The elevator began to go down slowly and steadily towards it destination, its angular slope not betraying what lay below. While on it, the group rested, Ulva and three soldiers removing their hoods, while Kushina looked on at Leena with an expression of regret.
"I'm sorry for that little…outburst."
"It's alright," Leena answered. "I'm sure Tong's fine, although why Shing didn't bother to go help him, I have no idea."
The shorter woman shook her head. "You got me. The nerve of that guy, leaves him out there alone and then tells me I was just feeling sorry for him?!"
"Not the case," was all Leena could respond with.
"Trust me, if I don't want someone to touch me," she began, making a fist for emphasis, "he won't touch me. Besides, what the hell does Shing know about actually being with a girl? He's practically married to the Air Temple!"
"Something tells me Air Nomads aren't the greatest at expressing themselves. Although pulling a gun on him may not have been the best thing to do out here."
"I…I don't want to lose him," Kushina answered. "We made each other a promise. That we would keep each other safe."
"We need to focus on finding what White Lotus is keeping down in this little hall of mystery for now," Leena replied, re-asserting their main goal. "We'll worry about Shing afterwards."
Kushina nodded, and then turned to the unmasked soldiers, holding her hand on the back of her head. "Sorry about making you guys walk. You alright?"
"Eh, just fine," shot back one shoulder, his dark skin and black hair neatly cut even considering it was under a hood for several hours. "We've been through worse out here."
"Yeah," another soldier replied, looking on at Kushina with a chuckle. "To be honest, it's more than what usually happens around here."
"Well," Ulva added, "at least the mecha is still in one piece. Those things aren't exactly cheap you know."
"You guys seemed to have enough jets," Kushina noted, but Ulva shook his head.
"Anything further is Southern Water Tribe national secret. You understand, I hope."
Raising her eyebrows, Kushina answered with a simple, "Right," and then looked forward along with the rest of the group.
During all of this, Shing didn't speak; merely shaking his head at what he thought was the best decision. He wasn't expecting to met with life-threatening anger and scorn for trying to make Tong realize his destiny. He didn't want to be the Avatar. He had to be forced into it. Right? But yet neither Tashi nor Amit spoke to him, and Leena had already given the Air Bender the cold shoulder after intervening to save his life. Did he send his best friend to die?
Shing's train of thought was interrupted as the elevator reached the bottom floor, with three men in blue and white robes standing in front of them, their grey hair and pointed beards making them look extremely similar, were it not for their varying skin tones and different eyes. Everyone reached for their weapons before the three men raised their arms, their palms facing forward.
"There will be no need for that here unless you wish to destroy this archive," began the man in the middle, his green eyes gazing at the group. We do not hide the contents of this place. Besides, you've seen the guards outside. If we were intent on violence, a trap would have been sprung."
"You killed a dozen of my men over the past week!" Ulva shouted, only for the man on the right to look on at them with his blue eyes.
"No, the guardians of this place did. We are the Archivists of White Lotus, and we do not discriminate on whom we share our knowledge with. So to keep the unwanted out, White Lotus has its guardians patrolling the facility. They are aware of our vows."
Leena nodded her head at this declaration. "OK, then we would like to see the contents of your archive. Where can we do so?"
Smiling at the Fire Nation woman, the man on the right closed his brown eyes before motioning to the group. "Please, follow us. So long as you do not damage the Grand Archive, you are free to look at anything you would like."
The walk seemed pleasant enough, with the green fields and the various spirits moving to and fro, but Tong couldn't take a step without looking for the spirit that tormented him so. The clouds hung overhead, dark and foreboding, which only heightened his anxiety. The spirits themselves, creatures that human eyes couldn't recognize, appeared tense and ready to strike. Iroh easily noticed his tension as the pair continued to walk.
"You keep expecting to be attacked here. You shouldn't unless you desire a fight."
"Let's just say I'm not exactly welcomed here," Tong explained. His companion shook his head.
"I've explained this to others, but in the Spirit World, your emotions become your reality. If you give out nothing but tension and fear, you will receive nothing but tension and fear. Try to relax, and it will make the journey far easier."
