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April 9, 2013
Previously in Air
While investigating the supposedly 'cursed' Forest on Xing Shi Yu, Captain Jee and a group of soldiers stumbled upon a frightening creature: A woman without a face.
Chapter Sixty-Four: The Faceless
The woman had no face. Indentations where her eye sockets may once have been gleamed blank in the moonlight. Wei and Hoo screamed, stumbling back in shock and terror.
Shouts of alarm rang through the foliage, and a moment later the rest of the search party burst into the clearing. Not much could force two skilled soldiers to loose such girlish squeals, and when Captain Jee and his men spotted the faceless woman, they felt much like screaming themselves.
They froze, captivated by the woman's eerie, eyeless stare.
"Spirits," someone murmured.
A few soldiers found their feet, picking their way to where Hoo and Wei had fallen, careful not to stir even a leaf should it disturb the strange apparition. As other soldiers thawed from their frozen fear, they slowly reached for their weapons and juiced up fireballs in their palms.
In the darkness, someone snorted. "She won't hurt you."
Captain Jee started at the familiar voice.
Kaori, the old man from the market, stepped into view. He moved to the woman, standing protectively between her and the soldiers. His eyes dark and dangerous, he growled, "Let her be."
Jee struggled to find his voice. He still could not tear his eyes from the woman's smooth face as she relished in the unseen moonlight.
"What is she?" he managed finally, his voice barely a whisper.
Kaori snorted again. "She's one of them spectres the villagers are so afraid of," he scoffed. He gazed up at the woman and his harsh eyes softened. "They call 'em the Faceless."
"I've heard stories from my grandmother," Si Yung murmured. His eyes remained fixed on the woman, and he gulped. "I just never thought they could be true."
"True enough," Kaori snapped, his eyes narrowing again as he turned back on the soldiers. "They may not have faces, but they're not monsters and child-stealers, like some claim." He glared at Si Yung, and the soldier blushed guiltily.
Jee still struggled to wrap his brain around it all, but outwardly he exuded calm confidence. "How many are there?"
Kaori raised an eyebrow. He looked the Captain up and down, as if appraising his stalwartness of character. Finally, the old man shook his head. "I'll not have you poking at them or deciding their fate."
Jee frowned. He took a cautious step forward, shooting a glance in the Faceless woman's direction. "Something must be done about this," he said gently. "The Firelord should–"
Kaori laughed the bitter laugh of a tired man. "The Firelord! Yes, yes, certainly he'll solve every problem, should he ever have a minute to spare!"
The anger of his outburst was rooted deep within, and Jee frowned. Why was this old man so set against Firelord Zuko? That was a question to be answered later, Jee decided. For now, he needed to convince Kaori that their aid was in his best interests. He leveled his gaze at the old man, his words soft.
"This," he said, gesturing at the woman, "Is not natural."
"No," Kaori agreed. "And yet it's been done, and has been for as long as I can remember."
Jee's eyes widened in alarm. "How many are there?" he demanded again.
"You want to know how many?" Kaori cried. "Fine. I'll show you."
Without waiting for a reply, Kaori took the woman's hand in his own and began to guide her, deeper into the Forest.
He had nearly disappeared within the foliage by the time Jee made up his mind. Something terrible was at play here. He decided he didn't have much choice but to follow.
"Koh." Horrible memories –both his own, and those of others– surfaced in Aang's mind as he stared at the creature.
The spirit chuckled, sending chills up and down Aang's spine.
"It's so nice to see I leave a lasting impression," Koh said, stretching out along the branch like a cat in the luxurious sunlight.
"What's going on?" Haku demanded. "How have you stood against the darkness?"
Koh glanced down at the ghostly figure in mild surprise, as if noticing him for the first time. "Ah, and Avatar Haku. It has been a very long time, hasn't it? Yes. How have I stood against the darkness? Easily answered." The creature blinked into a different face, a young woman's, beaming down at them, as if they were part of some private joke. "I didn't."
Haku frowned. "I don't understand."
Koh chuckled. His legs scurried back up the trunk, to the underside of the branch above. Peering at them upside down, he said, "What is there to understand? I have not stood against the darkness, and yet I remain."
The darkness around them seemed to pulse with the creature's laughter.
"He's the one," Aang said, fighting to keep the anger from his face. "Koh is responsible."
Haku's head snapped toward him in alarm.
"Responsible?" Koh repeated, amused. "Oh no. Not I."
"But...he can't be," Haku muttered. "That is impossible."
"Why?" Aang demanded.
"Just as there is a balance to the mortal plane," Haku explained, eyes fixed on Koh, "There is also a balance to the Spirit World, and they in turn are set on the ultimate Balance."
