Oldest Growth, Part I
Team Avatar gets back in action! Sort of! Also, Lin and Tenzin deal with a problem that's a little too close to home.
Part 3 - This M.A.D. World of Ours
Section 6: "Oldest Growth, Part I"
Lee, who dared to call himself a member of the White Lotus, was an embarrassment. It was people like him that had caused the once great society to fall so far into the modern era. Artana made her move and, even more shockingly from a statistical perspective, won.
The white lotus gambit was used as a secret code for a reason; No decent practitioner of Pai Sho would ever be stupid enough to try it. It was a risk so easily countered that Artana genuinely considered giving the man a few hints.
But she didn't, so she won.
"That's game." Artana took her fingers off of her white lotus tile and smiled at Lee. "I have never won a match that way, and the irony that it was against you, of all people, is very fitting."
Lee looked between the board and her several times, incredulously. "You know, I knew I wasn't the best player, but this is just...I have no idea how to feel right now."
Artana chuckled. "Laughing would be a good place to start." She'd been nearly certain that she'd win even before challenging him, but giving herself a handicap made the entire experience much more interesting. Such a shame he hadn't even come close to victory.
"I guess you're right. Thanks for the game, Artana." Lee snickered and put his helmet back on. "Break's over, though, so until next time," he said waving as he went off to do...whatever it was that the White Lotus did.
She still wasn't entirely clear on that subject.
Artana returned his wave and packed up her Pai Sho board. Life on Air Temple Island was much more lavish than she'd expected it to be. For a nation of supposed nomads and monks unbound by earthly attachments, the Acolytes and Airbenders certainly didn't lack for much of anything.
Room and board were of no charge. Even transportation fees were covered. Artana had insisted that she at least help with the cost of food, considering how many lived at the temple.
Pema, the delightful wife of Master Tenzin, had given her a very firm 'No', refusing to speak on the subject again.
She was most likely quite accustomed to that particular conversation, but Artana still felt as if she were taking something for nothing, even if her work on the 'defense project' was a 'great and noble contribution'. It was important, she agreed, but it didn't put food in the mouths of the starving.
Artana cracked her neck and flattened her earthbent table and chairs. She felt it would've been rude to move a few outside for their game, so she'd decided to simply make her own.
"I didn't know you were an earthbender," said the Avatar, approaching with her polar bear dog.
Artana chuckled. "And a good morning to you too, Avatar."
"Oh, heh, right. Sorry. Good morning, and you can just call me Korra." Her face sunk. "Please just call me Korra. Every time somebody calls me by my title it makes me think something horrible just happened, or is about to happen, or is indirectly my fault…" She shrugged into a smile. "But what're you gonna do? Korra, though."
"Okay, Korra," she said, showing a hint of a smile. It was refreshing, yet also distinctly odd, to be so informal towards the Avatar and her boss. She would adapt, though. She always did. "And I wouldn't quite say I'm an earthbender. I can bend earth, yes, but it really isn't my strong suit, relative to other things."
"Oh, okay. I guess that makes sense."
Artana narrowed her eyes. "Should I have told you? The Earth Empire had us identified as non-benders and benders for census purposes, but I thought this wasn't done in the United Republic since the customs officer didn't ask."
"We, or they, I guess, don't do that, no! No, no. It's fine!" The Avatar---no, Korra shook her head, held her palms up in a placating manner and chuckled anxiously. "It's just surprising! I assumed you were a non-bender because you were an engineer and wow that sounds bad when I say it out loud."
Artana shrugged. "It's fine. You wouldn't be the first to make that assumption, and you're hardly the last. Besides, that little misconception has been pretty useful when I've gotten into fights."
Korra laughed once. "Hah, yeah." She blinked and looked at her from head to toe. "Wait, did you even move your feet? How did you---"
Asami came sprinting out of the temple. She skidded to a stop and nearly tackled Korra. "Korra, we need to go to the swamp. Right now," she said authoritatively.
"Why? What happened?"
"It grew back. Look, I'll explain on the way. Just grab everyone and meet me at my estate. Mako's at work, Bolin and Opal are at Narook's. We're taking off in two hours. Artana! You, Varrick and Zhu Li have the next three days off. If you work anymore hours without vacation time the government will have my head." She sprinted off toward one the White Lotus speedboats. "GRAB KUVIRA, TOO!"
Korra stared after her like she'd grown a tail. "You want me to what?! Do you even know what you just said!?"
"YES! I DO! I'LL EXPLAIN ON THE WAY! JUST DO IT!" she said over the roaring engine of the speedboat. "TWO HOURS!" With that, the boat roared off from the island and towards the city.
Korra blinked a few times. "Uh, nice talking to you, Artana. See you, later! Have a nice vacation, gotta go!" She ran back into the temple and in less than ten seconds Artana saw her soar into the sky on her glider.
Artana raised a brow as Korra vanished into the skyline. The swamp grew back, and she had three full days of paid vacation.
And she had no idea how to fill that time. Because she'd never had a vacation.
Artana smacked her forehead.
