The island of Shura was not what one would expect upon hearing of the presence of the world's most powerful leaders, men clad in shadow. It was actually a rather pleasant island in the easternmost corner of the Fire Nation, with a fairly lovely beach, ample vegetation, and a small community. On the other side of the island was a large, spacious mansion, overlooking its own section of said beach. It was in front of this building where Han stood, being greeted by a man in a formal black suit.
"Excellent Inquisitor. Please come inside. They are waiting for you by the fourth floor observation deck. I suggest we take the elevator."
If one were to say this was the home of the most powerful group on the planet, most would question where the legions of faceless troops, traps, and armored war machines were. Instead, the streets were filled with beachgoers on the island for holiday, cars, and the occasional rock-surfer.
The inside of the building was no less lavish than the outside. Large windows allowed ample light to flow into the rooms, although lamps hung overhead when it grew dark. In the living room, next to a flight of stairs was an elevator, one which led to the fourth floor. In keeping with the theme of openness, it was surrounded by glass, allowing its passengers to view the entirety of the building, even as it passed up to the fourth floor, separated from the first three by a roof.
The room that the elevator led to was vast, with high ceilings and a circular window by the roof, allowing for a perfect view of the sky. Below it, numerous screens and computers littered the walls, while at the center were four chairs, upon which sat four men, or more accurately, three men and a woman, masked in helmets that resembled a dragon, a fish, a badgermole, and a sky bison, while wearing black and blue robes; symbols of the original benders. Han immediately kneeled before them.
"Please Inquisitor. Have a seat."
Nodding, he did so in a leather chair facing the group, one of six, the four's gaze never relenting from him. The chair itself was comfortable enough, with a swiveling base allowing the seated person to face both in front of him and to the monitors on the side.
"You used Korra to lure out your target?"
"Target? You mean the Specialist?" Han answered.
"Let us not mince words," the man in the Dragon mask replied. "The true Avatar came to kill ours. You allowed a battle to happen in full view of the public and may I remind you, after reviewing the footage, Korra was losing until she enabled Hyper Mode. You know how…"
"With all due respect Dragon," Han answered, "I calculated the risks and wanted to use them to spring a trap. We were out of options. If we had done nothing and Korra had been killed or discovered, we would have been undone."
"Be that as it may," the man in the Sky Bison mask noted, "you took an unnecessary risk. One that on the eve of our plan's execution, this is bluntly put, unacceptable."
"Is it not enough that I have been doing everything to guide Korra to where she needs to be? I have ensured that no one is suspicious of our plans, least of all Korra." All four men laughed at this.
"You believe yourself the sole cog in the machine?" the woman in the badger mole mask began. Reaching for a microphone attached to her desk, she spoke "Zedong? Connect to Ju Ping."
Immediately, a large monitor on the side of the wall sprang to life, revealing a man with white hair and a blue suit. He saluted.
"How may I serve your Lordship?"
"Ping, what is the status of the mecha production?" the woman asked flatly.
"All goes according to schedule. We've finished the final tests of both the Smasher cannons and the Skull Knight mecha-tanks. Our production began yesterday. We hope to have a mechanized fighting force 100,000 strong by the time the Realignment is set to begin. Support vehicles are also being made in a separate factory to supplement our ground forces. "
"And the second program?"
"Also according to plan, but it won't be ready for another few months. It is still being tested."
"Excellent." Turning off the screen, the woman then spoke "Zedong? Put Shuren on the line." The screen then showed a man with fiery red hair and a military uniform. "How goes recruitment?"
"As planned your Lordships. Currently our forces number in the hundreds of thousands, although most are collected through splinter groups in the nations. We have gotten quite the large amount of solders from the Northern Water Tribe of all places, including deserters. "
"Benders or non?"
"60/40 in favor of non-Benders it would seem," Shuren answered.
"That's fine. Vehicles and weapons need people to use them after all. Dismissed." With the screen shut off, the masked woman turned to Han.
"You are an important cog in the machine, yes. But it is OUR machine. The wheels began turning before any of us were born. And your babysitting of the Avatar is just one of the thing we will need to make our plans a reality. You, like any singular cog, are replaceable."
"I understand my Lordships. Forgive me."
Finally, the man in the fish mask spoke. "You have not betrayed our trust, but you have tested it. See to it that the Specialist as you call him is caught and bought before us. "
"I have a taskforce scouring the nations for him. They've been split into groups looking for people he may contact." The man in the Sky Bison mask nodded.
