Sands of Souls
The roar of the engines could be heard even inside the hangar as the pair looked down towards the island. The height of the jump caused Tong to sweat.
"So I just jump?" he asked Leena, shouting his question over the engines.
The woman next to him had no such concerns, shouting back. "Yeah, it's pretty easy, especially for an Air Bender! Just use your air currents when you get close enough to slow your descent! I can do the same thing with my fire! Sort of like firing a rocket."
"And everyone thinks I've been asked to fill out paperwork, right?"
"Your friends have no idea what we're up to. And let's face it, did you really want to take them along for this?"
"No. OK, just jump. Just jump."
"Yup! Out you go!"
"W…wait!" But it was too late. One forceful push and Tong was going out of the aircraft, Leena following after. Realizing that protests were useless, Tong breathed in as deeply as possible, remembering his Air Bender training. It was just a matter of letting the currents guide his fall.
"Be the leaf," he muttered to himself. "Be the leaf."
Eighteen hours earlier…
"And so it is, with great honor, that I award the Burning Chalice to these three individuals, as a symbol of the Fire Nation's friendship with the members of other nations, and the continued hope that we can cast aside old grudges and work for a brighter future."
The crowd clapped as Tong rose in his business suit and collected the chalice, a large gold cup emblazoned with the symbol of the Fire Nation, while Kushina (in her own formal dress) and Shing (in Air Bender robes, fairly adamant about not wearing a suit) stood besides him, shaking Firelord Kaede's hand and then politely sitting back down while the Firelord continued her speech.
"Well, you're a hero now," Shing joked.
"We all are," Tong answered. "But this kind of blows the whole 'secret mission' approach right out of the water."
"Hey," Kushina answered, "at least you have a job."
"Right. A bodyguard for TT's newest model."
"Brand representative," Kushina shot back. "Right Av…"
Tong shot her a death glare before she could finish.
After the initial shock, Tong landed fairly softly on the island beach, Leena following close behind. The black uniform she wore shone brightly in the pounding sun as the pair looked up what appeared to be a featureless building, two stories tall. His uniform was admittedly similar, but it didn't hug the body nearly as tightly.
"Seems kinda tiny for what they're allegedly doing."
"That's because most of it is underground," Leena replied. "Let's keep moving."
The beach itself was fairly narrow, only half a mile from the ocean before some grassy plain took over. Save the pair, the island appeared deserted, with no signs of life from the building or anywhere else on the island.
"This is weird," Tong mused aloud. "I'm new at this whole stealth commando thing, but shouldn't there be guards?"
As the pair neared the edge of the beach, the sound of rumbling interrupted them. Leena looked on with a scowl.
"You had to jinx it, didn't you?!"
"I said I was new at this!"
"Next time, let me explain before you open your mouth!"
From the sands emerged beings that looked human, but made of sand, earth, and rock, with no faces to speak of. And there were dozens of them. All of these creatures took fighting stances as the pair looked on.
The three sighed as they were finally dismissed from the closing ceremonies of the festival. The award, that was great. The tedium that followed it wasn't.
"So," Kushina asked, "where's our merry band of misfits heading next?"
"You seem surprisingly on board with this now," Tong commented.
"I'm getting paid. It helps. You sure as hell weren't going to foot the bill."
Tong sighed, choosing to ignore the second comment. "I need to find where we're heading next. The Fire Nation wants to talk to me again. I should be back tomorrow."
"That works," Kushina answered. "I still need to sign some more papers and figure out what I'm supposed to say when I'm representing the company. Then I'll go hit the range for a bit."
"And I need to go take care of some…personal matters," Shing concluded. The pair couldn't help but stare.
"It wasn't the same thing that caused you to down a bottle of cactus juice and go running through the hotel hitting on women, was it?"
Shing said nothing, but turned a dark shade of red as Tong continued. "You're lucky that woman from the Fire Nation was there to hold you back."
"That amazon you decided to bring back with you?" Shing answered. "I felt like she was going to rip me in half!"
"Well she kept you from looking like an idiot, so you should be thankful." Kushina said nothing, but laughed remembering Leena, as she was called, dangling Shing above the ground until he agreed to calm down.
"Just do us all a favor. Lay off the cactus juice for a few…months."
The good thing about the stone automatons was that a gust of wind or a blast of flame was usually enough to put one of them down.
The bad thing was that because they were so close to dirt and sand, another would inevitably rise to replace its fallen comrade.
"This isn't working!" Tong shouted even as a wind gust knocked a few of the creatures back. "There's too many of them!"
"The building!" Leena shouted. "Hold them off while I deal with the lock!"
Leaving Tong to deal with the golems even as they swarmed him, Leena quickly went for the most notable door to the facility, a fairly large gate that seemed to be used for storage. Hurriedly, she began applying flame in an attempt to force an opening.
"Any time you're ready!" Tong shouted, doing his best to avoid having his legs ensnared by the creatures. "I only have two hands and two legs!"
"Just a bit more," Leena responded. "There! Go! Go!"