Bolin raised his brows. Clearly Korra was in a panic, but he'd always had a little trouble understanding her when she had a thousand things to say at once. She'd barreled through the doors of Narook's looking like she'd just sprinted there from the temple, and nearly pounced on him and Opal.
"...okay, can you repeat that?" he said with a mouthful of noodles.
Opal tilted her head. "All I caught was Asami and swamp."
"I heard the word 'grew'," said Bolin. "Don't ask me how.'
Bolin and Opal exchanged a look. "The swamp grew back?!" they said in unison.
Korra nodded and gestured out the door. "Meet me at Asami's! I've gotta go find Mako and Kuvira, yes I know what I said!" Then, she was out the door with a burst of air.
Bolin leaped out of his booth and sprinted over to Narook. "Quick, I need a takeout bag! It's an Avatar emergency!" And just like that, his noodles were safe and sound in a cup and bag. Which was lucky, since Opal was dragging him outside in a huff.
"I have a job, Korra! I can't just go off on adventures at the drop of a hat anymore," groaned Mako. He'd been seriously worried when Korra had all but crashed through his office window at the newly refurbished RCPD Headquarters.
"Uh huh." Korra pouted, opened his office door into the larger precinct floor and cracked her neck. "HEY LIN!"
Lin slammed her office door open with such force he was sure she'd broken one of the building's support beams. "What?!"
"I need to borrow Mako. How much vacation time does he have?"
"Plenty! Just take him!"
Mako pinched his brow. "Thank you, Chief!" That was that. "...so meet you at Asami's place?"
"Yup! Gotta go grab Kuvira, but I'll see you there!" she said, leaping out of his window again.
"What?! Are you crazy?!"
Kuvira was shocked, and that was putting things lightly. When she'd heard violent knocking on her apartment door, the one that the United Republic had supplied, furnished and watched over to ensure she didn't step out of line, she'd honestly expected to be taken back to jail. Or worse.
The last thing she expected was a very severe looking Korra holding her glider as if it were a deadly weapon. Which it arguably was.
"Kuvira, grab your gear. We're going to the swamp. Right now."
Kuvira narrowed her eyes and nodded. "Understood." So they were taking her reports seriously. She reached out toward the fixtures in her small apartment and, in a matter of seconds, reformed them around her arms into gauntlets made of thin metal strips.
Korra grew a very bemused expression. "I cannot believe that, out of everyone, you're the only one besides Asami who didn't hesitate. Ugh." She began stomping down the hall and motioned for Kuvira to follow.
Kuvira did so, keeping pace beside her. "Who else will be accompanying us?"
"It's going to be you, me, Asami, Mako, Bolin and Opal, so think of this as a...field test. If you don't try anything, and are genuinely helpful, I'll let Raiko know that. However…" She grabbed Kuvira by the throat and slammed her up against the wall. "If you so much as look at Asami the wrong way…" Her eyes shined brightly, transitioning to that pure, powerful white light. "I will cut you down where you stand and deliver your head to Baatar," she seethed. "Are we clear?"
Kuvira licked the inside of her lips and trembled very, very slightly. There was no shame in fearing the power of the Avatar, she knew that. However, that didn't mean she was going to panic in front of her, even though she didn't doubt for a moment that Korra was bluffing. "We are."
Korra's eyes returned to normal and released her. "Good. Let's go."
Asami handed out copies of Kuvira's report on Spirit Vines, the swamp, and military theory to the entire team. It bothered her immensely that she'd come to many of the same conclusions that Kuvira had, simply by chance, the moment they'd caught the trucks trying to smuggle vines out of the city.
The end of everything.
They stood on her estate's landing pad, just inside the enormous and imposing shadow of the Satohawk. She'd just spent the last hour detailing it in black and red, and it looked gorgeous and terrifying.
Asami held up her copy of the report. "Okay, long story short: The swamp, which Kuvira harvested until there was nothing left, her words, has grown back. It managed to do this in around five months. The United Forces discovered this just a few days ago, and are now focusing on securing a perimeter around it."
Kuvira opened her mouth, but held her tongue. Good.
"How are they going to do that? The swamp is enormous." asked Opal.
Asami shook her head. "That, for the time being, isn't our concern. We need to figure out how this happened, and if possible, how to stop it from happening again. Korra, we'll discuss the spiritual ramifications of that on the flight over."
Korra narrowed her eyes. "Okay."
Bolin pointed up toward the Satohawk's dual rotors. "What happened to the blades that tilted? Those were really cool."
"Yeah, I know, but there were too many moving parts, and that design was extremely experimental in the first place. It just wasn't feasible. At least, not yet." Asami marched in through the back of the Satohawk, but stopped as her boots hit the metal ramp.
They were all together in one place. It was as good a time as any. Mostly.
Asami turned around and gave everyone, except Kuvira, an apologetic look. "...and I'm sorry for being...not quite myself these past few months. I was cruel and angry and I took it out on everyone, worst of all you guys. I can't thank you enough for sticking by me, and I can't do anything that could possibly repay you for what you did."
