A/N: This is part 5, the continuation of 'Demons'.


Traditions

(n) the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs and information from generation to generation; a time-honoured practice.

۵

"Koh the Face Stealer?" Aang frowns. "Why would he steal your, uh, lover's face, and how can you use Katara's soul to get it back?"

"Koh has always been envious that I can walk the earth above while he must remain here down below. It is why he steals faces. He covets what he cannot have." Iktomi sighs and turns towards the east, staring off in the distance. "For as long as I can remember he has hated me for my advantage and sought my face as retribution.

"But I have always been too clever for Koh. Regrettably, though, my human lover was not. Koh lured Lakota to the water and stole her beautiful face." Iktomi's own features darken and he curls his long-fingered hands into fists. "Her faceless body is being held prisoner in his cave and I need someone with a pure heart in possession of a pure soul to make a trade, of sorts." He turns to look at Aang, his face no longer menacing. "As a brother spirit I cannot enter his domain."

Aang is silent, mulling over the spirit's words, and frowns. "Wait, but you said all you needed was Katara's soul. If you can't confront Koh yourself then—" his grey eyes narrow in suspicion "—you needed someone like me all along to carry out your plan, didn't you?"

"Clever boy." Iktomi cracks a wide grin. "I knew you were friends with the girl—I had seen the three of you earlier—and I also knew you would come down here to retrieve her soul."

"And Zuko's," Aang adds with conviction.

"Ah, yes." Iktomi tents his fingers. "That is a far more complicated matter."

"How complicated?"

Iktomi waves off Aang's suspicious enquiry. "I will tell you more on that matter when you return with my dear Lakota—and her face."

"And you plan on using Katara's soul to do this?"

"This," says Iktomi, removing the small crystal phial from his robes and holding it up to his eye, "is really only a small part of your friend's soul; the purest part." He notes the apprehension on Aang's face and smiles. "Don't worry, my friend. The girl should be quite all right for the time-being."

"What?"

"It's no matter—" Iktomi waves dismissively again "—because you are going to bring me back Lakota's lovely face and return to your world above with your friend's soul." He hands Aang the phial and he carefully cradles it in his palms. "Right?"

"Right." Aang squares his shoulders and nods. "Just tell me what I need to do."

۵

"This isn't what it looks like!" Sokka quickly informs the general, pointing to Zuko's prone body before raising his hands in the air. "He was dead before I got here."

"Sokka!" Katara swats her brother on the arm. "General Iroh, sir—"

"Who killed him?" The elderly man's eyes are trained solely on Zuko, and Katara bows her head.

"I-I did."

"You?"

"It was an accident," she adds quickly. "A magic spell. But Aang is in the Spirit World right now. He's going to bring him back."

Iroh's bushy grey brow raises a fraction of an inch and the terrible sadness in his eyes has given way to curiosity. "Do you mind telling me about this magic you used to kill my nephew?"

Katara winces at his words and is about to answer when Sokka cuts in, "My genius sister here offered her soul to some Ikki guy for three wishes."

"Ikki?"

"Sokka, that's not—" Katara swallows hard, swaying on her feet "—that's now how it—"

"Katara!"

Vertigo seizes her in waves and Katara squeezes her eyes shut. She swears she can taste colour and suddenly she is free-falling. She doesn't even feel the impact of her body hitting the ground. She is floating, soaring, drifting into another plane and into the darkness and—

۵

"Oh goody," says a familiar voice, "you're here."

"Huh?" Katara sits up, holding her head in her hands. She feels groggy, like her head has been suspended in water. "Where am I?"

"Welcome to the Spirit World," says Prince Zuko with a dramatic flourish, gesturing to their dour surroundings, and Katara blinks

"Spirit World?"

"Can't put anything past you." He clucks his tongue in annoyance. "I guess you're dead now, just like me. So what did you do, wish yourself into an early grave? No, wait, that was my wish."

"I used up my last wish by wishing you dead," she says, ignoring his jeers as she rises to her feet.

"Good to know that they didn't go to waste."