"Then we have nothing to fear, do we, Badgermole?"
"No, but I want Han to stay. Put Rofu on the line."
Once again, the screen opened, this time with the familiar face of Commander Rofu. Dragon addressed him.
"Commander, you are on line with the rest of the commanders within White Lotus. Everyone should be made aware of your plan."
"Of course Honored Dragon," answered the bearded Water Tribesman. "My agents are currently preparing for their most ambitious undertaking to date, the hijacking of the Fire Nation 5th fleet, in particular their spirit reactor powered aircraft carrier Shield of the Firelord. With the 5th fleet under our control, we will have a naval force rivaling that of any nation on the planet, one that would take far long to build on our own. My agents are in Capital City making the final preparations, now that the fleet has docked for the Fall of the Phoenix festival."
Han knew what they were doing. The hope was to humble him with the sheer scale of the operation, to show how small a cog he was in the massive machine that was White Lotus. But they underestimated him. There may be a way to turn the machine to his control, to eventually rule White Lotus himself.
And with the Realignment, he who controlled White Lotus and the Avatar Army would rule the world.
"You can't get a view like this from a fancy jet I bet!"
As he chugged on a bottle of water, Tong looked down at the island they were set to land on, and had to concede, it was a nice view. Capital City bristled with skyscrapers near its center, while by the harbor, about a dozen ships, including an absolutely massive vessel with an airstrip on its deck, rested by what appeared to be a crowd of thousands.
"I think the food would be better," Tong joked, "but it is a great view. We can see just about the whole island from here."
"Lot of people," Shing observed. "Are you sure this was the best time to come and meet your contact?"
"Lot less suspicious this way to be honest," Tong answered. "Besides, he was apparently in town for some demonstration too. Let's land and have a look around." Nasha and her two passengers descended towards the island past the crowds and bustling roads towards a more scenic part of the capital, an animal preserve. After paying the owner a fare for lodging their sky bison, the pair prepared to head into town.
"The Fall of the Phoenix Festival was originally made to commemorate the end of the Hundred Years War, in particular the fall of the self-stylized Phoenix King Ozai and the appointment of Zuko as Firelord. While Firelord Zuko was far too humble to appoint his own holiday, his successor Izumi felt it correct to honor the end of war. The festival also coincides with the return of the fleet, which you can see to your right."
Underneath a baseball cap, watching the tour guide impart history to passer-bys, Shing scoffed. "No mention of the Air Nomad…"
"Hey hey hey!" Tong interrupted. "We're trying to not to stick out remember? No one's whitewashing anything. They're celebrating the end of war."
"You lived here as a teen right? What did your textbooks say about the Air Nation genocide?"
"Long story," was all Tong answered before turning back to the tour guide."
"The 5th Fleet of the Fire Nation is among the largest in the world, normally out at sea on various patrol missions and providing support in tandem with the United Republic. However, one week out of the year, the fleet journeys back to Capital City, so that sailors can meet with their families as well as partake in the festival."
"Isn't that sweet?" one woman in the crowd mused. The tour guide nodded.
The tour was just one of hundreds of various events occurring. Food vendors were on the streets, merchants were selling various items ranging from clothing to cell phone covers, and booths with demonstrations of technology and various events attracted passer-bys. Looking at his phone, Tong began walking towards a sizeable gathering in a makeshift outdoor arena, the bright sunlight illuminating the fighting ring surrounded by the crowd.
"Mr. Maeda apparently is attending this sporting event. He said he'd meet us afterward so we can blend in with the crowd." With that noted, the pair soon found themselves seated in the third row, the elevated seating providing a rather good view of the ring.
To Shing's annoyance, Tong did so while eating komodo sausage buns.
"Do you have to eat that in front of me?" he asked, even as he took a seat in the back rows.
"Hey," Tong answered between bites, "I'm not the vegetarian. You can have one if you want."
"Jerk." Tong's response was to hand Shing a bag of fire flakes, which he nodded in appreciation for. The pair, along with the rest of the sizable crowd, looked at the announcer in the middle of the ring, microphone at the ready.
"Ladies and gentlemen! Thank you for coming to the debut of the newest fighting art to take the Fire Nation by storm in our All-Combat Arts Show! This is being filmed live for historians to see the next step in the art of Fire Bending! I bring to you, the Fire Blades!"
Five men, or more accurately four men and one woman emerged from a waiting area and stepped into the ring, clad in the safety equipment of a pro bender, minus the helmets, colored in a vibrant red and orange scheme. All five athletes held a small piece of wood, which immediately burst into flame, giving the illusion that they were holding swords of fire. The crowd embraced it without hesitation.
