The Road Ahead
Shing began to turn around, his skin crawling on its ends, and his blood running ice cold. He felt the presence of the man behind him, his weapon, the barrel with the metal inside it, pointed right him. There was nothing he could do but brace himself for what he hoped would be a very quick demise.
"For my father, DIE!"
Had Sudhir had another second to fire, it would have been the end. A fireball however, saved Shing at the last second as Sudhir was forced to duck out of the way.
"Tong!" Shing's shout was unacknowledged, as Tong stared down his opponent with a look of pure unfathomable rage.
"Your fight is with me!"
Sudhir offered a callous smirk in response. "That's the idea. We're the same, like I said. I fight for MY family!"
The assassin wasted no time in attacking, first with a blast from his metal rod, and second with a trio of boulders lifted and hurled directly at Tong with earth bending. Tong ducked out of the way of the bullet, blasting each boulder with a fireball. All the while, Sudhir taunted his opponent, firing verbal taunts along with his physical attacks, as they kept moving.
"You think this is coincidence? I've been following you since the beginning! Since you confronted Yuza! You haven't been so much able as to use the bathroom without my knowing!"
Even from the sidelines, as the pair continued to exchange metal and fireballs, Amit could only go "Eww."
"Then why wait till now to kill me?" Tong asked. "If you were so good, you could have killed me immediately!"
"You weren't my only assignment!" Sudhir answered. "And this wasn't personal until what you did to my father!"
"I think you're full of crap, and that your family isn't nearly as good as you think they were!"
Sudhir was livid at that comment. "How dare you!"
Icicles rose from the snow to strike Sudhir, but he was able to dodge all of them, slipping back underground and rising in an attempt to surprise Tong. He was undeterred by the assassin, attempting to hit him with anything that wasn't nailed to the ground, fire, earth, ice, or wind, as long as it connected, it didn't matter. Which made Sudhir's ability to dodge Tong's attacks all the more frustrating.
"They keep moving!" Tashi exclaimed. "I can't hit him without hitting Tong!"
The pair continued to exchange shots at each other, moving closer and closer to the Spirit Portal. It did not go unnoticed by Shing. He had been taking in the battle and Sudhir's brazen, sudden declaration when he noticed his opportunity.
Shing could only whisper "Tong, forgive me," before making his move.
The gust of wind caught both of them by surprise. Neither could say anything before heading into the spirit portal. Wherever they ended up, Shing could only hope that Tong would emerge from it the Avatar that the world needed.
"What happened?" Amit asked.
"He must have dragged the guy into the Spirit Portal!" Shing yelled. "Come on! We need to go before more of that guy's men show up!"
"But what about Tong?"
"He'll be fine! We need to go now!"
Amit and Tashi nodded immediately, oblivious to Shing's actions. The trio continued to move through the tundra, looking for the Grand Archive. If nothing else, when he emerged, Shing was hoping that he would have the information Tong needed.
It had seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the Earth Kingdom would fall after today. That once the walls of Ba Sing Se fell, that nothing could stop the Earth Republic army from bringing the long and senseless conflict to a final, merciful end. That was before the purple monstrosity emerged from the broken wall, attacking the army with the power of an army of Air Benders. A mecha piloted by Avatar Korra herself, who dramatically and fearlessly claimed the entire Earth State for her own, under the rule of the so-called 'Avatar Nation.' It was clear that the Earth Kingdom was only going to be the first nation forcibly drafted into Korra's new empire.
But as bizarre as it all seemed, the raw, unrelenting power of the giant mecha in front of the Earth Republic army couldn't be denied. Missiles, cannon fire, mortar shells, and the assaulting machines themselves were all blown away by the mechanical monstrosity's air bending abilities. Or rather, the gigantic turbofans that enhanced the air bending abilities of the person inside of the machine to superhuman levels. The reaction of Garial's squadron was one of desperation.
"FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! DESTROY THAT THING!"