The makeshift door was wide enough for each of them to fit through. Hurriedly, both ran inside, the golems unable to pursue onto the tile floor.
"Ok," Leena announced between deep breaths. "You've broken into your first secret compound. You are now officially a spy."
"You're the guy that bought the sky bison over, right? Pick up?"
"Not quite. I'm waiting to see if someone takes a ride."
"Sure. Having you around is good for business. But why the coat?"
As Shing looked at both the man and then at Nasha, petting the sky bison, he replied, "I didn't want to make a scene."
"No," the owner replied. "Make a scene! Heroes prefer sky bison! And we cost way less than airlines! The ad practically makes itself!"
"Maybe later," Shing replied, sitting down. He had no idea if who he expected was going to show, but it was worth looking into.
Leena's initial guess had been correct. While the inside of the building was unimpressive, mostly an empty storage facility with second floor offices that were sparsely decorated, the elevator next to said offices led to an underground facility. One about six floors deep.
"Well, so far so good," Tong began, looking around the well lit silver hallways. "But again, no guards, no nothing. Is anyone even here?"
"Judging by all those stone monsters that wanted to keep us out," Leena answered, "I'm going to guess 'yes.' Speaking of people," she continued, "when did you meet those other two?"
"Is now the best time to discuss this?"
"Yes! Yes it is! We can't just be silent and go from place to place. Otherwise we're no better than those statues! Come on, tell me."
Tong nodded. "I grew up with them. We met when I was a kid, and I always kept in touch even after I left Republic City. We met up a few months ago after well, my dad died, and it's been a combination of people trying to kill us and me trying to figure out what happened."
"A girl that follows you to an aircraft carrier is what we call a keeper."
"Kushina isn't my…"
"Aww, and here I thought you two looked cute together."
"No, she," Tong answered, "got dragged into this by me. I get it, I'm not the Avatar. I've had the world telling me that for a while. Korra's the Avatar."
"Yes, 'Korra'. As if the bureaucrat barking orders from her own government is the same woman that saved Republic City from the Equalists, the Dark Avatar, Red Lotus, and the Colossus. We both know that 'Korra' isn't the real deal."
"The rest of the world seems just fine without me," Tong replied. "And then my friends get threatened by some jackasses because of a role I don't want? And was never asked to do? I'm going to find whoever's responsible for this. And I won't let Kushina suffer for me."
Leena said nothing, but looked on concerned as Tong continued. "It's my fault she was targeted. And I'm going to keep her safe." Finally, Leena spoke.
"In case you haven't realized, the world isn't OK. There are psychos corrupting spirits and sic'ing them on innocent people. There's the possibility that the so-called Avatar is planning to kill millions for her own gain. And you actually want to help people. You know what? I'd rather you were the Avatar than whoever ordered dark spirits to attack Capital City."
"And what about you?" Tong asked, attempting to change the subject. "Anyone special in your life?"
"Nothing steady," Leena answered. "But I find some people are intimidated by me. Crazy, right? Me? Intimidating?"
"Gee," Tong remarked as he looked up at the amazon next to him, "I have no idea why people would be intimidated by you."
"I don't let it bother me. Truth be told, I do like being the taller one, but that doesn't make me scary! Although that does remind me…"
"That friend of yours, Shing? The one that got loaded on cactus juice? He's kinda cute. Is he seeing anyone?"
Tong was about to answer that question when he happened upon of all things, a blue creature that resembled a spirit. Wasting no time, Tong ran after it until he found himself in what appeared to be a small room with nothing but a television.
"Well, where's the show?"
The monitor sprang to life just as Leena entered the room, looking on at the image on the television, a black haired, bearded man in green robes with the symbol of Avatar Affairs on his left shoulder. Behind him flowed a long cape, a trademark of the higher-ranking members of Avatar Affairs.
"I take it you're not lost here, are you, Specialist?"
"You know who I am?" Tong asked. The man laughed."
"Of course I know who you are. My orders have switched from capturing you to killing you on sight. Of course, that was assuming that you were actually going to come to my humble abode, and to be perfectly honest, I believe you would be better used as a test subject. To operate on the Avatar himself, to truly study the link between humans and spirits…would be absolutely fascinating." His last sentence was accented with a sinister grin.
"Enough!" Leena shouted. "You, whoever you are, are responsible for the deaths of Fire Nation citizens!"
"My name is Doctor Koh Ru. And trespassers my long legged friend," the man replied, his face uncomfortably leering at Leena, "are to be dealt with on sight. Of course, seeing as you're down here, I take it you were able to deal with my welcoming committee."
"Save it," Leena answered. "Let's talk, woman to pervert about your crimes."
"If that's what you think I am. Tell you what," the man continued, "find me, and we'll talk. But I don't think you'll be making it to me alive."
The monitor shut off with those ominous words. Tong, however, was less than impressed, metal bending the television in half and hurling it towards the wall. Unlike Shockers and military weapons, television monitors usually weren't treated with anti-metal bending chemicals. Still, for all his grandeur, all that was revealed was drywall and pipes.
"That was a perfectly good TV," Leena lamented.