Katara finally takes in her surroundings, noting the sepia-coloured sky and the murky marsh to her left. She and Zuko seem to be standing on a stone platform; a large tree stands several yards behind them, along with a pile of rocks that resemble a cave.

"Aang's here somewhere." She peers past a bamboo grove in the distance. "I asked him to come here and find you."

"Find me?"

"Yeah." She glances over her shoulder at the prince. "To bring you back."

Zuko's mouth works soundlessly, as though shocked, and then a scowl settles on his features. "Well, I guess we'd better find him, then."

The two begin to preamble about, not quite knowing where to go, so they head towards the cave. The sound of a monkey screeching makes them stop, and the two turn towards the base of the tree. A small monkey is sitting on the root with his back to them.

"Hey, little guy," Katara coaxes, getting closer. "What are you doing out here all alone?"

"Don't touch it!" Zuko hisses. "It might be diseased."

The monkey suddenly turns at the sound of their voices; its face seems to be eroded away, no longer visible. Both Katara and Zuko yelp in surprise and jump back, retreating as far away from the monkey as they can get.

"Where is his face?" Katara gasps. "Where the heck is his face!"

"How should I know!" Zuko barks. "Does it look I'm in charge of this place? I've been here just as long as you have!"

Katara snaps her head around and glares at the prince. "Tui and La! Would you stop being such a jerk!"

"Would you stop being such an idiot!"

"Why you little—" Her bony finger is already stabbing at his chest, but he grabs her by the wrist and yanks her close.

"Listen, peasant, we're not going to find the Avatar by pointing fingers at one another. We're gonna have to split up. You go this way—" he points to the east "—and I'll go that way. After twenty minutes, we'll meet back here, with or without the Avatar."

He lets go of her hand and she cradles it to her chest. "Fine!" she growls, turning in the opposite direction.

"Fine!"

۵

Aang makes his way across a line of wooden pylons to a huge gnarled tree. A monstrous coyote-like creature passes behind it and he freezes in terror. Once it disappears, Aang continues towards the base of the tree where he spots a dark hole and approaches carefully.

"Aang?"

"Katara!" Aang spins around at the sound of her voice and then stops when he sees a familiar scarred face standing behind her. "Zuko? What are you two doing here?"

"Well, I'm dead." Zuko hooks a thumb in Katara's direction. "All thanks to Miss Wishy Pants here."

Katara glares at the Fire Prince and then turns to the Avatar, shrugging. "I dunno. I fell asleep and woke up here. Maybe it has something to do with Iktomi taking my soul."

Aang frowns and lifts up the phial. "But I have your soul right here."

"That's your soul?" Zuko bends down and peers into the glowing crystal bottle.

"Maybe it's just a part of it. Iktomi did say he only took the essence of it." Aang frowns at the phial before tucking it back into his robes. "You must be down here because, well, you're in transition." He then points to the Fire Prince. "Sorta like Zuko here, except he's dead and you're probably just unconscious, in a meditative state like myself."

"Great." Zuko rolls his eyes. "So how do you plan on getting us back to the world above?"

"Iktomi told me he'll give back Katara's soul once I retrieve his, uh, lover's face from Koh."

Katara frowns. "Who's Koh?"

"An evil spirit that steals peoples' faces if they show the slightest hint of emotion," Aang says, a nervous smile playing on his lips.

"I'll go, then."

Katara turns to walk past the two boys when Zuko reaches out to grab her by the crook of her elbow, yanking her back.

"You? I think not."

"Yeah, I'm going to have to agree with him, Katara," says Aang. "You don't exactly hide your emotions well."

Katara forcibly rips her arm out of Zuko's grip. "Well, he's not going, either! Mr Gloomy here. Gloomy's an expression, y'know!"

Zuko grumbles to himself, "Mai would be perfect for this."

"Who's Mai?" Katara snorts. "Your girlfriend?"

"Shut up!"

"You shut up!"

"I'll go." Aang lets loose a weary sigh, sick of hearing the two of them argue. "Iktomi told me how to do it."

Katara places a hand on the Avatar's arm. "Good luck, Aang." She glances over her shoulder at Zuko, waiting for him to wish the airbender luck, but Zuko only shrugs.

"Whatever."