Korra, Bolin, Opal and Mako all made a simultaneous series of remarks and gestures that amounted to "Don't worry about it, it's what friends do!"
"Yeah." Asami smiled gratefully. She spun on her heel and walked into the cockpit. "I cooked something up to express my gratitude, but it's a surprise and I can only show you once we're flying!" She made one final scan of instruments, confirming everything was where it should be. "I've labeled your seats, so choose the one with your name on it. If you don't you'll have the wrong equipment and survival packs under the seat." She strapped herself in and began running through the pre-flight checks. Which was redundant, since she'd already done it seven times while she was waiting for everyone to arrive. It was still important to keep the routine, though.
Opal chuckled and strapped herself into her labeled seat. "You've thought of everything, haven't you?"
"I would have thought the new one would be swankier..." Bolin scooched in beside her and began munching on his takeout. "I mean, it's really cool, and spacious, pretty sure we could fit Naga in here. Maybe even a satomobile..."
Mako sat across from Bolin. "The hot tub is only for the luxury models. This one is custom."
Korra laughed and sat next to Mako, nearest to the cockpit. "Hot tubs on an airplane. Sounds like something Varrick would buy."
"If he hasn't already made it," added Opal.
Kuvira sat down next to Mako, nearest to the exit ramp. She stayed silent. Wonderful.
"It's not an airplane. It's a...Vertical Take-Off and Landing aircraft. I'll think of a better classification later." Asami turned around and gave them all a hard look. "Okay. Does anyone have to pee? This is a seven hour flight, and I'd like to get as much of it done before we have to take a break."
Korra's jaw dropped. "Seven hours? How fast can this thing go?"
"The swamp is over fifteen hundred miles away," added Kuvira.
"No, I did the math right." Asami grinned at everyone except Kuvira. "Oh, did I forgot to mention that this baby can go two hundred miles an hour? Because it can."
Bolin choked on his noodles and Opal patted him on the back.
Mako raised his brows well into his hairline. "Leave it to you to make the world's first flying sports satomobile."
"No kidding," chuckled Opal. "Well, I'm okay on the bathroom right now."
Korra rolled her eyes and tightened her straps. "Yeah, I'm good."
Bolin shook his head.
"I went before I got here," said Mako.
Asami frowned. "Kuvira?"
"Do you have to pee?"
"No, I'm all right."
Asami turned back to the controls and closed the exit ramp. "Okay, so below your seats you're going to find some treats and equipment. Bolin, I got one of those...disk things you like use with lava. Opal, you have a spare wingsuit and lots of snacks. Mako, you...don't really need any equipment, so I just got you a few books and an extra pair of clothes."
"It's fine. I appreciate the thought."
"...and some chocolate."
Korra opened her bag. "...huh. Metalbending cables. I should really just have these."
"I could say the same thing about waterskins, but everytime I bring it up you---"
Korra grunted and sliced her hand across her throat.
"Yes. That. You do that."
Kuvira raised a brow as she pulled out a set of her own cables. "This must be some mistake. I find it very unlikely that you would supply me with weaponry."
"No. It's not a mistake. You're the one who outlined that all of my fears weren't unfounded in that report of yours, so you're coming with. And, as much as I hate to say it, we need you. You and Korra are the only ones who know how to navigate a swamp. We'll go over the rest once we're in the air."
Korra crossed her arms. "Let's just get moving."
"All right, here we go." Asami flicked the engine on and the Satohawk roared as it's dual, alternating rotors spun faster and faster. She pulled the collective stick up and the massive aircraft lifted off of the pad, rising and rising above her estate. She banked right and pitched forward, sending the craft screaming southeast.
Straight toward the swamp.
Lin scanned a few headlines in the newspaper as she scarfed down her pathetic excuse for lunch. Unrest in the Earth Kingdom. Warlords gaining strength. Obviously. Border disputes. Fire Nation reluctant to intervene, and on and on it went. If it was up to her, she'd just send in a team of Combustion Benders to blow up the 'leaders' of the rebel factions. The rest would be scattered and herded right into her net.
Her phone rang, because of course it did. She flicked her wrist and metalbent the telephone into her hands. "Chief Beifong speaking."
"Lin, who do you have assigned as your Special Response commander?"
"Really, Tenzin? No hello? No how are you?"
"There's no time! Listen to me, some of my airbenders just reported seeing a violent sandstorm approaching from the east, towards the United Republic border."
"A sandstorm? That's ridiculous. Your airbenders must be getting lightheaded from all that flying around. We're nowhere near..." Lin narrowed her eyes at the newspaper, remembering the last time somebody saw a weird storm. "Damnit. It's Saikhan, he's got command. He has no idea what he's going up against."
"I'm not sure any of us truly do."
"We have to move fast, or we might not get another chance at catching this guy. I'll ground the airships and get my officers to keep the refugees as far away from the border as possible."
"Some of my airbenders and I will meet you there. The best way to counter a sandstorm is to diffuse it entirely, and you're going to need us for that."
