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|The Face Stealer|
Avatar: The Last Airbender
The Last Airbender Book Four: Air
Chapter Ten – The Face Stealer
"Hey gang, what's going on with everybody? Suki, why are you crying?" Sokka had just stepped back up onto the second floor. Looking around he saw through an open doorway that Toph and Suki were both in Zuko's room along with the Firelord himself and his family. Lu Ten was looking up wide-eyed at his mother, who was sobbing silently into her husband's chest. Suki was slumped over in a chair a few feet away, her body continually rocked back and forth as she wept. Kneeling some distance away from her was Toph. The blind earthbender looked as if she had nearly collapsed into the wall. One shaking arm appeared to be the only thing that supported her. The Water Tribe warrior felt horror dawning upon him. Something terrible had happened. "Zuko what's going on?" He demanded. Then looking around he added, "Where are Aang and Katara?"
He noticed that Suki wailed when he said his sister's name. "Zuko!" He demanded again. The Firelord's face was like brittle glass; full of cracks and just waiting for the final gust of wind to shatter it completely. For several seconds he kept staring blankly forward, then slowly his neck creaked to face Sokka.
"It's your sister..." He began. "She was...attacked." Sokka felt his insides plummet.
"Attacked? Was she hurt? Is she okay? Why aren't you all with her? Where is she?" His voice escalated as he hurled questions into the room. Sokka felt himself starting to shake, he felt light-headed. Nobody answered him. "Why won't somebody say something?" He pleaded. Zuko was looking at him desperately, as if trying to summon the courage to speak.
"Sokka..." He began. "She's upstairs, Aang's with her now. It's uh...it's not good." He paused. "She was attacked by some monster named Koh...she's – she's dying." He averted his face away from the Water Tribe warrior. Sokka stumbled and fell to the floor, feeling no pain on impact.
"That's impossible!" His voice shot out in a spasm. "Aang can save her! He's the Avatar! HE HAS TO SAVE HER!" Suki starting weeping harder.
"Sokka calm down." Zuko whispered. Lu Ten's eyes bulged in terror. "Aang's doing all he can, if anyone can figure something out it's him. We just have to wait and –"
"Wait?" Sokka screamed. "She's my sister! I have to go see her!"
"No." Zuko breathed flatly. "Leave her and Aang alone for now." The Water Tribe warrior was already trying to scramble to his feet.
"Leave them alone? Wait here? She's my sister! I have to go and see her, I have to go try to..." Sokka stopped. Suki had gotten up and crossed over to him. Her cheeks glowed bright red and her eyes were bloodshot from tears. She knelt down and brought her face close to his.
"Sokka..." She stammered, trying to keep her voice calm. "Let Aang be with her right now. This is going to be the last time he may get to be with his wife." Then she broke down again and threw her arms about him. Sokka felt what was left of his composure crack away as he began bawling and returned the hug.
Aang was staring into the void where his wife's face should have been. It had taken him some minutes after his initial arrival to realize that she was still alive though he was not sure how she kept breathing. But it meant a slower death, her pulse was weakening by the minute and without food or water there was no way she could pull through. He was going to lose her; he was going to lose Katara.
Tears rolled freely down from his eyes, he had not been able to silence them since arriving. Katara...his Katara, they had been through so much together. She was his best friend, she was mother to his child and she was the love of his life. She'd always been a stronger fighter than him, even without the awesome power of the Avatar. It just didn't seem possible.
"Oh Katara..." His voice wisped out in a woeful plea. He found her hand and guided it to the scar on his left elbow. "It's me... it's Aang." He ran it across his baldhead. "I don't know if you can hear me, but I want you to know it will be all right... I'm going to make it right! I promise Katara! I won't leave you! I shouldn't have left..." he broke down for a moment, unable to form words. After a moment he recomposed himself. "I should have been here!" He stammered. "It's all my fault – it's my fault." He sobbed out the last part.
"No kid...it was Koh, and Koh alone and you better get in that mindset right now if you want to free both our souls from an eternity of misery." The airbender jumped and looked up. Avatar Kuruk wavered in front of his vision, his outline blurred in the corporeal world. They past Avatar cast a mournful glance over Katara before kneeling in front of Aang. "She can be saved."
"...What?" Aang whispered, unsure of his own hearing.
"Your wife, if you move fast, do as I say and keep a steady head I believe she can be restored. This is not at all like when the Face Stealer stole my true love from me... no the effect has not yet been made permanent." The ghost ran a hand over the body, causing Katara to shiver. "This isn't over Aang," he said at length.