Nodding at the advice of the old man, Tong closed his eyes and took a deep breath, reassuring himself that if the Tormentor truly wanted to attack, he would have done so by now. He was safe.
And when he opened them, he saw a bright sky, the sun shining on his face. The various spirits went back to their routes, no longer on edge and waiting to strike. He was stunned.
"Ho…how did I do that?"
"It's as I said," Iroh explained. "Your emotions become your reality in this place. Especially for the Avatar, the bridge between two worlds."
"I'm not the Avatar," Tong firmly stated, but Iroh merely shook his head.
"You can lie to yourself, and you can lie to others, but not to me, Avatar Tong. But I suspect that it is that doubt which led you here in the first place."
"Doubt? I know what I have to do. I need to find the people who killed my dad."
"Is that all you desire? Revenge?"
Tong didn't reply, although Iroh's smile didn't fade. "You are not the first Avatar to doubt their place in the world. Nor will you be the last. Now come, just over this hill."
The pair continued to walk over the hill until they happened upon a single story brown cottage, with a well-kept wooden table outside, along with seats for at least eight people. Over the table stood a tree, providing anyone sitting down with ample shade. From the red doors of the house emerged a middle-aged woman, her short black hair and yellow sundress flowing in the breeze as she offered a smile to the visitors.
"Iroh! I'm so glad you came! I didn't realize you were bringing company though…"
"I'll leave if it's a bother," Tong offered, but the woman shook her head.
"Nonsense! You're more than welcome to sit down for a bit. Iroh was going to be making tea for us."
Tong bowed respectfully towards the woman. "You're very kind, Miss…"
"Missus, actually," the woman corrected. "Beifong. Opal Beifong."
Tong was clearly confused by the woman's declaration. "Bei-fong?" She smiled at the confused, almost somewhat awed tone of her visitor.
"Oh, you've heard of us!"
"Who hasn't?!" Tong yelled. "The Beifong's are a family of heroes, dating back to the Hundred Year War! You…you're regarded as legends!"
Opal only responded with a smile at Tong's awestruck declaration. "You can see why we moved to this little place now. It's far more…quaint than where we used to be, and it's a welcome change from what we were used to." Turning back towards the house, Opal yelled "BOLIN! Iroh's here! And he bought a guest! Come out and say hello!"
"Bolin?" While Iroh just stood patiently and waited, Tong appeared dumbstruck. The feeling only increased when the rather stout, fair skinned man emerged from the cottage, holding what appeared to be a plate of cookies of all things.
"Did Iroh say he wanted the cookies or the crackers with the tea?" he asked, before seeing the guests in front of the house. "Oh, hello there."
"This…this is amazing!" Tong yelled, before going up to Bolin, who was clearly taken aback by this guest's outburst and curiosity. "The history books said you were amazing! How can you be here? I mean, I fought the guy who killed you! There's so much I want to ask you!"
"Slow down!" Bolin shouted, putting his hands up to indicate how overwhelmed he was. "It's always nice to meet a fan, but I wasn't expecting visitors out here! And what do you mean about 'guy who killed me?'"
"Tong," Iroh interrupted, "I'm going to prepare the tea. Perhaps it is best if you explain your tale from the beginning to our hosts."
Breathing heavily, Tong nodded, unsure of where his burst of near fanboyish enthusiasm came from. Both Bolin and Opal sat down at the table after putting down the tray of cookies, where Tong joined them.
"OK," Tong began, breathing deeply. "My full name is Tong Mao…"
He was about to say, 'super-soldier', 'Specialist', or some other pejorative, but when Iroh looked at Tong, his expression stern; the Earth Republic man found himself unable to lie any more.
"My full name is Tong Mao, and I am the Avatar."
Both Bolin and Opal stared at Tong wide-eyed, taking in what he just said. It was Opal who spoke first.
"The Avatar? The one after Korra?"
"It's a very long story," Tong explained. "May I have a cookie first?"
The halls of the archive were filled with people, tomes, and black towers that Kushina recognized as computer servers. They all underscored the sheer size of the facility, its ceiling stretching at least a hundred feet into the air. All over, the men in robes worked endlessly, examining books, typing information into one of hundreds of computer terminals in front of the towers, or scanning information into machines nearby said towers.