The few cannon blasts and shells that were able to get through the vortex of air that surrounded the machine were shrugged off by the thick armor of the purple leviathan. The rest were merely swatted aside by the winds that surrounded the machine, flying off in random directions utterly harmlessly.
Weapons are ineffective! We can't punch through that barrier!
The attack from what remained the advanced vanguard was relentless. From her position in the command room of the Icon, Korra saw them not as a danger, but as mere fleas. Pests to be wiped out.
"Engage the flame throwers."
Two massive fireballs emerged from the flamethrowers, destroying a legion of tanks as Garial and the surviving member's of the Green Shoulders ran off. But the fire didn't merely dissipate. The fireballs stayed in midair, floating.
And then they moved towards the center of the armed force. An entire line of artillery vehicles was melted into scrap before the flames finally died out.
"Green Shoulder 1 to Command! Advanced vanguard is getting annihilated! We need to fall back!"
This is Command! Rear Vanguard has been wiped out by a new legion of enemies. We've been boxed in! Request assistance!
"Ground support is impossible!" Garial yelled. "We need air support!"
Our bomber fleet is moving in! Try to ho…ZZZZZ
No further response emerged from the mobile command center, causing Garial to fear the worst. But up ahead, he saw something that gave him a slight sense of hope.
A group of Earth benders, riding on motorcycles, drove in front of the crippled mecha tank battalion. Leaping off their vehicles, the benders, in near perfect sync, created a chasm that the leg of the massive robot fell into, causing it to fall off-balance and onto all fours. Following that assault, a bomber from overhead released its payload, hoping to annihilate the machine where it stood. A large cloud of smoke kicked up right before the first bomb landed, but twenty others, creating a massive explosion, soon joined it.
Hey! We need to retreat!
"If we retreat now, Hui" Garial responded, "we are NOT going to get another shot at this!"
Our artillery's been annihilated on both ends and I can't raise Command! We need to fall back! I don't think that bombing run took that thing out, and we don't have enough forces left to take the city at the rate we're losing them!
Breathing heavily, Garial clutched the controls of his Ox, and sighed.
"Green Shoulders, prepare to retreat. Tell the naval force that was supposed to cross through the river needs to fall back immediately as well."
WHAT?! shouted an unfamiliar voice. This is Captain Toh Hulin, Ice Ferret squadron. We can't retreat!
"If we don't, we'll be destroyed like the rear vanguard was!"
The smoke cleared from the bombing run towards the purple mecha, revealing a massive dome of earth and stone that shielded the machine. With the bombing over, the mecha emerged from its protective cocoon, as the Earth benders desperately tried to trip it again with another crack of the earth. Inside, Korra's reaction was one of disgust.
"Now you die."
Another massive pillar of flame launched from the machine, incinerating the Earth benders and the machines that stood close to where the dome was. Garial could only wince as the flames darted towards him.
The rocket careened towards Ulva and the others, the group shocked at what was approaching. Finally, Leena took action, releasing a stream of flame towards it, destroying it before it could hit them.
The explosion forced everyone to brace themselves for the impact, but they were unharmed. Unfortunately, the guerilla himself was gone.
"Where?" Leena asked, until she turned around and saw the man right next to her, ready to attack with an icicle barrage.
The man never got the chance to attack. He was lifted into the air by Kushina's mecha tank and swung rather violently into the snow, knocking him unconscious and snapping his arm.
"No time to waste!" Ulva shouted as soon as the man was confirmed down. "Let's head for that heat signature!"
The group continued to move forward, the enemy thankfully having stopped following them for the moment. Finally they appeared in front of what appeared to be a small garage entrance in the midst of the snow. Shing, Amit, and Tashi all stood next to it, looking on at the group.
"About time you guys got here!" Shing yelled at the group. "Blow it open!"
Instead of doing so however, Kushina merely asked, "Where's Tong?"
"Open the door!"
Gritting her teeth, Kushina fired her cannon through the door until it fell down, allowing the group access inside. The inside of the 'garage' was little more than a hallway with metal walls leaning towards an industrial elevator, presumably for people and machinery alike. After disembarking from her mecha, Kushina asked the same question once again.