Koh met Haku's gaze as the ghost spoke, flicking through several more faces –an old woman, a golden dragon, a child. The same taunting smirk quirked the corner of each mouth, mocking him.
Aang almost frowned, but caught himself just in time. Koh's feet clicked together, as if in disappointment. "It has to be him."
A frown darkened Haku's eyes, furrowing his brow as he stared up at the spirit. "You are an amoral creature, Koh."
The face of the child smiled down sweetly. "So I am."
"By siding neither with good nor with evil, you do your part to keep the worlds in harmony."
"True." A quiver ran through the creature's body, his legs incessantly tap-tap-tapping at the trunk.
The frown began to lift from Haku like a released weight. His shoulders slackened in relief. "You are the last of the ancient spirits left; you are bound to the Balance, and there is nothing you can do to disrupt that, not without destroying yourself."
Koh's lips twitched in a malicious smirk. "Perhaps."
Relief drained from Haku. He stared up at the creature, blinking incomprehensively. "What do you mean, perhaps?"
The tapping of the creature's legs suddenly stilled. "Why, just that. It is certainly true that I can do nothing to upset the natural order of the Balance, but there is really no way to tell whether or not there are other ways I might disrupt it without tearing myself asunder." Koh slithered forward, winding himself around a branch. "I wonder, do you know the true reason why this darkness comes? The Balance is already swayed. The loss of the Air Nomads left a gaping void of spirituality in the mortal world, driving it ever farther from ours. It has only gotten worse, Haku. You know of what I speak. Mortals are tipping themselves toward the side of Chaos, and both worlds along with them." A smile pulled at Koh's thin lips. "I'm not upsetting the Balance; I'm merely helping it along."
"So you are responsible," Aang growled.
"Y-you can't!" Haku cried.
Koh ignored Haku, instead turning to Aang. "Do you know the true meaning of 'balance', Avatar Aang?" Koh said with a bitter chuckle. "Boredom."
The creature wriggled down the trunk of the tree, peering at Aang from upside down with the face of a serene old woman. Those eyes were so calm, so confident... Aang could not pull his gaze away, but met the spirit's pilfered eyes as if transfixed.
"Mortals die," Koh droned, "Spirits fade, but new ones rise in their place. We shift back and then forward, never fully reaching one side or the other, and always finding ourselves level again. An eternal battle of push and pull, give and take, and for what? Nothing. It all remains the same."
"Blasphemy!" Haku cried, leaping between the two, breaking the trance. "If you upset the Balance, Koh, if you allow the two worlds to mesh, everything will be plunged into Chaos!"
The spirit grinned. "And a welcome change to the tedium that has possessed us all since the beginning of time. Isn't it delectable?"
It was small wonder people in the village thought Kaori was roiled in the eerie hauntings of the island's wild. His farm rested in the very heart of the cursed Forest, embraced on all sides by the thick shrubbery. A small house and a large barn were so enwrapped within the untamed plants they were nearly hidden from sight. Encircling the farm, a great barrier served to protect it from the eyes of outsiders.
Or perhaps, Jee realized as he followed Kaori through the single gate, the barrier was built to keep them all in.
There were so many of them, scattered about the farm. Some merely stood still, staring blindly into the distance. Others moved carefully about, while some walked by the low boughs of trees, fingering the leaves.
Kaori gestured at these. "Sense of touch is the only thing left to 'em," he explained gruffly. "They'll feel anything they can, and won't stop fingerin' it for hours."
The men stared at the incredible sight for several, long moments.
Finally, Jee managed a deep breath. "...How?"
Kaori's frown was deep. "I don't rightly know." He looked out over the many Faceless under his care. "They show up from time to time. Never could figure out a pattern to it. All ages, men and women, and not all Fire Nation, either. We've had Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom, too; peasants and soldiers, warriors and benders. It don't matter." He shook his head. "And before you ask, I don't know the how about that, either."
"How long have you been caring for them?" Jee asked.
Kaori snorted. "All my life. And before I did it, there was my father, an' his father, an' his father. He was the first Caretaker, and we ain't known anything but this."
"That long?" Jee cried, appalled. "Why haven't you told anyone?"
Kaori scoffed. "Who's there to tell? The villagers? Bah! They think the Faceless are some kind o' evil." His face softened and he released the woman's hand, gently nudging her toward the house. "But they ain't."
Jee looked over them once more before turning to Hoo and Wei. "Report back to the inn at once. Firelord Zuko needs to know about this immediately."
"Bah!" Kaori scoffed again. "The Firelord won't do anything; never did before."
Captain Jee stiffened. "He needs to know about this." Then the man's words sank in. "What do you mean 'never did before'?"