The airbender was up on his feet. "What must I do?" Kuruk's face furrowed.
"You won't like it kid...and it's not going to be easy." He stood so that his hulking shadow loomed over the Avatar. "You will have to hunt down and slay Koh before he returns to the Spirit World. If you can accomplish that then every soul that monster has ever stolen will be set free and allowed to rest."
"Tell me where to find him." Aang growled. The apparition blinked in surprise.
"You understand what I have told you...you will have to take a life: kill a living creature."
"That monster," Aang began. "Attempted to murder my family! Just tell me where to find him." There was a brief reprieve of silence. Then Kuruk sighed, he turned and faced the window where the setting sun could be seen plainly still hovering over the horizon.
"This will have to be very quick." The past Avatar repeated. "There are only two times when the bridge between this world and the Spirit World is fully open: sunrise and sunset. Koh must have come through at dawn and waited for you here on this island. He made the attack in this world, meaning Katara's soul is still in this world." Kuruk glanced around the room quickly. "The deed done, no doubt that monster is hiding somewhere on the island, just waiting for that right moment at dusk when he can slip through to safety. Now there are only a few spots where he could have hid...he'll need to stay in an area of strong spiritual presence. I don't know how many spots like that there are on this island but simply check them all and you will find him." Aang was already heading for the door, his form passing by the long shadows cast from the various odds and ends that were strewn about the storage area.
"Hey kid wait!" Avatar Kuruk called out. "Not so fast! You need to prepare! Do you even know how you're going to kill Koh?" The airbender stopped.
"When he steals your face, what exactly is he doing?" Aang asked sharply, without turning around.
"He's devouring your soul." Kuruk replied. "Eating everything that was you... like it were no more than candy."
"If that's the case then I have a way." The current Avatar replied. "Everything has a limit." He began walking again.
"I would take this too." The phantom gestured to a pointed straw hat that sat upon the top of a barrel. Aang stopped and turned slightly. When he saw the target of Kuruk's gesture he raised an eyebrow a little.
"Is that to keep me dry in case it starts raining?" He said, his voice clearly displaying agitation at being further delayed.
"Koh needs to see your face if he intends to steal it." Kuruk replied. "By wearing this simple garment as a mask you will take that advantage away from him. As the Avatar your other senses will more than make up for the lack of sight this will render. Against the Face Stealer there is no more important defense." Aang hesitated briefly before striding over and seizing the hat.
"Anything else?" He demanded. Kuruk sighed again.
"Believe me when I say I know exactly how you feel kid...but be careful with your anger. You will find that if you do not control it, Koh will be the only one who benefits...again I speak from experience. And be ready for whatever happens when you kill him, it is no small thing, killing a spirit. I do not know how – how others might view it."
"I'll keep all that in mind." Aang responded.
"Then good luck Avatar...for both our sakes."
Everyone was still collapsed in Zuko's room. The crying had subsided only to be replaced by a general numbness. No individual's lips twitched, there was no flicker of eye movement; every stare was a blank one. Sokka, who was the most recent to hear the news, still exhibited faint jolts through his body. He held onto Suki tightly for support, their heads pressed together. Toph had begun gently striking the wall she leaned against every few seconds, as if it were only something to do to pass the time. The Firelord and his family still huddled together, finding some measure of solace. Presently Flake appeared in the doorway.
"I thought if everyone was sitting out supper I might prepare a little tea..." He began weakly. No one replied. There wasn't one gesture of acknowledgement. "Very well then." The old man sighed. He turned and startled ambling for the kitchen. However before he had taken one step Aang burst onto the scene. The pointed straw hat tied firmly atop his head, the Avatar had draped a dark cloak about his shoulders and clutched his glider staff firmly in one hand.
"Aang!" Sokka shouted in surprise. Zuko stood up. Toph stopped hitting the wall. Lu Ten clutched Mai's hand. Suki lifted her head. The airbender silently regarded each in turn briefly before turning to the old man.
"Where are the temples on this island? The shrines, any location at all you can think of that might have remote spiritual properties!" He spoke crisply and clearly. The stammer that had been in his words gone, now purpose had replaced it. Flake rubbed his eyes through his glasses and blinked at the Avatar in disbelief.
"Come again?" He blabbered.