Lin violently hung up the telephone and rubbed her temples.
"Korra and her merry band of vigilantes couldn't have picked a worse time to leave."
Korra furrowed her brow and stared at the thick report Asami had given her. After a primer on how Spirit Vines actually worked, which was pretty interesting, it became...confusing. And that was being kind. She knew enough political and military theory to get by on her own, but she was not equipped to understand the complexities behind spirit vine weaponry and somebody being angry. Or something. Mad? Why were people mad?
"Okay, I'm still lost," she said, sighing.
Bolin scratched his head. "Yeah, this really just isn't sinking in. All I've got so far is that, okay, spirit weapons are super powerful, and the vines are all over the place which means that basically anyone can make a...'dirty' bomb? Which makes sense. You just need a battery and some wires."
Mako raised a brow. "You can't be serious."
Asami snorted. "He is. I've tested that a dozen times. It's really that simple."
Kuvira nodded. "While that is indeed troubling, it is unfortunately the least of our worries. It may be easier if I explain this out loud." She cleared her throat. "Imagine, if you will, that the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation were still at war, and there was no United Republic. You have two nations with ideological differences that are actively hostile to one another. Now, once you put Spirit Weapons in play on both sides, they stop fighting outright wars and limit hostilities to small skirmishes."
Opal hummed. "But why would they do that? They have Spirit Weapons. They could just destroy anything they wanted to, at any time." She blinked and paled. "Oh, now I get it. I sort of wish I didn't."
Mako pinched his brow. "This is insane. Both sides can wipe the other out entirely, so nobody tries anything. If they attack, or use Spirit Weapons, the other guys will do the same thing, destroying both countries in the process."
Kuvira nodded grimly. "Mutually assured destruction, or M.A.D. for short. It's important to understand that concept before we move on as to why that doesn't apply to our situation."
Korra frowned. "Why did you explain it if it doesn't apply? What was the point?"
"A simple one. In theory, when M.A.D. is in play, it would maintain a sort of...tainted balance between the two large nations. No large wars. No cities destroyed in an instant. If one were to take that away…"
Korra's eyes could not have been more outside of her head. "Then there's nothing stopping anyone from using them! The Red Lotus could destroy an entire city, but we can't use them, not that we should, because there's nothing for us to target!"
Asami sighed very deeply. "That's exactly it, Korra. If Spirit Vines didn't grow back, this would be something we could control. We could just lock them away in some vault forty stories underground and no one would be able to use them. But they do grow back. So we have to stop that from happening."
Korra crossed her arms and closed her eyes. Asami did have a point. A very good one, in fact. Spirit Vines, thanks to a few bad people, would only inevitably end up being used for weapons. Limiting their growth may be possible, but stunting it all together gave her a bad taste in her...everything. It was wrong. Raava didn't need to remind her of that, even though she did. "...we can't just stop them from growing. We have to find another way."
"Korra, please. Spirits can't die. Humans can. You're human, too."
"That doesn't mean I'm just going to be okay with this."
"I don't expect you to be. If you truly believe that there's another way to deal with this, and I don't even know how we'd stop these things from growing in the first place, then we'll try that first."
"Okay, okay." Korra frowned. "We won't know until we get there, anyway." She tapped her thighs. "...so...uh..."
Bolin looked between Kuvira, Mako and Korra. "...yeah."
Opal crooked her lips to the side. "The lack of appropriate conversation topics is going to get really old, really fast."
Kuvira bowed her head. "I wouldn't be adverse to the rest of you acting as if I weren't present, if that would make this trip easier."
"It wouldn't. At least, not in the long run. We all have to get used to the idea that you'll be around, whether we like it or not," grumbled Korra.
"I really don't like that I agree with that sentiment," said Asami. "If we have to keep making trips to the Earth…"
"Kingdom?" suggested Bolin.
"Republic?" added Mako.
"It's Federation. Calling it now," said Korra.
"What? No, it'll be a Confederacy," said Opal.
"You're all wrong. It's going to be a Union," scoffed Asami.
Kuvira folded her hands in front of her. "I don't see what's wrong with something neutral, like 'Nation'."
Bolin shrugged. "Yeah, but then we'd have the Fire Nation, the Air Nation, and the Earth Nation. It'd...wait, would that actually throw things off balance, Korra?"
"I have no idea. Knowing my luck, having six nations in the first place screwed up the Avatar cycle." She blinked. "Oh. Apparently Raava says that's ridiculous. It doesn't matter where the next Avatar is born, as long as they're the right kind of bender. Huh."
"I don't understand. Who is Raava?" asked Kuvira.
"She's the spirit of harmony that lives inside of me. Looks like a big white kite with blue markings and long tentacles. Also, she said, uh, things that..." Korra cleared her throat. "I'm not going to repeat, about you. Really nasty things. Okay, cut it out. Stop. I get it."
"Does this happen often?" asked Kuvira, staring at Korra incredulously.
Mako shrugged. "She started doing that, talking to herself, a few weeks after she got back to Republic City. No idea why."