"You keep saying 'why didn't you tell someone?' I've tried. Not the villagers; gave up on them a long time ago. But the Faceless just kept coming, and I couldn't see no end." Kaori scowled at Jee. "So I sent a message to the Firelord. Told him exactly what was going on. And what did he do? Nothing, that's what!"
Nothing? Jee shook his head. Firelord Zuko would have done something, so it must be that he had never received the message. Jee opened his mouth to explain the dozens of ways a letter could fall between the cracks, but Kaori cut him off.
"And don't you tell me it gone and got lost, or misplaced, or thrown out by some skeptic! I sent hundreds of 'em, one after another, for nearly six years!" Kaori's eyes flashed dark and venomous. "And when I spotted them Fire navy ships puttin' in, I think to myself, 'So, he's finally gotten it all thought out and sent me some help!' And then what? Nobody comes! I go down there, and they tell me to keep my nose to myself, or else I won't keep it. And today, I see as the Firelord himself comes to the island. But what's he here for? Ship repairs!" Kaori spat on the earth. "Bah! I ain't gettin' my hopes up again."
Hoo and Wei waited for a nod from the Captain, ironically eager to get back into the Forest. Now it didn't seem nearly as creepy as this moonlight-shrouded farm.
The Captain shook his head. "The Firelord never heard a word of this," he said. "I'm certain of it. There's no way he'd leave something like this on its own."
With one eye, the sailor squinted at the woman. Odd, that they would have so many visitors in one day. Not many people visited anymore. This one was asking specifically for strange or uncharacteristic places on the island.
"That's easy," the sailor told her, after a good chuckle. "The Forest."
The woman frowned. She glanced past the village toward the trees. "What makes it so special?"
Again, the sailor chuckled. "It's cursed."
The woman's frown darkened in frustration. "I'm not really interested in folklore."
"Folklore!" the sailor cried indignantly. "That's the truth, and I'll swear it on my mother's grave! There's things in that Forest, lost souls wandering in the night. If you don't believe me, just look for yourself. But beware! If they get their hands on you, you'll be the next to mourn your soul in the moonlight."
The woman still did not look pleased with the answer, but her eyes were anxious now as she looked again to the trees. "If it's cursed," she said slowly, "Why are there so many Navy ships moored at its edge?"
Now it was the sailor's turn to frown. "What ships?"
"To the east," the woman told him. "There's a whole slew of Navy vessels anchored off the shore."
Baffled, the sailor tried to reason it out. He could think of no cause for the Navy to be interested in his little island. After all, what could even the military might of the Fire Nation do against a curse?
He shrugged. "They must have come with the Firelord."
Now it was the woman's turn to look baffled, her eyelids flickering in surprise. "The Firelord?"
As the sailor regaled her with the unexpected activity of the morning, a pair of dark-rimmed eyes studied the woman from the shadows of a booth in the closed market. How inconvenient.
The camp of the Phoenix King buzzed with activity despite the late hour. Azula smiled, amused how they sat right under Zuko's nose, in his own nation, and how he would never think to find them here.
Three soldiers bowed, their captain offering his hand as she stepped from the rowboat. She ignored the startled cries at her back as the cargo ship's naïve and unsuspecting crew were subdued by the rest of the squadron.
"Another ship for our armada, Captain," Azula said airily.
"Yes, Your Majesty," the captain replied, not daring to mention the inconvenience an entire crew of prisoners would cause them.
"Where is my father?"
"He is onboard the warship, Princess. I shall tell him you have arrived, and request an audience." The captain deepened his bow, stepping back to depart.
Annoyance flashed in Azula's eyes. "Stay where you are!"
The captain froze. He had heard others say that the princess was not who she once had been, that at times a madness took her. He had seen her on her first visit to the camp, just after she had been released; he admitted she was not as beautiful or regal as he remembered, but twelve years locked in a cage could do that to any person. He'd noticed no difference in her attitude and demeanor, but now he understood. He glanced over his shoulder, at the wild eyes glaring at him, her lips pulled back and her teeth bared like a rabid beast.
"I will announce myself," she growled. She tossed a loose strand of hair aside, and her posture straightened. Her voice settled back to its familiar lilt, but the captain could not unsee the madness in her eyes. "I'm certain he will wish to see me immediately, captain, so I will not keep him waiting."
Azula swept passed the soldiers, a single Dai Li agent trailing behind her.
The captain stepped forward, opening his mouth to protest.
The Dai Li glanced up sharply. Catching the captain's eye, he gave the slightest shake of his head. The captain recognized it not as a threat, but as a warning. There was real fear in the agent's eyes.
The captain gulped. He closed his mouth, bowing quickly even though Azula had dismissed him from her mind.
Incessant knocking interrupted Mai and Zuko's peaceful enjoyment of the silver moon as it hovered over the waves.