"That's not possible."
"What isn't?" Shing asked between bites of Fire Flakes.
"One of the men that tried to capture me had a fire sword…thing like that. I think there might be a connection."
"But there's no sense in my boasting about this team unless they can back it up!" the announcer continued. "Against the Fire Blades are master benders from the four corners of the globe! They were square off with the Fire Blades in a 5 on 5 team competition, 1 on 1 fights decided by knockout or submission!"
Approaching the ring to face off with the five were five other benders, easily recognized by their stereotypical outfits. Shing immediately grimaced at the man in the robes of an Air Nomad, complete with tattoos.
"Something seems off about that guy."
"He could be from another temple," Tong reasoned, having a drink that a nearby vendor offered.
"First up will be 'Jade Sword' Sakuraba of the Fire Blades against the Dazzling Water Master Nyeto!"
Both combatants entered the ring, Sakuraba, a tall, moderately build man and Nyeto, a shorter, stouter man who seemed to have a bit of a belly poking from his Water Tribe robes. They two stared each other down as a referee gave instructions. By the ring was a table with two announcers, their words inaudible to the live audience. However, everyone heard the referee's announcement of "Hajime!" as the two fighters rushed forward. Immediately the crowd cheered, even as Nyeto went on the offensive, swinging water from his arm like a whip at Sakuraba. His opponent opened up by slashing at Nyeto, causing streams of fire to emerge even at a distance. The water bender had difficulty defending against the attack as his opponent closed the distance.
"He's not very good," Shing noted. Tong nodded.
"I guess it's a showcase. They didn't want to bring in anyone too talented."
The words rang true when Sakuraba drew in close and slashed at Nyeto's hand. The whip he had made collapsed into a puddle as he was taken down, Sakuraba's fire sword pointed directly at his throat. Immediately the "Dazzling Water Master" tapped the ground, signifying his submission. The crowd cheered the hometown victory as the pair were broken up, the referee raising Sakuraba's hand.
"Not very talented," was all Tong would say.
"A stunning display of the speed and skill of a Fire Blade, wouldn't you say?" the announcer asked, causing the crowd to cheer in the affirmative. "Our second match of the day will be Dancing Flame Funaki vs. Stone Snake Hailong!"
Hailong, a man in traditional Earth bender garments, entered the ring. To intimidate his opponent, he began to perform a long series of movements, only for a tiny pebble to float by. The crowd was stunned into silence.
Tong looked in disbelief. That dance didn't mean anything, and if all he can Earth bend is a measly pebble, he was in big trouble.
The fight lasted all of 30 seconds. Pebble dancer tried to hurl rocks at his opponent, only for them to be cut to shreds or deflected by the heat shield that the sword created. Soon his opponent was upon him and mercifully slashed him in the chest, causing him to fall in agony, ending the contest. Luckily for the Earth bender, it was a relatively shallow cut, blunted by protective equipment worn underneath his clothing.
"That wasn't an Earth bender! That was just some clown they got off the street to make their art look good!" Tong complained.
"Oh, it's no big deal. The crowd seems to like it." Sure enough, the crowd cheered as the announcer returned to the ring to introduce the next contest.
"Next up we have Master Air Bender Awng vs. Shining Swallow Takada!"
"Did he say Aang?" Shing asked.
"No," Tong answered. "He said A-wong. Totally different."
Awng, as he was called, entered the ring, and performed an Air Bender kata with all the grace of a pregnant platypus bear. His staff was swung awkwardly as his opponent entered the ring.
"What the hell is that?!" Shing screamed in disbelief. Like the Earth bender before him, the man dressed in Air Bender robes was a total amateur. To Shing's utter indignation, the man even had the tattoos of a master Air bender on his head. So when he was felled by a swipe and takedown from Takada, Shing made sure to make his feelings known.
"BOOO! THAT WASN'T A REAL AIRBENDER! TAKADA'S A BUM! PUT HIM IN WITH A REAL AIR BENDER!'
"What are you doing?" Tong asked in disbelief, but it was too late. Shing continued to boo as the crowd stared on at him. It was after his fifth calling of Takada a bum that a fairly large man appeared in front of him.
"A real Air Bender huh? Like you?!"
"Ehehehe, what I meant was…"
The crowd would have none of it, pushing Shing towards the ring until finally he was inside of it. A random official threw him a staff, even as the large man from before came into the ring.