"Sorry, I thought he was behind the wall."
"Lesson 2 of being a spy. They never hide in plain sight. Let's keep moving."
The pair left the room, finding a stairwell that led to a floor below. Unlike the floor above, filled with hallways and offices, this room was a straight passageway, surrounded by glass cases filled with what appeared to be people. Models, celebrities, old historical figures all stood side by side in what could have been mistaken for a museum.
They're not actual people, a voice replied over the intercom, clearly recognizable as Dr. Ru. You see, one of my hobbies happens to be model-building, in this case human models, combinations of earth, metal and wax. It so happens that my experiments with spirits here and my hobby…intersect.
Out of nowhere the sound of glass shattering came from behind Tong, followed by a burly man wearing a fur vest trying to choke the life out of him. The arm felt as if it were made of stone. Desperately, he tried to keep the attacker from choking him until a pair of strong hands wrapped themselves around the attacker's head, causing the head to burst into flame. Finally, the grip was released as the attacker fell to the ground, Tong looking at his assailant in bewilderment while Leena made sure he did not rise again.
"Was I just attacked by the Honda Takeshi Nuktuk?!"
The Takeshi version was always my favorite, the voice of Dr. Ru interjected. The Bolin Nuktuk is a clear product of its time and that stupid voice from Pramuk is just…ugh.
From the destroyed statue rose a blue and white spirit, which quickly flew off. The pair continued to stare at the statue while Dr. Ru gloated.
Possession. I've trained spirits to animate bodies. Think of the immediate and long term possibilities. Today, an entire army of stone golems that I can create here with the earth! Tomorrow, perfect duplicates of anyone, that my spirits will act as I tell them to.
Leena's response was simple and direct. "You're insane."
No, I am a visionary. And I'll prove it. Go to the end of the hallway.
With nowhere else to go, the pair followed to the end of the hallway, to which they found a recreation of a teashop. Inside the teashop set were four people, two men, and two women, posed as if they were drinking tea and talking about nothing in particular.
"Is that...Korra?" Tong asked, looking at the young ebony skinned woman next to the others.
The original Team Avatar, Korra, Bolin and Mako, AKA the future president and the man history forgot, and Asami, AKA the other woman in Korra's life. One of my finer pieces. and the last thing you'll see. Please dispose of our guests. They weren't invited.
The four statues rose from their seats and drew Shocker rifles, opening fire on the pair as Tong and Leena quickly ducked behind a counter for cover. With nowhere to go and nothing to bend for protection, they were trapped.
"Since when does Korra need a rifle?" Leena asked.
The spirits can't bend the elements without being bound to a human that can. But they can hold guns well enough.
"Plan?" Tong asked.
"Go high. I'll shoot them low."
Leaping into the air, Tong saw the statues aim their weapons at him, unaware of Leena's assault. Sure enough, fireballs rained down upon them, knocking their weapons away. A powerful quake soon followed as Korra, Asami, and Mako were dealt with, their stone and wax bodies crumbled to dust.
"That was three," Leena noted. "Where's…"
With no facial expression, the Bolin statue charged forward, preparing to fire. Before he could however, metal blades struck his head, knocking it clean off his body.
"You just beheaded Bolin!" Leena exclaimed.
"A Bolin statue," Tong answered. "Totally doesn't count."
"Yeah, but what did you use?" Tong smiled, pointing at a gauntlet on his right arm.
"Metal capsules for metal bending. Learned it from seeing cops in Republic City."
I really liked those statues, you cretins!
"I can break your stuff all day," Tong began, "but you've seem to have hurt enough spirits with the insanity here. How about we settle this face to face?"
Have it your way. Two floors down, I'll see you there.
Tong nodded, before taking Leena into a corner.
"What is it?"
"I'm going to go down there, but you keep looking for wherever he's controlling this place."
"You know it's a trap."
"Which is why it's better I go and not both of us," Tong replied.
"OK, I guess we don't have much of a choice."
Walking through the doors next to the stairwell, Tong found himself in what appeared to be a very large pit of earth, bordered by a metal outline. Overhead; a control room was present, with an obvious voice emanating from it.
"So you did come. Good, now you get to see some of my more…improvisational works."
"So you made those statues that attacked us?"
"Don't ask questions you know the answer to," the doctor scoffed. "Sadly, being a distance away meant I couldn't add the finer details to my work. But here, Specialist, here I can make them to the finest detail. And being inside the dirt, I don't need spirits to animate them!"
"Then how about you come down and play?" Tong asked.
"Fraid' not. I have a better idea. If you want to fight the Avatar so bad, I'll give you an Avatar to fight."
From the dirt and sand emerged a woman, or rather, a representation of a strikingly tall woman made of earth and stone. She wore the armor of an old warrior, wielding two war fans and a flat headdress.
"May I present Avatar Kiyoshi, the last Avatar to emerge from the Earth states. A true Avatar unlike yourself."
"I'm not scared of a stone statue," Tong answered.
"Good. Now, let's see what you're made of." The statue assumed a fighting stance, one that Tong quickly met.