Aang then squares his shoulders once more and makes his way towards the dark cave while Katara and Zuko wait outside, keeping look-out. The two stand silently beside one another, looking anywhere but at each other.

"So, is Mai your girlfriend?"

"That's none of your business. Is the Avatar your boyfriend?"

"That's none of your business!"

"Hmph!"

"Hmph!"

۵

Aang descends the staircase into Koh's lair. The cave is dark, though not pitch black. There is just enough light for him to find his way. Roots stick out from the ceiling but no creature stirs, not a sound.

"Hello? I'm, uh, looking for a spirit named Koh."

As Aang says the spirit's name some roots on the ceiling begin to move. Aang looks around, sensing movement, but sees nothing. Then a white face appears over his shoulder. It has grey patches around its eyes and full, blood red lips. The face is vaguely clown-like, and terrifying.

Aang keeps his face impassive and suddenly the painted face moves, along with a huge centipede-like body attached to it. The white, clown face of Koh is only inches away from Aang's.

"Welcome, Avatar."

Aang's face remains inscrutable as the demon spirit hangs from the ceiling in front of him. Aang bows with his hands clasped in front of him in a gesture of honour.

"Thank you."

Koh wheels around Aang to look at him from the back. His voice is low and melodic, almost purring, yet it oozes danger. "My old friend, the Avatar. It's been a long time."

"You know me?"

"How could I forget you?" Koh's face changes from the clown mask to a middle-aged moustached man. "One of your previous incarnations tried to slay me. It was eight or nine hundred years ago."

"I didn't know that. Why did he—or I—try to kill you?"

"Oh—" his face changes to that of a beautiful young woman with chestnut hair "—it was something about stealing the face of someone you loved." Koh's face changes to a curly-tailed blue nose and he laughs cruelly. "Of course that's all behind us now. Why should I hold a grudge against you for something in a past life? After all, you're a different person now." He sticks his fanged, monkey face up to Aang's ear from behind. "You've come to me with a new face."

Aang closes his eyes and breathes deeply as Koh wraps his body loosely around him.

"It's been a long time since I've added a child's face to my collection." Koh's face is now that of an owl. "So . . . how may I help you?"

"I would like for you to return Lakota, lover of Iktomi."

"Iktomi!" In an instant Koh turns and bolts towards Aang, pressing his face within inches of the young Avatar's. Koh's face has changed again from the owl to a blue ogre-like face with red eyes and huge fangs. "You dare speak his name in my presence?"

Aang closes his eyes briefly and then opens them to look at Koh. "Return her face to me or there will be more than just one face stolen from you today, Face Stealer."

"You think you can threaten me, Avatar?" Koh rears himself up so that Aang must look up to see his face. "You have no power over me!"

"No," Aang says, removing a small crystal phial from his robes, "but this does."

Koh shrinks at the light and his blue ogre face fades away before Koh can escape back into the darkness. Aang looks down at the phial and a flash of the ogre face surfaces and then disappears, returning to its original owner somewhere out there.

This is Iktomi's magic; a pure soul that would take back the faces Koh has stolen.

"Give me Lakota and I will leave."

Koh outs on his white-masked face and recedes back into the shadows. Has the spirit just decided to hide? But Koh soon returns with the body of a beautiful young woman. She is faceless, like the animals that surround the spirit's lair. Koh then looks directly at the woman, changing his face into that of a woman's with long black hair and grey eyes. Suddenly Lakota has a face again and she turns towards Aang. She is about to show some emotion when the Avatar points to the exit of Koh's cave, instructing her to leave and wait outside.

"Do not count on our next meeting to go as well." Koh's face is now that of a snake and he steals back into the shadows.

Aang slips the phial back into his robes and turns towards the exit. A few seconds later he emerges from Koh's lair to find Katara, Zuko and Lakota waiting patiently. He lets out a huge sigh of relief, glad to be out of the cave, and looks down at his reflection in the water.

He still has his face, thank the merciful spirits. But now is not the time to think about that. He has to return Katara and Zuko to the world above.

۵


Author's note: Some of Aang's dialogue with Koh is taken from 'Siege of the North: Part 2'.