"You didn't have to bring me here. This is very elaborate for an interview."
"Oh it's nothing at all Miss Kushina. Your father is well known as a connoisseur of the martial arts, and I thought this was a good way for you to see myself and some of the group outside of the office setting."
"Well it is fun so far," she admitted. The conversation was interrupted as the crowd through a heckler into the ring. His hat fell off and Kushina recognized the man instantly, causing her to groan.
"Is everything all right?"
"Just fine," Kushina answered, while secretly swearing to kill Shing and Tong the next time she saw them.
"Is this legal?!" Shing asked. The man nodded.
"You insulted our team," the man began. "I may just be a student, but this is a matter of honor! Everyone knows Air Benders are" CRACK
A mighty blow from Shing's staff to the student took him by surprise and laid him flat out on the ring floor. The crowd looked on stunned until a man entered the ring, his black hair and pale skin, wearing the armor of the Fire Blades.
"Not bad, kid. Maybe you'll give me more competition than that 'Master Air Bender."
"That was no master, Mr. Takada. That was just some bum picked off the street." Shing said this even as he got into a defensive stance, waiting with his staff.
"What's your name kid?"
"I'm an Air Nomad. And Shing is my name."
"Then Shing, let's see if you can back up those words."
As his fire sword was drawn, Takada began to inch towards Shing, searching for the proper distance to strike. Shing meanwhile, raised his staff, prepared to attack. Surprisingly enough, it was Shing who made the first move, charging forward with several thrusts attempting to keep his opponent at bay. Takada meanwhile did his best to dodge and block, all the while swinging his sword at the staff, attempting to turn it into kindling. This continued for a minute of dodging and feinting till Shing found his opening, sweeping his opponent with his staff and then landing a blow to his exposed chest. In obvious pain but still conscious, Takada rolled out of the way, keeping his sword ready.
"OK, you lasted longer than the other guy. But you won't beat me!"
In one quick motion, Takada leapt forward, slicing the staff in two and forcing Shing to move out of the way, taking a defensive stance. His opponent smirked.
"You're unarmed. Give up."
"No true bender is ever unarmed," Shing answered, focusing on his hand. He was only going to get one shot at this, and once he connected, he still had to execute the second part of his plan.
Immediately, however, Takada ran forward. Shing dodged the first swipe, only for Takada to look up and see what Shing was holding in his hand, a ball of air, or rather, a ball of wind, cracking him with a significant amount of force, but not enough to knock the Fire Blade member down. Immediately, Shing dashed forward, tackling his opponent's legs and taking him down to a mounted position, where Takada's raised arm fell prey to an armlock. There was a slight scream followed by the traditional tap to signify submission. The crowd meanwhile, was stunned silent.
Breathing heavily as he released the hold from his defeated opponent, Shing looked up at the crowd, anticipating their response.
Boos rained down from the rafters, along with cups and discarded plates. Before anything further could happen, a man emerged from the back to address the audience.
"Hey! You can't just boo the victor because he beat the hometown fighter! He was challenged and answered the call admirably! Not to mention, Fire Blade as an art will never improve unless it is challenged! This festival wouldn't even be happening if it wasn't for a brave Air Bender that helped out Firelord all those centuries ago. So I say this man isn't worthy of scorn, but is worthy of praise!"
The brief speech was enough to convince the crowd not to boo Shing, and soon polite clapping and cheering followed. For his part, the Air Bender was relieved.
"Thank you so much."
"Don't mention it kid. I sponsor the Fire Blades. I won't let them look like thugs or bullies. You know, you might have a future in pro fighting. We should talk."
As the pair left the ring, Shing answered the sudden job offer. "I'm actually here with a friend of mine to meet a Mr. Maeda."
"You're speaking to him. I'm actually supposed to meet someone after this. How about we talk in a bit?"
The rest of the event was nowhere near as dramatic as Shing's fight, with the Fire Blades winning a clear 5-1 to victory over their challengers that day. Soon, Maeda and Shing went up to meet Tong, who looked on at the pair.
"You could have helped me!" Shing shouted in protest.
"I thought you did just fine."
"He did splendidly all things considered. I am Maeda. The man next to me is Funaki, one of my top students. I trust you were impressed?"
"Tong. And yes, I was."
"Good, then let's head back to my dojo. We have much to discuss, and I trust much of it isn't what you want heard in an open arena."
The duo nodded, following their guide to his dojo. They were unaware of just how deeply Funaki stared at them. Or that a rather furious woman was following them, ready to give them a piece of her mind.