"This place is amazing," Kushina noted in sheer awe of her surroundings. "How did you build something this big in the South Pole?"
"Many years ago," one of the robe-clad guides began, "a man within our order journeyed to the Spirit World, where he found the library kept by Wong Shi Tong. According to his journals, Wong Shi Tong was arrogant and dismissive of humans, stating they were not allowed in his library. Our archivist challenged Wong Shi Tong, claiming that he could use technology to create a greater archive than the Spirit Library. It happened to coincide with the White Lotus' desire to have a central repository for their information."
"What was Wong Shi Tong's reaction?" Tashi asked.
"The journals of the archivist say that after cursing out the computer terminal we were using back then, he conceded that we had a significant amount of information, but that it lacked the charm of his Spirit Library and was therefore inferior. They then say the archivist went into a tirade about how the spirits always demanded respect from humans while never offering the same, and banned spirits from this place. That ban," he added, "was lifted when Wong Shi Tong lifted the one against humans on his library. Ten years later."
"Huh," Amit noted. "Someone was sensitive."
"We are very proud of what we have done here, despite White Lotus', shall we say, 'demands,'' the man continued. "This is the greatest repository of knowledge in the world. It is a shame we get so few visitors." No one bothered to tell the monks that there were water-bending assassins in the snow that tried to kill visitors, nor that nations might be upset with their military secrets on display for all to see.
The group continued to walk until they were led to a room that was completely white, with ceramic floors and stainless steel walls. By the wall, or rather, instead of a wall was a massive monitor with a desk in front of it, holding a keyboard and a mouse. Numerous metal seats with cushions were in front of the machine, creating an inviting, if unusual area to perform work. Cameras were built into the monitor as well. Leena couldn't help but be taken aback by the architecture.
"This room looks very…white."
"As is all knowledge," the brown-eyed man answered. "The white represents the purity of what is here. It is the application of the knowledge that is either good or evil."
The group all looked at each other before Kushina sat down, pressing a button on the keyboard, watching the monitor spring to life. Simple blue text appeared on a white background, saying Please Insert a Search Topic. Looking at her hosts, the three men merely moved their arms as if to say, "Go ahead." Nodding, Kushina put in her first topic.
Dozens of topics appeared on the screen ranging from Korra, Biography to Korra, News Article to Korra, Legal Cases. One topic however, stuck out immediately.
"What the hell does that mean?" Ulva asked. Kushina was already ahead of him, clicking the topic. What followed were links to dozens if not hundreds of reports, and most telling, a series of videos. Clicking one labeled "Project Introduction," Kushina watched as a video covered the feed, revealing the face of an old man with thin white hair and thick spectacles.
"Hello. My name is Bu Quinfan, the current Moon Fish of the Black Petals. And if you are seeing this message, it means that our initial attempts to bring Korra over to our cause have failed. Most notably, my agents have begun to isolate Korra from her circle of friends by eliminating them one by one, but at this point in time, she has been rather steadfast about not taking a more…active role in how the world is run."
"Who is this guy?" Amit asked, only for the video to pause. A monotone female voice began to speak.
"Bu Quinfan. Former Moon Fish of the Black Petals. Current status – Deceased."
Everyone turned to the monks before the blue-eyed monk offered an explanation.
"Microphones have audio translation equipment. If you have any questions about a video or article, just ask the machine directly."
"Okay," Kushina noted, her tone still filled with confusion. "Who are the Black Petals?"
"Black Petals. The ruling council within White Lotus following 185 AG."
The answers were all here. The problem for the group was that they didn't know what questions to ask.
"All right, enough of this," Ulva interrupted. "Korra's personal life isn't going to help any of us. We need to find out what Avatar Affairs has on the Water Tribe."
"After the Fire Nation," Leena interjected. "I need to know who organized the assault on Capital City."
"That's not as important, Fire Asp. They've built this thing under our noses, what else could they have? I mean, there could be a whole army ready to march on the Southern Water Tribe!"