She glared reproachfully at the closed door, stifling a yawn. "Now what?"
Gently disentangling himself from her embrace, Zuko rose. "Maybe Ursa and Roh-Roh have decided to break the curse."
Mai threw a pillow at his head, but it made her smile. He ducked the missile just as he opened the door, but his own smile froze in surprise.
Propping herself up on an elbow, Mai peered over the back of the divan. The waterbender stood awkwardly in the doorway, hand raised as if to wave 'hello'. One look was enough to realize something was wrong.
"What is it?"
Zuko paced before the window, tousling his hair in frustration. "He should have told me."
Guilt flushed through Katara. "I'm sorry we didn't, Zuko. There was so much going on, and Aang didn't understand yet what had happened. He didn't want to worry anyone."
"How long has Aang been..." Mai hesitated, struggling to find the right words.
"Not the Avatar?" Katara suggested wryly.
"I'm not sure." Katara turned to Zuko. "He said it happened some time when you were investigating the Guild."
A memory surfaced in Zuko's mind. Late at night, he and Aang were waiting for word from Toph. He remembered Aang jolting up as if from a nightmare. Remembered a distance in his friend, a weight on his shoulders.
Zuko shook his head, letting it sink into his hands.
"What is it, Zuko?" Mai asked, concerned.
"I should have known. I knew something was wrong, but I was so worried about Roh-Roh..." He shook his head again. "He said it was nothing, and I let myself believe it." His face darkened. "But I knew it was a lie. I should have pressed him. I should have made him tell me. Maybe this wouldn't have happened."
Mai snorted softly. "It's a nice sentiment, but Zuko, what could you have done? Accompanied him to the Spirit World? You may not be a hothead anymore, but you're not exactly a spiritual guru."
"She's right, Zuko," Katara said. "And I didn't come here to lay blame. Whatever this is, it's bigger than any of us. I'm certain of it."
Zuko looked at her, frowning. "Why did you come here?"
Reaching into the cloak by her side, Katara pulled out an old scroll. Though it had seen much use of late, traces of dust still remained. "This is the journal of Avatar Haku," she explained. "This is what gave Aang the idea to try journeying to the Spirit World through meditation during the solstice. But there's another method of travel he mentions." She opened the scroll on the table before them, pointing out a section of script. "He mentions different areas of the world that are closer to the Spirit World, more attuned to it. You remember the Spirit Oasis in the North Pole?"
Zuko coughed softly. It was one of the first times he'd actually managed to catch the Avatar and hold onto him for a while. "Yeah."
"Haku says he discovered another one in the Fire Nation, on Imru."
Mai frowned. "Is Imru close by?"
"This is it," Katara said, surprised.
Zuko nodded slowly. "This place has been known as Xing Shu Yi for years; even the locals sometimes forget its true name."
"The curse probably doesn't help much," Mai said with a thin smile.
Katara raised an eyebrow. "What–"
But for the second time, they were interrupted by an urgent knock at the door.
Mai rolled her eyes at Zuko as he rose to answer it. "I guess it's going to be one of those days."
Zuko had never even heard whispers of the Faceless. He stared around at the nightmarish figures, his brain churning. How could this happen? How could he not know?
The Firelord did not waste time traveling to the farm, guided by the rather unenthusiastic Wei. At the soldier's advice, Katara accompanied them, along with Admiral Jeong Jeong and –at Katara's request– Sokka and Suki. Uncertain what waited for them on this mysterious night trek, Zuko did not let word spread. Mai was not happy about staying behind, but their visitors had stirred others in the inn. For the sake of keeping them –especially the innkeeper– too occupied to be suspicious, she agreed to fake a bit of morning sickness, and maybe a ridiculous craving or two.
Captain Jee met them as they passed through the low wall encompassing the farm.
"What is this?" Zuko asked.
"I'm not sure," Jee admitted. He gestured toward an old man, standing with his hands on hips before the farmhouse.
With a jolt, Zuko realized it was the man from the market, the one who had seemed so disgusted by him. He stood defiant, as if preparing to bar them from his home with his last breath.
"Kaori hasn't been entirely helpful," Jee said, "But as far as I can tell, these...Faceless have been inhabiting the island for decades. Longer. He said his father and his grandfather cared for them. They're the reason Kaori refuses to leave the Forest."
"And no doubt also the reason the villagers fear it so," Jeong Jeong said.
Jee nodded. He glanced at the Admiral, saying, "It seems there was more than just a grain of truth to this story."
Zuko's gaze still focused on Kaori, and the old man met it with a rebellious gleam.
"Why didn't he tell anyone?" Zuko asked the Captain.