"WHERE?" Aang charged forward and seized the old man by the collar, dangling his bent frame a good foot off the ground. "I need to know and I need to know NOW!" Lu Ten squealed, forcing the airbender to remember his poise. Gently he set the quaking Flake back on his feet. "I am sorry." He breathed. "But there isn't a moment to lose...temples...shrines...anything you can tell me about this place, it would be most helpful." Flake fumbled his hand across his chin. It was clear that the old man's mind was working harder than it had in some time.
"Well, the only other place I can think of, besides that shrine I told you about on the beach, is the statue gardens up the mountain." He managed weakly.
Aang turned his head. "Statue gardens?" He repeated. Flake nodded.
"Yep, for every tragedy on this island at least one person's life is lost. We decided to commemorate this in a shrine of statues erected upon a plateau on the mountain's side. Well, as you can imagine with the luck we've been having over time that shrine became a garden; hundreds of statues with Ji Tian herself stationed dead center. Follow the path that goes up...and you can't miss it. Now, about that tea..." Flake shuffled off, he was still visibly shaken. Aang didn't seem to notice or didn't seem to care as he too made for the stairway.
"Wait a minute!" Zuko called. "What's going on?"
"When can I see my sister?" Sokka called. "She's my family too Aang!" The Avatar stopped.
"I am going to go to these statue gardens. I am going to find Koh, and I am going to kill him. I am going to save our family." Aang called stiffly over his shoulder. The Firelord felt his eyes widen.
"You're going to kill a spirit?" He asked.
"A monster." Aang replied. "Something that does not deserve to live." He turned and looked up at Sokka. "Watch over her for me until I get back, she may still need protecting." The Water Tribe warrior looked as if he was going to object but instead simply nodded.
"I don't like this." Zuko protested, he was feeling very uneasy. "At least let one of us go with you. We could help you fight." The Avatar shook his head.
"Unacceptable, it is far too dangerous. I will have to fight Koh blind. Besides Zuko, what would I tell your family if something was to happen? Can you imagine it, just for a second: losing your..." Aang looked away. "This is not up for debate."
"You're right." Toph replied. She stood and, rummaging around, found her own rounded cap. "It's not, let's get going." Aang started to shake his head.
"Toph listen –" He began.
"No you listen!" The blind earthbender barked. "I am not some defenseless little girl! I am not some pampered prim school teacher! I am the greatest earthbender who ever lived and if you want to beat this thing and save Katara then I'm coming with you! And I don't want to hear any crap about how this was your fault and how it's your responsibility, she was my friend too!" Toph stopped to take a breath and fastened her hat over her face. "Now let's get moving, we have a monster to kill." Aang looked taken aback. The others were expressions of pure shock. The blind earthbender began walking down the stairs and stopped next to Aang. "Well?" She snapped. "Let's go!"
Aang had never gotten used to feeling the world the way Toph had. As they progressed up the path he could sense the outline of dense foliage on either side of him. He was doing his best to focus on both his surroundings while constantly maintaining an internal clock inside his head. By his estimations they had just under an hour of daylight left. Anxiously he wondered just how much further this garden was. Toph's footsteps echoed soundly on the hard ground beside him. Overhead wind rustled the leaves. He could feel the moisture in the air sticking to his bare skin. It was going to start raining soon.
"You shouldn't have come," he said again to the stubborn earthbender. Toph immediately hit him hard in the side.
"Hey I don't want to hear any complaints. You'll need my help if you want to win," she said simply. "You can barely see well enough with your feet when everything's shiny and dry, the images tend to get a bit sloppy when the rain starts falling." Her foot crackled loudly on a dry twig.
"I hope you know you don't have to prove anything to us..." Aang said after a few moments. "This isn't the time to be making a statement about how tough you are, we all already know." Toph didn't reply. "Katara wouldn't want you getting yourself hurt just on her account." He found it difficult to get this last part out.
"Are you finished?" The blind earthbender asked. "Aang I am not doing this to be brave, I am not doing this to feel macho! I am doing this for the same reason you are: to save Katara and your kid, that's it. I just want to make sure you don't get yourself killed in the process because then we're all no better off than we were before." A loud cawing of several birds broke the atmosphere. "Believe me," Toph added once they had quieted. "I do not look forward to fighting this thing, whatever you're choosing to call it. I sure hope you have one jackpot of a plan to kill a spirit." Aang grimaced underneath the mask.
"Not one I'm proud of." He admitted, "But yes...I do have a good idea." He paused as his front foot met grass. "Are we here?" He whispered. He had gotten so wrapped up in the conversation and on thoughts of Katara that he had lost his focus. Rippling out a wave across the ground provided him with an answer before Toph could, however. A large stone figure of a woman carrying a basket stood before them. Then, off to the side: more statues.
