Prologue - The Pact (Centuries Ago)
The tip of the spear was pressed against the oily chitin of Koh's body, the Face Stealer sprawled across the floor of his fetid domain wearing the face of cat-deer, but the smile that was being turned up at Kuruk was anything but defeated. "Congratulations, Avatar. Slay me and rejoice in yet another victory for your Spirit’s glory."
Kuruk wanted to, but more than Koh's death, he wanted to smack that smile off the creature's stolen face. He wanted to see pain in Koh's eyes, and hear his cries of anguish. He wanted Koh to regret every choice in his unnatural life, wanted Koh to regret ever daring to consider joining his destiny with Ummi's. After all, Kuruk already did, and more than anything he wanted Koh to share his pain.
The Avatar tightened his grip on the spear, and forced the rage out of his snarling voice. If he gave in to even the slightest display of emotion, his controlled expression would crack and Koh would have the opportunity to steal Kuruk's face as well. "Give her back, Face Stealer. Give her back or die."
"Oh, my dear Avatar, did you entirely think this ultimatum through?" Koh's face shifted, and suddenly the creature was looking up at Kuruk with the face of Ummi herself. "Are you really going to stab through this beauty in the name of spite?"
It was disgusting to see Ummi's face on Koh's clicking, writhing insect body, but Kuruk forced himself to keep looking. If he lacked the strength to stare his enemy in the eyes, how could he possibly be strong enough to finally finish this? "If you refuse to give her back, then at least I can rid the world of its greatest pest! Do not toy with me, Koh. You don't need to see the rage on my face to know how much I hate you."
"No, I don't.” Koh chuckled, its body matching the action with stomach-churning writhing. “I wouldn't have bothered you in the first place if I couldn't imagine the pain that would come oozing out of your heart. But are we really going to conduct these negotiations with your weapon between us?"
"There's nothing to negotiate." Kuruk pressed the spear down with only the slightest bit more of pressure, but it was enough to draw white stress lines on Koh's carapace. "Return Ummi's face, or die on the floor like the bug you are."
"See, this is why I had to get involved in the first place. The only match for your utter laziness when it comes to your job is your obsession with proving yourself through these tiresome displays of Water Tribe masculinity. Are you also going to roar victoriously after you kill me?" Koh's face changed again, this time to a drooling, tusked ogre. "Let me spell it out for you, just to save us some time. What do you think will happen to my faces if I were to die?"
Kuruk's stomach flipped, and it was all he could do to keep the sickened sensation from showing on his face.
Koh grinned with the ogre's visage, slicing his own lips on the tusks protruding from his mouth. "Kill me, and the faces die with me. The faces, and the spirits of everyone they represent, will shrivel and cease to be. There will be no reincarnation for your Ummi. Just the most terrible ripping sensation, and then... nothing." Koh winked. "And she'll know you made that choice. She's watching right now. Say hello, if you want."
Kuruk's hands had grown numb, and he heard more than felt the spear tumble out of his grasp to the floor of the cave.
Ummi's spirit... destroyed?
Never to reincarnate?
As the Avatar, with conditional access to the knowledge and experience all of his past lives, the very thought chilled Kuruk to his bones. Ummi would be free of Koh's control, but was that worth being ripped free of the life cycle, of the universe itself? To be blinded to the essence of the all?
Koh rose from the floor of the cavern and curled so that his face- now what might have been a human painted like a theatrical noh mask- hung right in front of Kuruk. "By all means, take the time to think about it. I'll be here, if you decide you want to kill me after all. I'll warn you not to expect a very nice welcome, but then I didn't exactly give you one this time, hm?" There was a crackling of chitin, and Koh moved to twirl slowly around the cavern like a restless worm. "Since you've been so reasonable about this, I'll even give you a boon. It's not like I enjoyed stealing what you value most, or punishing you for dereliction of duty and all of that childishly aggressive behavior you enjoyed so much. The look of terror on dear Ummi's face was quite hard to see, believe me." He turned and grinned. "You can tell by the sincere look on my face." There was a motion, and a sneering man with an eye-patch, a long curling mustache, and a gold tooth shifted into view.
The rage bubbled with Kuruk's heart again, and he felt the muscles in his lip tightening with the beginning of a snarl. Time slowed, and it seemed to him like he had a choice: he could choose right now to join his beloved in Koh's collection. They would be together forever, even if that existence was a torment.
Only the thought of associating such horror with Ummi kept him from giving in at that moment. At least if he lived, he could remember her as she was, before he- Koh- Kuruk- before he killed her.
Kuruk turned and hurried out of the cave.
He heard Koh's voice echoing from behind him and all through the cave: "Oh, did you not want to request a boon? Well, that's okay, we can defer it. I'll even make it official. I swear, on the love of my mother, that I owe you what humans call a 'favor.' What's done is done, but if at any point you need my services, I'll do as you ask. You know, just to show it's not personal. Be it stealing a face for you, or retrieving someone from the Fog of Lost Souls, or even something like getting one of the flowers from the center of Iblis' Vortex, I'll be there for you, Avatar. Until the end of time."
Kuruk was running by the time he emerged from the cave, fleeing that voice, and the failure. Beneath him, the substance of the Spirit World responded to Kuruk's anguish, despite its rock-like appearance, churning like the seas of the north in Stormtime. Kuruk stumbled and fell, crashing painfully only a moment after his own tears splashed to the ground. He had come to save Ummi, but he failed because he couldn't let go of her.