Korra rolled her eyes. "I'm not talking to myself, I'm talking to the spirit inside of me."
"The giant blue thing?"
"No, that's my inner spirit."
"They sound like the same thing. You just flipped the words around."
"They're not the same thing! Why am I even arguing this?! You saw Raava!"
"Was I supposed to automatically know what that was? This is the first time you've ever actually explained all of this to me!"
"Well, sorry for not just blabbing about Avatar stuff! This is the first time you've ever been interested!"
Bolin sighed. "Now this?" He looked at Kuvira and pointed between Mako and Korra. "This happens often. Still."
Opal shook her head. "Way too often. We tried to---" She frowned, cutting herself off. "And here I almost forgot you were here, Kuvira. Way to derail the conversation."
Asami cleared her throat. "Hey, here's a fun idea!" Korra could feel the Satohawk rapidly descend. "Everyone be quiet. Time for the surprise! It'll definitely give you guys something to talk about." The Satohawk leveled off. "Korra, open the side door."
Korra looked between everyone and shrugged. She unstrapped herself and slid open the side door. It locked into place and she was nearly thrown onto her back by the massive gust of wind that slammed into her.
Asami laughed. "I had a feeling that would be your reaction."
Korra gaped. They were five feet above the Mo Ce sea, and the wake they were making was massive. They were cutting through the ocean through sheer wind alone, and water sprayed up and past them, gleaming in the midmorning sun. "This is amazing, Asami! Thank you! You guys have to come see this!"
The rest of them, excluding their ever-dependable pilot of course, gathered around the open door and watched the sea fly below them. It was surreal. They were moving so quickly that the beauty of it all was both amplified and frankly, a blur.
Bolin whooped. "Oh, man! I wish someone was filming this! This is...well, y'know, filming it might not capture all of the...wonderfulness here. Black and white just wouldn't do this any justice."
Opal leaned over his shoulder. "It really wouldn't. And I thought flying on my own was something special."
Mako whistled. "Wish you could see this, Asami. You're really missing out."
"I'd rather keep us in the air, if it's all the same to you."
Korra reached out to the sea, pulling at the water. Much to her surprise, she couldn't focus on the water long enough to bend it. "I can't waterbend. That's weird."
"We're probably moving too fast. Try bending some of the water that's being splashed up."
Korra nodded and did just that, and of course it worked. Why wouldn't it? Asami had thought of it. "Yup, that did it." She swirled the water around her arm and flicked it at Mako, soaking him to the bone. Before he had a chance to say anything, she dried him off and dropped the water back into the sea.
Mako frowned at her. "Very funny."
Korra looked away, totally innocently. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Lin, Saikhan, and a squad of RCPD metalbenders marched through the hastily constructed earthbent shantytown that just outside the city limits. It grew larger by the day as more refugees huddled along the border, seeking asylum in the only place they could.
The weak, starving and destitute looked up at them as they passed, pleading silently to be allowed passage into the United Republic. The honest truth was that Lin didn't have a choice in the matter. Raiko had wanted the borders closed, which wasn't quite possible without building a wall, so he'd settled on securing Republic City instead.
They couldn't allow more Spirit Vines to be smuggled out of the city. There was just no telling what could happen. The cyclone was growing larger in the distance. It was exactly as Iroh had described it.
Big, brown and obvious.
"Saikhan, is there any place we can move these people that isn't inside the city?"
"No, ma'am. Even if we were to get them in temporarily, there are just too many to keep track of. Quite a few would run off and we wouldn't even know it."
Lin frowned. "That's going to happen no matter what we do. Somebody is going to slip past us, but the key is controlling who that is. Refugees? Fine. Not my problem. Terrorists? Not on my watch." She looked down at her feet. "...here's an idea. Why don't we move them underground? Out of sight, out of mind."
"Impossible. We don't have enough earthbenders to make a hole this big that quickly. There are just too many people."
Lin scoffed. "Yeah, we might not have enough earthbenders…" She jabbed her thumb at the slowly gathering refugees. "But they sure as hell do. Lots of them with military training." She glared at Saikhan. "Well? What are you waiting for?! Get it done!"
Saikhan saluted. "Yes, ma'am!" He turned on his heel and sprinted off into the center of the camp, yelling out a call for earthbenders and emergencies and things of that nature. The specifics didn't matter at the moment.
Lin furrowed her brow at the growing cyclone. How were they supposed to beat that thing when an entire military division couldn't do a thing? Well, no, that wasn't true. They couldn't see anything, and whoever was bending that sand wasn't dumb enough to try and take on that many soldiers on their own.
Tanks, airships and mechas couldn't beat that thing.
Tenzin was right. Their only hope was reversing the sandstorm through airbending.
Lin looked up as Tenzin, Bumi, Jinora, Ikki, Meelo and Kai landed next to her in perfect formation. It was still weird seeing them act like an organized military, especially since Tenzin had slipped into that role much more easily than she'd expected. "You sure you can take that thing down?"
Tenzin nodded. "Absolutely. Two master airbenders and four excellent ones should have no trouble diffusing this storm."
