stop, Koh." He was grateful when Koh writhingly turned from him – Aang took the moment to bite his lip in frustration before returning his expression to slack and neutral once more.
"I certainly cannot do that."
Koh laughed. "I merely arranged for the contract to be written. I did not sign it – I cannot break it. I just happen to get... my cut, if you will." Jet's face retreated to be replaced with another, and another, and another – a steady multitude of stern and scarred faces, surely soldiers and criminals. "For the details, you will have to ask those who actually made the promises. And please..." A dark laugh rumbled from deep within him and echoed. "Don't think about doing anything as crass as trying to kill me. That will do absolutely nothing for your problem... and will likely end badly for you."
Aang's nostrils barely flared, but he kept his eyebrows from furrowing. "So you won't help me?"
"I never said that, either, Avatar." Koh grinned, skittering around the walls of the cave. A shaft of light cut through the darkness as the rock on a far wall lifted itself up. "If you are... truly intent on breaking this contract... there is your path. A dangerous one, of course. But there it is. And, even as a personal favor, I will wash my hands of this," Koh said, sounding almost amused. "I cannot refuse gifts, of course. That would simply be in bad taste. But I can promise no further involvement."
There was a cold glint in Koh's eyes – no matter which face he wore – but now it was more apparent than ever. Kyoshi's warning sprung to mind. This helpfulness was no coincidence.
But it was still the only path to the answers Aang needed.
He bowed low to Koh, murmuring his thanks, before slipping out of the cave and back into the dim and diffused light. Thick jungle grew around him, and the ground was muddy underneath his feet.
"Oh, and Avatar..." Koh's voice called to him, over his shoulder. "Good luck." A sing-song, mocking tone. Aang hadn't expected anything less, but it made him glad when the rock door to Koh's cave shut behind him and he finally felt he could frown in peace.
And so he walked.
The firmament of the Spirit World was something Aang knew innately in his bones. And now, something was off. Something was twisted. He could feel it, and it was setting his teeth on edge, making his shoulders tense. Off in the dense green forest some spirit animal gave a call, and something answered - the guardians of this jungle, perhaps?
More importantly there was someone familiar in-between the trees, and Aang rushed forward.
He knew Zuko's face, even after all these years. It was hard to ignore the burn. Unlike the rest of the world around him - well, the Spirit World, anyway - the way he appeared was slippery and delicate as if it didn't quite belong. More importantly it was damn surreal. A ghost of a chain was set into a hook in the forest floor, and led up to a thick collar that had been clamped on his neck. His long hair drifted around his face, caught in the water, and he groped helplessly upwards towards the treetops. He gasped, bubbles escaping his nose.
He wasn't real enough, wasn't solid enough for Aang to do anything. Instead he watched the Firelord's face move from desperation to a quiet and dull acceptance before the light behind his eyes was extinguished. Although Aang was in the middle of a forest, he understood the vision, and his heart clenched; he tried to reach to try and pull Zuko back, but there was nothing. Maybe it was too dispirited for the Spirit World. Maybe it was somehow too real for the Spirit World. Aang didn't know.
He did know that the spirit - vision - whatever he wanted to call it... He did know that Zuko's face relaxed and gained an oddly waxy tone, the dull sightless and cloudy stare of a bloated corpse drifting in the water. Fish seemed to filter down from the trees to nibble at his fingertips and expose bone.
Aang had to take a deep breath, calming himself, before reaching out again. Zuko's corpse drifted in front of him, still bobbing as if in water, chained there, but now his wrist was solid enough to hold onto - even if it was oddly slippery and soft. As he felt it, Aang stood a little straighter, and tried not to think about the consequences of Zuko slipping farther into the Spirit World. Unless - it was a fierce and sudden hope -
"Who are you?" The Avatar demanded quietly.
At first the thing didn't respond, but instead turned his face, the invisible water swirling around him whipping his hair around him like writhing snakes. A fish came to nibble on his cheek even though the flesh had already begun to rot away. His voice was very familiar, though softer than Aang had perhaps ever heard before, and monotone.
"I am Firelord Zuko. Don't you recognize me?"
That was not the answer Aang was hoping for. The words were what he expected, but the tone was far too genuine. "What are you doing here? Your nation needs you -"
"It will survive. Its people are strong." His eyes had completely clouded over, now, and a fish took another bite from his cheek, exposing bone. "This is a consequence for my weakness, Aang. They will find another, stronger, leader."
"If not them, then - well – your daughter needs you!"
"She will have Iroh. Perhaps Sokka, Katara. Perhaps even you. She will have a family of people who understand what it means to have a father instead of just a tyrant."
There was something about the air, Aang couldn't understand it - something bitter and buzzing that made his head hurt. That same twisted feeling. A foundation built out of shifting sand. He couldn't think straight and a disgruntled growl came out of the back of his throat before he barked out the first desperate appeal that came to mind.
"Then fight this for honor's sake, Zuko! I know you're stronger than this! I know you wouldn't give in to the dishonor of defeat so easily!"
Zuko stared at him sightlessly. Another unseen current whipped ribbons of his black hair into his face.
"Honor is a game for the living, Avatar. Surely you know that."
"The Zuko I know wouldn't say such a thing." That buzzing in his head was only getting stronger. He couldn't think straight, but he had to keep trying to find something, some way to get through to Zuko. "And if you're not him... who areyou?"
"I am Zuko, child of Ozai, son of Ursa, brother of Azula, nephew of Iroh, husband of Mai, father of Mei Lien." He recited in a monotone, as if by rote, before something finally seemed to change in his expression. Just a tiny twitch of an eyebrow to bring it out of exhausted acceptance. Maybe just a tiny glint in his eyes of amber-gold instead of pale milky death. "But... if you find out who I am, please tell me. I would very much like to know."
"Zuko -" Aang called out his name even as the grip on his wrist became more and more ephemeral. "Zuko!" He was sure it echoed somehow in the Spirit World, loud enough to be easily heard. But Zuko's hand drifting lifelessly in the unseen water was the last thing to go, dissolving like jaggery in tea, away from the Spirit World back to... somewhere else.
Aang stood in the forest clearing watching the fireflies for a few long moments before moving on and quietly hoping that the somewhere Zuko had slipped back to was the land of the living instead of something far worse.
For the collective works of the author, go here.
A parley is a conference held by two opposing sides in a dispute. A parlay, however, is a cumulative bet in which the winnings from each transaction are used as the stakes for the next bet.