Three children stood as granite pillars, their arms entwined as they eternally circled each other. Some distance away a fisherman cast his unwavering shadow across the carefully cultivated grass, a fishing pole draped over his shoulder. A kneeling woman, an elderly couple, the broad figure of a swordsman, there was no end to the array of people encapsulated here in stone. The landscape between them was fairly flat, only minor hills protruded here and there. Several small pools of water had collected in between these hills, almost in a purposefully decorative display. Aang got the feeling that if he could have seen it, he would have judged the area to actually be quite lovely. Yet now was not the time for sightseeing.
"Anything?" He whispered to Toph.
"I don't even know what Koh looks like. How big is he?" The blind earthbender admitted.
"You'll know when you've found him." The Avatar replied. "Head to the right, I'll cover the left."
"Just try not to trip over anything Twinkle Toes." Toph retorted. He moved away from her, the two of them circling out around the edge of the garden. Aang couldn't have taken more than fifteen steps before he felt the first drop of rain ping off the top of his head.
Perfect timing, he thought. Suddenly having Toph here really did make him feel better. He could still sense her; she was shifting her way carefully through the statues. Her feet never stopped moving, almost as if she were performing a very slow dance with an unseen partner.
"Ah...well if it isn't my good friend the Avatar." A drilling voice sliced through the air. Aang stopped, he felt Toph freeze as well. "...And I see you have brought another playmate along this time. Who is she Avatar? A sacrifice? Something to placate me with so that I might be persuaded to return the face of your pretty wife?" The airbender swiveled his feet around in the rapidly softening earth. Where was he? He could hear the voice clear as day but sensed nothing.
"Koh!" Aang called out as he hunted. "I don't know where you are but you'd do well to listen. This is the first and last time I will make you this offer: Return Katara's face, now and I will allow you to leave!" He screamed all this into the blackness of his mask. From somewhere a harsh chuckle answered his demand.
"That sounded threatening Avatar." It mused. "My curiosity is peaked. What will happen if I refuse your strict order?"
"Then I will kill you." Aang replied. No sooner had he spoken these words before roars of laughter filled the silent gardens.
"You'll kill me?" Koh laughed. "Avatar we both know you are incapable of such a violent and malicious act, no matter what atrocities befall you. Besides, my actions were justified...an Avatar who does not fulfill his worldly obligations must suffer the consequences." Aang felt himself fuming.
"You can lie all you want." He breathed. "But we both know that's all they are. You say I was not doing my job? Do you have any idea what I've sacrificed?"
"Now? Now a great deal I'm sure." The Face Stealer mocked smugly. "And you'll suffer more, for there is no chance, in this world or any other, that you could possibly –" Koh didn't get to finish. At that exact second Aang felt a line of earth and rock rocket past him, shooting into the air a few feet to his left. The Avatar heard the Face Stealer utter a cry of confused pain before he sensed the large, coiling, body slam into the ground.
"Don't you ever shut up?" Toph challenged. The blind earthbender skated across the ground, her feet dicing through the grass and rocks. Going into a slide she kicked up a large slab of earth with one leg, and with the other booted it square into the reeling spirit's midsection. Koh slid back from the force of impact before he began skittering frantically toward Toph.
"Foolish brat!" He bellowed. "You've never seen terror before like me in your life!" The blind earthbender giggled as she fortified her stance.
"I've never seen terror at all in my life!" She challenged, clapping her hands together. The motion triggered two chunks of ground to rise up, one on either side of Koh. Effortlessly she smashed them together, causing the Face Stealer to admit another cry of anger. Yet Koh did not stop, he kept pressing forward toward the young woman. Just as he was about to be upon her a powerful gust of air crashed into him from the side, sending him spiraling off into the trees. The spirit smashed through several before he recoiled back to strike.
"I wish you could see your wife's face now Avatar!" Koh bellowed. "This fight is giving it all sorts of scratches! But let's see if you can do any real damage!" He charged at Aang while at the same time whipping out the back portion of his body at Toph. The blind earthbender summoned a shield but it was not enough. She was thrown several feet and crashed down hard into the mud as the rain intensified over them.
"Wrong move bug boy!" She cried. There were two statues near her, one of a boy walking his dog, the other of a monk bowed low in prayer. Toph shoved her hands forward, hurtling both into Koh. The Face Stealer hesitated and Aang struck, causing all the droplets of water to form into ice shards he shot them into the Spirit's side. Shattering rang in Aang's ears, telling him the attack had been ineffective.