Bumi grinned. "Relax, Lin! We've got the good old 'nobody knows how to fight an airbender' advantage on our side. We'll take 'em out before they can do any damage."
Lin covered her face with her hand. "That's really not something you should rely on."
"Why not? Every airbender does. Even Zaheer."
Tenzin raised a brow at his brother. "He can also fly."
Bumi rolled his eyes. "Besides that, obviously."
Saikhan sprinted up to them. "Refugees are secure and accounted for, Chief. We're ready when you are."
Lin cleared her throat. "Okay! Here's how this is going to go!" She waited a moment before everyone to face her. "Our top priority is subduing whoever is causing this storm. Avoid deadly force unless absolutely necessary. Tenzin, you and the airbenders are going to make it impossible for the bender to generate a storm. Crosswinds, your own tornadoes, whatever. Just make it happen. The rest of you, we're going to split into two groups. Saikhan, you'll take half the squad and charge this guy head on. Other half will set up an ambush underground with me and strike when we get an opening. Understood?"
Her metalbenders saluted, and the airbenders nodded.
"Good. Let's move!"
"Mind if I sit here?"
Asami looked up and smiled at Korra. "As long as you promise not to touch anything. That co-pilot seat is fully functional."
Korra nodded and sat down in the leather chair. "Ooh, comfy."
"I designed this with long flights as a possible use, so it only made sense for the pilot to be comfortable through it."
"Super comfortable. I can see why you haven't complained about being left out of the...awkward shenanigans back there."
Asami smirked as she tuned her ears toward the going ons of her passengers. Mako and Kuvira were discussing stealth and sabotage tactics, while Bolin and Opal were having a heated debate about the artistic merit of movers. "Well, there's that, and keeping all of us in an enclosed space isn't the best of ideas."
Korra nodded and leaned back in her chair. "...so now that everyone else is distracted, what's the real reason you wanted Kuvira along? I doubt you need her to navigate the swamp."
Asami sighed. "That was part of it. I wasn't lying. She's also the best equipped to explain her own theory, which all of you need to understand if we're going to take on this problem."
"What was the rest?"
Asami gave her a sidelong glance. "Remember how you said the swamp had a sympathetic spiritual energy?"
"Yeah. It shows you things you need to see, or have yet to see. Or something."
"Right. Well, that's only if it wants to do that. The nature of the Foggy Swamp was actually in one of the books we got from Wan Shi Tong, and while some of it was more metaphor than explanation, it was pretty clear that something about the swamp is reactive to humans in a generally positive way, but only if that person is 'worthy'."
"Worthy? That probably means 'spiritual' or 'good natured'."
"That was my guess, too. Think of this trip as a test. If the swamp shows her things, then she's not the monster I think she is, even if I hate her. If it doesn't, then she's just a tool in Raiko's big game of diplomacy. The point is that I'll know for sure."
Korra nodded. "Makes sense. I gave her a similar explanation. Though it involved more threats…" She raised a brow and looked back into the passenger cabin. "I agree with what you're doing, but it's still confusing me as to why you did this without me even suggesting it."
"There's a very simple reason for that." Asami frowned. "I trust you more than I hate her."
"I want to smile at that, but it's sort of hard."
"It is, isn't it?"
"How much longer until we get to the swamp?"
"A little less than three hours, I think."
Korra smiled kindly. "You look better."
"Thanks," she said, returning the smile. Better, but not at her best. "I'll get there." Asami narrowed her eyes at the streaks of land below them. "I'll get there."
"I know. And I'll be right there with you when you do."
Tenzin took a deep breath and focused on the rotation of the sandstorm. It was a simple counter-clockwise motion. Logically, removing it was as simple as reversing it and saturating the air currents to such a degree that no sand could be bent effectively.
Somehow, he doubted that it would be that simple.
He had positioned his family and Kai perfectly. They were just inside the shantytown, using the buildings as cover. Sneak attacks only worked once, and if there was one thing airbenders excelled at, it was that. Among a few thousand other things, of course.
The storm was almost upon them. They were ready.
"NOW!" he yelled, spiraling out of cover and sending a massive, constant stream of air into the cyclone, which was quickly followed by four more.
The storm shuddered as it strained to retain its shape, but little by little its structure began to collapse. Then, it stopped spinning entirely, and began spiraling in on itself, using the streams of airbending to make it go faster and faster.
And then, with no warning at all, the sand vanished. Replaced by the bright glaring of the sun.
Tenzin's eyes grew wide as he leapt back behind cover, narrowly avoiding a few thousand shards of glass being hurled straight into the street. He looked across the alleyway, confirming that everyone was all right and unharmed.
Glassbending. Impossible. There had to be another explanation.
Saikhan and his men sprinted past them in pairs and dropped low to the ground, erecting a large stone wall that just narrowly blocked the next stream of glass. Two of them were swallowed by a sudden manifestation of quicksand, only for their comrades to pull them back up.