"The Spirit World…maybe. We were attacked. He dragged the man into the Spirit Portal and we didn't pursue. I'm sure he'll be fine."
"Fine?" Kushina didn't say anything else, just looking at Shing for some kind of explanation.
"Well yeah. He needed to go there anyway. He's the Avatar, and I figured that a journey to the Spirit World would be what he needed."
"And if something happens to him because you didn't go after your best friend?"
"He's my best friend, but he's also the Avatar. I couldn't help him. You understand, right?"
Shing sighed. It was an unusual circumstance, true, but everyone understood that stopping the false Avatar and getting the true one was their biggest priority. And if Tong didn't want to be the Avatar, well maybe the next reincarnation would. He knew Kushina would understand.
He didn't expect Kushina to ram him against a wall and point a pistol towards his head.
"Give me a reason. GIVE ME A DAMN REASON!"
"What do you care?" Shing said, a notable bit of fear starting to creep into his voice. "You only acted like you liked him out of pity, right?" This answer only caused Kushina to press the barrel of the pistol right next to his head. Amit and Tashi moved closer, only for her to stare at them, a look of pure rage in her eyes.
"BACK OFF OR I'll BLOW HIS BRAINS OUT! And you, you're going to go with me to find Tong or on the count of 3, I swear…"
"He's the Avatar!"
"He…he needs to realize his destiny! It was the only way! I know it's unusual, but…"
"ENOUGH, BOTH OF YOU!"
The authoritarian voice of Leena caused Kushina to grimace and lower her weapon. Reluctantly, she turned back towards the team, but not before shooting a look of pure hatred at Shing.
"That's my boyfriend out in the Spirit World thanks to you. And if anything happens to him, I will kill you…"
"I said enough," Leena re-stated. "I have no idea what the hell happened, but Tong isn't defenseless. Right now our priority is to find out what they're holding here and get it to someone who can do something about it. That requires all of us being alive."
"I have to agree," Ulva added. "I've already lost one of my men finding this place, I don't want to lose any more."
The group collectively began to head for the elevator, Kushina holstering her pistol as she followed Ulva's soldiers. Shing breathed heavily, turning to Leena.
"Thank you so…"
"Save it," Leena snapped back. "I was wrong about you."
Both of them felt the gust of wind shoot them through the portal, but it wasn't enough to stop their fight. Tong and Sudhir grappled with each other even as they floated through the wind, throwing punches and knees with savage rage.
Finally, the pair landed in what appeared to be a forest, surrounded by trees and spirits, which quickly ran off from the pair. Sudhir wasted no time, Earth bending a pair of boulders at Tong that he was able to deflect. Both men were breathing heavily as Tong looked down at his opponent.
"You can earth bend in the spirit world?"
"Of course I can!" Sudhir answered. "We went through that portal. Our bodies are still here, right?"
Tong nodded, realizing that he never made the distinction the one time he did try to use the Spirit Portal as opposed to the times he tried to meditate into it. But his misunderstanding of bending in the Spirit World paled to the question that nagged at him.
"Why? Why did you kill my dad?"
Sudhir shook his head at the question, but smiled. "Orders."
"I'll give you the short version of the story. My masters, the Black Petals, knew that Dr. Mao had been hiding you for years. They wanted to know where you had gone, and if you had been…agreeable to the generous deal that they had offered."
"The rest of your lives under house arrest, alive, but powerless to stop the Realignment."
"What…what is the Realignment?"
"The grand plan to reshape the world and permanently balance it!" Sudhir proudly declared, even as he loaded a metal shell into a short rod. "It's why I joined Avatar Affairs and the White Lotus!"
Tong took in every word with a deep scowl. "So you acted on orders to kill him. The real killers are these…Black Petals."
"The Black Petals, the leaders of White Lotus, yes," Sudhir boasted. "They will reshape the world, and your father didn't want to play along. So he got what had coming."
"So you're just a worthless hitman like your dad."
"My father was a great man!"