"He was afraid," Jee replied softly. "The villagers believe the legends, that the Cursed Ones are monsters and murderers. They're cursed, for certain, but he swears they're harmless. He thought the villagers would hurt them."
Zuko nodded slowly. That made sense... But there was more to the story. "What else would you like to tell me, Captain?"
An involuntary flush colored Jee's cheeks. His face always betrayed his thoughts, and it now it was pinched and uncertain. He coughed gently. "Kaori also claims that he tried to inform you about this...predicament."
Zuko frowned. He racked his brain, but he was certain the old man didn't mention it at the market. "He wasn't very friendly today."
"Not today," Jee explained. "He sent messages to the Palace, apparently a good number. None of them were ever answered."
"Troubling, indeed," Jeong Jeong mused.
Jee rubbed sheepishly at the back of his neck. "That might explain his earlier behavior."
Zuko nodded again. "Looks like I have some explaining to do myself."
When Katara caught sight of the first one, she gasped.
"Nothing to be frightened of, miss," Wei assured her. "At least, we don't think so."
But Katara wasn't listening. She broke away from the small group and walked toward the Faceless. Without hesitation, she peered into his vacant face, took his hand.
"What is it, Katara?" Sokka asked.
"Do you remember the siege at the North Pole, when Aang traveled into the Spirit World?"
"Yeah, of course."
"He mentioned something about a Face Stealer. Koh." She shook her head, a tear forming on her lash. "He never did like to talk about him."
Sokka frowned, stepping forward to examine the Faceless.
"What if this is the reason Aang hasn't come back?" The words tumbled out of her on a wave of newfound hope as she gazed around at the other Faceless. "What if he learned about this and he's trying to set it right?"
Sokka and Suki exchanged a quick glance, and he put a comforting arm around Katara's shoulder. "You never know, little sister."
While the others stared around at the eerie inhabitants of the farm, Jeong Jeong gazed farther into the Forest. Zuko noted the frown of concern on his Admiral's face.
"What is it?" he asked quietly.
Jeong Jeong pointed up at the sky. Zuko looked hard for a moment before he saw it: a stack of smoke curling up into the night, blackening the beams of moonlight.
"It appears to be from a large number of vessels," Jeong Jeong said, keeping his voice low so as not to alarm the others. "And the port lies on the opposite side of the island."
Zuko frowned now, too.
"Your Majesty," Jee said quickly, alarmed. "Kaori did mention something else that I thought was odd. He claimed that navy vessels have weighed anchor on the island. When he tried to talk to them, they ran him off."
The three exchanged troubled glances.
"I know of nothing that would bring navy vessels to this island," Jeong Jeong said, "Or of any orders to do so. I assume you do not, either, Your Majesty?"
Zuko shook his head.
"With recent events, this concerns me." Jeong Jeong glanced into the forest, toward the imagined navy ships. "I wish to take no chances; I will set a patrol around the perimeter of the farm, and send a few scouts to see what's going on over there."
"I will investigate," Jee said with a firm nod.
"I'm certain one of my soldiers will accompany you," Jeong Jeong said. "Take Corporal Si Yung; he has great skill in stealth that should prove useful."
As Jee retreated with a bow, Zuko glared into the trees, as if by looking hard enough he could see what lay beyond.
Only a single warship graced the Phoenix King's makeshift armada. The others were smaller vessels, some equipped for battle, but mostly sluggish cargo ships. It was a pitiful sight, but Azula knew their victory would not hinge on any battlefield.
No docks edged this unsettled section of coast. The ships weighed anchor farther out, while dozens of rowboats lay beached on the sand, ready at any moment to shuttle the soldiers to their respective vessel.
The warship alone was accessible by land. A single natural bridge of rock jutted toward the sea, just before a great ravine in the water. The warship's gangplank was lowered to connect the small distance between the rock and the ship.
Two soldiers stood guard at the bottom of the gangplank, and they bowed deep, neither protesting the princess' presence. Inside, a third soldier greeted her in kind. He led her to a closed iron door and told her to wait.
Azula did not like waiting. She contemplated scorching his ear for such impertinence, but she knew every soldier would still be needed. Father would not be pleased if she maimed one for such a trivial matter. And she needed to please her father.
A moment later, the soldier returned to usher her in.
The ship's war room had been converted into a temporary throne room. Admirals and generals stood about the strategy table, softly discussing which islands they could conquer with ease and which would require more force. Ozai watched them from his throne. It was not a true throne, only a makeshift representation of one. But with Ozai seated upon it, every inch the commanding ruler, one forgot to notice the sorry seat.