"Ikki, Meelo! Get out of here right now! There's no time for arguing, it's too dangerous! Just go!" Thankfully, they listened for once and used the shantytown to escape back into the city. The glass must have scared them just as much as it did him.
Tenzin furrowed his brow. He couldn't out think this. He didn't have the military mind for it. "Bumi! How do we counter glass?!"
"Same way you counter everything else! Spread the enemy thin and flank them! If we go at this guy all at once, from four different directions, he'll be overwhelmed since he has to deal with the metalbenders too!"
"Are you sure?"
"Hey, it worked once before! And this time we don't even need a catapult"
Tenzin set his teeth. "Okay! GO!"
All five of them lifted off the ground and started flying haphazardly, sending blasts of air down at the sandbender, who was preoccupied with the slowly advancing metalbenders. Still, every attack was blocked by a shield of earth that seemed to form out of nowhere. Streams of sand and glass streaked through the air and on the ground in rapid succession.
Tenzin rolled and, acting on instinct, diverted the sandblasts instead of attempting to block them. It worked. "We can't block these attacks, they're moving too quickly! Try diverting their current or cutting straight through them!"
The sandbender seemed to hear him, as the next thing he knew, the bender was lifting off of the ground in a...sandspout. Tenzin was so baffled by the act itself that he was nearly shredded to pieces by a river of glass. For an earthbender to be able to call upon their element while disconnected to the earth was an incredibly difficult feat.
The sandspout, however, was something else entirely. Jinora and Kai worked in tandem to disrupt the spout, while the rest of them just needed to focus on keeping the bender's attention. The sandspout wobbled, shook and, with a perfectly timed cyclone from Jinora, crumbled into nothing, leaving the sandbender to plummet.
Just as he hit the ground, the sandbender slammed his fist into the earth, cracking it wide open and restarting the sandstorm with everyone inside of it. The shockwave threw Saikhan's metalbenders off their feet, and Tenzin struggled to stay level as the cyclone began to compress around them.
From below the shattered earth, Tenzin saw a series of metal cables spring through the air and latch onto the surface.
Be careful, Lin.
Lin launched herself upward, blasting through the rubble of the sandbenders ridiculous attack. She and the rest of her squad flew up to the surface, surrounding him. Five pairs of cables shot straight at the sandbender, and they managed to deflect all but her own.
She wrapped her cables around the bender's torso, and pulled as hard as she could, knocking them off balance. That tiny moment of weakness was all that her team needed, and in the blink of an eye he was bound by ten pairs of cables.
"It's over!" Lin scowled. "You're done! Stop struggling, because there's no way you can get out of this!"
The sandbender was silent, and Lin really wished she could drop her stance and take off that stupid cloak, but she didn't want to leave anything to chance. The airbenders landed beside her, looking a little battered but otherwise okay.
Lin opened her mouth and closed it again. Something was off. The sandbender didn't need to move to create the storm. At least, Lin hadn't seen anything resembling that kind of physicality. "Tenzin, I've got a bad feeling about this. Rip off that cloak so we can get out of here."
Before he had a chance to answer, a chill ran up her spine as she saw the sand all around them form into one massive dome. It twisted inward on itself, and Lin didn't need another hint as to what was going to come next.
"DISENGAGE AND BUNKER DOWN!" she screamed, retracting her cables and yanking Tenzin, Bumi, Jinora and Kai as close as she could. The sun glared off of the dome, and massive glass shards began to rain down from every direction. Lin wrapped all five of them in the thickest stone dome she could muster and thrust the floor several stories underground
After a few seconds the impacts stopped, and Lin slammed her bare foot into the ground, reaching out to the earth. She needed to make sure it was was safe. Relatively. Metalbenders, shards of glass, sand, another secret tunnel are you kidding me?! Lin roared, raised them back to ground level, and punched her way out of her stone dome, stomping out into the shattered battlefield.
Three of her metalbenders hadn't been fast enough.
The sandbender was gone. It wasn't suicide. It was a gambit.
And it had paid off in spades.
"Damnit." Lin pinched her brow as the airbenders walked up to her. "Damnit. Even when we're prepared, we lose!"
Jinora shook her head. "We didn't lose. It was a draw, and now he knows we're capable of beating him."
Bumi frowned and crossed his arms. "Yeah, Jinora's right. That whole fight, though, sorta reminded of how dad used to spar with you and Kya, Tenzin. After you guys became masters."
"What are you talking about? The sandspout, the storms, the streams, redirecting our attacks; how was that anything like what dad did?" Tenzin furrowed his brow. "The only thing that changed was that he'd use all four elements, instead of just our own…" His eyes widened. "Oh no. That's what he was doing. Somehow, this sandbender was able to mimic the traits, attributes and techniques of all four elements. "
Lin rolled her eyes. "Great. As if things weren't bad enough already with the glassbending."
"It's more likely that he was using sand currents to throw the glass---"
Saikhan cleared his throat and limped over. "Uh, ma'am. We've got another problem."
"A caravan of ten armored trucks were spotted leaving through the shantytown during the battle."