"Is this all either of you have?" Koh roared. "Bending tricks? It takes more than that to beat a spirit, much less kill one!" He shot down and smashed headlong into Aang, knocking the Avatar high into the air. He came down hard and rolled through the mud, his vision lost in a jumble of flashing images. He could still hear Toph as she battled valiantly against the monster that was scurrying fast around her. Yet it was no use, none of their attacks were having any real effect, all the blind earthbender was doing was buying herself time. Aang knew this was it.
He stopped rolling and steadied himself to his feet. "Enough!" He called. "Koh, I have something you want! And I'm willing to make a trade." He could feel both Toph and the Face Stealer cease movement.
"Ah...so now that you know you can't win it's time to make a deal, is that it?" The spirit scoffed. "What could you possibly have that would interest me Avatar?"
"My face." Aang replied back firmly. He heard Toph give a sharp intake of breath.
"Aang no!" She yelled.
"I care about my family more than anything." The Avatar went on. "And I would give anything to save Katara...anything. My life is a small price to pay." There was silence from the Face Stealer.
"Interesting..." Came the reply at length.
"Well?" Aang asked. "How about it, a waterbender's face for the Avatar's. Give you a taste of true power."
"I already have more than enough power!" Koh retorted.
"Are you sure about that?" The Avatar asked, his tattoos beginning to glow under the mask. "How can you be positive?" He felt the spirit draw away.
"No..." Koh replied. "I think I'll keep my trophy and leave you just as your past life was: wallowing in misery for eternity! The sun is setting, good-bye Avatar!"
"Koh!" Aang screamed, ripping off his mask. His face glowed with the full power of the Avatar State. "Give me my wife back!" He stared directly into the Face Stealer's eyes. Watched as they too lit up with his glow. Koh smiled as the power flowed into him. Then suddenly the spirit's face faltered.
"What?" The spirit managed to gasp, before simply imploding in a vast flash of light. The beam shot up into the sky, scattering the dark thunderclouds. A distant rumble echoed over the island and when it was finished, only Aang and Toph were left standing amongst the ruins of the statue garden. The Avatar looked around briefly at all of the damage.
"Wow...what in the chattering hog-monkey forest just happened?" Toph asked as she removed her own hat. Her eyes cast a vacant glance over the spot where the Face Stealer had just towered moments before.
"There's always a danger in eating too much, too quickly." Aang answered back bluntly. "He choked." The blind earthbender nodded slightly.
"So you gave him a power overload?" She inquired.
"Something like that." The airbender replied. "Now come on, let's get back to the Inn." He grabbed her shoulder and together they started walking down the mountain. "Oh...and thanks for coming." He added. Toph hit him smartly on the shoulder.
"Eh, I was bored." She responded. As they left Aang threw a backwards glance over the garden. He couldn't be sure of it but almost for a second it looked like Avatar Kuruk appeared along with his wife, Ummi. Both smiled and the past Avatar held up a hand in gratitude. Then, as quickly as it had come, the vision vanished. Aang grinned and turned back to the road. He knew he had succeeded.
Neither spoke when they laid eyes on each other. Aang was first up the stairs, and immediately there she was. Her sapphire eyes turned and met his brown ones and once more their souls flowed into one another. He stopped walking, instead collapsing on his hands and knees at the top of the stairs. His breath came in ragged, fragmented, gasps. His lips trembled as they formed a smile to match her own. Lifetimes appeared to fly by in the eternity in which they simply stared at one another.
Then Katara was on her feet and quickly had him in her arms. The Avatar found himself once again unable to stop tears as he merely sobbed into her. She held him close; so close that from any real distance their bodies stopped appearing separate. They were joined in one body, one soul and one heart once more.
From a respectable distance Zuko observed the spectacle along with the others. He had his arm draped around his wife and Lu Ten's hand was clasped firmly within his own.
"Thank the spirits." Mai breathed.
"Spirits nothing!" Sokka shot back. "Aang did all the work. It was the spirits who were to blame in the first place!" The Firelord allowed himself a grin.
"Well whatever..." Mai countered. "I'm just thankful that it's over now." Everyone nodded. Zuko, however, cast his gaze off Aang and Katara and over to the window. Looking out he saw overheard clear skies surrounded by a wall of blackness on all sides. Was it really over, he wondered, or was this just the eye of the storm?
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