Azula found herself daunted by the powerful image, and a niggling doubt prodded at her brain. Failure, it hissed. Disappointment. She clenched her fists, fighting the fear rising in her throat. She had not failed, she assured herself. Her success had merely been delayed. She would find Zuko again –hunt him down like a beast, if she had to– and this time she would kill him.
The lie convinced her, and confidence surged through her chest. Holding her head high, she strode to the back of the room, prostrating herself before her father's throne.
Ozai said nothing.
Azula frowned. She cast a quick glance upward; the Phoenix King's gaze remained fixed on his war council. Why did he not look at her? Had he not noticed her?
Fury flushed her face, but Azula choked back the words begging to burst from her tongue. She swallowed hard, fighting to calm her mind. Lowering her head once more, she rested her hot forehead on the metal floor and allowed the coolness to wash the heat of fury from her.
"I have returned, Father."
For a long moment, Ozai still refused to acknowledge her.
Azula's anger returned full force, but with it came a hint of fear. Her confidence slipped away, and she wondered how truly disappointed he was.
The Phoenix King finally spoke, addressing his council. "Gentlemen," he said. "Attend to your ships for the time, and I will send for you when I require your council."
The collective generals and admirals scraped and bowed, departing quickly. None, Azula noticed with grim satisfaction, dared to step near her. At least her years away had not lowered her in the sight of her subjects.
They retreated into the passage, and still Ozai did not look at her. The clank of the heavy iron door resounded through the chamber as it closed behind them and yet he did not speak.
Sweat trickled down Azula's sides, beneath her shirt, as the minutes dragged on. She swallowed hard, remembering the moment Zuko had been at her mercy, enraged and utterly powerless. How easy it would have been to end him there. Too easy. Her instructions had been to kill him at all costs, but she had to make him suffer. Mere death was not enough punishment for her dear brother; her father would understand that.
The Phoenix King stood, hands clasped behind his back. "Make your report," he said, his voice sharp.
Azula flinched, but his anger was not as potent as she had expected. As she opened her mouth to answer, she raised her eyes and realized that Ozai was not speaking to her.
Behind her, bowed low to the floor, the Dai Li answered. "The assassination failed, Your Majesty. The Earth King was already on alert, expecting an attack from the Guild, which Kuzarr did not anticipate."
Ozai frowned. The Guild had been useful pawns to distract Zuko from the Fire Nation, but their involvement should have ended there. Evidently, they decided to vie for power themselves. Unfortunate.
"Zuko was also prepared," the Dai Li continued, "Warned by Admiral Jeong Jeong about Kuzarr's allegiance. Kuzarr was captured at Ba Sing Se, along with all of my comrades."
Ozai pursed his lips. "Unsettling," he decided, "But not altogether important. It is a pity to lose Kuzarr. He has proven invaluable."
The burning gaze of the Phoenix King turned on her. "At least he did not so utterly fail me, Azula."
Azula flinched, bowing deeper into the floor, each word slicing through her soul.
"How is it that Zuko still lives? How is it that you have failed me again? How is it that you–"
Indignation flared in her heart and Azula's head shot up to return her father's glare. "He needed to suffer!"
Ozai's frown deepened, but one of his eyebrows rose. In curiosity? Azula hoped so. Perhaps it had not occurred to him that a just punishment should be in store for Zuko. Her brother must be made an example of. Perhaps her forethought would redeem her in his eyes.
Ozai circled toward her, eyes narrowing. "Do you think this is about revenge, Azula?"
Azula blinked, taken aback. "N-not entirely," she stammered. A flush of anger caught her tongue. "But vengeance must be had! We must show to the world what happens when someone defies us! Zuko betrayed us, betrayed you. He must pay for that."
Ozai scoffed, breaking eye contact with her. "Vengeance is a path for fools."
She rocked back, as if physically struck. "I –I don't understand."
"You would not."
His words were harsh, dismissive. He did not look at her again, and Azula ground her teeth.
"You wasted your time chasing your brother across the Earth Kingdom, hoping to make him suffer. But he bested you at every turn, and now you have no victory to show for your trouble."
Azula bent low once more, heart pounding in her ears. "What are you saying?"
"You are a fool!"
Ozai sighed, not with regret but disgust. Hot tears stung at Azula's eyes as he turned away from her once more.
"You should have killed him the moment you had the opportunity. Now I must clean up after you."
"No!" Azula surged to her feet. "I can do it! I will kill him. I just need time. I'll find him again, and this time I'll finish him."
Ozai turned his eyes back on her, but there was no satisfaction in them. "You have already wasted more chances then you should have ever received."
"Please!" The cry tore from her throat on a choking sob. She threw herself at his feet. "I won't fail you again!" Tears spilled from her eyes as she clutched at the hem of his robe. She clawed at the fabric, not even aware of her actions as her vision blurred and her mind's eye conjured the image of another turning her back on Azula long ago. "I swear it, Father; I'll never disappoint you again, but don't leave me!"