Lin closed her eyes and took a very deep breath. "Let me guess. Spirit Vines?"
"WHY DIDN'T ANYONE STOP THEM?!"
"They were platinum lined, ma'am!"
"Oh, of course it was platinum! When is it ever not platinum?! One crazy inventor figures out how to beat metalbenders and everyone on the planet steals the idea!"
Tenzin sighed. "We should contact Korra and let her know what happened."
"You do that. Saikhan, you're in charge for the rest of the day."
"Shut up. If I don't go for a drink right now I'm probably going to murder someone."
"That looks like the swamp all right," said Korra, resting her arm on top of of Asami's seat.
Asami sighed as they approached the enormous mass of vines, trees and most likely other forms of crazy nature. The huge tree, however, was worth the trip alone. She'd never seen anything so magnificent and serene before, even in the Spirit World. "And I'm guessing that is the Banyan Grove tree, unless there's another huge tree in the area."
"Nope. That's the one."
Kuvira narrowed her eyes at the tree. "If it's anything like the original, then there should be plenty of room to land on the edge of the base."
"Korra? Is this the right frequency?"
Asami handed the radio off to Korra. "I was wondering if long range transmission was going to work on this thing…"
Korra shrugged. "Yeah, it is, Tenzin. What's up? We just got to the swamp, and it is definitely not cut down."
"I wish had good news to offer you in return, but unfortunately, just after you left, the border was attacked by that master sandbender General Iroh spoke of."
Korra and Asami exchanged a look. "I take it you didn't manage to capture him."
"We almost did, but, Korra, this bender is capable of---"
The radio cut to static. Weird.
Asami frowned. "I guess that's the maximum range, then." She raised a brows as all of her instruments began to shudder and shake. "Uhhh, that's...not good." Something huge, no three things, slammed against the outer hull and slowed them to a grinding halt. The rotors were still going strong, but Asami couldn't move. "We're stuck! In mid-air! What the hell is going on?!"
Korra pulled the side door open and gaped. "Vines! Giant vines. Mako, Bolin! Take the other door and start cutting! Kuvira, you're with me!"
Asami took a quick glance behind her, just for a moment, and saw Bolin readying his lavadisk while Korra and Kuvira sent fire and blades of metal outside respectively. "How are we doing back there? We're too close to the ground to use the parachutes! Just so you know!" The entire frame was rattling. She had no idea how long she could keep them in the air.
"Well, fire and metal aren't working so well! These vines are really thick!" yelled Korra.
Bolin whooped. "Lavadisk is workin' great or, okay, nope it just grows back in like half a second."
Asami growled and held on to the yoke for dear life. Literally. "Okay, if nobody has any ideas, I'm going to try and use the rotors to cut us loose! Strap in!"
Mako gave her a thumbs up. "We're good!"
Asami nodded and licked the inside of her lips. She banked left, dropped in altitude, and pitched backward, raising the nose. She heard the rotors slice clean through the vines and immediately pulled up on the collective lever, raising them up as far as she could. "All right! We're clear of the---" A massive vine smacked straight into the cockpit's viewport and Asami felt five more wrap around the Satohawk's frame.
Asami blanched as the red emergency lights turned off and the horn blared. Still too low to use the parachutes. The ejection seats were blocked by the vines. The controls were going to break her wrists if she held much longer. No choice. "We've got maybe thirty seconds! Opal, use your wingsuit! Kuvira, grab Mako and use your cables! Korra---"
Korra had somehow made it into the cockpit. "Kuvira grabbed Mako and Bolin! Come on, let's get out of here!"
Asami smiled grimly. "I can't. The second I let go---"
Korra met her terrified gaze. "I'm faster."
Asami nodded. Korra couldn't lie. She let go, sending them hurtling toward the floor of the swamp. Korra ripped her out of her seat and charged out of the side door with a burst of airbending. They fell almost straight down, and Asami was impressed with how she wasn't screaming. Externally, at least. Korra latched her cables into two nearby trees and slowed them further with a cushion of air.
They hit the ground and Asami tumbled forward out of her arms and face first into the mud. She groaned and flipped onto her back, slowing her breath. "Okay. You were faster. Thanks." Korra was looking down at her, somehow composed. "Korra, why does everything I fly crash?"
Korra shrugged and pulled her to her feet. "Could be bad luck, but I think this time it was just the swamp trying to communicate." She waterbended the mud off the both of them. "It's a weird way to communicate, but still." Korra paled. "...okay, maybe don't turn around, because the swamp apparently had two things it wanted to say."
Asami raised a brow and spun around. She was relieved to see that Mako, Bolin and Opal were all unharmed, but still covered in mud. Also Kuvira was okay, so that was...okay. And then she looked up.
There was her damaged Satohawk, rotors intact, suspended by a series of vines. The emergency lights were still blinking and it swung ever so slightly back and forth. Then, the co-pilot's ejection seat shot out of the cockpit and landed next to her feet, the parachute covering her like a tarp.
Asami's entire body twitched.
"I HATE THE SWAMP!"