"An army already marched on Capital City!" Leena exclaimed.
"They're responsible for the death of numerous senior members of the Air Nation as well!" Shing yelled. "I need to find out why!" Ulva's reaction was one of annoyance.
"Oh shut up, the adults are talking."
"Hey, just because you work for a government doesn't give you the right to talk to us that way!" Tashi protested.
"No, that's what the men with guns are for!" Ulva replied.
The group continued to bicker about exactly what they needed to find in the archive, each of them focused on some personal goal rather than the issue at hand. It was getting outright obnoxious as Kushina tried to get a word, but was drowned out. Finally, she couldn't take any more.
EVERYBODY SHUT UP!
The entire group turned towards the yelling Kushina, who stared at all of them with a cross gaze.
"You don't get it, do you? The same guy, the same source, is manipulating you all and you're too busy worrying about who did this thing to you! You're missing the forest for the trees! Now I'm going to find out exactly what happened, and you're all going to help! Leena, get something to write with. I need you to create a timeline of when all this crap was made and what they did."
"Since when am I your secretary?" Leena asked, only for Kushina to look her square in the eyes.
"Since NOW. Grab some paper. You have the neatest handwriting in the group."
Turning to Ulva and his men while Leena grabbed some paper and a pen, Kushina asked, "Do you have anything to record video with?"
"Well yeah," one of the men answered. "Our phones have camcorders that…"
"Good. I need you to record any video that comes up. We'll need proof if we're going to do anything with this information."
"But what about…"
"Shing, you shut the hell up," Kushina interjected. "Only reason I haven't dragged you by the nose into the spirit portal yet is because this takes priority." The Air Nomad said nothing, just lowering his head in shame.
"And you three," Kushina finished, looking at the archivists, "get me some coffee. Black."
"Coffee?" one of the archivists asked.
"You have a fortress under that South Pole that cost trillions of yuans or billions of woolongs to create depending where you were shopping."
Woolong – Official currency of the United Republic after 200 AG. The currency was commissioned following rapid devaluation of the yuan when the Earth Kingdom began printing excess amounts in order to pay off its debts.
"How do I shut it up?" Kushina asked, a clear look of annoyance on her face.
One of the monks responded, "Just stay 'End speech.'" With those words, the computer ceased discussing the history of the woolong.
"Thanks. Anyway, you're telling me you don't have a coffee machine in a break room somewhere in this place? Coffee, black."
With everyone in their respective positions, Kushina began looking at all the varying reports from the very beginning. She was going to figure out what Avatar Affairs had planned, and most importantly, why.
The first report was pulled up immediately. The date - 184 AG.
"My name is Bu Quinfan, and I am writing this message as the first part of what I hope will eventually lead the world to peace, a project my sect of the Red Lotus has called the "Realignment." You see, Zaheer and his followers were fools. Absolute chaos cannot bring balance to the world. Only absolute, permanent order can bring permanent balance and true peace to the world…"
"I was born in the Earth Republic," Tong began as he took a bite of the cookie that Bolin had bought out. "Mom…died when I was young. My dad, a medical doctor, raised me. Everything seemed ordinary until from what I remember, about six? That's when the men approached my father. Said that I had a great destiny, but had to hide from those who wanted to destroy me."
Tong didn't question why he was telling three complete strangers his life story when he had done everything to hide this story from others in the past. But with the people across from him being the dearly departed and an old man that could seemingly detect that he was the Avatar instantly, any desire to lie went out the window. For their part, the trio was attentive, listening to Tong pour his heart out.
"What followed after that was going to school across the world. 'You have a great destiny', I kept getting told, 'but no one can know who you are, or you will be destroyed.' Funny how that never happened to Miss "I'm the Avatar, you gotta deal with it," he added, a clear hint of scorn in his voice.
"You know," Bolin interrupted, "Korra was a really good friend of mine. I don't appreciate you talking about her that way."
"Someone with Korra's face has been trying to kill me over the past few months," Tong answered. "Her and I fought in a duel a few days ago and we nearly killed each other."