Ozai stared down at his daughter's pitifully trembling form, stunned. Once such a powerful weapon, now diluted by fits of madness. What could he do with such a creature?
"If I may, Your Majesty...?"
The raspy voice oozed from between the shadows, and Azula flinched. A small figure in the corner of the room disentangled itself from the darkness, moving to stand at the Phoenix King's side. Min spared the disgraced princess one careless glance before bowing her head before Ozai.
Ozai's eyes glimmered with pleasure. He did not know yet what she would suggest, but he knew Min was not one of idle words. "Speak."
Azula flinched again, remembering when that gaze had been reserved for her. For the prodigy princess. The Firelord's right hand. Min's voice brought Azula back to reality and, realizing she grasped at her father's hem, she thrust the fabric away, scurrying back.
Min did not look at the princess, but Azula caught the smirk of her lips nonetheless.
"Perhaps the princess's foolhardy actions could now be used to our advantage."
Knuckles bleached white with pressure, Azula dug her broken fingernails into the flesh of her palm. Foolhardy. Who was this woman, a mere peasant, to call her actions foolhardy? If this had been any other council of war between the Fire royals, Azula would have struck her down on the spot. And no one would have uttered a word, because the princess would have been in the right. But now... Why did her father merely nod?
"I have seen the waterbender in the village," Min continued, pausing once to cough. "If the Avatar is also here, that could prove most inconvenient. I must remind you," she said, her dark voice growing sharp, "That he could still potentially unravel our plans. He need only to disrupt the anchor, and the passageway will crumble."
"That must not happen," Ozai thundered.
Min inclined her head in agreement. "I shall require a doubled guard about the anchor, to ensure its safety." She glanced at the Dai Li agent, still prostrate on the floor. "Give me leave to use him, Your Majesty; he would prove most advantageous should someone attempt to attack the cave."
Ozai nodded. "Take him."
Azula clenched her teeth. It was sickening, watching this woman pull at her father's strings. She said 'give me leave', but her voice commanded his will. Min knew exactly what to say, and exactly how to say it.
As if sensing the princess's thoughts, Min shot her another unconcerned glance. Their gaze met for an instant, and each knew the contempt of the other. Those dark, sunken eyes bore into Azula's mind, and she shivered. Min smirked and turned away, while Azula silently cursed herself for giving way.
She did not fear Min. The woman was only mortal, after all, and not nearly as talented or clever as everyone seemed to think. She had a weak constitution, barely able to make it through an hour without sitting and wheezing to catch her breath. Despite her mysterious dark arts, she was truly mortal, and a pitiful one at that. But seeing Min –her pale face, her dark eyes, her gray lips– reminded Azula of that night, up on the cliffs. Of that horrible, stark face...
Ozai's gaze rested on Min, probing for any reaction in her face. "You also spoke of the Firelord being on the island. Could he in any way disrupt our plan?"
Sunken eyes drifting upward, Min considered it. "I can think of no way. Freeing the anchor is both a physical and spiritual task. I doubt your son has the ability to perform it."
"And what do you suggest of the princess?" Ozai pressed, waving a dismissive hand at Azula.
"We must learn if the Avatar is here," Min replied, "And how much he knows. Though foolhardy, the princess has proved at least elusive. And if she is caught, well, they will naturally assume that she has come to hunt her brother down once more."
"Very well," Ozai said, nodding. His thunderous gaze turned on his daughter. "Min's suggestion is sound, Princess Azula. You will learn what you can about our enemies."
Azula slowly rose to her feet, biting her tongue. Princess, he called her. Had she not been ---Firelord--- Azula once before? "Of course, Father." She bowed her head low. "And given the chance, I shall finish Zuko."
"No," Ozai snapped. "Stealth is our ally now. It is possible Zuko is oblivious to our presence here; we shall not announce it. Keep to the shadows. Do not reveal yourself. What we need now is information."
Bowing low, Azula backed toward the door. "As you wish, Your Majesty."
But Ozai's attention had already moved elsewhere.
Corporal Si Yung led Captain Jee through the Forest. Though an underling, Si Yung had already scoured the perimeter and he also had the added benefit of having learned stealth at the feet of a master. When Jeong Jeong first returned, he spent most of his time teaching some interesting curriculum to promising young soldiers.
Jee, as a navy man, never had much use for moving soundlessly through unpredictable terrain or disappearing at a moment's notice. He wasn't doing awful, just slow.
At the edge of the Forest, Si Yung waited patiently for the Captain to catch up.
"Don't leave the protection of the Forest, sir," he whispered, "Not until we take a look."