He couldn't let go.
Prologue - The Choice (Decades Ago)
The sun was rising, the humidity was climbing, and throughout the Royal Palace, servants were finishing the work that had kept them up all through the night. Fire Lord Azulon was pleased with the start of the day, and had expectations that the rest of it would be equally acceptable. If not, people would die, of course, but it had been a while since he had needed to give an order like that.
Azulon's first order of business, according to his checklist, was to wish his son a glorious Life Anniversary.
He found Iroh in the palace's War Room, as was common these days, staring up at the map of the world hung across the far wall. It was a good map, expressing the truth of the world, rather than mere geographical accuracies. The Fire Nation was depicted as being equal in size to the Earth Kingdom, while the Tribal infestations at the poles were minimized to the point of blending into the border decorations. A disturbing amount of the Earth Kingdom continent was still shaded in green, but Azulon and his armies were actively working to fix that, and he had no doubt that Ba Sing Se would be his in no more than a decade. With luck, by the time Iroh had offspring of his own; the idea of a world not completely ruled by the Fire Nation would be a dusty thing existing only in the history books.
Azulon stepped over to his son, and put a hand on the young man's shoulder. He had to reach down to do so, as his son had the short, stocky build of his mother, but he could feel the solid muscles resting ready beneath Iroh's silk robes. "Have you made your choice?"
"Good morning, Father." Iroh turned and offered one of the smiles that the people of the Capital found so charming. "You ask an interesting question. Have I made my choice? Well, that depends on what a choice actually is. Has the choice been made if there are still second thoughts? Then surely, any great leader must be incapable of making a choice, for great leaders must always keep the consequences in mind, and adjust their thinking when surprises come up. For haven't the great military philosophers throughout Fire Nation history all agreed that no plan survives contact with an enemy?"
Azulon shook his head. "There are choices, and there is dithering. Unexpected consequences will arise from any choice, but then it is the time for new choices, not endless examination of choices already made. Leave that to the historians. Leaders look only to the future, and the greatest of them change the world with every action they take."
Iroh dipped his head. "As ever, Father, you cut straight to the point. To answer your question, then, I do seem to have made my choice." He motioned up at the map. "Although the lands of the Earth Kingdom offer the greatest chances for victory, I find myself intrigued by the lands and the seas we have let slip from our attentions. Water Tribe culture has always fascinated me, and I wonder what secrets they keep to themselves."
Azulon frowned at the reminder. That was why he liked this map, with its focus on the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. "They keep nothing to themselves but barbarian ways and the new Avatar. Their Waterbenders will be purged, and the Avatar will be found, if a new one was truly born after my father's purge. Then they can be left to rot in their snow." A new thought occurred to him, lifting his heart. "Perhaps we will declare the Poles to be playgrounds for our hunters, so that they can make sport of stalking and slaying the barbarians on their own land."
Azulon looked over at Iroh, and his son shrugged in response. "If that is your wish, Father, but I think your advisors underestimate the strength of that foe. Our excursions to the North have all been turned aside, and from what I read in the reports, the threat will require more resources than we have to spare. Let me practice my Pai Sho game against the northern barbarians, and if I succeed there before Ba Sing Se falls, then I will apply my sharpened wits to the Earth Kingdom."
"So your choice is the Navy, then, over the Army." Azulon sighed. "Very well, Prince Iroh. No, Admiral Iroh. It will be as you say." Iroh clapped his hands, and unleashed one of those hugs his mother had taught him to value. Azulon endured it, and then pulled his son away from the map. "Come, your celebration will be starting soon. With the choice of your career settled, you will now have to pick between the smoked meats or the melons for your breakfast."
"As long as there is plenty of tea, that choice cannot fail to be a happy one!"
Prologue - The Memory (Days Ago)
It was a lonely place to be a lemur. This One could remember a time when there had been other lemurs, beings similar to This One who ate and played and slept and flew. They had chased bugs, and scoured the place for fruits, and amused themselves, for as long as This One knew. Then, That One had stopped moving. It was troubling, not to have That One as part of the group anymore, but worse was when another That One stopped moving as well. Then the colds came, a worse cold than This One had ever seen, and all the That Ones in the nest at the Crag Around The Way had all frozen and stopped moving. Then the Danger started happening after the sun went down, and a That One had been caught outside; the next morning, she could not be found. That One's mate had stopped eating, then, and soon he stopped moving as well.
It was not long before This One was the only One left.
This One was left with nothing to do but survive and explore. It was scary to explore, since he had to be careful to not go too far lest he find himself caught outside with the Danger after the sun went down, but This One needed more than the same old Places, now that there was no One else.
Then, one day, This One found a new hole to crawl through, and followed it into the mountain. It was dark, but there were some nice spiders to eat, and at the end of the little tunnel was a massive cave big enough for fly-playing. This One flapped and looped through the cavern, enjoying the echoes that the snapping of his wings made. The only other things in the big room were standing stones, all as tall as eight This Ones and each one unique. Most of them lined the path that spiraled up along the cavern’s walls, while some stood all over the ground floor like a crowd. This One decided to investigate further, and swooped down to land on the standing stone at the very center of the floor space.
A jolt of something This One could not comprehend blazed through his body as soon as his arms and legs grasped the rock, and then he thought, "Oh, yes, I remember now."
The new memories had nothing to do with lemurs.