"So was mine," Tong shot back.
"It's like I said before Tong, we're the same, you and I. And to make the world a better place, you have to die."
"Well I'm not going to die. I'm going to find the Black Petals and stop this Realignment."
"No," Sudhir noted, raising the metal rod in his right hand. "You won't."
Tong saw the weapon, and did the only thing he could.
A small hole was present in Sudhir's torso, blood streaming out. The last thing he saw before falling face first in the forest was Tong's right arm raised directly in front of him, smoke emanating from the gauntlet on his forearm.
Exhausted, Tong dropped to his knees, looking on at the fallen assassin. There was no joy in what he had just done for two reasons. The first was that people that ordered his father killed were still alive, the supreme leaders of White Lotus, the organization that wanted to bring the world under their dictatorship. The second was the constant words that Sudhir kept repeating.
We're the same, you and I.
Rising to his feet, Tong removed his jacket, covering Sudhir and leaving on only a green T-shirt with his black pants. He then picked up Sudhir and began to leave the forest, heading for a clearing. Sudhir was not a good man, but at the very least, he deserved a proper burial.
The battlefield was cleared of any further resistance. Skull Knights and Duck Bats patrolled the ruins of the area, while Earth Benders quickly began working on fixing the collapsed wall of Ba Sing Se. Walking above all of it was the Icon, the massive purple mecha that single handedly turned the tide of the battle. Inside the machine, Korra was looking at both her handiwork and the communication screen on her right, the command post tall enough for her stand in while two co-pilots in their own chairs monitored activity below her.
"Han, the Icon worked better than we could have planned. We wiped out the entirety of the invading force with minimal effort. The world will have to respect us now!"
We have won the first battle, Korra, but the war is still going on. Until the Icon stands above Zaofu and President Bahl turns over the rest of the Earth Republic to us, we still have work to do.
"If it's as easy as today," Korra boasted, flexing a bicep, "then I'll be home very soon."
I'm looking forward to seeing you when all is said and done.
"Me too Han. Love you!"
Love you too Korra.
The monitor shut off as Korra beamed at her accomplishments, the two support pilots grinning at the happiness that was practically radiating from her. They didn't even notice the mecha stepping on a half melted Ox tank with a painted green shoulder, crushing the machine into completely unrecognizable scrap.
As he began to dig up the grave, using earth bending to move the dirt and soil, Tong didn't even think about the Tormentor that stalked him every time he entered the Spirit World. He wasn't even thinking about his friends. All he could think of was the man's words before he died.
"I'm not the same as you," he muttered. "I'm not a killer. I have someone I need to protect."
You seem very confident of yourself, yet you keep repeating the same words.
Tong turned around, but the Tormentor wasn't there. It was instead, a stout looking old man with a baldhead but a thick, white beard. His smile was fairly pleasant and nonthreatening. For a moment, Tong was reminded of his own father, before turning his attention back to the task at hand.
"This man kept saying I was the same as he. But this man was a murderer who killed for money. He killed my father because he was ordered to."
"You don't kill for money, do you?"
"Of course not."
"Then why worry so much about what he told you?"
As he tossed the body of Sudhir into the dug plot, Tong answered, "Because a part of me is worried he's right."
The old man offered no words at first, only a few groans to indicate he was deep in thought, allowing Tong the time to fill the hole and leave the assassin buried. Taking a single flower, he left it on top of the plot, marking the grave. As he kneeled before it, the old man placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"You are in deep pain, but not for the reasons you believe. Maybe I can help you."
"You can?" Tong asked.
"You wouldn't be the first lost soul I've helped since I came to this place. I'm going to be visiting some friends for tea. Why don't you join me?"
"Would they mind?" Tong asked. The old man suppressed a hearty laugh at this.
"My tea is legendary for how good it is! They'd understand."
"Then yes," Tong answered with a smile, standing up, "I will go with you old man. Name's Tong by the way."
"It's a pleasure to meet you Tong," the old man responded. "My name is Iroh. Now let's get going. We don't want to be late."