Jee nodded, but he wondered if the obvious comment was intended as snarky. His eyes caught sight of the smoke through the trees, and he had more important things to worry about.
The smoke rose in a great thick stack, black as coal and obviously from the belly of a ship. Jee had seen enough in his time to know. But beyond the line of trees, unseen from the farmhouse, several smaller columns of smoke fluttered up from dozens of scattered fires along the beach.
If the number of bonfires dismayed the two spies, it was nothing compared to the realization that the camp was crowded with nearly two-hundred men. Standards proudly boasted banners throughout the camp, bearing not the insignia of the Fire Nation, but the nearly forgotten symbol of the Phoenix King.
Si Yung and Jee glanced at one another, the grim horror each felt reflected in the other. Without a word, they backed away from the beach, retreating into the cover of the Forest. But as they retreated to return with word to the Firelord, a spark of flame caught their attention.
"Going somewhere, gentlemen?"
Haku and Aang stared at Koh in shock and dismay.
"You're mad," Aang said.
Koh cackled. "Not mad, Avatar. Just bored."
Surprised, they both looked to Haku. The ghost slowly shook his head, unable to pull his gaze from the spirit.
"We fought side by side once against a similar evil, Koh," Haku insisted. "I can't believe that you would so readily dismiss that hard-won victory."
Koh's lips curled back, not in a smile this time, but revealing bared teeth. "Much time has passed since then," he snarled. He blinked to the weathered face of a bitter man, his temple pulsing in fury. "And for those hundreds and hundreds of years, I have sat patiently, keeping guard over Nithe, watching over your successors, nudging them back into place, and slinking from side to side of the Balance with all the others as it trembled and swayed. And I have grown so very tired."
At the mention of Nithe, Haku's eyes flickered up to the source of darkness from the Tree. Koh followed his gaze.
The creature turned back to Haku, a cruel smile pulling at his lips. "This must be killing you."
Haku's eyes jerked back to Koh's face, jaw clenched.
Koh chuckled. "Of course. It was a hard-won victory, my dear Haku, but for you it cost everything. You may have impressed the spirits with your selflessness at the time, proven the worth of mortals, but now, a thousand years later, you see that your sacrifice ultimately came to naught."
Haku turned away, fists balled in rage.
Aang glanced between the two, frowning.
"I suppose it is you I must thank, Haku," Koh went on, his voice dripping civility. "Without such constant, close exposure to the remains of Nithe's essence, I may never have realized how truly bored I was."
The creature treated the former Avatar to a warm smile and Haku's composure slipped. A strangled cry tore from his throat and he leapt at Koh, striking out. But the dead Avatar's ghost passed through the spirit with no effect, and the remnants of his essence drifted back to the ground beside Aang.
"A pity ghosts cannot be relieved of their faces," Koh mused, cocking his head as Haku's form slouched in defeat. "It would have made such a nice addition to my collection."
Horror and revulsion clawed up Aang's throat, accompanied by the hot metallic taste of rage, and he fought to keep them from his face.
As if sensing this, Koh turned to Aang and the face of a withered old man gave him a cheeky wink.
"You remember my collection, of course, Avatar Aang?"
Of course Aang remembered it. Some nights it haunted his dreams, and whenever a solstice came, a pang of panic caught him as he wondered whether Koh had slipped between the worlds to hunt a new prize.
Around him, the curtains of shadow rippled, and with a start he realized something new had appeared. Where before he only glimpsed dense foliage, now silhouettes drifted about between the bushes and trees. But something was...wrong. Aang leaned forward, squinting for a better look. One of the figures turned toward him, and Aang stumbled back as the smooth flesh of a Faceless returned his stare.
"Aren't they beautiful?" Koh said, his own face surfacing once more with a frightening smile.
Aang composed himself. He refused to let this creature see him squirm. Forcing his voice to a neutral lilt, he asked. "What have you done to those people?"
If Koh was disappointed by the dullness of his tone, he didn't show it. He dropped down from the Tree with a tired sigh. "Oh, them? Nothing much."
He circled Aang, the skittering of his legs sending vole goose bumps over the Avatar's flesh.
Aang knew it then. Perhaps it was the voice of Kuruk suddenly screaming in his head, but the pieces began to fall into place. Connections between the spirit and mortal world were few in number, and hard to find. But Koh had spent his entire lifetime creating them at will, snatching someone's face away, and stretching their essence across two planes. If some of their bodies still remained on the other side...
"You don't like them, do you, Avatar?" Koh teased, switching through another procession of faces.
Steeling himself, Aang turned to meet the spirit's laughing gaze. He drew himself up and his voice reverberated through the darkness. "I challenge you, Face Stealer. I challenge you for every face in your collection."
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