"But that wasn't the real Korra," Opal noted. "You're taking your anger out on the real Korra when she would probably be just as mad at an impostor." Tong nodded at this, Opal's logic perfectly sound.
"I'm sorry if I offended you," he added, while bowing his head respectfully.
"Your anger, although with cause, is misdirected," Iroh added, pouring everyone a cup of tea from a stone pot. "But please, continue."
Sipping the tea in front of him, Tong continued his story.
"The men who kept saying I had a great destiny claimed they were part of a group called 'White Lotus', and that it had been split apart into those who wanted to help the Avatar, and those who wanted power for themselves. But it didn't take me long to realize that most of the world…wanted power for itself. They didn't need a new Avatar. Korra was just fine. And she appeared untouchable. I was convinced that I would need to spend the rest of my life hiding, the rug pulled out from underneath me. Do you have any idea what it's like to be told as a kid that you're being trained for this great, no, this monumental destiny and then to slowly realize that it's a load of crap? It wasn't like this was just something a family member told me every now and then either. I was forced to move every four years so I could master bending and learn about the culture of each tribe. I was even taught meditation into the Spirit Realm, for all the good that did."
"What's wrong with the Spirit Realm?" Opal asked. "You seem pretty comfortable here so far."
"No, this is lovely," Tong reassured his hosts while sipping Iroh's tea and looking up at the clear blue sky. "But every time I've come here, I've been attacked by a spirit that refuses to let me speak to Korra…the real Korra. It says that the Avatar is a murderer. This is the first time I've been able to stay in the Spirit World for more than five minutes without being attacked."
"I don't like this spirit very much," Bolin scoffed. "Sounds like a jerk."
"In so many words. So," Tong continued, "when I was in college," Tong continued, "I got word from my dad. It was he couldn't come to the graduation ceremony, and that I should just forget about being the Avatar for my own safety."
"One week later, I found out he was killed. And after I graduated, I've been hunting down the people responsible ever since. That includes…" he added, breathing deeply, "the man who killed you, and his son, who killed my dad on orders from others."
Surprisingly enough, Bolin and Opal took the news that Tong fought the man who killed them in surprising stride. "Can't say I'm sorry to see him go," Bolin began, "but this place isn't so bad. Weather's nice, neighbors are friendly, and I get plenty of time with the people I love. Right honey?"
"Oh come on, you're making me blush," Opal answered, even as Bolin playfully rubbed his nose against his wife's cheek, kissing her neck.
"You see?" Iroh began, sipping his tea. "Good things can sometimes come from the worst tragedies. Rather than being angry at fate, the wise man does his best to take the most of the situation. Surely something positive has come from this."
"Well," Tong answered, blushing as he did so, "I met a friend of mine from childhood, and she grew up. I love her, and…oh come, do I have to?"
"It's sweet," Opal interjected, smiling. "You met someone you love? Does she like you too?"
"Despite my stupidity…yes. Which is why I want to protect her."
Iroh smiled at this. "So you could win over someone to your side. Why couldn't you do the same as an Avatar, especially if the one claiming to be Korra is using power for her own ends?"
"It's a little harder than that."
"Only if you look at it as such."
The foursome continued to enjoy their tea for a bit, Tong trying to ask Bolin about his film career for a brief moment, when the winds began to pick up. Tong immediately grimaced.
"He's here. I knew it. I need to go." However, as he stood up, Iroh grabbed his shoulder, shaking his head.
"Tong, you've already faced your past admirably. But this is only the first step. You must confront this fear if you ever expect to be made truly whole."
I TOLD YOU NEVER TO RETURN TO THIS PLACE. HOW DARE YOU SPEAK TO THESE PEOPLE?!
The Tormentor stood in front of them, the same bizarre, fearsome aura surrounding the dark spirit's form. Bolin looked on, shocked.
It was then that it all made sense to Tong.
"Everyone stand back," Tong announced, standing from his seat.
"Tong!" Iroh shouted. "This is not a foe that can be defeated with physical force!"
"I know," Tong replied. "Isn't that right, Mako? Or should I say, Mako and Asami Sato?"
Both Opal and Bolin were stunned at this declaration. "WHAT?!"